Friday, February 24, 2017

Prologue to American Christianity

You cannot understand development of Christianity in America without understanding the history of the church prior to the colonization of America--particularly, the history of the church in Western Europe, from which the vast majority of American settlers came during the country's formative years. On continental Europe, there were mainly three streams of Christianity during the Reformation period--Catholicism, the Magisterial Reformation, and Anabaptism.

Up to the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church held universal sway in Europe--it was "the church." This is not to say there were not rivals and split-offs, individuals and groups which opposed the establishment, but these did not alter the essential point. The main characteristic of the Catholic church was this universal, holistic nature. One was baptized in it as a baby, married in it as an adult, and given their last rites in it when they died. It was melded together with the government--many functions which we now associate with the state were carried on by the church and the church held a great deal of power over the state and often the state held great power over the church.

This is essential to understand. The Roman Catholic Church was an attempt to create an actual Christian kingdom on Earth in which the church and the state were married to each other. The baptism of infants was a way of establishing the citizenship of this kingdom. Because of this vision, the state had the authority to persecute doctrinal heresy, since it was tantamount to treason.

Though the Reformation altered the Catholic's power in some places--Germany and parts of Switzerland--in other countries, Catholicism retained these characteristics through the Reformation period.

The Reformation is dated from Luther, but Ulrich Zwingli came up with many of the same ideas as Luther, independently. Luther's followers became known as Lutheran while Zwingli's followers were called Reformed (because Zwilglians didn't test well with audiences) and later Calvinists, due to the influence of a certain prolific French theologian.

Luther and Zwingli differed sharply on many points of doctrine, but they were alike in their basic division from the Catholic church, particularly on the doctrine of a personal salvation through grace as opposed to salvation coming through the church. However, they did follow the Catholic idea of the church and the state working together. Hence their reformation is referred to as the Magisterial Reformation (from the Latin word for Magistrate). Both in Germany and Switzerland, the ideal was to create Protestant government which would protect and enforce Protestantism in the same way Catholic governments protected and enforced Catholicism. They were not standing for religious freedom but rather for the establishment of their religion. As such, the Reformation still insisted on Infant Baptism, as foundation of the Christian commonwealth. Because of the use of governmental authority, religious conflicts turned into political conflicts and wars, including the bloody 30 Years War.

An important name to remember from the Magisterial Reformation is Martin Bucer, a Catholic monk-turned-Protestant Scholar from Strasbourg. He would have a major impact on John Calvin and on other strains of the Reformation which we will get to later.

The Anabaptist movement grew during the Reformation, largely out of a reaction to the Magisterial Reformation. The Anabaptists--or re-Baptizers--didn't believe that infant baptism was valid and that one must be baptized as an adult. They also believed that Christians should not involved with the Government or with war. One the major leaders of the Anabaptist movement at this time was Menno Simons and his followers became known as Mennonites. Because of this idea of separating the church from the state, the Anabaptists were seen as an anarchist force by the established church and so were persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike. Many Anabaptists would eventually come to America, becoming the modern Mennonites and Amish.

The reformation in England, however, took a rather different form than the continental reformation, since it originated out of political, rather than religious reasons. The main locus of the reformation was the Church of England, but many other religious groups and movements grew up in and around it.

Henry VIII separated England from Catholicism, making a separate Church of England, but he still retained many Catholic ideas and the church was not very distinct. However, under Henry's successor, Edward VI and his Protestant advisors, Protector Somerset and Protector Northumberland, many more Protestant stands would be taken to turn the Anglican church into a more distinct church and less of a Catholic knock-off. Largely influential in this reformation was John Calvin (who corresponded regularly with the English church leaders) and Martin Bucer, who would settle in England.

The English reformation was also Magisterial, with the government enforcing the reformation, which sometimes broke out into civil strife and bloodshed. And this was only complicated by the fact that England varied for a while between Catholic and Protestant leadership.

One of the main characteristics of the English reformation was that it contained a variety of different viewpoints. Leaders like Queen Elizabeth tried to form a coherent, stable political and religious order by allowing some divergence of opinion within the church. (So, for instance, both Predestinarianism and Arminianism flourished within the church.)

Out of the English reformation, one of the most out-spoken and powerful groups to emerge were the Puritans. Though they were not a united group with completely uniform beliefs, they did share the common idea that the reformation in England had not gone far enough and that the Church of England was still too much like the Catholic church. Hence they were called Puritans because they wished to purify the Anglican church.

In doctrine, the Puritans were very similar to (and influenced by) the Swiss Reformation of Zwingli and Calvin. They believed that the fate of man was predetermined by God; that the church ought to be simple and straightforward, reflecting only what was revealed in Scripture; that Christian should live sober, pure lives. They also, for the most part, remained strongly in the Magisterial Reformation tradition, believing that this purification of the church should be enforced by the Government--so much so that after period of tension and intrigue, English Puritans waged a civil war, deposing and executing the king (Charles I) and establishing a Puritan leader named Cromwell as the leader of England. The Puritan experiment failed following Cromwell's death, and the traditional Anglican church returned with its careful compromise of doctrine and its more-or-less tolerant attitude towards religion. However, Puritan influences remained in many places, including literature. Out of the Puritan movement came two of the most influential books ever written in English--the King James Bible and Pilgrim's Progress.

Another movement to come out of the English Reformation was the Quakers, founded by George Fox. The Quakers or Friends emphasized personal, spiritual religion in the place of organized, ecclesiastical religion. Fox taught that all people had an “Inner Light” from God, a personal ability to meet with and communicate with God. The Quakers also disbelieved in war and emphasized the equality of all people, making them similar in many ways to the Anabaptist movement, though the Quakers disbelieved in baptism altogether. Because of the radical nature of Quaker beliefs, they were viewed as a dangerous group and were persecuted by pretty much everyone.

Finally we have the Baptists, who arose out of the Puritan movement in England. Their essential idea was a rejection of infant baptism--one must be baptized as an adult, as a conscious decision for Christ, in order for it to 'count.' They also rose out of the idea that individual churches should rule themselves, as opposed to being controlled by an overarching 'State Church.' Though in some ways they were similar to the Anabaptist movement of Menno Simons, they mostly come to their conclusion independent of the Anabaptists. Probably it is for this reason that they did not share other Anabaptist ideals, such as disbelief in war. The Baptists arose out of the English Puritan movement and so tended to follow the Calvinistic idea of predestination. However, many Baptist fled to Netherlands to escape persecution and there were influenced by the followers of James Arminius, who taught that God gave man a free will and allowed him to reject God's working. For this reason, both ideas are present within the Baptist tradition.

The thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States were primarily settled by people from England and so the religions of the English Reformation formed the religious foundation of the New World. Most of the groups just discussed--Catholics, Anglicans, Quakers, Baptists, and Puritans--would be the dominate forces in American Christianity.

The Church of England was brought to America and was the primary religious establishment in places like Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. However, it was not a very powerful movement in so far as the great mass of people were concerned and does not play a very important role in American history, though it still survives today as the Episcopalian Church.

Puritanism would have a much more important influence. The most famous American colonists were the Separatists or Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Plantation. They came out of the Puritan Movement, but rather than seeking to purify or reform the Established Church, they wanted to separate from it and form their own church. Unable to do this in England, they came to America. Though their colony was small and not long-lasting, they had a major impact on American history as an idea.

After the Separatists, the Puritans began to arrive, forming what would become Massachusetts and Connecticut. Though part of the church of England, they wanted to purify and reform it--and unable to do that because of opposition of the English king, they came to America, hoping to form a new Christian commonwealth, a kingdom of God upon the Earth.

Like their English counterparts, the American Puritans believed in Calvinist theology, in the importance of personal morality, and in governmental enforcement of religion. In Puritan New England, groups such as Baptists and Quakers who rejected Puritan ideology, were not permitted and, at least in the case of the Quakers, were harshly persecuted. However, later religious toleration was introduced by an order from the King.

Like all other versions of the Magisterial Reformation, the Puritan experiment was built around the idea of the marriage of church and state, of a civil order which was also a religious order which one entered through baptism as an infant. However, as the New England Puritan experiment continued it ran into the problem that obviously many people baptized as infants were not Christians and could not be counted as such. This led to a great deal of controversy about who exactly could be counted as part of the church.

The Puritan colonies began with great optimism but ended in disillusionment. This had two consequences, one of which was the turning to the Great Awakening, which we will get to later. The other was a lasting disillusionment with religion, at least with the idea of a formal religious establishment. It is possible (this is a personal speculation) that the ultimate refusal of America to accept the idea of an established church was because of disillusionment with the Puritan ideal.

Baptists had a stronghold in Rhode Island, whose founder (Roger Williams) was a Baptist for a brief period of time. Rhode Island had a policy of religious freedom which permitted Baptists to exist, something withheld in other colonies, though the Baptists did have a presence even in places where they were forbidden. Eventually, the Baptists would spread across the country and become a firmly entrenched part of American religion.

Quakers had a presence in many colonies (even in places like Massachusetts where their existence was illegal), but especially in Pennsylvania (which was founded by an English Quaker named Penn) and New Jersey.

Though there were Catholic sympathizers in England, even among the royalty, it was was difficult to be a Catholic in England. For this reason, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore formed the colony of Maryland to be a haven for Catholics in America. However, it was not merely for Catholics and would eventually be overrun by Protestants. However, to the best of my understanding, it was the first colony to establish officially a form of religious freedom.

So far we have a very brief and cursory picture of Christianity in America and in England during the colonial period. And it was at this point, shortly before the American revolution, that a new element was introduced, something which, though new, was really only the final logical result of the Reformation. In England it was called the Evangelical Revival and in America the First Great Awakening. In England, the primary mover was John Wesley, in America, Jonathan Edwards, and in both countries, George Whitfield. Though Edwards, Wesley, and Whitfield differed radically in matters of doctrine, they were united in a common theme or vision--it was the idea of a personal, experiential encounter with God as the basis of religious life. It was not experience for the sake of experience, but experience rooted in religious reality.

Edwards put it this way: one might know that honey is sweet or that a certain person is beautiful based on second-hand evidence, but this is a very different thing than tasting honey with our tongue or seeing the person face to face. Just so, we can know--rationally and certainly--about the realities of religion through the Bible, but that is a different thing than actually experiencing them. (“A Divine and Supernatural Light...” in Selected Sermons of Jonathan Edwards) Wesley expressed the same feeling personally when he wrote of his conversion, when he said his heart was “strangely warmed” and he felt the force of the fact that Jesus had died for him specifically.

This was the heart of the evangelical revival and the Great Awakening--the emphasis on a personal experience with God, a personal assurance of salvation, a personal knowledge, a personal religion. None of this was startlingly new--it had been present in some form in all of the Reformation and even in Catholicism, but now it was brought to the forefront and given a new emphasis. And what was more importantly, people were experiencing it. Under the influence of these preachers and others like them, people began coming in vast numbers to a personal knowledge of God. But this wasn't simply an isolated religious experience--it actually resulted in a changed life in those who experienced it. Alice Tenny argues in Living in Two Worlds that this revival completely changed the course of English history and changed the nation completely. As for America, it reenergized and revived a religion that was beginning to die in disinterest and disillusionment, following the failure of the Puritan Experiment.

The Great Awakening/Evangelical Revival crossed denominational lines, and brought new life into many different religious groups. However, a special note needs to be said about John Wesley. Wesley was an Anglican, the son of an Anglican priest, though with strong family ties to the Puritan tradition as well. Wesley's vision of the revival was something like the Puritan vision--a dream of reforming or purifying the church from the inside rather than splitting off and starting a new church. However, his vision was more spiritual than political.

Besides his personal work and preaching, Wesley gave two important, unique contributions to the awakening movement. One was an emphasis on careful, organized Christian living. Whitfield is said to have once remarked that Wesley saw more long-term results than he did because Wesley was able to follow-up with his converts and help them become strong Christians. While Wesley did emphasize the importance of an initial, experiential salvation, he also placed a large emphases on living the Christian life afterwards. The other important contribution was the formulation of the Doctrine of Christian Perfection or Entire Sanctification. It was a truth which dawned slowly on John Wesley and his brother but which would become a dynamic part of their ministry and their legacy. Though Wesley himself had a somewhat uneasy relationship to America--especially because of his opposition to the American Revolution--his followers did see a great deal of fruit here, especially because of Francis Asbury, who was sent to America by Wesley and who helped give form and direction to Wesley's followers after the Revolution.

This was the Great Awakening--a wave of personal religious experience which crossed both denominational and colonial boundaries, becoming (in some sense) a uniting point for people of different religions and (for American) people from varied colonies. Some people have suggested that the Great Awakening helped the thirteen colonies gain the sense of unity which would see them through the Revolution soon to follow. The Great Awakening--and the new life it breathed into churches as the Methodist (followers of Wesley), Congregationalist (a break-off of Puritanism), and Baptist would set the stage for the early religious life of the New Nation.

Dickens, A. The English Reformation. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1964.
Edwards, J. Selected Sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Ed., H. N. Gardiner. Project Gutenberg E-Book.
Gonzalez, J. L. The Story of Christianity: Volume 2 The Reformation to the Present Day. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985.

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