Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Religion in America – Same Old, Same Old

America Aflame by David Goldfield has provided me with a foundation for understanding 19th century American history and our own time. I had said in an earlier post that he insists that evangelicals were a big cause of the so-called Civil War. I was not convinced so I dug deeper.

One other source I found was Redeeming America: Evangelicals and the Road to Civil War (1993) by Curtis D. Johnson. The title seems to give it away: Evangelicals somehow paved that road or led the parade down that road. This is the sort of history book I love. He lays out the data about religious groups, beliefs, and cultural positions of the various church groups. Then he creates a taxonomy of religion in America for that time.

I wanted a graphic description, so I created one that I show here. It isn’t complete. “Other Protestants” includes Mormons, Unitarians, and Universalists, Friends, and other small groups. I am concerned here with the 60% of the country Johnson identified as “evangelical.” He describes how disestablishment of the Church of England after 1789 created a wide-open diversity of religious groupings in which religion was voluntary and a matter of choice. The “First Great Awakening” in the first half of the 18th century had established the need for personal faith and morality leading to salvation over ritual as a basic model for religion in America.
What I want others to see is how this grouping of Protestants so closely describes religion in 20th century and even now in 21st century America. Revivals, decline, and the rapid rise and slow establishment of previously outlying groups is the pattern. The other chart on this posting shows how the formalist churches (such as Presbyterians and Congregationalists) grew little through the two centuries. From within these churches the growth probably seemed substantial, such as after WWII, but rarely did the growth of Prebyterians or Congregationalists (and UCC) keep up with the growth in population. The Methodists and Baptists, the first beneficiaries of 19th century revival, grew more rapidly. Then the adventists; all who emphasized the imminent second coming of Christ. Think Darby, Scofield, and the Millerites.

As a child I read Signs of the Times, established by William Miller (not pictured). Some friend of my Mother’s thought we should read it. I thought it some kind of fantasy speculation. My question usually was "How could they know?" Later I read how Washington Gladden (photo), a progressive Social Gospel hero of mine had been plowing in the fields as a young man in 1844, on the day Miller had predicted the arrival of Christ. It didn’t happen and profoundly affected Gladden’s approach to religion.

I don’t harbor regrets about going into the ministry of the church, but I wonder – Would I have done so if the history of American religions and of the entire Christian enterprise had been more clearly presented to me as Johnson has done? It wasn’t, but the hard-wired inclination to follow spiritual and emotional religious experience and visions, and to find answers to basic life questions was strong. It will always be strong for young men and women who are seekers. I can only hope that they have more facts to guide the direction of their seeking. E.g., there are scholars now who acuse Athanasius (4th century), whom I once thought so godly, of murdering some of his enemies. If not, someone needs to explain the group of thugs he seems to have kept close by him. OK, so maybe they were bodyguards.

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