The American church always
exhibited major differences from those in Europe. These differences
increased following the War of Revolution. Today Europeans find it
difficult to understand American Christianity and Americans often find
it difficult to understand the European version as well.
In this section I want to
help you understand the condition of American Christianity at the
beginnings of the Restoration Movement.
I. American Religious
Purveyors of civil
religion try to convince us that America's colonial settlers came
because of their faith. It is true that many colonization efforts
originated from that motive, but the first efforts did not come
because of it. Rather, Spain enjoyed windfall wealth because of their
conquest of middle and south America. The English, who competed with
Catholic Spain, wanted to get in on the action. English colonists
established the "Lost Colony" (Roanoke) and Jamestown in the
hope that the settlers would discover great wealth. It took years before
they discovered a real "gold mine" in tobacco and exploited
New England did colonize
for religious reasons. Persecuted in England for their separatist
beliefs, Browneian Puritans escaped to exile in Holland. Under the
leadership of their pastor, John Robinson, some of these Puritans sailed
for the new world to establish the Plymouth Colony. Sometime later their
non-separatist brethren established the Massachusetts Bay Company in the
region now known as Boston.
None of these
English colonists expected to remain long in America. The Jamestown
settlers expected to make their "mint" and return to England
wealthy men. These Anglicans put down roots when they realized
agriculture was the only way to amass wealth. The New England colonies
wanted to set an example for England. They were a "city set on a
hill" proving their system worked. These colonists fully expected
to return to England in glory when the monarchy toppled and the country
enacted Puritan principles. Only when the Protectorate extended
toleration to diverse elements did the Puritan dream crumble.
Dissension among Puritans
resulted in Rhode Island's establishment and, to a lesser degree,
Connecticut's. The Quakers first came to New Jersey then to Pennsylvania
under the wealthy patronage of William Penn. The Dutch earlier settled
New York establishing the Reformed faith. The Reformed churches remained
in New York even after the English gained control and established
After the Revolutionary
War, only 7% of all Americans belonged to churches. This was true for
several reasons: (1) The nature of church membership, (2) the lack of
churches in frontier regions and (3) a lack of religious interest.
When the United States of
America came into existence, the prevailing form of Christianity
differed somewhat from Orthodox faith. Most "founding fathers"
held a Deistic belief in God. Thomas Jefferson provides the best
illustration. According to Terry Somerville, "Jefferson's concept
of a Christian was simply one who followed the teaching of Jesus. But
the Jesus he professed to follow believed himself to be, according to
Jefferson, only a man...."
II. Reasons Why American
Deism was not the only
religious mood in the new nation. Following the American revolution
several things worked together to change American Christianity's face.
Revolution cut churches free from European ties. Ties to the European
church were always somewhat strained because of the sheer distance
involved. Virginia Anglicanism existed differently than European
Anglicanism because there were few trained and ordained ministers. The
church had no American bishops to ordain these leaders or provide
supervision. Non-separatist Puritanism maintained ties to the Church
of England for many years, but there were theological and
supervisional strains. Finally the revolution ended any desire to
continue relationships. Even John Wesley tried to maintain
relationships with American Methodism and was rejected.
B.The new American
Constitution in 1787 aggravated the pluralistic atmosphere. The
Constitution guaranteed it would make no law with respect to the
establishment of religion. By so doing it guaranteed that no religious
body in the new country would receive "state church" status.
Therefore, no religious body had favored status, received tax support
or formal recognition.
American churches found
themselves "on their own." Ties with Europe ended so no
funds came from there. Churches discovered themselves in competition
for members simply to underwrite their program and pay their
ministers. Some of the new states did have state churches, but these
gradually gave way. The church and state relationship ended in
Connecticut in 1818, New Hampshire's in 1819. More conservative
Massachusetts did not end its state church until 1833.
itself contributed to the divisive and competitive atmosphere. Shortly
after its establishment, the politicians divided into two major
interpretive groups. There were the Strict Constructionists and
the Loose Constructionists. Strict Constructionists maintained
that the Constitution allowed only what it specified. Loose
Constructionists argued that the Constitution permitted what it did
not specify. Strict Constructionists, therefore, interpreted the
Constitution's silence as prohibitive. Loose Constructionists
interpreted the silence as permissive. Americans applied this same
interpretational methodology to the Scripture. It is no accident that
most Strict Constructionists lived in southern states while most Loose
Constructionists lived in northern states.
D.A stronger evangelical
tone existed in America. The various "awakenings"
contributed to this tone. Historians refer to one of these as
"The Great Awakening." This awakening occurred prior to the
Revolutionary War by about 20-30 years. It was not so
"great" in terms of effect, but it was great in expanse--it
covered the whole eastern seaboard, reached westward into the
Appalachians and southward as far as Georgia.
This awakening offered a
new dimension to traditional Calvinism. Traditional Calvinism
emphasized that God made a man's salvation known to him directly
through an experience. Calvinists rejected any means to bring
these experiences about. The awakening in the mid-1700s recognized
that preaching and the "anxious seat" or "mourner's
bench" could be used effectively. Names associated with this
revival are George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Theodore
Frelinghuysen, the Tennants and James Davenport.
Revivalism, too, caused
division. Many denominations divided into New Light (pro-revival) and
Old Light (anti-revival) factions. Others looked upon the revivals as
religious excitement. The faculty of Harvard College charged
Whitefield as being "an enthusiast, a censorious, uncharitable
person and deluder...." (See Smith, Handy and Loetscher)
It is true that the
revival's effects did not last long. Martin Marty wrote in Time magazine
(October 27, 1975):
... church membership in
the 1770's was only 6% or 8% of the population by most estimates. The
religious Great Awakening of the middle period of the century had
given way to the big sleep. Pastors looking for a
congregation, Methodist and Presbyterian, complained they found "nothingarians"
D.A declining morality
marked the new nation. Alcoholism was serious. According to information
published in the book, The Alcoholic Republic, some 10-20% of the
population were alcoholics. This percentage included clergymen. Joel
Parker, a contemporary, said, "We are fast becoming a nation of
drunkards." He could report there were 300,000 drunkards in America
and that from 10,000 to 20,000 annually went to drunkard's graves.
Peter Cartwright, a
Methodist circuit rider, reported that Logan County, Kentucky, was known
as Rogue's Harbor. It served as a haven for outlaws from the whole
union. According to Cartwright's report, "Murderers, horse thieves,
highway robbers, and counterfeiters fled there until they combined and
actually formed a majority." At one point the outlaws won a pitched
battle with law abiding citizens.
Sexual permissiveness also
marked the new nation. Public figures such as Benjamin Franklin and
Thomas Jefferson acknowledge illegitimate children. In New York 500
hookers lived in an area called "Holy Ground" because Trinity
Church owned it. In Groton, Massachusetts, 66 of 200 who joined the
church between 1761-1775 confessed to fornication. One Episcopal Church
in Maryland disciplined 13 fornicators or adulterers in one
III. Other Important
Factors to Note
The Restoration Movement
found itself in a situation where the church desperately needed reform.
Even in orthodox Christianity problems existed. M.M. Davis traces eight
fundamental causes leading to the Restoration Movement. I've already
alluded to some, but all impacted the Movement.
A. The power of human
creeds. Credalism was rampant. Everywhere religious denominations
made these rigid tests for fellowship. No one could join a church
without subscribing to one of these creeds, no matter how speculative.
B. The usurpations of
the clergy. Clergymen magnified their office and carefully
impressed the masses with the idea that they, alone, had sufficient
learning to understand the Scripture. In some cases, members called
their clergy "Divines." These men claimed the exclusive
right to teach and preach, to administer the ordinances. They
denounced the Pope for denying the people access to the Bible, but
they did the same thing.
C. There was no
intelligent grasp of the Book. No one applied established laws of
interpretation to it like they did other literature. No one saw it as
God's systematic progressive revelation of His plan for man's
D. The doctrine of
total depravity. Almost every American denomination held to this
doctrine. Churches told the unconverted to wait for God to come to
them in some marvelous, miraculous and irresistible way. Some actually
followed this to the logical conclusions and refused to preach to the
unconverted. By the early 1800s, however, preachers used means --
preaching, mourning bench, etc.
E. The doctrine of
conversion. In those days men expected conversions to have
"extraordinary accompaniments." Accompaniments could be
dreams, sights, sounds, visions and feelings or even a direct
communication from God. If a believer did not receive such an
experienced they often drifted off into doubt and denial.
F. The Bible was a
"dead letter." This concept grew out of the doctrine of
total depravity. Men believed the Bible was the "sword of the
Spirit," not because the Spirit revealed it, but because
the Spirit wielded it. They failed to note it was the Ephesian
church which was instructed to "wield the sword of the
Spirit." Some preachers even said "they would as soon depend
on an old almanac for conversion as on the Bible."
G. Divisions among
Christians. Clergymen saw Christian union as impossible,
undesirable and necessary to preserve the church's purity.
H. These divisions
warred with one another. Rather than directing the fight to a
common enemy--the Evil One--the churches fought each other!
America, the lad of the
free and the home of the brave, saw its freedom lead to increasing
pluralism. American Christians defended this pluralism, credalized and
organized themselves in order to defeat others around them. The cause of
Christ -- evangelism and edification -- languished! Into this mess came
the Restoration Movement.