AMERICAN RELIGIOUS CONDITIONS
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 Roots
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 it.
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 Anglicanism.
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 Theology Differs
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.
A.The American 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.
C.The Constitution 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" or "anythingarians."
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 month.
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 redemption.
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.