America’s Spiritual Birth (pt.1)

It was the 1780s, the days of newborn America.  The country had been fraught with violence, destruction and the anger of rebellion.  Newborn, and war weary America had left the spiritual culture into a state of shock. Destitute, and hungry for nurture, the spiritual/religious climate was further broken by the soon vacancy of its spiritual shepherds and mentors.  Having been a boy in the days of the Revolution, revivalist Barton Stone described the cultural phenomena in this way:

‘As soon as liberty from the yoke of Britain was achieved, the priest’s salaries were abolished, and our parsons generally left us, and many returned back to England. Every man did what seemed right in his own eyes, wickedness abounded, the Lord’s day was converted into a day of pleasure and the house of worship deserted.’  (from the autobiography, end pg. 29)

Here Stone specifically spoke of the church of England, the Anglicans.  To some large degree it could be said that the church of England was the father of the evangelical denominations which began at this time to take the lead in the religious and spiritual fabric of early America (indeed it could perhaps be seen as the father of the nation, itself to some large degree).

A great move now known as the Great Awakening had occurred before the revolutionary war.  This move was a spiritual revival of the Christian faith to its early biblical roots.  The move was spearheaded by many ministers joining themselves to various protestant perspectives and newly discovering for themselves the power of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in the book of Acts.  Among them were distinct historical names as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the brothers Wesley (Charles and John).

These, and many others, had become Spirit-filled evangelical Revivalists.  The influence of Protestant thought, as a whole, can be readily perceived in the fiber of early American politics. The founding fathers felt it their moral duty to cast off the restraints of the tyrannical rule of King George, which bore with it the heavy religious hand of the Church of England (for the monarch of England is always also the head of the Anglican church (you’ve repeatedly heard the oft spoken phrase ‘separation of church and state’ to the early fathers this is precisely what it meant: remove the political tyrant from the affairs of moral and religious freedom, and vice-versa)).  The mere fact that it was so many protestants who largely colonized America – many of whom (early pilgrims, for example) had even moved to the colonies in order to escape the legal, and political persecution they had faced in England – may have been fair warning of the national revolution that followed.

But this time in America, had been a souring for Christianity, religion, and spirituality as a whole. Schism and discord had done their worst, and reached vile, and terribly embittered heights in the form of the revolutionary war.  The cannonball riddled frontier lay smoldering in resentment toward England, and surely toward Christianity.  The corruption of war itself, and the exaltation of violence, and of violent men whose consciences were seared, and whose memories were stained with atrocities.  Now even the leaders of spiritual comfort and nurture had abandoned their wounded and bleeding offspring!

Oh, the tumultuous abandon of headstrong youth tearing away from the the rigidity of controlling parents!  And, Oh America – you have gotten yourself into a real fix this time!  Having cast off your shepherds, who will care for you now?  If this be your lot, I beg thee, throw thyself at the feet of Christ your savior for surely He has compassion upon the broken and needy!

Now here, at this juncture is a tale of three brothers.  The three of whom I speak will all strive and vie to be the Lord’s shepherds to this lost and broken newborn nation.  Doubtless, there were others, but these three brothers became the prominent spiritual leaders of the nation, and those who defined its moral, and spiritual fabric in their individual quests for Manifest Destiny.  All of these three brothers were born quite similarly to America – all had the same mother: the Church of England.

These are the names of the brothers: the eldest was named Presbyterianism.  Born in the mid-1500s, this eldest brother was of old Scotland – a form of Protestant piety formed amidst the intentionally vulgar, and uncouth tribes of Scotland; early casting off the rule of royalty instituted by the English.

Fighting early battles of reformation against the infamous ‘Bloody Mary,’ the belligerently Roman Catholic Queen of Scotland.  Knox and Calvin were heralded as founders, and by now they had a long litany of intellectuals to their count. These could boast the writing of the Geneva bible – the most widely read English bible until ‘Bloody’ Mary’s son, James I ascended the English throne and authorized a new NON-annotated version (born to a Catholic mother, and raised among Scottish Protestants, James HATED the Presbyterian annotations which lined the margins of the Geneva bible (which became prototype to modern annotated ‘Study Bibles’).  As the king of England he was also now head of the Church of England and produced an astoundingly accurate translation of the bible without any annotated perspectives in order that he alone, as head of the Anglican church could interpret the bible for the people.  James’ version was completed for publication in 1611).

This eldest brother (Presbyterianism) had become shrewd and intellectual; he could now boast many impressive schools and universities, both in the British isles, and now on the American continent.  Their formidable theologians even beginning to be taken most seriously for their depth of thought, and the persuasiveness of their arguments by both the church of Rome, and the Church of England.

The name of the second brother was Baptist.  Founded by John Smith in the mid to late 1600s this brother rejected much of Presbetyrianisms’ forms and liturgies with simple adherence to what he deemed practical obedience to the written word of God. Holding fanatically (or so it seemed to the greater body of Christians in their day) to the doctrine of water baptism as a required means to salvation (and ADULT baptism, by IMMERSION nonetheless!)

Baptist was a somewhat unlikely candidate to become so influential in the spiritual fiber of America were it not for his tenacity to proselytize, and refuse to play second fiddle to his elder brother – and I suppose that is often the case with middle children!  While immersion baptism had been branded not only unnecessary, but also ‘fanatical’ for centuries, now that the common people were able to read the scriptures in their native tongue for themselves by and large, many were beginning to be persuaded of the means and necessity for the ‘believers’ baptism’ as it did, legitimately SEEM to be the means used in the Gospels.

The youngest brothers’ name was Methodism, born in just the same century as the revolutionary war (in fact, a mere 40 years earlier in the 1730s.) If the eldest brother was well known for his intellect, this youngest became known for his ’emotionalism.’  Methodism completely rejected eldest brother’s philosophy of Calvinism – which had become almost universally accepted amongst even the Anglicans.  Indeed, the rejection of Calvinism is how youngest brother earned himself the name ‘Methodism’ for without the notion of God’s absolute sovereign election, the Calvinists accused them of being too oriented upon ‘works’ to attain salvation.  Undaunted by this accusation, John Wesley (founder of the movement) adopted the term, believing and teaching that God has clearly laid out for us in His Word the ‘Method’ of obtaining holiness before God.  Methodism taught that it is MAN’s responsibility to obtain salvation (rather than Calvinist’s belief that salvation was bestowed sovereignly by God upon only those whom He had elected) from the gift of Christ freely extended to ALL sinners.

Yes, bold and brash Methodism; the youngest of these evangelical brothers born of the Anglican church believed himself to have found the way to holiness.  He had no need, or desire for great intellectualism, for he coveted above all else to be holy, to be spiritual.  This Methodism, born of the fiery revivals of the first Great Awakening, still had the powerful effects of the Old Time Religion burning in his veins.  He believed in not only the inward effects of contemplative spirituality, but also in outward manifestations and the outward exuberance of those who had prayed through to salvation; not to mention the violent trembling of human bodies when exposed to the raw power of the Holy Ghost – or to describe it in a single word in the vocabulary of many dissenters to Methodism: ‘FANATICISM.’

Considered, therefore, to be impetuous, ignorant, and full of emotionalism by his older brothers, he was nevertheless the fastest growing religious movement on the planet for some NEARLY 150 years – by this time at only about 40 years old he had already increased in scope and influence to a magnitude rivaling his two elder brothers who had been impacting the globe for over 100, and 200 years respectively.

Now the bed of religious fabric had been laid by early settlers even prior to that first Great Awakening, among its tapestry were Pilgrims, Quakers, various offsprings of Uncle Luther.  Powerful spires of religion arose here and there, promising to take center stage for a moment or so, yet then fading into obscurity (the Shakers, the universalist followers of Swedenborg, and many others), but it was Presbyterianism, Baptist, and Methodism who were destined to become the central religious icons of the American frontier.  And just as brothers are born for adversity, so these three – now working together, now striving against one another – would form the catalyst of religious fervor and stirring of spiritual appetite that would salvage this war torn, and morally corrupted son of Liberty, America.

 

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