Sunday, July 9, 2017

British and U.S. 19th Century Protestant Effervescence

A scholarly controversial third awakening movement—said by some to span from the late 1850s to the early 20th century in Britain and the United States—was really a period of effervescence within evangelical Protestantism. It touched on slavery, temperance and reacted against science, while spawning denominations whose Christian credentials remain questionable. The period still affects Christian religious discourse.

Slavery and Civil War

U.S. Protestant churches were growing rapidly and adopting a “muscular” Christianity of manliness, athleticism, teamwork, discipline, self-sacrifice and as one writer put it “the expulsion of all that is effeminate” that also sought to reach the unchurched, nationally and around the globe. However, the storm clouds of the U.S. Civil War split them.

In the North, most mainline Protestant denominations touched by Pietism—a German movement that emphasized personal transformation through spiritual rebirth and renewal, individual devotion and piety—supported Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party and urged prohibition of alcohol and social reforms. Revivals were halted during the war in the North, but in the South they flourished, especially within the Confederate Army.

Slavery supporters pointed to the New Testament Letter to Philemon, which Paul addressed to a Christian slave owner. The letter was carried by Onesimus, a runaway baptized by Paul and persuaded to return to slavery. Christians of the 19th century Confederacy saw this as biblical evidence of God’s approval of slavery. But U.S. slavery was unlike any slave system of antiquity or even the 19th century, particularly in the degree of dehumanization of Africans kidnapped and sold as property on U.S. shores.

Moreover, Onesimus’ initiation into the faith strongly suggests he was an unusual individual. The early Christians gathered in small secret cells under the pressure of persecution rarely welcomed slaves, for fear that they were spies. The letter makes plain that Philemon is to treat Onesimus like a brother in the faith; within the Church, Onesimus became a bishop, died a martyr and is revered as a saint in Orthodox Christianity. The epistle’s message is clearly that the faith welcomes people of all stations, even slaves, as an extension of the Beatitudes’ “blessed are the poor.”

The Social Gospel

The social gospel movement applied Christian ethics to economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tension, slums, poor sanitation, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools and war. The term was first used by Charles Oliver Brown (1848-1941), who was a bugler in Sherman’s army and later became a minister, but the movement’s leading figures were Richard T. Ely, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch. Toward the end of his life Rauschenbusch wrote A Theology for the Social Gospel, which sums up the broad ideas of the movement. He argued that a focus on personal sinfulness “has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.”

By the 1870s women were leading figures, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union mobilized a social crusade against liquor, pornography and prostitution and sparked the demand for woman suffrage. The WTCU, by the way, still exists.

The movement also gave rise to “settlement houses,” such as Hull House in Chicago, run by Jane Addams, which helped the poor and immigrants with such services as day care, education and health care. The Young Men’s Christian Association was started in the 1880s to help rural youth adjust to city life without losing their religion. It quickly became an institution of the social gospel movement, serving all needy youth and inspired such groups as the Methodist Epworth League and Lutheran Walther League.

A parallel 1880s offshoot, the Salvation Army, was founded in London’s East End in 1865 by formerly Methodist Reform Church minister William Booth and his wife and rapidly crossed the Atlantic. It was modeled after the military, with its own flag and hymns whose words were often set to popular pub tunes. The evangelical London Missionary Society brought together Anglicans and Nonconformists for outreach to Africa and the South Pacific and inspired similar efforts across the Atlantic.

New religions

The period’s religious effervescence also spawned unquestionably new religions that, like Mormonism, took Christianity as a starting point but wandered far afield.

The earliest of these and most closely related to Protestantism is the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which grew out of the Millerite, or Adventist, movement of the Second Awakening and was established in 1863. The denomination observes Saturday instead of Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, as the Sabbath, believes the Second Coming (or advent) of Jesus Christ is imminent and interprets the book of Revelation in a fairly rigid and unorthodox way. Particularly controversial is the place of founder Ellen G. White, who claimed visionary experiences and the role of prophet. Her Conflict of the Ages is essentially a paraphrase of the Bible in the purple prose typical of 19th century romanticism.

A similar group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, drew from the Second Awakening’s millenarian leanings. It was founded in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell. The Witnesses reject the trinity, immortality of the soul and eternal punishment, which they consider unscriptural. They pointedly reject celebrations of Christmas, Easter, birthdays and occasions they deem pagan and incompatible with their view of Christianity. They believe that the destruction of the present world, or Armageddon, is imminent and that only Revelation’s 144,000 saved will survive final judgment—yet they have 8.3 million members worldwide today. Jehovah’s Witnesses are best known for their door-to-door preaching, distribution of literature such as The Watchtower and Awake! and refusing military service and blood transfusions.

Other new religions of the period drew from the writings of Phineas Quimby (1802-1866), a philosopher, mesmerist and healer. He originated “New Thought” or “Higher Thought,” which holds that an “Infinite Intelligence” (God) is everywhere, spirit is the totality of real things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind and “right thinking” has a healing effect.

Yes, you guessed it: New Thought inspired Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) to found Christian Science, which gained a national following. Through the sale of her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as a holy book parallel to the Bible, Eddy became a multimillionaire.

Charles Fillmore (1854-1948) took a page from Eddy’s playbook. After the alleged spiritually healing of his wife of then-incurable tuberculosis, the couple launched Unity, known informally as Unity Church. Their followers believe in the divinity of Jesus, but only in the sense that all humans are the children of God and share divine potential.


While all these effective departures from Christianity via Protestantism were taking place, a cross-denominational evangelical theological movement emerged in response to scientific developments that put to the test biblical passages concerning the origin of the world—humans in particular—and miracles. It adopted a literal and very strict reading of the Bible. While Liberal Protestantism and the modernists attempted to adapt, this new movement, which took some ideas from the First and Second Awakenings, fought back with new doctrinal interpretations of its own.

What came to be called Princeton Theology responded to modern criticism of the Bible by developing the doctrine of inerrancy starting in mid-century. Princeton Seminary theology professor Charles Hodge (1797-1878), among others, argued that the Bible was factual because God inspired or “breathed” exact thoughts into the biblical writers, citing 2 Timothy 3:16. Late in his career, his massive Systematic Theology explained that the Bible was divinely inspired, religiously authoritative and without error.

At more or less the same time, Dwight L. Moody made revivalism the centerpiece of his activities in Chicago by founding the Moody Bible Institute in the 1880s. With it began a series of Protestant evangelical nondenominational institutions that propounded similar methods and advanced similar ideas, as yet unsystematized.

The movement got its name well after the initial excitement died down. In 1910, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles began to publish a series of 90 essays written by 64 different authors, originally in a 12-volume set, called The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, later known as The Fundamentals. Sponsors subsidized free distribution of over 3 million volumes to clergy, laymen and libraries.

The work affirmed core conservative Protestant beliefs, particularly of the Reformed tradition, and defended against ideas deemed to oppose them. It is widely considered the foundation of modern Christian fundamentalism and the source of its most commonly cited beliefs:
  • inerrancy of the Bible;
  • literal truth of biblical accounts (especially miracles and creation);
  • the virgin birth of Jesus;
  • the bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ; and
  • Christ’s total atonement for others on the cross.
While these beliefs echo elements of the faith since apostolic times, the literalist and proof-texting way in which they are expressed, brooking no questioning or reasoning, makes them fundamentalist.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Thank you.