Wednesday, May 31, 2017

American Originals vs. The Uneasy Center: Religion in American Life

Although he takes a different tack with each work, Paul Conkin addresses similar broad issues in American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity and The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America.  Both texts examine the role of religion in the development of American society.  Where they differ is in focus: The Uneasy Center focuses on the dominant role of what Conkin calls “Reformed Christianity” in creating American cultural and political institutions, while American Originals focuses on what Conkin considers uniquely American religions and their impact.

Neither text claims to analyze the full spectrum of religious belief in America, but limits itself to a relatively narrow focus.  In the case of The Uneasy Center, Conkin defines “Reformed Christianity” as the religious denominations that traced their origins to the reforms of “Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, and dozens of other architects of national churches on the European continent and in Britain.”  This definition opens Conkin up to criticism for using a definition so broad that Howard Miller complains that it is unusable for precise analysis, and John Mulder wonders at the inclusion of Anglicans and Methodists as part of “Reformed Christianity.”  In contrast, American Originals draws criticism from R. Lawrence Moore for being too restrictive because it does not accept American Methodism or African-American denominations as uniquely American, and rejects variations based on race or ethnicity as theologically significant.

In many ways, The Uneasy Center provides the necessary historical and theological base for American Originals, although there is no indication that the two volumes are intended to be used together.  The Uneasy Center begins with a brief analysis of the growth of Christianity beyond its ancient roots as an offshoot of Judaism through the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and then turns to reform efforts in England and the North American Colonies.  Because Conkin focuses on Protestant sects that generally developed from Calvinism, not the teachings of Martin Luther, this first section is critical to understanding the development of Conkin’s “Reformed Christianity”.  Reform in the Church of England flowed on Calvinist lines based officially on the Westminster confession, although in the long run only Presbyterian and a conservative minority in the Church of England used the Westminster documents to resolve questions of doctrine.  The Church of England itself would ultimately turn to the Arminian doctrine espoused by most of the American sects that fall under the heading of his “Reformed Christianity”.

After examining the reform movement in England, Conkin briefly discusses the dominant sects in Colonial America.  From Conkin’s perspective the most important items to understand are that the Anglican Church was unable to prosper primarily due to a lack of a Bishop to perform some important sacraments, lack of effective ministers and church leadership, the Anglican inability to provide a “warm” evangelical religion for worshippers, and a church doctrine that was excessively inclusive; that New England Congregationalists maintained a strict and exclusive Calvinist theology in which God’s sovereignty over creation was absolute and irresistible, that over time Puritans moved from a hot, evangelical-style religion to a cold, legalistic religion, that some liberal Puritan ministers began a slow move toward Arminianism, and that in New England there was a strict separation of the ministry from civil functions like marriage; and that Presbyterian ministers were largely responsible for the revival culture of the Great Awakening, that the move toward an evangelical style and emphasis of moral discipline over doctrinal discipline caused a schism in American Presbyterianism.

The Uneasy Center places a large emphasis on Methodism because it provides a clear and early example of evangelical thought during the 18th century and beyond.  Conkin identifies four key components that contribute to the meaning of the word “evangelical”: emphasis on the conversion experience, the effort to continue a “Spirit-filled devotional life”, responsibility to gain converts, and a strict personal moral standard.  Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, also held strong Arminian beliefs that influenced the development of both Methodism and other American sects.

Although Conkin also provides discussion of worship in Reformed congregations, and of sects outside his Reformed Christian mainstream, the real meat of The Uneasy Center is his analysis of “evangelical hegemony” and Reform theology.  Conkin argues that by the 1820s the four Reformed Christian denominations held so much power that they were able to set standards of belief and behavior for most of society, even to the point that some states had strict laws favoring theistic belief, protecting the Sabbath, and condemning blasphemy.  The large number of prominent, successful and politically involved evangelical Christians were able to control legislators so that their agendas became law, and were able to sway non-evangelical family members and associates to support them.  That evangelicals could generally win public battles when they agreed on policies does not mean that they were able to completely dominate society, as the issue of slavery illustrates.  Because they were also technically a minority, evangelicals sometimes faced stiff opposition when they proposed controversial measures such as prohibition on alcohol.  Evangelicals also never formed their own political party, which Conkin attributes to non-religious issues that were important to the varying levels of society that made up the evangelical denominations.

Two uniquely 19th century occurrences assisted in the development of evangelical hegemony: the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, and the dislocations caused by the Civil War.  Not only did revivals witness the emergence of the professional evangelist, but they also served to swell the ranks of various denominations and to familiarize those who did not join with their beliefs.  This increased the cultural influence of evangelicals in 19th century America.  The Second Great awakening was not the only time revivals swept the nation, as Methodists and Presbyterians maintained a revival culture, but the cycle of revival among denominations never coincided again.  Revivals also continued to emphasize the ecstatic conversion experience, and to move such conversions from private events to public ones. The Civil War spread evangelical beliefs even further, particularly among soldiers who witnessed the death and destruction of the war and experienced revivals in POW camps.

When turning toward uniquely American religions in American Originals, Conkin automatically rejects all of the non-Christian options because they did not gain sufficiently large followings to be of interest.  He also does not address the smaller Christian sects that developed in the new world, preferring to concentrate on the six largest categories of uniquely American religions: Restoration Christianity, Humanistic Christianity, Apocalyptic Christianity, Mormon Christianity, Spiritual Christianity, and Ecstatic Christianity.  Conkin chose the denominations included because they were fundamentally different in terms of doctrine from mainstream Christian denominations, and therefore more important to an increased understanding of both religion and America than the small sects that splintered off from large denominations.

Restoration Christianity, comprised mostly of the Christians and Disciples of Christ, is the earliest major sub-group of American originals Conkin deals with.  These groups had the goal of restoring the early Christian churches based on a reading of the New Testament.  What makes the Restoration movement different from earlier church reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, is that Restoration Christians rejected the doctrines of the first four centuries of Christian history.  Conkin notes that there are problems even with the Restorationists desire to use the New Testament as a guide for proper worship because Jesus left no guidelines for establishing churches.  This meant that early Christians had no guides but Paul and the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.  Because neither Paul nor the unknown author of Luke and Acts personally knew Jesus, ardent Restorationists could reject the authority of these documents as an appropriate base for worship. Conkin does not seem to follow this line of reasoning through to its logical conclusion:  because the New Testament canon was not fully written or accepted for at least two hundred years after Christ’s death, it is impossible to know which of the books have not been corrupted through the course of time.

Conkin identifies the general doctrines of early Christian congregations: Arminianism and the doctrine of annihilationism.  However, it is important to understand that this movement did not espouse specific creeds, and the Christians would accept others with a wide variety of beliefs.  The Christians were also the first sect other than the Shakers to accept women as ministers, which was a source of friction between them and Orthodox Christians.

The second section of American Originals addresses what Conkin calls “Humanistic Christianity”, which encompasses the Unitarian and Universalist movements, which reject the divinity of Jesus and the concept of universal salvation.  Conkin’s inclusion of Unitarians and Universalists might raise eyebrows for some due to their European origins, despite his claim that they were “largely indigenous, rooted originally in New England Puritanism and shaped doctrinally and institutionally by American religious innovators.  However, the problem with this claim is that although Conkin provides a lengthy discussion of European and American origins, he does not provide citations for his claim.  This issue extends throughout the entire text.  What Conkin provides instead are recommended reading lists at the end of each chapter in the manner of an encyclopedia article.  The determination of whether this is sufficient documentation is left to the reader.

The base doctrine of Unitarianism is that God is a single and unified divine entity, and that Jesus was a fully human messiah.  This belief was probably also that of early Judaic Christians who adopted only the Gospel of Matthew.  Faustus Socinus expanded this core by expanding it to include the idea that only a human Jesus could serve as a moderator between God and man, and that only a human could die and rise from the grave to provide salvation for humanity.  These philosophies spread to England and then America, where a variety of groups of rational Christians moved toward Unitarianism and even endorsed Arian views.  Conkin writes that eventually “liberal” Puritans became the first Unitarian congregations in North America.

After discussing the Humanist Christianity embodied by Unitarians, Conkin turns to the apocalyptic vision of Adventists and Jehovah’s witnesses, but again he fails to show Apocalyptic Christianity in North America originated on these shores.  Not only does Conkin identify early Christians as Adventists due to their belief in everlasting life in the Kingdom of God after the return of Jesus, but he traces Adventist thought in North America to Edward Irving’s Adventist movement in England, which even anticipated American Adventist’s date of Christ’s return in 1843.  The Irvinites also provided Americans with tested church institutions to ground their faith in.  Conkin does succeed in providing a coherent and interesting account of Biblical apocalyptic writing, and links the Book of Daniel on the Old Testament with the Book of Revelations in the New Testament.

With Mormonism, Conkin finally addresses a denomination that truly began in the United States.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew from an obscure sect to what is now the sixth largest denomination in the United States.  If it were not for Mormonism’s newer revelation detailing ancient events in the New World at the time of, the doctrines it shares with apocalyptic sects would group it with them.  In addition to the revelations professed by Joseph Smith, Mormons believe in “an early advent, corporealism, Jewish continuities, and a sense of apostasy of orthodox churches.”  Conkin notes in passing that some religious scholars classify Mormonism as its own separate religion, not a denomination of Christianity, but Conkin does not specify why he disagrees with this assessment.  It is obvious that he does, because he states in the preface that he excluded non-Christian sects as not having enough adherents to make them worthy of inclusion.  Inferring that because Mormons believe in Jesus and the resurrection is not enough, if only because Conkin went to the trouble to report that not all analysis classifies them as Christians.

Conkin continues through the remainder of the text discussing Christian Science and Pentacostalism, providing descriptions of their base theology and its development, followed by their practices of worship.  All of this is rendered in highly readable prose, but it continues to suffer from the absence of any documentation whatsoever.  Not only does Conkin not provide textual citations or footnotes, he does not provide a bibliography of any sort.  The only documentation he provides is the previously mentioned options for additional reading.  Because these items do not refer directly to the assertions Conklin makes in the text, they cannot be counted as an adequate source of documentation.

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