Full Text for Church History 3 - Volume 37 - Splinter Groups in (and Outside of) American Christianity (Video)

ROUGHLY EDITED COPY CH3-037 PROFESSOR LAWRENCE RAST PROFESSOR WILL SCHUMACHER Captioning Provided By: Caption First, Inc. P.O. Box 1924 Lombard, IL 60148 800-825-5234 ***** This text is being provided in a rough draft format. Communications Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings. ***** >> JOSHUA: Some pretty strange new churches got started in America in the 19th century. I'm thinking of the Mormons. We have a large number of Mormons in the area in which I live. And such groups as the Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses. I am sure there are others as well. But how did all that come to pass? Was there something, some characteristic about America that fostered such new developments? If so, does this characteristic still influence faith in America today? >> SPEAKER: Joshua, one of the things that historians, interpreters of culture, pretty much everybody has struggled with in the history of America is why are there so many different churches. If you go back into the 1800's and take a look at all of the vast number of reflections that were written on American life from Tocqueville to Philip Schaff, they all tried to come to grips with this basic question of why are there so many different churches in America. And then they even go one step below that and say, even within the various churches, why are there so many different branches of all the various churches? Take for example Lutherans. Why are there so many different Lutheran synods? Well, one of the answers is a simple one: ethnicity. People came from Europe and other parts of the world to the United States and had a distinctive culture that they brought with them. Not surprisingly, they were very comfortable within that culture and sought, in many cases, simply to recreate it on American soil. And religiously speaking, they often times would create their own little church, in the case of the Lutherans, their own synod that had a particular ethnic character, German, Scandinavian, and within the Scandinavians, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, Danish. So there's that. There's also issues of geography that we cannot underestimate. The simple fact of trying to get around America in the first part of the 1900's is difficult. It's not easy to get from one part of the country to another. So think, if you will, with me in terms of the division between East and West, and it's not as pronounced in terms of North and South as it would later become in the 1800's, in East and West, because you have a big barrier between the established colonial churches like the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and the like. And the newly established churches that begin to emerge on the American frontier on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains. For us today, it's as simple drive. Drive from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. You go through a couple tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You can make the drive in a few short hours. Back then, to get from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia was 27 days. Not surprisingly, new communities, new cultures, and even new churches began to emerge on the western frontier. The western frontier of the rugged individualist, the western frontier of less law and order, less order, generally speaking, and in fact opportunities for people to express themselves as they see fit. In this respect, we see several churches begin to emerge early on that will set the stage for later Christian growth and for the development of new churches, new religious perspectives. The two groups that take the greatest advantage of the new freedoms expressed in the American Constitution are the Baptists and the Methodists. Baptist churches believe in the radical autonomy or self-government of the local congregation. The local congregation is a unit unto itself, its church all unto itself and doesn't need any external ties with any other particular group for it to function fully as church. As a result, whether a Baptist congregation had five members or 500 or 5,000 didn't matter. It was church. Little groups of Baptist believers began to pop up, first, interestingly enough, in Connecticut, but then moving down to the south, the Carolinas, and then over the mountains in to Kentucky, Tennessee, and later on in to the southern regions more fully. You could see it on at a map in terms of Baptist dominance, you would see what we historians like to call the solid south, solidly Baptist. One of the great parts of their appeal was the simple fact that they said, we take freedom seriously. And there shouldn't be anything to stand between us and God. On the other hand, the Methodists took a little different kind of tact, and that approach really was strange, particularly in this emerging democratic nation. Methodists had bishops, and the bishops were administrators. They made determinations about where pastors would serve, where churches would be built, and the manner in which ministry would be carried on at these places. So you had something of a centralized control which in many people's minds seemed very undemocratic. But, while that was true in terms of the principal that governs Methodism and Methodism's rise, it differed somewhat when it was actually put into practice. That is to say, the Bishop can say all he wants to a particular candidate about going out and forming a congregation here and preaching in a certain way and carrying on his ministry like this. But when that man will go over the mountains or when that man would move one hundred miles into the woods, the actual oversight of the Bishop was minimal. And the man himself, the circuit-riding Methodist pastor, was thrust back on his own responsibilities, his own abilities in terms of reaching out to those who were lost. The result: explosive growth, both in the Baptist tradition and in the Methodist tradition. Sometimes the expressions of these areas, these groups, these congregations, would differ from group to group from to area to area, and there would be some consternation as to whether or not there was actual unity in terms of what was believed. The principle of the autonomy of the local congregation, particularly in the Baptist tradition, however, allowed folks to develop their theology, their congregations as they saw fit. And in some cases, this began to take some very unusual turns. Joshua, you mentioned the Mormons in upstate New York. Following their founder, Joseph Smith, who had a series of revelations who had delivered to him some golden plates, as he claimed from which he translated the Book of Mormon. Surrounding this new religion, this new perspective, was kind of mystery and divine revelation directly from God, as Joseph Smith claimed. But underlying it all was a question that he faced. The question: With all these different churches, all these different denominations in America, which one is right? The answer that he believed he received from God was none. Rather, God gave him the golden plates so that Joseph Smith would have God's true revelation and set Christianity, in his mind, back on its right course. Here you see this principle of autonomy, this principle of self-rule playing itself out to the fullest. Joseph Smith was not about to be bound by any historic creed, any historic confession, any historic understanding of what the scriptures taught even. He was radically free to develop religion in the direction that he saw fit as he believed he was guided by God. This happened in other cases as well. One of the most interesting ones is a man by the name of Mathias would try to start a millennial community in New York State in the 1820�s and 30's. He met, actually, with Joseph Smith at one time. And upon meeting this man, Joseph Smith actually said, this man is too strange, even for me. There were radicals, and there were even more radical folks. But the majority of people tended to express their religious convictions in safer kinds of ways, though always maintaining their unique character. The Seventh-Day Adventist tradition comes out of this as well having been part of the great millennial upheaval of the early 1840's. There were tremendous questions Jesus' returning. A man named William Miller predicted that Jesus would return between March 1843 and March 1844. When he didn't, he redid his biblical calculations. He was convinced that the return of the Lord would be on October 22nd, 1844. When Jesus failed to return, there was profound disappointment until a few years later, Ellen G. White, a young woman, began to have visions, revelations, that expanded upon the biblical texts, that took the biblical witness and moved beyond it and began to insist upon certain things. Seventh-Day Sabbath, namely Saturday as the Sabbath, and the assumption that Christ's millennial return would not be of the sort that William Miller himself expected, but was rather a transition in the relationship between Jesus and the Father in heaven, and also some perspectives regarding health, vegetarianism, that ultimately would lead to the formation of the Kelloggs Co. and breakfast cereal. I hope you enjoyed your bowl this morning. Those are just a couple of instances. There are plenty of others. You mentioned Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, and the perspective that she adapted and provided as well. The Jehovah's Witnesses actually were influenced by a Lutheran pastor in Philadelphia for some of their beliefs. Joseph Augustus Seiss who pastured the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion in Philadelphia had interesting and frankly wrong ideas about the nature of Christ's return. And these ideas were transferred into Jehovah's Witness thought and practice in ways that were not healthy for the church overall. What allowed this? Radical democracy. This notion of a separation between church and state simply said that there was no way the state could enforce any particular kind of religious belief or practice. The result being that those who had Christian beginnings oftentimes modified Christianity into new directions, took it in new trajectories, and developed theologies sometimes, unfortunately, that were specifically at odds with biblical truth. But that perspective remains. We still see in terms of the Branch Davidians in the last decade of the 20th century, we see other groups like Heaven's Gate, strange elements of religious expression here in America that have the freedom to develop in these ways specifically because of the freedoms we enjoy. You know, and our first president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, C. F. W. Walther, said, democracy is a great thing, but it also can have its downside. That is to say, he said, as long as we remain informed by the biblical texts, the word of God is our basis our source our normal for everything we believe and do, teach, and confess, we'll be in good shape. But if we start adding to that with new revelations, new interpretations, new directions in theology that depart from the Biblical truth, then things could take a terrible turn. Walther, even in 1848, recognized that fact. What he said at that point remains true today and becomes yet again one of the energizing points of our ministry as proclaimers of God's word: namely, to remain faithful to God's word which proclaims Christ crucified, risen again, as salvation for all our sinfulness. That's the unique mission that we Lutherans have here in the United States. Even in the midst of general confusion, even in the midst of a plethora of denominations, still God's word remains firm. ***** This text is being provided in a rough draft format. Communications Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings. *****