Toward the New Century: Protestants in America Part Four

The Civil War marked a shift in Protestantism. For one, denominations and associations that parted ways before the 1861-65 war didn’t always go the same theological direction during the years that followed. For another, the country saw a shift in immigration that brought in more national denominations, and more Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Changes in science and political philosophy added tension to the religions scene in the US (and England and Europe), eventually leading to the creation of Fundamentalism. WWI left religion in the US relatively untouched, and split us away from Protestantism in Europe, a divide that has grown wider in the century that followed.

One of the more interesting books about the growth (and semi-decline) of various denominations in the US is The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. They make the argument, quoting Cotton Mather, that once a group shifts from a sect in conflict with society to a church that joins society, the group starts to shrink. The authors look at historical documents and statistics for various groups in the context of US history.

The Methodists and Baptists both grew rapidly in the North and South before the Civil War. Afterwards, however, the Baptists continued expanding in percentage even as the Methodists—specifically the largest group, the Methodist Episcopal Church—leveled off and started declining in percentage. There were still enough eager Methodists that Catholics, German and Scandinavian Lutherans, and Reformed ministers fretted greatly and complained about having to compete with these quasi-heathens for the attention of their “rightful” flocks. By 1906 the Methodist Episcopal Church alone had 1,228 congregations that held no services in English, and three hundred or so more with services in various languages and English. The immigrant churches had to scramble to keep the children and grandchildren of the Swedish Lutherans and Dutch Reformed.

Interestingly, as the Methodists and some Baptists joined the Presbyterians in “respectability,” meaning that preachers had to go to seminary first, were considered respectable members of the community, had regular pay-checks, and their congregations grew more willing to tolerate some of the ways of the world, the reform impulse that had stirred John Wesley, the founders of the American Baptist groups, and others revived. This was the Holiness Movement. People with a sense that the Second Great Awakening had just been a good start began pushing for more Jesus and less respectability. They shouted “amen” and “say on, Brother” during worship, raised their hands, eschewed alcohol and gambling (and dancing), and demanded strict moral accountability among the members of their church.

Another reason for the Baptist, especially in the South and West, was how Baptists considered the Freedmen. Methodists, being top down, tended to slot people into ranks. This grew worse as the church became more and more respectable, giving congregations less and less “wiggle room.” Charging yearly pew-rental didn’t help. The Baptists, being bottom up, offered a lot more freedom of opportunity for mixed congregations. Although semi-segregated denominations arose, like the African Methodist Episcopal and Black Baptist congregations, as a whole, the Baptists welcomed Freedmen more easily.

As the Northern Baptist associations slipped toward respectability, the southern churches remained a bit more sectarian, closer to the people on the ground, and more willing to boot out ministers and seminary professors who got too modern. As a result, fads such as the Social Gospel, and German theological trends tended to sweep over the North and only later trickle into the south. Too, fewer European immigrants settled in large clumps in the South, so ethnic churches did not form the way they did in, oh, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As the formerly-national groups such as Lutherans and Reformed competed and clawed for members, they faced pressures from inside and outside. The first split of the Lutherans came over teaching predestination, and was called the “Conflict over teaching the doctrine of grace,” except all in one word. [Ah, German!]. That led to the creation of the Missouri Synod Lutherans and “everyone else.” The forerunner of the Wisconsin Synod* formed not long after (1850). Other groups also divided, so that by 1900 about 30 different Lutheran branches existed in the US.

As conscription and forced military service became more common in Europe, groups of Anabaptists fled to the United States, forming a small but well-known sub-group of Protestants. These include the German Brethren (Dunkards), Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites. Along with the Quakers and some branches of the Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, they were pacifist. This was not a problem until WWI, when the combination of ethnicity and pacifism became a huge problem. The US government . . . handled it poorly, leaving memories and scars that linger to this day.

Just as personal reform had been part of the Second Great Awakening, social reform came from that source as well. As mentioned last week, the temperance movement, abolition, women’s rights, and dietary reform developed, with sacred and secular groups. In the late 1800s, the Social Gospel movement came out of Germany. It blended some elements of Christian Socialism with older calls to help those in need. People looked at the immigrant slums in the big cities, and at other problems in society, and began to argue that a more just society needed to come about, with reforms led by the church. The theologian Walter Rauschenbusch published the book, Christianity and the Social Crisis, espousing the Social Gospel, in 1907. The movement paralleled the Progressive Movement in politics, and overlapped a great deal. What was the church, the Church, doing to help the poor, the immigrant, the needy, the widowed and orphaned? And how could the government help the church? Those were questions that moved in the northern churches.

At the same time, the intellectual trends from Germany worried some believers. The text-critical and source-critical school of theology had begun by looking at the literal languages of the Bible and exploring the meanings and changes in the texts. Adding history to interpretation seemed to lead to some possibly disturbing directions. Once Darwinism became both popular and misunderstood, the combination of English and German ideas seemed to threaten Christianity. Who needed G-d if humans came from apes and science could answer all questions? Why pray if modern technology could solve every need? Why believe in a book that was assembled from bits and pieces and that didn’t mean what people claimed that it meant?

One response was to adapt. Another was to draw lines and say “This we believe, this we do not.” Out of that came The Fundamentals and the origins of Fundamentalism.

A third response to stress and the calls for holiness and a renewed touch of the Holy Spirit was Pentecostalism. Born in the Azuza Street Revival in L. A. between 1906 and 1915, the return of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, having the shouts, being slain in the spirit, and other experiences ignited a new sub-group of the Holiness Movement. The name came from the story of in Acts about the Holy Spirit descending on believers on the Pentecost, and people tended to associate speaking in tongues with the movement. Some denominations and associations accepted Pentecostalism as an odd but acceptable form of worship, while others eschewed it. Pentecostalism tended to be race and culture blind, and all sorts of believers found a home there.

By WWI, Protestantism came in all sorts of flavors and strengths. Some groups were fading, others blending into society, and still others remained stubbornly apart from “the World,” demanding spiritual rigor and firm adherence to creeds. Interestingly, those with the firmest lines maintained their strength and even grew. The others faded and are still fading.

After WWI? That’s a story for another author to tell.

*I boggled when I moved to the upper Midwest and was warned to avoid the Missouri Synod Lutherans, “because they’re fast.” Thanks be the well-meaning gentlemen didn’t know that at the time I was a Heathenmethodist. (Yes, it was all one word.) The Missouri Synod thinks the Wisconsin Synod is too pedantic and may be bound for you-know-where, along with other groups. The Wisconsin Synod thinks everyone outside their denomination is quite likely going to you-know-where post-haste. Since people from several denominations have assured me that people outside their faith group are going to you-know-where, I’ve gotten good at nodding and thanking them for the warning.

Sources: Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America 1766-2005: Winners and losers in our Religious Economy. Anything by Rodney Stark is good.

Walter Rasuchenbusch. Christianity and the Social Crisis. It’s a bit of a tome, but it is a good primary source.

George M. Marsden. Fundamentalism and American Culture. Probably more than you want to know, but interesting. And yes, I recall the Schofield Bible with the various charts and dispensations in it.

For an excellent short single volume overview, I highly, highly recommend Mark Noll, The Work We Have to: A History of Protestants in America. Heck, anything by Mark Noll is probably good.


18 thoughts on “Toward the New Century: Protestants in America Part Four

  1. A friend who I met at a local community church (nominally Quaker; at that time with an Episcopal pastor–liberal veteran of the California Grape boycotts) told me of his experience checking out churches in town. ELCA and Missouri, acceptable, if not what he wanted.

    At the Wisconsin Synod church, as he met the pastor after the service, said minister volunteered that the Baptists were going to hell. This apparently was out of the blue. My friend replied that since his father was a Baptist minister, the Wisconsin pastor had no worries about ever seeing him again. I’m not surprised to see that the Wisconsin church building is quite small…

    • I found in Kindle Unlimited on Amazon History of Southern Baptists by Roger Richards.

    • I’m afraid that everything I have is very general, not specific to any one denomination. I’ve not looked for any denominational histories.

  2. I’m badly educated in theology. I’m also wildly ambitious when it comes to the desire to research things. Even repairing my theological education would be challenge alongside the research interests outside of theology.

    Yet, I have the desire to repair my theological education, and then do original research in theology.

    One of the theological questions I am slightly interested in is the extent to which we can say that people who recycle go you-know-where.

    The early martyrs of the faith pretty clearly believed that it was not acceptable for a Christian to participate in pagan ritual to avoid persecution, or to be socially acceptable. What then of participation in the rituals of modern Christian heresies? By which I mean the faiths not recognized as faiths, because they are ‘secular’.

    • Whunf. I suspect intention and awareness are the key factors. If you know that you are participating in a pagan ritual, or other activity that will cause weaker believers to go astray, then you’re in trouble. If you make a mistake in innocence, and realize it later and apologize, you’re not in as much trouble so long as you don’t repeat the action.

      I suspect modern authorities will not take kindly to people breaking the law on recycling (if one is in place) on grounds of religious faith. You’d better have a lot of supporting material from your church/denomination, as well as evidence that recycling is supporting a religion. And be ready to have them deny your claims.

      I’m NOT a theologian in any way, shape or form. I deal with theology as it is part of history.

      • I will also state I am NOT a theologian (nor do I play one on TV). I believe TXRed has the right of this “I suspect intention and awareness are the key factors.”. Paul addresses this (sort of) in 1 Corinthians chapter 8. Particularly of interest are verses 4-6 (NET translation)

        With regard then to eating food sacrificed to idols, we know that “an idol in this world is nothing,” and that “there is no God but one.”[d] 5 If after all there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we live, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we live.[e]

        Paul thus seems to say that sacrifices to idols are essentially irrelevant as the idols are not real gods. Paul’s logic is hard to follow especially for modern folks as it is rather convoluted to our modern tastes.

      • I perhaps do not have a vocation for theology.

        I’m not interested in some of the standard problems, like salvation, or attempts to apply it like assumptions of where others are headed based on knowledge available to humans. These days, you can’t really get in to much in the way of sustained arguments based on disagreements about those issues.

        My instinct is that you could get a lot more conversation going by articulating, say, a case that vegetarianism has to be avoided in ordinary circumstances.

        More of a problem for me, I have a lot of dietary restrictions for medical reasons, and some or all of them are fads that are or have been popular with the left in recent times.

        On the other hand, we may be due for another round of reexamination of the fundamental principles of the faith.

        • Given that early Christians were pretty much all vegetarians (and non-dairy/eggs too) on Fridays, Saturdays, and Wednesdays, and that many monks were vegetarians all the time (except sometimes on Sundays and feasts), it would be hard to say that vegetarianism itself is wrong.

          However, it was determined to be heresy of various kinds (usually Gnostic) to say that every Christian had to be vegetarian at all times, because Peter’s vision said it was okey-doke. (Among other things.)

          I feel very sad about this, because there’s a gentleman whose blog I used to follow who left Catholicism over this issue, because he insisted that all Christians should only eat the foods served in Eden, and it couldn’t be a voluntary choice. I didn’t argue very skillfully, but I still don’t get his insistence. (I gather it was something to do with his old denomination, which he went back to.) I pray for him.

  3. Back about two decades ago, I was looking for a new church, because the Methodist hierarchy had told the laity to go to hell (or perhaps more accurately, “we’re dragging you down with us”).
    Anyway, I’d recalled the Lutherans being one of the most conservative in their orthodoxy growing up so I thought I’d catch a service, and try them out.
    We’d recently moved to Kentucky, and I was not at all prepared for the Missouri Synod. My remark after leaving was “I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the building who hadn’t voted for McGovern”.

  4. I wonder if the idea of a church being in conflict with society might be better expressed as ‘tension’, not so much a revolt as a continuous urge toward reform and repentance.

    • If I understand Stark and his co. author, the sense is that there is an element of rejection of the larger society that to me seems greater than the usual tension that (ought to be) between Christianity and “the World.”

    • While WWI may have left Protestant Christianity in America untouched, the Cold War certainly did not.

  5. Source criticism has itself been subject to an examination of its sources, in recent years. And it’s not pretty. There was a very naked association of Italian, French, and German source critics (from late medieval times onward) with the idea that state and university should control church, and that the Bible should become an abstruse study for experts at universities. That’s not the whole story, and obviously it’s good to study the old languages and such. But sheesh, there were some real creepsters.

    There was also a really nasty anti-Semitic strain to practically all the German stuff, coupled with an amazing ignorance of Jewish custom and thought, and presumption that they did know all about it. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. And they were totally in the tank for the Kaiser who paid their salaries, to the point that one of the big patristics guys actually drafted declarations of war for the government in his spare time! So freaking weird! But it was all part of the Kulturkampf, which many German religious groups fled to this country.

    But when US students went over there, they weren’t aware that X paper was a swipe at the French and Y paper was a swipe at the Papal States and Z paper was written because the government wanted it. They just took it all at face value, memorized the info from the professors, and brought home all the books in German as scientific truth.

    In small doses, it’s useful to study. But in its full panoply of crazy Q’s and J’s and P’s, it was a misleading blind alley, and scholars are finally wandering back out of it.

    Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture is a good book about this history, by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker. It goes back to 1300. There’s another dude who has a good book about this, but I can’t remember the name right now. I know there are also Protestant scholars writing about this, and a lot of them are scathing.

    • Jeffrey Morrow was the other guy. He has a talk called “Deconstructing the Bible” on Institute of Catholic Culture, and he’s got a new book coming out with Scott Hahn on the later part of the time period: Modern BIblical Criticism as a Tool of Statecraft: 1700-1900. Very good history of ideas guy.

  6. The LDS out in Utah pretty much sat out the Civil War. They supported the Union, but were only weakly abolitionist. Given the heavy New England and British representation among the membership, reinforced by a flow of Scandinavian immigrants, as well as the self-reliance and individual work ethic preached by Brigham Young, slavery was little practiced. However, from about 1850 to 1890, they came under increasing pressure from the Federal government and sundry Protestants over their practice of plural marriage. The popular press, concerned as it was far more with the exotic! and the sensational! rather than sober fact didn’t help at all. It wasn’t until they abandoned the practice of polygamy beginning in 1890 that they even started to become acceptable to the mainstream of society. Since the Republicans had been vigorously denouncing Polygamy, the LDS tended heavily to associate politically with the Democrats, but this began to change in the mid 20th century with the growing popularity of socialism (which their leaders opposed), and especially during the Cold War (where the leadership was solidly anti-communist), and they began to shift their political affiliation to heavily Republican. The anti-polygamy persecutions of the latter 19th century had left them with a rather jaundiced view of federal benevolence. Beginning especially with the Great Depression, the leadership organized personal and community self-reliance programs among their membership and severely discouraged dependence on handouts or government programs. Because the oddities of their history, their position on many of the social issues of the day comes rather from a rather peculiarly sideways point of view.

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