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 The authors look at historical documents and statistics for various groups in the context of US history.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.