RUINS OR FOUNDATIONS?
On Amsterdam Avenue in New York City stands the Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the world. Designs for the church were drawn in 1887. Work began in 1892. But the structure remains unfinished.
The first fourteen years were slow—“not entirely,” it was said, “because of a lack of money.” There were also problems with soils and materials: the church, built in a medieval style, was supposed to be constructed entirely of stone, like the medieval cathedrals, and that wasn’t easy. In 1906 the building consisted of a crypt, one chapel—about the size of a country church—and a granite arch 150 feet high. Tourists asked, “To what ruin does that arch belong?”
In the next year, unpredictably, new life came to the ruin. More chapels appeared, radiating from a beautiful chancel. Enormous granite piers arose, prepared to support the great tower that was planned for the crossing of the nave and transept—a tower 425 feet high, with a bulk that would dwarf every other feature of the church, as the church would dwarf every other religious structure on the continent.
Then, suddenly, the building committee fired the architect and for no known reason commissioned a Gothic church of a radically different design. The new architect, Ralph Adams Cram, was daring and original. He spent the rest of his life trying to convert one type of church into another type of church while creating an organic unity between the present and the past.
Cram never solved that problem. “We ourselves,” he said, “shall never be called upon to complete the work unless some miracle happens.” It didn’t. At Cram’s death, in 1942, St. John the Divine was nowhere close to being finished.
In the 1970s construction resumed in a modest way, but the cathedral is still an agglomeration of strange, fantastic, and discordant parts—a gargantuan façade and nave, chapels of many shapes and architectural periods, wall and window ornaments representing every historical and cultural movement under heaven. Near the high altar, surrounded by masterpieces of modern medieval sculpture, stand two giant Japanese vases, the gifts of Emperor Hirohito in his youth. But the traditional altar is no longer the one ordinarily used. Its replacement is a nondescript platform that presents no obstacle to the many nonreligious events held in the church, such as a birthday bash staged in 2007 for the pop singer Elton John, a vocal opponent of Christian churches. Near the entrance to the nave rests an equally trendy, though permanent, attraction: a huge section of tree trunk called, for some reason, a “peace table.” Midway on the south wall of the nave is another work of art, a metal sculpture by the contemporary artist Peter Gourfain showing scenes of freeways and automobiles and of hunters massacring animals—an apparent protest against the despoliation of the natural environment.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking feature of the cathedral is the decorative dome above the crossing. It was installed in 1909 as a temporary substitute for the vast lantern tower intended to cover this space, but advocates for historic preservation now insist on keeping it, even if the church raises enough money to complete the plan. When the traditional becomes temporary, the temporary naturally becomes traditional.
In the meantime, hundreds of other cathedrals have been constructed in America. They come in every imaginable shape and flavor. There is the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, which began as a local congregation of the predominantly homosexual Metropolitan Community Church. Until recently there was the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, an enormous glass auditorium designed by the modern and then postmodern architect Philip Johnson. The congregation that occupied the Crystal Cathedral, an offshoot of a traditional Protestant denomination, first met at a drive-in movie theater, then worked its way up to a building that could accommodate the church’s signature events—holiday pageants with Bible animals and ladies suspended from wires, impersonating angels. In 2012, following the church’s bankruptcy, the building was purchased by a Roman Catholic diocese that plans to make it a cathedral in the traditional sense, thus completing the spiral from old to new to old again.
The term “cathedral” comes from the Latin “cathedra,” a word for a bishop’s chair. But even if your church doesn’t have bishops (and few American churches do), you can still have a cathedral. Detroit alone has sixteen of them: the Abundant Faith Cathedral, the Christ Cathedral of TRUTH, the New Beginnings Cathedral . . .
That last name, New Beginnings, is the most appropriate. It’s true, American Christianity always wants to keep its contact with the past. A pointed arch, a pungent passage of scripture, the very word “cathedral”—these are things too valuable to be left behind. But a church that doesn’t promise new beginnings can never prosper in America. American theology has always presented a demand for motion. Even when church people attempt a wholesale return to the past, to “traditional values,” something strange always happens.
So it was with the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The planners wanted a building that would replicate the past. But which past? And how should they replicate it? They had to decide, and they did. First they decided one thing; then they decided another and another and yet another. What they got was a monument to volatility, to uncontrolled revision, to a vitality that never achieves stability or even apparent harmony. It’s an image of American Christianity throughout its existence, the picture of a religion in continuous revolution.
This book argues that American Christianity is now and always has been a triumph of unpredictability. It also argues that American Christianity’s history of change cannot be adequately explained by political or social conditions; by the rise, progress, tragic conflicts, and comic aspirations of that darling of the social historians, the “middle class”; or by the grand ideological narratives of intellectual historians. The only way to explain it is by reference to Americans’ strange and incalculable ways of reaching out to God, and to their churches’ strange, incalculable, but generally successful ways of reaching out to them. To say this is to admit that there is no theory that can really account for the evidence: no coherent story of American Christianity’s origins and variations, deaths and resurrections; no all-embracing epic, myth, or intellectual romance of American belief.
That idea will seem strange and unwelcome to many people who have a stake in the subject. It contests the normal assumptions of the social scientist, for whom religion is secondary to the forces at work on it, social forces that can be quantified and conclusively analyzed. It may appear to contest the assumptions of devout believers, for whom Christ’s Church is primary and the only “forces” truly at work are the ones that God exerts miraculously on its behalf. It will certainly be unwelcome to those people, on both the religious right and the religious left, for whom the story of Christianity miraculously coincides with the stories deduced from contemporary political assumptions. The idea is unsettling even for the author, a student of literature who enjoys finding coherent explanatory patterns in the texts he studies.
But American Christianity is not a text. It is something even more interesting—more colorful, more troubling, more amusing, more challenging, more emotionally demanding—than the greatest, strangest poem. It demands appreciation for itself as a structure that is always visible but always mysteriously shifting its form, a structure that cannot be finished because, in a way, it was never really started: no one agreed on its plans, and no one agreed on the revisions of the plans. Everyone just built.
To put this in other words: if we want to appreciate what we see around us, in the religious (or antireligious) attitudes of our friends or of ourselves, we should stop trying to explain what nobody ever saw: the undeviating “faith of our fathers” that is said to be “living still” in our national life. Many people think this faith has always existed in America and always will exist. Others think it once existed, but it has gone to eternal death, the victim of relentless “forces.” Many others fear, or rejoice, that it will soon return. But fortunately or unfortunately, that cathedral of unchanging stone was never there to begin with.
The most famous film about American Christianity begins with a woman singing, or rather droning, a traditional gospel song: “Give Me that Old-Time Religion.” As her voice continues—eerie, slow, hypnotic—an ominous group assembles on the streets of an unnaturally dim and empty town. Led by a minister of the gospel, they head for the school, where they arrest a wide-eyed young teacher for expounding the theories of “Mr. Charles Darwin.”
This film is Inherit the Wind (1960), a dramatization of the Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925, famous for its encounter between a fundamentalist account of Christianity and a Darwinian account of biology. The film suggests that there really was, and continues to be, an old-time religion, and Christian fundamentalism is it: an unchanging, oppressive, tremendously dull set of dogmas, militantly resistant not just to science but to any breath of air blowing in from the modern world.
One might get a different impression if one were told that the trial in Dayton, Tennessee, was an advertising event arranged by city bigwigs in collusion with prominent agnostics and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union to publicize the town and contemporary religious controversies. One might also get a different impression if one were told that William Jennings Bryan, Dayton’s champion of the old-time religion, was one of America’s foremost political progressives, nominated for the presidency by the Democratic Party after his spectacular reinterpretation of Christ’s Passion as a picture of labor’s martyrdom by the capitalist gold standard. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns!” Bryan shouted in what many regarded as the greatest speech of the age. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”
Bryan was not a man of the past; he was a man of his time. And fundamentalism—an attempted return to the “fundamentals” of Christianity—was far from the old-time religion. Its context was new, its leading personalities were unconventional, and its ways of cultivating its forms of devotion were hardly those of pious farmers conning Holy Writ by firelight. Its means were the mass meeting, the PR campaign, and at Dayton the show trial spectacularly staged for the benefit of newspapers and radio. Fundamentalism may have been disgraced by that trial, but it didn’t go away. Eventually it found newer and more vital ways of re-creating itself in a world of television, the Internet, and political agitation on the conservative side. In the meantime, the fundamentalists’ liberal and modernist foes in the “mainline” or “mainstream” churches had also re-created themselves—and also in ways that could not have been predicted.
In The Secular City (1965–1966), the most influential work of American theology published in the past fifty years, Harvey Cox pictured Christianity as a pilgrimage, a constant encounter with new worlds. The kind of encounter he anticipated for the near future would be prompted by modern liberal social action, although he left the details tantalizingly vague. About one thing he was clear and clearly right: Christianity is always on the move. Yet there are endless ways in which it can engage itself with the world, and Cox proved no better at predicting its engagements than anyone else. During the five decades since his book appeared, the high places of the mainstream denominations have become increasingly liberal or even radical, but the bigger movement has been an intended return to traditional values, a movement appearing almost everywhere else in American Christianity. Yet somehow, without anyone’s predicting it, tradition itself has changed. It now expresses itself in “megachurches,” “Christian rap,” best-selling novels about the end of the world, “outreach” and “inreach” programs about everything from hiking and biking to the problems of single dads, and political campaigns for causes never dreamed of in the past.
Who can keep order in the household of God? What can prevent revolution? The obvious candidate is the Bible, the authority to which every faction of Christianity appeals, each in its own way. This is true and important: the Bible sets limits to Christian belief. It never leads its readers to embrace polytheism or to contemplate an uncaring or capricious deity. It always inspires belief in one God, active in human history and revealed through human story, a God who wants to be reconciled with humanity and with individual human beings. But scripture that is freely available for individual interpretation, as the Bible has been throughout American history, is not just a magnificent stabilizer of belief and practice; it is also a magnificent destabilizer. To its text every question that arises among a Bible-believing people eventually returns, and from it new and usually surprising answers regularly emerge.
Of course, new scriptural concepts can always be asserted, in the absence of actual scriptures. More commonly, however, scripture itself is a provocation of change. The New Testament continually emphasizes the importance of conversion and transformation, and the importance of individual people as agents of transformation. As I have argued elsewhere, this emphasis is an essential part of what can be called the DNA of the New Testament, the array of ideas and literary methods by which Christianity reproduces itself. That scriptural DNA has been continuously reproductive in America. This has nothing to do with whether individuals’ specific interpretations of scripture are right or wrong. It is simply a fact about the Bible’s influence.
Another source of both stability and instability has been the major Christian denominations. From the beginning, they have been caricatured as monuments of repression, enemies of the new. Yet even the most hierarchical churches have been swept by revolution in virtually every period of their existence. Some revolutions were open and violent. They involved agitations, schisms, hysterical denunciations, mass firings and defections of clergy, and America’s favorite weapon of war, litigation. Other revolutions happened behind the scenes. These were revolutions from above, produced by the very people charged with maintaining stability and continuity—the seminary teachers, the well-placed preachers, the staffs of denominational headquarters, the theologians, such as Harvey Cox.
Much has been written about the “democratization” of American Christianity but comparatively little about its official revolutionaries. Yet they are one of the main reasons it is impossible to find an American religious group that turns the same face to the world today that it did one hundred or even fifty years ago. Instead of staying in one place, American churches have wandered across the landscape, abandoning old sources of support and discovering new ones, in a continuous process of self-conversion. Often their changes of character have been urged or imposed from above, not demanded from below or dictated by any of those social-economic “forces” sometimes represented as the final explanations of religious belief. Often new versions of religious experience have been implemented over the impassioned protests of the people in the pews. “Old people” left their seats, and “new people” took them. The church moved on, in whatever direction church leaders identified as traditional, progressive, or (most often) both—or in whatever direction disaffected Christians took when they rebelled against the leadership.
American Christianity would be easier to understand if a predictable pattern could be found in all these motions. Many patterns have been suggested. Two of them are constantly evoked in debates about what America is or should become.
The first pattern is discerned by cultural conservatives who believe that America is inherently a “religious nation” or a “Christian nation.” There is some truth in this belief. As two prominent social scientists have noted, “historically, whatever their degree of religiosity, almost all Americans have identified with one religion or another”—ordinarily the Christian religion. Seen from this distance, no religious changes have ever amounted to fundamental change.
The second pattern is a favorite with opponents of religious belief. The American Christianity that they see is constantly being eroded by science and the necessities of life in a secular society. Their view is itself an American tradition: for two centuries, people have been arguing in this way. But their opinion is also supported by evidence. The great majority of American Christians long ago abandoned a literal reading of the Bible’s historical books. The churches’ most restrictive moral customs are no longer dominant in most communities. And according to the writers quoted in the preceding paragraph, about one-quarter of the population coming of age after 2000 reports no specific religious affiliation. By this analysis, the real story of American religion is a continuing revolution against religion itself.
Here we have two vivid and plausible images. We can choose to imagine America as a thousand acres of rich Midwestern soil, endlessly generating crops of religiosity, or we can imagine it as an island populated by primitive fauna that are slowly but inexorably being replaced by more highly adaptive species.
Unfortunately, neither image could really satisfy a social scientist. Neither has enough facts to support it when considered from anything like a scientific point of view. The emphasis of social science, and the historical theories derived from it, is naturally on social and economic circumstances. Most social-scientific theories describe American Christianity as a class phenomenon (“the middle class and its religion”) that developed in response to the social and economic insecurities that afflict the middle class or to its growing prosperity and confidence—either explanation will do, or both at once.
This approach has been fruitful, to a point. It is obvious that religious movements are involved with their social and economic surroundings and that no one should make statements about American religion while neglecting the mountain of facts that social scientists have discovered about its social settings. It is also obvious that American churches are, by and large, managed by middle-class people: the rich are too few, and the poor have too little money. What affects the middle class will probably affect the churches and, indeed, America’s general religious outlook. Therefore, to most social scientists who address the issue, the history of American Christianity isn’t the story of a perennially productive field or an island gradually losing its ecological health; it’s the story of the great social storms that blow across the American heartland.
But how exactly does this work? What is the seed of the heartland’s faith? Who plants and harvests it? Why does economic depression “produce” religious revival at one time and religious lethargy at another? What economic circumstances inspired multitudes of Americans to believe that the world would end in 1843—or 1844, 1914, 1975, 2011, or twenty other times? What threats to social stability produced churches—and large churches, too—devoted to the idea that Saturday, not Sunday, is the Sabbath? Or to the idea that the ancient inhabitants of the Americas migrated here from Israel and were visited by the resurrected Christ? Or to the idea that minimal consumption of alcohol, then abstinence from alcohol, then state prohibition of alcohol is a necessity of the Christian life? Yet these purely religious notions have all had startling effects on American social history.
Consider figure 2.1, an outline of Presbyterian movements in the United States. To follow the mainline Presbyterian Church from its American beginnings in the First Presbytery (1706) to the denomination now called the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is like watching a locomotive slowly switching its way through a yard in which new tracks are constantly being laid. To discover what economic conditions laid the tracks, what social circumstances drew the blueprints—that would be a challenge, to put it mildly.
There is clearly something incomplete about the social-economic explanation of religious history. The absent factor is the connection between social backgrounds and individual foregrounds, between the conditions that influence people and the decisions—often the strange and unexpected decisions—that these people make.
Such connections are extraordinarily difficult to evaluate with the quantitative methods of the social sciences. People decide to become, or remain, or never become Christians because they think that is the best course for them. Choices are by nature individual and qualitative, not collective and quantitative, and the intensity of experience they represent cannot be explained by statistical analysis. What one person experiences as “crisis,” “the tipping point,” or the final “commitment” may register as only a minor variation in another person’s life.
Personal decisions always take place in some social context, which can almost always be represented by some kind of numbers. Most people who make over $100,000 a year would never think of joining an inner-city church 30 miles away or going on a 10,000-mile missionary journey. But some of them do, and their decisions have had significant effects; they have saved old churches and started new ones. Why these things happen, and what their results can be, cannot be settled by statistics or reference to social contexts.
If people’s religious attachments, choices, and beliefs were actually determined by social and economic forces, then someone who knew the history of the latter ought to be able to predict the history of the former. But while social scientists and other intellectuals have frequently predicted the demise of religion, or particular kinds of religion, their predictions have never come true.6 Nor have anyone else’s prophecies, optimistic or pessimistic, about the shape, size, and intensity of American religious belief. The great events that you, I, or anyone else would have expected to exert an enormous influence on religion—the Civil War, the two world wars, the Great Depression—produced no corresponding changes on that side of the ledger. But odd new ideas, eccentric religious personalities, a few ordinary people determined to communicate Christian ideas in a new way—these have often had the shaping force that great national events have lacked. This is worth remembering when one reads speculations about the religious effects, so far not discernible, of the great economic downturn of 2008.
One social development was indeed crucial to American Christianity: the eighteenth-century breakdown of the state church system. At the time, many people predicted that Christianity would die if it (that is, one version of it) was no longer established by law. What happened was that Americans’ religious choices increased dramatically, and so did Americans’ involvements with particular religious bodies. People were free to choose the religious approach that inspired them most, for whatever reason: because it was traditional, or untraditional; the faith of their fathers, or not the faith of their fathers; rational, or beyond all reason; what everybody else believed, or what nobody else believed. The charter of choice put an end to predictability, once and for all. One might make generalizations about what had happened in the past, and some of those generalizations might be true. Predictions and deep insights into fundamental patterns were another thing.
A sophisticated attempt to map the history of American Christianity by using a theory of choice is contained in a deservedly well-known book, The Churching of America (1992; 2nd ed., 2005). The authors, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, try to measure not just reported affiliation but real church membership, attachment, or “adherence.” Religious adherence, they find, has greatly increased during the past two centuries of scientific enlightenment. In 1776 only 17 percent of Americans adhered to a church. Adherence increased to 51 percent in 1906 and 62 percent in 1980. It was still 62 percent in 2000. On this scale, a reported “seismic shift” from 7 percent (1972) to almost 20 percent (2012) in the proportion of Americans who “do not identify with any religion” looks somewhat less serious.7 Nevertheless, the mainline Protestant denominations, the old churches in the center of town, now enjoy a much smaller “market share” of Christianity than they did in 1940. Other groups— Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, and the many “fellowships” and “ministries” of born-again believers—have greatly increased their market share.
This, the authors suggest, is because churches that are not mainline, that advertise their distance from prevailing social trends, can offer more compelling choices for people shopping in the religious “marketplace.” They set a high price for their goods; they make special demands on their adherents; and for a significant segment of the population, their distinctiveness increases their value. Their crop can weather the storm and even benefit from the droughts and floods.
Finke and Stark provide a persuasive view of religious change. Perhaps necessarily, however, their explanation flirts with tautology. It shows that churches requiring more commitment from their members retain more committed members. Compelling messages compel; uncompelling messages do not. People—some people—respond to a challenging message; others find it too challenging, or challenging in the wrong way, and do not respond.
This is no critique of Finke and Stark’s research. Causes of change in American Christianity are simply too complex and volatile to be explained by any general theory. There is always an uncertain relationship between the story of the churches, which is Finke and Stark’s major concern, and the stories of their individual constituents, who cannot be expected to choose the same church (or express the same intensity of devotion to that church) for the same reasons. Most varieties of Christianity offer people many more than one religious attraction and challenge. In this country, there are reported to be 68 million communicants of the Roman Catholic Church. Some of them are attracted and held by the church’s concern with sexual purity and its respect for the unborn, but some adhere to the church despite what it teaches about those subjects and because of its teachings on others. They are all members of the same church, whose growth or shrinkage can be “explained” by reference to any or all of the tendencies they represent. This is true of any religious movement of significant size.
Finke and Stark identify some prominent features of growing churches—the distinctive messages, the challenging demands. But they aren’t able to say as much about the challenges that become too challenging. Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of America’s most demanding denominations. In 1940 it required an average of about 1,000 hours of religious work for them to convert someone into an active adherent; by century’s end about 6,000 hours were necessary to bring someone to baptism, and half a lifetime of work (about 40,000 hours) to make an active Witness. At the other extreme there is the standing problem of the mainstream denominations. These vast, ungainly bodies have been losing market share for generations, but despite their perceived lack of challenge, they retain tens of millions of adherents, with local churches embracing an almost incredible range of options. The Congregational Church, the church of the New England Puritans, now includes the megachurch of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s flamboyant former pastor. San Francisco’s Ebenezer Lutheran Church, founded in 1882 by religiously conservative Swedish immigrants, now calls itself Her Church, worships the “God/dess,” and prays “the Goddess Rosary.”
Clearly, even mainstream denominations can offer challenges that social science cannot easily quantify or explain. And it isn’t just “ordinary” churches (if there are such things) that offer them; it is “ordinary” people too. This is not, unfortunately, the impression one derives from standard denominational histories, which are often written as if institutions sprang naturally out of the soil, without the creative work of individual people, especially people without an official title. We read that the Baptist Church “grew” in one state or another, or that Reverend So-and-So “went” to such and such a place and “started a church.”
The idea of an automatic institution has also been projected by people who speak in solemn tones about the decline of American Christianity. They have been doing this for a long time. “The day has passed,” opined an evangelist of the 1920s, “when you can ring a church bell and expect a crowd.” But when was that day? Even when churches were established by law, no one could simply open a church and expect it to succeed. Established churches in the colonial South met with the indifference of people from all social classes, who found it remarkably easy to withhold their support. In the Puritan colonies, the church regime was much stricter, but even such pious people as Anne Bradstreet hesitated before joining a church, and after joining still suffered temptations from the variety of Christian ideas in circulation.
During the nineteenth century, churches that had formerly been established faced heroic struggles to survive and expand. The experience of an Episcopal bishop can stand for that of many would-be planters of churches: “For the first fifteen years,” he recalled, “I was at home only about one-fifth of the time.” The rest of it he spent visiting settlements where he went from house to house passing out advertisements, hoping that people would turn up for services in a sod school or a borrowed church. He generally got a welcome, but when it came to starting a church, he could never predict who, if anyone, might be inspired to give some money or do some work, although women were the likeliest to be interested. The life of the church was its women volunteers.
American churches were the lengthened shadows of individual men and women, people who were willing, for reasons best known to themselves, to start a church and keep it going. Some denominations provided small subsidies to new churches; many did not, and if there was a subsidy, it was never enough. It was up to the local people to support the project year by year. Standard histories seldom report a fact that is starkly visible in virtually any church records you care to consult: American churches and their pastors have generally lived cheaply, if not from hand to mouth. In 1906 the average ministerial salary for the top payer among Protestant denominations, the Unitarians, was a princely $1,653 (about $33,000 in today’s money), with $663 as an average for all Christian ministers. In 1968 the Unitarians were still on top, with a median salary of $8,117 (about $55,000 in today’s money). Methodists stood at $6,232; Southern Baptists, at $4,504. Total income would include not just salary but also allowances for housing, transportation, and so forth. When these are added, however, the median income of 5,000 ministers surveyed about their pay for 1968 goes up to only $8,037. Experience affects salary, but in 1968 only 8 percent of ministers with more than fifteen years’ experience received $10,000 or more in salary.
Ministers are still underpaid, compared with people in other skilled occupations, even though salaries often constitute most of a church’s annual budget. In most churches today, contributions that come in on Sunday are spent by Saturday. If the core members, the people who, for whatever reason, value the church enough to make themselves responsible for its existence, fail to show up and contribute, the church dies.
This account of individual choice and responsibility applies not just to the oldest, whitest denominations but even more to African American churches. We know that during the fifty years following the Civil War, black churches experienced phenomenal growth, achieving a membership of about 3.6 million by 1906—and this out of an African American population of about 9.5 million. It also means that millions of people who had not belonged to a church and whose parents had not belonged to a church or perhaps had not been allowed into a church had now chosen a church for themselves, usually one that was run by African Americans. That in turn means that young people (and some not so young) were seeking appointments to the ministry, either from struggling denominations with even more struggling seminaries or from local congregations that had identified their talents. They were investing their lives in what old-fashioned Christians called a “new work.”
But formal organization, membership, and ordination are only part of the story. Congregations could not survive without the voluntary commitment of their members, the men and women who contributed their garden money and their egg money and a tithe of their small wages to buy a bit of land to build a church, then contributed their sweat to raise the building, then discovered ways to get and keep a minister, and after that discovered ways of passing their connection with Christianity on to the next generation.
While doing so, these people created or remolded larger institutions, some of which now span the nation. For ministers and laypeople alike, this generally meant travel by train, in the cheapest seats, to conferences where threadbare pastors debated the things of the spirit, arguing about which among the hundred possible connections to God their tiny denomination should endorse; failing agreement, it meant founding a new denomination. By the late twentieth century, African Americans had formed almost two hundred separate church organizations of the Holiness variety alone. Each of these groups—and each of the big African American denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Baptist Convention, and the Church of God in Christ—crafted its own ways of ministering to the needs of people vigorously exercising their powers of choice.
Most scholars have stopped talking about “the black church,” as if there were only one kind. In their ungovernable diversity, African American churches offer a remarkable instance of a larger pattern, or lack of pattern—the mutual enterprise of religious “leaders” and religious “followers” that constitutes American Christianity.
William James, the most distinguished American writer on the psychology of religion, made a serious mistake when he proposed to examine religious experience as it appeared in the consciousness of a few people of “genius,” not in the experience of the “ordinary religious believer.” “It would profit us little,” he says, “to study this second-hand religious life.” But James abandoned his own distinction. His book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) presents abundant information about the intense religious lives of people who did not claim to be geniuses. James couldn’t resist these ordinary people, and he was right not to. In America, revolutions in religion are often produced by eccentricity, but they seldom wait for genius to appear, among either leaders or followers. The vast reservoir of potential religious experience—what James called religious “propensities” or “appetites”—is waiting to be tapped by anyone who has the tools to do so.
James never produced an exact definition of religious experience; the varieties were too many. He suggested, however, that it was a psychological phenomenon of a highly distinctive type. He called it one of humanity’s “genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure-house” of ideas and feelings. It was the kind of experience capable of discovering something beyond itself—life seen from a new point of view, a vantage point provided by the self’s perceived connection with God. It was a revolution in perspective. By means of this “communion,” he said, “new force comes into the world.”
Yet if religious experience is a “key” to something, what are the keys to religious experience? What are the means by which a capacity for this experience can be discovered and brought to light?
About 1816 a farmer from the New York–Vermont frontier with the extremely common name of William Miller began a systematic study of scripture. He found in the Bible’s mathematical symbolism a prediction that Christ would return, and the world would end, sometime around 1843. What no one except God could have predicted was that Miller’s dry studies of biblical numerology would open a new intensity of experience to people throughout America. Some abandoned their unbelief; others abandoned their churches. When 1843 and then 1844 came and went, Miller’s followers suffered what was called the “Great Disappointment.” Many fell away. But there were enough men and women still ardently expecting the second coming or, “advent,” of Christ to continue the movement. They created adventist fellowships, adventist churches, and eventually adventist denominations. Some of their institutions extended themselves around the world—the denominations now known as the Seventh-day Adventists, Grace Communion International, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Like someone prospecting for a precious substance without knowing exactly where it might be found, Miller had discovered a hidden propensity for religious experience, a readiness for religious involvement that ran far and deep in the American people. This vein of readiness was nothing as visible as a field of corn. It was nothing as predictable as the return of spring. The best image might be the irregularly spreading veins of a great oil field. If you strike such a vein, your success may be explained, after the fact, by the circumstances in which it happened: an expanding economy in need of oil or a contracting economy in which other enterprises offer less reward. These purported explanations will of course have nothing to do with your ability to find the oil.
The same after-the-fact problem occurs with explanations of American religion. The two major social-scientific explanations for adventism describe it as (1) an optimistic and progressive response to a developing capitalist economy and (2) a pessimistic and reactionary response to the economic downturn of the 1830s. Yet the fact is simply that William Miller found a vein that other people had missed. Maybe they misjudged the terrain. Maybe their tools weren’t right for the job, in some way that couldn’t be discovered except by experiment. In any event, he found the vein.
At roughly the same time, in roughly the same region of the country, and often among the same people, another vein was found, the vein that today flows mightily through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons. That process of discovery began in the 1820s, in the farm country surrounding Palmyra, New York, with revelations delivered to another man with an ordinary American name, Joseph Smith. These revelations were not about the end of the world; they were about its hidden history. Smith was twenty-four years old when he published the Book of Mormon, which his followers call “another testament of Jesus Christ.” Whether or not Smith actually heard the voice of God and found the early history of the western hemisphere written on golden plates in a “reformed Egyptian” script, he had indeed found something: the hitherto unknown readiness of Americans for a new recovery of an ancient past, for a new community based on revivals of ancient customs.
Smith and his successors also found a willingness for continuing revelation that constituted a mandate for revolution. In 1847 the Mormons began to leave the existing states and embarked on the creation of a new society in the deserts of Utah. In 1890 they renounced their attempt to restore Old Testament polygamy. In 1978 they began admitting men of black African descent to their priesthood. Today, followers of America’s most exceptional large religion—the one most often regarded by other churches as not only heretical but positively non-Christian—are almost indistinguishable from their neighbors. Their salient characteristic, achieved through successive revolutions, has become their ambition to represent both the normal and the norm of American life. Even Joseph Smith, the Prophet, could not have foreseen that a consecrated normality would be the Saints’ most powerful means of attracting and holding followers.
This book will consider, among other things, certain religious movements that, unlike the Mormons, seemed likely to capture large fractions of the populace but didn’t. It will also consider religious ideas and approaches that succeeded in such unlikely ways that one can only echo an observation made by the estranged mother of a great evangelist, contemplating her daughter’s oddly successful ministry: “If God continues to bless His word and save souls under those conditions, it is very wonderful.”
One reason the course of Christian movements can seem so wonderful is that no one can graph the individual scales of values and interests of hundreds of millions of believers, past and present. Another reason is that religious messages often identify values and interests where they weren’t known to exist before. Finke and Stark are correct in viewing religious change as an alteration in people’s scale of values or “preferences” in response to the successful communicating or “marketing” of religious options. But they are only half-correct in believing that “when people change churches, or even religions, it is usually not because their preferences have changed, but because the new church or faith more effectively appeals to preferences they have always had.” Preferences can be “had” only when they are recognized and acted on. Confronted with new religious options, people often discover at that point that this was what they were “always looking for.” Until then, their preference was merely potential; something had to happen in order for them to identify it and connect it with a new religious practice. Crude oil, oil in the ground, becomes valuable and interesting only when someone has the tools to find it, bring it to the surface, and make something out of it. The same can be said about people’s religious inclinations, real and potential.
Charles Grandison Finney, one of the most important evangelists in American history, declared that “religion is the work of man”; it is a tool, a set of “measures” to accomplish a specific task, a way of making potential experience into something actual. Today, “measures” might be called “techniques” or even “technologies.” Americans have used many techniques in making their versions of the Christian religion: apocalyptic forecasts; idealizations of heart and home; ethnic identifications; architectural innovations; new ways of preaching, praying, and singing; new ideas of “community”; odd forms of biblical interpretation; and political crusades for every conceivable cause. These are a few of the measures by which American Christianity has prospered. No cynicism is implied; those who created and used these measures almost always believed in them, and sometimes the measures worked.
An African American pastor has said that people attend church in response to one of the “four I’s”: information, influence, inspiration, and ignorance. Some people are seeking knowledge of God (information). Others are seeking a power that can affect the lives around them (influence), or the power of the Spirit on their own lives (inspiration). Still others just show up unreflectingly (ignorance). This pastor’s church, and every church that keeps its doors open, has its own ways of addressing the “four I’s”. Some methods work better than others, at least for now; the methods don’t stay the same. As the pastor says, an active church doesn’t stand still just waiting for the Lord. It hopes that its measures will attract more people than they repel—something that isn’t easy to calculate. The measures are therefore subject to revision. And whatever the churches do, there will still be Christians, ardent Christians, who aren’t affiliated with any church at all.
To say this is to recognize that there is a place where institutional histories and social theories stop, and the histories of individual men and women start. Consider the story of Frances Jane (Fanny) Crosby, one of the greatest celebrities of nineteenth-century Christianity. A prolific hymn writer (“Blessed Assurance,” “Pass Me Not,” “To God Be the Glory,” and hundreds of other songs), Crosby had—and continues to have—more influence on religious feeling than an army of clergy. Yet after her conversion to Christ, she waited more than three decades to join a church. Until that time, she wouldn’t have counted in any statistical study of Christians in America. But of course, she wouldn’t have cared.
Members of churches or not, people like Crosby are the heart and core of American Christianity. These are the people who have found a vital connection to the faith, a means of transforming potential interest into actual engagement. No one, including them, can predict where such connections will be found, in what church or denomination, movement or creed, if any. The task of religious movements is to locate them, and no one can say which methods will work or when.
For Crosby, as for many others, what worked was a combination of the very old and the very new. In 1850, at the age of thirty, she visited one of the metropolitan churches where revival meetings were held. In each service, the high point was an invitation for sinners to come forward and be reconciled with God. It was called “getting happy.” Crosby came forward twice; twice she was prayed for, and twice she departed without finding the experience. On the third night, she was the only sinner at the “altar.” Then, she said, “They began to sing the grand old consecration hymn, ‘Alas, and did my Savior bleed, / And did my Sovereign die?’ And when they reached the third line of the fourth stanza, ‘Here Lord, I give myself away,’ my very soul was flooded with a celestial light. I sprang to my feet, shouting ‘hallelujah.’”
Apparently, many measures had to be used—a specialized service, an altar call, and a 143-year-old song of Christ’s sacrifice, inviting a new song of self-surrender. Eventually these measures had their effect. But the flood of celestial light—that was surprising, ironic: Fanny Crosby had been blind since early infancy.
Years after her conversion, Crosby began to explore new ways of converting others. She offered her songs to publishing firms that were using the newest, cheapest means of printing and distribution, and she traveled the country, a little blind woman, alone, preaching Christ to the huge crowds that turned out to hear her. By the end of the century she had become “the Queen of Gospel Song.”
Crosby was far from a theological innovator. She adhered to a basic form of evangelical Christianity—the old-time religion, if you will. Yet she was one of the most important participants in a revolution in nineteenth-century Protestantism, the change from a contentious, proudly dogmatic religion of divine justice to a religion of the heart, ever listening (in Crosby’s words) for “echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” A century and a half later, multitudes of Christians—old and young, rich and poor, male and female, of every ethnicity and political persuasion—have her words on their lips every Sunday. They sing them in various arrangements, “traditional,” “contemporary,” whatever, and they find their own meanings in the words, just as she found her own meaning in “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed.” But more people recite Fanny Crosby than Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, and more people are influenced by her than by any author who today proclaims the end of faith.
This is how a simple story—“Blessed assurance! Jesus is mine!”—can become so complicated that no theory can contain it. Yet one thing to notice is that wherever Crosby’s songs are sung, they have the potential to revive the experience of conversion, of revolution on a personal scale. Another thing is that this revolution can take place in any social context, including contexts that are themselves revolutionary. Crosby’s songs may be part of a service in which a Korean American pastor solicits donations for a campaign against AIDS in Africa, or a gay marriage is blessed by a woman pastor. All this would have puzzled Fanny Crosby. It wasn’t something she could have predicted.
It would probably puzzle most twenty-first-century Christians, too, if they happened to reflect on it. Supposing that they did, however, I think they would be more bemused than shocked. They understand that practical Christianity requires tools that identify religious “appetites” and can satisfy them, right now, in any social context. These people seldom use the word “revolution,” because the normal idea of revolution is something that occurs once, and annihilates everything before it. Of course that’s naïve; it never happens that way. The vital tension of American Christianity is that of a revolution which is always happening, and always needs to happen. The old-time religion must always be made new. No one can predict what new measures American Christianity will invent, or how—if at all—they will be reconciled with the old measures. We are living at a time when the Southern Baptist Church, originally severed from the northern Baptists by its defense of slavery, has elected a black pastor as its head. And we are living at a time when believers in a literal interpretation of Mark 16:18 (“they shall take up serpents”) still die from snakebites received in religious services—which these days are advertised on Facebook.
No theory can encompass these tensions and ironies. Yet American Christianity survives not by theories or systematic theologies. It survives by what transcends them all: life, individual experience, the way things actually happen, and the means by which they are made to happen, means that are strange, diverse, generally unpredictable, seldom sensible, often inspiring, and just as often annoying or unsettling, but remarkably informative about the American people.