Christian Sister

Difficult to believe as it may be, some of the biggest superstars in America’s history have been clergy. The case has been firmly made that George Whitefield, the evangelist, was the first to hold “rock star” status in these United States. He drew stadium-sized crowds before there were stadiums and was, perhaps, the most famous man in the country. Fast forward a number of years and we find a name that may not ring so many bells today. Aimee Semple McPherson, however, was more famous than Hollywood actors and most political figures of her day. The founder of the Foursquare Gospel church was, in the roaring ‘20s, one of the most recognizable names in America. It may not count for much, but even in rural Pennsylvania we learned about her in American History class in high school four decades after her time.

I read quite a lot about American religion, and Aimee Semple McPherson frequently comes up. I knew little about her, however, until reading Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. While it has its faults as a biography, it does convey a fair image of who this fascinating woman was. An evangelist when few women preachers existed, she was creative, crowd pleasing, and remarkably broad-minded for a Fundamentalist. Her personal life was full of drama—three marriages and at least one kidnapping episode—wealth, and want. She trusted Jesus implicitly and often suffered alone in silence. Secretly she befriended Charlie Chaplin, a man drawn to her stage presence but not her religion. It’s difficult not to like this woman who insisted on doing things her own way, and who ended up alienating her family (apart from her son) by doing so.

There can be no doubt that Aimee Semple McPherson believed what she said she did. Although she didn’t approve of theater she brought theatrics into church via her famous “illustrated sermons.” She pioneered radio evangelism, which subsequently grew into a hackneyed soapbox for lesser thinkers. She was a faith healer, a world traveler, and a woman who genuinely cared for the poor. Epstein’s book tells the story with heart and a touch of hagiography, but it is an entryway into one of the lives that shaped Jazz Age America, even if it is now largely forgotten behind flappers and Fitzgerald. It’s hard to believe that some of the most famous people in American history were religious leaders of their time, especially when we see what’s on offer in that arena today.

Celestial Politics

Two things about my childhood: I grew up religious, and I grew up learning you didn’t talk about religion or politics. Now I see that that combination leads to tremendous potential for abuse. Many conservative Christians believe that their faith only ever endorses a Republican candidate, no matter how bad. This is a strange idea and it goes back to some strange people. If I can talk about it.

We live in a cult of celebrity. This is nothing new. People have always admired the individual who could get him or herself noticed. As early as the epic of Gilgamesh, the guy willing to show his bad self managed to capture the public imagination. We’re still reading his story some five millennia later. Of all places this tendency to treat a human being as authoritative should be considered strange is evangelical Christianity. This religion grew out of a largely Calvinistic backdrop where no individual could be assumed to be good. Indeed, total depravity was part of the theological environment. Mix in this stern outlook with the revivalism of the two “great awakenings” and an uncanny alchemy takes place. People, who used to be bad, now found enthusiasm in religion. The first real superstar in the United States was George Whitefield, a preacher. He had a massive following and was, in every sense of the word, a celebrity. This culture became the social substrata of the new nation. Open to all religions, yes, but mostly belonging to this one.

Once American religion became based on popularity, singular figures emerged as defenders of this faith. “Trusted” leaders and authors. Not all of them home-grown either. Names like C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Francis Schaeffer—not to mention Billy Graham—grew to a status they never had in their lifetimes. Well, Schaeffer and Graham came to be evangelical gurus in their own rights and Graham remains among the living, but Lewis and Bonhoeffer were really adopted by conservatives only after their deaths. The interesting point here is that Lewis and Bonhoeffer often wrote things that directly challenge the easy evangelicalism that accepts them as celebrities. The problem is, we don’t talk about religion any more. We use it for voting, and for feeling good about ourselves. Superior, even. It seems strange to think that Calvinism had some safeguards built in that have been knocked down for the sake of the polls. I can’t imagine John Calvin casting a vote for Donald Trump. But then again, Calvin became a celebrity in his own lifetime, so I might be wrong about that.

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Holy Oak

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It was already ancient when first discovered by the early European colonists of New Jersey. The Basking Ridge oak is a well-known and time-honored New Jersey denizen. Over six centuries old, the white oak, it seems, is dying. Like it’s cousin, the Swamp Oak that I mentioned back in January, this tree is dear to many in the state. It is also historical. An article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger begins with some religious associations: George Whitefield, one of the evangelists responsible for “the Great Awakening” from which we’re still trying to awaken, preached under this very tree. George Washington also knew it. It has been tended and cared for by the town for so long that there is a reluctance to let it go. In the words of another New Jerseyan, “well everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.” Job, in a more optimistic moment, declared, “there is hope for a tree.” Like the Good Book, the good folk of Jersey wax religious about this sexcentarian, and for good reason. The human outlook is far too short.

Think, for example, of what was happening when the Basking Ridge oak was a mere acorn. In the early 1400s there were no Protestants yet. That didn’t stop Jan Hus and Joan of Arc from being burned at the stake, however. Although the Vikings, and perhaps others, had ventured here from across the ocean, North America was blissfully unaware of those waiting to claim for their own any land they could set foot on. Good thing too. The Inquisition was still underway and witch trials lingered on, flying in the face of enlightenment. Cambridge and Oxford University Presses were, in some sense, neophyte businesses. This Eurocentric view overlooks the great achievement of Machu Picchu down south. As the Dark Ages were beginning to lighten, this oak began its life’s journey. We who are a mere blink of its slow eye are still spouting hate for those who are different and are determined that nobody should outlive us.

The Holy Oak, as it is known, stands beside a Presbyterian Church. One of the trustees of the church is in charge of the tree. In the article he stated that this is about eternal life. From our perspective, trees seem to live forever. That’s because we are so dreadfully short-sighted. It’s surprisingly easy to become nostalgic for a tree so old. In terms of accomplishment, we think humans are exceptional for surviving a century of all the misfortune we dish out for one another. The tree, however, seems innocent by comparison. We’re changing the climate even now, making it more difficult for trees to thrive. We continue to shoot people for the color of their skin and although we don’t call it witch-hunting any more we still find ways of oppressing anyone who is different. At this rate we may need six more centuries to come to our senses. If only we had the perspective of a tree.

The Great Slumbering

Even in days of secular education—I am a product of public education throughout my childhood—Jonathan Edwards is a name that still retains recognition among many Americans. Perhaps best remembered for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards thrived at a time when being a clergyman was a recognized path to success in this world as well as the next. Not that all ministers became famous, of course, but those with the inclination had access to books and time to study. They could write books and influence public policy. Indeed, Edwards was part of the “Great Awakening” that spread throughout the young United States, before its independence. George Whitefield had brought a showman’s sensibility to preaching, and people gathered to listen to roving reverends who brought their wisdom to new locations. In fact, revivals continue to this day—I had attended a few as a child—and they are largely responsible for the denominational map of American Protestantism even today. The “Second Great Awakening” brought Methodists and Baptists into the mainstream to stay.

The first major revivals, however, were fueled by a Calvinistic intensity. Having spent many of my educational years in schools established or supported by Presbyterians, I know their theology well. Judgment is important in the Reformed tradition. Indeed, without the element of threat, the heat is stolen from much of revivalism. Edwards’ sermon encapsulates so well the vital element of a theology that preached total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. In other words, unless God has already selected you, you’re out of options. As Presbyterian teachers were eager to state, you should still try to live as if you were saved (“elect”), even if you were going to Hell because of, well, you know, an angry God. Campus rules at Grove City embodied that ethic in a real-time way.

Jonathan Edwards went on to become president of Princeton University (the College of New Jersey, at that time). He died at about my age, having been inoculated for small pox—he was a believer in science—to demonstrate the value of the practice to students. He contracted the disease and died merely weeks later. Ironically, Edwards felt he was past his prime and had to be persuaded to take an academic job—somewhat of an extreme rarity today—and largely because his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr., had recently died as the incumbent. Today, starting on the path to ministry is often a fast-track to job insecurity, popular derision, and poor earnings. For all that, it is difficult to be accepted in the ordination track without jumping through many hoops. So Jonathan Edwards came to rest in Princeton, New Jersey, as a famous, published, and highly respected man. A more different world then his in such a short time in the same location, is hard to imagine.

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When You’re Alone

The story is told of how evangelist George Whitefield, on one of his several Atlantic crossings, traded some commodity for a deck of playing cards that he immediately threw overboard. The antipathy to card-playing among some Evangelical groups is, of course, well known.  The idea is that instead of wasting time on trivial pass times, one could be improving one’s soul, growing closer to God than to dissapation. Similar objections were raised to drinking alcohol and going to the theater.  Leisure was a fairly new development as food production became more efficient and trades became specialized and the concept of the work day emerged. The real issue is what you did with your time off.  Here at the cabin, Whitefield might have experienced apoplexy.  Decks of cards are found in profusion, often in use over breakfast and after dinner. I learned to play Solitaire while in high school. Although we were evangelical, we never really had a problem with cards. An abandoned mother with three little boys could hardly come to any other rational decision.  

Solitaire, of which I believed there to be only one canonical version, was the ultimate game for when you were alone.  Nobody was around, and you were bored.  Grab a deck of cards.  Solitaire, as I eventually learned, specifically Klondike, was notoriously difficult to win.  And, in the right circumstances, can be very addictive. Often I’ll marvel at five or six people all sitting at the table playing Solitaire at the same time. As I join them, I wonder–why does it feel so good to win at Solitaire? It is a game with no opponent but chance. Your starting hand often determines your success.  

Why should I care if I can stack all my cards up on the aces? What does that prove? Whom have I beaten? Is it my rage against the gods, or the inherent unfairness of the universe? Repressed aggression against all those many people who’ve underestimated me, or never given me a chance?  Why should this make me happy?  At least with poker, crazy eights, hearts, rummy, or nerts, I have used some skill to win.  Instead I’m here taking on the multiverse itself, wrestling with the divine. I could say more, but there is a deck of cards in front of me, and nobody else is awake yet. I do what anyone would do alone in such circumstances.  

Preacher’s Best Friend

PreacherPrinterPerhaps it’s because I was born in Franklin, Pennsylvania, or perhaps it’s because everything I’ve ever read about him suggests he was delightfully unorthodox, but whatever the reason, Benjamin Franklin has always held my admiration.  Probably we all like to hear echoes of ourselves in the great.  It is difficult to believe that during his early rise to fame, Franklin was eclipsed by an unlikely superstar who was, of all things, an evangelist.  George Whitefield, an early English Methodist, wowed the colonies with his born again message, perhaps being responsible for its appeal even today.  Randy Petersen’s The Printer and the Preacher explores the unlikely friendship that sprang up between Franklin and the younger Whitefield.  While cataloguing early founders religious lives is always problematic, Franklin was a self-described Deist, and certainly not an Evangelical.  Whitefield was very into the personal relationship with Jesus idea that Franklin found, at best, simplistic.
 
Petersen’s book is a kind of wishful history.  He wants to see Franklin and Whitefield together, often suggesting that they might have met here or there, or that they might have discussed this or that.  The fact is, we have little to go on beyond the reality that the two knew and respected one another.  Whitefield stayed in Franklin’s house in Philadelphia.  Franklin printed and sold Whitefield’s best-seller sermons.  Certainly there was a good business opportunity here.  Even today the evangelical Bible market is a strong one.  Savvy businessmen and women know that a good living may be had from the Good Book.  You can’t read a book like The Printer and the Preacher without thinking that Whitefield and Franklin were a kind of odd couple.  Franklin is remembered as a man of wit and science.  Whitefield is barely remembered at all.  One of the first preachers to hire a publicity manager, Whitefield was the Joel Osteen of his day, raking in the accolades for being emotional in front of salt-of-the-earth colonials.  His oratory skills were legendary.  Even though he is honored as one of the founders of the University of Pennsylvania, he was no scholar and has largely been relegated to an historical footnote.
 
Petersen’s book is a quick read.  His writing is winsome in an evangelical way.  He assumes the truth, or so it appears, of the evangelical position.  Nevertheless, there is material to stop and ponder here.  Many of the questions can never be answered: why, particularly, did Franklin and Whitefield hit it off, for example.  On a more approachable level is the why of Whitefield’s faded flower verses Franklin’s perennial bloom.  The message of Whitefield simply doesn’t stand up to the experience of history.  Human beings—many of them born again—experience constant turmoil in their lives.  Franklin, on the other hand, was the consumate pragmatist.  His aphorisms are regularly mistaken for verses of the Bible.  Although others would have gotten there, we largely have him to think for our harnessing of electricity, and even the birth of a new nation.  Whitefield’s spiritual descendants now rally to prevent stem cell research and the teaching of evolution.  Franklin’s children, illegitimate or not, reap the benefits of the lightning rod.

Don’t Know Much

Pennsylvania does not come immediately to mind when “big states” are mentioned. When you have to drive the breadth of the state, however, you start to get a sense of the beast. Despite its abundant natural beauty, Interstate 80 manages to keep it to a minimum, so driving home yesterday we listened to the first disc of Kenneth C. Davis’s A Nation Rising in audio-book format. Mostly known for his Don’t Know Much About — books, Davis is a popular historian with a sense of what makes the past interesting. I can’t speak for the entire book yet, but the unabridged reading of A Nation Rising certainly was an educational experience for the first hour or so I’ve heard. The book focuses on the initial fifty years of the nineteenth century (1801-1850) in the United States. Of particular interest to me is the religious angle. In the introduction Davis states that it will become clear how the concept of America as a Christian nation is a myth. Other than my usual objection to “myth” being equated with falsity, this premise does look very interesting.

Stepping back before the nineteenth century, Davis spends several minutes (which I assume translates to several pages) describing the ancestry of Aaron Burr, one of America’s bad-boy politicians of the period. Burr was a grandson of the reformed minister Jonathan Edwards and this circumstance leads Davis to recount a bit about the Great Awakening. The first major religious revival on American soil, the Great Awakening spread throughout the States in the 1730s and ‘40s, setting the reputation of the young nation as a bastion of Reformed Christianity. Although many denominations became involved in the show, the origin and orientation of the Great Awakening was Calvinistic. Reacting against enforced Catholicism in much of Europe, many colonials flocked to America to practice their stripped down, Bible-based, generally intolerant religion in the New World. Particularly interesting in Davis’s rendition is George Whitefield. Viewing the preacher from hindsight that includes a distorted religious view of American history, Davis notes that Whitefield was as much performer as preacher.

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Whitefield was an Anglican priest who helped set the mold for John Wesley’s success in bringing what would become the Methodist Church to America. “Whitefield pioneered the development of multiplatform marketing strategies,” using the media and staged events to draw attention to his evangelistic efforts, according to Davis. Whitefield knew that religion alone could not sway the masses. They had to be entertained. Davis notes that even the Tea Party has corollaries in early American history. What the mainstream has been slow—perhaps too slow—to realize is that entertainment works. In casting the die for American spirituality, preachers like Edwards and Whitefield knew the value of the gripping sermon vividly illustrated. The antics of many Tea Partiers reveal that they learned the lesson well. Showboating will garner more votes than substance any day. How else can we explain Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, and Arnold Schwarzenegger? This is America’s truest legacy: entertaining with religious faith will take you where intellectual depth just can’t go.

I will have to wait for another car trip to hear more of Davis’s interesting perspective on American history, but in the meantime I wonder how long it will take intelligent Americans to catch on. Don’t Know Much About History is a frighteningly prescient title for those who continue to ignore religion as a political force.