Horse Senses

Chief was a smart horse.  The horse camp instructor told us that horses sometimes distended their midsections when a rider was strapping on the billet because they knew the strap would be tight.  The billet goes underneath the horse and is essentially what holds the saddle on.  The instructor told us to be firm about this—we weren’t going to hurt the horse by tightening the strap as much as possible.  Now, this was United Methodist Church camp, and I am someone who tries hard not to hurt anyone.  Besides, I’m not one of the larger specimens of the species and Chief was quite a large horse.  I can swear he had a knowing, laughing look in his eye that day as I pulled the billet tight.  Or so I thought.

As a camp counselor in the Western Pennsylvania Conference, you were assigned to a set of camps with no say in the matter, and I had been assigned four weeks of horse camp.  I wasn’t a kid who grew up wanting to ride or own a pony.  I was just doing my job.  Sitting atop a horse, I felt like some combination of John Wesley and Edgar Allan Poe heading for the house of Usher.  It was the first day of the first week of camp and my first time riding.  It was going fine until the instructor told us to canter, the speed between a trot and a gallop.  It was then that I felt the saddle starting to slip and I knew that Chief had used the old horse trick of distending his middle while I’d tightened the strap.  I felt the saddle begin to slip to the right (the wrong side for mounting or dismounting).  So I fell off a cantering horse.

Although the instructor yelled at me for not putting the reins over the pommel before I hit the ground, what stayed with me was how smart that horse was.  Chief, knowing the disparity of our relative sizes and weights, once stepped on my foot.  He was an intimidating horse with an attitude.  After the end of four weeks I’d gone on to the point where we spent an overnight in tents with our horses curried and tethered outside for the night.  What those days taught me was just how intelligent animals are.  I was reassigned from Chief to a more gentle horse for the remaining three weeks when the instructor realized she was stuck with me for a while.  But the horses, they knew me even better.

United, We Divide

I was a teenage Methodist.  Or, I should say, a teenage United Methodist.  My family had moved to a town where there were no Fundamentalist churches.  Indeed, the only Protestant church was the UMC.  Although very aware of religion, I hadn’t studied it deeply at that point—I’ve come to understand a bit better the marketplace of Christianties and how it works in a capitalist society.  The thing is, the more I learned about John Wesley and the Methodist movement, the more I saw how well it aligned with my own thinking and experience.  I became an Episcopalian largely because John Wesley never left that tradition and urged his followers in the same direction.  Of course, the “United” in United Methodism was due to mergers during the ecumenical period when Christians were learning to overlook differences and a strong base remained from which to draw.

The news has come out that the United Methodist Church has decided to split over the issue of homosexuality.  Most major Protestant denominations have made their peace, albeit uneasily, with the issue.  They recognized that while a source of guidance in spiritual matters the Bible’s a little outdated on its scientific understanding.  If God had revealed evolution to good old Moses things might’ve been a bit different.  We now know that homosexuality isn’t a “choice”—it is found in nature, and not rarely.  Homo sapiens (if I’m allowed to use that phrase) have developed in such a way that sexuality is a main preoccupation of religions.  Some animal species are monogamous and in our case many cultures adopted this as conducive to an ordered society.  Then it became codified in some sacred writings.

While homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, every book of that Bible has a context.  Like it or not, close, serious study of Scripture raises questions you just don’t get if you read only authors who think the same way you do.  It is far easier to do that—who doesn’t like being right?—but thinking seldom gains credibility by never being challenged.  Iron sharpens iron, someone once said.  The emotion behind the issue, I suspect, is driven by a couple of things: fear of that which is different, and the inability to see the Bible as anything but “da rules.”  In those cases where the rules contradict one another you just have to choose.  At least in Christianity.  In Judaism they ended up with the Talmud.  In any case, we’re now seeing the fracturing of society based on party lines.  We could always use a few more choices, I guess, for competition is what spiritual capitalism is all about.

The Dots

Connections have always fascinated me.  Maybe it’s because life is a random stream of stuff constantly thrown at you that makes a mockery of any plans you might try to implement.  Me at Nashotah House?  Really?  Nevertheless, these events shape us and everything that happens thereafter is seen in light of them.  So when connections occur amid this continual flux, I sit up and take notice.  For example, I had never thought of moving to eastern Pennsylvania.  Now, around Christmastime, I find myself not far from Bethlehem.  Bethlehem was so named because it was founded on Christmas Eve by Moravians who’d settled in the area.  Although not counted among the most numerous of Protestants today, Moravians had a profound effect on the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.  In fact, he met Count Zinzendorf, whose name appears on this handsome plaque in historic downtown Bethlehem, at a pivotal moment in his own spiritual journey.

Having grown up Fundamentalist, the United Methodist Church would not have been our choice, although we had unwittingly attended one of the Methodist offshoots—the Church of the Nazarene—from time to time.  In one of those unplanned things, we found ourselves in Rouseville, Pennsylvania, where the only Protestant church was United Methodist.  Once ensconced in the UMC it was my plan to become a minister in that tradition.  That led me to Boston University School of Theology where I first learned about the Wesley-Zinzendorf connection.  It was also there that I met my wife.  And subsequently joined the Episcopal Church.  Why?  John Wesley had been adamant that his followers not drop out of the church in which he was an ordained priest.  I was only following instructions.

Had that not happened I would never have had my first, and so far only, full-time academic job.  Nashotah House was conservative, and I was not.  We nevertheless had a connection.  Growing up I’d barely heard of Wisconsin, let alone planned to live there.  When Nashotah no longer required my services my career had to change as well.  None of this was in the plan.  Who plans to move to New Jersey?  And now everyone thinks of me as an editor, a fallback position if there ever was one.  Since I work in New York City, moving back to my native Pennsylvania wasn’t really on the agenda.  An outside agent led to that.  So I find myself near Bethlehem in the Christmas season, staring at Count Zinzendorf’s name, which I first heard of in a seminary now far away.  Connections, even with those long gone, are always worth noting.

Belly Fires

A friend recently sent me a story from about how Evangelicalism arose partially in reaction to protests against the Vietnam War. Not that they were protesting it, but rather other mainline Protestants protesting drove evangelicals further to the right. Having grown up evangelical, I think I understand their strange reasoning fairly well. It was illustrated, for example, in a meeting of the Nashotah House board of trustees. Now, confidentiality rules—which I support—prevent me from providing details, but as you can imagine board meetings involved differences of opinion. I was a faculty representative (voice, but no vote), and I had a point to make. Being Episcopalian I politely and calmly raised my hand. At the same table one of the student representatives (voice, but no vote) was waving his arm like he had to find the nearest restroom, and quick. The chair called on him, ignoring my learned gesture. “He has a fire in the belly,” the chair said, “let’s listen to him.”

A fire in the belly. Not exactly an empirical—or even rational—reason to select one comment above another in my opinion. It was outward and dramatic gesticulation that caught the chair’s attention. Cooler considerations could be easily ignored. Nashotah House wasn’t exactly Evangelical. It was conservative, to be sure. What this episode taught me, however, is that society responds to those with bellies strangely warmed. Mainstream Protestants, for the most part, want comfortable faith experiences. Reason, after all, suggests decorum. Over 90 percent of the many, many mainline sermons I’ve witnessed have been staid and calm. Back in John Wesley’s day enthusiasm was an actionable offense in ecclesiastical eyes. Was the fire in the heart, or in the belly?

A little to the right…
L0006082 Self Portrait of Albrecht Durer
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Self Portrait of Albrecht Durer.
Finger pointing to left side of torso.
By: Albrecht DurerPublished: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

So, what does this have to do with the Smithsonian story? Evangelicalism is driven not by the head but by the midriff. John Wesley’s conversion account was famous for his statement that his heart was “strangely warmed.” An inveterate doubter of his own salvation, Wesley needed to be certain. His thermo-cardiac episode helped to comfort him in the face of the lapping waves of the lake of fire at his feet. Having been evangelical once upon a time, I think I understand this constant Wesleyan concern. The fear of Hell is never easily overcome. The Greek word for strong emotion can be translated “to feel it in the bowels.” Examined more rationally, we know what moving bowels lead to. We see it every day as Evangelicals drive all three branches of government. The fire in the belly wins over cooler heads every time.

Tongues of Fire

“Do you want to see?” she asked me, fraught with all the emotions of a teen far from home. I’ve often questioned the wisdom of church groups sending large numbers of high school students to retreats or conferences where shear ratios of chaperones to teens guarantees intrigue. She was an attractive girl, and despite my commitments to asexuality early in life, I found her plea compelling. We weren’t supposed to meet after hours without the adults around. I was insanely curious, however. “A few of us will be gathering behind the gym,” she said. I demurred, afraid to break the rules. “Do you want to see now?” she insistently asked. We were in a room largely empty, as the adults were headed toward the food, the way adults always seem to do. I agreed. Nervously she closed her eyes in prayer. When she opened them, they were glassy and far away. A stream of nonsense words effortlessly bubbled from her mouth. This went on for what seemed like minutes, although I knew it was only seconds stolen from a scheduled curriculum. She closed her eyes, and coming back to herself, looked exhausted. “What did you say?” I asked, breathless. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

This was my first experience of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. I was at the United Methodist Youth Annual Conference, and I’d just met the girl who’d revealed so much. Methodists, as a rule, aren’t much into glossolalia, but the Pentecostal movement has Methodist roots, and teens are the great experimenters of the human race. I can’t recall how I met her, or even her name. I felt an incredible attraction to a girl who could let herself be so possessed, however; so vulnerable to an Almighty deity. I decided not to go to the after dark gathering. Instead I sought out a minister I trusted. He explained that such signs, if truly divine, are only done in the presence of an interpreter. She was misguided. Yet I couldn’t get those glassy eyes out of my mind. Where had she been in those fleeting seconds when her mouth spoke a language she didn’t know?

While reading David Kling’s The Bible in History’s chapter on Pentecostalism, this all came back to me with incredible force. A few years later I attended a Pentecostal service with one of my college roommates who belonged to that tradition. Being in a room full of true believers speaking in tongues at the same time unnerved me. I never went back. Psychologists and neurologists have explanations for how glossolalia occurs. The standard evangelical explanation is quite different. For one young lady whose name I can’t recall, it was a sign she wanted desperately to share. A personal assurance that John Wesley himself encouraged his followers to seek. Not that Wesley ever suggested speaking in tongues. That only began in 1901, after a hiatus of nearly two millennia. To a teenage spiritual seeker in the presence of a young lady, away from home, it was a mystical experience indeed. The assurance, however, would have to wait.

Image credit: Phiddipus

Image credit: Phiddipus

Imagine Images

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Thus spake the Lord one day long ago. So the Bible says. The problem is that humans are visually oriented. We teach our young to read by enticing them with books with pretty pictures—images that captivate. We make things that are pleasant to see, some of them are even graven. I used to ask my students what the difference was between a god and an idol. The answer is, of course, perception. “Idol” is a word that implies falsehood. The item represented is somehow divine, but is not actually divine. There are ways around the rules, of course.


I spent many years in the United Methodist Church. Many people I knew claimed that the local Catholics were idol worshippers, and when I entered a Catholic church for the first time I was struck by the graven images that seemed to stand in blatant contradiction to the second commandment. How could this not be a direct violation of divine orders? After all, this wasn’t some minor infraction—it was one of the very commandments! Back in my Methodist context, I began to wonder, however. We had crosses, some of them in the round, right up there on the altar. True, there was no corpus on our crucifix, but that seemed to be a handy bit of casuistry. Human beings naturally convert images to idols. We all knew, Protestants though we were, that you should never take a sacred object out to the streets and treat it profanely. An image in a sacred venue could be an idol.

Over the years it seems that the strictures of the ten commandments might have been relaxed just a little. Collectively as a culture, the real has become more and more virtual. We buy our movies, music and books in electronic format. We play our games on computers. In such a context a physical image may seem somehow less real. Our idols have been digitized. It doesn’t seem like the Bible was looking that far ahead when attempting to create an exhaustive list of what might anger the divine. After all, electricity wouldn’t be discovered for millennia. Reality was dry, dusty, and deadly. The prohibition was against physical images. It is no longer an issue for many in the Judeo-Christian tradition that a statue or an icon might be a sign of piety rather than profanity. Things seem to have come full circle when I find a statue of John Wesley, nearly of bobble-head proportions, looking at me with eyes seeking prevenient grace. I guess the powers that be might just be willing to overlook even Methodists gone native.


Almost Heaven

OneidaUtopia. Sounds like a good idea—what’s not to like? There have been a number of attempts to form utopias in this sad, violent, and secular world, and although none have succeeded, it is difficult not to admire their spirit. The Oneida Community has long been a source of personal fascination. In that region of New York where spirituality was so urgent that many people crowded to the purveyors of new salvation, the Perfectionist sect of John Humphrey Noyes eventually settled down. Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation, by Maren Lockwood Carden, was written in the late 1960s as a sociological study of the followers of Noyes. Although the data are dated, it is a respectful, careful study of an unconventional group of utopians who managed to keep a dream of sorts alive for three decades in the latter half of the nineteenth century. If we known anything of the Victorian Era, it is that sexuality was handled with extreme delicacy and reticence. Most people would not have survived half an hour of Fox’s standard evening programming. Beneath social convention, however, they were as hot blooded as people have always been.

John Humphrey Noyes was a troubled soul. Like many institutors of religions, he was a seeker who knew what felt right but never believed he could find it. He studied theology at Yale Divinity School, and he had been profoundly moved by the Perfectionist movement. Perfectionism traces its roots to John Wesley and his perpetual need for assurance of salvation. Indeed, Noyes appears to have picked up the ideals of Perfectionism from Wesleyan theologians of the day. Noyes, however, believed that perfection on earth meant sharing everything. Well, nearly everything. Having been chased from a location or two for his radical ideas, Noyes and his followers eventually settled in Oneida, where they could practice “complex marriage” in peace. While few people remember the other doctrines of the Oneida Community, complex marriage is one from which even sociologists can’t keep their eyes. All adult members of the community were expected to love each other fully. While avoiding incestuous unions, all adults were married to all others. By practicing male continence, they kept the birth rate down, and, to the surprise of many visitors, seemed the most civil and sophisticated people around.

The Oneida Community, however, outlasted John Humphrey Noyes only by becoming a corporation. As most couples registering for their weddings even now know, Oneida tableware is considered of very high quality. The company, at least until the 1960s when Carden’s book was published, was under the leadership of one of Noyes’ descendants. Carden’s book delves into the running of the corporation as much as into complex marriage, and points out the very real impact the Oneida Community has had on America. I also think of it as a paradigm. It began as a Perfectionist utopia, a religion of (free) love and concern for all others, and ended up as a business corporation. Any number of other churches might fit into that same pattern—they begin as idealistic enterprises and end up as businesses. Perhaps this is the truly fallen state of humanity. We start out spiritual, but end up sadly entrepreneurial.

Parochial Education

I’m sitting in King David’s Restaurant in Syracuse, New York. I’ve spent two days speaking with a wide diversity of religion scholars, and I’m realizing religion is not yet dead. A few days ago I wrote about the Burnt Over District and the Second Great Awakening. It occurs to me as I climbed the hill to the Religion Department in the rain, that I am on the trail of that Great Awakening. Syracuse University began as a Methodist school. Today, although affiliated with the United Methodist Church, it considers itself non-sectarian. Yet without those abstemious Methodists, they wouldn’t be here. The Methodists, now primarily represented by the United Methodist Church, owe their explosive growth to the Second Great Awakening. Out on the frontiers—for America was a rural nation—the revivals became showcases of the social, the supernatural, and the salacious. The Methodists and Baptists, in terms of numbers, benefited immensely.

With their enviable population base, the Methodists invested in higher education. Syracuse University, just up the hill, Adrian College, Boston, Central Methodist, Drew, Duke, Emory Universities, Florida Southern College—you could go nearly through the alphabet and not exhaust their schools—all owe their beginnings or present stature in part to those thrifty Methodists. Believers in an educated clergy, they reached out to embrace an educated laity as well. Although many of these institutions grew up and left their religion behind, the Methodists have impressed their stamp on American higher education unlike nearly any other denomination. Even when numbers in the pews decline, the Methodists will have left a legacy on the wider culture through their belief in education. About the only other Christian group invested so heavily in higher education has been the Catholic Church. Even so, the Methodist academic reputation climbs a bit higher.

I spent many happy years among the Methodists. Their way of looking at life, officially, anyway, isn’t extremist. Some aver that John Wesley was an extreme evangelist. Today he’d be snowboarding down the Alps to seek the unsaved, a Red Bull or two in his belly to stoke that restless fire. His followers, via media Methodists, eased into the mainstream—in some ways defined the mainstream. Methodism was good for a kid who needed to fit in. So as I sit in King David’s Restaurant, reflecting over my past that has landed me in this most unusual place, I am thinking about my Methodist roots. I’ve failed to impress those Methodist institutions where I was once courted for a circuit riding future. Now I watch as they educate other people’s kids. It is a safe guess that King David wouldn’t even be here if it hadn’t been for John Wesley and his personal need for assurance. If only more churches took education so seriously.

Climb that hill

Climb that hill

Help from the Friend

Being unconventional does carry certain risks. I first learned of the Publick Universal Friend, born Jemima Wilkinson, from Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America. There are many things, I imagine, worse in life than being labeled “occult,” but the Publick Universal Friend seems to have been more eccentric than occult. The “Friend” of her chosen moniker was a mark of her Quaker roots. The Quakers, while never among the most numerous of Christian sects, are infrequently considered occult. Two U.S. Presidents were Quakers, as is that friendly face smiling at you from your breakfast cereal box. What Jemima Wilkinson did that pushed her over the edge into the unconventional was actually the fault of her father: she was born female. In the 1770s religious leadership was nearly unanimously male. 

Wilkinson underwent a near-death experience that, like John Wesley some 70 years earlier, led her to believe that she was born to some higher purpose. Quakers, or Friends, generally eschewed excess showiness and the Publick Univeral Friend liked to make her presence known. She rode a white horse into Philadelphia and rode around in a carriage with her own logo, a kind of evangelical branding, if you will. Eventually tiring of the criticism of city folk (Publick Universal Friend was strictly platonic, advocating absolute celibacy), she moved to a region of New York that would eventually become the birthplace of several distinctive American religions. She settled near Keuka Lake and formed a community called Jerusalem.  New York and Pennsylvania would eventually harbor many utopian groups.  Both states were (and are, to a large extent) rural and it was a fairly easy matter to locate unclaimed real estate and establish a little bit of heaven here on earth. 

The message of Publick Universal Friend was peace and friendship, nothing too radical.  If preached by a male it would have been considered gospel. In fact, in a less darwinian world it might actually work.  The pull of nature on some people is too strong.  On others it is too weak. Maybe it is the legacy of having been born in a state that began as a “holy experiment” by William Penn, but I find it sad that the Publick Universal Friend has been nearly forgotten. Perhaps the Friend will have the final laugh. It seems that a young man named Joseph Smith might have been influenced by her in the days before writing up the Book of Mormon. As I’m sure Joseph Smith learned in the town of Carthage, we can all use a Friend who encourages us all to get along.