Washed Out or Burnt Over?

AwashInASeaOfFaithIs America a Christian nation? The answer to that question will no doubt raise ire in some part of the room. People, speaking mostly without data, will assert yes or no, generally based on opinion and sensibility. It is refreshing, then, to read what an historian uncovers by asking the right questions. Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People is a book that asks the right questions. On the surface, yes, colonial America was settled by disgruntled Christians from various religious conflicts in Europe. Actions, however, are notoriously louder than words. Butler examines church attendance patterns and affiliations among these early (and later) settlers and finds that they weren’t nearly so Christian as one might think, listening to the rhetoric. Indeed, for people struggling to survive in a new land, religion might well have been the last thing on their minds most of the time. Throughout the book surprising changes of perspective appear. When clear thinking is railroaded by political agendas the issues often become clouded.

A good example of this is Butler’s exploration of the survival of magic and occult traditions. It is not unusual to hear, anecdotally, that the Enlightenment did away with superstitious thinking. In fact, the data point elsewhere. Not only did Americans bring magic and occult practices with them from overseas, they actually continued to develop them in the New World. At times these beliefs substituted for congregational religion. At others, they subsisted alongside it. There was a “sea of faith” here, but it wasn’t always very orthodox. It wasn’t until fairly late in the history of the country that church attendance could be considered the norm. At the same time, many read back into history that “we’ve always been like this.” Not so.

The “myth of the American Christian past” was born out of wishful, and one suspects, political thinking. The country’s founding by Deists led to a fear of Deism—a fairly new phenomenon that descended from that self-same Enlightenment. Still, America could give birth to Spiritualism and a host of new religions. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of the United States as fertile soil for religions rather than a Christian country. Certainly, by the numbers, Christians have been in the majority since statistics were kept, but, if the anachronism may be pardoned, the “nones” are not a new phenomenon. They were previously just those to be converted. Through much of history, we’ve been a people who didn’t think too much or too deeply about religion. Only when the issue really became politicized did the past become distorted. We have Dr. Butler to thank for providing a clear view into what history actually reveals.

Preachers and Pirates

One of the more colorful characters, albeit briefly mentioned, in Jon Butler’s New World Faiths, is Rev. Henry Loveall. While not a major historical figure in any sense of the word, and as a man who is known without the benefit of his own account of himself, the little we know of him intrigues. According to Butler, Loveall was dismissed as pastor from the Baptist church in Piscataway, New Jersey (a town in which I once worked) on charges of bigamy, prompting the Philadelphia Baptist Association to note he’d chosen an appropriate name for himself. Genealogical records online indicate that his given name was Desolate Baker and that he was born in Cambridge, England. As a youth he found himself in trouble for immorality with a woman at his church and he moved to America. Records are sketchy, but he apparently moved from Rhode Island to New Jersey to Maryland to Virginia. He had married but had gone to Virginia with another man’s wife. Even the usually forgiving genealogical records indicate some suspicion of his character.

Loveall lived in the eighteenth century when the world was still large enough to hide in. While I’m not the one to be impressed with Disney’s attempts at profundity in the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies, there is one parsimonious line from At World’s End where Barbossa and Sparrow are discussing the incursion of business interests (in a delightful irony for a Disney film) into the free-spirited world of piracy. Barbossa avers that the world is smaller, but Jack Sparrow retorts that it’s not a smaller world after all, but “there’s just less in it.” Our world has been rapidly reduced to the pixels we can see on the screen in front of us. Bloggers are acclaimed as experts while those who’ve gazed across the war-torn promised land from atop the Mount of Olives with its frenetic network of churches start to doubt what their own eyes have revealed to them. We are content to let the Lovealls and Sparrows live it for us.

Our names are seldom a matter of choice. Like being born, they are factors in the midst of which we find ourselves—someone else supposed that we might turn out like this. The names we would select for ourselves show the size of our inner worlds. To love all is a noble sentiment. A sparrow is nervous, flighty, and has but a small brain. Our inner worlds are partially constructed by our religions. Declaring on divine authority what we must and mustn’t do, we find ourselves born into religions like we’re born into names. Few question the faith tradition fed to them by parents with such certainty, and that religion, just as surely as our name, becomes an integral part of our identity. History tell us little of Henry Loveall, a man who changed his name, and a clergyman who lived religion on his own terms.


Nouveau Riche

Among the vibrant areas of interest for scholars of religion is the emergence of new religions. Unlike the religions of antiquity, New Religious Movements provide a direct view, occasionally in “real time,” of what constitutes religious belief. The possibility of sitting Jesus, or even Paul, down for an interview remains vastly remote. The same is true of Ellen White or Joseph Smith, but here we have many historical records upon which to draw and a clearer context against which such religions might be read. Supposing the religious urge is something people of antiquity felt, we can get a sense of what might have satisfied that itch, at least in an oblique way, by looking at the modern period. As a student of religion I was mired in the ancient period. Learning obscure, dead languages, I supposed, would lead me back to the earliest forms of religious belief, therefore the most authentic. Like many of my colleagues, I came to discover that the origins quickly disappear into the distorted view our poorly ground telescope into the past reveals. As one writer recently suggested, if humanity evolved in Africa, so did religion.

This past week I read Jon Butler’s New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America. Growing up I always felt that our own history was too young to be interesting. As I learned more about the horrid treatment of Native Americans, my sense of newness was accompanied by a sense of collective guilt. I like to think I wouldn’t displace a population in hopes of getting wealth, but as Butler demonstrates, the colonial experiment from the beginning was a profoundly religious one. We all know the pilgrims were dissenters from the established Church of England. Butler takes time to pause and consider the unwritten religions of those subjugated to European rule and sometimes extermination. How many of the first to brave the Atlantic crossing did so with missionary zeal, convinced of the superiority of a Christian culture. Not incidentally, they noticed great wealth could be had in this new land. Slaves would be needed to extract it and the Bible seems a slave-friendly document.

Butler’s little book is a good guide to the larger issues. The religion of African slaves grew into something to be feared. Colonial religion split along hairline fractures of doctrine, leading to the fascinating multiplicity of religions we now have in this country. Then, in his discussion of the early Presbyterians of Philadelphia, I ran across a sentence with immense explanatory value: “At the same time, congregations found that they could exercise their own power over clergyman through controlling their ministers’ salaries.” Conviction quickly falls by the wayside with a God whose arm is too short to save. The paycheck is something you can take to the bank. Religions develop into something different once gold enters the equation. I have watched the birth of empires with megachurches and televangelists in my own lifetime. I know that we are witnessing the birth of yet another human scheme to acquire eternity in the form of liquid assets.