Group Activity

While reading about various religious phenomena—both positive and negative—one of the recurring aspects that forces itself on our attention is contagion. Going back at least to the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, the idea of crowd sourcing religious frenzy can be disturbing. It involves groups of people and loss of control. Not only is the frenzy itself frightening, but also the apparent paranormal accoutrements to such enthusiasm. In more specific terms, the revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” and the mass exorcisms described by Michael Cuneo in American Exorcism both boast supernatural elements. I’m not saying there can’t be a scientific explanation, but I am saying what happens in such circumstances has been understood to be supernatural by educated, experienced people. Both demoniacs and new religious converts display superhuman strength and atavistic behaviors that one doesn’t otherwise see in a lifetime. Once they start happening, they spread.

This is one of the draws of charismatic Christianity. Speaking in tongues can be quite contagious, I’m told. According to Cuneo’s carefully anonymized accounts, so can demonic possession with its attendant paranormal activity. Some scientists have explored the idea of consciousness as a “hive mind” phenomenon. Many “minds” brought together can produce something greater than the sum of the parts. We’re used to this in the world of insects, but since humans like to be radically individual we miss the instances where it occurs among our own species. While not always so, such events are often religious in nature. People gathered together in emotionally charged settings, personal experience draws off of that of others, and suddenly a person’s doing something they formerly believed to be “impossible.” God and demons both have explanatory value here.

Despite our tendency to want to destroy each other, humans have great potential when we work together. Our petty fears and jealousies could be contained, disassembled, and repurposed, if only we possessed the will to do so. The desire to stand out in a crowd—not to blend in but to be a unique individual—runs strong in our fractured psyches. We hate being mistaken for somebody else. Religious experiences, much maligned these days, tend to be group experiences. Yes, a mystic may have a personal and highly individualized rapture, but in the presence of others the excitement may be shared. “Mass hysteria” and group hypnosis have sometimes been posited as the culprits behind such events. Those who participate, however, use other terms to describe what has transpired. They may not call it a “hive mind,” and they won’t be alone in rejecting the phrase.

Church of Advent

It’s a common name. You might know one yourself: William Miller. Indeed, for many years of my own life I borrowed that surname from my stepfather before returning to my birthright after seminary. But the ordinariness of the name alone doesn’t explain it. Joseph Smith, a fellow creator of a new religion, also bore an innocuous name, and he was a Junior. While many people might have trouble placing William Miller among religious founders, they would likely know of Seventh-Day Adventism, a religion that sprang from the root of his teaching. During his lifetime the preferred title was Millerite, but Adventist also worked. David L. Rowe presents a sympathetic, but not hagiographic account of this somewhat remarkable life in God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World. For Miller, you see, predicted the year Jesus would return.

A self-taught farmer, Miller became convinced that the Bible indicated 1843 would be the end. This idea was based on calculations derived from cryptic books such as Daniel and considering their days to be years. A touch of math and before you know it, it’s all gonna burn. During the intense period known as the Second Great Awakening upstate New York was perhaps the most religiously creative place on the planet. New ideas bumped into each other and, as if the bounds of Christianity were too constraining, flew out into new forms of belief. People grew convinced that the world might indeed end in 1843. When it didn’t, they called it the Great Disappointment and carried on. Adventism is still with us today.

Rowe also makes the point that for being such an obscure individual, Miller influenced the great religious movements that would give us modern day Fundamentalism as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses. These groups trace their spiritual ancestry to the convictions of a not-so-simple farmer who could fill an auditorium with his plain speaking and clear exposition of the scriptures. He devised his end times scenario with the use of only a Bible and concordance. No seminary or advanced theological reading was necessary. Millerites did not reach the numbers of Latter-Day Saints. They were disowned by the Baptist Church that gave them birth. They got the date of the end of the world wrong. Yet they persisted. It is a curious story with a long afterlife that still helps elect extremist presidents to this day. William Miller, ever unassuming, managed to change the very world that he was certain would end even before the midpoint of the nineteenth century.

Need to Know

It’s particularly encouraging when the first book I finish in a year is an important one. I try my best to read books that won’t disappoint, but the thing about books is that you sometimes can’t tell until the end. In any case, I can highly recommend Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. It’s easy to acquire blinders, especially when you stick with a subject through childhood, three degrees, and a career of teaching and editing in that same field. You kind of think other people can see how important it is. Having grown up religious, I was well aware that other people didn’t share my family’s convictions, but it was pretty clear about the continuing uproar of prayer being deemed unconstitutional in public schools that many Americans were concerned about religion. Or so it seemed in my small town.

Prothero, a specialist in American religion, demonstrates in this book just how little we really know about religion—any religion. He traces this lack of knowledge to the Second Great Awakening and the conviction that belief required Christians not to study religion, but to feel it. This “ethic” of knowing little about what you believe, he suggests, became dominant and has reigned ever since. Clearly, watching the results of the presidential election, many people have no idea what Christianity has historically taught, or in official channels, continues to teach. They know that they feel it is right, but they can’t quite say what “it” is. Most Americans fare even worse when it comes to other religions. As a culture we remain very religious. It’s just that we don’t know what we say we believe. Belief has become politicized and it bears little resemblance to what its historic roots have been.

Critics will say that of course people like Prothero—he’s a religion professor after all—will say that we should know about his subject. The truth, however, goes much deeper than that. The world is a very religious place and we have effectively blocked our children’s way to learn about it. Religion motivates billions of lives, but most Americans know very little about it. Those of us who’ve spent our lives studying it are often condemned to stints of unemployment because what we know is deemed unimportant to Wall Street. Religious Literacy, although the statistics are a bit outdated after nearly a decade, remains more relevant than ever. The potential to learn about religion is widely available. The spirit may be willing, but the mind, it seems, is weak.

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

Burnt Over

I find myself in Syracuse. Skirting the very edge of the Burnt Over District, Syracuse is only a short distant from Oneida, birthplace of one of the uniquely American religions to have been conceived in this area. Moving further west, several of the religions following the “Second Great Awakening” roared through the state, including the one that was to become the Mormon Church. Looking out over the rugged hills, I wonder what might be in this land that inspires such religiosity. Americans are known world-wide for their religious predilections, and back before the South took the privilege of doling out religious mandates, upstate New York was busy churning out new religions. Of course, this was in the days before the extreme urbanization of culture took hold. Individuals, often isolated from others and struggling to survive in a sometimes harsh climate (they are calling for snow this weekend, still), they turned to God in new and innovative ways.

There must be a point at which religion reaches satiety. How many religions does one nation need? Thus, revivalists found a tired population here in the Burnt Over District. How much energy does it take to build a new faith from scratch? Some flared brightly and burned out (like the Oneida Community), while others flourished to the point of putting forth presidential candidates (I need not say which new religion has offered us a candidate too wealthy to countenance). Something in the soil, perhaps. Something in the mountain air.

Scholars opine that the Second Great Awakening occurred in part, at least, in reaction to the skepticism that was surging through intellectual circles at the time. America has always been good for a backlash or two. While many thinkers were praising the accomplishments of intellect, Smiths and Noyeses were at home brewing up that new-time religion for which Americans thirst. We are great consumers of religion. In the early 1800s revival after revival spread through New York, as well as through the southern states. The south reacted by boosting the Methodist and Baptist populations. New York gave us new religions. Americans aren’t that choosey. In a pinch, just about any religion will do. I stand here in Syracuse, the mid-April snow drifting down about me and wonder what is about to awake in this skeptical age.

Moses starts a new religion

Moses starts a new religion

Contextual Criticism

As I was reading Brian Pavlac’s Witch Hunts in the Western World, I learned about klikushi, or “shriekers.” These were Russian “witches” who appear as early as the seventeenth century and who are characterized by screaming, “wailing, barking, and writhing during worship services” (184). In that day this was taken to be a sign of witchcraft and women were arrested and tried for it. Fast forward a century or two. In the wilds of Kentucky what is generally called the Second Great Awakening was taking place. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit were, well, wailing, barking, and writhing, significantly, during worship services. These “signs” triggered the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, today one of the largest sects of Christianity. If the exact same behavior had taken place in a different context, the coverts would’ve been convicts.

It is safe to say that psychological explanations may be found for the bizarre activities of people living under a great deal of stress. No supernatural agency is required for glossolalia, spontaneous dancing, or canine vocalizations. If you look closely you’ll probably find any combination of the three in secular contexts during an average stroll through Manhattan. In a haunted country full of tales of the devil, they will be attributed to witchcraft. In a tent-meeting revival under the influence of an emphatic preacher, they will be called signs of the spirit.

Religions like to teach that they are universal, but in fact they are highly contextualized. What I used to tell my students about words applies also to acts—the meaning depends on the context. Whether somebody getting up off their ass is vulgar or merely a statement of fact depends on where the person is sitting. Religions are often rose-colored glasses, casting events in the shades we prefer to see. They are ways of interpreting the world around us and speculating on what, if anything, is outside our apparently closed system. There’s a lesson here to be learned by all. One person’s Monday may be another’s Thursday, but there’s no need for anyone to be crucified if they do it differently. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we only believed that?

It's all a matter of perspective.