Brief History of Christianity in America
by Lewis Loflin
Many of those who call themselves Christian claim to believe in a "LITERAL" interpretation of the Bible. Yet, according to Chattanooga-based American Rights Coalition whose cardboard copy of the Ten Commandments decorate numerous lawns in Sullivan County, less than 1 percent of adults and teen-agers in CONSERVATIVE BIBLE-BELIEVING CHURCHES COULD NAME THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. What is even more troubling, other surveys show less than 10% of evangelicals have read the Bible at all. How can someone that has never read the Bible claim to a be "BIBLICAL LITERALIST?"
Today something is terribly wrong in much of the Christian Community. The poor are held in contempt; rivers of hate and venom flow from the pulpit while reactionary politics have taken the place of Scripture. Whole volumes are devoted to attacking science (biology, physics, and geology) while the mention of Jesus is rarely heard above the racket.
Heresy, right-wing paranoia, and New Age religion have replaced Christian tradition while churches and clergy who should know better sit in silence and apathy. We must separate what is traditional Christianity away from the occult.
Most people may not know it, but the Protestant version of the Christian religion is split over more things than just how to read the Bible. They can be split into two broad groups:
(1) The death of Jesus on the Cross-is a symbol of love by God who was willing to sacrifice His Son to show that love. His sacrifice was a symbol of love and forgiveness, and those were also the words of Jesus and what he stood for. These folks may/may not agree on issues such as abortion or homosexuality but are more "LIBERAL" (I don't mean socialist) on many issues. Many of the best parts of our society, including civil rights, came from this Christian tradition. These folks usually have a positive outlook on life.
(2) Humans are by nature evil, wicked, born into sin and must be controlled at all times. They see God as an angry judge, ready to hand down swift punishment for the smallest infraction of His/their Laws. The Flood in Genesis or Sodom and Gomorra best symbolizes this. Some of these folks may go as far as advocate the death penalty for abortion and homosexuality. Their version of God is utterly devoid of reason, love, or compassion in many cases.
They simply follow "FAITH ONLY" and ignore anything Jesus said. They prefer the Apostle Paul (Romans), Revelations, and the most violent sections of the Old Testament. There are often elements of racism, social, and religious intolerance. Most view life as a struggle and have a negative outlook on the world as it exist and eagerly await the "Return" so God will deal with those that reject their self-appointed authority. They see themselves as the Chosen People put on earth to rule all others.
Christian Origins in America
American Christianity seems to flow like the tides in a cycle of highs and lows with change in between the waves. The main original churches in America were parish churches from England such as the Congregational and Episcopalian churches. By the mid 1700s prior to the American Revolution, the first great struggle in Protestantism occurred.
At issue was the angry god of Calvinism that handed out salvation on a whim outside of any human action, versus a more personal god that rewarded those that followed the Bible. In other words, a god one could deal with and to reflect a more positive outlook in life. The Episcopalian and Congregational Churches lost to the Baptists and Methodists.
This was a theological debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. The more "liberal" wings of Protestantism would assert themselves via Unitarianism and Deism. Rational religion would dominate many intellectuals and the well educated. This appealed little to the common man.
The 2nd Awakening started between 1820 and 1835. This was the Protestantism of "born again" where the believer could "feel" God through experience and the believer had little interest in theological hair-splitting or spiritless rationalism. This was God of the American frontier that exploded the ranks of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians and the era of tent revivals and the circuit rider. By the mid 19th century waves of Irish and German Catholics would add further debate to just what American Christianity was. This era also opened the door to new forms of Christianity native to America.
See Comments on the Great Awakenings
What is traditional Christianity? Christians themselves argue all the time over this and all claim the be the "RIGHT WAY." The only correct definition for Christians are Apostle's Creed (there's claims of fraud with this)and the Nicene Creed that also includes Catholics. The following was voted on by mainline Protestant churches (fundamentalist in the traditional Christian sense, but have little or no relation to fundamentalism today) around 1920 sums it their view:
- 1. The literal inerrancy of the Scriptures
- 2. The second coming of Jesus Christ
- 3. The virgin birth (not the Immaculate Conception)
- 4. The physical resurrection of the body
- 5. The substitutionary atonement
- 6. The total depravity of man - original sin
"The literal inerrancy of the Scriptures" does not mean literal "word for word" but that the Bible must be taken as a whole and thus one can't "pick and choose" what they like and ignore the rest. To claim otherwise is asinine. Try reading the four resurrection stories (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) all very greatly in detail but all support the bodily resurrection of Christ.
Much of the Bible is allegory and Jesus often preached in parables. Another important point is the Bible was never meant as a history book as we know it today, but to convey the "good news" of Jesus. The Bible is certainly no science book.
It should be noted that Christians don't take a literal view of the Old Testament. The New Testament writers took an allegorical view then claimed "guidence of the Holy Spirit" as proof they are correct. Let's take a look at the Old Testament:
King James Bible Deu. 6:4-5, Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. Mark 12:29-30, And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.
New American (Catholic) Bible: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM NAB, Deut. 6:4-5, "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Mark 12:28, Jesus replied, "The first is this: 'Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! (NAB)
Eastern Orthodox Deut. 6:4-5, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (ESV) But has a footnote:  6:4 Or The Lord our God is one Lord; or The Lord is our God, the Lord is one; or The Lord is our God, the Lord alone On Mark 12:29, Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (ESV)
JPS (Jewish) 1917 Edition: Deut. 6:4-5, Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
This is just one example of theological controversy within Christianity.
No new prophets, no new revelations, and no new holy books
In the book The Agony of Deceit, What Some TV Preachers Are Really Teaching (Moody Press, 1990), Michael Horton points out several important issues related to this. This book is concerned mainly with heresy, that is "severe error." (P 33) The favorite catch-phrase of some Protestants is "private interpretation."
While this is at the heart of Protestant churches, this doesn't mean anything that someone can construct from Scripture is correct nor can two conflicting positions both be right. "This is not the historic doctrine of private interpretation."
"The Scriptures do not conflict." (P 34)
The Protestant Reformation was not a revolt against orthodoxy. All Christians (Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox) accept the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the atonement, etc. (P 37) Arguments over popes, women in the clergy, conservative vs. liberal, ceremony, etc are a matter of politics, not Jesus or His meaning which are not in dispute.
The early heresy of Gnosticism claims that man's relation with God can be "mystical, direct, and immediate." It's the claim that God reveals private insights/prophecy that is no less divine than Scripture itself. (P 38) Whether it's Pat Robertson claiming on the 700 Club "God" told him a tidal wave will hit Florida because of some "Gay Day" celebration or Oral Roberts claiming "God" told him He would "call me home" if he didn't get $6 million (he got it) is all the same heresy. (I call this self-revelation.)
Note: Gnostic Christianity was perhaps the earliest form of Christianity. Gnosticism was declared wrong at Nicaea in 325 CE (by vote under the authority of the Roman Emperor Constantine) and its followers murdered. (Only the official church can say what is/isn't from God.) Oddly both the Book of John and Book of Revelation are Gnostic. Gnosticism also influenced the Apostle Paul. It would be wise to understand this faith to understand the underpinnings of Christianity.
This mess is further compounded by America's appalling education system. America ranks near the bottom of the industrialized world in hard science, geography, and even its own history. World history, forget it. The fight over religion in schools has led to the banning of both hard science and stripping religion from its proper place in history and culture. Today most people can't separate science from pseudo-science, Christianity from the occult, or history from myth.
New Age Religion/multiculturalism and Christian fundamentalism are drowning reason and rational thought in a sea of mediocrity and confusion. Let's look into how some of this started.
Christians in early America
The Enlightenment would make strong inroads into the Protestant faith. Many leaders such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine would become Deists. Rational religion would sweep away Calvinist orthodoxy with it's raving, angry God and notions of human depravity. It would be replaced by reason and a concept of a forgiving, loving God over plain "Scriptural literalism."
The religious composition of Jefferson's America is nothing like today. The two largest churches of the time were the Episcopal (Anglican) and Congregational (United Church of Christ today) along with Reformed, Methodists, Presbyterian, Lutherans, (today known as mainline churches), Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, and a small Jewish community.
Other important movements of the day was Unitarianism, which has no relation to the Humanist Unitarian Universalists of today. The concept of individual freedom in thought and faith would become the basis of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. John Adams, our second president, was a Unitarian and no document shows the attitude of our founders more than the Treaty of Tripoli. Many of America's greatest leaders such as George Washington, wereFreemasons.
Baptists, Quakers, and Catholics were all suffering persecution at the hands of fellow Christians in Virginia and New England and wanted an assurance of religious freedom for all, they got it. The Bill of Rights would separate church and state and shall "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a "wall of separation" between church and state as Jefferson stated in his Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. (Pat Robertson claims "wall of separation" is a communist hoax, so Jefferson must be a commie. Heck, another new revelation!)
Also see our Thomas Jefferson's Letters on Liberty and Religion
More important to note is what is not here: no Mormons, no Jehovah's Witnesses, no Adventist churches, no Pentecostals, no Holiness, and no Christian Science, and scores of other home-grown churches and cults. The Baptist Church was small, not the largest Protestant denomination like today.
These churches tend to shun education and scholarship and are proud to do so. After all, they claim the Bible is all they need. The reality is the local preacher, often totally untrained in theology and semi-literate, ends up being the authority. In fact, many end up as prophets themselves claiming a direct line to God and special revelation for the entire world to hear.
Their leaders would include Joseph Smith and his Mormonism, William Miller and the Adventists, and John Nelson Darby. His fantasy/heresy of dispensationalism and "pre-Tribulation Rapture" would heavily infect Pentecostals like Pat Robertson and Baptists like Jerry Falwell.
They would also greatly influence other churches, especially the Baptists. Yet these particular churches and their members make up the bulk of what is known as the Christian Right. They are the fundamentalists that are convinced they are persecuted, Satan is running the world and the UN will land in their backyards to take away their Bibles and guns and kids.
This fusion of political and religious fantasy would give rise to movements like Christian Reconstructionism and Christian Identity, that are a growing influence in evangelical circles. The militia movement would evolve from this. Note: the latter two are not Christian, but modern perversions.
Jerry Falwell and others spout off one failed doomsday prophecy after another. They attack mainstream churches and even each other. Their mixing of the occult and Christianity forms a witch's brew of Christian Confusion and End-Times Nonsense. They are the fundamentalists of today and they are not Biblical anything. Also see American Fundamentalism
These cult-like churches are also very authoritarian, try to isolate their members from the rest of society, regulate even the most petty details of their followers lives, and are utterly intolerant of new ideas or dissent. Add this with an attitude of "us versus them," paranoia, and total rejection of reason is why Christian fundamentalists are cults. From their ranks we get the Branch Davidians and the Jim Jones Temple.
While this group also includes many TV preachers, it clearly excludes ministers like Billy Graham. This also excludes Christians that are simply social conservatives but reject this self-revelation/heresy nonsense. It would also be unfair to say every Pentecostal is like Pat Robertson or every Baptist is like Jerry Falwell, but their blind trust makes them vulnerable to abuse and manipulation.
Christianity in 2004
The re-election of President Bush is hailed as a victory for Evangelicals hoping to use the force of law to impose what they fail to achieve by preaching. But is it really a victory or more change?
In the 1990s Evangelicals lamented the eight years of President Clinton as the end of freedom and God in America. Many claimed the great "Liberal" conspiracy planned to enact marshal law for Y2K. It didn't happen.
In 2004 Liberals could no longer claim "stolen election" as they did in 2000. President Bush won a clear victory but it wasn't due to just Evangelical Protestants. Bush won 56% of the Catholic vote over a Catholic candidate John Kerry. He also won between 45 and 50% of the Hispanic (mainly Catholic) vote and most of the Mormon vote as well. These groups aren't considered Christians at all by the Falwells and Robertsons of the Religious Right.
Was the Bush victory due to just divisive issues like homosexual marriage that most Americans in general oppose, or problems within the Democratic Party and Liberalism? Now Liberals are whining about the same types of conspiracy theories that Evangelicals whined about with Clinton.
Or just perhaps the Religious Right is really an overblown bogy man of the Left because they in reality don't represent most Christians as such. That Christians really aren't robots and can think for themselves.
Or just perhaps many "Liberals" are not socialists and anarchists seeking to destroy American culture. They too might support their country and our troops fighting overseas and even serve in its military. Perhaps they are getting fed up with extremism hiding behind the banners of civil rights or affordable health care. More interesting, how many voted against the other candidate?
The tides of high and low with change in between will continue. In the end, it's people that make the faith in America and most don't like to be told what to do. Christianity in America will continue to struggle with defining itself.
Religion versus Science
Web site Copyright Lewis Loflin, All rights reserved.