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6. End of Civil War To Present (1865-)

The Transcendentalists

A movement flourishing in New England in the mid-19th century, stemming from Unitarianism, and also from European writings and thought, borrowing ideas from Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Carlyle. They opposed creeds, churches, theologies. Through the doctrine of the immanence of God in nature, developed a belief in individualism and self-reliance. Key figures were Emerson, Thoreau and Theodore Parker. Emily Dickinson is considered by many the poet of American transcendentalism. Their free spirit and intellectual inquiry, their concern for the slavery issue, contributed much to religious social concern and liberality. Unity students should be especially conversant with the Transcendentalists.

Emerging Religious Groups In the 19th Century

Some of the main religious groups to develop before and after the Civil War:

The Mormons. Began with Joseph Smith, who is said to have had the Book of Mormon revealed to him at Palmyra, N. Y. This bible became the basis of the Latter-Day Saint religion. They were much persecuted, and suspected of polygamy. Joseph Smith was murdered in a jail in Nauvoo, Ill. in 1846. Brigham Young led the saints on to Utah. By 1877, when he died, a beautiful community had been set up there as a result of irrigation. The group is marked by strife with Federal authorities, and by some inner conflict. The Reorganized church, with headquarters in Independence, no longer identifies itself with the Mormons.

Phineas Quimby (d. 1866) and his influence. Pioneer American spiritual healer, was himself healed of a serious disease. Quimby healed many thousands of people, among them Mary Baker Eddy, who began Christian Science (1875). His influence in healing by faith is seen in Unity, and many New Thought groups.

Theosophy. Of Oriental root, it was founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian noblewoman. Its purpose is universal brotherhood, to study the ancient scriptures, investigate the “hidden mysteries of nature,” and the psychic and spiritual powers latent in man. God is transcendent source of all being and good, and evil may be overcome by complete absorption in the Infinite.

Seventh-Day Adventists. Organized in 1844, built a number of sanitariums in a concern for health. They believe in the visible return of Christ, observe the seventh day as Sabbath, vegetarians, pacifists.

The Social Gospel

The churches move from a concept of individual sin to the sins of society. A new concern for sociology and economic justice. Foreign missionary interest increases.

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). Foremost interpreter of social Christianity. He believed that the Kingdom of God should be lived by men now, and that Jesus’ gospel was primarily one of earthly redemption, a divine society to be realized on earth by processes of fraternal living. Religion not an escape from life, but a focusing center of the energies of God to be used to transform human society. The church was being criticized for being tools of the rich, and a cleavage between labor and the church developed. Rauschenbusch did much to stir the churches to improve its concern for poverty, unhealthful conditions of life, ignorance, dishonesty, and the social evils which must concern the church.


A relatively recent philosophy concerned with existence as it is lived by men. Common ground for existentialist doctrine is the problem of human existence—“Why?” Reason cannot explain it adequately. Three main developments in this school of thought: (1) the Christian existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who held to faith rather than reason, and stressed the relation of the individual soul with God almost to the exclusion of the Christian community, and who believed that there was a grandeur in men, yet a tragic division between what God intended him to be and the depths to which he has sunk. (2) There is the atheistic existentialism of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who rejects theology and elaborates a metaphysic of the human person, and Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), openly atheistic, “God is dead,” holding that problems of life cannot be intellectualized, but must be treated through human experience; hence his vehicles of the drama, the novel, and personal diaries. (3) The third development is seen in the Roman Catholic existentialism of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) as now presented by Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) who share a supreme interest in the human person, as well as a distrust of philosophical idealism.

The radical concern of the Existentialists for the individual person and his many unanswered questions on why he exists, is a challenge to Christianity today. Paul Tillich (1886-1965) is America’s leading theologian, and he is considered a Christian existentialist—seeking to bring the two together.


A new theology to re-analyze the needs of the church. It stemmed from the first World War and the failure of the romanticism of the idealists who had promised a lasting peace. Man as a sinner is stressed. The second war deepened the new theology after Hitler’s saturation bombings of civilian population and man’s inhumanity to man shown in the war. Neo-orthodoxy is a reaction both against blind fundamentalism and the liberal belief in the immanence of God. They hold that God is transcendent, that there is a gulf between God and man. Man has a destiny, but he has desecrated it. Concern for Trinity and the “otherness” of God versus the overconcern of personal religious experience—what God has done, rather than, humanity. Results of Neo-orthodox movement are a new appreciation for the historic Christian church and faith, social awareness of its members, and the critical evaluation of the Bible. Some key theologians in Neo-Orthodoxy are:

Gustav Aulen (1879-1977). Holds that salvation is not something one can do for himself, the Atonement is not subjective, but that God died objectively outside of individual response. His thought expressed in his Christus Victor published 1931.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Criticism of the decay of theology and the emptiness of Protestant over accommodation to the new pluralistic secular society of today.

Karl Barth (1886-1968). Foremost of these theologians. Emphasis on what God has done rather than what individual has experienced. Goes to extremes. However, those who have had religious experiences are left out, invalid. Attempt to bring theology back to the principles of the Reformation and the prophetic teachings of the Bible.

The Future of Our Faith

What is the future of Christianity? It is as surely in the plan of God as the sweep of events we have just studied. There are divergent factors. National religions are on the rise, and Christianity in many places is rejected as a militant religion, for being a religion of the opportunists who use it merely as an expedient for economic or political reasons, and that it is held to be the only true faith. Liberal thought and Neo-Orthodoxy disagree, and both have their adherents with equal fervor. It seems logical to predict that ours will be a growing, expanding faith, with increasingly more room given to the thought of other religions and their contribution to man’s faith in God. The key will largely lie in the freedom upon which our nation was founded, and as expressed upon the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty —

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor.
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send them, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Class Assignments

  1. How did the Transcendentalists contribute to the modern religions spirit?
  2. List some of the emerging religious groups of the latter half of the 19th Century.
  3. Give a definition of Existentialism and some of its adherents.
  4. Discuss factors giving rise to the Social Gospel.
  5. Give your own personal views regarding present Neo-Orthodoxy, versus the continuing trend of liberal thought and resurgent national religions.