Highlights of Church History

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5. American Church History To the Civil War (c.1700-1861)

The Shape of Christianity In The New America

“Christianity suffered a ‘sea change’ when it came over the ocean. It was a land of liberty to which the emigrant was going and the breeze of freedom blew away many a dusty theological dogma...” (Chas. Potter in his Story of Religion)

The religion was anti-orthodox, independent in nature, congregational in government, anti-creed and pro-experience. There was class strata, i.e., planting class to Episcopal, lower classes to sects, moneyed class stayed in the East and the rest pushed westward.

Early Experiments In Religious Liberty

The Pilgrims. Originating in Scrooby, Eng., this group of Puritans opposed episcopal jurisdiction and the rites and discipline of the Church of England. A group of farmers and artisans, few educated. To avoid contamination with what they considered worldly neighbors, they went to Holland, but dissatisfied there, to America in the Mayflower Sept. 1620.

Roger Williams 1604-83. Champion of religious toleration. Cambridge educated. Criticized the Massachusetts Bay permit, and the colony. Said there was no Christian freedom unless the church itself was free. Said state could never interfere in religious matters; there must be a separation of church and state. Spoke against religious persecution in the early colonies—no sanction for it in the teachings of Jesus. Banned to Rhode Island, he began there the first Baptist church in the colonies.

William Penn 1644-1718. Quaker founder of Pennsylvania. Drew up constitution for his colony which permitted all forms of worship compatible with monotheism and religious liberty. Refugees from all over Europe came to his colony, which was primarily Quaker.

The Great Awakening (1740-43)

Stress on visible evidences of conversions. Those who did not manifest them, whether clergy or laity, were openly denounced. A reaction to developing liberalism.

Jonathan Edwards 1703-58. Rejected personal religious freedom, maintaining that self-determination was absurd. An unbending Calvinist, he is perhaps the most influential theologian America has produced. Under his leadership, with that of others, the revival spread throughout the 13 colonies, and left a permanent mark on American Christianity. Among the revival results were (1) separation of church and state, (2) new vitality and church membership, (3) education and philanthropy, (4) missionary concern, (5) emphasis on God’s work in the individual rather than society, (6) common man reached, (7) lay authority increased.

The Enlightenment

With roots in Europe, the Enlightenment opposed supernatural religion, had an ardent desire to promote the happiness of men in this life. Their favorite doctrine—human ability. Rejected orthodoxy, celibacy, held to a fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. A major factor in the philosophy of the Founding Fathers of America.

Emerging Liberal Christianity

Some of the key figures in emerging liberalism and the period of Enlightenment :

John Locke 1632-1704. English philosopher. Influenced John Wesley and was concerned with rational and demonstratable truths. Held that the only secure basis of Christianity was its reasonableness. Essence of Christianity is that Christ was sent to spread the true knowledge of God and our duties . All other doctrines are secondary and incapable of proof.

Benjamin Franklin 1706–1790. Best example of American enlightenment in his concern for science and observation of pheonomena. Held to Deism, a belief that God created but is not immanent in the world, believed in perfectability of man, and that man can be master of his own destiny.

Charles Chauncy 1592-1672. Liberal pastor of First Church, Boston, who criticized Edwards and blasted against his emotional extremes; belief in universal salvation.

Thomas Jefferson 1743-1826. Love of God and neighbor is the sum of religion. All the rest is unnecessary addition.

W. E. Channing 1780-1842. In 1819 gave an ordination sermon which became the magna carta for Unitarianism. In it he stressed the authority of the scripture as interpreted by reason, and that scripture is a progressive revelation. Emphasized humanity of Jesus Christ, accused of being Arian, i.e., making Christ subordinate to God. He believed that all men are endowed with the same divine potential as Jesus.

More Revivals

The second Awakening. Deism in colleges was causing infidelity to the established faith. Timothy Dwight of Yale (1752-1817) found Yale in an ungodly and rowdy state, and launched a revival there which spread widely with Edwardian enthusiasm. Out of this revival arose the Disciples of Christ, and added fervor to the Roman Catholics, who were aroused and influenced by Protestant neighbors.

Slavery And Schism

As long as the theory of the “elect” prevailed, there was no opposition to the slave traffic. The elect were ordained to be masters of society. Keep everything exactly as it is because that’s the way God made it. The principal anti-slavery group was the Quakers, but also contributing were the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment and the human impulse of the Great Awakening. After 1830 when cotton became king in the South, they defended their slavery with apologies—said it was permitted in OT and NT, that part of the divine economy of the Negro was their status as identified with Ham, that they were little children who needed white masters, etc. Churches most affected by the slavery controversy were the Baptists, Methodists, and the Presbyterians, who divided into north and south churches.

Class Assignments

  1. Give the reason for the Pilgrims’ migration to America.
  2. What were the results of the Great Awakening?
  3. List some of the benefits of the Enlightenment.
  4. Who were some of the key people In emerging liberal Christianity (i.e., in Unitarianism, etc.)?
  5. How did the issue over slavery bring schism in religion?


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