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Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 9

Christianity in America

      The discovery of North and South America created many new challenges for Europe. The wealth of the central and south American civilizations catapulted Spain to the forefront of world powers and had a profound impact on the European economy. All western European states were soon clambering to establish their own American colonies and experimented with a variety of cash crops to find an economic basis for them. Most also sent Catholic missionaries to convert the natives.

      Because of its relatively late arrival on the scene, Britain got the colder eastern coast of North America, which offered few opportunities for gold and no native urban civilizations to conquer. A major problem it faced was finding colonists willing to leave their native land for potential poverty and death far from family and friends. Britain solved the problem by charting private companies to send out profit-making colonies. The first successful enterprise was the Virginia Colony, which established Jamestown in May 1607. Within the wooden palisade were a storehouse, a number of houses, and a church. The colony, established by wealthy Anglican merchants, only recognized the Church of England, but for many years the company paid for no priest to settle there. Immediately attacked by the local Indians, the colony had no economic basis for years, made no profit, and the colonists suffered an immensely high death rate from warfare, disease, and starvation. Eventually the arrival of African slaves, the raising of tobacco, and the importation of London criminals (who faced execution or extensive imprisonment if they refused to emigrate) caused the colony to expand. A series of incompetent or unpopular governors chosen by the company's wealthy London owners cause the colonists to establish an elected legislative body in 1619 to establish the colony's laws. But the Virginia Colony had no printing press for over half a century; the first university in Virginia, the College of William and Mary, was not established until 1696.

      In Virginia and later in the Carolinas and Georgia, the Church of England was the only recognized church; but priests didn't want to leave warm and comfortable England to settle in the swamps, Indian-infested woods and crude hamlets of England's south Atlantic colonies. As a result, there was about one priest for every four or five churches in the American south, and the priests were often of low quality. The Church of England is an episcopal church, that is, power resides in bishops. The bishops appoint and direct the priests, and traditionally the lay people had very little to do with the running of a local church. But in the South there was no bishop at all and few priests, so the laymen ran the churches and often administered communion or performed baptisms, which was against church law. Because of the shortage of priests, even in the south the congregational form of church organization became the dominant one. As the population of the colonies grew, the local Anglicans themselves opposed the appointment of an American bishop, lest he take away privileges they had grown used to.

      Thirteen years after the founding of Jamestown, a colony of a different sort formed four hundred miles to the north. A group of separatist Puritans, disillusioned by Anglicanism's refusal to reform, first emigrated to the Netherlands (a good Calvinist nation) in 1608, but as their children began to become Dutch, they decided to emigrate to "northern Virginia" instead. They landed in what today is Massachusetts in December, 1620. They learned how to raise corn from the Indians—whose numbers had been decimated by European illnesses brought by fishermen a few years earlier—received some additional settlers from England in the next decade, and survived fairly well in their new environment.

      In 1630 King Charles I appointed a new Archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the Anglican Church), who favored a middle path to reforming the English church. This entailed rejecting the much more extreme demands of the Puritans, whom he began to persecute severely. Puritan ministers were deprived of their churches; Puritan laypeople were discriminated against. In response, a group of Calvinist businessmen organized the Massachusetts Bay Company and obtained a charter for it from the King, which included a claim over a large stretch of land. Like the Virginia Company, the company was a joint stock company; individuals who invested in the company owned shares and had voting privileges in choosing a governor. Unlike the Virginia Company, however, the company bylaws did not require the annual meeting to be held in London (the place of the annual meeting was unspecified). Stock was mainly sold to hundreds of middle class Puritan artisans and small businessmen, who then used the company proceeds to purchase ships for their own emigration. As a result, in 1630 four ships loaded with a thousand colonists arrived in Boston harbor and had the legal framework for electing their own governor, setting up their own government, and making some changes in the ways the company's charter would be interpreted.

      The Puritan colonists decided their colony that would demonstrate the truth of their beliefs by example; it would be a utopian society proving the superiority of their understanding of Christianity. As Calvinists they believed that some people were chosen by God to be saved; these people could more or less be known by their good character, their good works (which were a fruit of salvation, not a cause of it), and by the experience of receiving God's grace. Since they were sure their senior clergy were among God's elect, they formed a committee of the saved to interview the others for evidence of election. Since those who fled to Massachusetts were among the most determined of the Puritans, most were found to be saved. Those who were determined to be saints were made full members of the churches; their children could be baptized and they could receive communion. The others were to pray, attend church every Sunday, follow God's laws (include complete abstinence from labor on the Sabbath) and await God's act of saving grace. Only those judged to be among God's elect could vote in elections and be voted for; in this way the civil government of the colony, based on the royal charter, was secured from gross immorality and corruption.

      The flood of immigration continued for a decade, until the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1640 and his replacement by a man less opposed to Puritanism. Over ten thousand Puritans arrived and spread out over Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, founding towns. Each town used the church as its meeting hall, all male members of the church as its legislative body (the New England town meeting), and elected officers to carry out various executive functions. Every town organized schools to educate boys (girls were not sent to school until the eighteenth century). In order to assure themselves a reliable supply of ministers, one of the first things the Puritans did was to establish Harvard College (1636; far sooner than any college in Virginia).

      Those who found Puritan theological uniformity stifling moved to Rhode Island, a colony established by dissenters from strict Calvinism. Roger Williams, the founder of the town of Providence, became a Baptist and gave that town a Baptist character. He later withdrew even from Baptism, but not before declaring that complete religious freedom reigned in Rhode Island and that even Turks (Muslims) would be welcome there.

      In the Middle Colonies, many different groups settled and the area acquired considerable religious diversity. William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania, was a Quaker, and he settled many Quakers there. Because there weren't enough Quakers willing to move to the New World, Penn invited many persecuted German sects to settle in Pennsylvania, such as the "Pennsylvania Dutch" (Mennonites and Amish). Often the sects were part of Germany's radical Reformation, just as the Quakers were part of England's; thus the groups often felt an affinity with each other. Other Germans came over to settle near their countrymen; they established the Lutheran church in America and the German Reformed (Calvinist) church.

      New York was first settled by the Dutch, who brought the Calvinist Dutch Reformed church (the national Dutch church) to America. Later when the English conquered New Amsterdam they introduced Anglicanism and declared it the official faith, but found it impractical to persecute the Dutch and English Calvinists. New England Puritans migrated south to Long Island, New York, and northern New Jersey and brought the their church; many of them later joined the Scots, who had especially settled in New Jersey, to establish the Presbyterian church. Delaware was first settled by Swedes who established Lutheran churches. Maryland was established as a colony for Roman Catholics, though Anglicans quickly became the majority.

      Because there was effectively no national church, Calvinism soon became the dominant form of Christianity in British North America, spreading into the rural south from New England and the Middle Colonies and replacing Anglicanism. This is in sharp contrast to Europe, where the Calvinists usually were in the minority.

      No sooner were the various Protestant groups established in America than they began to change, and often to split. The American environment and Protestantism's basic assumptions—a stress on the individual's relationship with God and on the Bible as the only ultimate source of guidance to the individual—caused the changes. When one makes the Bible and the individual's consciousness the standards of personal growth, the conscience can insist on unusual interpretations of the Bible. In Europe the Calvinist sects were small and often subject to persecution by the state and the state church; but in America, generally, there was freedom of religion, and thus there was no external force to control unusual interpretations. In Massachusetts the Puritans did hang several women for being Quaker missionaries in 1659 and 1661, but they were isolated cases. As a result of religious freedom, religious imaginations ran wild, new interpretations of the Bible were set forth, and new sects began to appear in America.

      American culture was different from the culture of late medieval Europe in several crucial respects. In America a white man could always acquire land simply by packing up his wagon and riding to the frontier. In England few owned land, and property ownership defined whether one could vote; in America virtually all white men owned land and thus could vote. In New England virtually all white men could read and write also, which was practically unprecedented in human history. The country had no hereditary aristocracy and very little poverty. By and large, there was rule of law. In colonial America there were no European-style wars; wars with the American Indians rarely resulted in extensive destruction to European settlements. There was no starvation after the first decade, and because the population was scattered, no plagues. Medical care, while rudimentary, was no worse than in Europe; Boston was one of the first towns to use vaccination to combat smallpox. A typical New England farmer and his wife would have eight to twelve children, and three quarters survived to adulthood. Thus America experienced a population explosion nearly unprecedented in human history.

      One result was a culture that was extremely optimistic about the ability of individuals. The average person was seen to have "common sense"—an idea that in Europe did not immediately become a commonly accepted assumption because of the hierarchical nature of society. Because the average American could read the Bible himself and had "common sense," he was capable of making up his own mind about the truths in religion; this further encouraged the tendency toward sect formation and individualism. The doctrines of TULIP, which stress the complete powerlessness of the individual to change his own situation, came to be seen as unnecessarily pessimistic and harsh. Gradually the Protestant churches moved away from it.

      New England Puritans, because of their congregational organization, had very few mechanisms above the local church level that could control the theology of the ministers, and consequently they underwent the most theological diversification and drift. One of the biggest issues that arose among the Congregational churches concerned whether infants should be baptized, or only confessing adults; the churches baptized infants, but Jesus never did. Those who insisted that baptism was a sacrament reserved only for the born again gradually withdrew to form Baptist churches.

      Anglicans moved in a liberal direction as well. Presbyterians had a hierarchy of ministers and elders who controlled ordination and could discipline errant clergymen, so they resisted the efforts to modify Calvinism more successfully.


      To combat a tendency toward laxity, many churches sought to create conditions in which God's grace could more easily be given to souls and they could become saved. In spite of Calvinism's emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God to decide who would receive the gift of eternal life and on the complete helplessness of the individual before God's power, some Calvinists began to promulgate doctrines of "preparation" whereby souls could prepare themselves for grace and preachers could create conditions where people yearned for salvation. The first large-scale revivals occurred in the 1730s in Massachusetts, and subsequently in all the other colonies. Thousands accepted Christ and joined churches. Revival was the first pan-American experience; denominational leaders traveled between colonies to foster revival and established contacts and networks; the thirteen colonies acquired common experiences and forged a modicum of common culture. In many ways, the First Great Awakening (1730-60) laid the foundation for the American Revolution.

      The American Revolution proved to a religious revolution as well. The big loser was Anglicanism; after the war was won, it was impossible for an American to be a member of the Church of England. Many members had already joined lay-organized Methodist "societies" within Anglicanism, and on the frontier the Methodist societies were the only religious organization available to many; it became a separate Methodist denomination soon after the end of the Revolution. With its itinerant bishops to coordinate lay-organized local churches, Methodism was perfectly organized for chaotic frontier conditions. It soon became America's largest denomination. The older, more established Anglican churches formed the Episcopal Church of America and sent several men to Britain to be ordained as bishops, thereby acquiring the leadership the church had sorely lacked in the colonial period. The New England Puritans—now known as the Congregational Church—the Presbyterians and the Baptists were the ones who supported the American cause the most and who gained the most prestige as a result.

      But as the eighteenth century yielded to the nineteenth, America was on the move—to the west—and American religion had to change to accommodate. Most religious innovation occurred on the frontier. This was partly because churches had not yet been established there, so new ideas faced less resistance. Furthermore, most frontiersmen had come from small settled towns where everyone had known everyone else; in contrast, the frontier was a place where complete strangers were thrown together. Because they experienced considerable personal upheaval on the frontier, people had to think in new ways, and yearned to establish homes and churches where the familiarity of settled life back east could be duplicated.

      As a result, many sects arose on the frontier or came there and flourished. The Universalists said that no one was damned eternally to hell, but everyone eventually would be saved (their name comes from their doctrine of "universal" salvation). Free Will Baptists championed free will over total depravity and unconditioned election. Both of these sects first became strong in northern New England right after the Revolution, when that area was undergoing rapid settlement. Both opposed the doctrines of TULIP with more optimistic views of human nature. Baptists grew along the New England frontier and spread south. The Methodists stressed free will and the perfectibility of human beings, ideas very appealing to frontiersmen.

      The need to convert the frontier population to Christ and organize it into local churches often caused Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists to band together to plan revivals. These four denominations, and a few smaller regional churches (like the Disciples of Christ) came to be called the "evangelical" or "mainline Protestant" churches because of their theological affinities.

      However, revivals often created as much disunity as unity and furthered the tendency toward religious individualism. In western New York state in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, sect creation became unusually common. Most of the people settling there had been born into New England Puritan families and were reacting against its strictness. So many evangelists toured the area, holding "camp meetings" in order to save souls, that the area came to be called the "Burned Over District." Joseph Smith started Mormonism there, partly in reaction against all the conflicting revivals and theological claims. William Miller lived on the edge of the Burned Over District and preached there; he proclaimed that Christ would return in 1844, starting a movement that would eventually produce the Seventh Day Adventists. The Oneida colony experimented with eugenics and a religious-based socialism. The Fox sisters heard the rappings of spirits in their house in western New York state and started Spiritualism, with its seances, communication with the dead, and ouija (pronounced "wee-jee") boards. Ann Lee, the founder of Shakerism, settled there, and the movement (which advocated communal living and strict celibacy) flourished.

      In the cities, especially in New England, new ideas from Europe also brought new sects into existence. In Boston, European philosophy caused many to reject total depravity, the trinity, and other traditional Calvinist doctrines, and become Unitarians (the name refers to their rejection of the trinity and their belief in the unity of God). Later, Unitarianism spawned Transcendentalism, which rejected all Christian dogmas in favor of an individual mystical relation with nature and with God. The Transcendentalists studied Hindu and Confucian texts, helped to introduce the study of world religions in America, and were among the first to do modern higher biblical criticism. Unitarianism, by the end of the nineteenth century, came to include a large number of persons who did not consider themselves Christians—only theists—and a few who, rejecting belief in God, considered themselves humanists.

      Late nineteenth-century Boston also became the center of Christian Science, which stresses spiritual healing. Toward the end of the nineteenth century millions of rural Americans began to move to the cities to get manufacturing jobs. Among them were many Methodists, who were shocked by how lax Methodism had become in the cities. To protect their children against the sins of liquor and dancing these people formed the Church of the Nazarene. Other, poorer Methodists, stressing the ideas of personal perfection and speaking in tongues, spawned the Pentecostal and Holiness churches.

Confrontation with New Ideas

After the Civil War, new issues arose which were unlike any that Christianity had ever faced before, and which eventually proved fatal to the unity of mainline Protestantism. The first was Darwinism. The Origin of Species was published in 1859, but not until after the Civil War did it become widely read and debated in the United States. The initial reaction was quite favorable, and by the turn of the century most Protestants had accepted evolution. It was only after World War One, when conservative Protestantism became increasingly vocal, that it became an issue.

      The second issue was comparative religion. Western Europeans and Americans, before the nineteenth century, had virtually no contact with non-Christians, except occasional Turks (in Europe) and Indians (in America). With the creation of factories, steam ships, railroads, and the telegraph, imperialistic empires were established that brought westerners in contact with nonwesterners on a large scale. Western missionaries went out to enlighten the poor, ignorant, immoral heathen (as they believed), and discovered that the nonwesterners were considerably more intelligent, sophisticated, and capable than they had imagined. The naive view that everyone would convert to Christianity as soon as the non-Christians were exposed to true religion quickly proved naive. Chinese and Japanese immigrated into the western United States as early as the 1870s and quietly established Buddhist temples for their own use. By the 1890s Hindu swamis and Buddhist teachers were touring the United States and publicly criticizing Christian missionaries. Middle Eastern Muslims began to settle in American cities and even on the prairies as farmers and built America's first mosques. This is the time the Bahá'í Faith arrived in America as well. American Christians had to reevaluate their view of other religions, and in the process had to face the question of the uniqueness of Christianity.

      The third issue was biblical criticism. Careful, rigorous examination of the Bible in its original languages took a new turn in the early nineteenth century. Scholars became increasingly certain that none of the gospels were accounts by eyewitness, that Isaiah did not write all of the Book of Isaiah, and that Moses did not author the Pentateuch. These and other similar conclusions undermined the assumption that the Bible was a revelation from God. Before the Civil War, no one worried about whether the Bible was inerrant or literal; its reliability was assumed, and adjectives were rarely used to define its reliability. But after the Civil War debate about the nature of the Bible became increasingly sharp. Since the Bible was the basis of Protestantism, the debate cut to the very core of the movement.

      Mainstream Protestantism began to bifurcate over these three issues into liberals and conservatives starting in the 1880s and 1890s. The debate became more sharp after 1900 and became a schism after World War One. At that time the conservatives—who were dubbed Fundamentalists by their opponents, and who accepted the name—became vocal in their opposition to biblical criticism and Darwinism. They moved to take over the Protestant denominations from the liberals, who had controlled them. The Scopes trial, where a high school biology teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution in 1925, made conservative Protestantism the laughing stock of the nation, even though Scopes was found guilty and fined. At the same time fundamentalism completely failed to conquer the denominations. As a result, fundamentalism as a movement dropped out of the limelight after 1925.

      However, it did not disappear. The mainline denominations continued to have liberal and conservative factions and they continued to struggle; the liberal/conservative split is one of the most fundamental aspects of American religion in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Conservative Protestant colleges grew rapidly during the depression and conservatives soon dominated the new fields of radio and television evangelism. After World War Two a more moderate evangelical Protestantism became respectable—Billy Graham was its primary spokesman. Starting about 1970 a new, more vocal evangelicalism emerged; the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell were manifestations of this movement. As the twentieth century yielded to the twenty-first, a vocal and active evangelical Protestantism came to dominate the conception of American religion in the minds of many, and acquired enormous political influence. Liberal Protestantism—which had been a major voice in the civil rights movement—remained active, but its churches were losing membership and its voice was less influential culturally.


      Sect formation has occurred rampantly in Protestantism because of its concept of authority: authority is invested in the individual's interpretation of the Bible. The Protestants have tried hard to curb variant interpretations with catechisms and creeds, but ultimately they recognize no external authority that can control the individual's interpretation beside the judgment of God. As a result, Protestant sects have formed over every conceivable question. Some are separated over the right form of church government (whether it should be congregational, presbyterian, or episcopal); some are separated over the nature of the Christian sacraments (such as the importance of baptism); others divide over theology (such as universal salvation and free will). Some go beyond the Bible entirely: the stress in Protestantism on individualism leaves open the possibility of a personal revelation; thus the Mormons and Christian Scientists claim a new holy book, a "third testament," revealed through a new prophet. Other churches have split over seemingly irrelevant matters; the "Christian church" in the Midwest split into two sects in 1906 over the question of whether local churches could have organs.

      The United States was only the first example of a country with rampant and continuous Christian sect formation. In the twentieth century many Christian sects have formed in Africa as African Christians, reading the Bible themselves, have rejected the European assumptions of their missionary teachers and have interpreted the Bible in a way consistent with African culture and experience. The spread of freedom of religion around the world has resulted in many new Christian sects in Latin America and Asia as well.

      Study of the process of sect formation helps Bahá'ís appreciate the power of the Covenant in maintaining unity in belief and practice, as well as the sense felt by all Bahá'ís of being members of one giant world-wide family. It demonstrates clearly the difference between Christian heresy and Bahá'í Covenant-breaking. Finally, it gives us a vision of what the Bahá'í Faith would be like, if it did not have the Covenant to hold the believers together; in the twenty thousand sects of Christianity we have a glimmer of those "thousand sects" that 'Abdu'l-Bahá says would form in a day.

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