Training the Mind of Faith in America

Matthew, Mark and Luke recorded the words of Jesus when He said:

YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ (Matt. 22:37)

Mark adds “strength” (Mark 12:30) and Luke adds “strength:” and loving your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27). IN spite of this, the mind in the life of faith is an aspect of the faith that has largely been lost over the last 200 years or so within the church on the whole. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the life of the mind was still held to be an important aspect of faith. Harvard University was established in 1636 for the purpose of training Christian ministers. Ten years later they adopted their “Rules and Precepts”:

2. Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3).

3. Every one shall so exercise himselfe in reading the Scriptures twice a day, that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein, both in Theoreticall observations of Language and Logick, and in practical and spiritual truths, as his Tutor shall require, according to his ability; seeing the entrance of the word giveth light, it giveth understanding to the simple (Psalm 119:130).

In 1701 a collegiate college was founded by several ministers in the New England colony of Connecticut “to the end that they might educate ministers in their own way.” It is said that the Mather family “also were among those in Boston who welcomed and labored for the establishment of a seminary of a stricter theology than Harvard” This Collegiate School of Connecticut was named Yale in 1718 after a wealthy benefactor by the name of Elihu Yale made a fairly substantial donation to the institution. Although arts and science were an important aspect of the instruction, they were to be viewed theocentrically (God centered) and grounded in sound theology:

The charter of 1701 stated that the end of the school was the instruction of youth in the arts and sciences, that they might be fitted for public employment, both in church and civil state. To the clergy, however, who controlled the College, theology was the basis, security and test of arts and sciences. In 1722 the rector, Timothy Cutler, was dismissed because of a leaning toward Episcopacy. Various special tests were employed to preserve the doctrinal purity of Calvinism among, the instructors; that of the students was carefully looked after. In 1753 a stringent test was fixed by the Corporation to ensure the orthodoxy of the teachers. This was abolished in 1778.

It is approximately here that a theocentric (God centered) and specifically a Christocentric (Christ centered) view of Scripture and life began to be replaced with an anthropocentric (man centered) view. By the time we get to the nineteenth century, culture and the church both took a fairly radical change from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century for a couple of reasons:

First, Americans simply did not go to church in great numbers in the nineteenth century. Many estimates place church membership at around 7 percent at the dawn of the nineteenth century and only 15 percent by 1850, after the so-called Second Great Awakening. Secondly, a dramatic shift had taken place in American forms of worship following the Revolutionary War. In the early decades of the 1700s churches and preachers were still under the influence of the Puritans. Sermons were highly doctrinal and were often read verbatim from manuscripts. Church services were geared for the mind not the emotions (although many, like Jonathan Edwards, preached to the heart, they did so through the conduit of the mind); sermons were judged by their content not their delivery (Edwards read every word). Music was carefully controlled. Hymns were often “lined out” (a method whereby the song leader read one line at a time, which the congregation would then sing then wait for the next line to be read), and sometimes eliminated altogether for fear that the people might be manipulated.

The Winds of Change Blew Gently

Yale had put in place their test to “ensure the orthodoxy of the teachers” in 1753 and in a little more than 25 years they abandoned the test in 1778. Other events were occurring which likely aided in this shift mid-eighteenth century things began to change in the institutions of higher learning and in culture:

All that began to change in the 1740s at the time of the Great Awakening and the preaching of George Whitefield. When the embers of this time or revival died down, the church went into a drought. Church attendance began to dive, theology lost its appeal, the teachings of the Enlightenment began to catch on, and Deism became popular. By 1800 the American church was in a dismal state and ripe for anything that would offer some kind of spiritual sustenance. The Second Great Awakening, which began in 1801 in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, would fill that void and forever change Christianity in America. Sermons of substance were replaced with emotional appeals. Doctrine was replaced by stories, and the preacher’s performance became more important than what was taught. Music took on a central role as emotionalism became the order of the day. Ministers began to study “what worked” in order to draw a crowd. Charles Finney would perfect all of this, changing the heart and soul of the church. In other words, church services became a form of entertainment.

It may well be that cultivation of the mind in the faith, nearly to the exclusion of the emotions (heart and soul?) was at least in part responsible for the pendulum swing in the opposite direction. In other words, both extremes are out of balance in the life of individual believers and the church as a whole. However, change they did and definitely not for the better. Claims of God appearing, visions given and/or communication with spirits to filled the void of sound biblical teaching. The Scriptures as the authoritative test of truth was replaced with experience and feelings to determine truth. During the nineteenth century a number of cults and false religious movements were born and the church itself moved into a new era of pragmatism based on studying and implementing “‘…what worked’ in order to draw a crowd.” Sound marketing replaced sound teaching. Providing experiences replaced worshipping God with one’s mind.

The nineteenth century was indeed a period marked by the “democratization” of religious belief—a time of folks doing spiritually what was right in their own eyes, and following whatever spiritual fads and gurus that appealed to them. Indisputably, there was much “spiritual” fervor during this period, but “spirituality” does not necessarily have anything to do with the Christian faith. The schools of the higher critics had begun “demythologizing” the Scriptures, separating the faith from “the book” that had acted as its anchor throughout the centuries. Mystical pied pipers were more than willing to fill the void left by a gradual abandonment of the fundamentals of the faith.

It was in this period that one Charles Finney, an attorney from Adams New York, appeared on the scene. He was intrigued by “the new measures,” or the birth of the “altar call” which some Methodists had employed in their churches:

The earliest record of the altar call is found in the late eighteenth century among congregations of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In the Anglican architectural tradition, the area before the communion table, at the front of the sanctuary, was called the altar. Occasionally the preacher called awakened sinners to the front of the sanctuary, that is, to the altar. Some years later Methodists organized camp meetings with an “anxious or mourner’s bench” replacing the altar. Awakened sinners were invited to come to the “anxious bench” (the front pew or row of chairs) to receive specific instruction toward repentance and faith, while the remainder of the congregation tarried in prayer specifically for the mourners.

There had been so many revivals going on for about twenty years between Lake Ontario and the Adirondack Mountains that this area became known as the “Burned-Over District.” In to this spirit of revival, stepped Finney:

In 1821 Finney experienced something of a religious epiphany and set out to preach the Gospel in western New York. His revivals were characterized by careful planning, showmanship and advertising. Finney preached in the Burned-Over District throughout the 1820s and the early 1830s, before moving to Ohio in 1835 to take a chair in theology at Oberlin College. He subsequently became president of Oberlin.

Some church leaders were concerned with what was going on and the “new measures” which Finney was fine tuning and marketing so well and attempted to address their concerns with Finney:

The issue began to clarify itself around the question of the relationship of emotion, feeling, and excitement to revival, the point that Sears had raised with Finney in May 1825. It was a question of being for or against, not emotion, but rather the adoption of means, in addition to preaching and prayer, to promote emotion. There was no disagreement over whether or not hearers under the power of truth ought to feel and be disturbed and moved, but should such methods not mentioned in the Scripture be employed to induce a response in those hearing the gospel? Most of the new measures were deliberately calculated to have that effect. They included such things as denunciatory language designed to alarm, pointed remarks to particular individuals delivered in public, naming unconverted people in prayer, using inquiry meetings to make individuals pray or ‘submit’, and other similar practices.

These leaders were not opposed to the aspect of emotions and feelings in the life of faith. It was what they perceived as manipulation of emotions as a means of bringing about actual repentance and saving faith. Finney however was resolute and unflinching. After all, what he was doing was “working.” Proper marketing, well designed programs, lively music, the air of anticipation in the growing crowds further persuaded him that he was doing the right thing. In the process he also decided that man does not have a sin nature but rather that he is a sinner by choice of his will. It is a teaching that Neil Anderson holds on to today:

It was Adam’s will, not his supposed nature, that controlled his actions and, Finney declared, what was true of Adam remained true for all men; a decision of the will, not a change of nature, was all that was needed for anyone to be converted.

In this movement we see the birth of church fads which, as happened in the case of Finney, can and often does cause basic theology to be modified or even abandoned in order to conform the new pragmatic marketing approach. This isn’t really an argument between Calvinism and Arminianism as the whole of Scripture demonstrates that we are sinners by nature. One can hardly read passages such as Ephesian 2:3 and not come to that conclusion. It is a this point the focus of theology clearly changed from being Christocentric (Christ centered) to anthropocentric (man centered). Whatever marketing principles and well choreographed productions worked to draw in the most people became the norm for many more evangelists and pastors. After all the reasoning went, success as measured by nickels and noses proved this was of God and who can argue with God? This approach took root and largely shaped church practice for the next 180 years.

In 1830 in the same area of the country, to be more specific in the county of Wayne, and town of Palmyra, NY, a young occultist, treasure seeker and teller of tall tales by the name of Joseph Smith published a book now known as The Book of Mormon. Spiritism, although biblically condemned, had become popularly accepted, so Smith’s claims of visits by “Heavenly Father” and Jesus were received without difficulty by some.

Also in the “Burned-Over District,” a few years later, in 1843, a Baptist minister by the name of William Miller believed that he had discerned the actual date for the return of Christ. Many of Miller’s followers (known as Adventists) sold their possessions and awaited His arrival at the predicted time. It didn’t happen. Miller then “realized” that his calculations had been “off” by a year, so he and most of his followers geared up for the new date of His arrival, which passed without incident. This false prophecy became known as “The Great Disappointment” for obvious reasons.

Out of ashes of “The Great Disappointment” came yet another new sect. A young Adventist woman by the name of Ellen Harmon, later to become Ellen G. White, claimed that she received a revelation from God to the effect that Miller’s date had been correct after all—only the expected event was wrong. 1844 was the date that Christ entered and cleansed the sanctuary. Though she offered no proof for her assertion, many of the “greatly disappointed” attached themselves to her, and the movement became known as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The church had its formal beginning in 1863. Ellen White had “received revelation” that Sunday worship was the “mark of the beast,” and that true Christians must keep the Sabbath and worship on Saturday.

Arcadia, NY, also in Wayne County, gave birth to yet another phenomena, the spiritualist movement in 1848. Two sisters, Margaret and Catherine Fox claimed they had made contact with spirits and that the spirits communicated with them through knocking, rapping, table levitation and so forth during séances. Their popularity grew quickly and by 1855 they had a following approaching nearly 1 million.

Also, in 1848, John Humphrey Noyes moved a small following that he had fielded over the previous eight or ten years to Oneida, NY. Noyes had rejected Calvinism while studying at Yale and came to believe that upon conversion one is completely released from sin and therefore not a sinner. He called this “Perfectionism.” For this view, he was denied ordination, for obvious reasons. Of course Noyes believed he was God’s agent on earth to restore true Christianity and had denounced the institution of marriage and over time replaced it with his teaching of “complex marriage,” which was one of the main elements of this new communal religion in New York.

The main teaching which received the most criticism was that of “Complex Marriage.” In Complex Marriage, every man was married to every woman and vice versa. This practice was to stay only within the community and had to stay within two main guidelines. The first was that before the man and woman could cohabit, they had to obtain each other’s consent through a third person or persons. Secondly, no two people could have exclusive attachment with each other because it would be selfish and idolatrous. Any two people found in any such situation would be separated and not allowed to see each other for a certain length of time.

Among the many communal sexual practices was Noyes teaching of “Ascending Fellowship.”

Ascending Fellowship was set up to properly introduce the virgins into Complex Marriage. This practice also worked to prevent the young members from falling in love with each other and from limiting their range of affection to just the younger members. The main people picked to care for the virgins were people who were considered to be closer to God. These people were of course older and had a special title which was that of Central Member. These Central Members were allowed their pick of a partner over which they would have the responsibility of spiritual guidance.

The Adventist movement, which had it’s start through William Miller in the 1840’s continued to split into numerous competing sects. Charles Taze Russell founded one of these Adventist “cousins” in the 1870’s. He broke with his Second Adventist mentor, Nelson Barbour, and began publishing Zion’s Watchtower in 1879. He had already rejected much of the Christian faith and claimed, as Joseph Smith and Ellen G. White had claimed before him, that he was “restoring” the true Christian faith. He was a religious eclectic, borrowing doctrines from various occult thinkers of his day and mixing them all together with run-of-the-mill Adventism to create his new “Bible Student” movement. He adopted such occult/pagan ideas as Pyramidology, Phrenology (purporting to prove a man’s character by the shape of his head) and various other mystical and occult teachings. He also predicted the date of Christ’s return, 1914, which of course failed, proving Russell to be a false prophet. Russell believed and taught that he was God’s channel, and that it was necessary to study his books to gain a true understanding of spiritual things. Today the group Russell founded has been splintered into hundreds of different sects. Of these, the largest is the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, popularly known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A New Age of Age-old Mysticism

In 1875, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky founded a metaphysical movement called the Theosophical Society. This mystic taught that God’s wisdom is found in all religions—with the possible exception of biblical Christianity. Her disdain of Christianity is very apparent in this and other statements:

The name has been used in a manner so intolerant and dogmatic, especially in our day, that Christianity is now the religion of arrogance, par excellence, a stepping-stone for ambition, a sinecure for wealth, sham, and power; a convenient screen for hypocrisy.

Science and Health, by Mary Baker Eddy, another religious mystic, was also published in 1875. Eight years later, in 1883, the Key to the Scriptures was added. Essentially, Eddy taught Hinduism, using Christian terminology. She taught that life is an illusion, that there is no physical world and therefore no such thing as sickness. Any symptoms of illness that one experienced were merely a problem in thinking. It was claimed of course, that this teaching came from God, that Eddy was merely a channel of the information to mankind. The Church of Christ Scientist (a.k.a. Christian Science) was founded in 1879 in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Another “mind science” group began in 1889. Called simply Modern Thought. Modern Thought was started under Charles and Myrtle Fillmore and borrowed heavily from New Thought and Christian Science. In 1890 the name was changed to Christian Science Thought, then simply to Thought in 1891, and renamed in 1895 as Unity, and is now known as the Unity School of Christianity. Hence, there is good evidence that they gave a lot of thought to their name, if nothing else.
These were just several among scores of strange new religious movements, aberrations and cults that either sprang from America’s own spiritual soil or opportunistically invaded it from overseas during the 19th century. Christians were not the only ones concerned about some of these movements. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), for example, expressed alarm at the growing financial and political clout of Christian Science. And early Illinois residents rose up against the misdeeds of their Mormon neighbors. Joseph Smith was jailed and eventually killed in an exchange of gunfire with an enraged mob.

Atheism Goes Mainstream

On the philosophical front, in 1848, the Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels was published. These individuals took an essentially materialistic view of life. In their view, man is really in control of his own destiny and had made remarkable progress in controlling the forces of nature and growing toward his creative potential. It was a well-constructed view and Marx, a formidable polemicist, argued his points with vigor.

In 1859, eleven years later, Charles Darwin published his work – On the Origin of Species. The first printing sold out the first day of publication. At this juncture, the religious and scientific communities began to part ways. Naturalistic materialism was displacing the biblical account of origins. Faith and reason were fast becoming mutually exclusive ideas. Darwin applied his view to humans in 1871, and Darwinian evolution rocked the world. It utterly changed for many, the view of our place in the world, and indeed, our place in the universe and the hereafter. These views began permeating and percolating in the universities and schools of higher learning.

Friedrich Neitzche, although an Atheist himself, realized the moral and societal implications inherent in a universe without God. In his work The Gay Science (sec. 125), he penned the words:

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe away the blood from us?

Neitzche realized that if there is no God, to Whom we are accountable and to Whom we owe obedience, then all things are permissible. There really is no right or wrong, good or evil in such a universe—there is just predator and prey. Whatever the predator does to the prey just is, there is no right or wrong about it.

Dis-harmonic Convergence

In 1893, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago. It was predominantly a Christian event, but a very articulate individual from India by the name of Swami Vivikananda made quite a favorable impression upon the assembly. East met West as Hinduism had now officially made its way to America. Vivikananda captured the minds and hearts of those attending. Hinduism and Darwinian evolution (which was being more commonly accepted) are very compatible belief systems. Darwinism asserts physical evolution through change and adaptation from lower forms of life to higher forms of life—Hinduism asserts spiritual evolution from lower forms of life to higher forms of life through reincarnation.

This period of theological liberalism and spiritistic occultism were competing with Christianity for the allegiance of mankind. The Scriptures had been under attack by the schools of higher critics for some time, and were being more and more viewed as myth and fable to be believed only by the uneducated and fearful. The abandonment of training the mind by Christians left them unable to challenge the views of atheists, Darwinists and higher critics.

Perhaps if it had been Atheism alone, or occultism alone, or liberalism alone, or the explosion of religious cults alone, that the church had to face, it may have put up a better fight. But with the convergence of all of these at the same point in time, vast inroads were made against the truth of the gospel. When the light of the gospel grows dim in any society, darkness takes over. Little could anyone have imagined, however, that these nineteenth century religious and secular philosophies would leave their bloody footprints all over the twentieth century.

The biblical voice and Christian worldview were gradually being replaced in culture. Christians occasionally attempted to defend their faith against these new religious movements and atheistic philosophical ideas that were proliferating, but the response of the church was largely haphazard and uncoordinated. By the end of the 19th century, Christians had managed to forge many interdenominational alliances in such important areas as evangelism (e.g., D.L. Moody’s ministry) and youth work (e.g., the YMCA). But any major united efforts among Christians to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) was perhaps 50 to 60 years away from being attempted.


Comments

Training the Mind of Faith in America — 3 Comments

  1. Wow. Its seems the period from Finney to the end of the 19th century was a watershed time. And why upstate New York as the headquarters of crazy passion for restoration? That is something I would like to explore further. What made Wayne county the burned over district specifically. and not other areas where the 2nd awakening influenced?

  2. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the intent of this article, but I don’t quite see the connection how Charles Finney’s bad theology is single handedly responsible for the eruption of cults here and influx of new religions, Darwinism and atheism from abroad. Aren’t there more factors to play, such as America’s chaning political landscape, Christian abandonment of influence at the universities, multi-cultural immigration or mandatory public schooling laws that ripped the American family apart? Any other major factors?

  3. In response to Tim, this one article is one in an ongoing series. You are correct, this didn’t happen single handedly with Finney’s bad theology. As we pointed out in this article, church attendence was minimal, theology had transitioned into being man centered rather than Christ centered, marketing and making deicisions on emotional responses rueld the day. That is one of the reasons spiritism gained such a foothold in that part of the country. Over the next 100 or so years the things you have raised begin to play into the equation. These include Darwinism and Marxism and the church wasn’t up to the challenge. As a result Chrristians abandoned the uiniversites and lost any influence there as well as in culture at large. Psychiatry eventually also played a big role. Jung beleived he was the reincarnaiton of Julian the Apostate and believed it was his mission to repaganize the church from the inside. This comes in to play but not until about the 1950s. So, there is a lot of gorund to cover and your concerns are great. Thanks.

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