Revivalism in the Burned-over District Part 3

And the last part, I might add. Dear reader I hope you are not too weary of looking at our little section of upstate New York. I want to visit it one last time. In previous posts we have looked at the philosophical and theological headwaters of the Culture-Driven church. I now want to go “downstream” a bit and consider the political thought that also contributed to the Twentieth Century church.

I think it’s been established that the Burned-over district was a hotbed of change (and probably some hope as well). “New” was everywhere. New men, new methods, New Thought and new movements dominated the landscape. It is no accident that women’s suffrage (the right to vote), abolition, and the temperance movement spring up in New York at this time. As with any human movement, these were conglomerations of good intentions, justice, and genuine concern. However, they were also the occasions for injustice, manipulation, and the temptations of power. Listen to Lyman Beecher in a letter to his friend Nathaniel Berman (from Whitney Cross’s book):

There is nothing to which the minds of good men, when once passed the bounds of sound discretion, and launched on an ocean of feeling and experiment, may not come . . . nothing so terrible and unmanageable as the fire and whirlwind of human passion, when once kindled by misguided zeal . . . for in every church, there is wood, hay, and stubble which will be sure to take fire on the wrong side.

It should give us all pause how movements built on good intentions can be warped by our own tendencies to “crusade.” As C.S. Lewis warned, what begins as the political aspect of our faith can quickly become the most important aspect of our faith. How many Christians do you know who consider political activism their God-given calling? The danger however is that what becomes our Christian identity can soon overshadow in a way that our Christianity and our Activism trade places so that our Christianity becomes simply an aspect (albeit the most important aspect) of our political activism. Listen to Cross:

Itinerant preachers utilized the various sins of intemperance as excuses for protracted meetings, and lecturers who centered upon social rather than religious reform utilized the same techniques with much the same ideological content. From both camps [i.e. social and religious] came leaders and followers who increasingly focused on the alcoholic question as the greatest, if not the single vital one of the day. Losing sight of others, they magnified this one objective until it assumed in their minds exclusive proportions.

And that was the way of it. As one reads the history of the burned over district, a pattern emerges. In order to hasten the millennial kingdom, sins must be eradicated. Sins become issues and issues become movements. Movements become frustrated with the lack of personal influence that mere advocacy produces and government becomes the chief means of advocating change. Consider this quote again from Cross:

But the evangelicals, who had first seen the cause as one step toward the millennium and had gathered their intensity from revivalism, evolved toward direct action on the one issue alone, by whatever political methods were required to achieve it.

Time and again this is the pattern. John R. McDowall’s Magdalen society sought to rescue “fallen women and restoring them to social usefulness” but when his supporters grew impatient with results, McDowell began to publish tracts and journals calling for public and political solutions. In themselves these are not bad things but one gets the impression that the “fallen women” were abandoned in favor of more sweeping reforms in legislation. By the time the “female moral reform” movement had separated themselves from McDowall, the movement became nothing more than a publishing house for “vapid moral tracts on the preservation of innocence and campaigning for state laws to punish crimes against chastity.”

I mentioned earlier that Finney’s theology was the headwaters, but there was one other tributary that contributed to the flood out of New York–millennialism. William Miller, Adventists, and Ultraists all thought the end was coming soon. Millerites, it is said would sell all they had and climb trees to await the apocalypse. But what isn’t widely considered is what happened when the end didn’t come in 1838 and 1849 and . . . By 1850, many were disillusioned with Miller and the Ultraists. The fire of misguided passion had burned over the district in a conflagration that led to all manner of heresy including sexual cults (Oneida community of John Humphrey Noyes) and manipulation (one Presbyterian district paid its members 25 dollars to take the temperance pledge). In the wake of the endlessly tardy return of Christ, the flood divided. Those with a more spiritual bent went further into mysticism looking for a supernatural solution. A young treasure hunter named Joseph Smith would seek for supernatural vision and guidance in the midst of religious turmoil. Those of the more political and ideological bent veered pell-mell to the left.

Cross again:

“. . . having departed from the literal rendition of their religious tradition, could make a somewhat more realistic approach to the problems of this world. In their view, to , the millennium would come immediately, but it would be a Utopia built by mortal hand and brain, of earthly materials, established in the midst of contemporary society. . . Christ had died to atone for the original sin of all men. Regeneration, then, could be no Heavenly miracle, sorting the saved from the damned, but rather betokened a growth in morality which could as well be gradual as instantaneous. Such a theology might easily accord with the opinion, as orthodox doctrine did not, that evil was the consequence more of social maladjustment than of individual sin.”

What began as a philosophical worldview and reaction to some kinds of Calvinism had become a political and psychological assessment of the cause of human evil. This branch of the Burned-Over river would flow downstream and become in many respects the great influence on the Social Gospel Movement. Walter Rauschenbusch, himself born in upstate New York would pick up the stream of Utopian and Millennial in his book Christianity and the Social Crisis. Note Rauschenbusch’s warped theology of atonement leads directly to the concern for social maladjustment:

“Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”

Rauschenbusch was heavily influenced by Charles Sheldon of In His Steps fame who was a committed Christian socialist . The timing could not have been more perfect for the rise of the Christian left. Communism claimed its first revolution in the October revolt of 1917. Rauschenbusch published Theology for the Social Gospel the same year. Marx called Christian socialist experiments “Utopian socialism” to distinguish them between “Scientific Socialism” of Marxism-Leninism, but the movements had much in common–especially the emphasis on the social evils of society brought about by class warfare and poverty rather than the depraved human heart. Marx was right when he wrote in the Communist Manifesto that there was a specter haunting the landscape not only of Europe but America. It was the specter of an ideology that began with Ultraism and found its flourishing in the Culture-Driven Social Gospel and Communism. Don has already wrote of the 20th century fascination with Communism and now I think we see that the tributaries of that fascination can be followed back to the world-view first cultivated in the Burned-Over district.


Comments

Revivalism in the Burned-over District Part 3 — 1 Comment

  1. Another excellent post! I’m sure a rather direct line can be drawn from the Social Gospelism of the early 20th Century and the Social Reform movements of the 60s – at least the ones led by “religious” community activits (now called community organizers).

    It’s also ironic to note that both the social gospelites and their ardent oponents, the Fundamentalists, were both to a great extent shaped by the Burned Over District. In one branch, revivalism turns into moral reform, which turns into a social gospel. In the other branch, revivalism turns into moral reform and prophecy conferences.

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