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The American Way of Religion

ISS Reports


Seminar delivered by Dr William Johnston on April 14th, 2010

Dr Johnston studied at Harvard University, and he taught European cultural history and the history of world religions at the University of Massachusetts. He now teaches the history of Christianity at the Yarra Theological Union.

Dr Johnston introduced his talk with some words of Richard Hofstadter: "It is America's fate not to have an ideology, but to be one."

Will confronted his excited audience with the fact that in the 1680s the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania was the only place on the planet where all religions were welcome, unlike anywhere else, and this meant all existing forms of practising Christianity. Historically this is very significant, as it helps to explain why, as regards freedom of religion, the United States became a kind of larger Pennsylvania. Moreover, since about 1800, United States Protestants have never ceased devising new religious movements. The United States has produced a greater range and depth of new churches than any other English-speaking country, or than any Roman Catholic country. Inventiveness is an American characteristic that is displayed not least in an aptitude for inventing new religions.

While growing up as an Episcopalian in Boston, Massachusetts, Will became aware of religious inventiveness in his own city in the form of three variants of Christianity: Christian Science emerged in the 1870s under the firm guidance of the famous Mary Baker Eddy; Spiritualism was invented in New York State in the 1840s to invoke the spirit world with the help of mechanical devices like the ouija board; and Mormonism appeared in 1830 with The Book of Mormon. The Christian Scientists built one of the largest church buildings in Boston, a huge baroque edifice whose dome can be seen from any direction. Spiritualism and Mormonism originated a few hundred miles away among Protestants in upper New York State between 1820 and 1850. Mormonism is an ingenious "concept religion", answering the question of where Native Americans fit into the course of salvation history as revealed in the Old Testament. The Book of Mormon (purportedly completed in 384 A.D.) presents Native Americans as survivors of wanderers from the Tower of Babel who contested control of the New World thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. These religions are examples of new religious movements (NRMs) that spun off from New England Puritan religiosity.

Will expanded the picture by introducing a brief history of education praxis. He talked in particular about revival movements, an important fact of American history. He mentioned the Chautauqua summer camps as educational initiatives, then the liberal arts colleges, a New England heritage in higher education implemented by Congregational ministers from the 1770s onwards. These liberal arts colleges take young adults away in their late teens for four years of intensive study in all fields of enquiry. The foundation of these types of education was religious. It sought to strike a balance between pessimism about original sin needing education to channel it, and the hope of social transformation through promoting critique of high culture. The effect of four-year liberal arts colleges in shaping American life has been incalculable. Odd as it may seem, their ethos of quirky independence is now manifested worldwide in the otherwise inexplicable ethos of the Google Corporation.

As if things weren't getting complex enough already, Will then talked about the Black churches. The African-American churches are even more weighty in terms of numbers and social impact. So-called 'Slave religion' among southern slaves is famous for the hymns known as spirituals. Between 1831 and 1860 many in these churches were forbidden to practise Christianity because the members were slaves, so they did so secretly at night. Starting in 1906, it was African-Americans in Los Angeles who expanded the Holiness Movement of certain Methodists into the Pentecostal Movement, and in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King Jr. grew out of the black churches. Martin Marty was quoted as saying that all of these now belong to the "intact, informed, and institutional" forms of Christianity. Will made the stark observation, a truism often cited during the 1960s, that segregation in America is never more pronounced than at 11 am on Sunday mornings, when blacks and whites congregate in their own churches.

He then turned to the vexed issue of Fundamentalism, whose emergence a hundred years ago he attributed in particular to the "sheer cussedness" of the descendants of Scots-Irish Presbyterians, in particular, those located in the hinterland of Appalachia. Among these conservatives Protestants, the notion of biblical 'Fundamentalism' emerged during World War I and reflected a specifically American preoccupation with protection from 'foreign' or 'elitist' change. This movement based its claim to uphold the fundamentals of earliest Christianity on a series of narrow doctrinal tracts called The Fundamentals (1910–1915), written in part to counteract the kind of religious liberalism that was being promoted elsewhere within their own traditions. Although nowadays Fundamentalism is a term in common usage, it is worth remembering that it is a very recent development. (In conceding to an objection that not all Presbyterians are "cussed", Will reminded us that there have been more Presbyterian Presidents than of any other denomination except Episcopalians, and that the organisational structure of the Presbyterian church can take much of the credit for the ethos of problem-solving by committees, which many hail as part of the American genius. Presbyterian committee-men also excelled in leading the Protestant Ecumenical Movement that culminated in the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1940/1948.) Going beyond that, Will asserted that Christianity itself is inherently inventive, i.e. inherently American. These examples show us that from its beginning Christianity has been highly inventive of new forms, and nowhere more so than in the United States. Viewed from there, it seems just wrong to regard Christianity as incapable of self-renewal.

This discussion led to comparisons with Australian religious history. How might the inventiveness of American Christians inspire Christians in Australia? One important contrast is between the foundational myths of the two countries. On the one hand, the Europeans who colonised America in the 17th and 18th centuries came there because of their religion, whether it be through the call to mission, escape from religious persecution, or by treating the New World as the promised Land. America is a country formed in religious myth. On the other hand, the Europeans who colonised Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries did so primarily for political, imperial and economic reasons. In Australia, religious foundations are not so easy to trace.

Another very important contrast is in the relationship to Britain. Americans rebelled against the established religion of the early colonies. In 1784 it became necessary to create the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. because after the War of Independence it was no longer possible to keep an established form of the Church of England. In Australia by way of contrast, although the settlers did not create a system with an established church, as existed in Britain, they brought with them the cultural mentality of established religion, i.e. the centrality of the Church of England in the new society.

For those interested in being kept informed of the amazing changes in American Christianity, Will recommended the weekly email letter of the American church historian and commentator, Martin Marty, email:

Note: "...attendance at churches in the United States has declined only slightly in recent decades. Since the 1970s, the number of days Americans of all denominations have gone to services has declined from about 28 to 23 or 24 days a year. But what has changed is the makeup of the congregations — particularly women, Southerners and Catholics."

A report from Philip Harvey

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