Immigration, nationalism, and the rejection of colonial powers led to increasing denominationalism and fragmentation in the landscape of Christianity in the 18th-19th centuries in North America. Gonzalez attempts to follow some of the threads which inform many modern day expressions of Christianity.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. Revised and Updated ed. Vol. 2. New York: HarperCollins, 2010b. Kindle Electronic Edition.
Chapter 27, “A Shifting Landscape: The United States” Loc. 4954-5453.
After a period of relative autonomy, in the later part of the eighteenth century, Britain attempted to exercise more authority in North America (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 4960). This was not uniformly welcomed. The increasing tensions eventually led to armed conflict. The war for American independence grew out of these conflicts (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 4975). The religious landscape in North America was profoundly changed by these events, as people tended to leave historic and dogmatic Christianity behind.
Gonzalez sees this movement particularly in the Unitarian groups who rejected the Trinity, and in Universalists, who confessed that everyone would be saved (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 4982). The two groups tended to join together, also often in alliance with Transcendental and other rationalist philosophical groups (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 4990).
The relationship of North American churches to Anglicanism was also a serious issue (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 4996). Because of the Anglican roots of much of the religious landscape, the war for independence caused an uneasy situation. Eventually, a form of Methodism governed in America arose. Baptist churches, locally governed, rose up as well (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5003). The term “denomination” is indicative of this pluralistic attitude. The churches would accept each other as Christian, but as a variety of types of Christians (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5010). Denominations could arise as groups of Christians sorted themselves according to a variety of doctrinal or political views.
Waves of immigration in the 18th and 19th centuries had a strong influence on the growth of denominations. Gonzalez notes the wide variety of people from different backgrounds tended to use their Christian experience as an important means of preserving a cultural identity (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5040). At the same time, social and religious groups could also arise in opposition to one another (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5047). Especially in the 19th century a variety of religious communal experiments were undertaken, seeking to form a village or region which would be dedicated to a certain group of beliefs (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5062). Gonzalez discusses the Shakers in some detail.
Gonzalez also discusses the rise of the Second Great Awakening near the end of the 18th century (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5076). In this movement there was a strong emphasis on personal belief. Bible and missions societies were founded frequently as people desired to bring the Christian faith to others (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5085). In this time period, expansion to the west was spurred on by a missionary zeal. Revival meetings and opportunities to gamble and carouse joined together on the frontier (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5098). In these camp meetings the preaching would often be very simple, and the preacher would have little training. The Methodists and Baptists, who could approve lay preachers quickly, were at the forefront of religious developments on the frontier (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5113). On the frontier, Gonzalez affirms that ethnic boundaries were more likely to break down (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5120).
Gonzalez sees a strong sense of divine approval among the settlers in North America (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5120). This naturally led to a desire to subdue the entire continent. In 1845 the term “Manifest Destiny” was coined to urge occupation of all territory west of the United States territory to the Pacific Ocean (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5135). This resulted in war not only between Texas and Mexico, but also conflicts between Protestant and Catholic and between slave holding people (Texas) and non-slave people (Mexico). Primarily due to superiority in weapons, the Texan army overcame the Mexicans, creating an independent Republic of Texas (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5152). Texas was later made a state by congressional resolution. The forces of the United States then invaded to the west, drawing fire from Mexico, a declaration of war, and the capture of a great deal of territory from Mexico (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5173).
Gonzalez suggests that the religious landscape was increasingly polarized between Protestant and Catholic in this conflict (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5180). The issue of slavery was also increasingly divisive. Among some denominations slavery was banned, while others did not reject it (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5203). Because of a strong abolitionist movement in the North, those who were dependent on slave labor in the South frequently defended slavery as a biblical and salutary institution (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5211). This resulted in a variety of denominational splits which remain to the present. After the War of 1861 there were continued conflicts in different segments of the population, including racial polarization (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5228). Churches also tended to form separate black and white denominations (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5233). Gonzalez specifically points out that this was an issue both in the North and the South (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5246).
Between the War of 1861 and World War I, tensions between races grew, as did a strong anti-intellectual bias in the South (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5253). Meanwhile, Christian thinkers were promoting the idea of a Christian nation which would be responsible for creating true civilization (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5270). This led to formation of more Christian mission and social organizations. The Sunday school was developed and the religious camp meeting was refashioned to fit the needs of an urbanized society (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5277). Though Gonzalez does not mention the connection, this appears much like a continuation of the methods of the Second Great Awakening, now becoming a fixture of the established church. This reconfiguration included female preachers (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5291). Gonzalez ties this directly to the rise of the later feminist movement (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5312). He also notes the rise, especially in the early 20th century, of the neopentecostal movement (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5312). This movement became dominant in American Christianity and in much of the global landscape (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5326). Another new denomination formed after the War of 1861 is the Seventh Day Adventists. This group has a vivid hope of the second coming of Christ and an expectation that modern prophets and attention to the Jewish law will guide affairs until the coming of the Lord (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5326).
Gonzalez again notes the continuing intellectual challenges to Christian orthodoxy in this time period. Theological liberalism raised doubts about the reliability of Scripture (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5340). On the other end of the spectrum, by about 1846, there was a strong move to defend the fundamental tenets of Christianity (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5362). Again, fundamentalism and liberalism tended to divide the country into South and North respectively. Fundamentalism developed schemes for interpreting the Bible which were not necessarily any more orthodox than the ideas of liberalism (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5370). From the fundamentalist the idea of dispensationalism could require God to change over time. From liberalism the social gospel would equate societal progress with redemption (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5377). Both movements were at high points in the early 20th century.
Gonzalez also discusses the rise of various new religions in the 19th century. In 1830 Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, allegedly revealed to him on sacred golden tablets which he translated with angelic help (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5393). This new religion claimed to be a continuation of Christianity as Christianity was a continuation of Judaism. Eventually the bulk of Mormons settled in Utah, from where they have worked with missionary zeal.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses sought secret knowledge and revelation, predicting the end of the world and rejecting the Trinity. Since the world did not end in 1914 they have reorganized and worked as missionaries (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5415).
Christian Science holds that the material world is largely an illusion (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5423). The founder, Mary Baker Eddy, considered illness to be an illusion. She founded a college for practitioners of Christian Science in 1879. The organization rejects any variance in doctrines, prescribing specific readings from the Bible and Eddy’s writings (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 5437).
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