Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Faith Works 5-20-06
Jeff Gill

Frontier Faith Is Different

With week five of our seven part history of Christendom, we finally cross the pond to the American Colonies. Just about every one has a history of establishment by religious dissidents, Protestants of some sort. The chief exception would be Maryland, whose Calvert and Carroll founders were English Catholics.
But they were protestants of a sort, or Recusants: the Anglican Reformation, leading to the Church of England, swung Protestant under Henry, Catholic under his daughter Mary, back to a "via media" under Elizabeth I, and her heir from Scotland, James, firmed up the Protestantism of the state church by authorizing an English translation of the Holy Bible in 1611, the King James Version.
Catholics were left out in the cold, as citizens (barely) and as participants in civil society (forbidden from Oxford and Cambridge or in government work). Recused from real involvement in their culture, some went underground (Guy Fawkes the most famous, or infamous of the type), and others emigrated.
A Civil War in England, led by those wanting a "purer" Reformed English Church under Oliver Cromwell, rocked colonial governments in places like Virginia and Georgia and the Carolinas, where the Church of England was established as the state church.
In Massachusetts Bay, where Puritan Congregationalists were in control from the start, they didn’t want outright rebellion – that was a hundred years ahead yet. It made them nervous enough, though, that when Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson started speaking about an even more radically congregational faith, with adult baptism conferring democratic rights of freedom in the church, they were exiled to Providence Plantations and Rhode Island in the southern wilds of New England. Connecticut just got marginal Congregationalists, not the Baptists.
New Amesterdam and Hudson Valley already had early Dutch Calvinists (think Rip Van Winkle), with Scandinavian Lutherans settling Delaware and those "peculiar people," the Quakers under William Penn, starting Pennsylvania. Anglicans were strongly present, but not dominant, in early New York (as it became) and New Jersey, the latter getting a healthy share of Scots-Irish Presbyterians in their early days, starting a college and seminary at Princeton early on.
So each colony or area had their own traditional, or ethnic Protestant tradition carried over from Europe’s conflicts, with even the Catholicism of Maryland emigrating out of a minority situation. This held for some time in the coastal cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Williamsburg, Charleston – but inland very quickly became a whole new story.
John Wesley lived and died an Anglican priest, traveling to the Colonies in his early career (disastrously). He struggled with what felt dry and unfeeling out of the tradition that gave him birth, and returning to London he fell in with a group of . . . Moravians! (they pop up all over…) A prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street where his "heart was strangely warmed" led to a Method of personal renewal and social revival that became Methodism.
Francis Asbury, an early adopter of the Method of classes and class leaders and open air preaching (without a license, no less), came to America at a critical time. Church of England priests were few and far between, without bishops to ordain more this side of the Atlantic. Frontier settlements saw clergy for sermons and communion, let alone weddings and funerals, at long intervals. Asbury saddled his horse and rode, in the days before and after the Revolution, from Maine to Georgia.
With even Anglicans pulling back from the home country leadership to rely on their own bishops, and an Episcopal system, the frontier areas were ripe for more lay led church life, and revivalistic preaching from travelling clergy who were willing to move about. The Methodist Church blazed across the mountains and all along the Alleghenies and Appalachians, where it still thrives today and is Licking County’s dominant faith tradition.
The Church of Scotland, known as Presbyterian over here, had many of the same problems as their English brethren, and the Campbells, father and son, came into the western Pennsylvania district just after the Constitution and nation were set. They led a "Restoration Movement" out of that tradition, influenced by Calvinism but in revolt against many of the structures created by those churches.
With weekly communion, adult baptism, and congregational government, the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and Disciples of Christ are the Campbellite heirs of the Restoration Movement in three modern traditions, divided like Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians today by the American Civil War and modernism.
Those divisions and a reaction towards ecumenism we’ll consider next week!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he has two more weeks to go ‘til Pentecost, and we’ll trace a path from Cane Ridge, Kentucky to Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Feedback to disciple@voyager.net.

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