Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Faith Works 5-27-06
Jeff Gill

Religion Meets Democracy

With one more installment to come in our journey through the history of Christian church groups from an American viewpoint, we just put our feet on US soil last week.
As European dissent, reformers, and revivals fueled the trends, independence, individualism, and democracy quickly shaped the structures and leadership styles in the last 200 years of religious development.
Even Judaism saw the rise of a "Reform" movement in this country, rooted in the frontier as Cincinnati was when first called "The Queen City of the West," and where a Jewish presence is still strong. Orthodox Christian bodies sprang up around Cleveland and the Mahoning Valley when Eastern European ethnic groups came to mine and work the mills, carrying their homeland traditions with them. But they have seen tugs at their hierarchical system from congregations expecting more say in spending and personnel decisions than would be true even today in their countries of origin.
In fact, for most of the first century of the American experiment, faith and ethnicity were still closely tied. If your name was Sirovic, you were Serbian Orthodox, or if Podgorsky, then Catholic, albeit a member of a Polish Catholic parish (probably St. Stanislaus), while the O’Malleys walked to St. Patrick’s, the Irish Catholic parish. Muellers and Schmidts went to the Lutheran church, Bontragers and Millers were likely Mennonite if not Amish, and all the easy to spell names went to Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Congregational congregations. Episcopalians were usually easy to spell, but had middle names and bank accounts, or at least weren’t buying their seed on credit at the general store.
The Civil War transformed this landscape as much as it did so many other features on the American scene. First, many of those aforementioned groups split North and South, despite their official leadership’s efforts to hold each communion together. With the exception of the Episcopal Church, they all had major splits just before, or in the case of the Restoration Movement (Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ groups today), just after the 1861-5 conflict. Some were over abolitionist pro- or con- sentiments, and others were over membership for people of African or Native American descent, creating new ethnic churches.
Membership, the "laity" of the church, no longer deferred to ordained or clerical leadership, but spoke out and even organized themselves, multiplying or fracturing (depending on your point of view) the structures, echoing into today with – for instance – American Baptists, Southern Baptists, General Baptists, National Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Primitive Baptists, not to mention "Two-seed in the Spirit Predestinationist Conservative" Baptists.
Evangelism in the early Colonies, under the first "Great Awakening," and even the second so-called with the Cane Ridge, KY revivals of 1801, had been largely aimed at reviving one’s own. In the wake of the vast mixing of the Army of the Potomac, Army of Northern Virginia, and the rest of the Civil War, evangelism began to reach across ethnic, if not class boundaries; sometimes proselytism but often just a new sense of what was acceptable. Feeneys became Baptist (of whatever sort), Yoders converted to Catholicism, and Joneses went from Welsh Methodist to Presbyterian to Episcopal as the economy grew and mobility increased in the late 1800’s.
Ironically, along with the increased segmentation of American religion through this period came an interest in what became the ecumenical movement of the 1900’s, especially in the cities, where the "Social Gospel" movement focused on local mission and co-operative efforts. Global missionary efforts around 1900 were woefully sectarian, but with different groups reading in the newspapers and magazines of the day about each others’ work around the world, awareness took on a new character, moving beyond worldly competition. "Dr. Livingston, I presume?" was the greeting of reporter and explorer Henry Stanley to the long-feared missing David Livingston, found ministering in the heart of Africa; the account sold thousands of papers and later books to an avid readership of all denominations, inspiring a young Albert Schweitzer to do the same.
Global Christianity, at the dawn of the 20th century, cast a missionary net and built a network of relationships that literally did span the world. New forms of communication, ease of travel, and then two world wars, saw that network spark a transformation which reverberated both ways, with resonances that ripple across today’s truly transformed religious landscape.
We’ll trace those and where they may be heading next week, on Pentecost Eve!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; contact him through

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Notes From My Knapsack 5-28-06
Jeff Gill

Decorating Your Days and Simplifying Your Travels

Decoration Day, the one time name for May 30, was the original idea of "Memorializing" the honored dead. Whether it began with Julia Pierpont, wife of the governor of occupied Virginia, leading a group of Union women after war’s end to decorate soldiers’ graves both North and South, or any of the other claimed inspirations for the GAR commander General Logan’s order, flowers and wreaths and speeches have been part of late May since 1868.
Now a Monday holiday, Memorial Day falls on May 29 this year. Many communities around Licking County will offer simple parades and quiet ceremonies to honor the dead of all wars on Monday, and I trust you will find your way to mark the solemnity of the occasion.
Other cultural traditions have grown onto the weekend, with the Indy 500 on the last Sunday, and summer "officially" starting with the profusion of grills and picnics and sales that usher in what we trust and pray will be warmer weather.
School has a couple more weeks to go, but higher ed is off and those returned students scrambling for summer jobs if they didn’t do that arrangement last Christmas, and the public school program is more focused on inventories of lab glassware and turning in your textbooks.
For grownups, the office scramble is for figuring out who gets which week for vacation. News flash: you won’t get your first choice. Trust me.
The big idea this summer is "microvacation." This is the one tank trip to the nth degree; you find a nearby attraction you’ve always meant to see or visit in depth, and go do it, returning home in time for dinner in your own lawn chair.
Your Knapsack will offer a few of those in coming weeks, but may I suggest a micro-microvacation idea: books! A good read is not just for wintry cabin fever or beach broiling, but can be a back porch break that takes you to another era, a different land, to a new place in your head that you feel in your bones.
With Memorial Day in mind, I would belatedly commend to one and all "Hannah Coulter" by Wendell Berry. Berry is a poet and farmer and writer on agriculture and sustainability who has done the nearly impossible. He has published nothing that wouldn’t reward a close reading, in essays, collections of poems ("The Country of Marriage" his best, I feel), magazine articles, and novels.
Berry returned to a family farm in Kentucky, working as a professor of English while working the land at the same time. His novels all take place in a piece of Kentucky that is, and isn’t quite where Berry lives and farms and writes, and "Hannah Coulter" is the latest of that series. It is a short and powerful story of growing to maturity through and past World War II into the modern world.
You will not travel far reading "Hannah Coulter," but you will go deep into the human heart, perhaps even your own.
"The Genizah at the House of Shepher," by Tamar Yellin is a very distant work from Kentucky; Jerusalem, the lands of exile for Judaism in Eastern Europe and central Asia, and Yorkshire in England are all vividly sketched. You don’t need any knowledge of Hebrew to read this novel, but you will know much about Hebrew culture and the Jewish diaspora when you’re done.
There is love and romance, too, but not that kind. The love of words, and writing, and of one’s culture, even when you’re in rebellion against it, is the amour propre of this work.
Men and women marry, but not always to good ends. And faith is occasionally misplaced . . . all like real life at home, but looking a bit different far away.
If those recent novels aren’t enough for you, Penguin Classics has put out, in a fat paperback, a "restored" version of "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas. Most of us who might have read this in the past, as it turns out, got a pasteurized, bowdlerized, heavily edited version of this vast and complex tale, which is on a very short list of books that is actually improved by being twice as long.
Yes, it reads like a book written when Queen Victoria was still eating with her own teeth, but the fine folk at Penguin have given you just enough notes to clear up chronological confusions as they arrive. Once you allow for the unique tones and rhythms of the late 19th century, this is a remarkable travelogue through post-Napoleonic Europe, in Marseilles, Rome, Sardinia, Paris, and of course the Chateau d’If.
At the very least, this is a book that will hold down a corner of your beach towel; at best, you will be transported yourself.
Check your library or bookshop, and take a trip. Gas prices won’t even enter into the equation.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; pass him your favorite titles to