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Christian Revivals on the American Frontier

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher

Many Americans on the frontier would have found Channing's rational religion neither intelligible nor striking nor appealing. Both Puritans and Unitarians preached to the same congregation week after week and could gradually educate their audience, but sermons on the frontier came only with the occasional visit of a traveling preacher. These itinerants had little chance to give much theological instruction; they focused on immediate conversions.

Beginning in the 1820s two Yale theologians, Nathaniel W. Taylor and Lyman Beecher, organized revival campaigns throughout Connecticut and beyond. Jonathan Edwards had believed that a revival would come in God's predestined time; Beecher and Taylor thought that effective preaching and good organization could create a revival. Beecher urged the cler8y "no longer to trust Providence, and expect God will vindicate his cause while we neglect the use of appropriate means."

Effective preaching involved telling people they had the freedom to choose between salvation and damnation. "The people did not need high-toned Calvinism on the point of dependence; they ... needed a long and vigorous prescription of free-agency."18 Revivalists, like Unitarians, moved away from predestination.

At about the same time in upstate New York, Charles Grandison Finney carried the new style of revivalism several steps further. Finney prided himself on his lack of theological education. He thought that intellectual subtlety just gets in the way of good preaching. "We must have exciting, powerful preaching, or the devil will have the people, except what the Methodists can save."

Finney pioneered new techniques, like the "anxious bench" where those deemed near conversion came forward to sit and receive the focused attention of the whole congregation, and praying for recalcitrant relatives and friends by name. "Revival," he insisted, "is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a purely philosophical [we would say "scientific"] result of the right use of the constituted means."

Under the influence of Finney and others, the "burned-over" district of upstate New York ("burned over" by the fires of successive revivals) came to have the reputation southern California has today as the natural home of all sorts of religious cults.

Already in 1774 Mother Ann Lee had established a community of Shakers at New Lebanon. Back in England, Ann Lee Stanley had converted to Quakerism and then had a series of visions which persuaded her that she, like Jesus, was God incarnate, this time in a woman to capture the female aspect of divinity.

Her followers, the Shakers, granted women full equality, shared all their goods, opposed war, corporal punishment, and the use of tobacco and alcohol, and lived celibate lives.

In the 1840s John Humphrey Noyes founded at Oneida another community in which all goods were shared. Defending "the right of a woman to dispose of her sexual nature by attraction instead of by law and routine and to bear children only when she chooses,"21 Noyes made every adult at Oneida the spouse of every adult of the opposite sex.

This "complex marriage" was supposed to overcome possessive love and lay the basis for scientific procreation. The new movements of the burned-over district combined abolitionism, revivalism, communism, attacks on the use of alcohol, and concern for women's rights in ways that seem surprising today.

All these new movements sought the creation of a perfect community, inspired by a sense that dramatic events lay near at hand. Soon a Baptist named William Miller began to preach that the present age of the world would come to an end in 1843. When his calculations, mostly based on the book of Daniel, proved apparently in error, his followers explained that he had been wrong only concerning the nature of the event.

At the appointed time Christ had in fact brought one age to an end by entering the Holy of Holies in the heavenly sanctuary, The Millerites joined the followers of a visionary from Portland, Maine, named Ellen White to establish the Seventh Day Adventists, with a number of distinctive beliefs, many of them reminiscent of early Jewish Christianity. The Adventists celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, follow a good bit of Jewish dietary law, and emphasize Jesus' role as high priest.

Joseph Smith founded the largest group to come out of that upstate New York milieu. His family had migrated to New York in 1816, when Joseph was eleven. To his neighbors the boy seemed a wild dreamer, always looking for buried Indian gold or claiming to have a magic stone that enabled him to predict the future.

Smith announced that the angel Moroni had appeared to him and disclosed the existence of hidden golden tablets, which a magic stone allowed him to translate from the "reformed Egyptian." Smith's "translation," the Book of Mormon, tells how the descendants of the ancient Israelites had come to America, and how Christ had appeared in America after his crucifixion.

Smith's followers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, moved first to Ohio, then to Missouri, then to Nauvoo, Illinois. They opposed slavery in slave-owning Missouri, tried to exercise influence in Illinois politics, and roused all sorts of suspicions. Following Old Testament precedent, Smith and a few others took more than one wife. A bitter story of persecution culminated in the lynching of Smith and his brother in Carthage, Illinois, in 1844.

Mormonism has produced a new sacred book, nearly as complex as the Bible, and so much new theology that some argue it is not a new Christian group but a different religion altogether. After learning that the usual Hebrew word for God is "Elohim," grammatically a plural form, Smith argued that the Old Testament clearly teaches that there are many Gods, some male and others female.

His inquiries into Hebrew also convinced him that the word in Genesis usually translated "create" really means "organize," and he concluded that the "creator" did not make a world out of nothing but organized eternally existing matter.

Many worlds have come and gone, and many Gods developed on them. "God himself," Smith preached, "was once as we are now.... If you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form.... God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did."22 Indeed, we all have the capacity to become Gods ourselves someday.

All this may seem a long way from John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, but Smith's optimism about human nature and his rejection of predestination and original sin agreed with the rationalism of moderate Deists. In Europe or Boston "reason" might mean Newton's physics, but out on the frontier "science" meant amateur archaeology, pamphlets on Indian history, and popular lectures on the Hebrew language-just the context in which Smith developed his ideas.

The following extracts are presented for educational purposes only. The owner retains all rights. This has been broken into individual sections for easier reading.

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher