CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1800 thru AD 1925

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.

As the age of revolution changed the cultural setting for Christendom, there was a new push to get our bearings as a faith movement. For almost 1400 years, the world of Christendom had enjoyed being the privileged default of culture. If you unplugged the western world and plugged it back in, the default setting would have blinked “Christian.” But now, with the rise of the Age of Enlightenment, Christendom’s white-knuckle grip on theology, creeds, and doctrinal truths did not age well. As the world became more and more knowledgable, more and more educated, more and more literate — simply affirming creedal beliefs wasn’t holding a candle to the scientific method.

But before we talk about science, one has to talk about the this new culture of independence and the impact it had on our own shores in America. The movement of culture away from Christianity had a positive effect for Christendom as a whole. In an effort to regain what was being lost, Protestant believers fell into what is often referred to as the Second Great Awakening (the “First” Great Awakening is usually attributed to the rise of Methodism in the mid-1700s, which we discussed previously). This great time of ‘revival’ was ushered in throughout North America and Europe through what we commonly know as “camp meetings.”

These revivals became a time for denominations to come together and enjoy fellowship, worship, and preaching. Such a focus and desire to experience true confession and repentance would lead to great times of spiritual revival and movement. Many attribute the rise of Pentecostalism to these experiences where the Holy Spirit seemed to be poured out in abundance. What is widely accepted as the first camp meeting was held in Kentucky in 1801 and would set the stage for an invigorated and passionate movement of Protestant parishioners.

This same awakening, coupled with the cultural movement of America toward freedom and independence, led to the jettisoning of denominationalism. As many denominations were attempting to hold onto their imperial moorings through the use of creeds and belief statements (think of a more colonial version of ‘church membership’), entire groups began kicking against colonialism as it was experienced in the North American church. The Stone-Campbell movement (also known as the Restoration Movement) was started when Barton Stone, a recently ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church, was asked to sign the Westminster Confession before he could receive the Eucharist. Appalled by the use of Confession and doctrine in this way, Stone joined others with similar encounters to restore a sense of the faith experienced in revivals (a faith they associated with the early church in the book of Acts) to Christianity in America.

It is not a coincidence that other movements started at this time, as well. Driven by the same disgust in the direction of Christianity, Joseph Smith received his calling (Mormonism) at this point in history, and we see the work of Ellen G. White, John Darby, and Charles Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses). Note that all of these movements are capitalizing, albeit unintentionally, on a newfound culture of freedom and independence to start new, revived expressions of a faith they felt was corrupted and dying.

On the scientific front, things are not turning out well for any form of Christendom trying to hold on to the doctrinal confessions and creedal understandings of their faith. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin began his famous work and Karl Marx was pursuing new political ideals; both seemed to work against a Christian worldview. While many of these ideas were critiqued within the Christian worldview, some critical thinkers in Christianity were affirming certain components.

The need for social vigilance was championed by people like William Booth, the Methodist pastor who founded the Salvation Army. Booth would become one of the lead thinkers shaping Christianity’s social consciousness around the turn of the century, giving rise to what we would call the social gospel. While the term has a negative connotation in most conservative evangelical circles, the movement was simply trying to recapture the practical and misplaced emphasis on caring for the poor and marginalized in our increasingly industrialized world where the gap between the rich and the poor was rapidly increasing. These were some of the same things that modernity — in all of its socio-polical growth pains — was trying to articulate, as well.

The secular aspect of this cultural growth curve is known as secular humanism, and after we finished fighting World War I (it’s interesting how war always hinders progress), Christendom in North America turned its attention to fighting these secular ideals. Like a lit powder keg, the famous Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, led to eruption of Christian “fundamentalism.” Christians immediately saw themselves in a culture war with secular humanism. The problem is that this rings incredibly reminiscent of the mistakes we made with Copernicus and Galileo. It seems we may be in danger of misidentifying our “enemy” and the truth we should be fighting to preserve.

But with all the splintering and division of Christianity, it becomes harder and harder for us to learn from our mistakes.


CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1650 thru AD 1800

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.

As the Age of Enlightenment continued, our secular growth curve continued, as well. If the theories and science proposed and proved by men like Copernicus and Galileo rocked the very foundations of our assumptions about the universe, it was only just setting the stage for what we call today modernity (or the “modern era”).

This growth curve would continue through the contributions of men like Isaac Newton and John Locke. Famous for his “laws of motion,” Newton is considered the modern father of mechanics and all of my engineering students have Newton to thank for so much of the field they enjoy. While this was not his only major contribution (for instance, Newton did incredible work in the field of color and the light spectrum, among other things), Newton changed the way we think about physics — therefore setting the stage for technological advancement like never before.

Locke is often referred to as the “Father of Liberalism.” While many in my circles in the rural northwest see the word liberal as something close to a swear word (I jest, I jest), it would be foolhardy to make assumptions about Locke. In its most basic and earliest forms, liberalism referred to a line of political philosophy that believes in liberty and equality. Locke’s influence, for instance, on the Declaration of Independence is unmistakable, and one of the reasons American democracy even works (on its good days) is because of the tension and balance held between liberalism and conservatism — one philosophy bent toward complete freedom and the other philosophy bent toward maintaining a constant ethic. Outside of our modern American context, Locke greatly impacted other major thinkers and players in the next century.

This secular growth curve should not convince us there was a lack in the theological department, by any means. The Protestant Reformation was finally cooling down. The Edict of Nantes (signed in 1598) had determined Protestants were granted civil liberty and equality, meaning they no longer had to run around as heretics under the oppression of the Holy Roman Empire. This freedom of thought had two results.

On the positive side, this newfound freedom allowed people to think for themselves, study, publish, and teach others their theological beliefs, theories, and systems. The negative side would be that Protestantism no longer had a central system holding it together. As Europe became more and more splintered and migration went on the rise, we would see mass division and splitting of Christian thought that seemed to increase exponentially for the next 200 years. Not that such diversity is a bad thing, but it has its struggles, as does anything else.

One of those new movements was led by John Wesley. While certainly not the first to do so, Wesley argued adamantly against the premises of Calvinism. Having broken away from the Anglican faith, Wesley became the father of what we know today as Methodism and the Methodist Church. Wesley preached vehemently about personal repentance, confession, and the power of our personal will to be transformed and to pursue the holiness of God. Christianity has been unbelievably impacted by his influence on Christian thought and practical applications of theology.

But we can’t forget all of this progress is happening in a world that is quickly changing. The writings of John Locke influenced another major secular voice in the eighteenth century: Voltaire, a French writer and philosopher who was widely praised for his satirical attacks on the Catholic Church (and some would say on established religion in general). Using his wit and cutting sense of humor, he argued for the freedom of religion and speech. His thoughts and writings shaped tremendously the ideas we know as the separation of church and state. Voltaire was quick to point out (accurately, I might add) the danger of religion when mixed with the power of the state.

Much of this had a major impact on public and educated opinion, and much of this opinion ended up changing culture in a way that radically affected history. The movement in France would ultimately lead to the French Revolution and ushered in what we now call the “post-Christian” era. The Church would continue to see a decline in its influence, both politically and culturally, as well as a loss of privilege over the centuries to come (something much of the Church is still in denial about to this day).

As far as my American context (as most of my readers are such), it would behoove us to realize that the great migration to America has been happening during this period. The cultural tenor has certainly set the stage for the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. With thinkers like Locke and Voltaire, the pump had been primed for the ideals that led to European revolution, and the independence on our shores, as well.