From Pueblos to Pentecostals

BEFORE THE UNITED STATES was even a glimmer of an idea, it was already multinational, multilingual, and multiracial; European, African, native, mestizo, and mulatto; Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and more. It already hinted at the religious diversity and market-place of religious ideas yet to come.

Diversity in the early west

In what came to be the desert Southwest, the first inter- mingling of New and Old World religions came through Spanish exploration and conquest. The Spanish military, accompanied by Franciscan missionaries, crossed into the grueling terrain of the deserts of northern New Spain. In modern-day New Mexico, they encountered sophisticated indigenous people groups, whom they called “Pueblos.”

Almost immediately, the Spanish met resistance—sparked by the soldiers’ own bad behavior—and brutally put it down, instigating an uneasy truce. Barely suppressed hostilities simmered for the next hundred years. While the Franciscan missionaries aimed to stamp out all forms of native religion, many Pueblos resisted Spanish authority and continued to practice their traditional religions in secret. In 1680 the Pueblos revolted and drove the Spanish out of the region for 12 years. Ultimately, however, the conquerors prevailed.

Intermarriage, rape, and concubinage between Pueblos and Spaniards created on the frontier of New Spain a mestizo (“mixed”) society—in terms of both race and religion. It is often said that the counter-Reformation missed New Spain, and aspects of medieval Spanish Catholicism blended with native cultures in both the American Southwest and Latin America. The result of this was a long-enduring legacy of racial and religious mestiaje (“mixing”) in the Southwest, still visible today through the devotion of the region’s people to La Virgen de Guadalupe, the presence of the Matachines dances (see photo and text on this page), and the pervasive blending of folk religions, healing traditions, Roman Catholicism, and ethnic forms of Protestantism and Pentecostalism.

East coast dissent

Meanwhile, strict, highly educated Reformed Puri­tans set the tone for East Coast religion. In 1630 John Winthrop led a group of Puritans to the shores of present­day Massachusetts with a vision to build a “City on the Hill” and set an example for the Church of England. Their errand into the wilder­ ness, however, proved to be far more terrifying and lonely than they could have ever imagined—beset by inner and outer personal turmoil and theological battles. The powerful Congregationalist Church establishment worked hand-­in-­hand with a civic order assumed to be biblically mandated down to the details of its law code.

But dissenter Roger Williams would have none of it. Preaching against the right of any church to dictate the religious practice of all in its territory, Williams made himself so unwelcome that he was forced to flee south. There he founded Rhode Island on the principle of freedom of religion. Sniffed at as “the latrine of the colonies” by Massachusetts Puritan leader Cotton Mather, Rhode Island was New England’s first experiment in religious freedom.

Much to the chagrin of Rhode Island’s Congre­gationalist neighbors to the north, Williams’s vision for his colony emerged as the winning one. Just south of Williams, in the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, a motley influx of settlers brought a variety of faiths with them, also distressing to the Dutch Reformed Church and later the English authorities. “Religious diversity by immigration” set the tone, and the middle colonies remained among the most pluralistic areas of the New World.

Pennsylvania made this pluralism a matter of prin­ciple as Quaker William Penn opened his “Penn’s Woods” for settlement to all religious dissenters flee­ing Europe, giving a home to a variety of Quakers, Anabaptist groups, Moravians, Jews, Catholics, Presbyterians, and early Baptists. Penn wrote, “That there is such a Thing as Conscience, and the Liberty of it, in Reference to Faith and Worship towards God, must not be denied . . .”

Still further south, wealthy and aristocratic land­ owners kept colonies Anglican—though in the vast territories outside of Virginia, this was mainly in name only. Anglican ministers, stretched to the limit keeping even a few parishes going, wrote back to the mother church to plead for help.

Maryland enjoyed a brief dalliance with Catholicism before folding into the Anglican order, and in the Carolinas and Georgia, Anglican planters did little to convert their African slaves, for fear that bap­tism would lead their “property” to argue that one Christian should not own another. Yet, in what would become North Carolina, a variety of Protestant dissenters began to settle in the Piedmont, giving the area a rich taste of the evangeli­calism that would soon take root and flower.

Seeking salvation

The strict Calvinism of New England Congregation­ alists meant that many believers struggled with the doctrine of predestination; were they among the elect or not? Their only assurance of their eternal destiny was to reach back into Scripture and history to affirm God’s care for his covenant people.

But Methodism and its emphasis on salvation for all had come to the New World. So did the mystical and intensely personal practices of German Pietism, and the Enlightenment with its emphasis on rational thought, freedom of conscience, and the freedom to choose one’s own religious destiny. By the 1740s, all of these influences flowed together into a potent fuel, feeding the flames of religious revival. Scholars continue to debate whether an actual “First Great Awakening” ever occurred. We do know that a series of local revivals throughout the colonies in the mid-eighteenth century changed the landscape of American Protestantism.

Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, unexpectedly set off revival among the young people of his parish by asking his congregants to actively seek an experience of conversion as a sign of their salvation. In place of the ambiguity that accompanied the doctrine of predestination, Edwards preached that the believer could have an emotional salvation experience—and know it. Edwards’s work combined Puritan theology with Pietist experience, while mounting a defense against the Enlightenment’s challenge to traditional religion.

First star preacher

The ideas of gifted Anglican preacher George Whitefield complemented those of Edwards. He believed in predestination but also preached that an emotional salvation experience could reveal that one was among the elect. He was the first superstar preacher to emerge in the New World, rising to celebrity status across the colonies and touring the colonial countryside preaching at whatever church would have him, on side lawns, or in nearby fields.

Whitefield was known for his extemporaneous speaking skills, emotionally powerful theatrical phrasing, and the power to project his voice to huge crowds before the age of electronic amplification (Ben Franklin once calculated the size of a Whitefield audience to the nearest thousand). Connecticut farmer Nathan Cole described the scene at one of Whitefield’s revivals: “When I saw Mr. Whitefield come upon the Scaffold he Lookt [sic] almost angelical.”

Whitefield’s preaching transformed many, and his emotional style forever changed Christianity in America. He also codified the three-step conversion experience, which later came to be known as being “born again.” Whitefield preached “conviction,” the realization of one’s sinfulness; “evangelical humiliation,” praying and waiting for salvation and prostrating oneself before God; and finally “regeneration,” beginning in the moment when the Holy Spirit enters one’s soul and cleanses it of sin, thus assuring salvation.

Whitefield’s preaching tours left chaos in their wake, since he publicly criticized preachers who had not experienced conversion. Critics such as New Englander Charles Chauncey worried that people’s emotions were taking control of them and leading them far from the path of “rational religion.” In the aftermath, New England Presbyterians and Congregationalists split into pro-revival and “old-style” factions.

And they kept on coming

Baptists began to spread across the colonies, especially in the South, where the Anglicans tried to put a stop to their growth, but failed. The Baptist cause found an unlikely ally in Thomas Jefferson, who secured a separated church and state in Virginia on their behalf, freeing them from restrictive regulation and taxation in support of the established Anglican Church. All the while Methodists, who would become the big story of the following century, continued to trickle in.

Collectively, these eighteenth-century revivals resulted in a growing diversity of Protestant groups and a new way of understanding one’s relationship with God that began to spread at a slow burn. The flame would become a wildfire in the early nineteenth century.

If the revivals of the eighteenth century gave American evangelicals their conversionist theology of salvation, the revivals of the early to mid-nineteenth century gave American evangelicalism its religious practice. The democratic flavor of camp meetings, popular music, and Bible study marked this period as one of the most influential in the history of American Protestantism.

The birth of the Second Great Awakening, as it is often called, is usually dated to the Cane Ridge revival in 1801. This series of camp meetings in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, a few miles northeast of Lexington, was notable for its length and size (an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 people attended). It was ecumenical, with Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist preachers sharing the platforms.

Their preaching urged sinners to give their hearts over to Christ, and many experienced emotional conversions, often heralded by weeping, shaking, laughter, dancing, and falling in ecstatic trances (akin to the modern charismatic experience of being “slain in the Spirit”). Cane Ridge set off revival all across America’s western frontier, the South, New England, and the “burned-over” district of upstate New York (so called because of its repeated waves of revival).

The camp meeting—an open-air revival where people stayed for days on end—proved a powerful tool in the hands of the Methodists, who used it to evangelize large groups of people on the expanding frontier. Under the leadership of the constantly traveling Bishop Francis Asbury, Methodists also perfected the “church growth” technique of the circuit rider.

The Methodist explosion

Inspired by the traveling preachers who had spread British Methodism, circuit riders ministered along a far-flung network of small rural preaching points. Week by week and month by month, through rain, sleet, snow, and hail, circuit riders spread Methodism’s message of the saving power of God’s love for all and challenged (at least in Methodism’s early years) southerners’ growing dependence on slavery. Along with Baptists, Methodists also helped foster the birth of both white and black hymnody. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Methodists were the largest Protestant denomination in America.

Fires of revival spread through the Northeast and Midwest, where they swept up a young lawyer named Charles Grandison Finney. After a powerful conversion experience, Finney left his law practice and struck out to evangelize America. Known for his plain-spoken and direct manner of preaching, the tall, ice-blue-eyed young evangelist introduced three major changes in revivalism—changes that made him the object of suspicion and animosity among older-style evangelists in the mold of Jonathan Edwards, even as Finney’s name became synonymous with American revivalism.

Sinners bench, altar call

Finney allowed women to testify publicly, he urged mid-week nightly meetings for praise and preaching, and he introduced the “sinner’s bench”—a pew set aside in the front of the church where sinners could pray and give their lives to Christ. This last innovation eventually evolved into the modern-day “altar call.”

Methodists and Baptists appealed to enslaved African Americans and emphasized outreach work to slaves. They helped to train African American preachers (both enslaved and free), while simultaneously battling with them over issues of control. Black Methodist preacher Richard Allen, a former slave in Philadelphia, repeatedly challenged white Methodist authorities and eventually broke away to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.).

Allen set a trend—systematic racism in the young nation made most African American Christians more comfortable in black denominations, and black Christians created and used these denominations as seats of political and spiritual power.

In the ferment of the nineteenth century, even more new groups sprang forth from the revivalist tradition begun in the Great Awakening. This included not only African Americans but also the Restorationist movements—those seeking to restore the first-century church—including the Campbellites (Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches) and Joseph Smith’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

Staid “mainline” denominations such as Episcopalians and Lutherans also received new energy from the Awakening. And as revivalism ebbed in the 1840s, waves of Catholic immigrants began to appear in America in enormous numbers. After them came many Jews from Germany and later Russia. Americans found themselves in this period with a smorgasbord of religious affiliations to choose from.

New age, new issues

The start of the twentieth century ushered in new religious ideas and social issues. In this new America, believers had to decide how they were going to react.

Especially after the Civil War, a progressive, socially engaged form of Protestantism emerged that tried to deal head-on with the social issues of modernity. Protestant reformers often founded societies or groups to take on particular causes: temperance, women’s rights, prison reform, educational reform, and abolition.

Many of the most prominent reformers were women. Their works included Unitarian Dorothea Dix’s reforming crusade on behalf of the mentally ill and Presbyterian reformer Jane Addams’s Hull-House in Chicago. Other women, not finding the answers they needed within orthodox denominations, formed their own groups—Mary Baker Eddy’s interest in divine healing, for instance, resulted in the founding of the Church of Christ, Scientist.

Evolutionary theory and the “higher” biblical criticism that emerged in this era also led to both schism and growth among Protestants. Darwin’s theory of evolution questioned the creation story in the Bible, and Christians quickly split over whether to accept Darwin or not. Leading the charge for acceptance was progressive Congregationalist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most popular preachers of his day. More conservative colleagues often pilloried Beecher for embracing evolution and the idea that Christianity should adapt to the changing times.

Fighting evolution

Conservatives openly fought the theory of evolu­tion by natural selection and began to splinter over issues surrounding the Second Coming, how the Bible should be read, and premillennial dispensationalism.

Dispensationalists believed that Jesus’ Second Coming would usher in the end times and that leading up to those end times, a series of events contained within cer­tain dispensations (time periods) was unfolding, as laid out in the Bible (chiefly in Daniel and Revelation).

This stream of teaching fed the rising tide of fun­damentalism among a variety of Protestant groups. As historian George Marsden says, “Fundamentalists were evangelical Christians, closest to the dominant American revivalist establishment of the nineteenth century, who in the twentieth century militantly opposed modernism in theology and the cultural changes that modernism endorsed.” Fundamentalists believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible, premil­lennialism, and cultural and social conservatism. By the start of the twentieth century, they could be found in a variety of evangelical Protestant denominations.

Pentecostal fire

At about the same time, a new form of Christianity in America was catching fire. Although similar small revivals broke out in a variety of places across the country, it was the one in the old livery stable on Azusa Street in Los Angeles that caught America’s attention. There a revival in 1906, led by African American preacher William Seymour, began to blaze among Los Angelinos.

In its infancy, this was a cross­racial revival. It encompassed whites, African Americans, and Latinos, and incorporated supernatural elements beyond those of the old revivalism, including speaking in tongues, prophecy, and visions, along with the familiar weeping and falling. Thus, Pentecostalism was born.

With its emphasis on bodily expressions and supernatural interventions, and its appeal to working­class men and women, Pentecostalism blossomed in the earliest years of the twentieth century. Although it later divided along racial lines, it grew rapidly among all races in both cities and rural areas. Spurred by superstar evangelists like Aimee Semple McPherson, Pentecostals tended to be freer than established modes of Protestantism to allow women and minorities the chance to serve as leaders.

The movement also expanded almost instantly onto the world stage. Believing in the imminent end times, some adherents sold all they had (often not much) and fanned out in an unprecedented explosion of worldwide missions, especially in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, that stamped countless indigenous church movements with American Pentecostal traits.

Meanwhile, in response to the millions of Catholic immigrants continuing to pour into the United States, some Protestants contracted a virulent strain of anti-Catholicism. This became a part of public discourse. Anti-Catholic crusader Josiah Strong warned: “In republican and Protestant America it is believed that church and state exist for the people ... our fundamental ideas of society, therefore, are as radically opposed to Vaticanism as to imperialism, and it is inconsistent with our liberties for Americans to yield allegiance to the Pope as to the Czar.”

Not all Americans, however, were as intolerant. The World Parliament of Religions in 1893 allowed Americans to meet people of non-Christian faiths such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. American Christians began actively engaging the “other” to understand themselves better.

The shape of the 20th century

Nondenominationalism continued to grow with the development of many groups designed to help Christians retain their religion in an increasingly secular world: YMCA and YWCA, Bible conference networks, Sunday school networks, Christian periodicals, Christian radio programs, and eventually televangelism.

Protestants used the powerful tools of modern media (the radio, newspapers, TV) to get their messages out and help their flocks retain their beliefs in the face of modern culture, with fundamentalists and Pentecostals proving especially adept.

Meanwhile, the missionary work pioneered in the late eighteenth century by European Pietists, Moravians, and Baptists hit its stride. In the nineteenth century (known as missions’ “Great Century”), a flood of adventurous missionaries rushed into the world looking for souls to save and bringing modern civilization to unbelievers. Back home the missionaries enjoyed celebrity status: lionized in the church, promoted in the press, and lauded by presidents.

Although the “civilizing” flavor of evangelical missions continued in the twentieth century, American missionary work in some corners became self-critical and more sensitive to native cultures. Missionaries started to actively build hospitals, children’s homes, and schools to care for unmet needs. In fact, some emphasized social improvement more than actual conversion. This sea change emerged in part from the tireless work of John R. Mott, a Methodist, who created the World’s Student Christian Federation to improve the world by harnessing the energy of young Christians.

Catholic missionaries also took this approach. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Vatican stressed that Catholics needed to missionize America itself, and even after that call was lifted in the twentieth century, American Catholics joined the great missionary crush, most notably in the work of the Maryknoll Fathers in Latin America and Asia.

Let’s all get together . . .

In the new “Christian century,” Americans were somtimes led in surprising ways into ecumenical and interfaith cooperation. The Second Vatican Council blew the doors of the Catholic Church open and encouraged better Catholic-Protestant dialogue. Trappist monk Thomas Merton started his own East-West dialogue to find common ground between Catholic and Buddhist monks. Building on the “Social Gospel” movement of the previous century, German theologian-ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr taught Protestants their responsibility in the realm of politics. This spurred black Baptist pastor Martin Luther King, Jr., who drew on white Protestant progressivism in leading the civil rights movement. King also derived inspiration on nonviolence from Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu) and Henry David Thoreau (an agnostic Transcendentalist).

Gandhi and King influenced labor leader César Chavez, who imbued his advocacy for farm-workers with his own Catholic mysticism. Some ecumenical handholding surprised even those who performed it, such as many in mainline denominations who financially supported the American Indian Movement.

But can we get along?

American Christians were increasingly aware of other religions and the diversity within their own country—but this did not mean that they all got along or even liked each other. The early twentieth century was a breeding ground for rampant anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Mormonism. Within Christianity, fundamentalist, mainline, and Pentecostal Christians did not agree on many key issues, but had to learn to grapple with each other and co-exist, even if somewhat begrudgingly. America was now a spiritual marketplace, a giant buffet where believers could choose what religion they wanted to try on for the day.

Without a state-sanctioned church, America has become one of the most religiously diverse and observant countries in the world. In recognizing and exploring our pluralistic, innovative, and at times troubling religious history, Americans re-affirm the words of Harlem Renaissance writer James Baldwin, “American history is longer, larger, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” CH

By Angela Tarángo

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #102 in 2012]

Angela Tarángo is assistant professor, department of religion at Trinity University (Texas).
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