Rockport History Book Club
History of Religion in the United States
from 1620 to 1900
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Our Rockport History Book Club met April 30 to discuss books on the history of particular religious movements or organization in the United States. Here are two reports:
Stein, Stephen J. The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers 1994 New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 554 pp.
The story of the Shakers in America is a story that is close to the bone of our national life, not because it has succeeded, but because of what it has revealed about us Americans.
Shakers followed upon the Quakers in 17th century England because of their “uncommon mode of religious worship.” Trembling, shaking of the body, quaking, caused by “vapours in their estatick fits.” They shook when the spirit moved them. Heads jerked so rapidly that their facial features were not distinguishable. They screeched and howled and their commotion disturbed whole neighborhoods. The frenzy and fits gave way to dancing until the participants were exhausted.
Shakers followed after the Quakers in England as a religious society, but as the Quakers tamed down their behavior, the Shakers got more “shaky”.
Ann Lee was born in 1742 in Manchester. In 1762 she married Abraham Standley. They had a daughter, who died shortly after birth. Both Ann and Abraham were part of a society of Shakers in Manchester, and she got in trouble with the police for her religious activities. Just like the Mayflower pilgrims of 1620, Ann and her husband, and a few other Shakers, came to America in 1774 to enjoy religious freedom.
For five years there was no record of their activities, but then in 1779, during the Revolutionary War, they popped up in a village called Niskeyuna, near Albany, NY. By then Ann had separated from Abraham permanently.
Ann was illiterate, and didn’t think much of the written word, so there is little written history of the early years of Shakers in America. Much of Shaker history was written later, and probably embroidered to fit the needs of Shakers in later years. However, the Shaker gospel and recognition of them as a religion began on a “Dark Day” in May, 1780. The sun never came out that day, probably because of many forest fires from farmers starting fires to clear farmland. But it was seen as an omen by the Shakers.
From the beginning, Shakers were for revelation, spiritualism, celibacy, oral confession, community, non-resistance, peace, the gift of healing, miracles, physical health and separation from the world.”
These were newly arrived English people, located near Albany, a Tory stronghold during the Revolution. They were against war. The local American revolutionaries looked at them with suspicion and did not welcome them in their midst. Ann was developing the Shaker doctrine at the time. She was billed as the “Queen of Heaven” and “Christ’s wife”. Marriage was condemned, and Shakers were required to give public confession to the leaders. There was no public prayer, little reading (none in the case of Ann), but hymns, songs, shaking, hopping and turning, smoking and running, groaning and laughing, hooting like owls, and running naked through the woods.
One record describes a process where a Shaker would lie on the ground, make a ring with his finger, stir the dirt, then jump up and run at the ring, stamping and shuffling—a sign of destroying the old heavens and condemning the existing world.
Ann and other Shakers (especially her brother, William Lee and James Whitaker) left Niskeyuna in May of 1781, five months before Lord Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown in 10-19-1781. For over two years they traveled through Massachusetts Bay Colony, down into Connecticut, and up to New Hampshire, staying with families, and spreading their Shaker gospel. Ann was a powerful public speaker and a charismatic leader. They spent the entire winter of 1782 in the home of a farmer in Ashfield, MA, and spent much time in Harvard, MA. Some were attracted to their message, but others were repelled. In some cases they were opposed, beaten, reviled, and their adherents stoned.
The Shakers were obsessed with overcoming lust. Ann was known to go into a frenzied attack and pummel the private parts of her followers as an act of ascetic discipline.
The author, in 554 pages never really addresses this business of celibacy, how a whole colony of people can give up procreation. It would seem quite evident that eventually they would run out of adherents. However, he mentions occasionally that this person or that, in some cases the leaders, dropped off the celibacy wagon now and then. Especially James Whitaker.
One might wonder if Ann Lee might have had a personal experience in her young life that turned her so against marriage and procreation.
Ann and her other leaders returned to Niskeyuna in September 1783. The war was over, and the final contingents of British troops would leave New York soon. However, the missionary work had worn Ann and her brother William out, and both died the next year. James Whitaker took over the leadership role.
Small communities of Shakers were taking hold in various towns. Whitaker died in 1787 and Joseph Meacham took over. The pattern of forming communitarian societies was taking shape. Lucy Wright became leader. Shaker communities were located in Alfred and Sabbathday Pond, ME; Shirley, Hancock and Tyringham, MA; Enfield and Canterbury, NH and Enfield, CT.
The typical Shaker community embodied Ann Lee’s motto: “Hands to work and hearts to God.” They arose and breakfasted according to schedule, went to work, ate, and went to bed, all on schedule. They were fastidious, industrious and conscientious—mostly. They became famous for the beautiful, but very simple and spare furniture that they made and sold.
They were having problems retaining young people in the Society. I wonder why?
By 1823 the Shakers were established as a Society of Believers. They had spread to Kentucky and Ohio. There were now about 4000 believers in America.
The middle decades of the 19th century were a time for many religious movements in the United States, and one would start and another would stop. The Millerites predicted the end of the world in 1843 and they had quite a few followers. However, when Doomsday came and went, membership fell off, and some drifted over to the Shakers. Then there were the Jansonists.
Famous people visited the Shaker villages and recorded their impressions. James Fenimore Cooper praised their outward appearance, but depicted the believers as “deluded fanatics.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “A set of clean, well-disposed, dull and incapable animals.”
Charles Dickens in 1842 described them as a “gloomy, silent commonwealth” and described their worship as “absurd” and “grotesque”.
Horace Greeley praised the Shakers.
Friedrich Engels, who went on to fame as the founder of Communism in Russia, praised them as the first people to set up a society on the basis of a community of goods in the whole world.”
Herman Melville called them a “filthy sect” with utter lack of privacy, and a “crazy society”.
The Civil War changed everything for America and it affected the Shakers as well. Some Shakers were drawn into the draft, even though some leaders petitioned President Lincoln. In 1864 they sent him a Shaker chair as thanks for his help, and he thanked them for a “very comfortable chair.”
Charles Nordhoff wrote a book (1875), Communistic Societies of the United States. He visited the Amana Society, the Harmonists, the Zoar Separatists, the Oneida Perfectionists, and 14 Shaker villages. He called the Shakers the “oldest and most successful communist society on the continent.”
Today, only one Shaker village remains, at Sabbathday Lake, ME. There’s also an active Shaker museum on the site of the Canterbury, NH Shaker village. Not many Shakers live today, but they made their mark on American culture.
The author did a marvelous job with notes and indexing, so that this can be the start of a marvelous exploration. However, for the rest of us, his last chapter puts the final spin on nearly 250 years of Shakers in America. Entitled “The Shaker Myth” he describes the picture Americans today have of Shakers as a squeaky clean but obsolete religious order. They lived in communes and made wonderful, stern, plain furniture. When you think of these Shakers you hear the music of Aaron Copland in Appalachian Spring:
“'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.
The Author, Stephen J. Stein.: “I study and write about the history of religion in American culture across the full chronological range of American history. I have taught survey courses on religion in both early and modern America as well as classes on such topics as “New Religious Movements,” “The Cult Controversy,” and “Religion and Violence” and seminars focused on “Eighteenth-Century Religion,” “Jonathan Edwards,” and “Religion and Region.”
Title: Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel
Author: Kate Bowler
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Title: Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America
Author: Martin E. Marty
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Every week upwards of forty thousand people attend services at the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas where senior pastor Joel Osteen offers a rapt audience both at the church and on television a powerful, magnetic, motivating message that strong faith in Jesus Christ will bring the benefits of good health and new wealth to the lives of believers. It is called euphemistically the prosperity gospel. Magically, over the past several decades preaching the prosperity gospel has swept across the conservative Protestant Christian community in America, especially among pastors and their flocks of believers in megachurches with two thousand or more weekly attendees.
In Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, a 2013 book authored by a young assistant professor of American Religion at Duke Divinity School, Kate Bowler studies the basic tenets of the prosperity gospel. She also highlights the leading churches in the prosperity gospel movement as well as their pastors who are often well known television personalities like Pastor Osteen in Houston. And what did she find? In her telling of the story of the prosperity gospel, she discovered a dynamic and energized Christian subculture focused on achieving spiritual victory demonstrated by health and wealth in the here and now. She concludes that the prosperity gospel articulates a language of aspiration that speaks of materialism and transcendence in a single breath.”
Today’s widespread proclamation of the prosperity gospel across America is only the latest incarnation of a new religious movement that attracts hundreds of thousands of Christians. There have been many such movements over the past five centuries of American history. No one understands this extraordinary history of religious struggle, faith, and fulfillment better than Martin E. Marty, the unofficial dean of the history of American religion at eighty-six years of age.
What a remarkable career he has had, coming from a small town in rural Nebraska where his father was a Lutheran schoolteacher. A Ph’D from the University of Chicago. Ten years as a Lutheran pastor. From 1963 to 1998 he taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Most significantly, he has been an amazingly productive writer, authoring or co-authoring more than fifty books and more than 5000 articles, winning a National Book Award for Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America. In addition, for much of his career he was a senior editor at Christian Century, a highly regarded journal covering the American religious landscape. All of these accomplishments earned him 80 honorary degrees. And he is still writing.
In Pilgrims In Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America Marty offers a solid, comprehensive, ever enlightening narrative of the tumultuous religious experiences of the American people as they settled the continent and sought spiritual meaning and guidance in their lives. He sees Americans as on a perpetual spiritual pilgrimage, using the observations of French philosopher Jacques Maritain for an understanding of the American experience.
“Americans,” he quotes Maritain, “seem to be in their own land as pilgrims, prodded by a dream. They are always on the move --- available for new tasks, prepared for the possible loss of what they have. They are not settled, installed……..”
Marty tells us that America’s five hundred years of religious pilgrimages began in Europe with the Reformation. Only one generation after the discovery of America, all Catholic Europe became divided. Many Protestant sects emerged. In the seventeenth century these sects became pilgrims on the eastern shore of the future United States. What stands out are their conflicts and their differences. Marty gives well-crafted vignettes of the histories of the principal colonies and their prominent leaders: Virginia and Captain John Smith, the Massachusetts Bay Colony and John Winthrop, and New Amsterdam and Peter Stuyvesant.
Then there are the dissenters who Marty believes “played some part in enlarging freedoms that later Americans took for granted.” Readers are introduced to Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson in New Enngland, brothers Cecil and George Calvert, first and second Lord Baltimore, in Maryland, and Quaker William Penn in Philadelphia. No one form of Protestant Christian belief became the established faith in the American colonies, no established faith dominated. And those who tried to stifle dissent failed.
And then in the seventeen hundreds, Marty expounds, came competition, competition between the faiths for converts, for new believers. It was the beginning of the American religious marketplace for saving souls that would fully blossom in the eighteen hundreds. Charismatic preachers went after backsliders whose faith needed to be reinvigorated. They also sought new immigrants arriving on American shores without faith.
Being a preacher was a good profession for the well-educated elite from the best colleges. There was increasing competition to fill the pews of their churches and to attract large crowds to mass meetings usually held during the summer at campgrounds. Cotton Mather, Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield stand out. They and others aroused the populace, bringing emotion and passion to their preaching.
It was a time of Christian revival. Historians call it the Great Awakening. Marty points out that religion was becoming more and more a matter of choice. He writes: “Some see this increase of choice as the essence of modern faith. Faced with this new freedom, most chose their parents’ faith or the majority faith of their community, or that of their spouse. But no longer did a particular faith simply come with the territory as it had back in Europe. Now Americans felt spiritually stirred to take up their own pilgrimages, to be restless about the soul in their new environment.”
Revolution followed the emotional revivals of the Great Awakening, according to Marty. Three revolutions, in his view, beginning with the Enlightenment in Europe and its influence in the colonies. He singles out the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew of Boston as an exemplar of the effort to make religious belief as much a matter of reason as of the heart. Serving West Church from the eighteen forties to his death in 1766, Mayhew preached inflammatory sermons against the Church of England and the threat of London sending a bishop to Boston to oversee religious life in the colony. Throughout his ministry he preached on liberty, laying the Biblical basis for resistance against established authority at the time of the Stamp Act.
Soon resistance to established authority would be armed rebellion. Marty traces both the support of and the opposition to rebellion by church leaders against British rule. Loyalist Episcopal clergy comprised the largest force against the movement for independence although it must also be pointed out that many Episcopalian clerics supported the rebellion. Strongly in favor of the independence movement were the Presbyterians. Marty sited the Episcopal rector of Trinity Church in New York as saying he “found not a single American Presbyterian minister who did not use his pulpit and every other means to promote the Continental Congress and its colonist causes.” The author also writes that “the Presbyterians in general were so vigorous in support of revolt that their foes sometimes called the war the Presbyterian Rebellion.”
Marty’s story of revolution in American religion reaches far beyond the end of the War of Independence. Led by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, efforts were undertaken to end government support for state supported churches in the colonies. Countries in Europe had established churches and still do in many instances. Jefferson and Madison were particularly anxious to end government support in Virginia for the Episcopal church. Franklin was against any religious preference in America, arguing that “if a religion could not support itself and God did not care to come to its aid, it was a bad sign if their members had to call on government for help.” In 1785 Jefferson and Madison succeeded in ending state support for the Episcopal church in Virginia. It should be noted that Massachusetts was the last state to end its preference and support for the Congregational church with its strong Puritan roots in 1833.
But long before 1833 major religious change was underway. Marty’s third revolution. Maybe revolutions three and four. Many of the nation’s founders, including Benjamin Franklin, called for channeling religious impulses into something larger. The nation instead of a religious denomination or sect. A public religion. What we call today civic religion. No one exemplified American public religion better than Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address.
Another religious change identified by Marty with roots in the revolutionary period is individualized faith. Thomas Paine said “My own mind is my church” and so it has been for millions of Americans for two and a half centuries. Sometimes individualized faith allows people to leave a church and declare themselves atheists. But it also opens the way to conversion from one faith to another. Or perhaps conversion by being born again in the spirit of Jesus Christ.
So it was in the nineteenth century when new religious groups were formed and many Christian denominations split apart, often because of differing interpretations of the Bible. It was a time of continual religious controversy and upheaval as the nation spread westward to the Pacific coast while also fighting a terrible Civil War that divided established churches north and south. It was also a time of great success for preachers who brought passion to their ministries. Marty covers these developments with clarity and insight. He is particularly good at explaining theological or doctrinal differences which can be maddeningly complicated. Major differences between Christian groups lie in the literal interpretation of the Bible and the mixing of faith and science and evolution, as they have since the period of the American revolution. Even with the addition of Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian religions to Marty’s narrative in Pilgrims in Their Own Land, it would seem that little has changed.
Martin Marty published Pilgrims in Their Own Land in 1984. There is no coverage of the big new megachurches that have appeared in the last three or four decades. There is no coverage of the prosperity gospel so wonderfully explicated by Kate Bowler in Blessed. Certainly Christians from the seventeen hundreds would be lost trying to find their way from the crowded parking lot of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston to the plush seats inside. But once Pastor Osteen begins his sermon about how Jesus brings health and wealth to believers, well, those Christians from the era of the Great Awakening would be right at home, pilgrims seeking salvation. Only a little bit richer and who can argue with that?
On May 28 we will discuss a book you have read on The Roaring Twenties. You can read about Flappers, Prohibition, the Stock Market, Gangsters, Harding, Coolidge, whatever interests you!
On June 25 we will discuss The Great Depression. What caused it? What happened? What have we learned? FDR.... Read about any slice or aspect of the 1930s as it connects with this economic disaster.
On July 30 we will discuss The Viet Nam War. Read any book on any aspect of this critical time in our history. Don't hesitate to read about Indo-China and French and Japanese Colonial times.
On August 27 we will discuss books about History of Persia or Iran. Read about the old days of Cyrus, the Achaemenids, Sassanids, the Zoroastrians, that conquests by Greeks, Turks and Arabs, the Shahs, Mossadegh, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iran-Iraq War.
On September 24 we will discuss books you read about Major Discoveries in Medicine, from earliest history up to 1900.
On October 29 we will discuss books you read about the History of the North Shore, 1900 to 2014. We recently read books about the history of our part of Massachusetts, from 1620 up until almost modern time, about Salem, Rockport, the Granite Industry, Shipbuilding in Essex, the ships that sailed the world from Salem, a naval battle right off the coast of Gloucester and more. By October we should be ready to read, discuss and learn much more about our part of the world.
On November 26 we'll discuss books you have read about The Development of Public Education Around the World.