Sunday, May 15, 2011

Christian Restorationism in America

From Three Unique Perspectives

First off, my deepest apologies for my lengthy absence from this blog. I have been very busy as of late and unfortunately haven't been able to engage in blogging. I have really missed everyone and look forward to rekindling my blogging habit.

One of the interesting components of American religion is how the doctrines, traditions and creeds of traditional (and dare I say European) Christianity were given a uniquely American flavor once they crossed the Atlantic. This natural evolution of American religion fused the traditional liturgies, customs and doctrines of the Old World with the emerging democratic, capitalistic practices of the New World, creating new and exciting interpretations of what it truly meant to be Christian.

Today I want to present three unique viewpoints from three very different individuals (Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Smith), each of whom attempted to discover the "original" version of Christianity as outlined by Jesus Christ himself. By asserting the need for a RESTORATION of Christ's original gospel (or the original meaning behind his message), these three individuals were essentially able to detour around traditional European Christianity, thus creating a doctrine unique to their respective viewpoints. Of course, these three individuals are far from being the exclusive competitors in the quest for Christ's Christianity. Virtually every religious leader, movement and church has attempted to stake such a claim for themselves in the hopes of attaining legitimate credibility for their movement. With that said, these three individuals represent three important general movements in the story of American religious history, and I believe their stories help to shed light on the complex yet beautiful tapestry that is American Christianity.

Roger Williams

As our first test subject I offer up the infamous rogue Puritan preacher, Roger Williams. As we all know, Williams was a deeply inquisitive man. His knack for questioning everything around him (particularly the religious beliefs and practices of his day) caused Williams to constantly push the envelope in Puritan America. Though he originally embraced Puritan theology, Williams' concerns that Puritanism still maintained an attachment to the Church of England, which he saw as a continuation of Roman Catholic dominion as the Antichrist, caused him to adopt a more Separatist perspective. Inspired by these anti-Church of England sentiments, Williams embraced the admonition of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:17 to, "come out from among them, and be ye separate."

Williams not only decided to completely separate himself from any attachment to the Church of England, but also chose to separate from the home world itself. Upon his arrival to the "New World," Williams took his religious views even further. Instead of following the traditional beliefs of the early Puritans in Massachusetts, Williams chose to criticize his new neighbors for what he saw as a lack of penance on their part. While Massachusetts Puritans were happy to accept both the godly and ungodly in their worship services (with an exception being made for the Lord's Supper) Williams believed that those outside of God's grace should not be permitted to worship with elect. In other words, those who had not yet experienced God's saving grace could not even attend the same services as those that had received God's grace (See The Hireling Ministry None of Christs). In addition, Williams also believed that any person who had not repented for his/her former association with the Church of England was in danger of losing their salvation. As Williams stated:

"why although I confesse with joy the care of the New English Churches, that no person be received to Fellowship with them, in whom they cannot first discerne true Regeneration, and the life of Jesus: yet I said and still affirm, that godlie and regenerate persons are not fitted to constitute the true Christian Church, untill it hath pleased God to convince their soules of the evill of the falce Church, Ministry, Worship etc. And although I confesse that godly persons are not dead but living Trees, not dead, but living Stones, and need no new regeneration, yet need they a mighty worke of God's Spirit to humble and ashame them, and to cause them to loath themselves for their Abominations or stincks in Gods nostrils..." (The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 1, 350).
These religious views, which eventually landed Williams in trouble with the Puritans of Massachusetts, only tell part of the story. Williams' departure to Rhode Island actually caused him to further question his faith. Williams began to question the validity of his baptism and those of his followers, which eventually helped to spawn the Anabaptist movement. As Williams continued to ponder the Bible and its teachings, he eventually came to the shocking conclusion that no church had the authority to assemble in Christ's name. His reasoning was simple: The apostles commissioned by Christ had been his personal ministers on earth. Until Christ returned to the earth and renewed the apostleship, no person/persons had the right or authority to gather as a Christian Church. In other words, Roger Williams began to believe that a complete and total RESTORATION of Christ's gospel, complete with the authority of the holy apostleship, had to return to the earth, or no religion could rightfully act in the name of God. Williams makes this belief clear when he writes:

I desired to have been dilligent and Constant Observer, and have been my selfe many ways engaged in City, in Countrey, in Court, in Schools, in Universities, in Churches, in Old and New-England, and yet cannot in the holy presence of God bring in the Result of a satisfying discovery, that either the Begetting Ministry of the Apostles or Messengers to the Nations, or Feeding and Nourishing Ministry of Pastors and Teachers, according to the first Institution of the Lord Jesus, are yet restored and extant" (The Complete Writing of Roger Williams, vol. III, 160).
Williams continues his argument:

"If Christs Churches were utterly nullified, and quite destroyed by Antichrist, then I demande when they beganne againe and where? who beganne them? that we may knowe, by what right and power they did beginne them: for we have not heard of any new Jo: Baptist, nor of any other newe waye from heaven, by which they have begunne the Churches a newe" (John Winthrop Papers, vol. III, 11. Quoted in Roger Williams: The Church and the State, 52, by Edmund Morgan).
What is interesting about these comments (which eventually led to Williams' exile from Massachusetts) is how similar they are to those made nearly 200 years later by Mormon Founder Joseph Smith (to be discussed later). His call for a restoration of the holy apostleship essentially attempts to negate the Christianity of Europe, which in Williams' mind was never legit to begin with.

Thomas Jefferson

Up next is America's favorite founding skeptic, the author of the DOI itself. As most already know, Jefferson was no friend to traditional Christianity. His altering of the Bible and statements in opposition to the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, etc. are all evidence that Jefferson disapproved of traditional Christianity. Yet with that said, it is also important to remember the fact that Jefferson called himself a "true Christian." How exactly did he justify this claim?

He did so by insinuating that Jesus himself was not the savior of mankind but instead a marvellous (perhaps the greatest) philosopher of all-time. As Jefferson stated:

"It is the innocence of his [Jesus'] character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquences of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire."
This was the lost truth of Christianity that Jefferson hoped to RESTORE. As he stated in an 1818 letter to Wells and Lilly of the Classical Press:

"I make you my acknowledgement for the sermon on the
Unity of God, and am glad to see our countrymen looking that question in the
face. it must end in a return to primitive Christianity"
[my emphasis].

And on another occasion:

"The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers...Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages." [my emphasis]. (Thomas Jefferson, The writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 7, H.A. Washington, ed., pp210, 257).
Later in his life, in a letter to Francis van der Kemp, Jefferson stated:

"I trust with you that the genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored: such as it was preached and practised by himself. very soon after his death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has been ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye" [my emphasis].
For Jefferson, the restoration of Christ's true message was not the reinstitution of the holy apostleship as Williams and Smith desired, nor was it found in Williams' Puritan doctrine of God's supreme grace. Instead, it was the simple message of doing good to others with out the fanfare of ceremonial rituals and communion with the Holy Spirit:

My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's [doctrine], that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power.
(Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Parker, May 15, 1819).
As evidenced above, Jefferson's love for Jesus came not from a pious devotion to orthodoxy, but from a sincere appreciation of his message of love. In this respect, Jefferson's restoration subverts all of traditional Christianity by eliminating the divinity of the child of Bethlehem and placing him with the likes of Plato and Aristotle.

Joseph Smith

And last but not least, we look at the founder of Mormonism, whose interpretation of Christian restorationism embodies the fundamental doctrine of the church he helped to create. As a young man in western New York, Smith was a first-hand witness to the excitement and fervor brought on by what historians now call the Second Great Awakening:

There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country, indeed the whole district of the Country seemed affected by it and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people…Priest contended against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 269-270).
For Smith, this state of religious fervor caused deep concern, so much so that he eventually prayed to God for guidance, only to receive a heavenly manifestation that eventually culminated in what Smith called the Restoration of Jesus Christ's pure gospel:

To find ourselves engaged in the very same order of things as observed by the holy Apostles of old; to realize the importance and solemnity of such proceedings, and to witness and feel with our own natural senses, the like glorious manifestations of the power of the priesthood; the gifts and blessings of the Holy Ghost; and the goodness and condescension of a merciful God, unto such as obey the everlasting gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, combined to create within us sensations of rapturous gratitude, and inspire us with fresh zeal and energy, in the cause of truth.
For Smith and the Mormon movement in general, this restoration of the priesthood and the apostleship became the cornerstone of their faith; a faith that was able to side-step the Christianity of old Europe by exposing its lack of authenticity. Like Williams and Jefferson before him, Smith's version of Christian restorationism did not rely on the pillars of traditional orthodoxy but still made a claim to legitimacy. It is therefore no wonder why Mormonism has been able to survive and thrive in the "New World" for over a century.

In conclusion, though Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Smith may share little in common with regards to their personal religious convictions, their quest to arrive at the true nature of Christ's teachings, without the aid of traditional European doctrines, helps us to see a small segment of the uniqueness of American Christianity. Whether it takes the form of revamping traditionally held beliefs (Williams), removing long-held superstitions (Jefferson), or rewriting the story altogether (Smith), Christian Restorationism in America has given the masses a plethora of beliefs to choose from.


Anonymous said...

How apropo to find this current post about Roger Williams! I just found this blog through some obscure reference to him on some post 2-3 yrs. ago and have spent the evening browsing around. I just finished reading an older 1944 JB (7-9th grade though I wonder if most middle schoolers could wade through it now) of Roger Williams by Jeanette Eaton so was googling around about him. In particular, I was more interested in his "plantation covenant" with especial regards to her statement that "never before in the history of the human race had a group of people of their own free will drawn up a contract to live together under government" in light of the fact that I'd always heard that statement made in reference to the Mayflower Compact "drawn up" by the Pilgrims. As I understand it she takes the position that I believe you do that he considered the Pilgrims as well as the Puritans theocracies whereas his was the first truly "civil" government which really allowed freedom of religion unlike them. In addition, I'm not sure who made the comment regarding those groups not being led by the religious leaders; well, according to J. Eaton, maybe not in theory but in 1658 Massachusetts passed a death penalty for all Quakers found within its territory; I feel somebody was behind that. I understand this probably got a little off topic from his actual religious views but that's where my interests lay so I hope it was okay to "hijack". Am enjoying the blog on the creation of our country, hence the question re Roger Williams covenant vs Mayflower Compact as to which can lay claim to being the "first" free will contract. Thanks,

Daniel said...

Interesting. Of course, any Reformer who claims the title Christian must claim to be recovering the sanctioned approach of the central authority of Christianity. In that sense, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all count as Restorationists.

I wonder, though, whether there is something uniquely America about the approaches. Smith's approach was unquestionably saturated in the American vision. Jefferson's approach, however, looks very similar to some Germans of the same era. Williams, I'm not sure. Somehow his approach seems to be bathed in the independent and entrepeneurial spirit of the time, but I would say the same of the (later) Methodists and the Scottish Enthusiasts.

One quibble. Anabaptist refers to the 15th century movement that eventually lead to the Mennonites. Williams' Baptist movement had similarities, especially adult baptism, including re-baptism. But the movements are distinct.

Jason Pappas said...

Recently I read that 50% of Protestants will change their denominations during their lifetime. It always struck me as distinctly American. If one denomination doesn’t satisfy the spiritual needs, another is sought or created. I find that non-Protestants and non-Christians tend to slack off if they become disillusioned while Protestants seek ways to reinvigorate their faith by shopping around.

Perhaps it’s that independent American spirit. Perhaps it’s a need to wipe clean layers upon layers of encrusted complexity and return to a simple faith. Americans tend to be straight forward and prefer a simple truth.

What was it that Jefferson about unitarianism?

“I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.”

Well it hasn’t quite worked out that way but free inquiry has led to the proliferation of more sects and interpretations per square mile than just about anywhere on earth.

Jason Pappas said...

Blogger seems to have lost my original comments: Excellent and informative comparison, Brad! To find a plausible similarity among these three is impressive.

Phil Johnson said...

A very interesting and enticing introduction to the subject.
Thanks for putting it together.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I wonder, though, whether there is something uniquely America about the approaches. Smith's approach was unquestionably saturated in the American vision. Jefferson's approach, however, looks very similar to some Germans of the same era. Williams, I'm not sure.

Brad is indeed hitting the nail on the head here, that America was the real breeding ground for "theological diversity."

You got yr Great Awakenings, you got yr evangelicals. Come the 20th century, you get yr fundamentalists, a "restoration" if there ever was one. Compared to them, Luther and his pale sola scriptura is still Roman Catholicism. And Calvin just replaces one layer of dogma with another with the TULIP thing.

Reformation? What Reformation?

I cite Daniel here, because Joseph Smith's is the foremost example of the new and uniquely American Protestant [?] sects. Christian Science, 7th day Adventist, and Jehovah's Witnesses also fit here.

Jefferson hits me the same as he hits Daniel, particularly his affinity and agreement with the German rationalists, who were just getting started in Jefferson's day, and ended up in the same place---no miracles, etc., the text of the Bible deconstructed: errors in translation, the fallibility of its authors themselves, corruption by the Roman church over time, etc.

I'm not hearing Roger Williams coherently explained to my satisfaction around here. And even when he is [hopefully], it's still Rhode Frigging Island, a spot on the map and a spot in American religious history with not a ton of influence outside its tiny little borders.

Basically, I'm unconvinced Roger Williams is that big a deal. He strikes me as another Anne Hutchinson, the sort of anomaly that appeals to secularists, but aren't much more than contrarian poetry in the larger scheme of things.

[Daniel is also correct about the Anabaptists dating back to Europe. Martin Luther was not amused.]

Brad Hart said...

Thanks everyone for the comments and the kind words. I appreciate it.

TVD writes:

Brad is indeed hitting the nail on the head here, that America was the real breeding ground for "theological diversity."

You got yr Great Awakenings, you got yr evangelicals. Come the 20th century, you get yr fundamentalists, a "restoration" if there ever was one. Compared to them, Luther and his pale sola scriptura is still Roman Catholicism. And Calvin just replaces one layer of dogma with another with the TULIP thing.

Reformation? What Reformation?

Interesting take, Tom. I don't think I have ever heard anyone argue that the development of American religion was more reformation-ish than the Reformation. I'm not 100% convinced but I think there is a lot to your argument, and I would love to see us all explore that idea further.

As for Calvin, Luther & Co., I think we still need to give them their just do. After all, they were the ones who got the ball rolling. Sure, American religion may end up being the meat and potatoes of Christian reformation (or restoration?) but it started with those cats (the whole standing on the shoulders of giants, who stood on the shoulders of giants who stood on the shoulders of giants, who...).

As for Roger Williams, I think he is an interesting enigma. In my opinion he illustrates just how diverse American religion was/would become. Sure, he was never satisfied with the status quo and always tried to push things to the limit (sort of like the guy who gets pissed when his team makes it to the championship only to lose and then laments the entire season as an utter failure), but I think he is worth further study as well.

@ Jason:

I agree 100% that American Protestant religion is far more liberal in its devotion to one specific, life-long faith. Heck, there are times when I think that Americans are more loyal to their cell phone providers than their religion.

But this isn't a bad thing. Instead of placing ultimate power in the hands of the clergy, American religion, for the most part, places ultimate power in the hands of the congregation.

Perhaps this could serve as evidence that American religion was the ultimate reformation???

Daniel said...

TVD: "Basically, I'm unconvinced Roger Williams is that big a deal."

In political terms, I'm not sure. I've never been able to sort him out. He is most cited on freedom of religion and his writings on it are very strong and very eloquent and should be read more. But in practice, he was no more liberal in that respect than Pennsylvania (and maybe less).

In the religious landscape, however, the Baptist movement, with its notion that the individual believer needs to experience the saving grace of God, had a profound influence.