Resurgent Church Traditions
The Benevolent Empire
American Christianity in the early 19th century was faced with a fundamental question: what is the nature of the church. Religious pluralism, revivalism, and the Enlightenment had all worked together to modify the various church traditions that had been inherited from the old world. The freedom of the frontier, and the emergence of a concept of religious liberty helped to encourage further experimentation. And if that were not enough, immigration also added to the heterogeneity of American life.
Faced with this general ferment in American life, there were those who began to question many of the basic assumptions of church life. As they did so, these individuals forced a reexamination of the way the church conceives of itself, and its structure. In essence, three basic positions as to how the church in America should organize itself for the future were put forward. They were in broad terms: (1) The old European traditions should be retained unchanged; (2) various "Christian Church" movements claimed to restore the true New Testament church, and to unify all Christians under one banner; and (3) in America the old church forms imported from Europe could be safely ignored, and a new kind of Christian unity in action be devised.
For a time, this third way--the way of Christian unity by action--gave promise of capturing American thinking. It offered a refreshing new approach to the problem of Christian structure, and helped foster the emergence of a distinctive type of American Christianity. Built around a solid core of Puritanism, (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Low Church Episcopalians) plus some contributions from the Reformed and Methodist traditions, a "benevolent empire" was created in which individuals--but not church bodies--cooperated in voluntary societies for missionary, educational, and reform activities (disinterested benevolence)
The doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) that served as a foundation for this benevolent empire borrowed heavily from Congregationalism--particularly it's belief in an invisible church in which all true Christians were already one. This belief encouraged non-denominational cooperation and helped foster a system of voluntary societies of Christians in which individuals organized for purely pragmatic purposes. It quietly bypassed the older idea of a confessional (creedal) church in which members shared a common set of beliefs, helped foster a spirit of cooperation reducing theological differences between Protestants to nonessentials. Or to put it another way, this new ecclesiology placed less emphasis on theology (speculation about doctrines) and more on ethics (standards of behavior).
The Resurgence of Churchly Traditions
Although this new view of church life was highly congenial to the emerging pluralism in America, everyone was not willing to accept this new view of the church. While there were obvious benefits to cooperation, inertia kept most persons in separate denominations. But an even more serious difficulty was failure of this new non-denominational view of church life to take seriously the historical roots of Christianity. As a result, spokesmen for the churchly traditions (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican) challenged this non-denominational unity that was forming.
They attacked the growing emphasis on the individual in revivalism, rationalism, and sectarianism. They were unsettled by what they perceived as the growing subjectivism in American life (the idea that in the end an individual must decide for herself what is right and true), and argued that such subjectivism "must be balanced and restrained by an emphasis on those objective aspects of Christianity which lie outside of and above the individual, and are best preserved in the historic Christian church, with its divine origin and authority, its creed, its historical continuity, it's "Catholic" or universal character, its ministry and sacraments."
One result of all this was to give new life to denominations, and to strengthen the forces of division in American life. And here, there is an irony. Those who were advocates of this new churchly approach were heavily influenced by the arguments for a strong national union advanced by Daniel Webster, and they in turn sought to build a strong denominational identity within their respective communions. The ecclesiastical counterpart to what Webster was attempting to accomplish on a national level was a well-organized and self-conscious church possessed of authority over its members. But the effort to bring this about had the effect of fragmenting the broader religious consensus that arose out of the Second Great Awakening.
Not only did this new churchly view undermine this emerging religious consensus, it also went against the grain of the surrounding culture in another way. In a society where the tendency was to democratize government, learning, and politics, this new view revived the older, more authoritarian view of the church. Not surprisingly, the appeal of this authoritarian view of church life is took physical form in the architecture of the period. The Gothic Revival in architecture appealed to many because it served to remind them of the time when the church had once dominated Europe.
The rise of these churchly traditions was also aided by an increasing interest in history, including American history. American political life--like sectarian Christianity--had few symbols, and this was a time when Americans were seeking adequate symbols like the flag. Parson Weems, for instance, created the larger than life George Washington during this period, complete with such tall-tales as Washington cutting down the cherry tree, and throwing a coin across the Potomac. In reaction to the rationalism of the early 19th century, people engaged in a romantic search for the nation's soul, asserting that America was more than an aggregation of individuals: it was a living organism, a functioning community.
This secular effort to reclaim the nation's history, and to identify symbols that embodied its values, had a sacred counterpart. In much the same way, Christians sought to recover their heritage. In the three decades after 1830, three times as many church histories were published as in the three decades before. And as had Weems, there were some who made extravagant claims. High Church Roman Catholics and Episcopalians claimed to be rooted in the traditions of the early church fathers. The Landmark Baptists traced their heirs in an historic succession of congregations that practiced believer's baptism by immersion all the way back to John the Baptist. Mormans claimed to be rooted in an ancient, even fictitious, pre-Reformation history that traced their church all the way back to Christ's visit to the new world.
Characteristics of the Churchly Resurgence
(1) The newly resurgent Churchly traditions were a response to the popularity of revivalism with its stress on the individual's reaction to gospel and personal commitment to it. Instead, emphasis was placed on the church's heritage of doctrine, worship and authority to restrain and guide the individual. One who took this position was Horace Bushnell. He attacked the idea that conversion must be a profound emotional experience that is discontinuous with one's past. Rather, he insisted that conversion can be gradual and can occur through the appointed channels of home life and Christian instruction.
(2) A second characteristic is to be found in a renewed emphasis on creeds as defining the church. Revivalism focused primarily on doctrines relating to conversion and holiness, and tended to focus on common themes and experiences at the expense of the distinctive truths of the faith. This new movement chose to focus on the historical and sacramental character of the church that transmits and keeps alive Christian truth. Individual religious experience is not viewed as absolute, but subject to the accumulated wisdom of the saints.
(3) The true church comes to be seen--not as a spiritual reality--but as an institution. The key test of what constitutes a true church for Roman Catholics is "apostolic authority." The Pope and his Bishops are the only lawful successors to St. Peter. Landmark Baptists believed they were linked in a similar succession to John the Baptist, and as such, they were the only true church.
(4) The church comes to be viewed in sacramental terms, particularly among High Church Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. Philip Schaff--the father of American Church History--helped spark the Mercerberg theology which took seriously the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament of Communion. The church was instituted by God, he and his followers argued, and within its fellowship flows divine life. Through the sacraments this divine life is given those who receive it by faith.
(5) A growing emphasis on official ecclesiastical action and leadership. Roman Catholics move to restore the Bishop's authority and to suppress Lay Trusteeism, and begin to build a school system to teach true Catholic culture. Mormons, for their part, create a highly theocratic system in Utah.
(6) The Church--rather than voluntary societies--begins to conduct missions and educational efforts. Fearful that wealthy laymen would control mission efforts if they were left in the hands of volunteer groups, and lessen clerical power, the high churches insisted these missions were not the responsibility of individual Christians, but the Church in its corporate capacity. In time, the Church would come to be seen as a corporation chartered to do the Lord's business, complete with its own bureaucratic hierarchy. Again, there is an irony here. The resurgence of churchly traditions was an effort to accentuate doctrinal differences, but as did the benevolent empire, they too came to emphasize solutions to social problems.
These churchly traditions failed to win any significant following because the nation's ethos was predominately individualistic. But they were a major cause of the failure to achieve denominational unity, and the reason for a renewed emphasis on distinctively denominational tenets.