The American Religion: The Development of American Theology, Part 2 of 4

America has a diverse religious landscape. Undoubtedly the first settlers of this land from Britain came with specific religious motives in mind. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock and the later Puritans of Massachusetts Bay saw themselves as religious outsiders from the land which they had departed. The Pilgrims had a decidedly separationist mentality, while the Puritans were more focused on what their moniker pointed to: purity. This religious and moral purity was to be accomplished in the form of a New Israel, a colony of believers who had in their minds entered into a covenant with God to be the new city on a hill. The was the seed of the American religion. The subsequent decades would see the planting of Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism and other Christian denominations upon American soil leading up to the Revolution. This distinctly American religion progressed into the First Great Awakening and retained it’s exclusive Christian flavor, led by the likes of Gilbert Tennent, John Whitfield, and Johnathan Edwards among others.

With the formation of a new country and the denial of a state religion, the faith became a “commercial” endeavor, that is, competition for parishioners became the implicit goal for churches across newly formed United States. The church now free from state control, began a struggle to ensure their own survival. This began a long line of rapid theological development upon American soil, the likes of which has not been mirrored by any other modern Western state. The American Religion is truly unique and is continuing to develop this day. In this part two, I will continue to summarize essays from specific American theologians and religious writers (collected in William C. Placher’s second volume in the Readings in the History of Christian Theology) and show the development in theological thinking within the American religious experience. This part will follow upon the heels of the First Great Awakening as evidenced by John Edwards and take us to the mouthpiece of the Second Great Awakening, Charles Grandison Finney. Enjoy!

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David Walker, Our Wretchedness in Consequence of the

Preachers of the Religion of Jesus Christ

With David Walker we see an individual who is representing a certain voice and attitude within the ranks for post-revolution America. Britain is gone, twice defeated, and the United States is finally given a space to expand its identity. That identity included slavery. Walker comments on the morbid peculiarity of Christians in America who refuse to treat others as equal even as other faiths seem to do. To Walker, American Christians “hinder their fellow creatures” but do even more so if one is caught “on his knees, supplicating the throne of grace.” Walker recognizes the irony of such a group that proclaims a Savior of equality, yet lives as if that Savior’s words apply only to them. Walker implicitly commentates on the exclusivity with which white Americans view their relationship to God. God has blessed America, and no one else.

An observation worth making with David Walker is the progressive use of Biblical themes and Christian faith within the political sphere. The Bible is now a polemical device, not solely a spiritual one. Walker compares the heritage of American Christianity to that of the Israelites. Moses “handed down a dispensation of his [God’s] divine will to the children of Israel” yet they departed from that faith through acts of “hypocrisy, oppression, and unbelief.” This, he says, applies to Americans whose European ancestors were handed a dispensation of the will of Jesus Christ. They have made ruin of what Christ has gifted to them. Walker is an example of one who exposed the injustice of slavery and the hypocrisy of attaching such a practice to the ideals of Christian faith. Walker, in line with some before him and many after, uses biblical themes in the political sphere as a polemic, calling his readers to repentance and reform.

William Ellery Channing, The Essence of Christian Religion

With Edwards we saw a blossoming of experiential orthodox Christianity, one that was both felt with the heart and known with the mind. For Edwards, true faith and spirituality need not depart from the orthodox essentials. We see here with the Unitarian theology of William Channing, however, a subtle yet significant shift. Though preaching from a similar geographic location, Channing’s theology couldn’t be more distant from that of Edwards a generation before. Where as Edwards struggled with attaining to the doctrine of God’s predestining power, Channing thinks nothing of the sort for there is no room for such a doctrine in his theological system. Christianity for Channing is the “elevation of men above the imperfections, temptations, sins, sufferings of the present state” and the “religion of Jesus Christ” is a religion that is “suited to fulfil [sic] the wants of every human being.” No longer does man have “bottomless depths of secret corruption and deceit” as Edwards would say; man now has “unconquerable energy of moral principle” and a “pure and fervent desire for truth.”

Channing would undoubtedly call himself a Christian, yet his understanding of sin, Christ and salvation are radically different from that of Edwards or the witness of historic orthodox Christian doctrine. Channing represents the trajectory of the ninteenth century towards an ideal that the “moral perfection of man” is the highest goal to be achieved. Sin no longer exists as a state of being; rather it is choices made which inhibit the “elevation of the human soul.” Gone is the understanding of the substitionary atonement of Christ, and in its place Channing communicates a gospel “which all can comprehend, that there is some real Being mightier than Nature.” A product of eighteenth century enlightenment, Channing reveals his stripes as one who represents a group who proclaims that sin is not inherent in man, and thus man is essentially good. In the end, man is capable of knowing and responding to God based solely on his natural ability and this belief will set the stage for antebellum revivalism as promoted by Charles Finney.

Charles Grandison Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion

Charles Finney represents in himself the characteristic stylings of the Second Great Awakening, with its focus on man’s natural ability to bring about his own conversion. Finney sees man as one who has “reluctance to obey” and therefore God “influences him by his Spirit.” While many might read this and find little fault, we must understand the motivating factors for Finney. Finney presupposes that man is “sluggish” in religion rather than seeing the complete depravity of man apart from any religion at all. What is necessary to rouse man’s hearts and minds is an “excitement among them” which will “sweep away the opposing obstacles.” Once you make Christian religion the most attractive option, man has no other option but to settle upon it. For Finney, revivals are pragmatic devices which are “a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.”

Finney continues by comparing those who preach the sovereignty of God as the sole mechanism of regeneration to those who preach among farmers, telling them that farming for grain is “taking the work out of the hands of God.” If farmers were to believe such a doctrine, then they would “starve the world to death.” Such is the Arminian influence upon Finney and his preaching. This inherited Wesleyan belief would be the essential quality of Second Great Awakening preaching, and sieve itself into the preaching of contemporary Evangelical revivalism. When one preaches fabricated means over God’s sovereign act in salvation, Finney’s faint utterance can be heard. Though overemphasizing the Calvinistic position of his opponents, to Finney “no doctrine is more dangerous” than reliance upon the sovereignty of God alone for salvation.

Those who align themselves with Finney will be those who focus on attractional ministry, programmatic revivals and calculated strategic evangelism. Though the previous statement will likely vex many contemporary church leaders, the Finnian legacy finds its home in these structures. Any work, whether it be preaching, evangelism or church programs that do not promote the sovereignty of God apart from such programs themselves implicitly preach Finney’s message of man’s natural ability to choose God over sin. This is the inheritance that contemporary evangelical Christianity has received from Finney: we must “produce powerful excitements among them, before he [God] can lead them to obey.”

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