Sunday, March 20, 2011

The "Pioneer Spirit" and the American church

“…the Methodists,” Horace Bushnell noted in 1847, “have a ministry admirably adapted, as regards their mode of action, to the new West”. 
The American Methodist movement, which later became paradigmatic of the entire revivalist project, was successful precisely because it was able to capitalize on a certain temperament indigenous to the frontier of the American West.

When the New World had begun being colonized, it took a certain type of person to leave the established institutions and comforts of Europe to face the uncertainties and challenges waiting ahead. If you were not cut from the rugged, pioneer cloth, the new continent wouldn’t just be unappealing, it would break you. It is not hard to see how the spirit of the self-made pioneer gave momentum to Westward expansion or how it contributed to the atmosphere of entrepreneurship, independent thinking and rugged individualism that helped to make America so successful.

What has been given less attention is how these values increasingly became hallmarks of the American religious experience, which moulded itself around the strong individualism,  anti-institutionalism and entrepreneur spirit of the pioneers. The idea of the self-made pioneer, when unconsciously imported into one’s religious orientation, could only prime Americans for the semi-Pelagianism of Finney or that co-deification of Joseph Smith or the un-churchly flavour left in the wake of the revival articulated so profoundly by John Nevin in his interaction with Charles Hodge.

The pioneer-style religion was one in which the historic church, and the larger experience of Christendom, became marginalized. Sidney Mead has noted that

Religious freedom and the frontier provided the broad ideological and geographical setting… [for] the removal of traditional civil and ecclesiastical restrictions on the expressions of the religious convictions and even the whimsies of men. The frontier provided the necessary space and opportunities in which such expressions could thrive….

…the common sense of opportunity to begin all over again in the new land, which was so characteristic a feature of the mind of the early planters, also worked to erase the sense of continuity with the historic Church and to accentuate appeal to the teachings of Jesus and the practices of primitive Christianity.

The paradigm of the self-made entrepreneur sat comfortably with the egalitarian foundations endemic to the Americans sociological orientation. Whereas the old world had a social hierarchy determined largely by birth, the early Americans had no aristocracy and few inherited privileges that they wished to acknowledge. Operating on the idea that “all men are created equal”, Americans generally assumed that it was by the sweat of one’s brow, not by his pedigree, that a person earned a name for himself in the world. The imprint that this assumption left on the American psyche was an instinctive resistance to hierarchies and authorities of all sorts.  Within Protestantism this mood was felt in the type of historical amnesia that sat comfortably with a detachment from the larger historic church, applying to religion the template set by the victorious Jeffersonian Republicans for whom (to quote Appleby's Capitalism and a new Social Order), “this rejection of the past as a repository of wisdom [constituted] the most important element in the ideology…”
But it was not merely the church of the past that suffered: the same social temper had difficulty granting to the church of the present any primacy that might displace the sacrosanctity  of the individual.

Sometimes there were practical reasons for this. In the frontiers of the American West, many of the settlers were unchurched simply because there weren’t enough ministers willing to travel and plant churches in all the outposts. To fill this gap, itinerant evangelists would come and preach, making converts and then departing for the next town. Methodist circuit-riders were given designated areas in which to travel, while Baptist pastors were drawn from farmers or small store owners who were willing to devote themselves part time to the ministry.

Given the great need for ministers in the West, both Baptists and Methodists were willing to ordain ministers who had no formal education. Sometimes these ministers would plant churches and settle down, but more often they would hold meetings and make converts in one town and then pass onto the next. Because conversion was then occurring independent of the apparatus of any church and its ongoing ministry, it helped to solidify the growing individualistic, anti-institutional and non-sacramental flavour to Christianity in the West.
Even in the urban areas this mood still permeated. By the mid-18th century life in the colonial cities had become fairly domiciled, yet the pragmatic, anti-institutional mentality of the original settlers had been etched deep into the consciousness of the colonists. Almost a year before G.K. Chesterton visited the United States and described her as “a nation with the soul of a church” , the pragmatic and utilitarian Americans were becoming increasingly committed to attaining the benefits of church (most notably salvation) independent of the ecclesiological ministry with which such salvation had traditionally been associated. Religion was becoming interiorized and then isolated from its ecclesial context. In the Western frontiers church organization was often minimal by necessity; however, under Finney and the other revivalists, it became minimal by principle. As Richard Hofstadter remarked in his landmark study of  American anti-intellectualism,

“…by achieving a religious style congenial to the common man and giving him an alternative to the establishments run by and largely for the comfortable classes, the Awakening quickened the democratic spirit in America; by telling the people that they had a right to hear the kind of preachers they liked and understood, even under some circumstances a right to preach themselves, the revivalists broke the hold of the establishments and heightened that assertiveness and self-sufficiency which visitor and visitor from abroad was later to find characteristic of the American people.”

Hofstadter perceptively recognizes Finney as the living embodiment of the assertive, self-sufficient American. “In his theology” he writes, “Finney was a self-made man, an individualistic village philosopher of the sort whose independence impressed Tocqueville with the capacity of the American to strike out in pursuit of untested ideas.”

Similarly, Nathan Hatch’s description of the qualities Americans desired in the indigenous religious leader might as well be a description of Finney: “assertive common people wanted their leaders unpretentious, their doctrines self-evidence and down-to-earth, their music lively and singable....”

With the American pioneer spirit came a deep commitment to pragmatism. One of the reasons the New Measures, though frequently repudiated by the clergy, nevertheless resonated deeply among the laity, is because they echoed and reinforced the strong commitment to pragmatism that was central to frontier experience and which acquired a new inertia when conjoined with the Enlightenment ideals of individualism and autonomy that Americans has easily imported into their new spiritual networks.
Finney essentially distilled the do-it-yourself pragmatism of the American pioneer into a theology. For him, converting large crowds was just as simple as raising a barn or starting a farm: follow the right techniques and you will have success, neglect them and you will fail. The New Measures were right because they worked; that is, they produced results.  The criteria for assessing a minister’s labours became increasingly quantitative rather than qualitative.

Further Reading

“To the dogs with the Head”: The Anti-inellectualism of Charles Finney

8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed

The Problem of Mediation in the First Great Awakening

Religion of the People, by the People, for the People

Institutional Religion

Recovering the Protestant Affirmation of Life

Joseph Smith: Profile of a False Prophet

Charles Hodge: Presbyterian Gnostic?

Gender, Morality and Modesty

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