I’d like to know what it means to be a “Christian”, because it is obvious that there are a lot of people out there who consider themselves one but who have little-to-nothing in common with Jesus…
My intent here is to point out that contemporary image of American Christian history held by many conservatives is simplistic. The subject is huge and I can make only a few points if this is to be kept readably short.
The claim that America has always been a Christian nation tends to see American religious history as Puritan, with white churches with steeples, bells on Sunday morning calling the community to worship, and godly families praying each evening before supper with dad reading from the Bible. That vision is wrong on several counts. For one thing, those New England Puritans were only one portion of a lively religious landscape. The Dutch in the Hudson Valley were Dutch Reformed. The Swedes and Finns in New Sweden (in what is now New Jersey) were Lutheran. The Spanish were Catholic (from Georgia along the Gulf coast across to California. The French were mostly Catholic (Great Lakes, Mississippi Valley, Louisiana). The Russians were Orthodox (Alaska). Puritan ministers orating about God in English is important, of course. But the languages of worship in what is now the United States included French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Dutch, Russian (even Danish if one includes the Virgin Islands).
Our territories had their own religions until missionaries got there (Hawai’i, Samoa, Guam, and so on). Slaves brought some African traditions, such as voudou (New Orleans). For another, the native peoples, who were mostly not Christian, outnumbered Christian colonists (and their slaves) until well into the 1700s.
The remarkable Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) emigrated to New York (she’d joined the “Shaking Quakers” in Britain and had a vision telling her to emigrate). In a British jail, she received a visitation informing her she was the embodiment of the Second Coming of Christ. The Shakers were pacifists, believed in celibacy and racial and gender equality. They peaked in the 1830s at about 6,000 members in 19 colonies. Got that? Racial and gender equality in the 1780s, in a group founded by a woman who thought she was part of the Second Coming.
The Dunkers, that is the Old German Baptist Brethren , all emigrated to Pennsylvania by 1740, the movement going extinct in Europe. They published a Bible in German in 1723. In 1782 Members were forbidden to own slaves. The Brethren rejected the doctrine of infant baptism, and baptized willing adults, hence the name. They broke into several parts with some wildly differing views. Some opposed musical instruments and Sunday school. Got that? German speakers worshipping in German, and opposed to slavery. [Personal note: as a kid I was told about the Dunkers, some members apparently in the family ancestry in the Virginia mountains; I confused it with Drunkards, and somehow thought they got happy every Sunday from communion wine].
The Rappites, named for their prophet and leader Johann Georg Rapp (1757-1847) moved to the US after experiencing some persecution in Germany. They’re more formally the Harmony Society . They founded successively three settlements, Harmony (PA), Harmony (IN) and Economy (PA). The Indiana settlement was sold to Robert Owen, who established a non-Christian commune there and renamed it New Harmony. Rapp had some distinctly non-standard beliefs. He thought Adam was a single being with the physical attributes of both sexes. He saw unmarried celibacy as superior to marriage. Members of the Harmony Societyheld their property in common—members could leave and receive back their money (without interest). They hung on till 1905. Got that? Religious Communism. Adam as a hermaphrodite.
American history is more than just a recital of stuff white folks did (like steal a continent from its inhabitants and steal a people from their continent). So is American religious history. Native peoples brought forth prophets, too. Perhaps the most lasting was the “Seneca Prophet” known as Handsome Lake (1735-1815). His message has helped the Iroquois people survive. Another famed prophet, the brother of the Shawnee war leader Tecumseh, was Tenskwatawa (1775-1836). An alcoholic, his life a wreck, in 1805 he experienced in a visitation from the Master of Life, who would drive out the whites if Indian people gave up white peoples’ ways. The message resonated; a settlement of his followers grew (Prophetstown). In 1811, William Henry Harrison led troops to burn the town; the Prophet attacked but lost the Battle of Tippecanoe and the town was burned—American forces suffered heavy casualties. Better known is Wovoka and the Ghost Dance, which is connected with the awful events at Wounded Knee.
Conservative folks go on and on about our Christian traditions (and more recently an alleged “war on Christmas”). Our Puritan forebears, however, outlawed Christmas from 1659 to 1681, with a 5 shilling penalty for anyone caught celebrating. Reportedly, celebrating Christmas was frowned on for a couple more centuries. The English Puritans who dethroned King Charles I (and lopped off his head) saw it as an ungodly papist rite. Puritans had punishments a few of today’s folks might like—the stocks, public whippings, branding, but not just to punish crimes. Quakers were despised; if caught a first offense was having an ear cut off; a second offense was to have the remaining ear amputated; a third, to have the tongue bored through with a hot iron. A few Quakers were hanged.
Conservative folks probably wouldn’t like to be told that religious intolerance is as American as grits and apple pie. Aside from those Quakers the Puritans hanged and whipped, Catholics faced animosity for centuries. In 1834, a Boston mob burned a convent because of alleged improprieties. Mobs burned Catholic churches in riots in Philadelphia in 1844, the second killing 15 people and requiring 5,000 militia to quell. In Louisville in 1845 Protestant mobs attacked Catholic German and Irish neighborhoods, 22 dying in the riot. Catholic and Protestant mobs fought each other in several cities.
The Mormons aroused special animosity. The Mormons are probably America’s most important contribution to world religion. In 1838 the “Mormon War” took place in Missouri. Riots killed 22 Mormons, including a massacre killing 19 at Haun’s Mill. The governor of the state issued an executive order that Mormons should be driven from the state or exterminated. 10,000 Mormons fled to Nauvoo in Illinois. Tensions built and in 1844 the Prophet Joseph Smith was arrested for treason against the state of Illinois, jailed and murdered while in jail. Issues included polygamy and anti-slavery views. Mormons found refuge in Utah. Got that? One of today’s most conservative religious groups once suffered murder and ethnic cleansing at the hands of other American Christians.
Churches reflected politics. It’s not often mentioned, but the question of slavery shattered several denominations. Following the Revolution, many Methodists and Baptists sought to end slavery, but they grew and became more mainstream. Black church-goers separated from the Methodists over issues of slavery and formed the AME church , still a vital part of African American life. Baptists split over the issue of slavery, the Southern Baptists dating to the 1840s. Christians sometimes had a difficult time with issues of slavery because many held an idea that all souls were equal in Jesus’ eyes. It’s not a coincidence that abolitionism had a strong association with Christianity. Also not much remembered is that the abolitionist John Brown John Brown was a violent Christian activist (and killer), and that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Christian anti-slavery propaganda that sold a huge 300,000 copies and polarized the nation.
And last but hardly the least is Thomas Jefferson and his editing of the New Testament, published in 1820. He called it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson’s edit leaves out the Resurrection. It presents Jesus as a kind of moral philosopher.