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Inexplicable: How Christianity Spread to the Ends of the Earth
by Jerry Pattengale
Learn More | Meet Jerry Pattengale
GREAT AWAKENINGS AND
...for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia...
The Mayflower Compact, November 11, 1620
From ancient times, Christians have used a fish to symbolize their faith.178 They might have chosen a boat.
The great story of God is dotted with marine craft: Noah’s massive ark…the fishing boats that ferried Christ and his disciples about the Sea of Galilee…the large merchant vessels that the apostle Paul used to traverse the Mediterranean in the first century...and those that countless Spanish friars boarded in the sixteenth century to cross the Atlantic to Latin America.
In the last chapter we saw Father Peter Claver eagerly boarding each new slave ship that sailed into the South American harbor of Cartagena, Colombia. At the same time—November of 1620—some 2,200 miles north, in the area we know today as Massachusetts, members of the Wampanoag tribe were warily watching a three-masted ship anchored off Cape Cod. For several weeks, the natives observed men from the ship coming ashore daily to erect some kind of crude settlement.
During this frenetic construction project—hurried due to the fast approach of winter—these seafaring newcomers encountered a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. To their astonishment, the man, named Tisquantum, spoke English (a skill he’d obtained from time spent in England, they learned). The settlers took to calling him Squanto, and he proved to be a godsend. He served as their teacher and tour guide. He offered practical farming advice as well as tips on where to hunt and how best to fish the area’s waters. He further served as an interpreter and mediator during the group’s interactions with other tribes.
Even with the invaluable assistance of the kindly Squanto, only about half of the approximately one hundred settlers survived Cape Cod’s brutal winter. Those that did managed to build a viable colony. The following fall, to commemorate one year in the New World, they held a harvest celebration with members of the Pokanoket tribe. There’s no evidence the attendees ate turkey and dressing, no chance that they watched football and took naps after their big feast. Nevertheless, this event is considered the genesis of our modern Thanksgiving holiday.
These newcomers were, of course, “the Pilgrims,” their ship was the Mayflower, and these events were the beginning of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Plymouth. This is the best-known settlement in what we know today as North America. It was not, however, the first.
For at least a century prior to the English Pilgrims settling at Plymouth, the Spanish had been trying, without success, to establish a foothold in North America. Juan Ponce de León explored Florida in the early sixteenth century. Tradition says he was hoping to find the mythical fountain of youth. History tells us that what he got instead was an arrow in the chest. Rushed back to Cuba—by ship, of course—the famed explorer died.
In 1526, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón attempted to found a Spanish settlement near the South Carolina/Georgia border. It failed to get off the ground. Hernando de Soto came ashore at Tampa Bay in 1539, made a big exploratory loop north and west through what today is the southeastern United States. In 1542, a fever struck him down. In 1559, Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano tried to establish a colony in Pensacola, Florida. It unraveled. Repeated setbacks like these eventually prompted Spain’s Catholic King Philip II to give up trying to conquer and settle Florida....
Until the monarch learned that some French Protestants (known as the Huguenots) had built a coastal fort—Fort Caroline—in what would one day be Jacksonville, Florida. Philip summoned Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a conquistador noted for his brutality, and instructed him to handle the situation.
Menéndez and his Spanish troops loaded up their ships and set sail, establishing a Catholic settlement at St. Augustine. From there, they marched north and overwhelmed the Huguenot forces commanded by Jean Ribault. They also dispatched most of the French settlers at Fort Caroline—even those who freely surrendered. Altogether some 350 Huguenots were executed—which explains the grim name given the site of this massacre: Matanzas, Spanish for “slaughters.”
This tragedy effectively halted French efforts to colonize this part of the New World. And even though the establishment of St. Augustine gave the Spanish the honor of having founded “the oldest permanent European settlement in North America,” it would be those later British settlements farther north in New England and Virginia that would establish the historic foundation of the future United States.
As the Spanish discovered, colonizing North America wasn’t easy. Before the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth in 1620, another group of English settlers began building a colony in August of 1587 on the island of Roanoke (off the coast of North Carolina). After assessing their needs, John White, the group’s leader, got back on his ship and returned to England for supplies. His timing was terrible…or unlucky…or terribly unlucky. He sailed straight into a naval war between England and Spain, which prevented his prompt return. When he was finally able to cross the Atlantic again—in August of 1590—he found his fellow settlers gone and the Roanoke colony effectively “lost.” All that remained was a wooden post with the cryptic word “Croatoan” carved into it.
In 1607—still more than a decade prior to the founding of Plymouth— another group docked at Jamestown in Virginia. King James described the mission in purely spiritual terms: the “propagating of Christian religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God.”179 Most historians see a different, less-altruistic motive in England’s belated entry into the colonization competition: an attempt to counter the political dominance of Spain—and the religious influence of Catholicism— in the New World.
And the settlers? They had their own reasons for sailing west.
What prompted 102 souls180 to uproot their lives and board the Mayflower with all their worldly goods? Some were opportunistic traders, merchants, and craftsmen hoping to discover lucrative new business opportunities in the New World.
Others were fiercely religious—and deeply frustrated. In England they’d come to be known as Puritans. That is, they were Protestants who wanted to purify the Church of England from every vestige of Catholic faith and practice. “As petitioners to King James I (1603–1625) put it in 1603, the true church ought not to be ‘governed by Popish Canons, Courts, Classes, Customs, or any human invention, but by the laws and rules which Christ hath appointed in his Testament.’”181When some of the English Protestants lost hope that the state church would ever change to their satisfaction, and when they grew tired of its control over their lives, they took literally the command of 2 Corinthians 6:17—“Wherefore come out from among them, and separate yourselves.” They became Separatists—actually fleeing England for places like Amsterdam and Leiden in the Netherlands.
So when King James I issued a charter to the Virginia Company, a trading company, to establish a colony in the New World, it’s not surprising that some Separatists had life-altering, world-changing epiphanies: We could be an ocean away from the prying eyes and meddling hands of the Church of England! In the New World, we could be free to form independent congregations and strictly follow our own interpretation of the Bible! At last we could live out the true faith, and establish a pure and biblical church!
They jumped at this opportunity, signing a contract with the Virginia Company to settle on the Hudson River (in what today is New York City). However, due to bad weather and crude navigational equipment, they ended up 220 miles to the northeast in Massachusetts.
This travel snafu precipitated a crisis. Some of the business-minded settlers aboard the Mayflower argued that since the group hadn’t landed at the Hudson River, the contract they’d signed with the Virginia Company was invalid—they simply didn’t have royal permission to settle in New England. The debate became heated. Just when it looked as though this colonial experiment might fall apart before it ever got going, the group agreed to draw up a new charter.
This concise agreement, known today as the Mayflower Compact, stipulated that the group would endeavor to create a unified society that remained loyal to King James; that it would create (and abide by) whatever laws, ordinances, and offices necessary for the good of the colony; and that all these things would be done “for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith.” Of the fifty adult male passengers of the Mayflower, forty-one signed the document, including two indentured servants.
Signing the charter was the easy part. As previously mentioned, the group’s first year in Plymouth was brutal. Only half the population survived. But conditions improved and the settlers began getting the hang of life in a New World. By 1627 the situation had stabilized; there were 160 Pilgrims. Over the next century, waves of radical, separatist Puritans settled the northeast coast of America.182
In the first wave was the ship Arbella, arriving in 1630. An English attorney named John Winthrop was one of the devout Puritans aboard. He rallied his fellow Puritan colonists with “one of the most destiny-laden sermons ever preached in America,” often referred to as “The City on a Hill” sermon.183 Borrowing heavily from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, Winthrop suggested that the same promises given to the ancient Israelites by God could be enjoyed by the Puritans in the New World.
Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘the Lord make it likely that of New England.’ For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.184
In 1633, when William Laud (a leader with little tolerance for dissenters from the Church of England) became Archbishop of Canterbury, more Puritans packed their bags and boarded ships. The Great Migration was on. During the 1630s, some nine thousand Puritans made the transatlantic journey. By 1691, the two colonies at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay formed the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691, eventually evolving into the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and one of the thirteen original states. And so a persecuted, radical minority in the Old World became, through transatlantic migration, a dominant force in the New World.185
We can’t overlook the fact that religious dissent played a major role in America’s founding. Many would argue that this hunger for “spiritual independence” is actually part of the nation’s DNA. Maybe, maybe not. But one truth is undeniable: any society built on a desire for religious autonomy produces and/or attracts citizens who want religious autonomy.
It wasn’t long before Puritan communities and congregations in the colonies began to be surrounded and infiltrated by those with other religious ideas and divergent approaches to spirituality. Sadly, the same people who had been persecuted in England for challenging the religious powers-that-be immediately resorted to persecuting those in the New World who didn’t conform to their way of thinking and believing! Alexis de Tocqueville highlighted this inconsistency in Democracy in America, noting that the Puritans forgot “completely the great principles of religious liberty.”186 Their eagerness to impose their own doctrinal ideas on the public at large made it apparent that what they had clamored for in England wasn’t so much religious freedom as religious power and authority.
America’s Christian Beginnings?
Given the huge Puritan migration in the early 1600s, the question is often asked—and fiercely debated—Was America founded as a Christian nation?
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi, has noted:
There is no need to guess what was in the mind of the Pilgrims as they landed in the New World. They bequeathed us a written document, the Mayflower Compact, signed just prior to disembarking their ships on November 11, 1620. It is difficult to interpret that document as anything other than a Christian statement of purpose.187
Other facts are also beyond dispute:
- The vast majority of adult males aboard the Mayflower (forty-one out of fifty) signed this contract.
- The Pilgrims chose as a symbol for Plymouth the overtly Christian symbol of four figures, divided symmetrically by St. George’s cross, each holding John Calvin’s burning heart.
- Subsequent waves of British colonists were overwhelmingly Christian and Protestant.
While the early British colonies may not have been founded for aggressive “evangelistic” purposes (as was the case with many Spanish Catholics in Latin America), they were clearly communities bound together, in large part for religious self-expression.188 The presence of devout Christians and pious Christian leaders among the first European immigrants is clear. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian clergyman, was among the founding fathers. Many of the fifty-five signers of the Constitution were members of orthodox Christian churches and were candid about the Christian underpinnings of their decisions.
At the same time, other founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe were Unitarian Deists. Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen were non-Christian Deists.
The continual arrival of new colonists meant the arrival of other religious groups and competing spiritual ideas. The charter issued by King James in 1624 stipulated that Virginia would be a royal colony in which Anglicanism would be the official state religion. Residents were legally required to belong to the Anglican Church and to support it financially. Dissenters in Virginia were not granted freedom of worship.
In 1628, immigrants came on ships from Holland to settle in New Netherlands (i.e., modern New York City). There they established the Dutch Reformed Church.
In the early 1630s, while Jesuit missionaries were attempting to convert Native Americans in the northeastern United States, King Charles I issued a charter to Lord Baltimore, a wealthy Catholic, to establish a colony in America. His son led this effort, creating in 1634 a refuge for persecuted Catholics in what today we know as the state of Maryland.
In 1636, Roger Williams, who had clashed fiercely and frequently with his Puritan neighbors in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and who had famously claimed that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,”189 founded a colony for dissidents he called “Providence.” Established in the area we call Rhode Island, this was intended to be a place where people could be free to live according to their consciences.
Further south were Presbyterian, Quaker, and Baptist populations. “Dr. James Hutson of the Library of Congress…estimates that at the time of the Revolutionary War, some 70–80 percent of the population attended church on a regular basis.”190
Given these facts, it’s easy to see why some argue that America was, at least once upon a time, a Christian nation.
David Barton (via his think tank WallBuilders and multiple books) is one of the more active voices arguing that America had a Christian founding. He appeals largely to religious statements made by America’s founders in public documents and private correspondence. There indeed are volumes from which to choose. He has amassed a considerable following, and is prolific in various mediums. On the surface, it seems a bit mystifying in light of the support for this general topic that there is even a need to make the argument— which is his point.
Scholars Barry Hankins and Thomas Kidd of Baylor University are in agreement that the Bible was frequently quoted, cited, and alluded to in America’s early history. However, they have pushed back against some of Barton’s assertions, noting that Barton doesn’t always distinguish between statements that merely show benign support for the basic moral teachings of Christianity and those that signal wholesale acceptance of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.191
Hankins has also pointed out that Barton never really defines what he means by the phrase a “Christian nation.” Does he mean that America was—and perhaps still is
- demographically Christian (a notion that is hardly controversial);
- legally Christian (a notion that is difficult to support, given that no founding document explicitly declares the nation such); or
- actually redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ (a notion that evangelical theologians would find repugnant)?192
Though the two camps approach sources differently at times, they both find religious moorings for the United States important. Kidd notes Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech as a prime example. Delivered in 1775, the message is chock-full of Bible references.193 Of course, even skeptics like Thomas Paine utilized Scripture liberally in their writings, probably because they grasped the Good Book’s popularity among the growing populace.194
And speaking of the Good Book, we can’t responsibly ignore the gigantic role it played in the spread of Christianity throughout North America, and in other social developments.
The Bible and Other Religious Writings
At the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, you can see some of the actual artifacts brought to America by those first British settlers more than four hundred years ago. A sword, a wooden chest, a cradle used by Oceanus Hopkins, who was born during the Mayflower’s voyage. Other items in the museum’s collection are a Bible owned by William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony, and another Bible that belonged to colonist John Alden.
Bradford’s Bible was a Geneva Bible195, a version of the Holy Scriptures immensely popular among the Puritans.196 The Geneva Bible was produced—where else?—in Geneva, Switzerland, by Protestant Reformers Miles Coverdale and John Knox (who were “disciples” of John Calvin). They released the New Testament in 1557 while the Catholic monarch Mary was still on the English throne. The Old Testament followed in 1560. The Geneva Bible would not be published in England until 1576.197
The Geneva Bible was more compact than other English Bibles198 and more understandable because it included clearer language, explanatory notes (from a Puritan perspective), and short book introductions. What’s more, it was the first English Bible to utilize chapter divisions and verse numbers, and it was affordable. No wonder so many loved it.199
The other Bible that is a must-see at the Pilgrim Hall Museum is the one formerly owned by colonist John Alden. We don’t know for sure if it came with him on the Mayflower (or whether it was shipped at a later date)—only that it was printed in London in 1620, and it is a King James Bible, prompting the question How and why did England’s new king get a Bible translation named after him?
This royally “authorized” version of the Bible quickly caught on. In his celebrated book on the five hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible (KJV), Gordon Campbell writes:
[T]he colonists…soon settled on the KJV, which was from the mid-seventeenth century the only available English-language Bible. The Middle Colonies (now Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania) welcomed migrants of many Protestant persuasions (Baptists, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterians, Quakers, and so on), and, as English emerged as the dominant language, so the KJV became the Bible of the colonists.201
As more and more people of faith (and no faith) settled in the New World, missionaries and clergy saw a glaring need, and entrepreneurs saw a great opportunity. America was desperate for Bibles and ripe for religious literature.
Case in point: In the mid-1600s, a Puritan missionary named John Eliot wanted to share the message of Christ with native peoples living around Massachusetts Bay. In 1649, he received funding for a new translation of Holy Scripture when Parliament passed An Act for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England. He set about translating the Bible into an Algonquian dialect, and in 1663, printed the first complete Bible in British North America in the dialect of these Native Americans.
This sort of outreach by mission-minded Christians would continue. In 1804, the British and Foreign Bible Society under William Oglethorpe published the Mohawk Gospel, a translation of the Gospel of John drafted and published by “a printer, soldier, interpreter, trader, and Mohawk chief born probably in Scotland of a Scottish father and a Cherokee mother.”202 In 1818, the American Bible Society released its printing of this Gospel with some corrections,203 and leaders debated whether the language should be in English (“to civilize” these Indians of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, mainly on east coast and northern territories through Michigan, and settling in Canada). Or, provided in the Mohawk language—to help preserve their culture.204
Before that, the Aitken Bible, or the “Bible of Revolution,” met the need for new Bibles for English colonists during the Revolutionary War. John Aitken, a Philadelphia printer originally from Scotland, was commissioned by Congress in 1782 to print thirty thousand copies.205 At four by six inches, his Bible was designed to fit in a soldier’s coat pocket. This was the first printing of an English Bible in America.
In 1807, a group called The Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves produced what became known as The Slave Bible. Today, only three copies are known to exist. In 2018, Fisk University loaned its copy to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC and it quickly became the museum’s most visited exhibit. The Slave Bible is not without controversy. It was used to teach enslaved Africans how to read, and to introduce them to the Christian faith.
Unlike other missionary Bibles, however, the Slave Bible contained only “select parts” of the biblical text. Its publishers deliberately removed portions of the biblical text, such as the exodus story, that could inspire hope for liberation. Instead, the publishers emphasized portions that justified and fortified the system of slavery that was so vital to the British Empire.206
By 1800, there were nearly one hundred different Bible translations. In 1816 the American Bible Society (ABS) was founded. Its mission was nothing less than to place a Bible in every household in America.
The group had a series of famous presidents including John Jay, John Quincy Adams, Francis Scott Key, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison. Well-funded, and well-run, ABS gave out millions of free copies of the Scriptures in the nineteenth century. It (and other Bible distribution groups) were yet another decisive factor in Christianity’s growth in North America.
It wasn’t just Bibles that Christians in North America used to practice and propagate their faith. Printers churned out other religious literature by the wagonload.
In 1640, 1,700 copies of The Bay Psalm Book (a collection of biblical psalms) came off the press of Stephen Day, a printer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was the first book published in British North America—only 20 years after the landing of the Mayflower.207
A more widely disseminated work was The New England Primer (ca. 1690), from the press of the fiery anti-Catholic journalist Benjamin Harris. For almost half a century, this was the only elementary textbook in the colonies. Cheap and containing an overt Christian message, The New England Primer “promoted literacy...and solidified a Calvinist ethic in colonial America…. Themes of sin, death, punishment, salvation, and respect for authority were displayed through alphabetic rhymed couplets, poems, prayers, and scriptures.”208 Some versions contained the Westminster Shorter Catechism (a list of concise theological questions and answers). Other versions also included John Cotton’s SPIRITUAL MILK FOR American BABES, Drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments for their Souls Nourishment.
By 1830, The New England Primer had sold between six and eight million copies,209 making it an important resource in the spread of the Christian faith in the American colonies. Noah Webster summed up its impact this way: “It has taught millions to read and not one to sin.”
Another influential, Christian-themed publication was Mc-Guffey’s Reader. This set of books was the brainchild of William Holmes McGuffey, a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Upon the recommendation of his longtime friend Harriet Beecher Stowe, McGuffey began producing this series in 1836.
In the foreword of the original reader McGuffey wrote, “The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our prevalent notions of the character of God, the great moral governor of the universe....”
Ultimately the series included readers for students in grades one through six, and its selections, like the New England Primer, contained a regular offering of biblical narratives and principles.210
“Between 1836 and 1890, McGuffey’s publisher printed and sold more than one hundred million copies of McGuffey’s Reader. Practically every American who attended public schools during the second half of the nineteenth century learned moral and ethical lessons from McGuffey’s Reader.”211 The series remains popular today—especially among homeschool families.
Primers and readers helped millions of American children learn the basics of the Christian faith. Older students—at least those with the intellectual ability and financial means—received even more training in the Bible through a college education. Prior to the Revolutionary War, American colonists had already established nine colleges—and all but the University of Pennsylvania had religious links.212 The nine schools include the current Ivy League colleges (except for Cornell University, which wasn’t founded until 1865). The other two of the original nine American colleges were Rutgers and the College of William and Mary.213
Harvard was the first, established in 1636 with an endowment from the Reverend John Harvard, for the purpose of providing educated ministers for churches. Today, Harvard’s ornate Johnston gate, which leads to Old Harvard Yard, includes a stone engraving taken from England’s First Fruits (1643). It reads:
After God had carried us safe to New England, and wee had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our lively hood, reard convenient places for Gods worship, and setled the Civill Government: One of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministery to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust.214
By 1701, some Puritans, fearing that Harvard had become theologically liberal, started Yale for the same purpose. In 1746 Princeton was founded after some felt that Yale was becoming too secular! (Not many people likely know that Nassau Hall, on the Princeton campus, was the site of Continental Congress meetings during a four-month period in 1783, effectively making Princeton the nation’s temporary capital.215)
This desire to see both colonists and Native Americans hear and understand and live by the truth of God only grew. In 1769, Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, a Congregationalist pastor from Connecticut, founded Dartmouth College in New Hampshire “as an institution to educate Native Americans.”216 The school’s motto, “a voice crying out in the wilderness,” is taken from Isaiah 40:3 and pictures the school’s original mission of being a frontier outpost for reaching Native Americans.
American ingenuity kept coming up with new ways to propagate the gospel.
The Sunday School Movement
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln visited a Chicago slum known as “Little Hell.” He was curious about the stories he’d heard of a young, energetic ex-shoe salesman named Dwight Lyman Moody who supposedly was gathering scores of poor, uneducated, inner-city street kids in an abandoned saloon each Sunday for a kind of makeshift school. The curriculum? The Bible.
Lincoln was impressed with Moody’s “Sunday school,” and reports say that Honest Abe addressed the children that day, telling them: “I was once as poor as any boy in this school, but I am now President of the United States, and if you attend to what is taught you here, some of you may yet be President of the United States.”217
President-elect Lincoln was on his way to the White House. Mr. Moody was on his way to becoming one of the world’s most famous evangelists.218 Everybody knows the big things Moody did: establishing the large Illinois Street Church in Chicago (known today as Moody Bible Church), founding three influential schools (two in Northfield, Massachusetts, and one in Chicago—now called the Moody Bible Institute, f. 1886).
God alone knows how many young lives Moody impacted through his “Sunday school.”
The Sunday School Movement was another significant factor in the spread of Christianity in North America.
Some credit Hannah Ball in Buckinghamshire, England (1769) as being the pioneer of this phenomenon, and Robert Raikes (d. 1811), publisher of the Gloucester Journal, its most prominent advocate. Insisting that, “The world marches forth on the feet of small children,” Raikes used his wealth to start schools for poor children from the inner city. Since many of these kids worked in factories Monday through Saturday, Raikes held his classes on Sunday. Using the Bible as a textbook, lay volunteers as his faculty, and his newspaper to spread the word, Raikes and his team got busy. Twenty years after his death, more than a million British children were receiving some sort of religious training each Sunday.
As the Moody story shows, America also saw a surge in Sunday school education. According to Edwin Wilbur Rice, president of the American Sunday School Union, there were 180,000 such schools in the United States by 1825. And as far as the claim that the movement originated in England, Rice had this to say:
It is generally conceded by American students of firsthand documents that such schools of a character like to those founded by Raikes, with all their essential features, were to be found in America long before his day. These schools had many of the features as well as the form common to the modern Sunday-school, which entitled them to be counted forerunners of the modern movement. 219
By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration, Sunday schools had spread throughout the States.220 Historian Timothy Larsen at Wheaton College Illinois summarizes well the rise and fall of this movement:
It is important to realize that Sunday schools were originally literally schools: they were places where poor children could learn to read…. Within decades, the movement had become extremely popular. By the mid-19th century, Sunday school attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood…. In both Britain and America, universal, compulsory state education was established by the 1870s. After that, reading and writing were learned on weekdays at school and the Sunday school curriculum was limited to religious education.221
If Moody was effective as a teacher of young street toughs (and he was), he was even more influential as a preacher and evangelist. And he was only one of many powerful heralds of the gospel in the New World. To be sure, no discussion of North American Christianity would be complete without noting the enormous impact of American revivalism.
The social and political landscape of the colonies spawned a free-market approach to almost everything, including religion. Early on, there were no established churches; and particularly as settlers migrated westward, no state churches. Such a spiritual vacuum created a kind of religious free-for-all. Every community was up for grabs. The only question? Who could make the most compelling case for their version of the Christian faith?
It didn’t take long for one truth to come to light: Whenever the gospel is faithfully proclaimed by gifted and/or charismatic communicators, hearts are pierced and—sometimes—entire communities are changed. And so it was that open-air, evangelistic preaching became a common sight. Suddenly Methodist circuit riders were crisscrossing the frontier on horseback, preaching up a storm, winning souls for Christ by the droves, and starting churches every place they stopped. Henry Alline was an itinerant preacher in Nova Scotia who founded several Baptist and Congregational Churches there after 1775.
The faithful in the Old World were led by (often stuffy) high-ranking bishops. In the New World the populace was mesmerized by celebrity preachers and evangelists—men like George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley. Often these revivalists were roundly criticized for peddling the gospel like slick salesmen and vulgar entertainers. Later evangelists—Charles Grandison Finney in the nineteenth century, Billy Sunday in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and Billy Graham in the second half of the twentieth century—were also critiqued for theatrics and playing on peoples’ emotion.
To be fair, American revivalism did sometimes resemble a traveling circus, right down to the big, portable tents. In frontier areas that lacked any semblance of “culture,” revivals were elaborate, entertaining, high-octane affairs. People came from miles around to witness the spectacle. Often new converts would be overcome with emotion, weeping over their sins and/or rolling on the ground in spiritual ecstasy. Regardless of their method or mystery, emotional or stoic moments, the new converts proved through the ensuing decades to be anything but fake news.
The most notable occasions in America’s unique revival history are called the Great Awakenings. Historians often refer to a series of revivals between 1725 and 1760 as “The First Great Awakening.” This period of spiritual fervor was highlighted by the itinerant preaching of the Anglican evangelist George Whitefield.222 When he preached in the church of the famed Jonathan Edwards in Northampton in 1745, the normally stoic Edwards wept.223 Dr. John Hannah, long-time professor of church history at Dallas Theological Seminary, once claimed, perhaps partially in jest, that Whitefield was such a gifted communicator he could bring an audience to tears merely by saying the word “Mesopotamia.”
A “Second Great Awakening” occurred between 1780 and 1830, ushering in what some historians call “the Protestant Century.” While the Methodists (influenced by John Wesley) advanced strong Arminian doctrines, the graduates of Yale College (influenced by the theology of Jonathan Edwards) preached Calvinism.
Near the end of this period, Charles Finney earned the title “the Father of American Revivalism” for his key role in a series of revivals in upstate New York (1825–35). These meetings may have resulted in as many as a half million converts. An ardent abolitionist, Finney served the last decades of his life as president of Oberlin College, the first American educational institution to accept both African Americans and women.224
It was in 1831, just after this Awakening, that de Tocqueville visited America. He surveyed the social and spiritual landscape and concluded, “…there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”225
Beyond these first two Awakenings, there is considerable debate over how to categorize the significant religious activity that took place between 1850–1930 and 1960–1980. In the nineteenth century, the abolitionist movement was steered, in large part, by Christian leaders and groups. The Social Gospel and millenarianism fueled new initiatives and denominations, such as the Holiness movement. Important African-American voices like that of Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged in both the church and public discourse.
These revivals and awakenings altered the soul of American Christianity in at least two prominent ways. With their heavy emphasis on personal conversion, they made the Christian faith more democratic, encouraging laypeople to take responsibility for their own spiritual condition. They also continually demonstrated to the faithful how many people needed to be reached with the gospel message.
Slavery and Christianity
Here is one of those ugly historical facts that make modern-day people of faith cringe, blush, and look for the nearest exit:
Jonathan Edwards, the revered Christian theologian and preacher, and George Whitefield, the esteemed Christian revivalist, were slave owners.
Edwards “accepted slavery as a normal part of life, an institution ordained by God in Scripture.”226 Consequently he and his wife, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, acquired slaves to help with chores. Though he spoke out against overseas slave trading and called for improved conditions for slaves, he chose not to emancipate his own.
Whitefield also called for the humane treatment of slaves and expressed concerns for their spiritual well-being. And yet this same man who established the Bethesda orphanage in Georgia called for the legalization of slavery in the state. Historian Mark Galli concludes: “As an evangelist, Whitefield was unconventional and remarkable. Lamentably, his views on slavery were conventional and unremarkable.”227
Therein lies the hypocrisy—some would say the insanity—of it all: Christians committing the morally indefensible act of enslaving other people against their will, then arguing that such people should be treated humanely so that they might want to become Christians!228 It’s no different than the sad scene that played out all across Latin America at the hands of Spanish conquistadores.
Mark A. Noll, professor emeritus in history at Notre Dame, identifies three categories of American Christians in the whole slavery debate: theological conservatives, radicals, and those in between. Conservatives were those who found sanction for slavery in Scripture. Radicals were abolitionists who resented a holy text that at times condones (and even commands) slavery. The in-betweeners were those who saw the evils of slavery and sought (in vain) for a solution that would placate both sides. In effect, American Christians faced the unique challenge of reading and interpreting Scripture in the context of republican political thought and commonsense moral reasoning, or what Noll terms commonsense republicanism.229
And yet, while slaves suffered, and slave owners and abolitionists argued, something else was taking place: The emotional gospel preaching of the revivalists was resonating with enslaved Africans, so much so that by 1800, one-fifth of all American Methodists were black. The awakenings were fostering an African-American Christian culture that expressed itself in the fervency of extroverted Evangelical Protestantism rather than in the cooler tones of Anglicanism.230 What made the appeal of the revivalists so appealing?
Central to the answer must be the Evangelical demand for a personal choice that gave dignity to people who had never been offered a choice in their lives….Related was Methodism’s insistence on complete personal transformation or regeneration, an attractive theme in lives which offered little other hope of dramatic change. Moravians brought song. And uninhibited celebration of God’s blood and wounds to people who knew much of both. Moravians also insisted that God was pleased by cheerfulness, a congenial thought in a culture which remembered better than Europeans how to celebrate. And at the centre was the library of books which was the Bible, in which readers could suddenly find themselves walking into a particular book and recognizing their own life…. Protestant American enslaved people had texts which gave them stories and song. They sang about the biblical stories which made them laugh and cry, in some of the most compelling vocal music ever created by Christians, “Negro Spiritual”: a fusion of the Evangelical hymn tradition of the Awakenings with celebratory rhythms and repetitions remembered from days of African freedom.231
In spite of inhumane treatment both by institutions and individuals, large numbers of enslaved peoples and their descendants became Christians. Many of these individuals became leaders in the anti-slavery movement, and in post-war initiatives for social justice. Who were some of the key figures leading the oppressed in their hope for change?
Christianity’s Spread through African Voices
When Dutch slavers pushed the first twenty African slaves off their ship at the British colony of Jamestown in 1619, it was far more than a transaction between countries and people groups. It was a nightmare, a gross injustice of the highest order.
As mentioned, many of those slaves found hope in the Christian gospel. Others, while enslaved, or later as freedmen, became ministers and preachers of that good news.232
John Stewart (ca.#1786–1823) became the first black missionary to Native Americans—the Wyandots, a branch of the Huron tribe that had resettled by Upper Sandusky, Ohio. His journey through the woods and, by canoe, down rivers, often alone, just to reach this settlement is amazing. His exploits made him America’s first Methodist home missionary.
Stewart had the assistance of a black interpreter, Jonathan Pointer (whom the Wyandots had kidnapped as a boy). When rival missionaries learned he was preaching without a license, they complained to church leaders. However, the Methodist Episcopal Church ordained him at the request of the Indians—who had gone from taunting to loving him. His work prompted the formation of the Methodist Missionary Society in 1820.233 One of the key chiefs who converted, “Between-the-logs,” gives the following account:
[T]he Black Man, Stewart…came to us and told us he was sent by the Great Spirit to tell us the true and good way. But we thought he was like all the rest—that he too wanted to cheat us and get our money and land from us. He told us of our sins and that drinking was ruining us and that the Great Spirit was angry with us. He said that we must leave off these things. But we treated him ill and gave him little to eat, and trampled on him and were jealous of him for a whole year. Then we attended his meeting in the council house. We could find no fault with him. The Great Spirit came upon us so that all cried aloud. Some clapped their hands, some ran away, and some were angry. We held our meetings all night, sometimes singing, sometimes praying. By now we were convinced that God had sent him to us. Stewart is a good man.234
In the 1760s, the Wheatley family in Boston purchased a precocious slave girl from Gambia, West Africa. They named her Phillis and gave her their last name. The Wheatleys educated her, took her regularly to church, and eventually freed her. Though Phillis wrote exquisite poetry, American publishers would not publish her for racial reasons. An English aristocrat, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, helped her find a British publisher, and in 1773, Wheatley became the first African American to publish a book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral. One line is worth quoting here: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.”
Lemuel Haynes (1753–1833) was another prominent black voice, becoming the first African-American pastor of an all-white congregation. Biracial and abandoned by his parents, Haynes became an indentured servant in Granville, Massachusetts. After fulfilling his commitment to the Rose family, he served as both a minuteman (1774) and in the Continental army (1776). He married a white woman and had ten children.235 Witty, brilliant, and a gifted preacher, Haynes was beloved by his community. And yet, after thirty years of service, when his congregation discovered he was black, they voted him out of office.
Another African-American woman of note was Jarena Lee (1783–ca.#1850–57), regarded as “the first significant black female preacher in America.”236 Her pastor in New Jersey, Richard Allen, the founder of the AME Church, told her she couldn’t preach— because the Methodists didn’t allow female preachers. Lee wondered famously, “And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach? Seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as the man. If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not whole Saviour, instead of half one?”
Eight years later, when her church’s scheduled speaker was unable to deliver his message, Lee spontaneously rose from her seat and exhorted the congregation. Impressed by her gifting, Bishop Allen commissioned Lee to be an evangelist.237
Traveling nearly three thousand miles on foot in the Northeastern United States and Canada, Lee preached nearly seven hundred sermons. She documented her story in a published autobiography, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee (1849).
In 1784, at the age of thirty-eight, Absalom Jones bought his way out of slavery (he had first purchased his wife’s freedom).238 He began attending St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, where blacks were welcomed…until too many slaves and ex-slaves started coming. One day Jones was physically removed to the “slave gallery.” This incident prompted him and other black members to leave the church. With Richard Allen, Jones cofounded the Free African Society (the first organization of its kind for assisting freed slaves). In 1802, he helped establish the first black Episcopal Church—the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas—which would become one of the largest congregations in Philadelphia. Jones was the first black man to be ordained a priest in the denomination.
There was a similar exodus of blacks from white churches in other urban areas. Disgruntled black Christians in New York formed Zion Church after rejection from attending St. John’s Methodist Church. By 1868, Zion Church claimed 164,000 members.
Over the decades, this church body produced an all-star lineup of leading Christian voices: Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. All three were escaped slaves who had survived brutal conditions. Each of these leaders played a unique role in the spread of Christianity, especially in its attractive appeal for social justice. Douglass was “the foremost African-American leader of the early nineteenth century.” Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist and leading voice for women’s rights. Tubman, also known as Moses, was a key leader of the Underground Railroad. Douglass and Sojourner were also preachers and gave some of the most memorable speeches of their time. The July 4, 1852, speech of Douglass, given in Rochester, New York, is typical:
I take this law (legalized slavery) to be one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty, and, if the churches and ministers of our country were not stupidly blind, or most wickedly indifferent, they, too, would so regard it.239
He repudiated preachers who “have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system” and called them out, saying, “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie.”
Sojourner Truth is fondly remembered for, among other things, her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at a Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851. At just 356 words, the speech became legendary. In it, she alludes to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”240
Frances Dana Barker Gage, the moderator of the convention, later said:
Amid roars of applause, she returned to her corner leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude. She had taken us up in her strong arms and…turned the sneers and jeers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration. Hundreds rushed up to shake hands with her.
Other North American Heroes of the Faith
As is the case on every continent, the regrettable examples of “Christian” faith in North America’s history are easy to see. The heroic figures, though numerous, are not always so visible. We pause here, however, to highlight Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, who represent some of the nobler multitudes. Both of these individuals walked an arduous path, and both demonstrated remarkable faith and resilience in fighting for religious freedom.
Because of differences with other Puritan leaders, Williams was charged and convicted of sedition and heresy in 1635. As a result, he was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Leaving behind a pregnant wife and two year-old daughter, Williams departed during a blizzard in the dead of winter. Had he not known the language of the Narragansett Indians, he likely would have starved during his days of wandering. This experience did, however, allow him to negotiate with the Indians for the purchase of land for his new colony at Providence.
Three years later, Hutchinson and her husband were banished from Massachusetts, largely because of her belief that God’s grace— not one’s moral lifestyle—gave a person assurance of salvation.
Hutchinson wanted to take orthodoxy farther than it was willing to go. Salvation was by faith, not works, all agreed. But orthodoxy declared that after salvation, good works gave evidence of that salvation. Hutchinson challenged that assumption.
In doing so, Puritan leaders felt she broke the essential bond between morality and religion, thereby threatening to undermine the very foundation of Puritan society. She was branded an “antinomian,” literally one who is against the law.241
The Hutchinsons left behind a house, land, and farm animals. A few years later in Rhode Island, Anne buried her husband, prompting her to move again into the area we know today as the Bronx, in New York City. There, in 1643, Hutchinson and six of her children were killed by members of the Siwanoy Indian tribe. According to one account, the natives involved in the massacre deceived her, feigning friendship, and then, seeing that the group had no protection, returning later with violent intent.
Catholic Christianity in North America
Because they had banned French Huguenots from immigrating to the New World, French Catholics dominated the Canadian territories (or “New France,” as they referred to the land mass). Even so, Catholic missionaries had to deal with warring factions of Indians, especially the Mohawks and the Huron. Because the Mohawks (part of the Iroquois Confederacy) were armed with muskets from Dutch traders, they generally dominated the Huron in battle.
Caught in this crossfire was Father Isaac Jogues. Perhaps no missionary to North America ever had a more adventurous or more torturous experience. Jogues—who did a lot of traveling by boat (i.e., canoe)—enjoyed ministry success among the Huron Indians north of the Great Lakes. Among their bitter enemies, not so much.
In 1642, while on a trip to fetch supplies, Jogues was captured by the Mohawks near Ft. Orange (i.e., modern-day Albany). To keep him from taking up arms against them in the future, the Iroquois chopped off his thumb (they also ate some of his fingers)! Tortured for months, Jogues managed to escape, but not before becoming conversant in the language of his captors. After receiving kind treatment from the Dutch at New Amsterdam, Jogues returned to France, where he was given a hero’s welcome, and where, with papal permission, he was permitted to celebrate mass (another priest had to hold the communion elements for him).
In 1646, dismissing his prior experience, Father Jogues returned— by ship, of course!—to northern North America and resolved to reach out to his former captors. Initially, the Mohawks received him, but when hardships came in the form of crop failure and some sort of viral epidemic, the tribe blamed Jogues and his companions.
The missionaries were apprehended, stripped bare, beaten, and slashed with knives. Finally Jogues was killed with the blow of a tomahawk. When the news of his death reached Quebec, his fellow missionaries celebrated a massive Thanksgiving rather than a Requiem mass for the repose of his soul.242 The Catholic Church later declared Isaac Jogues and his brothers martyrs and saints.243
The story is told that a group of Frenchmen later captured a certain Mohawk, and took him to Three Rivers where he boasted that he had been Jogues’ killer. This confession infuriated some members of the Algonquin and Huron tribes there, prompting the Jesuits to take the man into protective custody. After a few weeks in their care, the man asked for Christian baptism, and expressed a desire to take Isaac Jogues’ name. The Jesuits complied.
A few days later, some revenge-minded Algonquin tribe members dragged the converted Mohawk away and killed him. One of the Jesuits allegedly said, “God willing, there are now two Isaac Jogueses in heaven.”244
How Soon People Forget
The story of North American Christianity in one sense is the story of a deep religious tension at the heart of public life. The nation’s founding immigrants came to seek “freedom of religious expression,” but in many minds, that freedom came with a giant asterisk. The Puritans, for example, advocated personal freedom of conscience and religion, but they also wanted a society built upon and adhering to the beliefs they held.
The separation between public and private life that most take for granted today was entirely at odds with the way these early Americans conceived of civil society. Rather than a secular culture marked by complete religious freedom, they wanted an explicitly Christian society where the lines between citizenship and church membership were blurred. Indeed, in colonial America’s earliest days, in certain areas one was not allowed to participate in politics, much less vote, without being an official church member.
But the wide-open spaces of the North American continent and the constant emergence of unaffiliated churches in the beckoning frontier worked to prevent state control of religious life. The rich diversity, vitality, creativity, and mobility of the young American population made religious monoculture an impossible, even ridiculous idea. Eventually the religious freedom championed by figures like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson began to win the day, especially in the newer states and western territories.
By the time of the Civil War, the spread of Christianity would become inextricably linked to the bloody battle and the long reconciliation of slavery positions. From the splintering of the Wesleyans from mainline Methodism to a mélange of new denominations, social activism would become the new face of hundreds of upstart Protestant denominations that would eventually claim half of Americans. Catholicism, especially via lingering Spanish settlements and Irish immigrants, would become America’s largest single denomination at around 21 percent of the US population.245
The spread of Christianity to and through North America follows the same pattern we’ve seen on other continents: the gradual rise of institutions that helped shape culture in good and sometimes not-so-positive ways; the emergence of larger-than-life individuals, usually beset by difficulty and often hampered by flaws and blind spots, who nevertheless made huge contributions to the advance of the gospel, and oftentimes doing all that in a way that required some kind of boat ride.
Here’s one final fascinating fact: in 1622, even as those brave, seafaring Puritans were working hard in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to get their new colony up and running, the Roman Catholic church was canonizing perhaps its greatest missionary.
St. Francis Xavier (d. 1552) was a Jesuit priest who spent much of his life traveling by ship to far-flung places—despite his propensity for violent bouts of seasickness. What drove him? Nothing less than an unquenchable desire to take the gospel to yet another continent—Asia.
In the next chapter, we’ll see how Xavier and others helped spread Christianity among those in the Far East.
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