In our more or less ongoing series on recent church history and the culture driven church Jonathon Miles mentioned something last week in Revivalism in the Burned-Over District Part 2 that he and I have been talking about in order to help the readers understand the run of history and impact of a variety of events and people which although initially unconnected none-the-less converge in unanticipated ways which then change the course of future events and indeed society and its institutions. Let’s let Jonathon speak to this again:
I like the analogy of the streams rather than dots. Connecting dots could imply direct connection from one thing to another. As I warned earlier, history just isn’t that simple. Furthermore, connecting dots doesn’t show how strong the influence of one thing is on another. But the stream analogy does. When you look at a river, it is made up of streams of water that flow from many different sources–some creeks and some tributaries. Sure the Mississippi has its headwaters in tiny stream dribbling out of Lake Itasca Minnesota but no one would say that Lake Itasca is the one source of the Mississippi. Likewise, the Romanticism of Emerson or Finney’s perfectionism can’t be definitively the source of the ills of the Burned-Over district. But they are tributaries in what would become a river. And like a river the route is seldom straight and picks up all sorts of debris along the way. When I last posted, I thought Finney’s revivalism was just a stream. Turns out that his perfectionism was tributary all its own.
As I pointed out in Training the Mind of Faith in America, there was a major shift in theological focus from Christocentric (Christ centered) to Anthropocentric (man centered) in the early 19th Century. The church opted for compelling marketing and a feeling driven faith and, with the loss of sound biblical teaching a number of cults and New Religious Movements began. By the time we reach the middle of the 19th Century this seems to go into hyper-drive.
Atheism Goes Mainstream
On the philosophical front, in 1848, the Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels was published. These individuals took an essentially materialistic view of life. In their view, man is really in control of his own destiny and had made remarkable progress in controlling the forces of nature and growing toward his creative potential. It was a well-constructed view and Marx, a formidable polemicist, argued his points with vigor.
In 1859, eleven years later, Charles Darwin published his work – On the Origin of Species. The first printing sold out the first day of publication. At this juncture, the religious and scientific communities began to part ways. Naturalistic materialism was displacing the biblical account of origins. Faith and reason were fast becoming mutually exclusive ideas. Darwin applied his view to humans in 1871, and Darwinian evolution rocked the world. It utterly changed for many, the view of our place in the world, and indeed, our place in the universe and the hereafter.
Friedrich Nietzsche, although an Atheist himself, realized the moral implications inherent in a universe without God. In his work The Gay Science (sec. 125), he penned the words:
God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe away the blood from us?
Nietzsche realized that if there is no God, to Whom we are accountable and to Whom we owe obedience, then all things are permissible. There really is no right or wrong, good or evil in such a universe—there is just predator and prey.
In 1893, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago. It was predominantly a Christian event, but a very articulate individual from India by the name of Swami Vivekananda made quite a favorable impression upon the assembly. East met West as Hinduism had now officially made its way to America. Vivekananda captured the minds and hearts of those attending. Hinduism and Darwinian evolution (which was being more commonly accepted) are very compatible belief systems. Darwinism asserts physical evolution through change and adaptation from lower forms of life to higher forms of life—Hinduism asserts spiritual evolution from lower forms of life to higher forms of life through reincarnation.
As we have already pointed out, this was also a period when theological liberalism and spiritistic occultism were competing with Christianity for the allegiance of mankind. The Scriptures had been under attack by the schools of higher critics for some time, and were being more and more viewed as myth and fable to be believed only by the uneducated and fearful.
Perhaps if it had been Atheism alone, or occultism alone, or liberalism alone, or the explosion of religious cults alone, that the church had to face, it may have put up a better fight. But with the convergence of all of these at the same point in time, vast inroads were made against the truth of the gospel. When the light of the gospel grows dim in any society, darkness takes over. Little could anyone have imagined, however, that these nineteenth century religious and secular philosophies would leave their bloody footprints all over the twentieth century.
Christians occasionally defended their faith against these new religious movements and atheistic philosophical ideas that were proliferating, but the response of the church was largely haphazard and uncoordinated. By the end of the 19th century, Christians had managed to forge many interdenominational alliances in such important areas as evangelism (e.g., D.L. Moody’s ministry) and youth work (e.g., the YMCA). But any major united efforts among Christians to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) was perhaps 50 to 60 years away from being realized at the turn of the century.