The Christianizing of America 1750-1850

Birth of a Nation

Jesus Never Existed – The Christianization of the Americas


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Kenneth Humphreys

 


25.10.11

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Resistance is Futile

"It is chilling to think that the same people who persecuted the wise women and men of Europe, its midwives and healers, then crossed the oceans to Africa and the Americas and tortured and enslaved, raped, impoverished, and eradicated the peaceful, Christ-like people they found.

And that the blueprint from which they worked, and still work, was the Bible.”

– Alice Walker (Anything We Love Can Be Saved).

 

 

Vanished World

Cahokia, Illinois, most sophisticated native settlement north of Mexico. Illini Indians were occupying the site when the French arrived in the 17th century. By then, the original inhabitants had long disappeared.

 

Site of native mounds in the Ohio valley.

 

Grave Creek Mound (West Virginia), once over 70' high. It was tunnelled into in 1838 and grave goods found.

 

From fact to frontier fiction

Illustration from the Book of Mormon.

In the 1830s Joseph Smith worked native American "pyramids" into his yarn about "Nephites". He also located the Garden of Eden in Missouri.

 

 

Worlds in Collision

On the maps of the English, the coastal settlements of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia and the Carolinas originally extended from "sea to sea".

To the north and west, vast areas were claimed by the French as New France and Louisiana. In Florida, the southwest and along the coast of California were the older settlements of Spain.

With the defeat of the French and Indian forces the colonies had little need of British protection.

A British "Proclamation line" of 1763 tried in vain to stem settlement in Indian lands beyond the Appalachians.

 

 

 

"Savage"

The Iroquois were a confederacy of Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca tribes brought together by "prophets" Deganawidah and Hiawatha in 1570. They had a highly developed and democratic political culture with their own constitution.

In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht, which carved up Spain's European possessions, declared these remote people "British subjects".

The colonial rebellion of 1775 divided the Iroquois confederacy and began its decline into oblivion. The Six Nations (the Tuscarora had joined them) fared badly once the American colonials gained their independence and could make a grab for more land.

In 1779 George Washington sent troops under John Sullivan to "lay waste" the Iroquois and destroy their food supply.

The Iroquois were subsequently confined to reservations and their lands absorbed into the US.

 

 

 

1776 Official Declaration: Indians 'Merciless Savages'

Iroquois chiefs -1871

"The present King of Great Britain ... has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

– Declaration of Independence,
July 4, 1776.

 

The Great Law of the Six Nations laid out basic concepts such as liberty, rights and female suffrage when Europeans were languishing under the lash of kings, feudal lords and the rule by the rich and wealthy.

 

 

"Civilized"

The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations settled in the fertile valleys of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky were called the "Five Civilized Tribes" by patronising 19th century whites – not that it did the Indians any good.

Though the tribes had large towns (Chota was the largest), advanced agriculture, a written language and their own governments, they could not withstand settler avarice once gold had been found on their land.

Andrew Jackson had already established his credentials as a ruthless Indian slayer and as President his Removal Act of 1830 forced the relocation of  the natives to arid lands in Oklahoma.

A 1838 death march forced on 12,000 defiant Cherokee ("The Trail of Tears") saw almost half of them die.

The tribes' support for the Confederacy during the US civil war precipitated further seizure of their lands.

Confined to reservations, hunger, whiskey and sickness reduced numbers to a handful.

Seminole leader Osceola – captured by treachery in 1837 under a flag of truce offered by General Thomas Jessup.

1500 U.S. troops died in the Seminole War (1835-42). The Seminole were never defeated – not by war, liquor or Jesus.

 

 

Not a Christian Nation?

It is patently untrue that the founding fathers were pious Christians who wanted the United States to be a Christian nation.

The early presidents and patriots were generally Deists or Unitarians, believing in some form of impersonal Providence but rejecting the divinity of Jesus and the absurdities of the Old and New Testaments.

 

John Adams, 2nd President (1797-1801). Unitarian.

"This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!"

– Peabody, ed., (John Adams, A Biography in his Own Words, p. 403)


During the Adams administration the Treaty of Peace and Friendship (Treaty of Tripoli) was ratified by the Senate. Article XI stated:

"The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

 

 

 

Thomas Jefferson

3rd President (1801-1809). Deist.

" The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."

– Thomas Jefferson (letter to J. Adams April 11,1823)

 

"The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power, and pre-eminence.

The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained." – Thomas Jefferson

(Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate History, p. 453)

 

James Madison, 4th president and father of the Constitution, was not religious in any conventional sense. Probably deist.

"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise."

 – Virginia Moore (The Madisons, p43)

 


Benjamin Franklin, scientist, diplomat and delegate to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention. Deist, Freemason and not a Christian.

"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion...has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble."

– T. Fleming, ed., (Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in his Own Words, p. 404)

 

 

A Christian Nation?

In 1776 every state except Rhode Island still required some sort of religious affirmation from anyone seeking public office.

Connecticut (until 1818), New Hampshire (until 1819) and Massachusetts (until 1833) still recognized an established church with special privileges and tax support.

Congregationalists dominated Massachusetts, and Anglicans Virginia. The spirit of the new nation was undoubtedly Christian.

George Washington, 1st President (1789-1797). George was an Anglican (Episcopalian) but showed no great religious conviction.

 

 

Andrew Jackson 7th President (1829-1837). Presbyterian, slave trader and Indian slayer.

"I was brought up a rigid Presbeterian, to which I have always adhered." - (Letter to Ellen Hanson, 25 March 1835).

Jackson was a poorly educated backwoodsman from Carolina. A notorious brawler, he killed a man (in a duel) who insulted his wife. The conflict of 1812 made him a war hero.

Jackson turned his violent talents on the Creeks and Seminoles and profitted immensely from seizing their lands.

As President he energetically enforced his Indian Removals Act which resulted in the deaths of thousands.

 

 

 

Shakers invent line dancing

"Senseless jumping, this shaking of their hands like the paws of a dog."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Apparently, the Holy Spirit animated the Shaker dance.

Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Knees bent, arms stretched
Raa raa raa
...

 

 

 

On the frontiers of the New World Christianity set aside any notions of cheek-turning pacifism and universal brotherhood to embrace the manly notions of rugged individualism and aggressive acquisition. Frontier Christianity was the faith of the Lord's conquerors, untroubled by the fate of those who had to perish to make way. The Good Book, as interpreted by a new breed of itinerant pastors, reassured them that they were Good People. The guiding hand of Divine Providence itself sanctioned their ruthless greed and the more wealth they could amass was surely indicative of God's approval. With the Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other the new Americans were claiming their inheritance.

 

The Making of a Kleptocratic Republic

"The plague that killed the kings of Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru – and half their subjects – had struck equally hard in the unknown kingdoms of the north ... The "tribes" the English would find, though still considerable, were remnants of once powerful states. Homes had rotted away and woods had crept back into fields. America seemed a virgin land waiting for civilization. But Europe had made the wilderness it found; America was not a virgin, she was a widow."

– R. Wright, Stolen Continents, p91.


French explorers venturing down the Mississippi Valley only sixty years after De Soto's rampage found only a few tiny villages. Yet all around they saw the decaying remains of a substantial agrarian civilization.
They noted abandoned towns and what once had been fertile agricultural land returning to the wild.

One of the largest centres of this vanished civilization was Cahokia in Illinois, a tribal capital which covered 5 square miles. At its height, probably the 13th century, its population must have been at least 10,000, comparable to London at the same time. So awe-struck by the great mounds of the Ohio valley were the early settlers that Joseph Smith dreamed up a white race of 'Nephites' to explain them and gave his mythical heroes a biblical-style history in the Book of Mormon.

Estimates vary wildly, but before the arrival of Europeans, and more particularly their diseases, perhaps as many as twelve million people lived in what are now the United States. What is certain is that the Europeans arrived from a world wrecked by religious conflict, and salivated at the prospect of extracting limitless wealth from an unexploited land. As the 18th century unfolded the continent became a vast theatre of war as three Christian empires wrestled for the riches of this new world.

The empire of Spain, having dissipated in war the plunder already extracted from much of the Americas, was well into decline. Though the  Spanish claimed the entire hemisphere they were in no position to enforce that claim. The French moved cautiously into the interior along the river valleys of the St Lawrence and Mississippi, building forts and claiming a dubious territorial authority over a vast area. By far the more populous settlements were the colonies of England (an estimated 200,000 people in 1700, 1.3 million by 1750), confined by mountains and her rivals to the eastern coast.

 

Ethnic Cleansing Begins

"The ruin of these races began the day the Europeans landed on their shores; it has continued since then; it is reaching its completion at the present time."

– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835.


The Native Americans, weakened by alien-imported disease for more than a century, were slow to resist the invader. Indeed, their kindness and curiosity had caused them to feed the first desperate settlers (see Christ in the Colonies). In return, the invading fanatics gave thanks to their own God for using the savages to effect divine deliverance. So much for Thanksgiving
.

Unfortunately for them, the natives who met the intruders were not a single, homogeneous population but were divided into more than 250 distinctive groups, with many different languages, kinship systems and cultural patterns. This disunity allowed the invaders to form opportunistic alliances with particular tribes and adopt a successful divide and conquer policy. In the north, the French struck an alliance with the Algonquin and Huron tribes, which prompted their traditional enemies the Iroquois to ally themselves with the English.

In the complex struggle ahead, the European intruders were only too willing to supply their native allies with firearms with which to better exterminate each other. Indeed, Jesuits and missionaries offered guns as an inducement to conversion to Christianity. European weapons transformed the traditional inter-tribal warfare into something far deadlier. Hitherto, "Braves" had always proven their virility in battle but allied to the European invader their wars now became a process of conquest and annihilation which benefitted only the Europeans.

The Christians, joyous that their God had covenanted a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, were ready to fight to the death of the last Indian.

 

Culture clash

The relentless alien assault intruded into every facet of native life, and most fundamentally into the ownership of land. More than merely territory, the natives held the earth sacred, venerated as a benevolent Mother, a notion meaningless to the intruders who took their own sanctity from a book. Common ownership, as practised by the Indians, was perceived by Europeans as primitive and unchristian. The migrants were there, after all, not merely to live but to acquire, and that meant essentially personal ownership of land. To the newcomers the land was a "wilderness" to be mastered, tamed and enclosed into "property".

From the first, the guileless Indians ceded tracts of land to these strangely avaricious people but even in a period of "peace" the insatiable appetite of Europeans for pelts and hides destroyed the ecological balance which the native peoples had maintained for millennia. Thus began the steady eradication of the indigenous wildlife, exacerbated by the horses and cows of the invader which ate the grasslands that had previously fed the deer and caribou. And everywhere was the pressure of more and more settlers, each and every one of them wanting "property".

 

Resistance is Futile

"Then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy ... And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein."

Numbers 33.52-53.


Belatedly, in 1675, the exasperated Indians of New England turned their enmity towards the colonists. Against overwhelming firepower and resources the struggle was hopeless. In a single incident during the so-called "King Philip's War" some 600 Indians were massacred. A delighted Cotton Mather, pastor of the Second Church of Boston, later referred to the slaughter as a "barbeque"
. At the end of the conflict most of New England's Indians were either dead or had taken refuge in Canada. Some were sold into slavery in the Carolinas.

With the viability of her American colonies firmly established, in 1684 the English crown replaced the restrictive "Puritan" charter of Massachusetts with one more to its liking. In Boston and the coastal cities the "rule of the Saints" was succeeded by the governance of a practical and corrupt commercialism. Whaling and pirate vessels were built, fitted out and supplied from the cities of the eastern seaboard. The illicit import of molasses from the French West Indies established another major industry, the distillation of a coarse rum. Whisky and rum not only encouraged local drunkenness and crime: when sold to the Indians it caused serious debilitation. With metabolisms ill-suited to the alien fire water the natives were frequently reduced to addiction and then cheated out of their land. By 1750 Massachusetts had 63 distilleries. By then the distillers were rich enough to invest capital in slave traders keen to ship captive Africans to the West Indian sugar planters.

 

Religious toleration: Good for business

Before he fled in 1688 James II granted fellow Catholics and French Huguenots religious freedom in Virginia. It was the last defiant act of a religious extremist. The Glorious Revolution which displaced James ended decades of religious intransigence in England and within a generation that liberality spread to the colonies. The Protestantism of an incipient empire was not about to allow differences of religious faith to obstruct global commercial expansion. In 1750 England's Board of Trade imposed "toleration and free exercise of religion" on its American colonies in order to attract new migrants and encourage trade. Anglicans (but without a local bishop) were thus able to set up shop in the former outpost of Puritan separatism, as were the European Anabaptists and Mennonites driven out of the Rhineland by the religious wars of Louis XIV.

Along with European migrants and goods came the new science of the Enlightenment. Many intellectuals rejected Christianity entirely, along with its confused nonsense of the Trinity and Calvin's pessimistic notion of man's "total depravity". Instead the Deists and Unitarians argued for the essential goodness of mankind, emphasising reason and human progress. When it came to souls all might be saved.

 

Reason baffles the hicks

In contrast, settlers on the frontier, outcasts from the sophisticated society of the coastal cities, persevered with a simplistic understanding of the "Kingdom of God", less in tune with a rational God of loving benevolence than with the Old Testament despot of divine retribution.

In the 1740s religious "revivalism" (the so-called "Great Awakening") brought a campaign of primitive fanaticism to the whites of the frontier zone. Cheek by jowl with the heathen savages, these practical, ignorant folk were suspicious of complicated theology and the "sophisticated" faith of the Eastern seaboard which had mellowed from its puritanical days into a restrained piety.

The fire that had once belonged to the Congregationalists and Quakers – now pillars of respectable commerce – passed to a new breed of hot gospelling Presbyterians and Methodists. Their "open air" style of sermonizing and use of untrained "lay" preachers servicing a circuit of meeting places can be credited to the Wesley brothers. These maverick English Anglicans (banned from English parish churches for their idiosyncratic theology) ministered in the new penal colony of Georgia in the 1730s and subsequently John Wesley ordained a "Superintendent" in lieu of a bishop for the American colonies.

The itinerant Methodist preachers, able to keep up with, and perambulate between, the isolated frontier settlements, offered nothing in the way of pastoral work. A church house was a luxury, a field might do. Instead they put on a show emphasising fire and brimstone, "spirit healings", and the Lord's "living presence". Having whipped up an atmosphere of emotionalism and hysteria, complete with screaming, shouting and weeping, the call came for personal conversion – and of course a little cash.

In the demonology of the frontier zealots the unrepentant heathen were minions of the devil and had to be sent back to hell. Thus it was with the condoning word of the Lord that American settlers could kill natives and hound them from the land. Convinced of their own moral superiority, yet in reality vicious, violent and essentially criminal, the interlopers could take over land already cleared of, and by, its former occupants.

Confronted by such missionaries the Native Americans had little option but to pay lip service to the strange and aggressive religion of the invader.

 

The French Disconnection

Colonial rivalry led Britain to declare war on France in 1756, and on Spain six years later. In the seven year conflict, in which local tribes were deployed as auxiliaries on both sides, Britain wrestled the Ohio valley and Quebec from France, and Florida from Spain. The (1st) Treaty of Paris which brought the Seven Years' War (aka 'French and Indian War') to an end, parcelled out Canada to Britain and compensated Spain with a vast territory west of the Mississippi called Louisiana.

With the defeat of the French, a confederation of tribes in the lands south of the Great Lakes, led by chief Pontiac of the Ottawa, continued the struggle, attacking forts across a broad swath of territory. Imperial and colonial forces retaliated with overwhelming force. During the conflict Lord Jeffrey Amherst earned eternal infamy by ordering that blankets infected with smallpox be supplied to the Indians, an early instance of germ warfare. But the war left the British wary of trying to garrison all the lands taken from France. Instead, Britain's Indian allies were "rewarded" by a prohibition on colonists settling west of the Appalachians, although "over mountain men" ignored the stipulation and immediately began crossing the so-called "Proclamation Line". In 1768 the Mohawk valley passed into the hands of Scots who themselves had been driven from their homes by highland clearances.In 1775, Daniel Boone hacked his way through the Cumberland Gap, opening up a new route into the interior.

With the defeat of French and Indian forces the colonies had little need of British protection – and certainly were not prepared to pay for it.

 

Revolution

By 1776, more than 2 million people were living in Britain's North American colonies. With the elimination of French power a segment of the colonial population allied itself with the former enemy to throw off imperial restrictions. The thirteen colonies of British North America – perhaps two thirds of their population, that is – rebelled against British rule. France supplied the rebels with 90% of their gunpowder and a Prussian trained their army.

Divided, the disparate and scattered colonies would have fallen one by one to imperial forces. Unity was therefore of the utmost importance and religious discord had to be put aside. A union based upon mutual religious tolerance was a necessary concomitant of the struggle for independence. The new nation, led for the most part by Deists and Unitarians, achieved a shaky federation by ceding rights and liberties to the disparate communities and settlements. An ill-defined "unity under God" – however understood – and a separation of church from state, was the only formula for success. It was a formula which particularly appealed to the revolutionary leaders – Paine, Franklin, etc. – who were themselves actually anti-Christian. Thus at its birth, the republic endorsed no official mystical creed nor state-sanctioned church.

In the United States of America, 1776, the Christian religion, for the first time since Emperor Constantine fourteen hundred years earlier, found itself without the power of the state to enforce its will. The multifarious sects which had set up shop in the new commonwealth had to compete with each other for membership and influence. Entrepreneurial Christianity was born.

 

War's end

"Treaties were expedients by which ignorant, intractable, and savage people were induced ... to yield up what civilized people had the right to possess."

– George Gilmer, Governor of Georgia, c. 1830 (Wright, p202)


In 1783 the (2nd) Treaty of Paris, formally ending the Revolutionary War,
had disastrous consequences for Native Americans. Under the treaty the newly formed United States acquired title to all lands west to the Mississippi and the colonial population immediately put unremitting pressure on the tribes in the northwest and southeast. Abandoned by their allies, the native confederacies were powerless to stop aggressive American expansion.

In what had been nominal "British" territory beyond the Appalachians new states were rapidly organized: Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), and Ohio (1803). Meanwhile, revolution and turmoil in France brought Napoleon to power, and in the small but highly profitable French colony of Saint-Domingue a slave rebellion defeated French forces. The loss of "Haiti" thwarted French plans for a new empire in the Americas and in 1803 Napoleon sold the vast Louisiana territory, retaken from Spain only three years earlier, to the United States for $15 million.

Overnight, the republic doubled in size and laid claim to 800,000 square miles of unknown territory stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific northwest. Much of it was rapidly parcelled out – Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), Alabama (1817), Illinois (1818), Mississippi (1819), and Missouri (1821). The pressure of white encroachment now passed onto the Plains Indians whilst what remained of the woodland tribes – Saux, Fox, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole – fought their last desperate battles.

 

Ethnic cleansing gathers pace

"The inhabitants of the United States do not hunt the Indians down with a great clamor, like the Spanish in Mexico. But here, as elsewhere, it is the same pitiless sentiment ... 'The brandy which we sell to them cheaply annually removes more of them than our weapons could manage... God, by his refusal to grant its first inhabitants the art of civilization, doomed them to inevitable destruction. The true owners of this continent are those who are able to take advantage of its wealth.'

Pleased with this argument, the American repairs to church where he listens to a minister of the Gospel repeat to him that men are brothers and the everlasting Being has given them all the duty of helping one another."

– Alexis de Tocqueville (Two Weeks in the Wilderness, 1835).


Andrew Jackson was a slave-owning backwoodsman from South Carolina, of Irish descent. He was a Presbyterian. He was also an aggressive and avaricious "second generation" frontiersman and an aristocrat of the New Order, a politico-businessman with "connections", a cotton planter, a land-speculator and a bully. Exploiting his appointment to various public offices (judge, congressman, senator), Jackson dislodged thousands of poor white farmers and sent them streaming into Indian lands, where new "provocations" would provide an excuse for Jackson (also a general in the militia) to renew aggression against the native tribes.

In 1814 "King Andrew" led a savage campaign against the Creek nation long settled in the rich lands of the southeast. Though all the tribes were fearful of white encroachment the Creeks were divided, both on the issue of an alliance with the British (then at war with the U.S.) and on acceptance of the ways of the white man (they were, after all, one of the "civilized" tribes.)

Not that the difference of tribal opinion really mattered. Determined and ruthless, Jackson sequestered lands even from tribes that had fought as his allies. Vast tracts of Alabama and Mississippi were parcelled out to white settlers, with Jackson taking much of the land for himself.

In 1818, now enjoying the rank of Major General in the regular army, Jackson audaciously invaded the land of Seminole Indians living in Spanish Florida, ostensibly because the Seminole were accepting runaway slaves as members of their tribe. In command of 3000 troops Jackson wiped out several Indian villages and annexed Florida. What a star.

In 1829 he became President.

 

The Frontier Mentality - Zealots with guns

"The 'assent' of Indians was often nominal; federal commissioners bribed important chiefs and if necessary got them drunk enough to sign anything ... Between 1829 and 1837 several million acres were relinquished, and many thousand redskins more or less unwillingly  transferred across the Mississippi."

–  Morison, et al, p438,9.


The Cherokee had first encountered the white invaders in the 18th century and had moved further west for safety. But they had also assimilated some of the ways of the restless newcomer, building houses, laying out roads, devising their own written language. The tribes adopted a national constitution and even accepted Christian missionaries. For a time an autonomous republic existed on the frontier of the kleptocracy. Unfortunately for the Cherokee in 1828 gold was discovered in their land and the new Americans of Georgia now claimed the Cherokee country for themselves.

Breaking with the policy of his predecessor, and ignoring a ruling of the Supreme Court, Andrew Jackson enthusiastically supported his rapacious countrymen. He vigorously enforced the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which required the relocation of all eastern tribes beyond the Mississippi. In the winter of 1838, the reluctant Cherokee were forced marched 1000 miles at bayonet point to an involuntary exile, an ethnic cleansing known as "The Trail of Tears". At least 4000 died during the journey. The sick, despondent and impoverished survivors were confined to "reservations" on the worst lands of Oklahoma.

The Seminole in Florida were not so readily subdued. Under their charismatic leader Osceola the Seminole outwitted the U.S. army for years. Osceola was eventually captured by treachery, taken under a flag of truce. He died in a South Carolina prison only months later. Embarassed army officers gave him a military funeral.

 

Divine Will made manifest

"We must have exciting, powerful preaching, or the devil will have the people, except what the Methodists can save."

– Charles Finney (1792-1875), apostle of religious hysteria, pastor of the First Church in Oberlin, Ohio.


In the wake of the Revolutionary and Indian wars, ever greater numbers of settlers migrated into the newly conquered lands. The practitioners of priestly deceit followed the population westward. In frontier areas lacking churches, schools and newspapers, a vast clientele might have been lost to heathendom. But, thankfully, the zealots were there to save them.

In a pattern similar to events on the old northeast frontier a century earlier, the notion of "revival" served the divine purpose. Large camp meetings allowed an assortment of competitive preachers – Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist – to peddle their wares and drum up business. Many thousands were drawn to the periodic hullabaloos, as much as anything else enjoying a welcome break from the isolation and drudgery of frontier life.

The preachers themselves were often poorly educated, but then the gatherings were no seminars for the close study of theology. On the contrary, intellectual subtlety would have obscured the message. Sermons were energetic and emotional. The illiterate believer was encouraged not to think but to “feel” God through personal experience. In an atmosphere deliberately designed to engender hysterical euphoria, many surely did.

Rapidly, the Lord's salesman moved his audience through a cycle of guilt, despair and hope, building to a climax of “born again” conversion, personal salvation – and of course, a little financial gratitude for the furtherance of the Lord's work. To sustain the message in the quieter days ahead, music and hymns took the place of literacy and rational discourse. Songs conveyed enough of the "good news" to suffice and songs had the merit of being easily memorized by all.

 

The breeding ground of cults

In the frontier lands of avarice and toil any slick-tongued hustler of limited means and unlimited ambition could "sell the Lord" to the hicks and the hillbillies. By such means he – or she – secured a fast track to fame and fortune. An early example was a migrant washerwoman from England, Ann Lee. By the age of 30 Ms Lee had birthed and lost four children. She turned to Quakerism and, sure enough, got messages from God, who told her carnal relations were the cause of all the world's troubles. God also told Ann to go to America, the land of religious opportunity.

Once there, in 1774, Ann's husband ran off, leaving the wild Quaker – now styling herself the female Christ – to organise a band of relatives and groupies into the "United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming" at Watervliet, New York. They gained the nickname Shakers for their holy spirit driven animations. "Millennial Laws" introduced in 1821 regulated every hour of the day and would have made a penal settlement proud. Toiling away in their holy servitude the Shakers built a reputation for finely made chairs, including the rocker which would grace the quintessential American homestead.

In a land rich in natural resources and few restraints, the Shaker cult showed what a charismatic leader could achieve with a little biblical knowledge and a following of poorly educated acolytes. A bewildering number of other such cults would follow in the two centuries ahead.

 

Father Joseph?

Father Joseph's shakedown with the "Shakers"

"Mother" Ann Lee presided over her small, celibate and teetotal community until her death in 1784, aged 48. Former Baptist minister "Father" Joseph Meacham now became the guru-in-residence and in 1787 announced a "separation from the world" – communal living, uniform dress, and spirit messages.

Joseph regimented the spontaneous hysteria of the Shakers into line-dancing conformity. Enforced frugal living and disciplined hard work initially brought commercial success to the Christian cooperative and about twenty daughter communities followed.

At its peak Shakerism had several thousand members. Terminal decline set in after the Civil War and the arrival of more dynamic enthusiasms.

 

Why not start your own religion?

When the first charismatic leaders died and the hot gospel cooled a little, an opportunity arose for new saints and charlatans to move among the people, restoring the excitement and ecstasy of "old time religion" and whipping up a profitable frenzy of revival.

Thus was born the chronic factionalism in which any forceful patriarch could establish a church and a following, a formula uniquely suited to a land of expanding frontiers and unrestrained enterprise.

Entrepreneurial Christianity was about to enter a golden age of creative theology, borrowing freely from Freemasonry, Egyptology, socialism, occultism, spiritualism and plain old fashion nonsense. It would ultimately produce several major corporations in the world of Jesus marketeering. Christianity may have been in retreat in the Old World but in the New World Christianity was on the march, as blood soaked as ever.

 

Postscript: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492

 

Sources:
J. C. H. King, First Peoples, First Contacts (British Museum, 1999)
Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Simon & Schuster, 1981)
Colin Taylor (Ed.), The Native Americans (Chrysalis, 2004)
Andrew Sinclair, A Concise History of the United States (Sutton, 2000)
Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Yale University Press, 1972)
Jerald C. Brauer, Protestantism in America (Westminster Press, 1953)
Robert T. Handy, A Christian America (Oxford University Press, 1971)
Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion (Oxford University Press, 1980)
Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America (Norton, 1976)
J. Spiller, et al, The United States 1763-2001 (Routledge, 2005)
Morrison, Commager, Leuchtenburg, The Growth of the American Republic (OUP, 1980)

 

Related articles
Home
The Christianizing of the Americas
 
1500-1600 New Spain – Old Horrors
 
1600-1700 Christ in the Colonies
 
In Human Bondage Did Jesus Keep Slaves?
 
1850-1950 The Americanising of Christianity
 
Jesus loves a winner! Shaking Down the Sheep
 
1950-2005 Jesus Jihad
MAJOR SECTIONS
Do you really think it all began with a sanctimonious Jewish wonder-worker, strolling about 1st century Palestine? Prepare to be enlightened.
  Jesus The Imaginary Friend

Still holding to the idea that some sort of holy man lies behind the legend? Better check out...
Godman – Gestation of a Superhero

A closer look at the glib assertion that the Jesus story "got off the ground quickly and spread rapidly."
What DID the Early Christians Believe?


Many currents fed the Jesus myth, like streams and tributaries joining to form a major river.
Sourcing the legend – The Syncretic Heritage of Christianity


Much of the mythology of Christianity is a rehash of an older and even more transparent fabrication – Judaism.
Jew Story – The Way of the Rabbi


Human ingenuity and cunning is matched by mankind's equally monumental credulity and wishful thinking.
Christianity's Fabrication Factory


Church organisation, authority and membership preceded rather than followed the justifying doctrine. As the organisation and its needs changed so has the ‘Testament of God’ adapted accordingly.
Dogma – The Word in all its Savage Glory

From religious policeman to grandee of the church, from beast fighter in Ephesus to beheading in Rome, Paul's story has more holes than a swiss cheese.
 St Paul the Apostle Dead in the water?


Orchestrated by ambitious Christian clerics, a cancer of superstition, fear and brutality was imposed across Europe.
Heart of Darkness – The Criminal History of the Christian Church


The Christian Heaven may have been a vain folly but the Christian Hell has been real enough.
Hell on Earth – A Brutal Superstition Spreads Across the World


Raised to the status of State religion the Christian Church reigned over the destruction of civilization. As the centuries passed religious barbarism grew ever more vicious.
Winter of the World – The Terrible Cost of "Christendom"

For two millennia Christianity's anti-sexual, puritanical doctrines have inflicted untold damage on the mental, emotional and physical lives of countless millions of people.
Those SEXUALLY hung-up Christians – Loved-up for Jesus


With a Jewish father (stern patriarch) and a Christian mother (obsession with guilt and heaven) it is not surprising that Islam grew up a bit of a tartar.
Islam's Desert Storm – 'Christendom' Reaps a Whirlwind

Heaven help us. The richest, most powerful nation in history has a psychotic infatuation with Jay-a-sus the Lawd!
The Christianizing of the Americas

 



 

 

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Copyright © 2006 by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no material herein is sold for profit.