The Christianizing of America 1850-1950

Americanisation of Christianity

Jesus Never Existed – The Christianization of the Americas


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Kenneth Humphreys

 


25.10.11

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Jesus Inc ® – Selling the Lord

When modern pharmaceuticals put 19th century snake-oil salesmen out of business a certain breed of flimflam artist found an alternative cure-all for the feeble-minded and the emotionally insecure –

Jay-a-sus the Lawd!

 

 

 

 

 

Family values – drudgery and faith

Vast tracts of land and chronic shortage of hirable labour favoured early marriage and large families. A widow with children was a desirable bride – a ready-made workforce for the years of toil.

Neither the Episcopalian church (an off-shoot from the Church of England) nor the Congregational churches were suited to the needs of the frontier.

Into the vacuum galloped Methodism's circuit-riding clergy and the more energetic, if poorly educated, Baptists, preaching and when necessary conducting weddings.

 
 
 

 

 

 

Jesus takes care of his own

As the frontier moved west ever-adaptable Christianity attuned itself to the interests of the Protestant land-owning peasantry. The "work ethic" was deeply ingrained, as was a sense of "property" and notions of "rights".

Isolation on the frontier freed the daily lives of the peasant farmers from the liturgical calendar but made periodic "revival" meetings more appealing.

At the same time, the excessive self-reliance of a frontier life engendered an opinionated, gun-toting arrogance which easily led to confrontation and violence.

You got a problem with that?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Magic mountain?

Hill Cumorah, close to Joseph Smith's own home and four miles south of Palmyra, NY.

Supposedly, it was here that Joe recovered "golden plates" detailing the visit of Jesus Christ to America and the history of ancient white races.

Unfortunately, the plates are not to be viewed in the Smithsonian. They had to be returned to heaven before anyone could see them.

 

 

 

Mound City, Ohio. Hopewell native Indian culture, 200 BC - 100 AD.

The site, about 100 miles south of the Mormon settlement at Kirtland, was first investigated by archaeologists Squier and Davis during the 1840s.

Joseph Smith worked native Indian "pyramids" into his yarn about "Nephites" and "Lamanites" – his migrant "Israelites" in America – but archaeology confirms not a word of this nonsense from the Book of Mormon.

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus treks West

The dispossessed were urged westward, in a continuous process of seizing native lands and eradicating the Indians as a people.

"Colonists, missionaries, and explorers arrived, spreading disease, destruction and disruption ... within a few mere centuries the old Indian way of life had been swept away forever."

– Taylor, p10/11.

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus goes huntin', shootin', fishin'

Denominations in tune with the interests of rich peasants ("hard working pioneers") thrived.

Theological discourse or speculation held no interest here; the sermon was everything. The transient excitement and hysteria was designed to produce immediate, emotional conversion.

 

 

 

 

 

Pyramid power of the Jehovah Witnesses!

Tomb of Charles Taze Russell, founder of The Watch Tower Bible And Tract Society.

 – North Hills, Pittsburgh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madame Blavatsky – larger than life fraudster who founded the Theosophical Society  in New York in 1875.

 

 

 

 

 

After a hard day raising the dead..

"For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil!

The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a wine bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!"

– Luke 7.33

 

 

 

 

 

Inherit the wind

Biblical literalism on trial.

 

 

 

 

 

An All-American Jesus

Jesus also ate burgers and drank coke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Huddled masses–
in need of Jesus?

The 1910 census reported that, of a US population of 92 million, 50 million were in rural areas. Moreover, less than half of the over 25s had a high school education!

Such opportunity for Christian fellowship!

Praise the Lawd!

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

The Joy of Sects

19th century America had little place for the touchy-feely Jesus of love and charity. The angry god of Calvinism had arrived in the promised land and marched westward wearing the cloak of Baptism and Methodism. Even so, Jesus had to become All-American and the hucksters of Christ saw their opportunity, fabricating peculiar forms of the faith, packaged into a convenience Christianity of competitive variety.

In the young republic, God-fearing folk required an entrepreneurial recasting of the Palestinian pageant. They responded to creeds attuned to their "pioneering spirit" and to the exaggerated patriotism of a new nation. Americans rallied to charismatic preachers who sanctioned the heady dream of vast personal wealth and, at the same time, endorsed a reassuringly conservative moral code. Success favoured the loudest, most demagogic tub thumper, the progenitor of the 21st century televangelist. To idealistic spirits, America, bold and audacious, would shine as an exemplar of Christian rectitude and the hope of righteous betterment to a corrupt and secularising Old World.

 

Hocus-Pocus Inc.

The lack of an established or even a dominant church in the USA presented bright and ambitious charlatans with an unbridled opportunity to set up shop in the religion business. In America, the normal restraints upon an ecclesiastical career – years spent in seminaries, pondering ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew texts, an age spent training as a priest, a lifetime spent in dutiful service to the Church, endless obsequious soliciting for hierarchical preferment – all were blissfully absent. In the new republic, where liberty bestowed its bounty on the quick and the slick, guru status was on offer from Day 1. Just go for it.

The pattern was amazingly predictable. A family background in congregational or baptist activity. A gift for self-publicity and showmanship. A youthful quest for a get-rich-quick scheme which ended in failure. A fascination with the rituals and ceremonies of freemasonry and ancient Egypt. Then, eureka, a return to the hypnotic mantras of the Bible plus that vital extra ingredient, the guru's own "inspired writings", held to be a special dispensation from the Almighty and indispensable for a true understanding of scripture and sold to gullible camp followers in vast and profitable quantity.

 

The Crisis of Succession

The founder of a cult makes his fortune. At his death the organization inevitably splits as other, no less ambitious charlatans, see their own opportunity for worldly grandeur. Often, a restatement of the Law and a new name follow.

Not untypically, the crisis of succession is a conflict between the family of the dead prophet and the personalities that had stood near to the throne. One need only think of the schism that affected 7th century Islam, forever after torn between the 'Shia' faction of Ali ibn Abu Talib, married to Muhammad's daughter, and the 'Sunni' faction led by Abu Bakr, the prophet's right-hand man. A division, even fragmentation, follows, with the power struggle disguised by subtle adjustments to doctrine.

 

America in the Jesus Saga? The Lost Continent

The United States had never been anticipated in that font of all wisdom, the Bible, but the salesmen of the Lord would rewrite and reinterpret scripture to minimize the shortcoming.

As it happened, the ancient Land of the Pharaohs, with all its biblical connotations, burst back into European consciousness as a consequence of the French occupation of Egypt in 1798. Napoleon's France, having been ejected from North America, made a strike towards British India by landing an army near Alexandria. During the next three years French scholars followed the army south to Aswan and east into Palestine, acquiring "treasures" and amassing the information that would fill 22 volumes of the Descriptions de L'Egypte.

This authoritative and defining tome of Egyptology informed literate minds for generations and led directly to the work of the Orientalist, Jean François Champollion. Between 1814 and 1824, Champollion published his pioneering decipherment of previously unreadable ancient Egyptian script. With his formidable language skills and a close study of the Rosetta Stone, the young scholar had solved "the mystery of the hieroglyphics".

Some of the excitement of Egyptology, but none of the scholarship, found its way to upstate New York. By the 1830s, mummies, Egyptian artifacts and papyri were the razzmatazz of travelling showmen, one of whom captured the interest and fired the imagination of another young man, Joseph Smith. Joe bought himself  a common funeral papyrus and decided to "translate" it. With his experience of digging for treasure, a rudimentary knowledge of Indian history and a few words of Hebrew he set about concocting a fabulous yarn that put America centre stage in the fable of Jesus. He now had all he needed to "restore" the true faith. Smith's subsequent antics, of fleecing gullible followers, organising a militia to intimidate his critics and collecting a harem, so enraged the locals that Joe got himself killed. The church he founded, however, became the most successful cult in modern history: the Mormons.

Smith was but one in a long and ignoble succession of religious fraudsters that flourished – and continue to flourish – in the land of liberty and credulity.

 

The breeding ground of cults

 

The threat of Popery!

Waves of Irish and German Catholics, arriving in the cities of the eastern seaboard after 1830 – into areas that had once been havens of Protestant rectitude – set alarm bells ringing. After the famine of 1846-1850, "coffin ships" brought boatload after boatload of desperate Irish migrants, possessing little more than their devout Catholicism. After two centuries of struggle was the young republic to succumb to papal autocracy?

19th century America's northeast became a "burned over" breeding ground of anti-Catholic cults. The pure had a simple option: to gather kith and kin, up-sticks and trek to a new enclave of biblical virtue. Here a self-appointed and charismatic pastor could be monarch in his own kingdom and define a theology to his own liking. The new movements combined an eclectic mix of enthusiasms: revivalism, spiritualism, communism, abstinence, polygamy and novel views on women's rights.

 

Piety's Workshops

 

Finney – often called "America's foremost revivalist."

Finney sent blacks back to Africa with a Bible in their hand.

Making America pure and ready for the Kingdom

Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) was the major hothead in the "Second Great Awakening" which convulsed America in the 1830s. In part, the revival was a reaction against the secularism of a more scientific age, and in part a response to the perceived threat of Catholic immigration. The cause of temperance also helped to agitate the godly.

An American Bible Society was founded in 1816 with the avowed goal of scattering the earth with (Protestant) Bibles. The same year Finney himself founded The American Colonization Society. In 1820 the Society started shipping free blacks out of white America, purifying the promised land and in the process carving the colony of Liberia out of Sierra Leone. Other overseas "missions" followed, preparing the way for the growth of the American empire.

 

 

Hiram Edson – had rare gift for knowing the difference between a holy place and a most holy place.

 

Ellen White – put the 7 into the 7th Day Adventists.

Hiram Edson and the "Adventists"

In 1818, the original "Bible code" shyster, New Yorker William Miller, concocted a timetable for the fulfillment of the prophesies of the books of Daniel and Revelation: March 21st 1843. He proceeded to gather in his flock – and their loot.

Unfortunately for the farmer-cum-baptist preacher JC did not come calling in his fiery chariot and the "great anticipation" was followed by the great disappointment.

Miller never recovered from the shock (he died in 1849) but his followers were not about to give up on a nice little earner. While "crossing a cornfield" Millerite Hiram Edson received the spiritual guidance that in 1843 Christ had indeed entered the second stage of his ministry – in Heaven! Christ it seems had gone from the Holy Place to the Most Holy Place, and from there he's been making his "investigative judgments". Whatever.

In 1860, in Battle Creek, Michigan, the Millerites joined the followers of a visionary from Portland, Maine, named Ellen White and took the name "7th Day Adventists", the 7th a reference to observing a Saturday sabbath, believed to be in accord with the early ("pure") church. The Adventists followed a good bit of Jewish dietary law, and emphasized Jesus' role as high priest.

Harmless? Victor Houteff joined the SDA church in 1919. His beliefs deviated from main-line church doctrine. This became obvious when he wrote his book The Shepherd's Rod in which he outlined errors that he had found within the church. He left the church and formed a new sect in 1929 called the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists.

This group split further and eventually led to the organization of the the Students of the Seven Seals, popularly known as the Branch Davidians. In 1993, after a long standoff with the FBI, the Branch Davidian's compound burned down with major loss of life.

 

 

Handsome womaniser Joseph Smith achieved temporary cult success (27 wives and his own town!), early martyrdom (murdered while in jail), and everlasting notoriety.

 

Patriarch Brigham Young.

Young recruited new cult members in the east of the US and in England before ascending the Mormon throne after Smith's murder. He became king of "Deseret" (initially part of Mexico and then Utah territory).

Young reigned for more than 30 years and fathered at least 56 children by 52 wives.

 

 

Joseph Smith and the Mormons

Born in Vermont in 1805, the future prophet and "Latter Day Saint", Joe Smith, was raised in Manchester, New York, where his eccentric father initiated the young lad in the arcane arts of divination, talismanic "magic" and digging for treasure. Obviously thrilled with this power, the boy assembled a collection of "seer stones" and went hunting for buried Indian gold. The treasure he actually found was the realization that he could fool ignorant farmers into believing all manner of nonsense.

By the time he was 30 Smith had refined his act. In the wondrous tome The Book of Mormon, published in 1830, he boldly asserted that the angel Moroni had appeared to him several years earlier and had disclosed the existence of hidden golden plates, which a magic stone had allowed Smith to translate from "reformed Egyptian" (an otherwise unknown language). Smith's "translation", the Book of Mormon, told how the descendants of the ancient Israelites had gone to America, and how Christ himself had appeared there after his crucifixion. This hokum rapidly won Smith a following among simple farm folk, impressed by even a modicum of "learning" – blissfully unaware that Smith had copied most of his yarn from unpublished manuscripts taken from a Rev. Solomon Spaulding, a writer of historical romances on a Biblical theme.

The charismatic Smith led his camp followers to pastures new – Fayette, Kirtland, Nauvoo, driven on by the resentment of non-Mormons. Like Mohammad, centuries earlier, Smith received further "revelations" as circumstances required. One notorious revelation gave Smith a special dispensation to take multiple wives (Mohammad got the same dispensation!). Joe's diverse writings from the years 1830-1842 were published in a second sacred tome Pearl Of Great Price. Among the book's more extraordinary assertions was the claim that both God and Christ had appeared to Smith and that John the Baptist had anointed Joe into the "Aaronic Priesthood".

The happy reign of the prophet came to an abrupt end when Smith was jailed for instigating the wrecking of the offices of a newspaper (run by ex-Mormons) critical of his cult. A mob stormed the jail and shot Smith and his brother Hyrum. The martyrdom split the Mormons. The larger group followed ex-Methodist Brigham Young, so-called "President of the Quorum of The Twelve Apostles".

Young led some 16,000 Saints west to the Great Salt Lake and proceeded to establish a theocracy, fiercely hostile to outsiders, including the US Army. The enmity led to the notorious Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857 when Mormons executed 120 men, women and children from a passing wagon train. Brigham Young tried to blame Indians for the outrage but 20 years later a Mormon leader was executed for the crime.

 

 

Russell. Self-publicist extraordinaire.

 

 

"The Judge" Rutherford

"You are my witnesses"
– Isaiah 43.10.

 

Russell, the "Millennial Dawn" and Jehovah's Witnesses

In 1870, a young Pittsburgh haberdasher, Charles T. Russell, began a Bible study group which he called the "Millennial Dawn." Fascinated by "Biblical prophecy" and impressed by "Adventist" speculations on the coming of the Apocalypse, Russell advanced his own wondrous notion that an invisible Christ had just recently returned to Earth (in 1874, in fact). Over the coming years Russell's idiosyncratic "theology" would fill a series of books and give birth to a highly successful Christian cult.

At the age of 28 Russell broke from his local Congregational church, styled himself "pastor" and set up his own show. In 1884 he launched the journal The Watch Tower and then later that year The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.

Followers saw Russell as a messenger of God, critics as a child molester and con man. In 1909 his wife sued for divorce. In 1911 a Brooklyn newspaper exposed a "Miracle Wheat" scam run by Russell. Other Russell get rich quick schemes included a fake cancer cure and what he termed a "millennial bean". But his followers stayed loyal to their guru.

Further esoteric calculation convinced Russell that the Second Coming would occur in 1914. Instead, his own end came in 1916. After his death his followers split, with the majority following an attorney, "Judge" Joseph F. Rutherford, who coined the term "Jehovah's Witnesses" in the 1930s. The "Judge" led the Witnesses until 1942, letting Russell’s books go out of print and marketing his own.

In 1925, Rutherford came up with his own prophecy: the imminent return of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In preparation, Rutherford bought a mansion in San Diego, California, complete with a limo, apparently to chauffeur the resurrected patriarchs about.

* A link to correspondence with The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society on the validity of Noah's flood.

 

 

Jesus Loves the Rich Guy! (says Rich Guy)

 

Acres of Jesus

Russell Conwell, lawyer turned Baptist preacher in the 1870s preached the "gospel of wealth" in a speech reputedly made 6000 times, "Acres of Diamonds".

It reconciled the ideology of material success with the Christian message. It certainly made Conwell wealthy. By the time of his death in 1925, he had reportedly earned $8 million.

 

Ma Baker: "Christian Science" – all in her mind.

In her stripped down Christianity, Eddy jettisoned most of the traditional furniture: Hell, Sin, the Trinity, Resurrection, Atonement.

Matter itself "did not exist".

What was left was the "healing principle of Jesus", lost since the early Christian era.

Gee whiz.

 

There's Science – and then there's "Christian Science"

In 1877 Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, followed two years later by the light bulb. In rapid succession a whole raft of devices followed: movie projector, dictaphone, electric train. By 1881 much of lower Manhattan had electric power. The modern age of gadgetry had dawned. However, electricity itself remained something of a mystery. What was this invisible force – was it real? was it the life force of the universe? Edison was a member of the New York Theosophical Society which attempted to find common ground between science and religion.

At the same time as Edison was sorting amps from volts, the determined, egocentric wife of a part-time dentist, Mary Baker Eddy, was concocting the jargon of her own "science". In the search for a remedy to her chronic health problems, Eddy had been impressed by the quackery of a "healer" named Phineas P. Quimby. Her own masterstroke was to claim that the new "science of healing" was based upon Jesus Christ, divine healer.

At a time when medicine was in its infancy the suggestion that "sickness is an illusion" to be overcome by a correct understanding of scripture ("mind over matter") found gullible believers readily enough.

But what was a correct understanding of scripture? Why, Eddy's own of course: Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, a small but expensive book, sold in vast numbers. Followers were compelled to buy and sell various editions of the book. Mary Baker herself used morphine to combat the occasional illusion but then that's a perk of being the guru.

The illusion of death caught up with Ma Baker in 1910 but by then Eddy had amassed a personal fortune of $3 million (Martin, p160). At its peak perhaps a million people attended Christian Science churches and "reading rooms". The cult had the usual sex and financial scandals in the 1970s.

 

 

William Seymour – illiterate, black preacher who turned the Day of Pentecost into a salable product.

 

Speaking in tongues – or gibberish induced by hysteria?

 

 

 

"Baptism of the Spirit" – Pentecostalism

Early in 1906, the Houston-based revivalism of Charles Parham, notably "baptism of the holy spirit", inspired an illiterate, black preacher, William Seymour. Seymour moved to Los Angeles and took over the disused meeting house of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Azusa Street. Here, undeterred by his lack of theological training, he orchestrated marathon outbursts of emotional hysteria, otherwise known as "speaking in tongues" (glossolalia). The showman spent much of the time on his knees with his head between wooden milk crates, detecting the spiritual presence. Thus began the Azusa Street Revival, the birth of Pentecostalism, Jesus served hot and wild.

Like a poor man's version of Christian Science, Pentecostalism claimed "blessings" of healing from the laying on of hands. Prayer and the fiery holy spirit could do all and more than any new fangled medical science.

Pentecostalism migrated from poor blacks to poor whites. An interracial Pentecostal Assemblies of the World was founded in 1907 but white members withdrew to form the Pentecostal Church, Inc. In 1917, the wife of a Methodist minister and Klan supporter, Alma White established the Pillar of Fire church and became the first female bishop in America.

In 1914, at Hot Springs, Arkansas, a group of Pentecostal circuses merged their operations into the Assemblies of God. Today it is the largest of the breed.

 

 

Russell made wine bibber Jesus teetotal – just like himself.

 

The Demon's Drink?Pledged to Purity

Temperance became a cause of the godly at least as early as the "Second Great Awakening" with the founding of the American Temperance Society in Boston in 1826. Within thirty years, Quakers and others had persuaded thirteen states to impose various prohibitions on alcohol.

Determined to get men out of bars and on to their knees in church, the Reverend Howard Hyde Russell founded the Anti-Saloon League in 1895. This was followed in 1903 with the "Lincoln Lee Legion" pledge signing program.

The League was divinely guided to bring temperance to America – and extract money from all and sundry. Netted $5m.

Politicised against "German brewers" in 1914, the League and its allies successfully forced national prohibition in 1919, a disaster that led to an era of gangster-controlled liquor sales. The manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages was forbidden. Repeal came in 1932.

Financial shenanigans led to criminal investigation of the League itself.

 

 

William Jennings Bryan – biblical literalist (and erstwhile Secretary of State) who "won" the monkey trial but brought Fundamentalism into disrepute.

 

 

Primates

Tennessee, 1925: the legislature, dominated by fundamentalists, enacted a statute forbidding the teaching of Darwinian evolution. A teacher, John Scopes, was found guilty of breaking the law. But it was a hollow victory for Fundamentalism. The publicity surrounding the trial made biblical dogmatism a laughing stock. Increasingly, historical and scientific research across many disciples exposed error, inconsistency and absurdity in holy scripture.

One consequence was that the fundamentalists eschewed established institutions of learning, and founded their own colleges and seminaries, centres in which academic study subordinated itself to the precepts of God's divine plan (and the Churches that put up the money).

Who would have guessed that two generations later the monster would again break cover and lobby for "creation science" in the curriculum?

 

Barton – cooking up an All-American Jesus.

 

Ad' Man for Christ

In 1925, Bruce Barton, a Tennessee advertising mogul and congressman, brought the worlds of modern advertising and religion together.

This son of a Congregationalist minister and a founding partner of BBD&O – one of the world's top advertising agencies – wrote "The Man Nobody Knows". 

In what proved to be a best-seller Barton described Jesus as a super-salesman and "the founder of modern business", a go-getter who "outclassed his competitors in choosing men of potential."

Barton derided ideas of a weak and "feminine" Jesus. His book presented JC as an outdoors man, a brawny man with muscles. With his tanned face, blue eyes, and "personal magnetism,"Jesus was a popular guy, especially with women."

Barton's seductive ideology allowed Americans to claim godliness even while pursuing hedonistic pleasures, making selfish ambition and greed wholly compatible with the apostle of love and self-sacrifice.

In fact, JC was a regular American.

 

 

Bill Sunday beats hell out of sin.

Pitching for Jesus

"I'm against sin. I'll kick it as long as I've got a foot, and I'll fight it as long as I've got a fist. I'll butt it as long as I've got a head. I'll bite it as long as I've got a tooth. "


William Sunday (1862-1935) scored a home run to wealth when he finessed his baseball career into hot-gospel evangelism. At the depths of the Depression, when a third of the nation was unemployed, Billy Boy accumulated a fortune from the saps who loved his vitriolic Jesus schpeel. He was one of the first propagandists to recognize the power of radio.

Disastrously for America Bill Sunday championed the cause of Prohibition (1919-1932), so beneficial to gangsterism.

 

 

In the 19th century New World, Christianity enthusiastically endorsed avarice and myopic self-importance just as surely as it had accommodate slavery and genocidal warfare. But in America it would impart a reassuring glow of guilt-free, self-righteous goodness.

In the land of opportunity, the business of religion thrived as nowhere else on earth, throwing up a colourful breed of entrepreneur, the quintessential masters of the hard sell. If America's business was business, the cartel that first beat the path to earthly riches was Jesus Christ, Incorporated. In the minds of the pious, the growth of the nation into an economic colossus was divine endorsement of the correctness of its Christian ideology.

By the mid-20th century a godly America was gearing up to bestride the world. A divinely sponsored "destiny" beckoned.

 

Sources:
F. Mead, A. Hill, Handbook of Denominations (Abingdon, 1990)
W. Martin, R. Zacharias, The Kingdom of the Cults (Bethany house, 2003)
Jean Ritchie, The Secret World of Cults (HarperCollins, 1991)
Joseph Smith, The Book of Mormon (Deseret, 1974)
Russell Ballard, Our Search for Happiness (Deseret, 1993)
Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the USA (Penguin, 1999)
Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (First Church of Christ Scientist, 1875)
James Bjornstad, Counterfeits At Your Door (Regal, 1979)
Edward Laxton, The Famine Ships (Bloomsbury, 1996)

 

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