The American church is something unique. The dawn of religious freedom brought a whole new situation to the new nation. For the very first time, a predominantly Christian nation released the church from state control and allowed different denominations to compete for members and operate freely. The end result was that no church could rely on state imposed authority and had to work hard for the voluntary response of the people. Gone were the days when being in Massachusetts automatically made you Congregationalist. You could be a part of any church you chose. It was entirely your choice where to attend worship. And that was something entirely new.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The Americans demanded that they were free, masterless individuals; they sought absolute independence and equality of status. They imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands…They acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone.” (Democracy in America)
What you had were not churches in the traditional sense nor exclusive sects, but rather denominations that were purposive in character, what Sidney Mead described as “a voluntary association of like-hearted and like-minded individuals, who are united on the basis of common beliefs for the purpose of accomplishing tangible and defined objectives. Even Lyman Beecher, a Yankee Congregationalist, who had much to fear with the end of state support, came to believe that it was “the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut.” The churches were thrown “on their own resources and on God,” had increased dramatically their influence “by voluntary efforts, societies, missions and revivals.”
This meant that the church in America was anything but monolithic. One historian has written, “The colonial legacy of pluralism, compounded now by a certain propensity to divide old denominations and organize fresh ones, left many wondering how to cope with fragmentation as a central feature of church life.” Some ministers who greatly valued tradition found little consolation in the multiplication of denominations.
But the multiplication of denominations was mostly seen in a positive light. One leading evangelical said, “Each denomination is working out some problem in the Christian life, developing some portion of truth. Each has its part to perform, its particular work to do for the Kingdom of Christ, which it, in the present condition of things, is better equipped to do than any other.” As a Baptist editor wrote, “However we may wish all men to become Baptists, we will all become evangelical Christians.” It was this evangelical core that helped maintain in America a surprisingly unified Christian culture.
This voluntary principle brought the Christian faith to the common man. The arcane and abstract gave way to practical insights that could be understood by all. The Presbyterians welcomed into their ranks the young revivalist Charles G. Finney, a man without a theological education or any real knowledge of the Westminister Confession. With the undeniable power of his revivalism, however, theological objections came across as scholastic nit-picking.
An active and success-oriented Christianity perfectly suited the newborn American republic. It was an age inspired by the myths of the self-made man and made rich and prosperous by the efforts of an aspiring entrepreneurs. What you had was an American church with considerable vitality. But this also lead to problems becoming oversimplified, leaving complex issues reduced to bare choice between contrasting alternatives. The Second Great Awakening produced no theologian of great stature. It may have actually given the impression that serious intellectual activity could be counterproductive of genuine piety. One observer was forced to confess, “There is an impression somewhat general that a vigorous and highly cultivated intellect is not consistent with distinguished holiness; and that those who live in the clearest sunshine of communication with God must withdraw from the bleak atmosphere of human science…that an intellectual clergyman is deficient in piety, and that an eminently pious minister is deficient in intellect.”
Elias Smith, founder of the Christian Connection, writing around 1810, “I am a Christian calling no man father or master; holding as abominable in the sight of God, everything highly esteemed among men, such as Calvinism, Arminianism, freewillism, universalism, reverend, parsons, chaplains, doctors of divinity, clergy, bands, surplices, notes, creeds, covenants, platforms.”
Or as the Methodist circuit rider, Peter Cartwright wrote, “The Presbyterians, and other Calvinistic branches of the Protestant Church, used to contend from educated ministry, for pews, for instrumental music, for a congregational or stated salaried ministry. The Methodists universally opposed these ideas; and the illiterate Methodist preachers actually set the world on fire (the American world at least), while they were lighting their matches!”
And the American church made little use of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Being inspired by the hope of a pure beginning to which return was possible-“the New Testament Church,” Americans usually viewed the intervening eighteen hundred years as a tale of aberration and corruption which was best left ignored. And this ahistorical approach flourished in a republic which took pride in its ability to put aside the decaying traditions of Europe.
But such attitudes brought into question the traditional function and significance of the traditional church. Institutional reordering became the new norm after 1800. An example of this was the formation of the “Christians” by Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) and the “Disciples” by Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). Stone and five colleagues not just left the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky in the aftermath of the Cane Ridge Revival but went on to issue a manifesto, “The Last Will and Testament of Springfield Presbytery,” which denied the validity of any church organization whatsoever. Campbell rejected the notion that the Disciples were a church or a denomination and said that he did not want to even hear the term church government: “We have no system of our own, or of others, to substitute in lieu of the reigning systems. We aim only at substituting the New Testament.” As Campbell also wrote, “Open the New Testament as if mortal man had never seen it before.”
But the hope that a New Testament polity could emerge naturally had an unsettling effect in several denominations. Defections and splintering were rampant. The Methodists whose discipline and hierarchy never pretended to be democratic, were particularly beset with defections on issues with polity. The ideal of primitivism which American democracy had accelerated, made fragile any ecclesiastical polity that did not spring from the uncoerced will of the individual.