Archive for category Churches/Organized Religion

Love Does It My Way

coverThere have been very few instances in my life where someone has shown me a book, I’ve read it, and it significantly changed my life for good or ill. So when, for nearly a year, my Twitter feed and Facebook timeline routinely had quotes from and reviews of Bob Goff’s book Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World, I had cautioned optimism that perhaps there might be something I was missing out on by not yet having read it myself. So, after finishing a fiction book this summer, I decided to finally give the book a try. My cautiousness was warranted. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lent Week 1: Prayer

So after not updating this site in nearly a year I am now going to write an article nonchalantly and act as if nothing at all is amiss.

Ever since I decided to once again participate in orthodox lent people have been bugging me to start blogging again. In particular, one minister from Mitchell. I messaged him this morning with an offer. I had two ideas for writing this week. One on prayer and one on scripture reading. Laying down these offers on the virtual canvas between us I slammed my hand down and declared “You shall choose!” To which my office mates looked at me funny and told me to sit back down. But I still got the answer I wanted from Mr. minister.

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Restoration of American Christianity

Author’s Note: This paper was written for a course on the history of American religion. There is no spirituality in this paper. It is an objective view on the Restoration movement of 1800-1840. It focuses on the two main groups that formed in this period: the New Testament Christians (Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church, or Church of Christ) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). It looks at the beginnings and growth of these groups and puts them into the context of a public yearning to feel its own power in a democratized setting rather than being told by an authority, as well as how each movement, in its own right, turned itself into a somewhat ironic and self contradictory form of what it originally had set out to be.

That being said, if you do not want to read all 20 pages (when printed), then I wouldn’t blame you. It is admittedly long and tedious and I had to research and write it. However, if you are, or ever were, or plan on being a member of a Restorationist Church, I highly recommend this paper for your consideration. Knowing your roots, even if its just a very fast overview and analysis, can empower you to not only learn of your heritage, but perhaps spawn a longing to take more research upon yourself. If this paper causes you to become curious or perhaps even a little doubtful of the meaning of your church’s dogma, then it has done its job. I do not mean this as a criticism of any religion in particular, only an analysis on what their purpose originally was in the context of the time. I hope you understand this.

Restoration of American Christianity

In the early part of the nineteenth century, Christianity took a turn. The Christians at the time saw around them a sea of confusion and of man made authorities. The quest for unity in the church was a daunting one but one that was undertaken by some of the most famous theologians in history. The restoration movement sought out to unify the church under a single banner of Christianity and return it to a primitive, pure state which scripture was the only creed and God the only authority. Two groups, the New Testament restorationalists and the Mormons, who shared this same end, but whose paths took radically different roads, attempted this goal.

It could be said that the restoration movement started several decades before historians normally say it began. The entire idea behind the restoration flowered within the bed of a rich pot of ideas that had been brewing since the Revolutionary War. After America gained its independence, the culture of democracy abounded throughout the new nation. Gone was the rule by monarchs and authority figures chosen from outside the popular rule. In its place was the new philosophy of rule by popular representation. The power in the country was placed not in a social elite, but instead in the hand of everyday people (( Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University, 1989), 127. )).

The move to the popular power was the key component in several major religious movements at the time. The reason that movements took root because of this radical change in thinking is simple, and there are two reasons for it. First is the realization of the parishioners that the ministers in the pulpit could be subject to their views and not the other way around (( Ibid., 133. )). Should dissent arise within a church due to scriptural or dogmatic issues, members could simply pressure the minister or leadership to resign and replace them with someone with more appeal to their wants and needs. It was not uncommon during this period that churches would disagree within the membership. In such cases, instead of bending to the will of an arbitrary authority to work out the differences and have a final say in the matter, members would simply leave that church and found their own with a minister sympathetic to their views (( Ibid., 170. )).

The second reason for these movements with the revolutionary idea of democracy flowing over the young America is the want to move away from anything resembling British authority. For the most part in pre-revolutionary America, people were indifferent towards the Anglican and Catholic churches. Afterwards, however, there was a major move away from these churches towards the other smaller American Protestant faiths. The reason for this was rooted in the same idea of the need to get away from authority, but this reason was aimed at a specific brand of Christianity. These versions were not only identified with the enemy of America during the war but also with supreme authority. The king was the foremost power in the Anglican Church and the Pope in the Catholic. With the advent of democracy, bending to the will of these powers was something that did not go over well with the religious ideals of the day in America.

With this philosophy in mind, and the numerous splinters appearing in the Protestant denominations within America, Christians and those thinking of converting were becoming increasingly concerned. Each of these splinter congregations was proclaiming to be the true way to salvation. In addition, in order to carve out an identity for themselves, these congregations would define themselves by denouncing all others as heretical. For the lay-person, these allegations flying between churches and with all the definitions of truth to choose from, questions arose about who exactly was right. Without the authority of an overarching power to quell dissent between churches, any church was able to proclaim that they alone were the holders of absolute truth. People then were forced to choose with virtually no clue as to who was proclaiming the real truth. But a choice was often felt necessary because of the fear instilled by various churches that if the people did not follow their particular brand of truth then they were destined for hell.

Certainly there was a need for unity within the American protestant churches. The need for this unity spurned several attempts outside the denominational boundaries to reel in the fringe congregations. However, more importantly the restoration movement, at this time, there were also attempts within denominational sects that looked to define a more over arching authority to rule over the branches. In particular, the Methodists were keen to place a superintendent in charge of the boards of the Methodist church (( Paul K. Conkin, American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 4. )). This move towards autocracy angered one preacher perhaps more than any other. His name was James O’Kelly, a Methodist minister from Virginia. O’Kelly saw this move back towards a authoritarian structure as analogous to moving back to something resembling the Catholic Church (( Everett Ferguson, The Way of Life (Abilene: Biblical Research Press, 1967), 68. )). He decried it as a move meant only to favor preachers’ prestige and power within the church.

The Methodist proposal for a superintendent troubled O’Kelly so deeply that in 1792 he presented to the Methodist convention appeals taken from ministers who sympathized with his objection. Unfortunately for them, the measure was voted down, but this did not stop O’Kelly and his supporters from using the democratic method. As a result, the “Republican Methodist Church” was formed as a breakaway sect of Methodism (( Conkin, American Originals, 4. )). In 1794 at the suggestion of Rice Haggard, the group renamed itself simply “Christians.” This movement, curiously, was a claim to unity rather to division. O’Kelly was after a unifying force other than a human-created authority. He was seeking authority from heaven. As such, the newly formed sect adopted several principles that in time became the foundation for the entirety of the New Testament restoration movement. These principles included the ideas that Jesus Christ was the only head of the church; second, the name “Christian” was a term that referred to all those in the church, regardless of denomination; third, the only creed that the Christian should follow is that of the Bible; fourth, Christian character is the only test needed for membership in the church; fifth, the right of private judgment and liberty of conscience is the privilege and duty of all (( Ferguson, Way of Life, 68. )).

As stated before, the newly formed “Christian” church was as move towards unity in the eyes of O’Kelly and the other ministers who were sympathetic to his cause. The ideals behind the reasons for unification are clear from the five main points proposed by the leaders of the new church. They were looking to move the church back to a doctrine that was pure and unaffected by he centuries of human intervention in the way dogmatic law was interpreted. In short, they were looking to restore the church to a more primitive state. However, as the idea was close to what would later be the full-blown restoration, the O’Kelly movement and the Christian church did not fully intend to move the church back to a form of church that was later to be termed the “New Testament Church.” Instead, they simply wanted to remove from church tradition the idea of authority vested in a single man or man-made body. Turning to the Bible as the only creed and Jesus as the only head gave the authority in the church back to the divine and out of the hands of men.

This trend, however, was not limited to the northeast of American thought. In the south, like-minded congregations learned of the movement in the north and sent a letter to a Christian newspaper published by Elias Smith in New England (( Conkin, American Originals, 5. )). In this letter the congregations sent greetings and wishes of fellowship with their New England brothers. The response was positive and in 1811 a conference was held in Virginia for talks of union between the two groups. Smith was the only representative for the New England congregations but this did not hamper the discussions of fellowship. Unfortunately, due to the small number of representatives and the relatively few followings of the new movement, the union was not so much a conglomeration as it was a meeting to show that two like-minded groups geographically removed from each other shared a common ideal (( Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Cambridge: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1996), 12. )).

The southern sector of the Christian movement was lead in part by Abner Jones, a Baptist minister with an extreme dislike of anything smacking of Calvinism. Jones met Smith in 1803 during a meeting in Portsmith, New Hampshire. Jones was the man who first proposed a total change in the way the new Christian church was run, from one of simple biblical authority to a total restoration of a New Testament type church. Later in 1803, he would form his own church to cement his teachings into reality. Smith and Jones eventually set forth together on the trend of annihilationsim, that is, to tear down everything and to start over with nothing but the New Testament as a guide to what the church should actually look like. Eventually though, Smith grew more and more friendly with the Unitarians in the region, mainly due to the fact they shared his views concerning the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, Smith being antitrinitarian. So much so, that after a while Smith left his own congregation to lead a cause to unify the New England Christian church with the Unitarians in creating a new seminary. A small number of churches followed his lead but by the time it was all said and done they gave so little support that the seminary become totally Unitarian (( Conkin, American Originals, 6-7. )).

The path that Smith took is almost mirrored verbatim by Barton Stone. A Presbyterian minister in Kentucky, Stone had deep reservations, almost hatred, of John Calvin, a central figure in Presbyterian doctrine. He regarded Calvin’s doctrines as complete fabrication when juxtaposed against scripture. During the 1801 revival at Cane Ridge, Stone revealed his convictions in a sermon that insisted on having the only Christian creed be the Bible as the prerequisite to salvation (( Hughes, Reviving, 96. )). This stance aligned him with Jones but alienated him from the mainstream Presbyterians. Dissatisfied with the response, Stone founded the Springfield Presbytery in 1804 to further his doctrinal studies. While Presbyterian in name, the Springfield Presbytery was not active within the larger Midwest presbytery (( Conkin, American Originals, 7. )). After much examination of scripture and doctrines, Stone and others from the presbytery decided that in order to cement their beliefs, and in part to stay the Romanization of their organization, they would dissolve the Springfield Presbytery. This action was instigated by the writing of the “Last Will and Testament of The Springfield Presbytery,” a half-serious, half-satirical commentary on the shortcomings of Presbyterianism and the need for churches to align themselves with Christ instead of with denominational doctrines (( Ferguson, Way of Life, 69. )). This move was highly symbolic in that it showed Stone’s resolve to make congregations autonomous and to need for a return to the New Testament church. After dissolving the presbytery, Stone opted to call his new following the “Christian” church, a move done by Smith around the same time and again at the behest of Haggard (( Hughes, Reviving, 108. )). He also began showing signs of antitrinitarianism, a personal move on his part that left him more in line with the Unitarians than with his own movement. However, Stone was now allied with both the southern congregations of Jones and the northern congregations of Smith, laying a widespread foundation for the most significant phase in the New Testament restoration.

Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander are generally regarded as the fathers of the restoration movement. While this is not entirely true, as seen by the preliminary material above, they did play the most important role in the movement insofar as they unified and cemented the doctrines that would eventually be the core of all restoration church dogma. Thomas Campbell was a Presbyterian minister from Scotland who came to American in 1807 to try and get his poor health under control (( Ferguson, Way of Life, 70. )). He found work in the ministry in Pennsylvania and quickly came into trouble with the local Synod, or church council. Campbell had a knack for going up against the Synod for his peculiar way of understanding the scriptures and also for his unwillingness to adhere to creeds set forth by the Presbyterian Church. In 1809, Campbell withdrew from the Synod and he, along with several sympathizers, formed the “Christian Association of Washington (Pa.)” which, while itself not a church, promoted nondenominational Christianity within existing churches (( Ibid. )).

Thomas Campbell’s son, Alexander, had been left in Scotland by his father, along with the rest of the family, while Thomas made arrangements for them to join him in America. After a shipwreck, the family was forced to stay an extra year in Scotland. Alexander took this opportunity to study at Glasgow where he soon came under the guidance of the Independent Christian church. This experience moved Alexander from his Presbyterian roots to a position that was close to that of his father. In 1809, Alexander finally got the chance to reunite with his father in America where he soon learned of his father’s ideas. Thomas showed his son a document he had written and presented to his association called a “Declaration and Address” in which he outlined a type of constitution for the association as well as a plan to unite all the churches (( Conkin, American Originals, 15. )). Thomas firmly believed that he could start a movement that would finally reunite all the churches under a broad banner of Christianity, for he saw only one church unified by the belief in Jesus Christ. He wanted a church that was made up of all who believed in Christ and who obeyed His commandments. Thomas’ plan therefore was to strip Christianity down to its barest essentials and begin again with the New Testament as a blueprint.

Alexander was completely sympathetic to his father’s views and in 1810 began delivering sermons to the association’s churches to try and relate it to the masses. He was not the most eloquent speaker, nor the most inspiring. Alexander was, however, a born debater and used his logic and preparation to deliver stunning sermons (( Ibid., 18. )). Through a logical progression of ideas and scriptural analysis, he hoped to define what the New Testament church should be. In 1811 the Christian Association of Washington renamed itself the “Brush Run Church,” with Alexander as is minister. The church quickly, yet somewhat reluctantly, joined the Redstone Baptist Association as Alexander’s popularity as a speaker and debater grew. In 1816, Campbell made a groundbreaking sermon in which he denounced the convictions of the Calvinists as a total depravity. He also argued that the church was to rest only upon the authority of Jesus and that the Mosaic law no longer applied to Christians because Jesus had fulfilled that law (( Hughes, Reviving, 23. )). He did this in part because the way he read scripture told him it was true, but also he had been brought up watching difference denominations, even difference congregations picking and choosing which Old Testament moral codes to follow and which to disregard. In his one fell swoop, Campbell simply took all authority away from the Old Testament and gave total authority to the New Testament.

Even with the Campbells’ popularity, the movement they started did not move at a fast pace for some time. It wasn’t until 1823 that their movement really picked up speed and grew rapidly. In that year, after much rhetoric against the Calvinists, Alexander was running the risk of having his church removed form the Red Stone Association. Fortunately for him, a small Baptist association in Ohio known as the Mahoning Association contacted Campbell and asked him to join their association (( Conkin, American Originals, 22. )). He jumped at this opportunity, leaving the Red Stone Association before it had a chance to discharge him officially, but while technically a part of it. During this time, Alexander began publishing a monthly magazine called “The Christian Baptist” which allowed him to spread his doctrinal ideas in a well-organized debating style to people far from his home congregation. In this magazine he lashed out at all forms of ecclesiastical organizations and formalized clergy. He argued that no special authority should be given to ministers with scholarly training, ordination, or any kind of special calling by the Holy Spirit. He also denounced instrumental music and preached about the inherent equality of all Christians to one another (( Hughes, Reviving, 30. )).

In 1825 the Red Stone Association finally took action against Campbell and forced his congregation out. The Mahoning Association dissolved five years later leaving the congregations autonomous. Sensing the need for continuity between all the now- independent churches, Alexander renamed his movement the “Disciples of Christ.” He then dropped the name “The Christian Baptist” from his journal’s title and replaced it with the “Millennial Harbinger” (( Ferguson, Way of Life, 72. )). The name was significant because it reflected not a millennialist idea of the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth after the tribulation (an idea Campbell fervently detested); instead, his choice of title was to reflect his wish for a millennium of peace and happiness for the church under unification as a New Testament church. This journal became the vehicle for Campbell’s movement as he was able to use it to settle disputes between new congregations, cement doctrine, and evangelize to outsiders. Indeed, Campbell used this journal to act as a de facto bishop over his new church (( Conkin, American Originals, 26. )).

Stone and Campbell had met once before in 1824 during Campbell’s trip to Kentucky from Ohio and the two struck a chord with one another, seeing that their two movements closely resembled one another. Over the next seven years the two would trade correspondence. Despite sharing exchanges that indicated some jealousy between the two regarding who was playing a more prominent role in the move to a New Testament church, they announced the union of the two movements into a single force in 1832. The combination of the two into the Christian-Disciples movement was the biggest boost to the growth of the New Testament restoration (( Ibid. 28-29. )).

The New Testament restoration was not without its problems though. Despite sharing of the ideal of unity, the Christian-Disciples disagreed over several doctrinal issues. The foremost of these was the issue of baptismal immersion. While not going into specifics over who believed what, it is important to note that this issue caused many congregations to leave throughout the entirety of the movement.. To add to this, it should be pointed out that the Christian-Disciples movement eventually split apart (( Hughes, Reviving, 192. )). The union between the two was never a fully unified effort by either side and was more symbolic than it was functional. In the 1840’s the two sides began to argue over what could be considered trivial issues such as the use of instrumental music in worship. While it was not official, congregations began ceasing fellowship with each other. The official divide did not happen until the early twentieth century at which time three churches emerged: the liberal-minded Disciples, the instrumental Christian Church, and the Churches of Christ who only allowed a cappella music. Since then, these three major denominations have further split into about thirty distinct flavors of restorationalist churches (( Ferguson, Way of Life, 73. )).

The irony of he entire New Testament restoration movement is that the dream of restoring the church to its primitive form and unifying all Christians under one church roof never was realized. In fact the opposite occurred. Campbell and Stone ended up creating just as much doctrinal red tape, then they had hoped to dispose of by restoring the church to its “original” form. Consequently, the authority they used to justify their movement, the New Testament, was used also to undo the unifying effect they strove for. By appealing to their quest for the true church of the New Testament, they condemned other denominations for breaking with it in the first place. They alienated themselves from other congregations and became an elitist-like denomination in direct opposition to what they had set out to achieve.

As stated before, the restoration movement of the first half of the nineteenth century followed two radically different yet intimately connected paths. Both paths sought to end the confusion and the discord present in the Christian church at the time. The first of these paths was a restoration of the church to a primitive state, owing all authority to the New Testament. The second, however, took the path of creating entirely new scripture to be the basis of authority. This second path of restoration of the church was the Mormon movement.

The sole leader of the Mormon movement during its conception was Joseph Smith Jr., the son of a poor farmer. His father had lost all the family’s money on a speculative venture and remained a frequently moving tenant the rest of this life. He spent much of his time and effort trying to rebuild a fortune and to redeem the family name. The family was never deeply involved with religion. Smith himself was seen once or twice attending the local Methodist church and he enjoyed greatly learning about the occult. One of his pastimes was to use the three seer stones he possessed to locate treasure and underground water for people for a price. He was a frequent visitor of treasure hunters and was always interested in new ways to making money, just like his father (( Conkin, American Originals, 163. )).

Smith was admittedly wary of all types of religion. He viewed the church at the time to be in a confused state with no one sure of what to believe. This was the same conclusion drawn by the restorationists of the New Testament restoration. Authority in religious matters seemed to be a huge issue at the time (( Marvin S. Hill and James B. Allen, Mormonism and American Culture (New York: Harber & Row Publishers, 1972), 16. )). Smith was deeply troubled by this, and by his own account he went out in 1820 to a field near his hometown of Palmyra, New York, to meditate on what he should do. It was in this field that Smith would receive the answer to his question of who to believe in this time of confusion.

While meditating in the field, Smith claims to have been visited by both God and Jesus in the flesh. They blessed the young Smith and shared with him their concerns over the state of the church. They told him that he should not affiliate with any sect as they had all strayed form the path they were supposed to have taken, and he himself would be the new prophet who would lead the Christian church back to the right path (( William E. Barrett, The Restored Church (Desert Book Company, 1977), 22. )). Three years later, the angel Moroni, who had once lived as a human on the American continent, visited Smith. He told Smith of a history that was written on a set of golden plates which Moroni had himself helped to compile that chronicled the history of early. The history was to be a completion of the gospels as Jesus had revealed Himself to the ancient Americans. Moroni showed Smith where he had hidden the plates and two seer stones (identified later by Smith as the Urim and Thummim of the Old Testament) accompanied the plates to allow Smith to translate them (( Conkin, American Originals, 164. )).

According to Smith, he went to the place Moroni had showed him (a hill only three miles from his home) and discovered the plates just as promised, but he could not remove them from their resting place. He was told in a vision that he was not pure enough to take the plates and that he had to purify himself in order to be free of the world. For four years after, Smith would meditate and resist the temptations of the world so that he could possess them. In 1827, Smith returned to the hill and successfully removed the plates and took them home (( Barrett, Restored Church, 24-25. )). The plates were in a metallic, book-like binding which reportedly weighed about fifty pounds. They were inscribed with Egyptian-like hieroglyphs but were in actuality an ancient form of Hebrew. The two seer stones were fastened into a frame that resembled eyeglasses. However, when observed translating, Smith would only use one stone that he placed into his hat and then covered his face with it (( Conkin, American Originals, 164. )).

The first translation of the book of Mormon was done with the aid of Smith’s wife Emma, who transcribed what he dictated. Eventually, their neighbor, Martin Harris, came to take over the transcription while Smith was concealed behind a blanket (( Barrett, Restored Church, 34. )). Harris was the first convert outside of the immediate Smith family and was nearly the new religion’s undoing. Harris sought out two Orientalist, one at Rutgers and one at Columbia College, to look over the translations and to authenticate them. At Columbia, Professor Charles Anthon authenticated the writings until he learned of the nature of the plates and their origin. He then reportedly tore up the certificate of authenticity and denied all claims Harris had made. This did not stop Harris from believing that Smith was a true prophet though. He went back to Smith and asked to borrow some of the translations to show to his doubting wife. Smith agreed, but while Harris had them, they were lost. Some stories abound that Harris’ wife burned the work, but the official Mormon account is that they were stolen. Smith then had the plates taken from him by Moroni as punishment. The material that was lost covered about 400 years of the ancient Jewish people who had come to America and was the opening segment of the history written by Mormon. Smith was reluctant to translate the plates again as he reportedly had fears about the other version resurfacing and his enemies finding discrepancies between the two (( Conkin, American Originals, 165-166. )).

Guided by a vision, Smith was told that he could not retranslate any plates once they were translated. Therefore he was told to translate a new set of plates, the plates of Nephi, which held the same information as the Mormon history. Harris left the transcription job and was replaced by Smith’s cousin, Oliver Cowdery (( Barrett, Restored Church, 35. )). Cowdery, Harris, and several others were chosen at that time to see the plates for themselves. After intense meditation for several hours, the men saw a vision of the plates. After witnessing this they wrote a statement to the fact which was later included in the Book of Mormon. When the first edition was finished, the book was published by a Palmyra printer and went on sale in 1830 at which time Moroni took the plates back again (( Ibid. 38. )).

The actual content of the book is much too complex to be discussed here in any fair way. Suffice to say it chronicled the journey of an ancient Jewish people to America and their subsequent spiritual life (( Conkin, American Originals, 168-173. )). The book was not an especially a rousing success. Its confused wording and numerous grammatical errors made it laborious to read. However, it was still sold if for only curiosity on what the notorious Joseph Smith had written.

The origins of the Mormon Church can be traced to 1829 when Smith and Cowdery were directed by the angel of John the Baptist to baptize each other for the remission of sins and had bestowed on them the priesthood of Aaron (( Barrett, Restored Church, 69. )). The church itself was organized by Smith who was guided by revelations and turned out to be extremely disorganized. When baptizing new converts, Smith would give them titles such as elder, priest, or teacher, titles which did not hold any meaning at the time and which would later become no more clearer as Smith’s doctrines fully emerged. The church was set up to be a restored church that had been purified of the worldly ills that had befallen all the other Christian sects (( Hill, Mormonism, 22. )). Smith’s doctrine for the most part was simple and easy for the layperson to understand. He even agreed with Alexander Campbell on some major points. While the doctrines will not be covered here, they were in some ways a nod to the other restorationists at the time, but were also a departure from mainstream Christianity.

Mormonism was not without its critics. To be sure, critics at the time far out numbered the believers. Their criticisms were varied but a few major points were made in objection to Smith’s new religion. First there was the problem of Smith himself. Critics citied numerous examples of Smith being involved in treasure hunting and other get-rich-quick schemes. The entire religion therefore was nothing more than a very elaborate hoax. Smith had even gotten involved in several defrauding and banking schemes well into his prophetic career, helping boost opposition to him (( Conkin, American Originals, 163, 182. )). Second was the problem of the history Smith had proposed. There was no archeological evidence to support an ancient offshoot of Jews in America (( Harry L. Ropp. Are the Mormon Scriptures Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 55. )). Nor was the history even logical. One example given to support this is the description of the boats used to cross the ocean by the Jews in the book of Ether, an appendix to the book of Mormon written by Moroni. The boats are submarines with holes in the top and in the bottom that were to be opened when they needed air, but closed again if water should come in (( The Book of Mormon, Ether 2:20. )). Third was the book itself. Smith had translated it in secret. He was not allowed to go back and review translations. When some of the translations were stolen, he conveniently got a new set of plates. The text was often seen as more of a rant than a real document (( Ropp, Reliable?, 34. )). Finally, the plates on which the book was written were never actually seen by human eyes save for Smith. Cowdery even later recanted his statement about seeing the plates, although his statement remains in the book (( Ibid. 21. )).

As with the Campbell-Stone movement, the Mormon restoration ended up becoming an irony. The authority Smith was supposed to be subverting, he himself assumed. At one point, Smith was basically the king of a Mormon city with a militia at his command (( Conkin, American Originals, 203. )). The man who wanted to put all faith into scripture ended up using that scripture to put all faith into himself. Regardless, Mormonism became a dominant force in America soon after Smith’s death in 1844 (( Barrett, Restored Church, 192. )).

In the end, it can be argued that restorationalists, both New Testament and Mormon failed in their goal of uniting all of Christianity under the banner of scripture. Their causes have lived on through the decades since, but the end result of their dreams is nowhere in sight. Christianity still is splintered into factions and sects and denominations. Even the New Testament restoration church itself has fractured into numerous sub-sects. Human nature being what it is, it seems that the dream of unity will, for now at least, remain just that—a dream.

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Who are we?

America today it seems is torn between two opposing viewpoints. One side claims that the United States is and always has been a Christian nation. The other side says that while a majority of Americans are indeed some flavor of Christian, America itself is not a nation that is inherently Christian. Both sides have convincing arguments that support their stance, however, for America today, the state of the union could best be described as a synthesis between the two.

On the one hand, America can indeed be described as a Christian nation. Two groups hold this argument, almost ironically. The first group that holds this view is certain sections of the Christian base. From this group’s view, America was founded upon Christian principle and therefore should center primarily on views and laws held by the Christian rightGrant Wacker, “Searching for Eden With a Satellite Dish,” Religion and American Culture, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 418.. They do not view this as an excuse to make Christianity a national religion, indeed they do want there to be a freedom to exercise any religion. However, they do want the laws of the nation to hold to traditional Christian values. The second group that holds to this view is the group that sees Christianity as a force that has hijacked the country from the ideals of religious freedomPhillip E. Hammond, The Protestant Presence in Twentieth-Century America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 124.. They view America as having been Christianized to the point that free religious practice is something only given lip service too. They see the idea of American being a Christian nation as something to be fought against Robert Wuthnow, “Old Fissures and New Fractures in American Religious Life,” Religion and American Culture, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 361..

From the Declaration of Independence to the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegence to court rulings that support Christian interests, America does seem to hold a biased slant in government towards the Christian end of the spectrumHammond, Presence, 109.. Proponents of this view continuously point out the references to God in the founding documents of the nation to support their claim that it was created upon Christian idealismIbid, 100.. Virtually all of the founding fathers were at least deist and it is arguable that they were sympathetic to the Christian denominations that abounded at the time of the framing of the constitution. Regardless of this, it is a fact that since that time, nearly every President that has taken office has been a Christian.

What is to be made of this then? If every President in history has been a Christian of some sort, does this imply that there does indeed exist an unwritten law that America must be Christian? The answer of course is no. The fact that these Presidents were Christian is reflective of the demographics of America not necessarily the fact that it has been biased one way or the other. America had, until 1965, been predominately Christian in its demographicsIbid, 153.. Even after 1965 there is surmountable evidence that a majority of the citizenry are Christians. However, this still does not constitute a Christian nation simply because a majority of Americans share the same faith.

It is true that in a representative democracy, such as America, the majority rules. So then, this side of the aisle argues, the majority in America truly dominates the rest of it. In this argument by the proponents of the Christian nation theory there does seem to lay some truth. Being representative and having most laws ratified by a simple majority vote, America does indeed seem vulnerable to this oppressive nature. The founders of the country knew this possibility existed within the structure of any democracy and therefore created the First Amendment that expressly prohibited the government from establishing any central religion or favoring any religion above any other. This change to the constitution though did not prevent implicit favoritism from occurring.

While there was no formal statement that any elected official had to be of Christian origin, the fact that nearly every official elected until 1965 was Christian leads to the notion that there was in fact an unwritten public test for an offical to be a Christian. Christian men were assumed to be more patriotic, better family men, and had strong moral character than their non-Christian counterparts. This trend declined somewhat in the seventies, but again is on the riseIbid, 157.. Today, Christianity has become more pronounced as a kind of national identity separating America from the rest of the world culturesRobert N. Bellah, “Is There a Common American Culture?,” Religion and American Culture, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 543.. This identity of patriotism and Christianity had become extremely prevalent since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Since then, the need for Americans to define themselves from the presumed enemy, that is militant Islam, has increased to the point where being a non-Christian seems to stigmatize individuals as suspicious and untrustworthy.

All these arguments, the Christian officials, the presumed Christian founding of the nation, and the identity of Christianity to be patriotic, all point to the triumph of the arguments that America is indeed a Christian nation over the detractors of such a view point. However, on the other side of the coin there are those who point out that the nation is anything but a Christian nation. From their perspective, just because a majority of the citizens in the United States are Christian does not equal America being a Christian nation.

Again, as with the other viewpoint, this view is shared by two contrasting groups. The first group sees America as never being Christian in the first place. They see the nation has being built as a secular nation in which no religion would ever take precedence over any other. That being said though, they do feel that those who would want it to become a solely Christian nation have hijacked America. The second group is a group of fundamentalist Christians who feel that while the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, the country has long since been stripped of its roots and has been secularized. They point to the fact that recent court rulings have been detrimental to the Christian religion while being biased towards other faiths and atheism.

This idea of America being a secular nation starts with the assumption that the founders of the constitution did not want any religion to interfere with the running of the country. Under this theory, the first amendment was a move to separate church and state from affecting one another. The fact that Christians have been in power since that time and have dominated the political landscape is viewed as an anomaly that is counter-intuitive based on the constitutionHammond, Presence, 111.. This is the basis for the movement starting in the 1930s to move America back to its supposed roots and out of the hands of the Christians who controlled it.

That being the case, a movement started that began to strip government, and by association modern culture, or any reference to Christianity in favor of a more diverse faith community representation. It was felt that for too long, Christians had oppressed other faiths and cultures with their own. After 1950 and the rise in the immigration rates from non-Christian nations such as Asian and middle-eastern nations, this movement took even more precedence as pundits of inclusivism began to systematically start prying Christianity’s hands off of the countryIbid, 158..

This move has involved several stages. First was the outcry of children being required to recite, not only the Pledge of Allegiance which included reference to God, but also a school prayer. This was seen as an explicit attempt to Christianize the nation and a direct disregard for the constitution. So the required prayers were removed from the public school setting. The next phase was to try and remove the restrictions that existed on media outlets to filter out obscenities and show only “appropriate” programming. Of course, these restrictions were place there by Christians and so again the separation of church and state was used to begin cutting the presumed hold they had on culture. The final phase was to start to remove Christianity from modern culture to make way for an equal playing field for all religions to be represented.

As a result, America has seemingly become more secularizedDavid Chidester, “Baseball, Coca-Cola, and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Religion and American Culture, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 478.. From the secularist standpoint, this was the way the country was set up and therefore it is where it should be headed. From the Christian standpoint, it is an all out attack on what they view to be the core of what it means to be an American. They see the moves of secularists to be in retaliation against the Christian faith itself. It may be true that the secularization of America from the Christian perspective has proceeded too far and too quickly, however, the move does seem to have merit. The role of being Christian today as opposed to a century ago is no long an unwritten requirement as it once wasHammond, Presence, 160.. There are now many faiths within the construct of the American government and none of them, including Christianity, is willing to make a move to revert back to the non-secularized culture.

From these two perspectives, that America is and America is not a Christian nation, a fusion seems to occur. Those who say that America is a Christian nation admit that Christianity is a term of patriotism and that laws and regulations need to reflect again the morality of the Christian virtues that the country was presumably founded on. These folk also decry secularism as an attack on Christianity, so they admit that America has become secularized. On the flip side, secularists say the nation should be secularized as spelled out in the constitution but point to the fact that Christianity has taken over most of the American culture. Could it be that America has reached equilibrium? It would seem as though both sides view the other as being the dominant movement in American society today. How long this might last though is uncertain. It is true that religious fervor has been on the upswing since the 1970s but how much of that is Christian and if that trend will continue has yet to be determinedIbid. 154..

In the end, the question seems to elude the answer it seeks. America seems to both Christian and secular, or neither depending on the point of view. It is a precarious balance that could tip in any direction during these trying times. Will America reject Christianity for good sometime in the future in favor of a multi-faith society? Or will the silent majority rise up and defend the supposed attacks on their way of life? It may be too early to tell.

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The Tamper-Proof Gospel?

A growing trend in the United States and elsewhere in the world’s churches is to try and bring more and more people into the Christian faith by translating the gospel for modern cultures. While good intentioned, the infusion of culture into the gospel is a very dangerous and detrimental practice that will possibly cripple the real message of the gospels.

Even though it is a trend now, the translation of gospel for culture is nothing new, at least among protestant faiths. This practice was instrumental in the second revival that took place in America during the early 1800s. Many church goers and ministers decided that the dull, intellectual sermons that were being given at the time were not effective on the less educated and therefore split off o form their own churches that catered to the common man. This practice of catering to the common man is deeply rooted in the American democratic tradition. The ideals that individuals had the right to choose their brand of religion and that religion must ‘campaign’ to attract new members stems from these ideals.

However, in this new current trend, it is not simply the methods of sermon giving, nor the makeup of the worship sessions that is being altered to appeal to common masses. This time, they are tampering with the gospel itself. Proponents of the idea say that in order to attract more people to the Christian faith they need to make their message less dry and boring. They say that the gospel, as traditionally told, has violence in the crucifixion, enigmas in the letters of Paul, and riddles in the parables. In short, they wish to retell the gospel in a way that is more cheerful and is much simpler so that any average person may understand it.

As good intentioned as this idea is, it is an attack on the core of Christian dogma. Changing anything within the gospel itself, even to make it more understandable to the common man, is something that must be avoided at all costs. The reasons for this are simple. First, there must always be a solid foundation to any religion. The gospel is something that all Christians believe in. It is the very heart of all protestant, catholic, and orthodox traditions. It is looked to when disputes and divisions in the church that take place along the lines of absolute dogma arise. Should it be altered to make it easier to understand, it will no doubt be altered by many different people with many different thoughts on how to interpret it for this culture. This has already happened, with many new “dumbed down” “street” translations of the bible appearing in bookstores. The multitude of translations diffuses the core of Christian belief and thereby removes the commonality between denominations. Second, appealing to culture is futile to begin with. Culture is always changing. New trends and fads rise and fall every year. Religion trying to bend to these tides is an exercise in futility. Religion by definition is supposed to be a constant rock for people to cling to in times of change. If religion simply changes with the times it would loose its purpose. Finally, the move to make religion accessible to the masses by “dumbing down” the gospel results in a generation of church members who are unable and perhaps even unwilling to investigate the meanings and he deeper aspects of what is written in the gospel. When handing a member a gospel that has everything spelled out for him, does this really help his understanding of religion? Does handing a literary analysis student a Cliff’s Notes book help him understand the meaning of the literature? It is the pastor’s job to help a member understand the meanings of passages in the gospel, not the job of bible translators.

This growing trend of culture infusing into the gospel is something that looks good on the outside, but will have long reaching effects if allowed to continue that are harmful to the cause of bringing new, true believers into the fold. The practice of appealing to masses is not new and nor should it particularly be seen as bad, but tampering with the gospel has always been and probably always will be he ultimate in Christian taboo.

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