The Church in America
Christianity and the Colonies
Key Concepts: The religious history of America is very complex. The people who came to the new world brought with them both new ideas for religious freedom and old ideas of religious intolerance. Each would play a part in this story.
The Story: The story of Christianity in the new world began not with the early English settlers but with the Spanish who planted missions prior to the Reformation. The first Christian service in America was probably a Catholic Mass held in Florida in 1513. The Spanish would eventually extend their work across the southwest from Texas to California.
The English began their attempts to colonize the new world in the 1580s but were not successful until the Jamestown Colony of 1607. Jamestown was originally a commercial venture established to find gold, but only became economically viable with the cultivation of tobacco. In 1619 the Church of England was established as the official church of the colony. Even so, church going was not the norm, with ministers complaining of people bored and uninterested in worship.
Christian settlements in New England were driven by both religious and economic reasons. Three of the earliest settlements were New Netherlands (1617), the Plymouth Colony (1620) and Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629). The majority of settlers in these colonies were Protestants (Huguenots, Calvinists and Puritans). The new world offered each of these groups an opportunity to worship as they pleased. Unfortunately most of these colonies were intolerant of any theology other than their own. This was especially true of the Puritans who enforced strict codes of behavior and punished those who did not comply (including the execution of “witches”).
The first great preacher of religious tolerance was Roger Williams (1603-1683). He was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because his views on religious tolerance, fair dealings with Native Peoples and his opposition to slavery. He eventually founded the Rhode Island Colony where for the first time, religion and citizenship were separate. This allowed the colony to be a safe haven for Baptists, Quakers and Jews. The next true haven for tolerance was in Pennsylvania, where William Penn (1644-1718) established a colony which became home to more than 8,000 Quakers (Penn was a Quaker) as well as Mennonites, Amish, Catholics, Lutherans, Huguenots and Jews from across Europe. Penn desired a political utopia and so drafted a charter that included not only freedom of religion, but also trial by jury, free elections and freedom from unjust imprisonment.
The first major Presbyterian presence in the colonies (other than early Puritans) was in Maryland, where Frances Makemie (an Irish Presbyterian pastor) established the first Presbyterian Church in 1683. He went on to found other churches in Virginia, and in a landmark case, was acquitted in New York of preaching without a license, thus setting a precedent for religious freedom. The first presbytery was organized in 1706 in Philadelphia. The presbytery (an elected body of pastors and elders who oversee a particular group of churches) was an American invention, unknown in Europe. Soon two more presbyteries had been formed and they met together as a Synod in 1717. In the early years of Presbyterianism the majority of pastors were trained in Scotland. This began to change when in 1746 William Tennent established the first American Presbyterian training school (The Log College) for ministers, which later evolved into Princeton University. By the revolution Presbyterians were one of the largest American denominations.
Key Concepts: Christianity in the United States was shaped by multiple factors such as, the Reformation, a quest for religious freedom, and the inability of major denominations to train enough clergy for a growing nation. But one of the most significant factors was a series of protestant religious revivals often called “The Great Awakenings”.
The Story: In the early colonial period, Christianity was the claimed religion of most of the colonists and was nominally practiced (attending church, Bible reading in the home, etc.). This pattern was due to a lack of churches and clergy as well as a resistance to religion that had been imposed by the state churches in Europe. By 1680 church attendance began to rise but worship tended to be rigidly structured and preaching intellectually driven. Communally shared doctrine/practice was central and individual, experiential faith was not important.
The foundation for the Great Awakenings was the revival (1733-1735) that happened under Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards was a fiery preacher who focused on God’s condemnation of sinners, yet God’s willingness to save. In a period of six months, Edwards increased his church by more than 300 members. His critics accused him of leading people to fanaticism and suicide (several people despondent over their sinfulness killed themselves). Though the enthusiasm quickly waned, the revival caught the attention of George Whitefield in England.
Whitefield (1714-1770) traveled to America seven times and was, by all accounts, the first great itinerant evangelist in America and was the initiator of the First Great Awakening. He was one of the founders of Methodism and the evangelical movement. His desire was to whip up people’s emotions and bring them to a committed faith. He had great charisma and an amazing voice that some said could carry over five-hundred feet. In 1739 Whitefield began a preaching tour of the colonies. He focused on personal faith and moral responsibility, rather than ritual or doctrine. The crowds which came to listen often numbered between fifteen and thirty thousand people. This style of revivalism increased worship attendance among Presbyterians, Dutch and German Reformed Churches and Methodists. Thus it was called the First Great Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening (1790-1850) focused more on converting the unchurched than had the First Great Awakening which had whipped up the fervor of the churched. Once again the focus was on preaching that lent itself to an emotional response. This was the movement that led to dramatic increases in churches and membership among the Baptists and Methodists (but not Presbyterians, which is why there are so many more Baptists and Methodists than Presbyterians) on the frontier. It was during this period that “camp-meetings” became part of the American religious landscape. New churches that emerged from this movement include the Churches of Christ, the Disciples of Christ and Seventh Day Adventists.
The two most significant outcomes from the Great Awakenings were 1) that Christianity for many, became an individualistic and experiential faith and 2) this individualism of faith was transferred into the political arena where people saw themselves as individuals deserving of individual rights, thus helping to lay the groundwork for the American Revolution.
Presbyterians Divide and Reunite
Key Concepts: Presbyterians in America have a long history of diving and uniting into different Synods and denominations, and then sometimes reuniting. This trend began before the American Revolution and continues to this day.
The Story: Presbyterians in America began their life as offshoots of Scottish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, French Huguenots and English Puritans. Each brought with them a particular set of values and traditions. One of the things that they held in common though was the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) which was their theological foundation. Even so, as time passed, the struggles of creating a new church in a world in which there was individual religious freedom and experience, and slavery would cause the Presbyterian Church to continually search for its identity.
The first presbytery (a group of churches in a geographical area) was organized in 1706 and the first Synod (a group of presbyteries) in 1716. These presbyteries and Synods were different from their counterparts in Europe because they were designed to have power centered at the local level rather than in a centralized church hierarchy. One result of this local control was that ministers, who were required to agree (“subscribe”) with the entirety of the Westminster Confession (required by the Adopting Act of 1729), could be allowed to disagree with certain parts, if their presbytery agreed.
Local control quickly led to the first division within the new denomination. This was the “Old-side/New-side” split (1741-1758), where the New-siders demanded that ministers must be examined on their personal religious experience, and not merely on their knowledge. Old-siders disagreed and expelled the New-siders. A reunion occurred with the New-siders being victorious.
The next division (“Old-school/New-school” in 1837) came over the Plan of Union (1801) in which the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists agreed to work together to establish churches in the west. The Old-school folks did not like the Union and wanted to maintain a solely Presbyterian outlook (theology and missions). The New-school folks liked the Union and were more willing to be open about differences in theology. This division would last until the Civil War.
The next great divide was over slavery. The Presbyterian Church had first declared slavery to be wrong in 1787. As the nation moved toward division, the Southern Old-school churches formed their own Synod (1857) and then their own church (The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America) in 1861, just after the Civil War began. Interestingly enough, the Old-school and New-school groups reunited in both north and south during the conflict.
Following the war, the southern church continued as an independent church. It would splinter in 1972 when churches that rejected women in leadership would leave and form the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The northern church splintered with the creation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in 1981, again over the ordination of women. The remaining southern and northern churches reunited in 1983, though many southern churches joined with the PCA or the EPC instead of the new church, to which we belong, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (PCUSA). Finally, in 2012, a new denomination, the Evangelical Covenanting Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) was formed by churches that did not want to allow LGBTQ persons to be ordained as elders and ministers.
Modern Protestant Missions
Key Concepts: Throughout the history of the church, missions and evangelism had been central to its identity. Even so, following the Reformation, Protestants lost any real connection to missionary activity. This was recovered in what we call the Modern Missionary Movement.
The Story: Christianity was founded as a missionary movement. As we have seen in previous articles, the church grew through the willingness of men and women to travel to the farthest reaches of the world in order to tell people about Jesus Christ. These missionaries traveled into Turkey (64), North Africa (80), Arabia (354), northern Europe (716), Russia and Poland (960s), China (1260s), Java and Sumatra (1320s), Congo (1491), the Americas (1496), Kenya (1498), India (1517), Philippines (1568), Japan and Vietnam (early 1600s) among hundreds of other nations. The vast majority of these mission endeavors were directed by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Modern Protestant Missionary movement did not begin until the late 1700s and was initiated by two remarkable men (and their wives), William Carey and Adoniram Judson. Carey (1761-1834) was born in Paulerspury, England. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a local shoemaker. With a natural affinity for languages he taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Dutch and French. In 1785 Carey became the schoolmaster for his village and the pastor of a local Baptist church. He slowly became convinced that all people needed to hear the Gospel. In 1782 he published a powerful missionary manifesto and argued within Baptist circles that missionaries needed to be sent abroad. Through his efforts, the Baptist Missionary Society was founded in 1792.
Carey, along with his family sailed from England to India in 1793. In order to support himself he ran an Indigo factory, all the while facing opposition from the British East India Company. Though Carey made only 700 converts in 40 years, he translated the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Arabic, Hindi and Sanskrit, translated other sacred Hindu texts, created a Sanskrit dictionary and founded Serampore College to train indigenous missionaries as well as the Agri Horticultural Society of India. The personal cost of his work was the death of two wives and several children.
The second great missionary was Adonirum Judson (1788-1850) who was the first Protestant missionary from North America. Inspired by Carey he encouraged American Baptists to support world missions. Originally a Congregationalist, Judson and his wife Ann, became Baptists upon their arrival in India (1812). Opposed by the British due to America’s declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812, they traveled to Burma. Though Judson knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew, it took him three years to learn Burmese (his wife picked it up much more quickly). His initial work met with indifference and direct opposition. Ten years after his arrival Judson had translated the entire New Testament but had made only 18 converts. Though he was imprisoned during the Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) and buried two wives and many children, Judson would continue his work. At his death left 100 churches, more than 8,000 believers and a national Baptist church that would grow to become the third largest in the world (behand the United States and India).
Carey and Judson were each men of their times. They brought with them prejudices about other peoples and cultures, yet their passion for Jesus Christ pushed them to learn new languages, translate the scriptures and found schools. They also inspired thousands of others who have proclaimed the Good News around the world.
Women in Ministry
Key Concepts: The role of women in church leadership, while originally central to the life of the Jesus’ community (see Lesson 8) quickly diminished in importance. By the end of the 19th century however women began to reclaim their rightful place in church leadership.
The Story: An honest review of the scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) will find women in positions of influence and leadership. They served as deacons, Apostles and church leaders. Unfortunately the church existed in a patriarchal society which quickly began to remove women from any meaningful role in church leadership. Even so, in 494 CE Pope Gelasius I condemned the presence of women as celebrants of the Eucharist, meaning there were still some places where women were accepted as leaders. This is attested to by references to female “presbyters” (elders) in the 4th and 5th centuries.
In the Middle Ages women’s roles in ministry were those of service, through being benefactors of the church (wealthy women who built churches) or of direct service (those who served the church and/or the poor). Examples include St. Clare of Assisi who founded the Order of Poor Ladies, which was a monastic order for women, Teresa of Avila who influenced Christian meditation practices and Catherine of Sienna who worked with the sick and the poor.
The significant change in women’s leadership began to occur in the 1800s. It started with the Quakers who had women leaders early in the century. The Salvation Army, founded in 1865, ordained both women and men to ministry. The Methodist Protestant Church ordained Helenor Davisson in 1866 and Anna Shaw in 1880. The first Presbyterian denomination to ordain women was the Cumberland Presbyterian Church which ordained Louisa Woosley in 1889.
The major branches of the Presbyterian Church, of which there were three (PCUSA and UPNA in the north, PCUS in the south), resisted any move toward the ordination of women until the 20th century. Here are some quotes on the subject.
“Our Confession of Faith and Form of Government say nothing on the subject [of women speaking and praying in mixed assemblies] simply because it never entered the head of any man in the Westminster Assembly that such a thing would ever be attempted in our denomination.” 1872
“A Don Quixote fighting windmills may afford us amusement, but a Donna Quixote so occupied is a different affair. In a word, we give the supremacy to women, until she so far forgets herself as to declaim in public on women’s rights.” 1849
“I’d just as soon rob a hen-roost as to remain there and hear a woman speak in public.” By a clergyman who left immediate when a woman opened a mixed meeting with prayer. 1850s
By 1930, things in the north began to change. The PCUSA ordained its first female elder in that year and its first pastor in 1956. The UPNA ordained its first female pastor in 1943. The PCUS ordained its first female ministers and elders in 1965. By the early 1970s both the northern and southern church required all churches to ordain female elders and recognize female ministers.
Currently 36% of all ordained PCUSA pastors are women, with half of those serving in a church. Several of our largest churches now have female senior pastors. Two of our former associate pastors, Rev. Mary Austin and Rev. Louise Westfall, fill such positions. In terms of Ruling Elders, we at First Presbyterian, strive to have equal numbers men and women on session at any given time.
Full Inclusion Part 1
Key Concepts: The full inclusion of all persons regardless of gender, race, ability or sexual orientation is a concept which has only recently become a hallmark of the Presbyterian Church USA. Most denominations around the world do not accept this as an appropriate expression of Christian Faith. This article will examine the history of this movement within the Presbyterian Church.
The Story: It has been argued that the LGBTQ movement can trace its roots to the Stonewall Rebellion in June of 1969. On June 28 of that year the New York City Police raided the Stonewall Inn, a local gathering place for many of the poorest and most marginalized members of the LGBTQ community. The result was a series of riots followed by the creation of organizations which fought for full legal rights for persons of all sexual orientations.
The response of the Presbyterian Church was to urge states to decriminalize same sex relationships between consenting adults (1970). At the same time, the Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago, began to rent space to a wide variety of Gay and Lesbian organizations. Two years later (1972) Lincoln Park calls the Rev. David Sindt, an openly gay minister, as an assistant pastor. Following ten months of deliberations, the Presbytery of Chicago blocks Sindt’s call. The church still offered Sindt a position as a lay employee. In 1974 he created the Presbyterian Gay Caucus, which would become Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns.
The next step in the process came when the Presbytery of New York City asked the General Assembly for guidance as regards the ordination of LGBTQ members. The denomination spent two years studying the issue (1976-1978) and recommended full inclusion. The 1978 General Assembly rejected the proposal and issued definitive guidance that Gay and Lesbian members could not be ordained. A year later the General Assembly officially recognized Presbyterians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns as a group which would be given space to advocate at meetings of the Assembly.
Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church elected its first Gay elder in 1982 and successfully defended its election with the Presbytery of Chicago. Across the denomination more churches began to declare themselves to be “More Light” congregations as they welcomed in and advocated for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. In 1985 the General Assembly ruled that the definitive guidance against ordination had the force of law and must be followed. In 1991 the General Assembly allowed for same-sex commitment services as long as they were not considered weddings. Those opposed to full inclusion believed that their position was in danger because the definitive guidance could be overturned by any General Assembly. In response those opposed to full inclusion proposed and passed a change to the Book of Order (our constitution) specifically prohibiting the ordination of LGBTQ individuals.
A significant change could be sensed within the denomination when in 2006, while the General Assembly reaffirmed the Book of Order’s prohibition of ordination, it also passed a motion allowing all churches and presbyteries to decide for themselves who ought to be ordained. Four years later the prohibition for fully inclusive ordination in the Book of Order was removed and the Assembly voted to allow ordination of persons regardless of sexual orientation. Finally in 2014, following the Supreme Court’s legalization of Gay Marriage, the denomination voted to allow pastors to perform same sex marriages. While these changes caused many churches to leave the PCUSA, they also left us as one of only a handful of fully inclusive denominations.
Full Inclusion: Part Two
Key Concepts: The church was always supposed to be a place in which all persons were not only welcomed, but where their spiritual gifts were valued. Unfortunately there were people for whom that was not always true. One such group was those with physical and developmental disabilities.
The Story: The United States has long struggled with how to treat individuals with disabilities. The 19th and early 20th Centuries saw a growing recognition of the need to more adequately assist those with physical and developmental disabilities and mental illness. It wasn’t however until the late 1960s, when those with disabilities and their advocates began to demand equal protection and treatment that real changes began to occur. Those changes were codified in numerous pieces of legislation culminating with the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) that provided protection for the full civil rights of those with disabilities.
The movement toward full inclusion of persons with disabilities within the Presbyterian Church followed well behind that of society in general. The first mention in General Assembly minutes about this issue was in 1970 when the denomination called the church to look at the needs “of the mentally retarded.” Beyond this there was little or no work done toward addressing the religious and spiritual needs of persons with disabilities. The first policy paper on inclusion came from the 189th General Assembly in 1977. This report, subtitled, “That All May Enter” was one of the first statements by any denomination on the desire to include all persons in the life of the church. This action would ultimately lead to the creation of Presbyterians for Disabilities Concerns (PDC) (1981), which would advocate across the denomination for the full inclusion of persons with disabilities. Three members of our church’s staff have served on PDC’s leadership team.
Our congregation has been one of the denominational leaders in the area of inclusion of persons with disabilities. This work can be divided into two significant stages in recent years. While a class for children with disabilities was held in the 1980s, there was a gap in this effort until the development of Celebration Station in 2000. Celebration Station was a “pull-out” program where children with disabilities would meet on Sunday mornings during the worship hour with adult volunteers. These volunteers would work with the children by telling stories and engaging the children in developmentally appropriate Christian activities.
The second stage of our involvement began in 2010 when we moved toward a model that was focused on inclusion rather than a pull out program. In order to do this, the church hired Inclusion Coordinators, who reported to our Director of Christian Education and Inclusion, Cindy Merten. The task of the Coordinators was to recruit volunteers who would be Sunday morning “buddies” with children who needed assistance. As this program grew, the church hired and then called the Rev. Joanne Blair as Associate Pastor for Inclusion and Visitation (2014). Along the way the program expanded to include the Rejoicing Spirits worship services, community outreach to area group homes, quarterly social events, and a program for Middle School and High School students. We also produced a video on Inclusion in churches that has been viewed more than one thousand times, have hosted numerous conferences on disability and inclusion, and have been involved in creating resources and leading workshops locally, regionally and nationally.
The Future of Christianity
Key Concepts: The landscape of Christianity in the world is rapidly changing. There are four significant trends which we will examine.
The Story: The first trend is that mainline denominations are declining and aging. These denominations include both progressive (Presbyterian, Lutherans, Methodists) and conservative (Southern Baptists) churches. The PCUSA (our denomination) has gone from 2.3 million members in 2005 to about 1.6 million in 2014. At the same time, Southern Baptists have gone from 16.3 million members in 2003 to 15.5 million in 2014. At the heart of this decline are two factors; churches are growing older and thus losing more members to death than they are receiving new, younger members; and the millennial generation (25-35 year olds) is not returning to the church. Thus there has been and continues to be a net loss of members and attenders.
The second trend is that even while weekly worship attendance in the United States is staying level at about 40%, more people are attending multi-site mega churches, rather than traditional, mainline churches. Mega churches are those that worship more than 1,000 people a Sunday. In 1960 there were only a handful of these churches. Today there are more than 1,600 of them. Currently the largest is Lakewood church in Houston which has almost 30,000 people a Sunday in worship. In addition there are almost 8,000 multisite churches in the US. These are churches that “beam” the teaching pastor from their main location into their satellite locations, in either the same city or across the nation. One of the most successful is Life.Church which has 24 locations in seven states, with almost 70,000 people a Sunday attending one of their churches. It appears that these churches will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
The third trend is the growing lack of religious affiliation in this country. Overall almost 23% of Americans, and 36% of young adults, claim no religious affiliation. This trend is affecting church attendance in both mainline and mega churches. While the mega churches have a higher percentage of young adults in attendance, they are finding it harder and harder to attract millennials. Millennials see the church, as a whole, in a negative light and are seeking, what they call, “authentic” worship and community. They are thus off put by both the traditionally organized church as well as the self-help style emphasis which can be found in most mega-churches. In some ways the future of the church in the United States will depend on how we engage this generation.
The fourth trend is the shift of the church, in both growth and numbers, from the northern to the southern hemispheres. Churches in South America, Africa and Asia are growing rapidly. These newer churches tend to be more charismatic (speaking in tongues, healings, etc.) and conservative than the churches in the north, even when they are associated with existing denominations, such as Presbyterians. These differences are reflected in the conflicts between churches such as the PCUSA and the American Episcopal Church, which are fully inclusive, and some of their partner churches which still see homosexuality as incompatible with scripture. The growth in the southern hemisphere, especially in Africa is also being driven by faith healers who have created churches, some of which have close to one-million followers. These healers promise health and wealth in exchange for the contributions of the followers. Many African governments are currently discussing regulating these kinds of churches which may ultimately impact their growth.