Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: American Christianity
The history of Christianity in America begins with the landing of the Mayflower. These dissenters from the religious oppression of England formed a “Compact” or voluntary church covenant. As a foothold was gained, in kind the New World received many from Europe who were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. The freedom of the new nation offered them an opportunity to grow. Yet, this freedom often fell short, for division came out of division. Those who were denied religious freedom often were the first to deny that same freedom to their neighbors. However, Christianity grew in America and experienced many revivals and periods of fast growth.
The major Protestant religious bodies are listed below:
- Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Scientist)
- Churches of God
- Churches of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian)
- Disciples of Christ
- Ethical Culture Movement
- Evangelistic Associations
- Friends (Quakers)
- Jehovah’s Witnesses
- Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
- Old Catholics
- Salvation Army
In the following paragraphs, we will review quickly some of the major Protestant religious groupings. In any given religious body, many variations will exist. Within what is called a “main-line” denomination (cf. Presbyterians) you will find Pentecostal groups, the majority of the church in the middle, and some liberal and radical churches.
In Protestantism a church and church body is judged by certain set criteria: These include the priesthood of all believers, Biblical authority, the minister is only the first among the equals (due to his training), separation of church and state, and religious freedom for all. The degree to which any combination of the above are adhered to, sets a groups position in Protestant circles as being either to the left or right of center.
The Protestant denominations believe in the Trinity, that God’s relation to man is one by grace through Jesus Christ and not by law, and that man should manifest his love for God and gratitude through good works. They also believe in eternal life but aren’t sure what it is (“communion of saints”). And they believe that the church is a community called by Christ into fellowship and service.
After many years of division, from the Reformation until 1925, the major Protestant churches are starting mergers and re-unions. In many countries where the Protestant churches are not in a majority (which is just about every other country besides the United States and England), they have found it much easier to serve if they form unions (as in Canada, South India and Japan). By pooling their resources and physical structures, these bodies have become much more effective in their service.
There are still many divisions within each of the major Protestant denominations; however, there has been much fruitful dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches since Vatican II. There is a body called Consultation on Church Union which is working full-time in an effort to bring the churches together.
All the major Protestant denominations have contact with one another through the World Council of Churches. This is the official large organization, much like the United Nations in that it serves as a point of discussion, but does not have much real power. There have been many fears in the past years of what is called a “Super Church” emerging and taking away the individuality of the Protestant groups which they prize so highly.
There are a number of terms which are used much today in connection with churches. The first is Evangelical. This word, like so many words in use today, has a wide variety of meanings. In the widest sense, it is the opposite of Roman Catholicism. The word itself throws more light on the subject that what a body means when it calls itself “evangelical.” It comes from the word, Evangelist, meaning in Greek, to announce good news. In Acts 21:8 Philip is called an “evangelist”. It is also listed by Luke in Acts as one of the channels of service in the Early Church. During the time of the apostles, there was not much distinction between the different channels. Later interpretation has put set rigid definitions (by “later,” after the 3rd century C.E.). As the faith came more and more under interpretation from various writers, the terms evangelist or evangelical, became more restrictive. When the Reformers Zwingli, Melanchthon and Calvin were attempting to assert their separateness from both the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church, and because in fact they were interested in missions (bringing reform), they began to use the word to show a more active interest in the world. The Evangelical Churches (cf. United Church of Christ) are however distinctive from the Evangelistic Churches (cf. Fundamentalism.)
They believe in the Trinity, with Christ as the central theme of their worship. They follow and use the Old Testament extensively. At the heart of the belief is the workings of God in all human affairs. The final word in all matters of discussion, is the Word of God as found in the Scriptures and through the workings of the Spirit (there is a tendency to avoid the word revelation.) They believe in two sacraments, communion and baptism. Communion is a commemorative feast where there is not a change in the wine and bread. There is no “set” Liturgy (in fact, in many cases it is optional.) The government of these churches stresses the independence of the local churches. There is usually a consistory with elders, deacons and the minister. With the advice and consent of the congregation they set the policies of the church. The higher body, called association or presbytery, sets policies in accord with the opinion of the churches in that area. The national body is called a synod and meets every three years.
Another important term in use today is “ecumenical.” In Greek, oikoumenikos, the word means “from the whole world,” or oikoumen, “from the inhabited (world).” All the early councils of the Church were called Ecumenical Councils, for they were gatherings of the whole body. Today the word is used to denote the attempts to bring dialogue and re-union between Roman Catholics,
Protestants and Eastern Orthodox bodies. There are many agencies and groups now working on this. It received much new blood from the Second Vatican Council.
“Fundamentalism” is used many different ways. It is most often used to mean that the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith are adhered to. These groups are opposed to any “secular” liberal trend that may develop. They oppose any “higher criticism” of the Scripture (that is, the scholarship which attempts to get behind the words and their meanings to the “origins”). They hold the virgin birth, the literal interpretation of the Bible, the verbal inspiration of the Bible, physical resurrection, the Second Coming of Christ and His “substitutionary” atonement.
Fundamentalist churches are not the same as Pentecostal churches, although both share the other’s beliefs. In essence, these churches attempt to gain the Apostolic zeal by their continual emphasis on “back to the Bible.”
America, more than any other country, was fertile soil where these many different ways of viewing Christ Jesus and his words could grow. There have often been charges and counter-charges thrown between the different bodies, but never anything like the hundreds of years of religious wars that all but destroyed Europe. Even in the most conservative group, there is some toleration. If any word was a key word for the growth of Christianity in this country, it is toleration.