28 September 2011

What I'm Reading--Errand into the Wilderness

My current class on the British Empire requires a series of book reviews and a historiographical paper on some aspect of the British Empire from the 15th century to about 1800.  In an attempt to tie this assignment to my interests, I am reading and writing on the Puritans.  The Puritans, although mostly recognized in their American context, had English origins.  Therefore, the group relates to the mother country and the colonies.  The first book that I chose to review is Perry Miller's Errand into the Wilderness, first published in 1956.  Here is my preliminary review of the book:

Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, 1956.

One of the most studied and perhaps most misunderstood groups in American religious history are the Puritans.  The history of the Puritans (defined broadly) reaches back into sixteenth-century England, and the persecution of this group led large numbers to emigrate to the New World beginning in the 1630s.  Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness, first published in 1956, is not a traditional historical monograph, but rather a collection of essays that “add up to a rank of spotlights on the massive narrative of the movement of European culture into the vacant wilderness of America.”[1]  While twenty-first century historians would question the characterization of America as a vacant wilderness, Miller used the understanding that the earliest European immigrants to North America would have had.  They considered land that no one owned personally as empty. 
These essays appeared in various formats during the 1930s to 1950s, a tumultuous period in American history bookended by the Great Depression and the early Cold War, with World War II taking up the middle of the period.  Miller was primarily an intellectual historian.  Some have argued that his work attempted to counter a reductionist view that relied on a strictly economic determinist understanding of the world, such as that championed by Charles Beard.  Although Miller was an atheist, it is evident that he attempted to understand the Puritans on their own terms by arguing that their worldview impacted the way activities that they behaved.  In speaking of his method, Miller wrote:
The beginning I sought was inevitably—being located in the seventeenth century—theological.  This was not a fact of my choosing: had the origin been purely economic or imperial, I should have been no less committed to reporting. Since the first articulate body of expression upon which I could get a leverage happened to be a body of Protestant doctrine, I set myself to explore that doctrine in its own terms.
This stance brought him not only into conflict with those who followed Beard, but also those who had an interest in the historical understanding of Sigmund Freud.[2]    
            Errand into the Wilderness took its name from an election sermon preached by Samuel Danforth in 1670.  The title refers not only to the book, but also the first essay, which Miller insisted has no connection to Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis.[3]  As a collection of essays written over a relatively long period of time, the book as a whole did not have a central defining thesis as would a traditional historical monograph.  The essays do have the common thread of intellectual history, which Miller attempted to tie through New England from the earliest Puritan settlers to the Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century by utilizing a variety of primary sources appropriate to his study, such as colonial records, sermons, and theological works.
            The title essay emphasized the idea of the word “errand,” which in the Puritan era had two meanings—a journey of which a superior sends an inferior to take care of some business, or “the actual business on which the actor goes, the purpose itself, the conscious intention in his mind.”  Miller argued that the Puritan settlers came on an errand of the second type, “on [their] own business.”  They came to set up the perfect Christian commonwealth, the proverbial city on a hill that would show Europeans what such a community looked like.  The decline of morality and fights against Indians such as King Philip’s War caused the Massachusetts Puritans to question their standing.  They viewed themselves as a “sink of iniquity” that had failed in the first meaning of the errand and were left with the second.[4]
            One important theme that Miller frequently emphasized in the essays dealing with the Puritans and their immediate descendants like Jonathan Edwards was the lack of a democratic impulse in New England Puritan society.  In “Errand into the Wilderness” one of the big complaints in ministerial jeremiads were the “insubordination of inferiors toward superiors, particularly of those inferiors who had, unaccountably, acquired more wealth than their betters, and, astonishingly, a shocking extravagance in attire, especially on the part of the meaner sort, who persisted in dressing beyond their means.” In the essay “Thomas Hooker and the Democracy of Connecticut,” the author argued that a desire for greater democracy was not really the reason for the emigration of Hooker and his cohort to the Connecticut Valley.  Rather, a lack of land was the main reason.  The later correspondence of Hooker and John Winthrop indicates a nearly complete agreement on all matters of doctrine and practice between the two.  Winthrop is not exactly remembered as a great democrat.  Hooker even sat on a Synod with John Cotton that denounced Presbyterianism.  Miller argued that even the Fundamental Orders generally resembled a church covenant that would be common in Massachusetts.  Furthermore, he emphasized the Puritan fusing of church and state by the idea of “a uniform church supported by civil society,” which differs greatly from current American ideology. [5]
            In looking at early American history, it is generally argued that the Jamestown colony was an economic endeavor.  While this is to some degree an accurate statement, Miller was able to show through examples of recruitment literature that a major impetus of colonization was evangelism.  Commerce and evangelism were not were not necessarily mutually exclusive to the seventeenth century English mind.  Miller took the literature to mean what it said and argued that it “exhibited a set of principles for guiding…a medieval pilgrimage.”[6]  While the Anglican Church controlled Virginia, the rhetoric of this colony largely mirrored that of its more puritanical neighbor to the north. 
            Miller dedicated much of this work to the thought of Jonathan Edwards.  Errand into the Wilderness disagreed with some common understandings of Edwards in arguing that he was actually somewhat of a radical.  In one way he was traditionalist in turning from Puritan covenant theology to an older Calvinistic view that emphasized God’s infinite transcendence against a view in which God promised to act in a sort of quid pro quo covenant.  In the Great Awakening, however, Miller argued that Edwards and his fellow revivalists differed from his forbears in arguing for a government based upon its utility to the community, rather than on absolutism.  While these arguments were plausible as presented, Miller made a bit of a stretch in postulating that in some ways Edwards’ thought was an intellectual step toward the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  While Emerson viewed Nature in pantheistic terms, Edwards viewed nature as merely revealing God to the world.  The wilderness, nonetheless figured in the thought of both men.
            The final essay on “The End of the World” was curious, not because of Miller’s analysis, but because of the questions that theologians had.  The theologians attempted to reconcile Newtonian physics and eschatological doctrine.  This was interesting, because theologians, including Edwards, believed in an all-powerful God.  The very idea of omnipotence should have precluded concern over the breaking of the laws of motion required for a final judgment.  The author pointed out that something very similar to the explosion that these divines expected occurred in August 1945 with the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. “Not for this was the errand run into a wilderness, and not for this will it be run. Catastrophe…is not enough.”[7]

[1]Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956), vii.
[2] Murray G. Murphey, “Perry Miller and American Studies,” American Studies 42, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 5-18; Miller, ix.

[3] Miller, 1-2.  

[4] Miller, 3, 5-6, 15.
[5] Miller, 8, 29, 148.

[6] Miller, 101.

[7] Miller, 239.

17 September 2011

The Constitution and Christianity

Today, September 17, is the day that the United States celebrates Constitution Day.  It was on this day in 1787 that the delegates at what is now known as the Constitutional Convention signed the document that is now the supreme charter of the US government.  Some people mistakenly think that the Constitution is a Christian document.  While some of the founding fathers were no doubt Christians, as I've mentioned previously on this blog, the Constitution itself has very little to say about religion in general, and nothing about Christianity specifically (although I would argue that it is reasonable to view the discussions of religion in the Constitution with a reference to Christianity).

There is one notable point in the original Constitution (sans amendments) that deals with religion.  Article VI, Section 3 states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."  This statement indicates that an atheist has as much right to serve the US as a God-fearing evangelical does.  While there have been many people in US history that have attempted to dissuade the government from employing Catholics, Jews, and people of other faiths (most recently Muslim) as government officials, the Constitution prohibits such discrimination on religious grounds.  This is an important point to understand.  The rest of the Constitution goes about the rather contentious task of actually setting up a government.

Freedom of religion was not even a part of the Constitution as originally submitted to the states.  I would argue that many on both the religious and secular sides of the debate misunderstand this amendment.  Some would argue that the United States has been a Christian nation.  Most of the time, the idea of a Christian nation is tied to the "Christendom" of medieval Europe.  State-supported religion is not exactly a great spur to individual piety in most instances.  Individual piety is just that, individual.  While the US had a large number of professed Christians in its founding era, it was not a "Christian nation."  Secularists argue that there should be no interaction between religion and public life, arguing for the "wall of separation."  This wall is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, either.  It is very difficult to have people who do not have beliefs that influence and even motivate their behavior.  Secularism is inherently a belief system, as is Christianity.  It is a bit hypocritical on both sides, in my humble opinion for either to say people can have their beliefs, but they cannot let them influence their public personna.  (Note that the argument is not limited to Christians and secularists, but could involve any number of other groups.)

The first amendment has several important, closely tied freedoms established.  First, there is freedom from an established state church, while there is maintenance of the right for individual freedom to worship in any manner.  There are well-known instances of public officials (i.e., government officials) in early American history holding prayer in their public capacity.  Therefore, it cannot reasonably be argued that the founders wanted freedom from religion.  The freedom of speech is closely tied to the freedom of religion, although political speech is most clearly in view here.  The right of peaceable assembly is also important for religious groups, whether they be Christian or not.  How could church meetings be protected without this?

The Constitution is not a religious document.  More specifically, it is not a Christian document.  However, it does guarantee freedom of religion for all.  This is very important.  Even if it specified Christianity, which branch would be favored?  That would necessarily bring up all sorts of problematic issues.

12 September 2011

What I'm Reading--Material Christianity

My most recent read deals with material culture and Christianity in America.  This book by Colleen McDannell,, titled Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, was an interesting read.  McDannell, as the title would indicate, looked at the ways in which American Christians use material objects in living out their faith and in their private devotions.

This book did not really go into one important aspect of material culture--church architecture--to any great degree, although it was briefly mentioned in a chapter on the religious elite's (Protestant and Catholic) to "kitsch".  It instead focused upon the aspects of individual and corporate religious life that tend to identify people as part of the "in" crowd.  After reading it, I couldn't help but think about ways that this material culture impacts my life.

The book is a series of case studies.  Among the topics that McDannell covers are the use of images, the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Lourdes (France) holy water, kitsch (or, for lack of a better definition, "bad art"), Victorian family Bibles, modern Christian books, keychains, bumper stickers, etc., and even special Mormon garments (although this last category was somewhat interesting in that these undergarments are not seen, whereas all of the others are easily noticed).

Most Protestants accuse Catholics of being more centered upon images.  However, as this book explained quite extensively, this is not necessarily the case.  Pictures taken by New Deal-era photographers of rural Protestants showed pictures of Jesus or other overtly religious images, even in the poorest of homes.  These images or other religious paraphernalia tended to identify the owners as observant Christians to those who might visit their personal space.  Even the Bible could be classified in this way.  The huge Bibles of the Victorian Era were more for show, even having their own special stands at times.  That this was the case is evidenced by the fact that many people had their own personal, and much smaller, Bibles. 

One of the more interesting chapters, in my opinion, dealt with the new cemeteries.  Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia was somewhat unusual for the day: a private cemetery (although it did exclude members of the lower sort and blacks).  Before the nineteenth century, it was quite common for ordinary folks to be buried in unmarked mass graves.  Only ministers or the "important" folks got their own marked graves.  This particular cemetery was a way for people to visually connect with the dearly departed in a sort of garden park that had religious images that were generally tied to the idea that all of the interred dead would go to heaven. 

The final chapter dealt with current (as of 1995, when the book was actually published) Christian pop culture.  This pop culture tended to have its origins in the Jesus people of the 1960s, although mass marketing of Christian merchandise is actually much older (see the Bibles mentioned above that had door-to-door salesmen peddling them).  The various spiritual or biblical sayings that are framed and placed in homes, as well as the t-shirts and caps that people wear with similar wording still serve to show both those who are "in" and those who are "out" that the owner of said merchandise professes Christianity.  This was the chapter that got me to thinking more than any other.  Does true Christian belief need these signifiers?  They are definitely part of religious discourse, but do they contribute to shallowness of belief?  I'm not sure I have the answer.

09 September 2011

My Current Work Mentioned on Another Site

I recently wrote about some of my current work and how it involves maps.  I just finished up my initial overview of these Sanborn maps that show how the landscape of Grand Forks, North Dakota, changed over time.  The location and the building material of churches is my main concern in undertaking this survey. 

One of my professors at UND maintains a blog, and it was actually his interest in this particular church that is about to be demolished that got me involved in this particular project.  The church is actually located in a historic district, and appears (from the records available) to be the oldest wood-framed church still standing in town.  One of the recent posts on his blog gives some pictures, as well as some of my preliminary hypotheses regarding the religious landscape of Grand Forks around the turn of the 20th century.

06 September 2011

9-16-2001 A Date that "Changed" America

As we near the 10th anniversary of 9/11, today the front page of USA today had a an article by Rick Hampson titled "After 9/11: 50 Dates that Quietly Changed America."  I turned to the inward pages of the first section of this paper (which  I get for free with my student ID).  I wondered how many of these 50 dates had to deal with American religion, in general, and American Christianity, in particular.

Only one of the dates had much to do with American Christianity.  That date was 9/16/2001.  The particular event was said to be important because it nearly derailed President Obama's election bid.  The event was the somewhat (in)famous sermon by Obama's then-minister Jeremiah Wright that questioned America's righteousness and race relations in some fairly colorful language, saying "America's chickens are coming home to roost," among other things.  The president was not in the congregation on that day, but many questioned his relationship to someone that many considered a radical.  Wright has obviously been very controversial since this sermon came into the public light during the campaign...however... 

In spite of the controversy that this event caused, I would question the importance of this date in "quietly changing America," because Obama was nevertheless elected president in spite of the sermon.  Had this particular sermon led to John McCain's election, it would be noteworthy.  But it didn't, so it did not "change" America in any meaningful way.

05 September 2011

Progressive Baptists

Saturday was a pretty good day in my estimation.  The weather wasn't the best, with temps around 65 and steady North winds, there was a reminder that a wonderful North Dakota winter is nearing.  So, it wasn't the weather that was great.  I did, however, get a couple of historical publications, one of which was Baptist History and Heritage.

This edition of Baptist History and Heritage focuses on the 50th anniversary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, an African American denomination.  While the fact that this is one of the 276 (probably a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much) Baptist denominations in America is not surprising or unique.  What is unique is the origin of this organization.  Frustration with one of the leading black Baptist groups, the National Baptist Convention, over issues of Civil Rights led those who were more committed to complete equality (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) to split off from the parent organization in 1961.

While I've not read the entire journal yet, I've found the first couple of articles pretty interesting.  One question that always comes to my mind when looking at churches and racial issues is why there are churches and racial issues.  Some of the most segregated groups in America today are churches.  There are "white churches" and "black churches."  I can understand ethnic churches or specific ethnic ministries for immigrants because of the language barrier.  However, even though cultures can be very different between ethnic groups, it seems that the whole "no Jew or Greek, male or female, etc." from Paul would preclude divisions based upon differences in culture when language is not an issue.  However, I guess it should not be surprising from a glance at some of Paul's letters (especially the one to the Galatians) that show problems between racial groups.  While it isn't surprising, it should not be thought of as ideal in any way.  Differing core theology would be a good reason for division, while ethnicity should not be a reason for division. 

With the word "Progressive" in the title, perhaps a definition is in order.  Today, political discourse at times seems to equate progressive with radical communists intent on overthrowing the established order.  In much of American history, this was not necessarily the case.  Theodore Roosevelt (a "progressive" president) was not interested in overthrowing capitalism or America, but rather in righting some serious problems that actually threatened to destroy "the system."  The idea of progress has generally been considered a positive, as it generally indicates an attempt at improvement.  While social activism is not exactly the main purpose of the church (in a general sense) in the world, in the area of race relations, a group that pushed the envelope for equality and integration deserves applause for their push in that direction. 

02 September 2011

Church History through Maps

This semester, I'm again doing some research on local religion.  Last fall, I wrote a fairly lengthy paper on a local Baptist Church to which I've made some comments on this blog (even going so far as to post an entire paper that I read at the Red River Valley History Conference).  This fall, I'm working on a church building that housed a couple of different congregations over a period of about 100 years.  The building is about to be torn down, as it has been empty since the Grand Forks Flood of 1997.  More about the history of this specific church at a later date.

Today, I spent about three hours in the special collections department of the Chester Fritz Library.  I usually go through documentary evidence for my research, which would include letters, manuscripts, church records, etc.  On this trip, however, I utilized a resource of which I was basically unaware until the last couple of weeks.  Sanborn maps are a great resource for understanding the historical landscape of cities.  The main users of Sanborn maps were originally fire insurance companies.  The maps show the streetscapes of urban areas, complete with color coding to depict the specific building materials utilized in the erection of the respective structures.  Building materials are obviously of particular interest to fire insurers. 

The library has maps from various intervals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.   Several things are evident from a perusal of these maps.  I checked out maps from 1884, 1888, 1892, 1897, and 1901, and I still have several to investigate.  One thing that is evident from the maps that I looked at today is that the number of churches in Grand Forks grew from 5 to 13 from 1884 to 1897.  The number remained steady at 13 in 1901.  Another interesting point that is apparent from looking at the map is that the older, more established churches had structures that employed more durable materials.  One negative to the use of wood is the threat of fire.  Stone and brick are not quite as susceptible to fire damage.  One final thing that I found quite interesting was the growth of ethnic churches over the period.  The original five churches remained--Catholic, Baptist, Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Episcopal.  To the original five, the city saw the addition of Norwegian Baptists and Scandinavian Lutherans, among others.  These ethnic names are not nearly as obvious today.  The rise and decline of specifically ethnic churches is an avenue that I find of interest, and one that I intend to investigate.  I will post some of my findings of interest in the comings months.