30 October 2011

494 Years Ago

One of the biggest turning points in Western, if not world, history occurred on October 31, 1517.  Today, many churches from a reformed or semi-reformed tradition celebrated Reformation Sunday to commemorate Martin Luther's dispute with the Pope Leo X.  While there is dispute over whether Luther actually nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, there is little doubt that Luther had Ninety-five Theses or disputations against Leo.

Some may wonder what this has to do with American history.  Just a quarter-century prior to Luther, a Genoese sailor by the name of Christopher Columbus claimed the New World for Spain (except for Brazil, which went to Portugal according to the Treaty of Tordesillas).  While Columbus did not exactly discover America, since his voyages began continuous interaction and the famed "Columbian Exchange" his trip is worth remembering. Spain and Portugal were both intensely Catholic nations, and after the breakup of Catholic hegemony in Europe, controversy was bound to erupt as other nations attempted to rival these early explorers.

While England was still within the fold of Rome when Giovanni Caboto claimed parts of North America in 1497, it was after Henry VIII's break with Catholicism that the Reformation became important for current Americans.  Although Henry just wanted Catholicism without the pope, a more Protestant England emerged permanently under his daughter Elizabeth I.  It was under Elizabeth and her successor James I that England began attempting permanent settlements in the New World, partially as a part of this rivalry with Spain and other Catholic powers.  The more radical Protestants in England, the Puritans established Massachusetts, and the traditional Puritan lifestyle of early New England began around 1630 (partially due to persecution from James' son Charles I and his archbishop William Laud). 

Had Luther not complained about the selling of indulgences in Wittenburg back in 1517, the American religious landscape would be radically different than it is today.  Therefore, whatever one's religious belief, it cannot be argued that October 31 has little significance for the history of Christianity.

26 October 2011

In Light of the Recent Hubbub about Romney and Mormonism

I recently published a post that dealt with one of Rick Perry's supporters (an evangelical pastor) who discounted Mitt Romney's presidential bid based upon his adherence to the Mormon faith.  While not holding Mormons as orthodox in their beliefs, I questioned the wisdom of giving a religious test to a candidate for elective office, basing my argument on the US Constitution.  I found this article by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University of interest in relation to the issue of Mormons in office, religious tests, etc.  I also found the dichotomy of evangelical attitudes toward Romney and Glenn Beck, another Mormon, quite interesting.  I must admit I've questioned why this is the case myself, and at least one commenter on my Facebook link to my previous post on the topic has also questioned this issue.

22 October 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It...Or Is It?

Did the world end, and we just missed it?  October 21 was the date set by radio minister Harold Camping.  Many people had their eyes on May 21 this year as the day that the rapture would happen.  Camping, a 90-ish radio Bible teacher, claimed to have cracked the code as to when Jesus would return.  May 21 came and went--no rapture.  Camping claimed that his calculations were off, much as they were previously when he made a similar prediction in the 1980s, and that the big day would actually occur five months later, on October 21.

In case you haven't noticed, October 21 has come and gone, and the world continues, much as it did on October 20, and October 19, etc.  Camping is not the first to have made such bold predictions.  I remember a book in the 1980s titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Edgar Whisenant, the author of 88 Reasons was just as wrong as Camping.  Neither Camping nor Whisenant is the biggest flop in terms of failed predictions of the end.

The original Great Disappointment occurred in 1844.  Baptist minister William Miller predicted that Jesus would return in 1843.  When 1843 came and went, Miller then predicted sometime between March 21 and April 21, 1844, although he would not give a specific date.  Those dates came and went.  Samuel Snow then predicted at a camp meeting that the true date would be October 22, 1844--the date of the official Great Disappointment.

Many people scoffed at the Millerites, as many scoff at Camping's predictions.  I'm pretty sure that the whole "thief in the night" and "at an hour you think not" preclude anyone actually getting a date for Christ's return.  I don't doubt that He will return, I'm just betting that no one will get the exact date straight.  These people tend to arouse scoffers through their errors.  I guess the next big date will be December 21, 2012.  I'm not expecting much that day, either.

19 October 2011

October 19th Important for Luther and Arminius

According to Christianity Today's "This Week in Christian History," October 19 was an important day for both Martin Luther and Jacob Arminius.  Luther earned his doctorate from UW (that's the U of Wittenberg, not the U of Wisconsin) on this date in 1512, while October 19 was not a particularly good day for Arminius in a strictly earthly sense.  Arminius actually died 402 years ago today in 1609.

The fact that they share this date, albeit for differing reasons, is a bit ironic considering their differing theological positions.  Luther, as you might know, exchanged niceties with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam over the issue of free will.  Luther wrote On the Bondage of the Will in response to Erasmus' work on the The Freedom of the Will, which was originally written as a response to Lutheran ideas about human will.  Arminius provided the impetus for the famous TULIP of Calvinists because of his attempt at softening Calvinist doctrine related to predestination and election.  Luther and Arminius probably could have had a game of literary volleyball had they been contemporaries as Luther and Erasmus did.

Of note in American church history, on this date in 1744, George Whitefield arrived for his third preaching tour in British North America. 

17 October 2011

Grand Forks Church History

Mondays are generally a heavy work day for me, even though I typically don't venture onto campus. I usually use Mondays as an opportunity to catch up on reading and other assignments for the upcoming week. I have a book review due tomorrow, so I submitted it today.  I also read a huge chunk of a book on the World-system of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  In world history circles, world-systems deal with core and peripheral economic zones.  I also did a bit of writing on my major piece of original research for this semester.  As I've mentioned on the site before, I'm doing some work on a couple of local congregations that occupied a building now slated for demolition (which happens to be in a historic district--although I will also point out that it is not structurally sound by even the most liberal definition of the term).  I've also mentioned the maps that I'm utilizing to show change over time in the religious landscape of Grand Forks.  Here is a short excerpt of a (very) rough draft of this study.  Enjoy :)

The Grand Forks Religious Landscape
            As people began to migrate into the valley of the Red River of the North after the opening of the Dakota Territory to homesteaders, religious organizations followed closely to minister to their adherents and win converts to the Christian faith.  One way to track the entrance of new religious bodies into the town of Grand Forks (or other communities) is through a study of insurance maps.  Although their technology now includes the most up-to-date geographic programs, the Sanborn Map Company produced several fire insurance maps that detailed the landscape of Grand Forks beginning as early as 1884.  These maps indicate change over time as the town’s streetscape expanded over the prairie.  The maps also give an estimate of Grand Forks’ population in intervals that do not necessarily correspond to decennial censuses, so it is possible to track growth in both the number of buildings and streets, as well as the estimated population.  These maps are particularly useful in ascertaining the relative wealth and importance attached to specific buildings.  Sanborn color coded structures to indicate the particular building materials used in construction.  Most buildings on the Sanborn maps of Grand Forks had a yellow designation as dwellings with a basic frame construction.
            The Sanborn maps also indicated other building uses, such as businesses and churches.  An 1884 map estimated that Grand Forks had a population of approximately 6,000.  The same map recorded only five church buildings in town: the Methodist Episcopal Church at 722 4th Street, the Presbyterian Church at 817 5th Street, the Baptist Church at 815 Alpha Avenue, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 314 5th Street, and St. Michael’s Catholic Church at 101 6th Street.  Each of the denominations recorded in 1884 were major nation-wide denominations.  However, one interesting point that is evident from a perusal of the maps is the building materials that the churches used in their respective buildings.  All of the buildings at this early date utilized a wood frame in construction, although the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Catholics had strengthened their structures with a brick veneer.[1]

[1] “Grand Forks, Dakota,” Sanborn Map & Publishing Co., 1884. North Dakota Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Collection (hereafter ND Sanborn Maps), Folder 519. Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.

13 October 2011

Historic West Virginia Church

The weather definitely has a bit of a chill this evening.  The North Dakota winter is on its way, and the days are getting much shorter.  The semester is quite busy, and I have several assignments due in the next week.  As I was going through some photos from the summer, I reviewed a few that I took of a historic church in my home state of West Virginia while visiting in early August.

The Virginia's Chapel Church is historic because of the date of its erection--1853--and because of the fact that both Union and Confederate forces used the building for services during the Civil War in the Kanawha Valley, among other things.  A website kept up by a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution includes some information on the building, as does the following picture of one of those road signs that designate historical sites:

Many weddings and funerals occurred in this church building over the years. How many people worshiped in this old building and are now forgotten--a name on one of the tombstones in the churchyard?  What types of people worshiped here?  At least the builder of the building was a wealthy man.  Did his workers attend?  How were they cared for otherwise?  These are the types of questions arise when thinking about the past.

The church that I'm currently researching in Grand Forks comes to mind, as well.  What causes some buildings to be deemed worthy of restoration, while others are plowed under with a bulldozer?  How many have been razed for the erection of a newer, shinier, flashier building?  What is lost when this happens?  Hopefully, some of the memories of times past are preserved when this happens.  Some of the memories are significant, others, not so much.  However, a remembrance of the people and activities of the past inform us as to who we are today (and why we are the way we are, in many instances).

10 October 2011

Perry, Romney, and Mormonism

One of the more controversial recent issues in relation to American religion involves the 2012 presidential race.  All of the candidates claim Christianity (defined very broadly).  The specific group to which each particular candidate belongs differs.  The controversy came about when Robert Jeffress, a mega-church pastor and a supporter of Texas Governor Rick Perry called Mormonism, the religion of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a cult.  Incidentally, one of my most-read posts on this blog dealt with Mormonism and its unpopularity in the nineteenth century.

Now, most people in America today don't think of Mormonism as a cult in the Branch Davidian/David Koresh kind of way.  However, it would be interesting to consider how people around its founding viewed the religion in the mid-1800s.  As mentioned in some comments on the post above, it took a while for Utah to achieve statehood because of some of their unorthodox beliefs, especially that of polygamy.  The Mountain Meadows Massacre was not exactly a warm, fuzzy affair. 

While I've read about Mormon beliefs previously, I went to their website, just to see what they say today.  It seems that some of what they say actually conforms to historical Christianity.  However, the same could also have been said of the Branch Davidians.  I am not in any way equating the Mormons with the Davidians, just pointing out that agreeing with some Christian doctrines does not necessarily make a group orthodox. 

Here is an interesting anecdote on some of the more interesting points of Mormon doctrine.  The author of this post, Bruce Gourley, actually holds a Ph.D. in history.  Many outside the Christian faith fail to see the importance of the differences between historical Christianity and Mormonism, but the differences are on some points quite significant.  Among others, one example pointed out by a 2007 post on the Washington Times website quoting Mormon sites shows that the Mormons teach that Jesus and Lucifer were spirit brothers in "pre-history."  Getting the identity of Jesus right is pretty much a prerequisite for claiming to be Christian.

However, this brings up another question.  Is there any reason that Mormonism should disqualify Romney from being president?  I would argue no.  The Constitution clearly prohibits religious tests from being a requirement of office.  It also permits freedom of religion.  Christians who would like to prohibit those of other faiths from being a public official fail to see that the argument could be turned on them in the future if Christianity become a minority religion in America.  Whether Romney (or John Huntsman, another Mormon running for president) is the best man for the job remains to be seen.  However, his Mormonism alone should not disqualify him.

06 October 2011

My Book Review Featured in Academic Journal

I'm finishing up a fairly busy week here in the Northern Plains.  The weather was great this week, but some cooler weather is on the way. 

Today, I got word that the latest edition of American Theological Inquiry has published.  This particular journal is readily available online, as well as in print.  As such, it is what scholars refer to as an open-access journal.  It is still peer-reviewed, however.  American Theological Inquiry includes articles and book reviews of a theological, cultural, and historical nature from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian traditions.  It does not publish material from those who fall outside the realm of general orthodoxy.

I have not gotten a chance to read the articles included in this edition of the journal, but it does include a book review that I submitted on Douglas Sweeney's Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word.  The link above should allow access to this site, which includes all of the articles and book reviews. 

02 October 2011

Immigrant Churches

I'm enjoying what is very likely the last hurrah of summer.  Here in Grand Forks, the temperature today reached the low 80s.  There is hardly a cloud in the sky.  However, I'm sure this weather will change in very short order.

My current research on a church in town is still on-going.  I've found that immigrants originally had the building built for their services.  This Hague Synod Lutheran congregation merged with two other Lutheran congregations, and sold the building to a Church of God (Anderson) that had been in operation in Grand Forks for several years at the time.

The Church of God left the building, as the city bought the building shortly after the Grand Forks flood of 1997.  For several years, there were nine churches within three blocks in any direction--quite literally averaging a church per block.  Immigrants tended to build or purchase small wood-framed structures, and the build larger churches in a few years.

I'm reading a bit on late 19th- and early 20th-century immigration to get a feel for this field.  I just finished reading a book titled Magnificent Churches on the Prairie (co-authored by James Coomber and Sheldon Green) that looked at several Catholic congregations that built very large buildings.  Most of them started in the same way.  The congregations mentioned in this book tended to have small wood-framed structures and then moved into larger buildings as the funds became available.  These buildings, as it appears some of those in early Grand Forks did, served to tie the community together in this new land thousands of miles from home.  The Lutheran congregations in Grand Forks spoke Norwegian for a generation, while these Catholic churches in rural areas used German (except, of course for the mass, which was in Latin). 

This work is serving to fill out some of my understanding of the religious make-up of the early days of Red River Valley towns, especially that of Grand Forks.  I will share more as I get further into the process.