A New Religion Handbook

Understanding the New Religions, edited by Jacob Needleman and George Baker (Seabury, 1978, 314 pp., $17.50 hb, $8.95 pb), is reviewed by Erling Jorstand, professor of history and American studies, Saint Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

In all the discussion today about cults, sects, Asian religions, and new consciousness, many questions arise. Are these really a cohesive movement? Are they merely a fad, or are they a trend, signaling some profound transformation of religion in America? The answer to these questions from the editors and 26 contributors to this work is a resounding yes, they are a cohesive movement; no, they are not a fad; yes, they may well be a harbinger of things to come, although that is not certain.

This book grew out of a national conference on the study of the new religions held in Berkeley, California in 1977. The topics covered, often by some of the best-known American scholars, discuss the history, nature and significance, and phenomenology of these new religions. At no one point do the contributors attempt a straight-out definition of “new religion”; the reader must piece that together from a many-sided examination. However, Barbara Hargrove comes very close to a working definition, asserting that, first, these are “new,” that is, unusual and exotic, at least on the American scene. They are usually eclectic, “borrowing from a wide variety of traditions into a common theme.” Second, they are unexpected, signifying a change of direction, reversing the present trends, and moving toward something new. To Hargrove this is all the more surprising in the 1970s when so many pundits had surrendered to secularization. Third, all new religions contain familiar elements, but “the total package” is unique, addressing different issues than the traditional communities of faith.

The need for such a study, says Jacob Needleman, is because in the 1960s the public definition of “religious” expanded so greatly as to cause considerable confusion to critics and friends alike. Religious studies scholars found themselves besieged for information about the new religions from concerned individuals “from all around the world.” As the trend expanded in the seventies, close observers agreed that it signified “one crucial aspect of the profound cultural change” now sweeping America. Hence, we have this book, a very carefully planned and thoughtfully executed work, to provide as much scholarly insight and analysis (but not prescription) as possible.

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What the work suggests is that instead of galloping secularization, growing numbers of Americans were alienated from their work, bored with traditional communities of faith, yet honestly asking: What is the meaning of life? Old answers no longer sufficed and the lure of these new religions was proving irresistible to them.

This book is submitted to meet the demands for scholarly understanding. It begins with a discussion of the history of Asian religions in America, by Sydney E. Ahlstrom, with comments and criticisms by three respondents. Several interpretive essays follow, including case studies of the Unification Church, and speculative essays by Walter Capps, Harvey Cox, and Langdon Gilkey on what this phenomenon means. To this reviewer, the most helpful, if disturbing, essay is that by the unquenchable leader for new religious thought, Theodore Roszak. Not rehashing older material, he announces the death of “stern, secular humanism” and opts in our posttechnological, postsecular city pilgrimage for the pursuit of ecstasy. What has obstructed this quest is confusing the ecclesiastical with the sacred, divorcing ethics from ecstasy, and gullibility for the latest fad in gurus, shamans, and other imported swamis. Deep within our natures, Roszak argues, reside gods of liberation, joy, and communal care; these alone can save us.

The third part of the book, phenomenology, is a heavily academic analysis of the language, psychology, and research methodology involved in studying the new religions. This section is more a guide for scholars than a description of the movement. It includes essays on a variety of minority groups. One monograph on a fundamentalist commune (anonymous), by James Richardson and associates, is a model of scholarship.

A very helpful feature is an extensive bibliography at the end of each essay. Those, such as this reviewer, who feel uneasy with the rapid pace and sweeping generalizations of the book, have in these bibliographies the sources by which to pursue topics of special interest.

The book is intended, without apology, for the academic community and is something of a pioneering landmark. It stakes out the territory where its contributors believe ongoing research must move. As a guide to where we are now, the reader will have to do his or her own sorting out for in-depth investigation. It is, in responsible and scholarly terms, a constructive reply to those who have argued (criticially or supportively) that the new religions are so experiential they are ineffable, beyond words and cognitive understanding. Thus it leads us directly to those areas where hard, careful analysis needs to be done.

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Significant New Reprints

The reprinting of books, especially older ones, occasions some discussion because it can mean many things, not all of them good. If it meant laziness on the part of this generation to do the work necessary to produce a classic or if it were an escape to the good old days, then it would be bad. But properly understood, these reissues could display our willingness to overcome a chronological snobbery and to learn from the past by listening to those who have gone before us; then it is all to the good.

In any event, an increasing number of publishing houses are turning in this direction. The Granary, 150 Ottley Drive, NE, Atlanta, Georgia, is offering a fine selection of sought-after classics. Philip Doddridge’s An Exposition of the Gospels (2 vols.) begins the list. It is his much used The Family Expositor of 1739–56 taken from the renamed 1840 edition, to which a life of Doddridge by Andrew Kippis is added. The 1833 Better Covenant, practically considered from Hebrews 8:6, 10–12; with a supplement on Philippians 2:12–13, by Francis Goode is also now available. Exposition of Psalm 119 (1827) by Charles Bridges, a book that went through 19 editions in less than 20 years, and Arthur Pridham’s Notes and Reflections on the Epistle to the Romans (1864), are also in print again, as are Samuel Cox’s Commentary on the Book of Job (1880) and J. Denham Smith’s Christ Unveiled; or Thoughts on the Tabernacle (1889). This is all choice material.

The Primitive Baptist Library, 107 Elm Lane, Streamwood, Illinois, is ferreting out extremely rare theological classics and republishing or otherwise making them available. Two such are The Autobiography of Elder Wilson Thompson: His Life, Travels, and Ministerial Labors (1867), and Memoirs of the Principal Hymn-Writers and Compilers of the 17–19th Centuries (5th ed., 1882) by John Gadsby. The former is the thrilling story of a Midwest frontier Baptist preacher, filled with drama and history. The latter contains extremely interesting and virtually unknown facts about hymnwriters the likes of Thomas Ken (“Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”), A. M. Top-lady (“Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies”), and dozens more. I could hardly put this one down.

Logos International, Plainfield, New Jersey, has made available John Wesley’s messages on the Sermon on the Mount in Happiness Unlimited: John Wesley’s Comments on the Sermon on the Mount, adapted by C. G. Weakley. These 13 sermons, all written before 1750, are introduced by Weakley and slightly revised in modern English style. Purists might object to this, but none of Wesley’s gold has become dimmed in the process.

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Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, continues its excellent work in the “Twin Brooks Series” with R. C. Trench’s Studies in the Gospels (3rd rev. ed., 1874); J. B. Mayor’s The Epistles of Jude and II Peter (1907); and Robert Dick Wilson’s Studies in the Book of Daniel (2 vols. in one, 1917). Trench’s work is characteristically lucid; Mayor’s is a must, being in my judgment the best commentary on the Greek text available in English on Jude and II Peter; and Wilson’s, although dated, is still of great value. One should start a study of Daniel with Wilson; but don’t stop there. In Baker’s “Great Summit Books” series, we have Abraham Kuyper’s To Be Near to God (1925). This is a series of 110 devotional meditations stressing that “creedal confessions without drinking from the Living Fountain run dry in barren orthodoxy, and spiritual emotion without clear confessional standards can sink one in a bog of sickly mysticism.”

The Banner of Truth Trust, Box 621, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, continues to add significant books with Charles Hodge’s The Way of Life: A Guide to Christian Belief and Experience (1841), a book that has long been unavailable. It is Hodge at a level anyone can understand.

Fleming H. Revell, Old Tappan, New Jersey, in its “Evangelical Masterworks” series offers F. B. Meyer’s The Directory of the Devout Life: Meditations on the Sermon on the Mount (1904), and G. Campbell Morgan’s Great Chapters of the Bible (1935), both devotional Bible exposition at its best. These books steer clear of controversy and concentrate on being helpful.

Harper and Row, 1700 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, California, has made available again John A. Broadus’s On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (1870). This work is, of course, the standard and ably revised, now for the fourth time by Vernon L. Stanfield, will probably remain such.

Harold Shaw Publishers, 388 Gundersen Drive, Wheaton, Illinois, offers three highly praised Tom Howard gems in reprint paperback: Christ the Tiger (1967); Chance or the Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism (1969, previously An Antique Drum); and Hallowed Be This House (1976, previously Splendor in the Ordinary). Howard’s flowing prose ought not to be lost and Shaw is to be thanked for keeping it alive.

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Fortress Press, Philadelphia, has reissued Samuel Sandmel’s The Genius of Paul (1958). It is a major work of New Testament scholarship that argues Paul can only be understood in a Hellenistic-Jewish context.

Again, reprinting books is not necessarily good. However, if only such books as these are reprinted, not even the most vocal objector could complain. Here is material that ought never to be forgotten, and these publishers are to be thanked for making these fine books a part of our own time, just as they were a part of past generations.

“Be Wid Us, Jesus”

Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, by Albert J. Raboteau (Oxford, 382 pp., $14.95), is reviewed by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., associate professor of Afro-American studies, San Diego State University, San Diego, California.

For years historians and sociologists have sought to explain how black slaves in America kept themselves physically and emotionally intact while in bondage. The role of Christianity has been occasionally noted, but a full appreciation of evangelical Protestantism’s impact on the Slave Religion, written by a black Catholic historian, is a fascinating catalog of the slaves’ religious experiences. While concentrating on Christianity, it also includes well balanced generalizations on African religious traditions and the degree to which they were melded into black Christian worship patterns (as distinct from doctrine or theology), as well as the way the practice of conjuring stood alongside Christian belief in the slave communities.

Raboteau chronicles the experience of “a people whose lives were marked by their trust in the Lord.” This trust was not simply in a heavenly life free of bondage; many slave Christians were confident that their cruel enslavement was contrary to God’s will and that he would accomplish their emancipation on earth. The unscriptural treatment often suffered at the hands of supposedly Christian masters also led bondsmen to conclude that heaven would not be overly populated by slaveholders. Numerous southern slaves were subordinate members of interracial Baptist and Methodist congregations. The experience of one who was administered the sacraments by the same white deacon who two hours later flogged him for not having proper permission to attend services only dramatized the perversion of a Christlike life that slaves so often saw. White preaching to slaves so commonly emphasized the “slaves, obey your masters” theme and promised only a segregated heaven, that many bondsmen were convinced that masters used a “white man’s Bible,” while somewhere else God’s true written Word lay hidden.

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Had the only source of the gospel been slave owners or proslavery plantation missionaries, Christianization of the slave population would never have attained the dimensions it did. The numerical growth of black believers resulted from two Spirit-empowered sources: the wave of revivalistic Awakenings from the 1740s through the 1820s, and the calling of black exhorters and preachers. Baptist and Methodist preachers emphasized the primacy of a born-again conversion experience, and one slave spoke for thousands when he testified, “This is my religion … ‘Repent, believe, and be baptized, and you shall be saved.’ ” White and black together were saved in camp and church meetings. Spirit-filled black exhorters, often illiterate, preached to and converted members of both races, just as did white exhorters. But genuine interracial Christian fellowship proved elusive. From the beginning, separate black congregations formed; some were ministered to by white preachers, but mostly they were ministered to by members of their own race. The history of the black church thus has its roots in the Great Awakening. These first all-black Baptist congregations were founded in the 1770s in South Carolina and Georgia, 40 years before the African Methodist Church became the first organized denomination. They suffered periodic suppression, especially as whites perceived that Christianity could inspire slave revolt as well as encourage slave submission. But with or without church buildings, a licensed clergy, or white permission, evangelical Protestantism spread through the slave cabins, where the slave preacher rose to become one of the most important members of the plantation community, and spirituals became the most meaningful expression of that community’s faith.

To find fault with a book as interesting and informative as this is almost to quibble. One might mention only that Raboteau should have noted the scriptural basis of the slaves’ faith, for in seeking to be reborn through Christ they had captured the fundamental center of the New Testament redemption message. The slaves were indeed “Bible Christians,” and this faith, along with a sense of community and kinship that transcended biological ties, kept them whole during the long nightmare of slavery. What Corrie ten Boom discovered in the concentration camps, black slaves knew in the nineteenth-century South, as they sang in one of their spirituals, “He have been wid us, Jesus, He still wid us, Jesus, He will be wid us, Jesus, Be wid us to the end.”

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