Histories of American Christianity look very different now than they did 50 years ago. “Church history,” as it was then called, used to focus on individual leaders (mainly “great men”), major events in denominations, and developments in theology. Its historians were typically trained in seminaries and divinity schools.
In the 1960s, historians began writing “the new social history,” which emphasized the lives of ordinary people in their social settings. This produced a new generation of scholars, largely trained at secular universities, who studied American Christianity as a social and cultural phenomenon.
Turning Points in American Church History, Elesha J. Coffman’s well-informed and highly readable new book, is a prime example of the insight and energy generated by this new approach. The title is a bit misleading, suggesting a work of “church history” revolving around “pivotal events.” Coffman instead takes us down a path pioneered by Andrew Walls, the great historian of missions.
Walls taught two crucial lessons. First, Christianity became a global religion via transmission from one culture to another. Second, the transmission always involved not merely translation into a new language but also incarnation into a new culture. As Christianity has moved from one culture to another, it has developed new theologies, adopted new practices, addressed new problems, and struggled with new limitations. As Coffman puts it, “Everywhere the gospel traveled, it was embodied and spoken anew.”
The idea that pure or true or “mere” Christianity exists apart from culture is helpful only in theory. On the ground, every form of Christianity has two parents contributing to its DNA—“the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” and the culture in which it takes up residence (Jude 1:3, KJV).
In this sense, the term Christianity is like the term forest. Forests thrive in tropical and subarctic climates, at high elevations and low, and in some of the driest and wettest climates found on earth. Trees introduced into a new environment are limited by that environment, which then reshapes them. As a result, each region’s forest is unique.
Likewise, the wide variety of Christianities on our planet results from the wide variety of cultures into which the faith has been planted. This brings us to the argument of Coffman’s book: “American Christianity is distinctively American because it has an American history.” But this raises a question: Which American history? The poet Walt Whitman put his finger on the problem. America, he wrote, “is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations.” Add Whitman’s insight to Walls’s, and it follows that a nation composed of many nations, with a culture composed of many cultures, will have many Christianities.
Coffman’s book skillfully applies these insights. She uses notable events in church history less as turning points and more as windows, each opening a view onto the history of new and different Christianities that Americans have created. Each American Christianity was formed by distinctive American circumstances. All have made lasting contributions to what it means to be American and Christian alike.
The book’s 13 chapters use noteworthy historic events as “launch points” for discussions that range far forward in time. To consider a few highlights:
- Two chapters—one opening with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and another opening with King Philip’s War in 1675—highlight Native American Christianities through the 20th century.
- Roman Catholics—North America’s first Christians—are central to Coffman’s chapters on the Spanish Armada and the appointment of the first American bishop in 1789. The latter takes Catholic developments up through the 19th century.
- Anglo-American Protestant Christianities naturally get the most attention, with chapters on the banishment of Roger Williams from Massachusetts in 1635, George Whitefield sparking the First Great Awakening in 1740, the founding of the American Bible Society in 1816, the 1844 Methodist Church split over slavery, the 1886 launch of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, the 1925 Scopes trial over teaching evolution in Tennessee public schools, and the 1980 election victory of Ronald Reagan.
- African American Christianities get sustained attention in chapters organized around the founding of the first Black church in 1773 and the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that tore apart the bodies of four little girls in Birmingham.
- The most wide-ranging chapter considers the 1906 Azusa Street Revival and charts the spread of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianities among white, Black, and Latino Christians, Protestant and Catholic, throughout the world.
In each chapter, Coffman shows us cross-cultural encounters creating new forms of Christianity. The Spanish-Pueblo encounter generated a distinctive new Pueblo Christianity. The French-Huron encounter produced a new Huron Christianity. Likewise with the Puritan–Native American encounter.
And, of course, that encounter also changed Puritan Christianity. As the Puritans labored to convince themselves they were superior to the Native Americans, their original desire to be free of English restrictions hardened into a theological conviction that God had chosen them to bring Christian civilization to the rest of the world.
One of American history’s greatest puzzles is why African Americans would so widely adopt their enslavers’ religion. As Coffman shows, the cross-cultural encounter between Southern planters and those they enslaved generated changes in Southern Christianity and new forms of Black Christianity. Like the Puritans, the defenders of slavery developed a Christianity that justified dehumanizing their nearest neighbors. Paradoxically, Native Americans and African Americans developed Christianities that reinforced their human dignity. Native American Christianities did this by emphasizing ties to their ancestors; Black Christianities by emphasizing the Exodus story and its themes of liberation from oppression.
Encounters between Catholicism and the American culture also catalyzed different modes of being Christian. European Catholicism was priest- and parish-based and hierarchical in authority. But colonial-era Catholics, lacking priests and churches, developed a home-based, lay-led form of Catholicism that experimented with democratic authority. The 19th century witnessed massive European immigration to America, and the internal diversity of the Catholic immigrants generated various ethnic forms of Catholicism with their own priests, parishes, and devotional practices.
Evangelical movements have also generated a multitude of new Christianities. Whitefield’s revivals split old Protestant denominations and created new ones with distinctive theologies. The Azusa Street Revival—which originally had Black and white people in both leadership and participation—spawned a vast array of new denominations, first in America and then around the globe.
In the 1950s, Pentecostalism spawned the charismatic movement, giving rise to new denominations and new forms of Christianity within Protestant and Catholic settings. At the same time, new forms of Pentecostal Christianity from Norway to Nigeria to Nicaragua began migrating back to the US, creating even more ways of being Christian and American.
Of course, the fact that Christianity is always incarnated into a culture can cut in both positive and negative directions. All cultures have elements in harmony with God’s desires, and these can be harnessed to speak God’s larger truth within those cultures. At the same time, all cultures have elements out of harmony with God’s desires, and these can pervert Christian words and ideas in support of sub-Christian actions.
Both Williams and his Puritan antagonists arrived in New England with a commitment, arising from persecution in England, to something they called “religious freedom.” Williams saw this as freedom of the individual conscience, as defended by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 10). The Puritans understood it as the liberty to create a godly society in which godly norms—as they understood them—would be enforced by a coercive government.
Williams, banished from Massachusetts, founded Rhode Island Colony as a haven where a nominally secular civic government would protect individual freedom of religion. American Catholics, having had to defend their own freedom against Protestant harassment well into the 20th century, eventually persuaded the worldwide Roman Catholic Church to embrace freedom of conscience and separation of church and state.
Meanwhile, the Puritan dream of a government-regulated godly society lives on in American Christianity, as Coffman’s subsequent chapters show. It is center stage in the attempt to outlaw teaching evolution in the 1920s; again in white Southern churches’ defense of segregation in the 1960s; and yet again starting in the 1980s, when many white evangelicals and some white Catholics set about using the Republican Party as a vehicle for realizing their vision of a Christian nation.
But America is a nation of nations, home to an unruly pileup of Christianities. Coffman astutely notes that this produces creative tensions that may well explain American religious vitality. A few years ago, sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark demonstrated that American church adherence rose steadily between 1775 and 1980, reaching levels far exceeding those in other Western nations. But Coffman concludes her book with the fact that since 1980, the number of Americans unaffiliated with any religion has soared from 7 to 30 percent.
She appropriately refrains from speculating about the future, but for some readers, her book may raise a deeply ironic possibility: A white, conservative version of a Christian nation might become a nation of fewer Christianities and fewer Christians.
Michael Hamilton is emeritus professor of history at Seattle Pacific University and vice president at Issachar Fund.
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