Church renewal and the counter culture

January 31, 2012

From its earliest days, the Consultation on Church Union generated negative responses from radical renewalists who were convinced that America’s white churches were complicit with the systemic injustices in American society. They believed that the churches had to repent and as signs of this repentance make dramatic changes in their patterns of life. While conceding that COCU had moved with surprising speed to resolve long-standing theological issues, the renewalists, for the most part, believed that these changes were largely irrelevant to the needs of American life, were taking too long, and would result in a form of unity that embodied the continuation of oppressive systems.

Providing a voice for many of the people impatient for change was Stephen C. Rose, Presbyterian theologian, author, editor, and renewalist. During COCU’s critical period (1969, 1970, and 1971), he was a stand-by alternate for the United Presbyterian Church at COCU plenary assemblies. He came into prominence in 1967 with the publication of his book The Grass Roots Church: A Manifesto for Protestant Renewal. After serving on the staff of the venerable Community Renewal Society, a Chicago organization founded in 1882, Rose moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the community where Jonathan Edwards lived after being deposed from his pastorate in Northampton.

There he was associated with Jonathan’s Wake, a renewal society that resurrected a name that went back to Edwards’ time. Richard L. York, an Episcopal priest with a ministry to the street people of Berkeley, California, wrote in the Submarine Church Press that Jonathan’s Wake “is evangelical, conversion centered, Pentecostal, post liberal, post-secular, remythologizing, nongenerational, inside-subversive, outside-related, Wake-Up Oriented, youth black Third World supporting, democratic, post-Protestant, post-Catholic, Non-existent Reality, nonmembership, leaderless, post-mao, post-sds, happening joysprung mobile unit.”

York announced that Jonathan’s Wake would attend the triennial assembly of the National Council of Churches in Detroit in December 1969 and put forward its own slate for election to the Council’s General Board. They would try to persuade the Council to redirect its efforts around the proposals promoted by Jonathan’s Wake. If they failed in doing this, York continued, “we shall seek to organize the minority into a movement outside the formal churches.” In March, York concluded, “Jonathan’s Wake becomes the Free Fundamentalist Delegation to COCU—the Consultation on Church Union, meeting in St. Louis. They invite all seminary students to join in confrontation of Super-Church to see that it tithes as it jives.” Read more. . . An Incarnation of the Counter

Stephen C. Rose’s current work can be followed in his blog (accessed January 31, 2012): Rose was born in 1936.

Bicycling along with the Mormon Battalion

January 27, 2012

As I bicycle through southern Arizona this winter, my thoughts will sometimes focus upon the Mormon Battalion, an untrained and inexperienced band of American volunteer soldiers who marched from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to San Diego, California, more than 160 years ago. They enlisted to serve in the war with Mexico that the U.S. Congress had declared May 13, 1846, for the purpose of conquering and holding isolated provinces of Mexico that now are part of Arizona south of the Gila River and southern California.

If I run low on water before reaching the next supply station or store, I will take comfort in the recognition that my situation is far better than the one that Henry Standage reported on September 17, 1846.

We traveled 25 miles this day across one of the most dreary deserts that ever man saw, suffering much from the intense heat of the sun and for want of water. The grass not more than 2 inches high and as curely [sic] as the wool on a negro’s head and literally dried up with the heat of the sun. The teams also suffered much from the sand. I drank some water today that the Buffaloes had wallowed in and could not be compared to anything else but Buffalo urine, as a great portion of it was of the same, yet we were glad to get it (“Mormon Battalion Trail Guide,” p.15).

This arduous march took place because the United States was enlisting a volunteer army to fight its battles in the desert Southwest and the Mormon church was urging its people to leave  Nauvoo and other places where they were persecuted and find new homes in “the good valleys of the Rocky Mountains” (McClintock, p. 8). 500 Mormon men agreed to volunteer to be part of the force that were to represent the United States in the war with Mexico. Their salaries went straight to the church and thus helped finance Brigham Young’s wagon train to the great Salt Lake in 1847.

With supplies pulled in animal-powered wagons, they traveled day after day in the most harrowing of conditions. They commenced their march on August 12, 1846 and reached Santa Fe, New Mexico, in October, and Tucson, Arizona, in December. Their first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean was on January 27, 1847.

From Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe, the Battalion followed the already established Santa Fe Trail, but from that time on they had to create their own route. They pieced together fragments of older trails and took advantage of the rivers, especially the south-flowing Rio Grande through much of New Mexico, the north-flowing San Pedro in southeastern Arizona, and the Santa Cruz and Gila Rivers in southwestern Arizona.

They cut through the southeastern corner of Arizona, traveling westward in territory that now is part of Mexico, and re-entered territory that would become part of the United States near the later town of Douglas. In the region around Tucson, they worked their way according to the landmarks that identified the Old Spanish Trail. It has been suggested that the Mormon Battalion laid the groundwork for the first wagon road over much of this terrain.

Two legs of the PAC Tour’s Cactus Classic tour in late February follow a route that parallels the Mormon Battalion’s march: north from Tucson toward the Casa Grande built by an earlier Native American irrigation society and then through lands made habitable by the Gila River.

Note: The Henry Standage quotation comes from “Mormon Battalion Trail Guide,” edited by Charles S. Peterson and others (Utah State Historical Society, 1972). Useful information is contained in “Mormon Settlements in Arizona,” by James H. McClintock (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1921, 1985). The map of the route comes from a Web site accessed January 27, 2012. My photo of the San Pedro River near Tombstone was taken on a PAC Tour trip in Desert Camp 2010. The Mormon Battalion Association provides a list of resources about this history-making journey.

Religious vitality in a liberal church

January 23, 2012

Responding to “Evangelical vs. Liberal” by James K. Wellman, Jr.

I  have long been interested in message, ministry, and mission as factors that contribute to the religious and organizational vitality of congregations. The importance of these factors and how they interact in Christian communities takes on a distinctive character when they are used to understand classic Protestant churches. When pastors and lay leaders understand how these factors act and interact, they are better able to lead their congregations forward into greater strength and impact upon their members and the larger communities in which these members and their churches live and work.

My interest in these issues is shaped by the fact that during the past half century there has been a dramatic shift in the religious marketplace of the United States. The Protestant denominations that were at the center of American culture and institutional life in the 1950s, have shrunk in membership even though the population has grown dramatically. During these same years, evangelical churches have grown significantly in their market share, in part because they have been able to generate and sustain very large congregations.

Furthermore, the demographics of these two groups of churches (classic Protestant and evangelical) indicate that this shift will continue well into the future. The members of classic Protestant churches, now getting along in years, are remainders of constituencies that came into these churches when they were young adults with many children. To a distressing degree those children and then the grandchildren have disappeared from the churches of their youth. At the same time, churches in the evangelical movement have burgeoned, in part, because of their effectiveness in recruiting young adults, especially men, and their strong focus on families, children, and youth.

This shift in market share is especially interesting in the Pacific Northwest, which for generations has been characterized by a non-institutional, a-theological religiosity, a spirituality focused on nature and the common good. Until recently, this was the region in the United States with the lowest percentage of people who claimed to be participants in churches or other religious communities. If any form of Christian faith and practice would thrive in this environment, people might think, it would be classic Protestant churches, with their acculturated theology, openness toward varied life styles, and historic commitment to the common good.

Yet, as James K. Wellman, Jr., reports in his book Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), this is not the case. Instead, liberal churches, which is Wellman’s label for what I have been calling classic Protestant, have declined while evangelical churches have grown dramatically so that they have become the dominant Christian sub-culture in the region.

With financial support from the Lilly Endowment and the encouragement and assistance of colleagues and students at the University of Washington where he teaches, Wellman studied thirty-six thriving congregations in the region (twelve were liberal and twenty-four were evangelical). His book is an important collection of information about these churches and a well-shaped analysis of how their ministers and members think about the Christian faith, shape their churches, and extend their faith into the world of personal life and impact upon American society. Read more:  Wellman

Roads, a type of civilized society

January 19, 2012

On Thanksgiving Day, 1846, Horace Bushnell, one of the nation’s most celebrated preachers, ascended the pulpit of the North Church in Hartford, Connecticut, and delivered an address, which he entitled “The Day of Roads.” It was later published as one of many essays in a very long book, Work and Play: Literary Varieties (London: Alexander Strahan & Co., 1864). Bushnell’s speech includes an extended history of road-building in antiquity and across Europe, with special attention to the recent development of railroads.

As a bicyclist, I share some of Bushnell’s appreciation of roads. They are a sign of the character of a civilization, and much about our own society is revealed by the American freeway system and the Internet, the two principal roadways that on the one hand bind us together and on the other segment us into isolated enclaves.

Since this essay on roads was delivered as a sermon, Bushnell begins it with a text from the Bible. “In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied and the travelers walked through by-ways” (Judges 5:6). After a couple of introductory sentences, he takes to the road with this opening statement.

“The Road is that physical sign, or symbol, by which you will best understand any age or people. If they have no roads, they are savages; for the Road is a creation of man and a type of civilized society. If law is weak and society insecure, you will see men perched in castles, on the top of inaccessible rocks, or gathered into walled cities, spending all their strength, not in opening Roads, but in fortifying themselves against the access of danger.

“The drawbridge is up, the portcullis down, and sentinels are mounted on the ramparts, carefully studying every footman or horseman that turns the corner of a wood, or gallops across the distant plain. Wheeled vehicles are seldom seen, and roads are rather obstructed than opened.

“Or if you inquire after commerce, look at the Roads; for Roads are the ducts of trade. If you wish to know whether society is stagnant, learning scholastic, religion a dead formality, you may learn something by going into universities and libraries; something also by the work that is doing on cathedrals and churches, or in them; but quite as much by looking at the Roads.

“For if there is any motion in society, the Road, which is the symbol of motion, will indicate the fact. When there is activity, or enlargement, or a liberalizing spirit of any kind, then there is intercourse and travel, and these require Roads. So if there is any kind of advancement going on, if new ideas are abroad and new hopes rising, then you will see it by the roads that are building.

“Nothing makes an inroad without making a Road. All creative action, whether in government, industry, thought, or religion, creates Roads.”

Note: I copied this statement from a library copy of Bushnell’s book that I came across many years ago. The book is available as a Google digitized book. The essay begins on p. 403. For more about Bushnell, read here…

Fawn McKay Brodie and Joseph Smith

January 16, 2012

In 1945, after seven years of work, Fawn McKay Brodie published No Man Knows My Historya highly controversial biography of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church. Although she was only thirty years of age, the 400-page volume showed remarkable depth of research, significant powers of analysis, and a flowing literary style that adds to the dramatic character of her story. She continued as biographer, with books on Thaddeus Stevens (1959), Richard Burton (1967), Thomas Jefferson (1974), and Richard Nixon (1981).

According to Newell G. Bringhurst, Brodie’s book on Smith upset the Mormon establishment because it presented Smith “in some respects as a pious fraud” who was “primarily influenced by ideas and forces in his nineteenth-century American environment.” Brodie was communicated by the LDS in 1946 because of this book. (To learn more about Brodie, see Bringhurst’s book Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life.)

Her Jefferson book “caused a storm within the Jefferson historical establishment comparable to that created by her Joseph Smith biography in the Mormon community three decades earlier. This was primarily due to Brodie’s assertion that an intimate relationship existed between Jefferson and his black slave, Sally Hemings.” The book on Nixon “presented its subject in an extremely negative light, asserting that the personality of the disgraced ex-President was shaped by three major factors: the idea and fear of death, his trait as a pathological liar, and a lack of capacity to love.”

I had suspected that Brodie’s book was not viewed favorably by the Mormon Church, and my reading of it made it clear why the volume would have been so unsatisfactory. It is based on extensive research in Mormon records and writings. Her knowledge of and dependence upon the “canonical documents” is substantiated throughout the book.

Brodie was not content with those materials, however. She did extensive research into other primary materials that were pertinent to her story, including newspaper accounts and court records. By so doing, she added a considerable body of detail to approved records that sometimes were skeletal accounts.

Despite being part of a high-ranking Mormon family, Brodie presented a portrait of Joseph Smith that deviated significantly from the authorized view held by her church. Although she affirmed that the Mormon faith was a remarkable achievement, and that Joseph Smith was its primary creator, she was highly critical of Smith and showed considerable ambivalence toward the movement that he created.

Compounding these troubles was the fact that Brodie was a gifted writer. The Saturday Review was correct when it referred to the “richness and suppleness of its prose, and its narrative power.” Time after time, as I read this forceful book, I noted paragraphs where the writing style itself conveyed the author’s scorn toward Smith and his course of action.

Even so, Brodie speaks about the Mormon Church and its founders with considerable respect. Joseph Smith’s religion, she affirms, “was no mere dissenting sect. It was a real religious creation, one intended to be to Christianity as Christianity was to Judaism: that is, a reform and a consummation” (vii).

In her concluding assessment of Smith, whom she frequently calls “the prophet,” Brodie notes that most of his human qualities that endeared him to his contemporaries have been forgotten. What remains is “his story, beginning with the great vision of the Father and the Son and ending with his martyrdom, a legend without parallel in American religious history.”

“It takes more than this legend,” Brodie continues, “to explain the vigor and tenacity of the Mormon Church. Before his death Joseph had established an evangelical socialism, in which every man worked feverishly to build the Kingdom of God upon earth. This has grown into a vast pyramidal organization, in which the workers finance the church, advertise it, and do everything but govern it. The Mormon people are still bent on building the Kingdom of God, and…here as in no other church in America the people are the church and the church the people” (402).

What accounts for the antipathy of most Americans toward the Mormons during Joseph Smith’s years as leader? In her effort to explain the fierce anger among Illinois citizens during the Mormons’ Nauvoo period, the period that ended with the lynching of Joseph Smith and his bother Hyrum (1844), Brodie says that “they hated Joseph Smith because thousands followed him blindly and slavishly…Anti-Mormonism in Illinois was much more dangerous than it had been in Missouri, because it had a rock-bound moral foundation in the American fear of despotism. This, and not the repugnance for polygamy—which, unlike the glorification of theocracy, was not yet preached openly—was the primary source of the venom in the now swiftly mobilizing opposition” (381).

Mormon-related historiography has advanced significantly since the publication of Brodie’s book, even in its 1970 revision. Much of it, I understand, is as serious as Brodie’s biography in its use of primary material and interpretation of evidence but many of the writers present a more nuanced portrait of the people and events that they describe. As I read further in this literature, I plan to continue postings in the American Religion space on my blog. As I prepare for my winter bicycle events in the desert southwest, I will also post accounts of the travels and farming economy the Mormons developed in early generations.

All the Roads Are Open

January 13, 2012

Travel writing raised to the level of literature

 “In June 1939, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and fellow writer Ella Maillart set out from Geneva in a Ford, heading for Afghanistan. The first women to travel Afghanistan’s Northern Road, they fled the storm brewing in Europe to seek a place untouched by what they considered to be Western neuroses.”

This statement from the jacket of All the Roads Are Open tells the story line of this slender collection of travel essays. The book’s emotional tone, however, comes not from the narrative line, which is rather sketchy, but from its evocations of the mood and character of the places and people the two travelers encountered along the way.

Interspersed throughout the book are compressed, but eloquent, reflections on the character of travel, understood both as episodes in exotic lands and as the lonely journey through life itself. Schwarzenbach’s life journey was cut short in 1942, when she was only 34 years of age. Soon after completing her Afghan journey, she died as the result of injuries suffered from falling off her bicycle near her Swiss home.

When she took her Afghan journey, Schwarzenbach was already an experienced writer. She had studied history in Zurich and Paris, earned a doctorate in 1931, and traveled extensively through Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. She had published a novel and established herself as a photojournalist. Her ability to portray the essence of travel is clear as she describes the roads that she and Maillart encountered.

“We’d been told about Balkan roads, and a whole chapter could be written about them, easily, gladly, now that our Ford, all struggles put behind it, is sailing down the coast of Anatolia, stowed on the Turkish steamer Ankara.”

Instead of going into endless detail, however, Schwarzenbach refers to the “International Road” shown on maps and then describes the eighty kilometres of asphalt in one section, a hundred kilometres in another, long stretches under construction where they no longer had a road but “drove through open fields.”

In Bulgaria “we were sent down a bridle path, through a mountain valley of fantastic beauty, the Ford patient as a mule.” In another part of the journey, “we worked our way across a bare, waterless open plain; trucks and buses had worn down the winding track, there were many stones, there was little bread, and though we managed only eight kilometres an hour, we were glad to make any headway at all.”

After little more than a page, Schwarzenbach declares “Enough of the roads; we resolved not to bore readers at home with the workaday worries of our automobile.” Thereafter, Schwarzenbach offers only briefest references to roads, the uncertainties of finding gasoline, breakdowns, and repairs.

Her ability to describe the terrain in deft, Spartan prose is one of the book’s delights. Of the Hindu Kursh she wrote:

“This desert is fearsome, a dying land. However far north I went, towards the invisible Oxus River and the forbidden Russian border, the signs of death never ceased—skeletons, potsherds and the wind-ward tells of buried cities, fortresses, graveyards. Drought, invasions by nomadic hordes…towards evening, in a darkness always suffused with milky light, as from distant stars, I sometimes turned southwards, seeking comfort, and faced the now-familiar blue mountain chain. Its reality was proven, its magical name lived on like a mighty heartbeat. And up above, in the highest still-visible gorges, great fires burned every night. Who warmed themselves there?”

Throughout the book, Schwarzenbach offers her commentary on the longer pilgimage.

“‘Our life is like a journey…’ she writes, quoting a patriotic song recalling the sacrifices of Swiss troops who fought for Napoleon at the Battle of Berezina.

“—and so the journey seems to me less an adventure and a foray into unusual realms than a concentrated likeness of our existence: residents of a city, citizens of a country, beholden to a class or a social circle and clan and entangled by professional duties, by the habits of an ‘everyday life’ woven from all these circumstances, we often feel secure, believing our house built for all the future, easily induced to believe in a constancy that makes ageing a problem for one person and each change in external circumstances a catastrophe for another.”

Although Schwarzenbach traveled in a 1939 Ford Deluxe roadster, the spirit of her journey is closely akin to the spirit of travel that bicyclists understand. She traveled slowly, closely connected to the immediacy of her surroundings, vulnerable at all times to whatever would present itself just ahead. As we read her evocative paragraphs, it is as though we had joined her on the journey.

Notes: This book is translated and introduced by Isabel Fargo Cole. Roger Perret writes an afterword. He reports that the 1939 Ford had an 18 hp motor. My friend, an expert on vintage Fords, assures me that the standard issue motor for these cars produced 85 hp.

What is a religious historian?

January 10, 2012

An unanticipated benefit of my decision to begin reading books on Mormon history, faith, and culture is that it is provoking me to think about what it means to be a religious historian?

My doctoral studies combined two academic disciplines, which at that time were entitled historical theology and church history. One dealt primarily with ideas and the other with institutions. Despite my intention to become a religious historian, I gave little attention to the nature of historical research and writing. The one book on historiography that I remember reading was Robin Collingwood’s The Idea of History. His ideas have guided me in my labors ever since.

The need to be clear about the character of religious history is especially evident as soon as one begins sampling the literature purporting to give historical accounts of Joseph Smith and the Mormon movement. One reason is that from the beginning works about the movement have tended to fall into two categories: pro-Mormon and anti-Mormon. It is difficult to find books that seem fair to the people inside of the movement and faithful to historiographical principles to those on the outside.

A second reason is the unique character of this movement: “Mormonism, unlike other modern religions, is a faith cast in the form of a history.” For this reason, Jan Shipps writes, secular investigation of that history has seemed like “trespassing on forbidden ground,” and until fairly recent times few people have been able to do so in ways that have been acceptable inside and outside of the movement.

One of the most interesting aspects of Jan Shipps’ book Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons is that several of her essays discuss historiographical issues constructively. In part, this is because as a non-Mormon writing sympathetically about Mormon faith and life, Shipps has had to develop theoretical clarity and methodological effectiveness in order to do her work. Especially important is her essay “Remembering, Recovering, and Inventing What Being a People of God Means: Reflections on Method in the Writing of Religious History.”

Shipps points out that there are two audiences for histories of religion: “the members of communities of believers—in common parlance, the church,” and “the general public that has increasingly been represented by academia.” One conclusion comes easily: religious historians are the people who write for the “church” audience; academic historians are those who write for the general public.

Both kinds of historical writers work with “essentially the same historical sources, the same data sets,” but their purposes differ. To state the difference in a simplistic manner, religious historians seek to describe and interpret faith communities so that these communities are sustained by the story, while academic historians seek to describe and interpret with disinterested evenhandedness. Shipps points out that “these two groups of historians pose different questions and thereby produce distinctively different accounts of what happened.”

She also distinguishes between two kinds of religious historians. Denominational historians “employ the canons of the profession in gathering evidence; determining whether each source from which data are to be drawn is authentic and, if so, whether it is trustworthy; and deciding where each piece of evidence fits in the overall context of the community’s history.” These writers could easily be considered a special kind of academic historians.

In contrast, are confessional historians, writers whose “main purpose is not discovering new information about the past—that is, recovering history—but strengthening the chain of corporate memory by writing an account that stretches from the very day in which the history is being written back through time to the point of beginning and then returning by moving forward through the ages to the present.”

While I would like to think of myself as an academic historian, the fact is that my work is close to what Shipps calls denominational history. I pay attention to the nature of religious experience, faith, and practice, and I hope that my writing can help people be informed about religious belief and practice and be favorably inclined toward it. Even so, I intend to write in ways that are faithful to the canons of academic history and that make sense to the general public rather than to believers only.

Telling the story of the interaction of fact and faith is a continuing challenge.