Tuesday, July 13, 2010

America's Prophet

As I have mentioned this is not a political blog. But I'm beginning to see how the lessons from the Lord of the last 2 years about the church, have huge implications in relating to our political system.

Some weeks ago, I watched a program where Bruce Feiler appeared as a guest. He's the author of America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story. As I started reading I was intrigued by an amazing connection he made: the revolution that produced our country began with another type of revolution: in the church. Here's an excerpt from "America's Prophet..."

In the early 1700's, churches were largely top down, hierarchical institutions: God chose whom to bless, ministers enforced ecclesiastical law, and individuals had little role to play in their own salvation.

But Americans were beginning to chafe under this system and were casting around for new ways of relating to power. The Puritan lament about the loss of piety, so powerful in the late seventeenth century, only accelerated in the decades of the eighteenth century with the rise of commercialism, the migration of young people into godless frontiers, and the advent of Newtonian science. Cotton Mather said the faithful needed to "bring religion into the marketplace." The religious revivals that blossomed in the 1730's, known as the Great Awakening, responded by introducing a new form of worship, one that became the foundation of an emerging American way of God. A new breed of charismatic preachers offered believers the opportunity to read the Bible themselves, hear the good news of salvation in a language that was inviting, and experience a "new birth."

Time and again, revivalists used the language of Exodus to stand up to the oppressive instituions, specifically the Anglican Church. Jonathan Edwards, the most intellectually potent of the Great Awakening preachers, preached that finding redemption in God meant coming out of "spiritual bondage" into a "new Canaan of liberty." George Whitefield, the firebrand populist and cofounder of Methodism, said that Moses experienced a "new birth" at the burning bush and was a Methodist himself. Whitefield was an unlikely messenger for his message. He was short, mousy, histrionic, and cross-eyed. His nickname was "Dr. Squintum.". Beginning in 1739, he made more than a dozen trips up and down the eastern seaboard, speaking in parks, squares and empty fields to the largest public gatherings North America had ever seen. In New England in 1840, he spoke to eight thousand people a day, every day for a month. In Philadelphia he attracted a crowd of thirty thousand. Historian Mark Noll called him "the single best-known religious leader in America of that century, and the most widely recognized figure of any sort in North America before George Washington." Fans praised him as "another Moses."

Together these Great Awakening preachers created the first intercolonial movement and a vital precursor to the Revolution. At a time when newspapers were rare and books expensive, the pulpit was still the dominant source of information. As one historian put it, "Ordinary people knew their Whitefield and Edwards better than they knew their Locke and Montesquieu." The Great Awakening's chief contribution was to introduce a language of dissent that emboldened people to challenge conventional truths and distant authorities. And what happened first in churches happened next in government. The Revolutionary period, preacher Horace Bushnell said, was marked by "Protestantism in religion producing republicanism in government"

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