Innovators, Utopians, and Restorationists, Part 2.

Continuation from Part 1.  To see Part 1, Click Here.

So what does this have to do with missions? I would argue that the situation in the Burned-Over District is undesirable. A lot of the groups (Mormons, Spiritualists, and some of the Utopians) were non-Christian or syncretistic organizations. Some, like the Millerites, have a complicated relationship with historic Christianity

Perhaps the situation was created… it did not just happen. This is, of course, not a research study… just reflection on a single historical phenomenon. But here are some thoughts on what might set the stage for spontaneous development of non-Christian faiths in an area of Christian

1.  Overemphasis on Evangelism with Underemphasis on Discipleship. The term “Burned-Over District” had to do with revivalism. The term suggested that there were so many evangelistic revivals in the area that they ran out of people to convert. However, revivals tend to push very hard on a visible conversion, with little follow-through. This is an all-too-common reality. I have certainly seen that here in the Philippines.

2.  Lack of Foundational Base. <Yes this is related somewhat to the previous item.> While it may be true that too many clergy (like chefs) can spoil the soup (or the revival), there is still a role for clergy. Clergy can provide a sound theological, Biblical, and historical basis for one’s spiritual transformation. Without that, anyone can come along as a wolf among sheep and reinterpret the experience. Here in the Philippines, we used to do a lot of medical missions. The problem was that often (but not always, of course) our hosts did not provide the necessary follow-up. Other groups would sometimes descend on those who had made decisions of faith. An experience that cannot be attached to a sound foundational perspective, can equally misdirect.

3.  Unrealistic Expectations. The growth of radical groups, apocalyptic groups, and utopian societies suggests that many of the people who were interested in faith, were disillusioned. This can happen when one is given unrealistic expectations as to what will happen after a faith conversion (or at least a faith experience). Life doesn’t necessarily become rosy. Prosperity or even reduction of suffering is not promised. The new fellowship of believers can, sadly, also be less than hoped. Following Christ can be a path of suffering, serving God faithfully, within a network of flawed believers. When one is told things that are not true, when the emotional high of revival wears off, dissatisfaction can set in, leading one to look elsewhere.

4.  Unbalanced Response to Rapid Social Change. Change can be good. Change can also be bad. When change exists, the church must know how to adapt to it. The church should not be “faddish”… simply following the culture around it. However, if the church simply rejects all change, it can be seen as culturally irrelevant… marginalized. Other groups that seem to be relevant (or at least aware) culturally, may be enticing.  I believe there is balance here. Because if the church is too quick to change with the culture, it loses the solid Biblical, theological, and historical foundation that is needed (as listed above).

5.  Need for Healthy Change. Churches need to address wisely the changes in society, and provide answers to what is going on. During the 19th century, movements supporting women’s rights and suffrage, rejection of slavery and challenges to systemic racism. The industrial revolution was causing great social upheavals with massive winners and massive losers. If the church does not address these things, it is hardly surprising that people will look elsewhere. It is noted that Spiritism was, in fact, attractive to people interested in women’s rights, equality of races, and more. One has to wonder whether part of the attraction comes from the church not supporting these moves (or perhaps even rejecting these movements).

6.  Make Questions Welcome in Church. Sometimes dogma dominates in church and stifles honest questions. However, honest questions unanswered (or even quashed) do not go away. They are just put on the  backburner until someone else does come along and, right or wrong, provides an answer. The church should be a good place to answer important questions. I still remember sitting in church years ago when a deacon was extolling the virtue of, or perhaps even duty, of tithing. A lady stood up and asked to the entire congregation, “Is the blessings of God something that must be bought?” This is a wonderful question to ask! Perhaps, it wasn’t the best occasion to ask it, but the church did not really have a forum naturally conducive for good questions such as this. However, instead of answering the question, or better yet, discussing the question as a church, the lady and her friend were led out of the church. What a stupid shame.

Any other thoughts?

Innovators, Utopians, and Restorationists. Part 1.

I come from an area that has been termed the “Burned-Over District.” I don’t actually recall hearing that term until long after I moved away from there. However, the term is an old descriptor for the region I was raised in. I am from Western New York State in the United States. Charles Finney, an Evangelist of the 19th Century coined the expression “Burned-Over District” for Western New York (Niagara Frontier) and the Finger Lakes Region. He believed that there was so much Evangelization carried out there that there was no longer any “fuel” (unconverted) for revival.

The region has been known for its innovations. I am from Chautauqua County. Chautauqua County is famous for the beginning of the “Chautauqua Movement” that began in the late 1800s (look it up). It is the home of Lilydale… a spiritualist community that survived from the heyday of Spiritualism in the 19th century, to its resurgence today. The Harmonians (a Utopian society) settled there for a time before moving West. Mormonism (the most successful non-Christian religious group to develop in the Burned-Over District) stopped in Chautauqua County for a bit.

In other parts of the Burned-Over District there were many other groups… Utopians, Syncretists, Spiritualists, Restorationists, Innovators. The Millerites (Adventists) started here. The Social Gospel has its roots here. There are more. But the question is “Why did so many groups and beliefs find this area to be such a breeding ground for such?”

The quick answer is that I Don’t Know. I think there may be a few reasons… but would be interested in hearing other thoughts.

1.  National Culture. Spiritual Fervor.  Nationally, the US was going through the 2nd “Great Awakening.” There was a strong interest in spirituality and renewal.

2.  National Culture.  Rapid Change. This was a time of considerable change nationally. The story Rip Van Winkle talks about the huge changes that Eastern New York underwent in the late 1700s such that the region was almost unrecognizable to someone who had been there only 20 years before. The Western part of New York went through huge changes of nationalization, industrializaiton, and more. The Erie Canal suddenlly brought huge transformation to a backwater part of the country.

3.  Lack of Clergy. This was a frontier region so relatively few seminary-trained religious leaders were there. Clergy, having been trained within a faith community, tend to be agents of preservation rather than agents of change. Even when they seek change, the change tends to be less extreme than developing a brand new religion (such as the case of Mormonism).

4.  Cultural Disatisfaction. The frontier (and this was definitely a frontier region in the 1800s) is full of people who come there because of dissatisfaction with their previous circumstances. My ancestors came to Western New York from Sweden because of dissatisfaction, in part, with economic circumstances there. Having a large pool of dissatisfied people creates an environment for radical change. This can lead to an openness to new beliefs or even worldviews. Just as the first state to allow women to vote was Wyoming (a frontier region), Western New York in its frontier days was also innovative with having the first female physcian, who graduated from Geneva College, and being the site of the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s rights. Certainly the Utopian societies, such as the Harmonians, the Oneida Society, or the Shakers point to a dissatisfaction with the status quo.

5.  Spiritual Disatisfaction. The term “Burned-Over District” might be in itself informative. The area had been so heavily evangelized that their were few respondents. This might have been an early indication of something we now describe as a “post-Christian” culture. When a culture becomes dominated by a certain faith, there is often a strong disatisfaction with it… After all, if the culture and religion are seen too much as being the same, dissatisfaction with culture can transfer easily over to dissatisfaction with religion. Fundamentalism seeks to restore a simpler faith. It is not surprising the growth of Christian Fundamentalism in this region. Others like the Millerites were apocalyptic… looking for a rapid end to things. Others, like the Mormons, created an alternate history and theology.

6.  Pattern Formation. When one person innovates and breaks loose from cultural conventions, it often inspires others to do the same. Back when I lived in Chautauqua County, I lived near a cult founder. His name was Calvin Kline, but changed it to Calvin of Oakknoll, and created a group called the Religious Society of Families. That group wasn’t very successful, mostly (I think) because of the difficult personality of its founder. He ultimately died in 1999 in prison (he had killed a man). I can’t help but think that he was inspired to start  a religion because of others before him who had done likewise. Even in my case, I went into missions. In some places this would be strange, but even in the tiny country church I was raised in, I was not the first to go into missions. There were at least two before me, one of whom was a relative. It is easier to seek to do what someone has done before.

So what can we gain from these thoughts (hopefully somewhat correct thoughts)? Hopefully, I have some ideas in Part 2.

Click Here for Part 2.