Matthew Avery Sutton
Apocalypticism has had a powerful impact on American life. It has fostered among adherents a strong sense of purpose and personal identity, it has helped them interpret the challenges they face all around them, and it has provided them with a triumphant vision of the future. Although there are many kinds of apocalypticism, in the United States, Christian forms have dominated. The Bible’s focus on a coming millennium has offered Americans the promise of transformation and redemption in a world that sometimes seems void of both. When Christians have emphasized the Bible’s apocalyptic and millennial visions, they have acted in new and important ways. Apocalyptic visions, rather than fostering a sense of indifference to the coming of the end of days, have served as a call to battle. God, millennialists insist, has given them much to do and very little time in which to do it. Positive that Jesus is coming soon, they have preached revival and engaged directly and aggressively with their culture. Sometimes their actions have served to reinforce the status quo, and at other times they have sparked revolutions. The uses of apocalypticism and millennialism are almost as diverse as their adherents.
Fundamentalism has a very specific meaning in the history of American Christianity, as the name taken by a coalition of mostly white, mostly northern Protestants who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, united in opposition to theological liberalism. Though the movement lost the public spotlight after the 1920s, it remained robust, building a network of separate churches, denominations, and schools that would become instrumental in the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism after the 1960s. In a larger sense, fundamentalism is a form of militant opposition to the modern world, used by some scholars to identify morally absolutist religious and political movements in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and even Hinduism and Buddhism. While the core concerns of the movement that emerged within American Protestantism—defending the authority of the Bible and both separating from and saving their sinful world—do not entirely mesh with this analytical framework, they do reflect the broad and complex challenge posed by modernity to people of faith.
Mark A. Granquist
The United States as a country was religiously formed by Reformed Protestants, who were later joined by substantial numbers of immigrant Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Jews. The role of Martin Luther in this religiously varied and pluralistic society has often changed over time, and has depended greatly on the context of those who have written about him. In some periods of time, especially the 18th century, Luther was little noticed or commented about, generally a figure solely in the distant past. In the 19th century, many American writers and scholars took notice of Luther, but often as a past symbol of some reality the author wished to address. Thus, Luther was seen essentially as one of the first modern individuals in the West, standing for religious and personal liberty against the reactionary forces of church and state. Some Protestants noted him for his stance against the medieval Western church and the papacy, which mirrored their own anti–Roman Catholic positions; American Roman Catholics saw him as the cause of the splintering of the true church and the author of all that was religiously problematic. After the Civil War, scholars began to access modern German scholarship about Luther, and the Luther birth anniversary of 1883 was perhaps the high point of his reputation in America. In the 20th century, there were positive and negative developments. On the negative side, two world wars soured Americans on things German, and some saw Luther as contributing to the rise of the Nazis and of the Holocaust. On the positive side, many of Luther’s works were translated into English, and many new historical and theological studies of the reformer were produced in English, along with translations of European works. American Lutherans began to produce substantial contributions to Luther studies, and newer works, even among Roman Catholics, sought to put Luther into his historical and theological contexts.
Historians most often use the term primitivism to refer to the attempt to reconstruct a religious tradition’s original theology, structure, or beliefs. Primitivists believe that the earliest expressions of the faith are the most efficacious, powerful, and valid, and hence they attempt to recapture them in as complete a form as it is possible for them to imagine. Thus, they frequently dissent from established religious traditions, believing that those constructed under the primitive impulse achieve superior purity. Of course, these attempts are normally incomplete or inaccurate, reflecting the desires or needs of the group doing the restoring more than the original version of whatever faith is involved.
Primitivism has taken on a number of forms throughout American history. This essay follows a chronological approach, but uses Richard Hughes’s designations of “ethical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “experiential” primitivism to distinguish among various movements and provide some order to the narrative. These are common impulses in American religion, particularly in the years immediately following the American Revolution commonly called the Second Great Awakening. The language of primitivism has provided Americans with the weight of historical authority, often invoked to overturn established hierarchies and replace them with forms of religious practice deemed, alternately, more democratic, more biblical, more conducive to religious experience, or more ethically demanding. Whatever the case, primitivism has spoken to the American impulse toward reform, resistance to institution, and individual capacity.
Janine Giordano Drake
As a nation grounded in the appropriation of Native land and the destruction of Native peoples, Christianity has helped define what it means to be “American” from the start. Even though neither the Continental Congress nor the Constitutional Convention recognized a unifying set of religious beliefs, Protestant evangelicalism served as a force of cohesion that helped Americans rally behind the War for Independence. During the multiple 19th-century wars for Indian removal and extermination, Christianity again helped solidify the collapse of racial, class, and denominational categories behind a love for a Christian God and His support for an American nation. Close connections between Christianity and American nationhood have flared in popularity throughout American history, particularly during wartime. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the closely affiliated religious and racial categories of Christianity and whiteness helped solidify American identity.
However, constructions of a white, Christian, American nation have always been oversimplified. Slavery, land-grabbing, and the systematic genocide of Native peoples ran alongside the creation of the American myth of a Christian nation, founded in religious freedom. Indeed, enslavement and settler colonialism helped contrive a coherence to white Protestantism during a moment of profound disagreement on church government, theology, and religious practice. During the antebellum period, white Protestants constructed a Christian and American identity largely in opposition to categories they identified as non-Christian. This “other” group was built around indigenous, African, Muslim, and sometimes-Catholic religious beliefs and their historic, religious, and racial categorizations as “pagans,” “heathens,” and “savages.” In the 19th-century republic, this “non-Christian” designation defined and enforced a unified category of American Protestants, even though their denominations fought constantly and splintered easily. Among those outside the rhetorical category of Protestantism were, frequently, Irish and Mexican Catholics, as well as Mormons. Enforced segregation of African Americans within or outside of white Protestant churches furthered a sense of Protestant whiteness. When, by the late 19th century, Protestantism became elided with white middle class expectations of productive work, leisure, and social mobility, it was largely because of the early 19th-century cultural associations Protestants had built between white Protestantism, republicanism, and civilization.
The fact that the largest categories of immigrants in the late 19th century came from non-Protestant cultures initially reified connections between Protestantism and American nationalism. Immigrants were identified as marginally capable of American citizenship and were simply considered “workers.” Protestant expectations of literacy, sobriety, social mobility, and religious practice helped construct Southern and Eastern European immigrants as nonwhite. Like African Americans, New Immigrants were considered incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities of American citizenship. Fears that Catholic and Jewish immigrants, like African Americans, might build lasting American institutions to change the cultural loci of power in the country were often expressed in religious terms. Groups such as the No-Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Immigration Restriction League often discussed their nationalist goals in terms of historic connections between the nation and Anglo-Protestantism. During the Great Depression and the long era of prosperity in the mid-20th century, the Catholic and Jewish migrants gradually assimilated into a common category of “whiteness” and American citizenship. However, the newly expansive category of postwar whiteness also further distanced African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others as perpetual “foreigners” within a white, Protestant, Christian nation.