The First Me Century: Religion Gets American

IT WAS ALMOST TWO CENTURIES after their forebears’ arrival, in the late 1700s, that the new inhabitants of the continent started calling themselves Americans. In the popular imagination today, that’s also when America starts to seem intelligible, imaginable, modern-ish. The God-crazed Puritans and gold-crazed Virginians might have founded the place in the seventeenth century, but the people we call the Founders all came along in the eighteenth. They were rationalists and pragmatists, men who liked money and fine living but didn’t expect to get rich overnight by stumbling into some North American El Dorado. They produced our national mission statement (the Declaration of Independence) and operating manual (the Constitution). The war those documents book-ended was a modern one, concerning politics rather than religion, to replace a monarchy with a republic. The steamboat, the cotton gin, bifocals, a newspaper that still publishes today—all American innovations of the late 1700s.

But that standard version of our eighteenth century, the march of progress starring Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and (the atheist) Thomas Paine, is only part of the story, the most respectable part. It tends to obscure the big, weird, equally important narrative strands that explain our four-hundred-year American journey.

In post-Puritan America of the 1700s, the great Christian thinker was the Massachusetts minister Jonathan Edwards. He’s revered today by everyone from theologians at Bob Jones University to scholars at Yale, from which Edwards graduated at sixteen. One understands why Yale and its ilk still embrace Edwards. He was a bona-fide intellectual who made sophisticated attempts to reconcile rationality with his absolute faith in an omniscient creator. He promoted new science and technology. He didn’t talk about witchcraft or predict the end of the world or see warnings from God in random cabbage roots.

It’s also understandable why contemporary evangelicals love him. He was celebrated and successful—but also a gospel preacher whose beliefs were like theirs. He had the ecstatic transformative experience of being born again—as a teenager, after an epiphany about the interconnectedness of existence: he took the feeling as proof not just of God but of the Bible and its Protestant interpretations. His contemporaries like Franklin and Jefferson resorted to a hazy belief in some kind of higher power and got on with their lives, but Edwards was all about obsessively believing and feelingthe magic. He was, Mark Twain wrote to a pastor friend, a “resplendent intellect gone mad.”*1

Edwards’s best-known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is famous for its vivid depiction of the fire (mentioned 17 times) and flames (11 times) in the pit (18) of Hell (52) where the wicked were headed for eternity. But in fact, this wasn’t typical of him. He preached and wrote much more about Heaven than Hell. A good Christian’s job now was to sin less, clean up the mess, and make the world as Christian as possible. By these means, the perfect future “shall be gradually brought to pass.” Very, very gradually: according to Edwards’s reading of Revelation, the golden age of Christianity wouldn’t begin for hundreds of years, and Jesus would still be the absentee overlord until he returned as the king of the remade planet another thousand years after that.

Yet under such a “post-millennial” scheme, the glorious happy ending is so far in the future it might as well be…imaginary, metaphorical. Which is to say, for a lot of Americans, too boring. A religion that doesn’t get the believer’s blood pumping right now can be like a marriage without sex.

Edwards’s enormous success was not mainly due to his nicer end-days scenario. Or to his thoughtful erudition—famous American ministers who preceded him had been intellectuals too. Rather, although Edwards is known as the Last Puritan, he was also somewhat Anne Hutchinsonian, a mystic visionary, consumed by the Bible but also by the totally subjective visionary experience of holiness.

Despite his low-key sobriety, he had a knack for making believers go wild, and he was at the center of what eventually became known as the Great Awakening. Five generations after the first Puritans arrived, the zealotry had diminished. Americans still read the Bible and went to church, but the religious boil had become more of a simmer. Reverend Edwards found he could turn up the heat, whipping proper New Englanders into ecstatic and agonizing deliriums that he and they took to be miraculous proofs of God.

Especially the kids. The Great Awakening got started as America’s first youthquake.*2 In his town of Northampton, Massachusetts, the thirty-year-old Reverend Edwards found “a very unusual flexibleness…in our young people….It seemed,” he wrote, “almost like a flash of lightning upon the hearts of young people,” then “became universal…among people of all degrees, and all ages….Other discourses than of the things of religion, would scarcely be tolerated in any company. The minds of people were wonderfully taken off from the world.”

More preachers awakened more congregations. Their listeners didn’t just pledge to stop sinning and believe more strongly in God. They didn’t just read and discuss the Bible and the sermons. In the middle of church services, respectable people felt the Holy Spirit, which produced “the Affections”—moaning, weeping, screaming, jerking, fainting.

Reverend Edwards, the Yale intellectual, was sometimes ambivalent about these “bodily effects,” as the Mathers of Harvard fifty years earlier had been ambivalent about relying on “spectral evidence” to find witches. But he was sure that a lot of the shrieks and convulsions were indeed “distinguishing marks” of a supernatural presence, God shaking and slapping a sinner to make him or her see the light, or possibly Satan’s violent resistance to God’s embrace. In any case, it was an exciting innovation in the salvation process.

Literal-minded Americans want evidence. This looked like evidence. And in a country shaping itself around the idea of individualism in all senses, whose people were already known abroad for their expressiveness, a histrionic and absolutely individual experience of holy magic was perfect.

To Edwards, this sudden madness of the crowd was also evidence of the supernatural big picture manifesting. “ ’Tis not unlikely,” he wrote, “that this work of God’s Spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture”—that is, the slow-but-sure final act. “There are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.”

Edwards took his show on the road around New England, and other new-style itinerant evangelists of his generation did the same throughout the colonies. Just as ambitious English fantasists had invented America in Virginia and Massachusetts, a century later American evangelicalism was cofounded in a new New World wilderness by a pair of energetic young militant true believers over from England.

When John Wesley was five, his church boarding school in London caught fire. Getting plucked from the blaze became for him miraculous proof that God had special plans for him. He began praying constantly. He started a club of ultra-Christians at Oxford, got ordained, and arrived in the new colony of Georgia to serve as priest for its first town, Savannah. “My chief motive” in coming, he wrote, was “to learn the true sense of the Gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathen.”

He and the Church of England didn’t see eye to eye, however. Like the Puritans a century earlier, he felt so much more committed and so much holier than fellow Anglicans who just went through the motions. For instance, he decided that the baptism of infants was a rubber-stamp symbolic ritual.*3 Only adults could properly choose to join the church. Which at first glance seems reasonable. But the point wasn’t really the freedom to decline to join or to disbelieve: rather, Wesley’s demand was that church members, as thinking adults, were obliged to abandon skepticism, declare themselves true believers, and feel “the Spirit of God immediately and directly.” Dreams, for instance, could be messages from God, according to Wesley.

Wesley stayed in America only a couple of years.*4 He passed the baton to a young Oxford pal and protégé named George Whitefield, his cofounder of the Methodist movement. Unless you’re a scholar or serious Methodist, you’ve probably never heard of him. But the subtitle of a recent biography—America’s Spiritual Founding Father—isn’t an overstatement. Whitefield was born to be an American.

Unlike Wesley, he had already experienced his “new birth.” He also believed he received messages directly from God. During the two years between his ordination and his arrival in America, the “boy preacher” became an overnight star in England. He loved his celebrity and his rock ’n’ roll impact on crowds. After his very first sermon, at age twenty-one, he wrote in his diary that “most of those present seemed struck, and”—1735 humblebrag—“a complaint has been made to the Bishop that I drove fifteen mad at the first sermon.”

In America they loved him even more. He was young, like the country, and good-looking. He had natural charisma and experience as a schoolboy actor. His sermons weren’t disquisitions read from the pulpit but were performed without a script or notes. He portrayed Jesus, the apostles, sinners arriving in Hell, and women as well as men. He knelt, he shouted, he stamped his feet. “I would give a hundred guineas,” said David Garrick, the most important English actor of the century, “if I could say ‘Oh’ like Mr. Whitefield.” A Whitefield appearance was fabulous theater—but his was apparently authentic emotion, a channeling of the Holy Spirit, a reality show. Most of his audience arrived with disbelief presuspended, and his performances let them believe the fantasy. At least as much as Edwards’s and Wesley’s sermons, Whitefield’s preaching made people involuntarily twist and shout.

In 1740 he preached to Jonathan Edwards’s congregation in Massachusetts. By Whitefield’s own account, he killed: “Preached this morning, and good Mr. Edwards wept during the whole time of exercise. The people were equally affected.” And when he wasn’t welcome in established churches, that was fine too—he didn’t need their religion’s “dry, dead carcass.” He’d preach to crowds outdoors, in fields and town squares, with bonfires burning. Which was a new sort of spectacle. As “the Grand Itinerant,” traveling through the colonies, he could acquire a national audience.

Whitefield was the pioneering multimedia evangelical marketer of himself. Newspapers advertised his sermons and published accounts of the ecstatic mobs he attracted. He published a successful autobiography at twenty-six—the first of several. Within a couple of years of his arrival, Whitefield may have been the most famous person in America.*5

By quoting again and again the biblical passage where Jesus tells a chief rabbi that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Whitefield implanted in American Christianity one of its big ideas and terms of art. And enabling an intense supernatural feeling of being born again was the ticket. “He makes less of the doctrines than our American preachers generally do,” Jonathan Edwards’s wife noted, “and aims more at affecting the heart.”

As the Great Awakening spread, the Christian Establishment loathed all the embarrassing emotional displays of me me me fanaticism—as one critic at the time wrote, these awful “perturbations of mind, possessions of God, ecstatic flights and supernatural impulses.” Sure, the religion was founded on stories of miracles and individual visions and revelations, but whoa…miracles and revelations right here, right now? To which the delirious mob responded yes, exactly. Whitefield wrote that the “screamings, tremblings” that he and other evangelists provoked were surely just like the “sudden agonies and screamings” that Jesus provoked among His converts. “Is not God the same yesterday, today, and forever?” It was Anne Hutchinson’s argument all over again. Give us the magic now!

He reveled in the criticism, like Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch. Mainstream rejection served to reinforce his and his followers’ certainty. The uncomprehending critics were jealous because they’d never had the euphoric personal experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. America was a sequel to biblical history and fulfillment of prophecy, so of course American Christians would be derided, like the early Christians. For Protestants as for Americans—well north of 90 percent of colonial Americans were Protestant—persecuted righteousness was central to their self-identities.

Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield were all ordained Anglican priests. Their success was due in part to the fact that they weren’t freelance crackpots but men of the Establishment who challenged that Establishment, like America’s political founders. Their new, ultrademocratic American Christianity incorporated the founding Protestant antagonisms—to official holy men, stable doctrine, and fixed protocols—but went much further. As this mode became the norm among Baptists and other new denominations, it got even more extreme.

Anybody could become a preacher. A preacher could preach anywhere, in any way he wanted. The more evident the passion, the better. And all believers could find or start a sect or congregation that permitted them to express their faith in any way they wished—to achieve what felt like the optimal “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” “The most distinctive characteristic of early American Methodism,” according to one of its modern historians, was “this quest for the supernatural in everyday life.” Early American Methodists thus put “great stock in dreams, visions, supernatural impressions, miraculous healings, speaking in tongues.” Of course, each preacher and believer of every sect knew that his or her idiosyncratic version of the truth was the truth.

As we let a hundred dogmatic iterations of reality bloom, the eventual result was an anything-goes relativism that extends beyond religion to almost every kind of passionate belief: If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise. That’s the real-life reductio ad absurdum of American individualism. And it would become a credo of Fantasyland.

*1 Edwards also retailed the wild old Puritan idea that Satan, alarmed by Christianity’s early success, had led the Indians from Asia to America “that they might be quite out of the reach of the Gospel, that here he might quietly possess them, and reign over them as their god.”

*2 By the way, in the 1960s, after the editor of Vogue coined youthquake as a catchword for countercultural fabulousness, it became the name of the fashion-forward division of—yes—the Puritan Dress Company.

*3 Three centuries later, when and how and if baptism is an essential part of Christian magic remains a principal argument among the various Protestant denominations, as the new sects came to be called in the 1700s. This is another of the bitter fantasist-versus-fantasist debates that baffle or fascinate outsiders.

*4 At thirty-four, after he broke up with his teenaged American girlfriend, he essentially kicked her out of the church, she sued him, and he escaped back to England, where he finally had his own grown-up born-again experience and continued cofounding Methodism.

*5 His media mastermind and traveling companion, William Seward, was a former London stockbroker who had been an executive of the investment company most famous for creating the disastrous financial fraud known as the South Sea Bubble. Returning to England after Whitefield’s first American tour, he became an evangelist himself—and was presently stoned to death while preaching in Wales.

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