Spiritual, but not Religious Understanding Unchurched America
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- Edition: 1st
- Format: Hardcover
- Copyright: 12/20/2001
- Publisher: Oxford University Press
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Author BiographyRead more
Robert C. Fuller is Professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University. The author of Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession and Alternative Medicine in American Religious Life (both OUP), he lives in Peoria, Illinois.
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|Unchurched Spirituality An Introduction||1||(12)|
|Appendix Unchurched Religion: A Scholarly Agenda||175||(4)|
Most histories of the United States depict the nation's earliest colonists as very religious people. This might be true, but not in the traditional sense. Relatively few were churchgoers. In the late 1600s, less than one-third of all adults belonged to a church. This percentage actually declined over the next hundred years. By the time of the Revolutionary War only about 15 percent belonged to any church. In his famous chronicle of life in the American colonies, the Frenchman Hector St. John de Crevecoeur observed that "religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to another, which is at present one of the strongest characteristics of the American people." It seems that the majority of colonists were uninterested in belonging to churches or committing themselves to particular theological creeds.
This is not to say that colonial Americans were unreligious. Most early Americans, for example, engaged in a wide array of magical and occult practices. Astrology, divination, and witchcraft permeated everyday life in the colonies. These occult systems filled the same kinds of needs that Christianity did. That is, they provided beliefs concerning superhuman powers as well as techniques for gaining the support, protection, and aid of these powers. One historian, Jon Butler, argues that "magic and Christianity in colonial America were not generically different entities but were subsets of the same phenomenon--religion. They posited a resort to superhuman powers and they offered techniques for invoking those powers to control human events."
Divination, fortune-telling, astrology, witchcraft, and even folk medicine competed with the Christian churches as sources of the colonists' understanding of the supernatural powers that affected their destiny. Divination was perhaps the most widespread of these unchurched attempts to understand and manipulate supernatural power. One of the most common tools of divination, the divining rod, was used throughout the colonies for detecting sources of underground water or locating lost treasure. Explanations of how the divining rod worked were vague. Some theories attributed its powers to the existence of natural sympathies between wood and water, others focused on mystical powers somehow present in the rod, and still others believed that the rod was but a conduit for the ritual magic originating in the individual practitioner. Fortune-telling was also relied on as a means of gaining supernatural insight into the powers affecting one's life. Fortune-tellers utilized a variety of techniques, but all worked on the assumption that certain individuals have especially developed connections with the supernatural realm from which they derived their prognosticating powers. Astrology, too, was pervasive throughout the colonies. Horoscopes and astrological charts were printed in many of the colonial era's best-selling almanacs, giving wide popular currency to these occult systems for planning one's commercial, agricultural, and romantic affairs.
Witchcraft took many forms during the colonial period. Virtually every colonist believed that certain individuals could harness supernatural power through the use of charms, conjures, and spells. Witches were not so much a distinct category of occult practitioners, but rather one of many varieties of "cunning persons" who drew on supernatural power in an effort to affect specific worldly activities. The infamous witchcraft trials at Andover and Salem rivet attention on colonial fear of witchcraft. The truth is, however, that almost all colonists believed that astrology, divination, and sorcery were all occasionally effective means of either predicting or controlling their fates. And thus although few Americans would ever have labeled themselves as witches, a majority nonetheless subscribed to the basic belief system underlying the practice of witchcraft.
Colonial healing practices were also rife with supernatural elements. European immigrants brought with them a host of beliefs concerning the supernatural cause of many illnesses. It was common for persons to resort to conjurers or witches who prepared charms that were deemed capable of fending off malevolent supernatural influence. Even the era's herb doctors typically believed that their medicines unleashed magical powers and thus understood healing more in terms of supernatural intervention than botanical science. The "powow" healing system utilized by Pennsylvania Germans was typical in this regard. The powow system borrowed loosely from Christianity, popular magic, and even Native-American understandings of supernatural influence. Powow healing books encouraged colonists to understand themselves as living at a precarious juncture between the natural and supernatural realms and offered strategies for fending off injurious influences. African Americans also took an eclectic approach to healing that utilized herbal remedies, potions, charms, amulets, and sundry other occult techniques.
Interest in magic and the occult was as prevalent among the upper classes as it was among the common folk. The library inventories that survive from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonial estates indicate that it was common for the most affluent members of society to own books describing occult practices. Typical of the works appearing in these inventories were medical books written by the era's astrologer-physicians. Many colonists also avidly collected works dealing with astrology, alchemy, Hermeticism, Rociscrucianism, and a variety of decidedly heterodox mystical philosophies. Historical records thus indicate that colonial Americans had access to a wide range of occult books and that a sufficient core of the era's intellectuals were quite conversant with even the most esoteric occult systems. It is difficult to know just what role these individuals had in laying the foundations for the metaphysical systems that would gain popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What is certain is that, from the outset, Americans have had a persistent interest in religious ideas that fall well outside the parameters of Bible-centered theology.
Occult and magical practices appealed to the early colonists for many reasons. Most were probably hoping to find a cure for sickness, injury, or other bodily afflictions. A good many others were hoping to locate a reliable water supply, find lost treasure, or receive guidance about weather-related issues such as appropriate times for planting and harvesting. We need to be cautious, however, about interpreting the significance of these practical motives turning to magical practices. Many historians make too great a distinction between magic and religion. Following the scholarship of Bronislaw Malinowski, they tend to view magic as mundane, practical, and concerned with manipulating supernatural forces for highly utilitarian reasons. In contrast, religion--particularly Christianity--is thought of as transcendent, philosophical, and dealing with broad issues of universal order and meaning. Thus, one well-known study of magic and religion in early American history assumes that religion is supplicative while magic is manipulative. It is common for scholars to assume that religion postulates the existence of a transcendent supernatural authority and seeks to influence this authority through prayer and devotional ritual. This sets up a clean separation between religion and magic. In this view religion is a realm in which humans remain ultimately impotent and at the mercy of a supernatural authority who may or may not be moved to act on their behalf. Magic, on the other hand, is thought to reflect the idea that human beings can learn to harness supernatural power for their own use. Magic thus centers upon empowering human beings and enhancing their ability to control the world around them.
Unfortunately, such hard-and-fast distinctions do not hold up when we look at American religious history. Many Christian churchgoers were motivated by such practical issues, too. They hoped to secure an afterlife, be reunited with loved ones, ward off supernatural influence, or align themselves with God's providential powers. To procure these desired ends they made use of "religious" techniques such as petitionary prayers, sacraments, and faith in Bible miracles. All of these, of course, are fraught with magical elements. And, on the other side, many who dabbled in magic and the occult were highly interested in philosophical and metaphysical issues. They sought a cosmology or worldview that might help them understand broad issues of universal order and meaning. As historian Jon Butler cautions, "If we want to understand the full range of religious expression in Western culture generally and early America specifically, it is imperative that we stop calling only the Christian or Judeo-Christian tradition ‘religious’ and that we begin looking seriously at the place of magic and the occult arts in religious history."
Churched and unchurched religiosity have factored about equally in Americans' understandings of the supernatural since the nation's beginnings. The exact relationship between the two varied person by person. It seems that, on the whole, most people saw magic and Christianity as distinct, but complementary. Most were aware that Christian clergy urged them to stay clear of unbiblical beliefs about the supernatural. Yet in order to meet their spiritual needs, the laity sometimes turned to magic and sometimes to Christian ritual. They didn't share the clergy's concern for theological consistency, but switched back and forth between magical and Christian beliefs without any sense of guilt or intellectual inconsistency.
This "spiritual eclecticism" must have exasperated the clergy. Their Puritan theology posited a wide gulf between a majestic deity and His finite creation. It was thought impossible for mortal humans to bridge that gulf and gain access to any "higher" spiritual powers. It followed that apparent supernatural events must either be delusions or the work of the devil. What colonial clergy failed to see was that their insistence on the remoteness of God rendered Christianity largely irrelevant to everyday spiritual concerns. An aloof, judgmental God failed to mesh with colonists' desire to fashion a vital spirituality.
Christian theology thus inadvertently helped create a consumer market for unchurched religious practices. Most colonists who turned to magical beliefs and practices had no intention of denying the special divinity of Jesus or the Bible's value as a guide to eternal salvation. They were merely supplementing their biblical beliefs with other ideas seemingly more relevant to their wider interests and concerns. Magical and occult practices during the colonial period rarely gave rise to full-blown metaphysical perspectives that challenged Christian theology. It was, as historian Richard Godbeer shows, "the very informality of magical tradition [that] made it easier for layfolk to accommodate magical and religious strategies. Because folk magic rested upon nothing more than a series of implicit assumptions, people could avoid possibly unsettling comparisons with Puritan doctrine and thus adhere to both, switching from one to the other as deemed appropriate."
The "implicit assumptions" underlying magic and occult beliefs in colonial times weakened as the Revolutionary Era drew closer. Following the infamous witchcraft trials, Puritan ministers became even more insistent that humans don't have the ability to gain access to the supernatural. The growth of experimental science and the dawning of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, posed an even greater challenge to magical practices. The Enlightenment spawned a bold faith in the lawfulness of nature and in the power of human reason to discover the precise working of these natural laws. It was thought that reason and the scientific method would unleash humanity's potential for unlimited progress. Reliance on supernatural assistance was no longer thought to be necessary. Nor for that matter was it thought possible. The era's most educated citizens reasoned their way to a position of skepticism regarding the supernatural--magical and religious alike.
Enlightenment Rationality and Religious Eclecticism
The Age of Reason reached its zenith in the decades surrounding the American Revolution. First in Europe, then in North America, there were astonishing advances in mathematics and the natural sciences. These breakthroughs in scientific knowledge stimulated a new confidence in the power of human reason to comprehend the universe. Each new discovery weakened theology's claim that the universe mirrored the will of a distant, inscrutable God and was therefore essentially unknowable. Instead, the universe was now seen as an intricate machine whose lawful rules of operation would soon be disclosed through scientific inquiry. It appeared that humanity stood on the threshold of unlimited intellectual and technological progress.
The Enlightenment depicted a universe that is intelligible, harmonious, and thoroughly rational. It sought the lawful principles underlying every facet of existence in order to further the movement of history toward a utopian order. Enlightenment principles prompted many intellectuals to rebel against Christian orthodoxy. The boldest thinkers of the day confidently proclaimed that the "essentials" of true religion are those truths that can be known by human reason without the aid of any special revelation. In place of the theism and supernaturalism associated with biblical religion they championed what came to be known as "deism." According to deism, God is best understood as the Grand Architect or rational designer of the universe. Deism insisted that God, having imparted a rational design to His creation, does not intervene in the lawful operations of the universe. Deists were repudiating the traditional biblical view of a personal God who miraculously intervenes in worldly events or sends special revelations. For deists, the true worship of God has nothing to do with prayer, ritual, or doctrine. It was thought instead that we best serve God by diligently living according to the dictates of reason, striving to understand the scientific principles that underlie nature, and behaving in reasonable, moral ways. What was noteworthy and even shocking about deism was its implicit denial of the Bible's claim to revealed truth, the validity of biblical claims concerning miracles, and the special divinity of Jesus. But what earned the deistic faith of the Enlightenment an enthusiastic following was not what it denied so much as what it affirmed. The Age of Reason instilled confidence in every person's potential for greater understanding, hope for the continued moral progress of the human race, and an inspiring vision that we are all sons and daughters of a rational, progressive deity.
Although the Enlightenment began in Europe, it spread rapidly among American intellectuals. Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were all among those whose attitudes toward religion bore the stamp of Enlightenment rationality. In contrast to Paine and Allen who verged on atheism, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson were more typical of the era's quest for a "reasonable religion." Franklin, for example, "never doubted ... the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing of good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtues rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem'd the essentials of every religion." Thomas Jefferson was more outspoken than Franklin in his opposition to what he considered the irrational nature of institutional religion. Jefferson railed against all theological concepts, particularly those based on an appeal to some alleged revelation. Claims to revealed truth were for him nothing but "charlatanry of the mind." Jefferson even went so far as to use his scissors to cut apart a copy of the New Testament until every last reference to miracles or supernatural occurrences had been removed. What remained were the simple ethical teachings of Jesus that, in Jefferson's opinion, were the only parts of the New Testament that were fit to be read by a rational person. It should be noted that Jefferson's antipathy toward credal religion by no means inclined him to atheism. Instead, Jefferson identified religion with an acute sense of God's invisible presence within nature. True spirituality, he thought, was the capacity "to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom [of the universe]." It seems, then, that intellectual difficulty with Christian theology by no means prevented eighteenth-century American intellectuals from adopting a spiritual orientation to life.
The Enlightenment furnished intellectual criteria for identifying the "essentials" of religion. It was considered reasonable for a religious outlook to focus on such essentially humanistic concepts as morality, free will, and the ideal of this-worldly progress. The implication was that much of what we have come to associate with religion is nonessential. Ritual, beliefs concerning human sinfulness, and preoccupation with the afterlife were all deemed examples of what is backward and even harmful in the way of religion. Even beliefs about the nature of God could be assessed according to the principles of Enlightenment rationality. Thus, for example, it could be considered reasonable to think of God in such impersonal terms as Divine Architect, Mind, or Principle. Images of God as a personal being who craves admiration, worship, and obedience could be summarily dismissed as inconsistent with the goal of enhancing human agency. Picking and choosing among competing religious ideas was not only possible, it was a necessary step toward full intellectual integrity.
Another important impetus toward "rational religion" and "religious eclecticism" was the influence of the Freemasons. The origin of Freemasonry is not entirely clear. It probably arose out of periodic gatherings of the stonemasons who built churches and cathedrals in England. What was first an association concerned with the work and moral development of stonemasons eventually developed an interest in ancient wisdom, particularly as promulgated in contemporary esoteric philosophies such as Rosicrucianism. The tools of masonry (the square and compass) became symbols for building moral and spiritual character. The ritual and symbolism of the craft tradition were embellished in ways that distinguished among grades or degrees of advancement in Masonic teachings. By the early eighteenth century, the movement began to organize into "lodges" which were responsible for recruiting, initiating, and educating new members. Soon the movement spread to France, Scotland, and colonial North America. By 1776, there were over forty lodges in the colonies. The influence of Freemasonry on early American religious and intellectual history can hardly be overestimated as evidenced by the fact that fifty-two of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons.
By the time Freemasonry became popular in colonial America it was thoroughly infected with Enlightenment views. Symbol-laden ceremonies were used both to initiate new members and to mark their progress through successive levels of acquiring Enlightenment beliefs. Historian Catherine Albanese explains that "the square and compass, tools of building, became emblems of building a perfect human character. Here the square stood for earth, while the compass suggested the sky. The message being taught was clear: out of nature, humans fashioned their character, and by using nature well, they could become perfect human beings."
Freemasonry had its esoteric side. To begin with, Freemasons only initiated select individuals and they conducted all their ceremonies in secret. They also expected new members to embrace abstract intellectual ideals garnered not only from Enlightenment philosophy, but also from magical and occult traditions that flourished in the colonial era. Masonry was also steeped in deism. Masons viewed God in impersonal terms, as the Grand Architect of the natural order. They neither approved nor condemned Christianity, but rather viewed it as one manifestation in a long series of historical religions--a series that would culminate in the emergence of a universal faith. Their purpose was to unite persons in "that religion in which all men agree." Masonry helped its members work through their former allegiance to a specific denominational faith to a more tolerant, ecumenical outlook. Edmond Mazet has noted that the way Masonry deals "with differences of religions suggests an underlying belief in a transcendental truth of which the various religions would be different expressions in different historical and cultural contexts."
All who joined the Freemasons were indoctrinated into the basic principles of "rational religion." They were given careful instructions concerning the basic beliefs on which, supposedly, all religions agree: belief in a creator God, the existence of an immortal soul, and the importance of expressing spiritual conviction through moral living and charity. At the very least these deistic concepts worked against blind faith in various denominational theologies. Masonry encouraged its members to build an eclectic, consciously chosen religious outlook. Many who joined were no doubt primarily interested in the convivial, social side of Masonry. For them it was more another men's club than a lodge for the dissemination of ancient, esoteric spiritual wisdom. But for others Masonry was an introduction to a wholly new form of spiritual thinking that blended Enlightenment rationality with a mystical appreciation of the hidden mysteries of our universe. The higher degrees of Masonic teaching initiated members into such esoteric matters as cabalistic Judaism, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and Vedanta metaphysics. Although they often denied that they were a religious organization, nonetheless the expressed goal of the Masons was the initiation of members into a process of spiritual growth and experimentation.
Freemasonry was not the only organization that attracted those wishing to venture into uncharted spiritual territories. Two liberal Protestant denominations, the Unitarians and the Universalists, also fostered religious experimentalism. The Unitarian movement spread through American culture along the very lines opened up by Enlightenment rationality. Unitarians acknowledged that the Bible was in some sense the inspired Word of God, but they insisted that it was written by men, in the language of men, with the limitations of a humanly written document. The Bible should not, therefore, be taken as inerrant. It demanded the same kind of intellectual scrutiny as any other book. Unitarians also denied the special divinity of Jesus. With the passage of time, American Unitarianism adopted virtually every feature of deism. Rationality and moral conduct replaced theological doctrines as the core elements of their faith. For this reason Unitarians were routinely at the forefront of almost every progressive intellectual and social cause. Although Unitarianism appealed primarily to affluent, urban New Englanders, it attracted a wide range of individuals who yearned for a progressive spirituality that encouraged free thinking.
Excerpted from Spiritual, But Not Religious by Robert C. Fuller. Copyright © 2001 by Oxford University Press, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.