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Church in the Wild: Evangelicals in Antebellum America, by Brett Malcolm Grainger

20 December 2019

Harriet Baber finds New Age thinking present in the early American mix

CHURCH IN THE WILD is a study of American Evangelicalism during the antebellum period, the time from the War of 1812 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. This was the time of the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival, which enrolled millions of new members into existing Evangelical denominations, gave rise to new religious movements, and shaped a distinctively American style of Evangelical Protestantism.

Citing Evangelical hymnody, devotional literature, and memoirs, Brett Malcolm Grainger argues that Evangelicals participated in the popular “nature spirituality” of the period associated with the New England Transcendentalists and with a range of popular movements that were indifferent to, or dismissive of, conventional religion — a contrarian thesis. Exploring the roots of Evangelicalism, he notes that there was within the Protestant tradition a suspicion of nature spirituality, but holds that nevertheless vitalism, which posited “a ‘life force’ or hidden ‘spark’ . . . in all matter . . . constituted an important component of the thought world of early evangelicalism.”

Vitalism, minimally the doctrine that not all phenomena of the natural world are governed by physical principles, served two purposes for Evangelicals. First, it figured as an explanatory hypothesis for what W. H. Auden called “the vision of Dame Kind”. “The objects of this vision”, Auden writes, “may be inorganic — mountains, rivers, seas — or organic — trees, flowers, beasts. . . the basic experience is an overwhelming conviction that the objects . . . have a numinous significance and importance, that the existence of everything . . . is holy”. Vitalism provided a basis for the case that this vision was not “merely subjective” or, as Protestants worried, idolatrous, but was the experience through Nature of something beyond the natural world, which could be identified as Nature’s God. Understood in this way, vitalism made room for nature mysticism in a hostile Protestant environment.

Second, vitalism served Evangelicals’ apologetic purposes in response to the perceived threat posed by the vision of a Newtonian mechanical universe — a world of particles pushing and bouncing, fully explicable by calculus, in which the God hypothesis was not needed. Antebellum Evangelicals, as Grainger notes, had a lively interest in electrotherapy, the water cure, mesmerism, and other popular faux therapies based on vitalist principles and looked to the pseudo-science of the period to make a place for non-physical forces acting in the material world and, they hoped, for a God beyond acting within it.

American Antiquarian Society“Secret Prayer”, a plate from the Sacred Annual, edited by H. Hastings Weld (Philadelphia, 1851), reproduced in Church in the Wild

Grainger notes that a majority of Evangelicals today, too, hold “‘New Age’ attitudes, including belief in psychics, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in natural objects”, and concludes with the anodyne reflection that “rather than regard such developments as a contamination or displacement of traditional Christian identity, we might think of this as a revival of sorts.”

These are comfortable words for us as we watch the Church collapse around our ears, but words that should elicit caution. First, vitalism is false. Even if natural phenomena are not explicable by reference to particles pushing and bouncing, post-Newtonian physics can, in principle, explain all natural phenomena. The explanatory gaps are narrowing, and there is no reason to think that there will be a residue of phenomena resistant to conventional scientific explanation and calling for a God of the gaps.

Second, “New Age” products satisfy consumer demand for what the Church has traditionally provided, and compete with organised religion. Currently, as during the antebellum period, many Christians have assumed that the enemy of their enemy — practices and doctrines grounded in the rejection of orthodox science — was their friend. But that was not so then and is not so now. Contemporary cultured despisers, like the elite New England Transcendentalists then, consume secular therapies and other “spirituality” products as a socially acceptable alternative to religion.

Finally, and most importantly, Christians must face the hard question whether the view that all natural phenomena, including human behaviour, are explicable by the natural sciences is an enemy. If it is, then we should give up Christianity. If, as I believe, it is not, then we should recognise that contemporary “spirituality”— the domain of secular therapies and “wellness” programmes, eco-mysticism and “earth-based” neo-paganisms — is the enemy of religion.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in the United States.


Church in the Wild: Evangelicals in Antebellum America
Brett Malcolm Grainger
Harvard University Press £32.95
Church Times Bookshop £29.65

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