3. A history of denominations

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The Genealogy of Rapturism: A History of Denominations of the Christian Church

Early Christianity

(The hurried reader who knows the historical background may skip these sections and rejoin us at “Terminology”.)

Christians reckon their calendar with the date “In the year of Our Lord,” that is, from Jesus’ year of birth. Actually this calendar is off by about 4 years thanks to the math errors of a medieval monk named Dennis the Short.

Christians consider Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah (“the anointed one”; Christos in Greek) promised in the Tanakh, or Old Testament. The Jews disagree; there the monotheists parted ways.

The Jewish High Priest Caiaphas and the Roman official Pontius Pilate caused Jesus to be crucified in the year 29, when Jesus was 33 years old. Caiaphas considered having Jesus stoned to death, but Caiaphas lived in dread that the Romans would think Jesus would lead a revolt against Rome. Passover (Pesach) always made Rome nervous. Every time the Jews celebrated this freedom festival it reminded them that they were living in bondage again. The Romans sometimes killed crowds of Jews during Passover to “send a message.” (The massacres of 37 and 50 were particularly bloody.) Caiaphas proposed, “Better that one man should die for the nation, than that the nation should die.” (Caiaphas’ suggestion came to be recorded as John 11:47-50. For context, see John 11:1-53.) The Jewish authorities gave Jesus to the Romans to convince Rome that whatever Jesus was doing, Jesus acted alone.

(Personal aside: These facts were omitted from a certain famous Mel Gibson film on the subject.)

Pilate was bloodthirsty even by Roman standards. (A few years later he was relieved of duty.) But he thought his subjects would be more obedient to Rome if they thought Rome was capable of rewards and benevolence. Each year at Passover Pilate released one prisoner from death row. On that fateful 14th day of Nisan, Pilate only had one Jew on death row. Barabbas “had been arrested with the rioters who had committed murder.” Pilate did not want to release an insurrectionist who might have killed Romans, so when Jesus came to death row Pilate was delighted. Jesus was a crowd favorite and a pacifist. Pilate could release him for the holiday and re-arrest him another day. Also, Pilate’s wife had dreamed that Jesus must not be harmed, and the Romans believed that the divine spoke in dreams. All these factors gave the impression that Pilate cared. When the Jewish crowds (packed with Jesus’ enemies and Barabbas’ friends) shouted for Barabbas the dangerous one, Pilate recoiled. He might have thought Jesus’ followers were late, or perhaps they had gotten lost. Pilate stalled until it was plain that the friends of Jesus were not coming. So Pilate had Jesus killed and Barabbas went free.

(Personal aside: Some of these facts did not make it into the film either.)

Three days later, Jesus’ disciples began testifying that they had seen a resurrected Jesus and/or ate and talked with him. Soon many other old friends said they met with him too. After some forty days Jesus ascended into the clouds and was seen no more. The Christian Church was born a few days later, during the feast of Pentecost. Everyone in the house experienced baptism in the Holy Spirit. Many received charismatic gifts such as faith healing and speaking in tongues. The disciples (now called the apostles) converted some three thousand Jews that first day.

Aside from the fact that Pilate condemned a pacifist to death to preserve his image as a man of his word, neither Rome nor Romans cared about the growing tensions between Jews and Christians. As far as Rome was concerned, all monotheists were troublemakers. They disapproved of emperor worship, and they talked openly of a God who would bring the Romans to justice.

When Caligula became Caesar he ordered a statue of himself to be erected in the Jewish Temple. The people went into mourning and refused to plant crops, which they considered pious and Caligula considered passive-aggressive. Caligula almost killed them but his advisors talked him out of it. (All those lovely taxpayers … the way Caligula wasted money he needed taxpayers.) Then in the 50s Caesar Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. He made his childhood friend Herod Agrippa king of some of the Jewish provinces. Agrippa, who had been born in Bethlehem, presented himself to his subjects as a messianic candidate, and the resulting uprising almost deprived the Roman Empire of a third of its territory. Agrippa then died, leaving his friend the Caesar in a bad mood twice over. When Claudius died Nero became Caesar. Many of the things Caligula had done, Nero repeated. This time the outcome would be very different.

Nero had wanted to build his Golden House on land teeming with Rome’s poor. Senators and aristocrats opposed the gentrification of the slums lest the poor migrate to better doorsteps. Conveniently the Great Fire of 64 swept through the slums, settling the argument and clearing the land at tremendous loss of life. So Nero got his palace. When fingers began to be pointed at him, Nero blamed the Christians. He said they ate flesh and drank blood; they were “anti-life.”

This began years of brutalizing war against monotheists. At first Christians took the brunt. Their Jewish cousins and the might of the Roman Empire had joined forces to render them extinct. Nero in particular tended to affix Christians to pikes, set them on fire and use them to light the highways at night. He became so creative that even some Romans felt sorry for them. (They still felt Christians deserved to die, just not like that.)

In the year 67 Judaea revolted against Rome and Nero sent the Roman legions on a punitive expedition against the province. It is estimated that 2,700,000 people were sealed into Jerusalem when the siege began; 1,100,000 people died and (according to Josephus) a mother ate her baby.

During this war Nero took his life and left no heir. The general in the field, Vespasian, had to decide whether Jerusalem still had to fall if the man who ordered its destruction had himself died. Vespasian decided Yes and went to Rome to compete for the job of emperor. He left his son Titus to finish the war. This Titus did in the year 70, when he completed a ramp to walk over the walls of Jerusalem. Titus then took a prostitute into the Jewish Temple into the Holy of Holies room, spread a sacred Torah on the floor as bedding and committed fornication with her. Meanwhile, without his knowledge and against his orders the Temple was set on fire. Everything made of gold melted. Titus now had nothing to carry home for his victory parade. Furious, he ordered his soldiers to chisel out every gold flake as if they were miners following a vein. As a result not one stone block was left on top of another.

Titus sold the few Jews strong enough to serve as slaves and executed the rest. With the loss of the Temple, the death of the last red heifer (required for Temple worship), and the destruction of Jerusalem/Judaea, biblical Judaism ceased to exist.

Since that time the Jewish people have practiced rabbinical Judaism instead. The two major cultural divisions are Ashkenaz (Jews who fled to Celtic and Germanic lands) and Sephardic (Jews who fled to Spain and Moorish lands). A new division was recently recognized after the Falasha of Ethiopia invoked both Zephaniah 3:10 and DNA evidence. Major Jewish denominations are called Orthodox, Reform, a modern blend called Conservative, and daughter-practices of Orthodoxy called kabbala and Hasidism.

(Personal aside: To learn more about the fall of Jerusalem, see the writings of the historians Josephus and Tacitus and the early church fathers Tertullian, Eusebius and Epiphanus.)

The fall of Jerusalem also put an end to the Jewish branch of Christianity. Christians had suffered for seven years (64-70); now Judaism had suffered for seven years as well (67-73). Out of this chaos came a (temporary) diminishment of organized persecution against Christians. The Jewish leaders who had persecuted them were dead. Meanwhile the Romans decided it was a waste of resources to chase a few scattered Christians through the trackless wilderness when that army could have been better deployed to crush entire Jewish cities and fortresses. Both the Jews and the Romans still brutalized Christians when they found them, so the “breather” did not last long. Nevertheless Christianity had never been so vulnerable as it was when it was a “newborn” of faith and unable to outrun its enemies.

Thus individual Jewish Christians survived, but Christianity now saw itself as a global entity, with its headquarters being where Peter and Paul were laid to rest. (Both died in Rome during Nero’s ghoulish extermination.) Peter’s successors, called popes, were kept busy. Not only did they have to guide their people (while hiding from other people), but they had to make themselves visible to speak against the competing Gnostics, the Manichaees, the Nestorians, the Arians, the Monophysites, and even St. Irenaus, a Christian futurist of the 150s who got carried away in his rebuke of Gnosticism and had to be rebuked himself. (He apologized and recanted.)

Persecutions continued, reaching another especial peak under Diocletian. Then in 313, the new emperor Constantine credited the Christian God with his military victories. He made Christianity the state religion. He also moved the secular capitol to Constantinople (a.k.a. Byzantium, Istanbul). Hordes of barbarian invaders wore down the Western empire. Officially Rome fell in 476; unofficially it had been a broken state since the days of Alaric (the year 411).

Historians estimate that Rome boasted one million inhabitants in Caesar Augustus’ day. In the year 500, only about 10,000 people remained.

The Roman church found its official status a looser fit but not always a comfortable one. The freedoms granted by Constantine made it safer for marginal Christians to promote their views. Gnosticism (a Hellenist heresy meaning “secret knowledge”) thrived in the open air and threatened to undermine Christian doctrine as it had long attempted to undermine doctrine in Judaism. Then came Manichaeanism (a Zoroastrian-Christian sect that resembled a cross between Gnosticism and Taoism, though the religions had never met) and assorted other sects, creeds, heresies and unabashed con artists. In response Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea to create (guess where they got the name) the Nicene Creed. Saints Ignatius and Augustine also devised certain standards, though modern Catholics will cringe at (and are still apologizing for) Augustine’s vitriolic tomes about bad believers and unbelievers having “no rights.”

In the northwest, Ireland became a superpower. Saint Patrick did not only convert an entire nation of pirates and slavetraders to Christianity. He taught them to read. In a generation the Irish became librarians and pacifists. Soon this made them feel badly. Here they were, living rich and fat and happy in the peaceful Emerald Isle. They had no opportunities for martyrdom. They decided to Christianize the barbarians who had overrun the old Roman territories. If the Irish succeeded it would be glory, and if they failed it would be martyrdom. Moreover the Irish had “street cred,” that is, a common bond with the barbarians by way of their own barbarian past. They also had vast sums of money to finance these missionary expeditions. So the Irish preached their way across Western Europe. This irritated the Roman church exceedingly (and not just because the Irish were better at it). Rome pulled rank, and Ireland meekly agreed to do things Rome’s way.

A few centuries later, the English king Henry II waged a war on his pope’s behalf. The pope rewarded him by “giving” Ireland to England. The pacifist, obedient Irish stood aghast as their land was impoverished. Ireland never became a superpower again.

(Personal aside: to learn more about the rise and fall of Ireland, see How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. To learn more about the medieval England that received Ireland as a gift, see The Year 1000: What Life was Like at the Turn of the Millennium by Robert Lacey and Danny Danzinger.)

On the eastern frontier, Constantinople/Byzantium grew wealthy and ambitious. It occurred to the Easterners that they could order their generals to chase the Moors wherever they went and conveniently not stop at “civilized” borders. Rome feared that the Byzantines intended to conquer them. Fortunately for Rome the bigwigs in the East were never on the same page: ambitious emperors had inferior generals, and talented generals like Belisarius had micromanaging emperors.

In time this situation was reversed. The rise of Charlemagne put military might on the side of the West. Next came the Crusades. Their cruelty in the Holy Land is famous, but not all Crusades arrived in the Holy Land. At least one army left Rome, sacked the Byzantines, and declared a victory against “the enemy.” Another Crusade “got lost” and roamed Germany butchering Jews.

Thus the Dark Ages became a time of “every man (or nation) for himself.” This isolationism only increased after the Great Schism of 1054.

(Personal aside: To learn more, see The Barbarians : Warriors and Wars of the Dark Ages by Timothy Newark.)

Denominations in Europe

In spite of their unending quarrels, competitions and wars, Rome and Byzantium continued to advertise themselves to the world as dear brothers and true friends. But in 1054 the Eastern (Greek) church revolted after the Western (Latin) church re-inserted the filioque. See this section from the Nicene Creed.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
Who proceedeth from the Father [filioque] and the Son [/filioque],
Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
Who hath spoken through the prophets.

The Easterners had already protested once against the insertion of the filioque. When the Roman West restored it, Byzantium saw this as pulling rank. Besides, they disagreed for theological reasons. Byzantium argued that the filioque made the Holy Spirit subservient to both Father and Son.

Many Catholics and Protestants learn as children that the Holy Spirit is formed by the intense love between Father and Son, a love so intense that it is itself sentient. This love inspired the ne’vim (prophets) of the Tanakh (Old Testament) to prophesy. This love prays for believers when they have no words. This love bears up mourners as the Comforter. Yet children also are taught that the Holy Spirit is the breath of God.

The Byzantines asked, if a person has breath whether or not he speaks, and a person has a voice whether or not he speaks, then how does it follow that the Holy Spirit “proceedeth from the Father” and also from the Son? When a person thinks a thought and reserves it to oneself without speaking it, the thought remains in the mind or will. (This was why Jesus could say that only the Father knows the time of the Last Day.) When a person communicates a thought, the person thinks the thought, draws breath, and sends a voice out into the world. Breath (and the Holy Spirit) does tie together thought/will (the Father) and voice/Word (“In the beginning was the Word” i.e. Jesus the Son). But does breath derive from voice? (This is a huge oversimplification of the issue.)

There were other arguments. The West was home to the popes, the successors of Peter. The West used Latin but the East used Greek, the language of the New Testament.

(Personal aside: Although it is true that “koine Greek” is the language of the New Testament, the living Greek continued to develop. Scholars think it qualified as Byzantine Greek circa the year 400. So the common people no longer spoke Koine.)

Finally, the West used unleavened bread for the holy feast—because at the Last Supper Jesus ate unleavened seder bread. The East used leavened bread. The leaven was “symbolic of the life of Christ”—that is, the presence of Jesus in the holy feast changes everything.

In short, the West and East could not resolve their differences; the negotiations of 1054 went horribly wrong; and there was bad blood between them already. So they broke up.

(Some historians argue that the Great Schism properly began in 1009. After numerous massacres back and forth and the near-obliteration of Byzantium in the 4th Crusades, the Schism was locked in place by 1204.)

The West continued to call itself Catholic (“universal, true”) and the East called itself Orthodox (“correct and true”). Eastern Orthodox Christians listen to the Patriarch of Constantinople (sort of a First Among Equals job). Westerners listen to the Pope.

If we think about it the Protestants did not break away from Greek Orthodoxy. They broke from Latin Catholicism. As a result most Protestants do not even know that there is a question to be asked. When the occasional Protestant joins a first-century church it is usually Catholic, probably because so many Protestants are Westerners and that is the neighbor they see. And they tend to join the Roman Catholics, at that; there are actually 22 Catholic churches (the Romans and 21 others). If informed of the Orthodox stance some Protestants might very well scratch their heads and say, “Huh, I can see how that would go.” But if one asks them, “So, does that mean you’ll listen to the Patriarch?” the answer often will be, “I’d as soon listen to the Pope.”

(Personal aside: to learn more about the 21 other churches, see the February 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine. The article states there are 23 churches—the Romans and 22 others—but a letter by an Eastern priest in a subsequent issue states that 22 is the correct total.)

In time the Latin and Greek-speaking churches signed common declarations in 1971 and 1984. Also in 1984 John Paul II became the first Pope to meet with the Patriarch in 950 years. Much love and forgiveness flowed back and forth. Today if a Catholic traveler cannot find his own “brand” of church he can attend an Orthodox church, knowing that the sacraments there will be as valid and binding as if he had gone to his hometown church (and vice versa). Having said that, the West and East are still using their own names, and the Pope and the Patriarch both still have their jobs.

As we trace the genealogy of the church we notice that futurism, the umbrella belief system that includes “secret rapture” theory, stayed with the Catholics. (Whether the Catholics wanted it to stay with them is another story.)

The 1260s were another uncomfortable point in church history. This era saw the rise of the historicists. Historicism was a rebellion-sect that taught that the Pope would destroy the world. (The honest Catholic apologist will admit that the church of the day gave them an awful lot of material.) Historicism went extinct (a little something called the Inquisition) but after that experience the church had got the idea to examine just about everybody. This was particularly dangerous for the Jews they captured, but it was not a good or safe time for anyone.

Something else happened during this era. Crucifixes were rare until the 13th Century. Then they were everywhere, replacing the plain cross that focused on the Risen Lord. It was just “one of those things”: people react to current events in inexplicable ways and this was one of them.

Next came the era of three popes. In 1414 the Council of Constance met to determine which pope was the real one. Under the watchful eye of the laity one resigned, and the ecumenical council dismissed the other two and put Martin V on St. Peter’s seat. The Council of Constance sent a message that ecumenical councils have jurisdiction over everyone, including popes. (From the beginning Protestants sought this level of participation for the laity and left when they could not obtain it.)

(Personal aside: To learn more about the debate between consolidation of power and “democratization” of power, see the May 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine.)

Between the Inquisition and other church abuses (finances, secrecy, etc.) the church collided with the Reformation era like a wall. The counter-Reformation produced many great Catholic minds (the Jesuits; Ignatius Loyola; Teresa of Avila; John of the Cross), but by then the metaphorical horses had already bolted over the traces.

Martin Luther wrote 95 theses to protest abuses in the church. His teaching came to dominate north-central Europe. The northwest of Europe saw an explosion of reformers: Wycliffe, Hus, Tyndale, Calvin, Zwingli, Menno Simons, and more. England never had a dominant theologian, but it had several reforming advocates. Among these were Thomas Cramner, Thomas Cromwell, John Knox, John Locke, Richard Hooker, and John Wesley.

Thus out of the Reformation came three loose divisions of Protestants: the Lutherans, the Anabaptists, and the Reformed.

Lutherans have remained fairly intact through the centuries. In the 1990s the Lutherans and the Catholics rescinded the excommunications their ancestors had hurled against each other. In 1999 they came to an agreement on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith and hammered out an understanding of mutuality in certain religious rites. Meanwhile, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is currently negotiating an interim communion agreement with the United Methodists. The ELCA already has full communion ties with the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church (U.S.), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ.

Anabaptists split into two groups: the Mennonite branch (which includes the Amish, Hutterites, Brethren, and Schwenkfelders), and the proto-Baptists. Both groups were “unhoused” in the sense that they did not have permanent houses of worship. The proto-Baptists went east toward Russia or west to America to form “camp meeting” churches. The more pacifist “plain people” became (confusingly enough) “house meeting” denominations, so called because they worship in their houses.

Anabaptists believe that only persons above the age of accountability can be baptized. Therefore they re-baptized all believers who had been baptized as infants. This challenged the authority of every denomination that practiced infant baptism. Anabaptists found themselves fleeing for their lives to strange towns, only to flee for their lives from those towns as well. They have never forgotten this grisly era. To this day many Amish and Mennonites have a copy of their Book of Martyrs in their homes.

The Reformed movement encompassed English speakers in the British Isles and non-English speakers on the mainland, such as the Dutch Reformed. We will remain with the English speakers. This group originated with the Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the States). Methodists and other Wesleyans are the theological offspring of Anglicans and the Moravians. Presbyterians appeared in Scotland when mainland Calvinists mingled with northern Catholics and Anglicans. Quakers were Anglican charismatics who “quaked” when the Spirit came upon them. The Shakers, or Shaking Quakers, were lively even by Quaker standards. After the spin-off denomination moved to the New World the Shakers calmed down considerably and began the practice that fans of Country/Western music would identify as (sacred) Line Dancing. Finally, the Puritans were Anglican/Calvinist isolationists.

All this differentiation annoyed the Anglican leadership, who had thought that “reform” meant that they would be in charge. Quakers and Shakers thought that “reform” meant No More Clergy. Then on the one hand John Wesley of the Methodists—who never set out to form a separate denomination; he considered himself a lifelong Anglican—thought that “reform” meant meeting with the common man, not being so afraid to get one’s hands dirty, not being so prim and proper. On the other hand, the ultra-orthodox Puritans judged the “prim and proper” Anglicans far too hippie-go-free-free.

How did this happen? It all started with Henry VIII. He claimed the levirate to marry his brother’s widow, then went back to Torah to find a reason to divorce the woman when their marriage produced no sons. (Never mind that Henry wasn’t Jewish. Also, to this day English monarchs continue to be styled “Defender of the Faith” despite the fact that the pope gave that title to Henry VIII back in the day for being one of this favorite Catholics.)

When Henry decided to end his marriage, his wife Catherine of Aragon implored her nephew, Charles V, to plead her case with the pope. This Charles promptly did—by laying siege to Rome. The pope had seemed inclined to side with Catherine anyway but this sealed the deal. It seemed Henry and Catherine were stuck with each other. P>However Henry had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, who already was old for childbearing by the standards of the day. (She was 33 when she had her first and only surviving child, Elizabeth I.) Anne was shrewd, fearless, and a religious radical. She gave Henry a copy of William Tyndale’s book Obedience and the Christian Man which argued that kings, not popes, ought to be the head of the church. Henry got ideas from this book. He ordered Cramner to declare him head of the English church. As head of this church, Henry could grant himself a divorce and crown Anne as his queen. Both rulers imposed their new beliefs upon the English people. Anne heavily advertised Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible and kept a copy on her dresser with instructions to her maids to read it. Henry executed his own friends, closed monasteries and nunneries, and added everyone’s money to his treasury.

People know that Henry’s wives can be recited as “Divorced, beheaded, died / Divorced, beheaded, survived.” The beliefs of Henry’s wives would be, “Catholic, Anglican, Catholic / Lutheran, Catholic, Lutheran.” Even then half of the wives changed beliefs at least once. Wives 2, 4, and 6 all had been brought up Catholic before they switched, and at that wife #4 converted back to Catholicism after Henry died. If this was hard for the wives, think how much harder it would have been for the English people, not to know what religion they were from one year to the next.

In the 1990s the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics came to a limited understanding about mutuality in certain religious rites. This understanding was similar to the understanding between Catholics and Lutherans, but on the different subject of the Eucharist/holy communion feast.

In the melodrama that was Henry’s life, Anne Boleyn’s promotion of the Bible in English is overlooked—but our discussion today depends upon it.

One last major movement arose in Europe called postmillennialism. This was a daughter-belief of Christian futurism that posited a thousand years of peace on earth, promptly to be followed by the Great Tribulation then the Judgment Day. Post-Mill shared certain elements with secular belief systems such as humanism and a blended philosophy called Deism. (Of course the seculars did not accept the religious elements of the program.) Secular humanists, Deists, and post-Mills believed that man could attain peace on earth if his heart was sincere. The achievements of the Enlightenment era were considered proof of this sincerity. Clearly the thousand years of peace must have been waiting for the “true faith” of the Protestants. Catholics regarded postmillennialism as the medieval equivalent of believing in the Tooth Fairy (and that was when they were being polite). But the rest of Europe loved it. Nevertheless as the centuries rolled by and natural disasters, potato famines, plagues and war continued, it occurred to the Europeans that this “peace” stuff really was hard.

Today Europe is ranked as the most secular continent on earth. Holy wars usually are cited as a reason, but holy disappointment surely played a part. Meanwhile, in the United States postmillennialism thrived, faltered, and clung to life through World War II.

Denominations in the States

Christianity in the United States grew out of several distinct spheres of influence. The Puritans of New England intended to found a theocracy based on ultra-orthodox Calvinism. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island as a “religious liberals” state (or as liberal as he could build it with his Puritan upbringing and angry Puritan neighbors). Hundreds of miles to the south, the Anglicans at Jamestown came to the new land primarily to make money. In between these colonies the settlers were Dutch Reformers, Congregationalists, and Quakers and other pietists. (Pietists stressed inner spiritual life and a personal path to salvation, rejecting a clergy’s hierarchy. Except for the Moravians, most “peace churches” are pietist.) The Catholics who crossed the ocean tended to be running from something, not running toward something. Prejudice forced them to keep to themselves; many settled in Maryland. Presbyterians and Baptists tended to head for the frontier. Methodists set up shop near the poor (which was to say, everywhere). William Penn (founder of the “Quaker State”) opened Pennsylvania to religious refugees fleeing the endless wars of Europe.

In the First Great Awakening (the 1720s through 1740s) the beliefs of the Puritan Church were dispersed throughout the populace even as the Puritans themselves became extinct. Some famous Puritan beliefs include:

• The concept of the New World as the Promised Land for the Gentiles.

• A vigilance (or hypervigilance) against any taint of “Romanism” infiltrating Protestant doctrinal purity.

• A “leveling” of emotional affect as demonstrated by a distrust of frivolous emotions and/or a lack of depth in profound emotions. Emotional self-control was cultivated that believers could “rise above” worldly affairs, but outsiders argued it justified holy hypocrisy. (Complained Thomas Babington Macauley, “The Puritan hated bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”)

• A horror of sex as an unclean thing that married people did to perpetuate the species. Because procreation was a shared and awful duty, single males or females could not be tolerated. It was assumed that humans had sex, if not with spouses then perhaps with non-human creatures. The result was the infamous Witch Hunts. (Note: the Puritan attitude toward sexuality is not to be confused with either prudery or normal modesty. It was very extreme. They killed people over it.)

• A belief that one could ascertain the holiness of another by looking at him. (This belief traces its ancestry to the Book of Job.)

• And an almost merciless devotion to hard work, which merged with the Lutheran devotion to hard work to become known as the Protestant Work Ethic (a.k.a. “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps”). This, taken together with the previous point, is sometimes described as the “Health and Wealth Gospel.”

Yet the Great Awakening stressed mercy, free will, ecumenical truce, and emotions in ways that were alien to the Puritans. (The custom of {gasp!} celebrating at a wedding, let alone throwing a shivaree, would have horrified a Puritan.) This First Great Awakening was a continental movement that spread to all English-speaking denominations. (Dutch Reformers, Catholics, German Lutherans, and Jews were unaffected, by reason of philosophy combined with the language barrier.)

The Second Great Awakening arose in the Gasper River region of Kentucky circa July 1800. Soon local-control Baptists, unhoused mainliners, leftover Moravians, coalescing historicists, proto-dispensationalists, and revivalists of every flavor came together into massive “camp meetings” by the rivers. Many old-school Calvinist pastors were so overwhelmed by this atmosphere that they abandoned the beliefs of particular election and reprobation and started teaching Universalism, a belief that all souls will be saved. (Think Alfred Molina in Chocolat before and after his character dives into the chocolate-shop window. Then imagine thousands of Calvinist pastors trembling with “spiritual hyperglycemia.”) Some civilians also suffered emotional collapse. Large sections of New York State came to be known as the “Seared” or “Burned-over” District as waves of missionaries converted and re-converted people, often within the same week. Much later, when the inhabitants recovered from the trauma, many of them turned to the Dutch Reformed Church. A colony of these survivors moved to western lower Michigan, where they modified the denomination into what became the Reformed Church in America. The Reformed Church continues to dominate both regions.

Although Universalism and the related Unitarianism began in the American South, they flourished only in the North because most Unitarians were abolitionists. These two groups were among the first denominations to be born in America.

The big winners in this era were the Methodists and the Baptists, who became the two largest denominations. Both were popular among slaves and among slave owners. (Both denominations split in half during the American Civil War.) Although few traveling revivalists were Methodists, it was this denomination that created the legendary traveling preachers. They climbed mountains, waded through swamps and crossed the lonely prairie to minister to those isolated communities which never could have obtained a pastor of their own. These men did the shepherding work of the clergy. No weddings, baptisms or funerals would be held until the preacher returned on his circuit. To this day Methodists rotate their pastors around a central core every 5-10 years lest the parishioners become complacent, and to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors. (Many traveling preachers died before they were thirty.)

All four historicist memberships (technically, Revived Historicists) originated in the States. By appealing to the old Puritan dread of creeping “Romanism” the historicists grew rapidly. The Seventh Day Adventists took their name in 1848 (some sources say 1861), but both they and the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) had been open for business since the 1820s. In the camp meetings they found many unhoused mainliners willing to give them a try.

Another popular non-mainline denomination was the Shakers. They were hyperpreterists; that is, they believed the Second Coming of Jesus had already happened. (Shakers believe that Jesus returned as “Mother Ann” Lee.) Shakers practiced absolute celibacy, growing only by the admission of converts. Married converts and any children lived as brothers and sisters for the rest of their lives. Despite these beliefs the Shakers experienced explosive growth. They offered absolute equality to women; they offered excellent free education; they were a “plain people” and a “peace church”; and their genius, technological sophistication and industriousness made their denomination very rich. Additionally, their farming technologies, garden seeds and patent medicines were far and away the best products on the market. (Like the Moravians, the Shakers believed in absolute equality, which meant the natives were their equals. Both denominations studied Indian medicine, foodstuffs and cultures and dealt honorably with the natives. This probably saved some frontier towns from extermination.) Nowadays Shakers are most famous for two things: one is the proverb “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” (Mother Ann had been a washerwoman.) The other famous artifact is their excellent furniture. A tourist with an appreciation for carpentry also would do well to visit a restored Shaker village.

Despite the endless religious transformations, the American mindset remained relatively constant. The English speakers had come to North America to praise God and make money, so that was what they did. Which goal was more important to a given individual depended upon one’s socio-economic status. The landowners had rebelled against England’s King George III because he raised their taxes and made them feed/house his troops so he wouldn’t have to, among other violences and indignities. The poor rebelled against him because they thought he might be the Antichrist. Like the Puritans before them, many Americans considered their new nation the Promised Land, the Holy Land, the new Israel of the Gentiles. Hence their rage that George III would dare to raise a hand against them.

Most Europeans wanted the colonists to win the war, but it was the Dutch who first provided aid and comfort to the rebels. When the British caught them in the act, the British retaliated. Soon the American Revolution realigned economic patterns all over Europe.

(Personal aside: To learn more, see The First Salute by Barbara Tuchman.)

Military victory and Postmillennial belief reassured the Americans that their land was blessed by God and had a glorious role to play in world history. They were not the only people to think so. In the 1971 film The Emigrants Liv Ullman’s character solemnly assures her fellow Scandinavians that when they set foot upon American soil, they miraculously will speak pure English. (This was the post-Mill Gentile interpretation of Zephaniah 3:9.)

These and other tales grew in the telling. By the time the news reached Europe, the New World and future United States indeed seemed a land where the streets were paved with gold. It was said that angels and patriarchs walked the land. Fish leaped into the frying pan and the deer into the kettle. The land was lush, ripe, melting, and empty. (Well, except for the 500 nations already living there.) A man could drink his fill at the Fountain of Youth while Paul Bunyan cleared his land claim for free, just to be neighborly. Bring the wife and children, or if a man had no wife he could marry an Indian princess. Then they could count their unfathomable wealth, “shoot some Injuns” (presumably not the in-laws) or “wrassle some bars.” That was the America of myth: All Fun, All The Time. (The Puritans had banned fun, but hey, they were dead. Verily thou shalt Party On, dude.)

What happened when people actually got to America? It happened that only the Inca, Maya and Aztec had had royalty, and their nations were dead; there was no long line of gullible Indian maidens waiting breathlessly to marry the likes of you. The travel brochures that described Buffalo or the Saginaw valley or southern Minnesota as being at the same latitude as Paris proved to be true but misleading. (“What is this ‘winter’ of which you speak?”) The streets were paved with planks, or nothing. Angels and patriarchs only talked to the Mormons. Paul Bunyan never cleared the land; Ponce de Leon never found his Fountain of Youth; the bears were twice as big; and the Indians fought back. Well now, that was just plain Rude, and Awful Mean, and No Fair on top of it. The “promised land” looked a lot like, well, work.

Americans responded in one of three ways. One, they shut up and did the work. Two, they went deep into frontier lands where they knew the tax collector would never find them, and there they worked (or not) as they pleased. Or three, they bought slaves to do the work.

Whatever their responses, Postmillennialism eventually stifled most complaints. Even the most miserable of pessimists had to admit that there was something deeply satisfying about having the liberty to choose one’s misery. As long as one was not a native or a slave, one could hope for a glorious future. Postmillennialism reassured people that things would only get better and better for a thousand years. What did it matter that the beginning was a little hard?

And then came the Great Disappointment. A camp-meeting leader named William Miller convinced a sizable portion of the American populace that the world would end in March 1844. March passed uneventfully. Sources vary, but at this point either Miller or one of his followers recalculated and announced that the world really would end in October 1844. Why people believed it twice, no one can say. But believe it they did, so strongly that many Americans did not plant their crops for that year. In October 1844 the world failed to end … again. Thousands of Americans now faced winter behind in their mortgages, with nothing to eat. A few fervent individuals no longer even had houses for the banks to repossess. They had given away their belongings.

The Great Disappointment marked the end of peaceful co-existence—such as it was—between historicists and other futurists. In 1848 the Mormons left for Utah and the Seventh-Day Adventists officially declared themselves a separate denomination. (Miller actually headed the Adventists for a few years after the Disappointment drove him out of the camps.) Some post-Mills lingered in the half-deserted camps with the proto-dispensationalists (a different daughter-belief of futurism; that one divides human history into seven eras, this being the sixth). There the two factions wrestled for control of Christian futurism, often playing to an empty house. Other Christians left the camp meetings and went back “into the house” where they sat once again with their parents in the family pew and painted the church and paid the tithe. But what the Great Disappointment was really good at, was creating atheists. Too many people had been fooled too badly. And as the storm clouds gathered for the Civil War of 1860-1865, it seemed that American religion had never been more fragmented.

Into this unpromising environment came a dispensationalist preacher named John Nelson Darby. Darby was an itinerant Anglican priest who preached a two-stage return of Christ that came to be known as the Darbyist or “pre-Trib, pre-Mill” model. Allegedly he had received this revelation from a young girl in Scotland in 1831 (so reported by his critics, vociferously denied by his friends.)

Darby’s unique version of dispensationalism argued that the world was experiencing “birth pangs” of a great labor. The “church era” is the sixth of seven dispensations. (In the seventh, God would resume direct dealings with ethnic Israel.) The transition between the sixth and seventh dispensation would be made plain by wars and natural disasters. These phenomena would be God’s way of trying to get people to pay attention, so that they would not be stranded on earth during the Great Tribulation. Before things became “too” bad (whatever that meant), Jesus would secretly seize all true Christians in the blink of an eye and take them to the shelter of heaven. On earth the combined fury of God and Satan (the adversary, the devil) would harrow the earth for seven years. The Antichrist would seize power and most people would follow him. But the few planet-bound humans who rejected him would be saved when Jesus returned with visible armies and might to claim the earth for God. Jesus would sit upon King David’s throne for one thousand years, ruling a reconstituted Israel. Christians would be officials in the holy government. After the thousand years of peace there would be a brief rebellion and the final Judgment Day. (This is the short version of Darbyism.)

Darby emigrated to the States in 1860, which was probably the best time he could have planted such seeds. For many people, the Civil War (a “holy war” within the “holy land”) was too intense to contemplate. Darby’s model of world events seemed to fit the times better than did the relentlessly optimistic post-Mill model. New dispensationalist converts were comforted to think that Jesus would rescue them by supernatural means before things became “too” bad. Surely this meant they could endure “ordinary tribulations” now. So they told themselves … through Gettysburg … through Antietam … through Sherman’s March to the Sea … through Reconstruction … through hyperinflation and dust bowls … through wars with Mexico and Spain … any second now … any second now.

As disheartening as it was for Darbyists to wake up the next morning and realize, “Dang, I’m still here!” it was harder for Postmillennialists, who had to keep resetting the “start” button on their thousand-years-of-peace watch. The other optimists, the Shakers, eventually collapsed altogether, losing people to the general gloom and to the higher wages of the Industrial Revolution. (Actually the Shakers always had a prophecy that their numbers would dwindle to the point that they would be unable to bury their own dead; then they would experience a new explosion of growth. As there are about five Shakers left on earth, and the youngest is elderly, it seems they will soon find out.)

Despite his teachings and his timing, Darby’s model did not become widely popular right away. Non-English speakers flat-out rejected him. The English speakers, being of English descent, were torn in their perceptions of Darby. Remember, in the States the traveling preacher was an idealist, a folk hero, often a martyr. But in 1860s England an itinerant preacher was simply someone who had failed to get a real job.

Like the tall tales of America itself, Darbyism came to be distorted in the telling. When, exactly, was the Secret Rapture supposed to be, again? Mid-Trib? Post-Trib? (To which people asked, what was the point? It was supposed to be a rescue.)

Then in 1905 the local-control churches did something that normally only a denomination would do: they called a General Assembly/Conference. There they wrote a “constitution” of common beliefs called The Fundamentals of Christianity. It is from this book that we derive the term fundamentalist. A truly “fundamentalist” congregation or denomination is one that claims this book as one of its documents of doctrine and discipline. In the book, the delegates/authors decisively endorsed Darby’s original “pre-Trib, pre-Mill” version of dispensationalism as the only right and true interpretation of the end times.

The other foundational blueprint of officially-endorsed Darbyism was the Scofield Reference Bible. Published by Cyrus Scofield in 1909, this translation included long footnotes outlining Darby’s interpretation of scriptural passages. The Scofield Bible elevated Darbyism to point-of-doctrine in a way that was unprecedented in English translations. (Modern followers sometimes use the Ryrie Bibles instead.)

From this point on Darbyists became better known as Classic Dispensationalists. That is, Darby’s “new” view became the standard view, the-way-it-has-always-been view. The post-1948 version of C/d is called Premillennial Dispensationalism, or PMD.

(Personal aside: It is unclear what we would call the “old” PMD believers who died before Darbyism or rejected it. Some scholars use the phrase Historical Dispensationalism, others Chialists, but these terms are not universal or uniform.)

Thus the “genealogy” of Darbyism starts with the umbrella belief system called Futurism, its daughter-belief Classic Dispensationalism, and C/d’s daughter-belief PMD or “rapturism” or “secret rapture theory.” Rapturist denominations include (but are not limited to) The Assemblies of God, most Pentecostals, some Baptists (some are nonrapturist), and some Holiness movements (not to be confused with Holiness denominations descended from the Wesleyans).

Armed with The Fundamentals and the Scofield Reference Bible, rapturists sallied forth to do (spiritual) battle against all comers. World events contributed to their success by playing out according to their game plan. As the woes of the 19th Century paved the way for World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the nuke, the Cold War and so on, Postmillennialism dwindled as its adherents died of old age. Also, post-Mill Christians found themselves increasingly unable to pass on their beliefs to their children. By the time of World War II, post-Mills and rapturists were fairly evenly matched in numbers.

It was during this era that an offshoot of fundamentalism expressed concern about the movement’s image and attempted to broaden its appeal by becoming more involved with the world. This offshoot is loosely known as evangelicalism. (Actually, it is alleged that fundamentalists coined the term “evangelical” to describe the breakaway movement.) Many evangelicals retained a belief in rapturism, but others relinquished it. Like fundamentalists, they are not defined by one particular denomination, and are only loosely defined by cooperative clusters.

Rapturists still had to squelch internal disputes such as, did ethnic Israel need to rebuild a nation on its ancestral land before Jesus could return, or was it “home enough” for Jews to live in the United States a.k.a. “the new Israel.” The establishment of a national state of Israel in 1948 settled this argument cleanly and completely. Rapturists could pin their hopes and dreams upon this new national Israel. As a result rapturists take personally any threat to Israel (whether real, potential, or imaginary) because rapturists have invested so much hope and faith in it; they have no fallback position.

(Personal aside: The old-school dispensationalists were not the only ones who had pondered what sort of Israel counted as a “real” one. In Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls, a novel set in the Jimmy Carter years, the girl Chani asks her mother why their family, being Orthodox Jews, will not move to national Israel (page 175). Her mother replies, “The world is one thing and God is another. The two don’t fit together yet. And one day they will, and the Temple will be restored, and Israel will be ours again. But the place isn’t ready yet, and neither are we … We don’t want just a place. You can’t substitute bare land for, for the mitzvos that must be done, and the transformation of all lives in every place of the world … If you wanted a house and I gave you a model of a house, would you take it?” Chani’s mother silently salutes her daughter’s curiosity but she also thinks Chani should not discuss this subject outside of their kitchen.)

With post-Mill in retreat and atheism squelched by Cold War fear of “reds,” rapturism became the major challenger to mainstream Christianity.

Rapturism caught its “second wind” in the 1960s as every prevailing standard came under attack. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the hippies, the war in Vietnam and its protests, and the argument as to whether hyperinflation was preferable to “price fixing”—only “reds” fixed prices!—well, every socio-economic indicator seemed to predict that the world was falling apart.

Rapturism explained it all in a series of successful books by author Hal Lindsey. Lindsey proposed that John, author of the New Testament book of Revelation, had recorded the literal truth of the end times, within John’s ability to comprehend what he saw. (For example, when John saw “a flaming mountain thrown into the sea,” Lindsey believed this must be John’s attempt to describe a nuke.) Lindsey’s book interpreted The Revelation of the Apocalypse within a 20th Century context. If a faithful Christian could resist “reds”—Gorby must be The Big Bad! His birthmark must be the mark!—and the dehumanizing technology of capitalism such as barcodes, Jesus would rescue Christians off the earth … by 1988 at the latest. (A rapturist prophecy argues that the Secret Rapture would occur no later than 40 years after the rebirth of Israel.)

Of course 1988 came and went, but Lindsey is still around. Unlike Miller in 1844, Lindsey had a convincing reason. Lindsey noted that the Israel which was delineated in 1948 was much smaller than the land God actually gave to the 12 Hebrew tribes millennia ago. Therefore the 40-year countdown could not begin until Israel possessed all the territory God once gave to Israel. Israel did in fact conquer the land in the 1967 war. Therefore according to rapturist theory, the Secret Rapture of True Christians should take place by the year 2007. Thus Lindsey had to re-interpret Revelation in light of this new evidence. (For example, “reds” are no longer the Big Bad. That role has been reassigned to, um, certain adherents of another monotheist religion that is not Christianity and not Judaism.)

In 1994 the rapturist pastor Tim LaHaye and author Jerry Jenkins co-created a separate series of doomsday novels. As your host understands it, LaHaye provided the outline and Jenkins fleshed out the story. Unlike Lindsey, LaHaye made no attempt to “decode” anything. All of John’s descriptions were fleshed out as literal phenomena (i.e. any “flaming mountains thrown into the sea” were to be fleshed out as such). These books circulated by word-of-mouth within the rapturist community for three years then exploded into the North American consciousness in 1997. That series is, of course, the 12 novels called Left Behind.

These notes are your host’s attempt to compare and contrast a few of the apologists and critics who have disputed the Left Behind teachings.

Next stop: Terminology.


Author: The_Old_Maid_of_Potluck

Author of Potluck2point0: The resource formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net (a.k.a. My humongous [technical term] study of "What's behind 'Left Behind'").