I have been thoroughly enjoying Perry Miller’s The Life of the Mind in America, which presents a highly complex picture of early American Christianity. One of the interesting issues he describes is the unique way in which Christians in America achieved a form of unity.
On the one hand, Miller credits the absence of an official state church with the “competition” among the different denominations to gain for themselves their share of the population. On the other hand, Miller argues that the revivals and interdenominational associations for the propagation of Christianity (through supporting missions, printing Bibles, publishing tracts, etc…) led to a unity that transcended that “competition.”
This situation had two major effects. First, some of the suspicion between traditions fell away as members of different denominations began to work with one another toward the total Christianization of America. So, rather than seeing one’s own denomination as the only true believers, Christians began to look differently at their divisions:
From Bangor, Maine, Enoch Pond pleaded that without the associations, our efforts “must be sectional, insulated, feeble, and ineffectual.” Meanwhile, the associations seemed to prosper, providing occasion for much oratory about the glories of co-operation which still haunt the American Protestant imagination. Our Bible societies, declared George Cookman in 1828, are a line of forts along the enemy’s frontiers; our Sabbath schools are military academies for young cadets, our tract societies are shot-houses for the manufacture of ammunition. Our Methodists are cavalry, Presbyterians are infantry, and the Dutch Reformed are heavy artillery. That the associations and churches never quite got themselves arrayed in so beautiful a military formation does not alter the fact that in the effort to combine them a vision of the American community took shape. (48)
The second effect, though, is a general degradation of the unique attributes and contributions of each of these traditions. Miller writes,
For the truth is that while the religious leaders were ostensibly talking about harmony among the churches, they were actually charting the way toward a homogeneous America. (48)
By laboring at a “lowest common denominator” level, both the good and the bad aspects of different traditions disappeared, leaving a generic kind of Christian who pursued a generic kind of Christianity.
The problem with this, according to Mark Noll in his excellent book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (which I recently finished), is that most of these Christians limited themselves to working toward the conversion of America through revivals — they did not, therefore, give all that much thought or energy toward creating a thoroughly Christian society, where the gospel permeated the pursuit and development of science, politics, philosophy, economics, etc…
Unfortunately, that only left a bunch of Christians without much idea of how to live as Christians — except, of course, that they were supposed to seek to convert more people to Christianity.