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Church History


▪- A.D. 1620 to 1814

In 1681, William Penn received a tract of land in the New World from King Charles II. Penn refused to link his new colony to any religious sect. He embraced everyone who believed in one God. His colony became known as "Penn's Forrest", that is, Pennsylvania.

America arrives late in the landscape of Church history, yet, like everything else, America will dominate views on Christianity. As we have already seen, most of the roots of American Christianity were formed in the blood of martyrs in Europe and England.  While the balance of our lessons will focus more on the events related to America, there will still be events in the rest of the world to consider, for they are all a part of the history of Christ's Body, the Church.

In an earlier lesson we noted that Separatists from the Anglican Church fled England for Holland and that one group boarded a ship for America. The ship was the Mayflower. The year was 1620. Although their goal was to land in Virginia, storms blew the group off course and they landed in Massachusetts, naming their landing point "Plymouth."  It must be noted that this group did not come to America to seek religious freedom in the sense we consider today. Rather, their goal was to establish a colony where they could live and worship as they chose without interference from the king. The group did not support individual freedom but a group freedom.

After several years, the Massachusetts Bay Colony would absorb the Plymouth colony. To become a citizen of the Bay Colony, one had to confirm salvation in Christ and agree to the voting structure and government established by the Colony.  State and church were once again linked, at least for a short time.

The Puritan's Church structure was Congregationalist. They offered a Separatist, Roger Williams, the position of pastor. He refused because he believed civil judges should not enforce religious beliefs.  Williams became a missionary to the Native Americans and would have become a forgotten figure in history had he not openly declared, "The Natives are the true owners [of this land]." 

Needless to say, this did not sit well with the Colony and Williams was banished by the Massachusetts Court in 1635. Leaving behind a two-year-old daughter and a pregnant wife, Williams walked the countryside for fourteen weeks until a Native American tribe gave him shelter. He would pay a fair price to the tribe for a small piece of ground south of Massachusetts.  Williams named his patch of America "Providence." He invited those of all religions to join him. 

Providence, of course, is now known as Rhode Island. Williams' family would join him, as well as several others.  Williams' original charter declared:

No person within said colony shall be called in question for any opinion in matters of religion. Persons may enjoy their own judgments in matters of religious concernment.

An example of the type of people who fled to Rhode Island may be found in Anne Hutchinson, a 44-year-old midwife living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Each Wednesday night Anne and six other ladies would gather to discuss the previous Sunday's sermon. In the process, Anne became well versed in Scripture.  While such meetings were common in the Colony, Anne's knowledge led her to make a claim that Christians were not bound to obey any human laws. Since she neglected some other truths of the Bible, including that of civil obedience (Rom 13:1-7), the Massachusetts's Bay Colony put Anne on trial for treason.

While it became clear during the trial that Anne knew the Bible better than her judges, she made the mistake of appealing to personal experience, namely, an encounter with God. The court did not consider personal experience to be equal to the word of Scripture.  The court banished Anne, who, with her family, fled to Providence, where she was welcomed. 

Williams became a Baptist, perhaps the first in the New World. He founded the first Baptist church in the colonies, only to renounce the denomination after eight months, making him the first former Baptist in the colonies!

There were many missionaries in the Americas providing instruction and evangelism to the Natives. Jacques Marquette and other French priests worked along the Mississippi River (late 1600s). In 1614, John Rolfe, a Puritan, married Pocahontas. Pocahontas eventually became a Christian and moved with her husband back to Europe.

All was not golden in Massachusetts. Like any group, each generation changes. The Puritans discovered that their children were less likely to profess a personal relationship with Christ than their parents' generation. The issue for the Colony was both religious and political. If not all of the members of the Colony were Christians, how could the Colony govern itself? 

One solution was to perform more baptisms. This was known as the "Halfway Covenant." The practice had been to baptize only the children of Christians.  Believing that infant baptism was of worth, the pastors commenced baptizing children of non-Christians as well, thinking this would ultimately lead more persons to Christ. It should come as no surprise that this did not work.  Evil wandered the streets in the dark.  In Salem, in 1692, the evil came out into the open.

A 12-year-old girl was caught practicing magic. The girl and her friends falsely accused several older women.  Mass hysteria resulted. Fifty of the colonists admitted to having practiced magic. Oddly enough, all fifty were freed. Nineteen others were accused and refused to confess. These nineteen were all hanged. The Salem witch-hunt lasted only a year. Similar witch-hunts in Europe would last longer. These were bloodier and far more frequent. Evil was in the air.

This blot had its impact upon the Puritans. Spiritual stupor entered the Colony. The witch-hunt was replaced by political conflicts with England. In the Colony, the fire of faith originally found in the Puritans died to a low burning amber. The early 1700s started without God.

We discussed back in Lesson 3 on the Bible how different people bring different experiences and assumptions to their biblical interpretations. This is not a new phenomenon. Part of this process was the fruit of the Reformation.  Prior to the Reformation, whether good or bad, the people viewed their Scriptures through the lens of the church and its tradition. The Reformation discarded most of this tradition. To this point in history, tradition helped to mold society and explain the internal power of the world. This tradition, even when it was wrong, was built upon the Scriptures.

In the 1600s and 1700s something had to replace the tradition the Reformers had abandoned. The people needed a method of understanding the world around them and the inter-workings and relationships of the humans who occupy planet earth. What replaced church tradition was human reason, "rationalism."  The Age of Enlightenment arrived.  Instead of looking to past traditions for guidance, people now looked to themselves.

Just as Darwin's theories have spawned error in the past hundred years, another scientist can be credited with having propelled the Age of Enlightenment.  That man was Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the man who told the world that gravity could explain the mystery of the movement of the planets. A new vision was cast. This vision was not of an unseen God but of a self-maintaining system endowed by a Divine Creator who imposed upon this system forces that follow the laws of nature.  John Locke (1632-1704) was the great promoter of this concept. During the Scholastic days of Aquinas philosophy and theology were united. As this age of reason developed, the two schools became enemies.

Descartes (1596-1650) taught that there was no truth except as could be explained by reason. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is credited with introducing the inductive method of study into science. Personal observation became an element of scientific "proof." Knowledge became tied to the five senses and revelation was discarded.

If man could now explain nature, why did man need the Bible? This became the question of the skeptics. Reason and nature leads one to a new view of God known as Deism. In simple terms, the Deists rejected every belief that reason could not confirm.  This includes miracles, providence, prayer, revelation, the Trinity, and the Messiah. The Christ of Christianity became a Christ of ethics. God was Creator, but He did nothing after this.  And, of course, Jesus was only a man.

Deism became the god of the Masonic brotherhoods. Freemasonry arose in the 1100s to guard the secrets of building stone structures. They were the first labor union! Following the Renaissance, the Masonic Brotherhood became more like a club, dedicated to charity, peace, and education. This most likely is what led them to promote Deism. Their club structure greatly resembles the levels of Eastern religious levels to god. Voltaire (1694-1778) taught that society was governed by natural laws and these laws could be discovered. Society could be modified to fit these laws making society more reasonable. The church and "science" were at war.

In 1738, Pope Clement XII denounce Deism. He also forbade Catholics from becoming a Mason. 

Deism remained popular and it is my belief that a close study of the country's founding fathers will reveal that many of them were Deists. Under the influence of deism and reason, many churches moved to "Unitarianism" perspective, the belief that God is not a Trinity. This group ultimately moved to a position of "any god," or "any practice."

A name that may be familiar to many of you became the center of the first great Christian awakening in America. An 18-year-old Jonathan Edwards wrote in his diary:

Resolved: That all men should live to the glory of God.  Resolved, secondly: That whether or not anyone else does, I will.

Edwards was a strict Calvinist who read his sermons in a monotone. His sermons sometimes ran to two hours or more.  Edwards was pastor at Northampton, Massachusetts. He had been pastor there for five years as we move into 1734.

That year the spirit of revival grasp hold of the Northampton church and 300 church members were saved. They moved to live out their new faith in their daily lives. Joy, as Edwards wrote, filled the town. This revival lasted but three years.

We must move back to Europe to catch the wave that grows into a revival flood.  In the late 1600s, Jacob Spener wrote a booklet entitled Pious Desires. The point of the book was that each individual should pursue a personal relationship with Christ by means of intense mediation on the Scriptures.  Those who adopted these principles became known as Pietists.

In Germany, Catholic princes still persecuted the Moravian Brethren, a small group of Bohemian Protestants generally called Moravians. Their doctrinal position was essentially Lutheran.  In 1722 a Moravian refugee knocked on the estate door of Count Nikolaus Zinzendorf, a wealthy noble in Dresden.  The refugee asked the Count to shelter the Moravians. Zinzendorf agreed and a community was built upon his land called "the Lord's watch" or "Herrnhut." By 1725 about 100 Moravians made Herrnhut home. Zinzendorf became a Moravian in 1727.

Zinzendorf was a Pietists and he instilled his Pietism into the Moravians.  The group formed around the clock prayer meetings. The Moravians of Herrnhut would meet in 24-hour prayer meetings for more than 100 years.

In 1731, in an official capacity the Count traveled to Denmark for an imperial meeting. There he met a group of Eskimos who had been led to Christ by a Lutheran missionary.  He also met a Christian African slave.  These encounters placed a need for missionary work upon Zinzendorf's heart. Returning home, he turned his Moravians into a powerful missionary outreach.  The pietistic Moravians would send missionaries to more than 300 countries and baptize more than 3,000 converts.

God's Providence is that characteristic whereby He causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him. He creates those "chance encounters" that lead to wonderful miracles.  One such miracle involved a young Anglican priest named John. 

On his way to Georgia (USA) to be a missionary to the Natives, a severe storm struck John's ship. Terror spread through the passengers. John was surprised to find a band of Moravians calmly singing psalms. The Moravians would corner John into considering whether or not he had a personal relationship with Jesus. After two fruitless years among the Natives, John Wesley would return home. He wrote:

I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me?

Wesley's mother, Susanna, was a godly woman who preached sermons in the family home. Neither John nor his brother Charles heeded the message. In 1738 Charles finally turned his heart over to Christ. Three days later, John was in Aldersgate Street, London. He heard someone preaching from Luther's commentary on Romans. John, too, had his salvation experience.

Before their salvation, John (1703-1791) and Charles (1708-1788) had formed Pietistic societies known as "Holy Clubs" within the Church of England.  These clubs sought to find God's presence through intense meditation on Scripture, fasting, and frequent participation in the Lord's Supper. Because of the well-ordered methods employed by these clubs they became known as "Methodists." Wesley's goal, however, was not to start a new denomination.

Charles Wesley is the author of some 7,270 hymns!

Following his conversion, John and his Methodist followers began a campaign of outdoor crusades. One such evangelist was Sarah Crosby. Another was George Whitefield (1708-1788), the most effective of the Methodists evangelists. Whitefield came to America where it has been estimated that 8 out of every 10 colonists heard him preach. At Northampton Jonathan Edwards wept for joy. Great revival struck the land. The revival is known as the Great Awakening.

There were differences, even among the Methodists. Whitefield was a strong Calvinist. Wesley was somewhere in between, but closer to Arminianism that Calvinism. In the true Christian fashion, in 1749 the two agreed to forever disagree and they kept on preaching. At the same time, many criticized Whitefield because he did not condemn slavery.  Whitefield did, however, spend a great deal of time preaching to the slaves. 

Methodism proved to be a great answer to social ills. Their spiritual awakening countered Deism in England.  Socially, the Methodist provided a large amount of help to relieve the plight of the poor and orphans.  Methodists were also at the forefront of the fight against society.

This revival would last until the 1750s. Thousands would be saved. It is estimated that 10% of New England experienced salvation. Baptist and Methodist churches would flourish, especially in the frontier areas and among the lower classes. The revival spear headed a rise in religious liberty and saw the establishment of many evangelical colleges. There was also an increased interest in missionary efforts.  Whether the revival simply died a natural death or was killed by a political revolution is a point to forever argue.

Princeton University founded by the Presbyterians

Rutgers founded by the Dutch Reform

Brown founded by the Baptist

Dartmouth founded by the Congregationalists

The churches were heavily involved with the struggle for independence, though not always for it. Wesley, for example, opposed the independence movement. Anglicans, Mennonites, and Quakers also refused to support the war.  The Presbyterians were heavily in favor of the war. John W. Wetherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, was the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence. The Lutherans and Baptist supported the war while the Roman Catholics were split, although more favored the war than were against it. Many were tarred and feathered for their "un-American" actions.  Property and lives were lost.  Yet, most church members supported the revolution. In the pulpits words of revival were replaced with words of revolution. 

The summation of the period? Deistists and Christians agreed that religion was an individual matter, a personal issue.  Roger Williams dream became the third article of the Bill of Rights. 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The United States was formed without any ties to any religious faith.

Regardless of how the clause is interpreted today, America was formed as a land where people could freely practice their religion.

Because of the split between the leaders of Methodism over slavery, many Methodist church leaders refused to ordain African-Americans as pastors and bishops. In 1816, Richard Allen formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church to give Blacks the freedom to serve as bishops and pastors.

Following the War for Independence, the Anglican Church in America changed its name. Surprised?  Probably not. It became the Episcopal – "Bishop Guided" – Church. In recent years,its bishops have taken a few wrong turns. However, the split in this group and others was created by the war. Just as the war split America and England politically, so too, did it split American church groups from those in England and Europe.

Eighteenth Century Events

• Voltaire, one of many Deists, further develops the rationalism of the "Enlightenment," attacking Christianity and finding in man the center of all things. The French Revolution of 1789 overthrows the traditions of the Church and briefly establishes the goddess of Reason.

• An Evangelical Awakening spreads throughout England and America under the preaching of George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, and Jonathan Edwards.

• Pietism brings new life to German Lutheranism, and Lutheran J. S. Bach writes his music "only for the glory of God."

• Count Zinzendorf establishes Herrnhut as a Moravian settlement in Saxony, from which the Moravian Brethren begin their missionary work.

• Christians Handel and Haydn write classical music, including masterpieces of religious art, while Isaac Watts and the Wesleys write hymns for congregational singing.

• Practical application of Christian truths found in classics written during the century: Philip Doddridge&s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul; William Paley&s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy; and William Wilberforce&s Practical View of the Religious System. Cruden&s Concordance published early in the century.

• Religious freedom gains grounds. In the United States, religious tests for government positions are abolished, and in Russia Czarina Catherine the Great grants freedom of religion.

• Christian Daniel Defoe begins writing novels reflecting man&s spiritual struggles.

• The era of modern missions advances with the establishment of London&s Baptist Missionary Society and the sending of William Carey to India.


Source: David Barrett.




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