People and Ideas: Early American People | American Experience | PBS (2023)

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People and Ideas: Early Americans


People and Ideas: Early American People | American Experience | PBS (1)

From John Hughes to Joseph Smith, scroll through to see how the different people who lived in America's early days influenced the current state of religion in America.

Anne Hutchinson

Intelligent, honest and opinionated, Anne Hutchinson was the daughter of an English clergyman, knowledgeable about the Bible and devoted to the teachings of the popular preacher John Cotton. In 1634, Anne and her family arrived in Boston. Hutchinson, trained as a midwife and nurse, began holding small meetings in her home to discuss John Cotton's sermons. Soon the gatherings attracted up to 60 people – men and women. If a woman entered into theological discussions, it was a subtle challenge to the patriarchy that ruled the bay colony. In the fall of 1636, he accused Puritan ministers of making their salvation dependent on a person's good works rather than divine grace, contrary to Puritan teaching. The ministers denied this charge, arguing that they are good worksevidenceof repentance and redemption, not thereasonsof redemption. They argued that this was why they did not teach a covenant of works. Hutchinson insisted that the assurance of salvation came from a mystical experience of grace—"an inward conviction of the coming of the Spirit." He believed that by teaching that good works were evidence of true repentance and salvation, ministers were still preaching a Covenant of Works rather than a Covenant of Grace.

Hutchinson went further, claiming that God communicated with her through direct revelation and stated that she was able to interpret the scriptures herself. Hutchinson's accusations were a frontal assault on the spiritual authority of both Church and society. For the Puritans, the ultimate source of authority was the Bible as interpreted by authorized ministers. Hutchinson's claim that she had the authority to interpret the Bible challenged this basic principle. Even more disturbing was her claim that she received instantaneous revelations from God. Her challenge to official doctrine threatened to break up the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Hutchinson's experience raises a persistent question: What is the source of religious authority? Is it the individual or the community? Who decides? How much dissent can a religious community tolerate? What are the possible limits?

Charles Finney

Lawyer, theologian, and university president Charles Grandison Finney was also the most famous revivalist of the Second Great Awakening. It didn't just lead to revivals. actively owned, promoted and packaged them. Unlike other ministers who waited for the Spirit to come at the right time, Finney argued that men and women of faith needed to take the initiative and act: "More than five thousand million people have gone to hell, while the church dreams and waiting for God to save them without the use of means.'

To attract more converts, Finney introduced a series of innovations called the New Measures, including the "restless bench" where potential converts could think about their decision for Christ. More than any other historical figure, he made revivals a standard feature of the American religious landscape. Intent on saving individual souls, Finney also sought to expand the role of women, strengthen churches, and bring about social reform. Finney allowed and encouraged women to speak in prayer meetings, with both men and women present. Some ministers condemned this innovation, describing the gatherings as "unabashed gatherings", but by the end of the century it had become accepted practice for many denominations.

Finney also argued that both men and women had a moral obligation to be active in social reform. Combined with his theological knowledge and strength of conviction, he became a formidable persuader of souls. During his tenure as president of Oberlin College, Finney put his ideas into action. Founded in 1833, Oberlin became the first university to admit women and blacks. it also became an important station on the Underground Railroad, providing moral and practical support to escaped slaves seeking freedom in Canada.

George Wittveld

George Whitefield was an Anglican priest and powerful orator with charismatic appeal. At the age of 25, he caused a sensation in England by preaching outside and climbing over the heads of other priests to reach their churches. In 1740, he brought the same resistance to power to America, along with a savvy media sense. In one year, Whitefield traveled 5,000 miles across America, preaching more than 350 times as he crossed the country from north to south. Within fifteen months, a quarter of the country had heard his message.

Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist. Its central theme: What must I do to be saved? - it wasn't new. His preaching style was Preachers traditionally wrote sermons by hand and read the text aloud in a dull monotone. Drawing on his youthful foray into drama, Whitefield memorized his sermons, spoke without notes, changed the timbre of his voice and gestured with abandon.

Whitefield sparked the Great Awakening, a major religious revival that became the first major mass movement in American history. At its core, the awakening changed the way people experienced God. Instead of receiving religious instruction from their ministers, ordinary men and women released their emotions to make an immediate, intense, and personal connection with the divine. The revival was characterized by a broad populist tone.

At first, established ministers had welcomed Whitefield and his fellow revivalists. Church attendance increased. There was new energy in the air. Soon, however, the clergy realized that the revivalists were challenging their authority. Itinerant preachers like Whitefield could preach anywhere. they didn't need a church. They ignored parish boundaries and drew crowds from the pews to the fields. Once the revivalist ministers had roused the people, they were free to proceed. Their emotional style interrupted the usual social dimension. Although the energy of the First Great Awakening waned in the late 1840s, revivals became a persistent feature of the American religious landscape.

James Finley

Finley, the son of a Presbyterian minister, questioned and eventually rejected his father's faith. Finley could not accept predestination—the belief that God had chosen some people for salvation and condemned others to damnation.

In September 1811, Finley and 19 others were ordained by Francis Asbury, one of the first American Methodist bishops. Under the leadership of Finley and the track riders, Methodism exploded and became the fastest growing denomination in the antebellum era. It was not just about the number of converts. The greatest impact and long-lasting effect was the development of reform movements designed to improve society. Many believed that once souls were saved, fundamental changes in society would inevitably follow. As Methodism crossed the frontier, it spawned a wave of Bible societies, temperance groups, and other organizations aimed at reforming society and educating those living on the fringes of the new nation. These voluntary societies, combined with the tremendous energy and optimism of the frontier, have decisively shaped the American religious landscape.

Jarena Lee

Jarena Lee was probably one of the first African-American preachers in America. After hearing a sermon by Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist (AME) Church, Lee underwent an intense and long-lasting conversion. However, he had his doubts. Later he wrote:

But to my great surprise there seemed to be a voice which I thought I heard distinctly and which I certainly understood, saying to me: "Go preach the Gospel!" I immediately replied out loud, "No one will believe me." Again I heard, and again the same voice seemed to say, "Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and make your enemies your friends."

Lee asked Allen for permission to preach. At first she refused, but then changed her mind and allowed her to preach on a tour and hold prayer meetings in her home. It was very unusual for a woman of any race to have such power.

Accompanied by a female companion, Lee later wrote that she had "traveled two thousand three hundred and twenty-five miles and delivered one hundred and seventy-eight sermons" to mixed gatherings of blacks and whites. Vulnerable and vulnerable, she seemed sure that God was with her. This confidence brought her to Maryland, a slave state. Her diary records a camp meeting where slaves had walked thirty miles or more to hear her preach.

For Lee, slavery was a sin, a sin that God would one day punish.

Jonathan Edwards

As the Great Awakening swept through Massachusetts in the 1740s, Jonathan Edwards, minister and supporter of George Whitefield, delivered what would become one of the most famous sermons of the colonial era, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The sermon featured a terrifying central image: the hand of Almighty God hanging a terrified believer over a fiery pit, ready to plunge him in a moment into the flames of eternal damnation. Edwards hoped that his sermon would awaken the faithful and remind them of the terrible fate that awaited them if they could not confess their sins and seek God's mercy.

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" overshadowed Edwards' most significant contribution to religion in America. The son and grandson of ministers, he became not only a minister but also one of the greatest theologians in American history. His precocious intelligence and breadth of mind were early apparent. He learned Latin and read Newtonopticsand wrote about rainbows and the seductive movement of spiders. Enjoying nature, he found "a divine glory, in almost everything." He described his own religious experience in almost mystical terms, as being "oppressed by God."

By the time of his death in 1758, Edwards had left behind a massive body of work that dealt with issues that had preoccupied Christian thinkers for nearly 2,000 years: the nature of sin, the will, and virtue.

Johannes Hughes

Born in Ireland, John Hughes immigrated to the United States as a young man. Plagued by Protestantism in his homeland, he viewed the United States as a bastion of religious freedom. But he discovered that freedom had its limits. In 1850 he was appointed Archbishop of New York. In the mid-19th century, Catholic immigrants swelled the city's population, and Catholic children had the option of attending New York's public schools. These schools were nominally non-denominational, but Hughes and his Catholic colleagues recognized that they had in fact been heavily influenced by the dominant Protestant ethos. The textbooks reflected widespread prejudice against Catholics.

Hughes took up the Catholic cause and took on the Protestant establishment. In his speeches, sermons, and writings, he demanded that public funds be used to support Catholic schools in addition to Protestant public schools. The state legislature refused. Hughes then set out to create a separate Catholic school system where Catholic children could be educated according to the principles of their faith. Rejected by the Protestants, the Catholics established a number of their own institutions—churches, hospitals, and orphanages—alongside those of the Protestant establishment.

Tensions arose between Catholics and Protestants over the traditional practice of daily Bible reading. Public schools used the King James Bible. Catholics argued that this Bible was Protestant and that daily readings of it undermined their beliefs. They required schools to provide their students with the Catholic version of the Bible, the Douay-Rheims, approved by the Vatican. School officials refused.

Hughes took up the Catholic cause and took on the Protestant establishment. In his speeches, sermons, and writings, he demanded that public funds be used to support Catholic schools in addition to Protestant public schools. The state legislature refused.

Hughes then set out to create a separate Catholic school system where Catholic children could be educated according to the principles of their faith. Rejected by the Protestants, the Catholics established a number of their own institutions—churches, hospitals, and orphanages—alongside those of the Protestant establishment. In 1858, in a ceremony that fulfilled his dream of heralding the arrival of Catholicism in America, Hughes laid the cornerstone of St. Patrick's Cathedral, which, when completed years later, would become a symbol of Catholic determination in the country .

Known as 'Dagger John', Hughes could be aggressive, demanding and persistent. He made enemies but was loved by the Catholic immigrant community.

John Leland

Baptist minister John Leland played a key role in the struggle for religious freedom in both Virginia and Connecticut.

Raised in New England, Leland traveled to Virginia in 1775 to spread the Baptist message at a time when tensions between the established Anglican Church and the Baptists were rising. Leland's experience of the persecution and imprisonment of his fellow Baptist ministers—in addition to being at gunpoint himself—hardened his view that church and state should be separate so that individuals are free to follow their consciences in matters of religion. he became a key player in the so-called Virginia experience, where he found powerful allies in James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Leland believed that the Church should be protected from state interference and raids. he opposed any form of state aid to religion. Jefferson believed that it was the state that needed protection from overzealous clergy and organized religious groups.

Leland's belief in the complete separation of church and state would lead him to denounce the idea of ​​the United States as a Christian nation. InA chronicle of his time in Virginia, Leland wrote, “The idea of ​​a Christian commonwealth must be exploded forever. … The government must protect every man in free thought and speech, and ensure that one does not abuse the other. The freedom I fight for is more than tolerance. The whole idea of ​​tolerance is abhorrent. it presupposes that some have precedence over the rest in the provision of indulgence, when all ought to be equally free, Jew, Turk, Gentile, and Christian.

John Winthrop

In 1588, Protestant Britain ruled the seas. Catholic Spain was reduced to a second-rate European power. As a young man, Winthrop was convinced that England was in dire straits: inflation coupled with population growth had led men to pursue wealth at the expense of their souls. Efforts to reform the Church of England had failed. Zealous bishops persecuted religious dissenters who resisted obeying the rules. Puritans like Winthrop were persecuted. Winthrop was intrigued by a new venture, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a commercial enterprise that offered an opportunity for religious freedom in the New World.

Winthrop was chosen to serve as governor of the fledgling Puritan colony. Winthrop and his fellow Puritans sailed west to create a model of Christian commonwealth that they hoped would serve as an example that England and all of Europe would one day emulate. In Boston, Winthrop took the lead. of the colony. His energy seemed wonderful and inexhaustible. Whatever had to be done, he tried to do. He was repeatedly elected governor and was mainly responsible for maintaining political and social order. Political unity required religious conformity. However, Winthrop understood that some degree of dissent and disagreement was inevitable.

Joseph Smith

In the early 19th century, competition in the American intellectual market increased. A fourteen-year-old farm boy named Joseph Smith, overwhelmed by the myriad of religious options available to him, retreated into the woods to seek divine guidance. Which religion, he asked, was true?

Smith later reported seeing "two glorious characters"—later identified as God the Father and Jesus Christ—who told him that all Christian churches were teaching false doctrines. Smith believed that God was calling him to be the prophet who would restore the Church to its true foundation. This revelation marked the beginning of a faith tradition called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonism.

Smith's revelation continued in the following years, providing Mormonism with a series of highly distinctive and unorthodox teachings that virtually rewrote Christian history. Smith eventually published itBook of Mormon.

The cult was expelled from many towns, moved repeatedly, and eventually established a thriving community in Nauvoo, Illinois. Hostility continued, heightened by the institution of plural marriage, or polygamy, in 1842. There were also internal tensions within the church, as Smith's former associates made allegations of financial and sexual impropriety. Smith was arrested and imprisoned. While awaiting trial in 1844, he was murdered by a group of armed non-Mormons.

In some ways Mormonism represented a radical departure from American religious traditions, but in other ways it shared features with nineteenth-century American religion, such as the desire to restore the church of the Apostolic era and the belief that God has a special purpose. . for America.

Lyman Beecher

Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian minister, a leading revivalist and social reformer, helped build the organizations that became known as the "benevolent empire" and gave religion in America its characteristic voluntary stamp.

Beecher moved away from strict Calvinist doctrine, recognizing that people were deeply sinful, but he also taught that they also had the capacity to accept God's grace if they chose to.

In 1810 Beecher became pastor of the Congregational Church of Litchfield, Conn. In 1818 Connecticut decided with great trepidation to end the ties between church and state. Beecher fought hard against this step and mourned the day it was completed.

But Beecher changed his mind and made a public U-turn—from a leading defender of the religious establishment to an advocate of religious voluntarism. He began to realize that the end of the Church's dependence on the state made it a more vital and powerful institution. He wrote that he was:

... the best thing that ever happened to the state of Connecticut. It freed the churches from dependence on government aid. He threw them entirely upon their own resources and upon God. ... They say that the ministers have lost their influence. The fact is they won. Through volunteer efforts, associations, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever before with rows, shoe buckles, cocked hats, and gold-tipped canes.

Even as he called for unity, he became embroiled in bitter religious disputes, including a debate over the proper role of ministers. Beecher was a strong advocate of religious voluntarism and competition, but his advocacy of religious diversity had limits. For Beecher, religious discord and competition were desirable only if the end result was Protestant agreement and unity.

Beecher himself was accused of heresy by his own church, now the Presbyterian Church, after he supported the controversial New Measures initiated by the revivalist Charles Finney. the charges were dropped after a protracted legal battle. But these arguments and contradictions with his own principles did not prevent him from becoming one of the most important religious thinkers and social reformers of his time.

Richard Allen

Born into slavery in 1760, Richard Allen became a Methodist minister, an outspoken advocate of racial equality, and the founder of the African Methodist (AME) Church, one of the largest independent African-American denominations in the country. Allen's owner, a Delaware planter, converted to Methodism and allowed Allen to buy his freedom in 1783. He gave himself a surname: "Allen."

Segregation and concern for the welfare of freed blacks led Allen to consider the possibility of an all-black church to serve the city's 1,600 African-Americans. As a preliminary step, he and several colleagues formed the Free African Society, an association that offered mutual aid and fellowship. With the help of dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician and prominent citizen of Philadelphia, drew up a plan for church government.

In November 1787, Allen and other blacks were ordered to move to the balcony during a Sunday service at St. George's. They refused and left. Allen and ten other black Methodists remained in the Methodist church and founded Bethel Church in an old blacksmith shop.

Bethel Church was a huge success. The church had become the main institution of black Philadelphia. Bethel's success angered and worried the white Methodist preachers, who were angered by Allen's refusal to allow them to control the church. They tried to take over Bethel. When that failed, they went to court and won a lawsuit in 1815 that allowed them to sell the building and land.

Good financial planning and enthusiasm for fundraising allowed Allen to buy back the church he had built. In 1816, Allen and representatives of other black Methodist churches formally seceded from the Methodist Church and established a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was appointed bishop. In the big cities, both north and south, blacks chose to form their own separate denominations. Black clergy began to speak out against slavery and began to organize voluntary organizations focused on social reform and self-improvement.

Roger Williams

Williams, a young English clergyman with a talent for languages, arrived in Boston in 1631. However, Williams developed an interpretation of scripture that was diametrically opposed to the Puritan theology governing the holy commonwealth.

Williams argued that the Puritans were hypocrites because they remained in the Church of England rather than making a clear break as the Pilgrims had done. He also argued that it was unfair and wrong to take land from the Indians without paying them for it. Finally, he emphasized that civil magistrates had no right to impose religious duties.

Williams moved between Boston, Salem, and Plymouth Colony, winning followers, angering opponents, and igniting controversy. Expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, Williams moved south and established a small settlement in present-day Rhode Island. Under the name "Providence", the community officially guaranteed freedom of conscience. Baptists, Quakers, Jews and other religious dissenters, including Anne Hutchinson, soon found refuge there.

Williams believed passionately in "liberty of the soul" or freedom of conscience. For Williams, religion was an inherent right given by God. Faith should never be forced. History has clearly shown that subjecting consciousness to "mental and mental rape" had caused endless bloodshed and cost countless lives. Rulers throughout the ages, Williams wrote, have done "violence against the souls of men."

William Penn

William Penn criticized the elaborate ceremonies of the Anglican Church and protested against compulsory chapel attendance. Under the influence of the Quaker missionary Thomas Lowe, Penn had a mystical experience, later recalling, "The Lord visited me and gave me divine impressions of Himself." In 1667 he became a member of the Society of Friends or Quakers.

Founded in 1647 by George Fox, the Quakers believed that all men were equal before God and guided by an indwelling "light within," the Holy Spirit. They resist any attempt to limit individual consciousness. They refused to swear allegiance to the king, pay tithes to the church, or bear arms. In Anglican England, Quakers were considered heretics and were arrested, persecuted and imprisoned. Penn himself was imprisoned six times. From his cell he wrote an impassioned appeal for religious tolerance entitledNo cross, no crown. Over time, Penn produced a series of pamphlets, books, treatises, and tracts, creating a canon that articulated Quaker beliefs and principles.

But the persecution of the Quakers continued. Penn began to envision a solution to the "Quaker problem": a new colony in the New World where Quakers and good Christians could live together in a "Holy Experiment." In 1682, Penn sailed to America on the shipWelcomeand founded Philadelphia, the "city of brotherly love." Christians, especially persecuted Protestants, came in large numbers. Atheists were excluded. Jews and other non-Christians were barred from holding office and voting.

The experiment failed. Religious differences gave birth to political factionalism. In the legislature, the Quaker Party prevailed and opposed the separation of powers. The Quakers themselves split into rival factions. Penn's trusted associates mismanaged the funds. Penn was thrown into debtors prison. He suffered two strokes, lost his memory, and died penniless in 1718. Before his death, he had come to the conclusion that his Holy Experiment, his life's work, had failed. However, Penn's Sacred Experiment lived on. By the time of the Revolution, Pennsylvania's population had become a religious melting pot where Protestants of all stripes could freely compete with each other in a lively, if contentious, religious marketplace.


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