American Radical Religion: revolution as revivalism

The last year or two I have been doing research into the many Christian and Pseudo-Christian religions that have arisen in the United States, particularly those that had their birth in the first part of the 19th century—the so-called “Great Awakening.” This includes the ancestors of the modern-day Mormon churches, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with the many variants of Charismatic and Pentecostal Protestant Christianity. I’ve noticed a few patterns, though these are not universal, nor has my study been exhaustive. Generally, I see a sequence that goes something like this:

  1. A charismatic leader preaches novel heresy as a part of esoteric knowledge of the divine. Almost always the ideas are not presented as revolutionary, but as revivalist—a return to a state that was lost or corrupted over time.
  2. The leader gains followers who attach themselves to the ideas of the leader, identify themselves with those positions, and a movement forms.
  3. Some exceptional inciting incident disrupts the movement, and
  4. The movement is reformed by new leaders into one or several sects that operate as a coherent religion.


5. Over time, the new religion begins to drift back towards mainline Protestantism, either in doctrine or in form.

The most obvious example would be the Mormon Movement:

  1. Joseph Smith claims to have translated a lost book of the bible after praying. He presents his ideas as revivalism – that all the religions have got it wrong or lost things in translation.
  2. He gathers followers and begins preaching novel heresies, including polygamous marriage. Those who attach themselves to the Mormon Movement have a particular identity bound up with this supposed biblical lifestyle. It is VERY different from mainstream American values. He also preaches apocalyptic ascendency of his church.
  3. Schisms begin in the church (claiming a corruption of teaching), setting off a series of events that end in the murder of Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail.
  4. The remaining leaders schism further, with Brigham Young taking charge of what would become the modern-day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, eventually leading the “Mormon Exodus” to Utah.
  5. By the 21st century, many of the unique doctrines of Mormonism have been suppressed or abandoned, particularly plural marriage, and the members of the largest sect of the church adhere to the prevailing social standards of modern America, with only isolated outliers continuing the controversial practices. The unique rituals and a large portion of the theology remain.

The history of the Mormon Movement is very dramatic, much more so than, say, the Adventists, but being dramatic, it shows the pattern quite well. For the Adventists movement:

  1. William Miller preaches an imminent second coming of Jesus Christ, eventually setting several dates for the return in 1844.
  2. Miller builds a large following of “Adventists” who evangelize heavily and publish large amounts of work predicting the second coming.
  3. All the listed dates come and go; the “Great disappointment” occurs, and Miller’s followers leave the faith in the tens of thousands.
  4. Ellen G. White, who claims to have the gift of prophesy, reforms the movement with a few others into a new religion which, while maintaining a belief in the coming advent, adds various novel heresies, including a denial of souls entering heaven after death and a call to have church (celebrate the Sabbath) on Saturday, rather than Sunday, which is presented as revivalist.
  5. By the 21st century, most of White’s unique doctrines have been abandoned or minimized, including non-trinitarian beliefs, but the most important one (celebrating Saturday) remains intact.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a similar history, with a charismatic leader (Charles Russell) prophesying apocalypse in 1914, which failed to happen, and after his death, the movement (called the International Bible Students Association) was reorganized into the present religion, which slowly abandoned its apocalyptic roots as more prophesies failed and is now best known by outsiders through their members’ refusal to celebrate various holidays, receive transfusions, or participate in military service.

The next pondering is what it is about America that led to so many repetitions of this cycle, especially in the 19th century. I believe at present that it is the result of the combination of:

  1. Separation from England and the religious institutions of Europe through The American Revolution, which resulted in theological anarchy,
  2. The American frontier life, which further separated individuals from more orthodox practices and traditional congregations,
  3. The influence of the Christian Reform movement and reformation in general, which for most sects was presented as revivalism, not revolution, and
  4. The transition from frontier to settled land, wherein the free spirit and individualism necessary for pioneering gives way to more collectivist personalities and secular social arrangements.

The reformation might be the most subtle, but things like Sola Scriptura allow “every man to be his own pope,” when the people are forging a new culture and physically separated from old institutions and each other. Essentially, tradition holds no weight in the environment of the New American Frontier. There may be no formal church under an authority anywhere near settlers, which allows for novel heresies to arise, allows for separated individuals to find community through unique identities, and allows for charisma and clever argumentation to establish heresies as revivals of the old ways—now lost, but findable through scripture.

After the burst of prophesy and conflict which establishes the religion, there is a sort of “regression to the mean” as religions interact with each other and the greater culture becomes more unified through settlement. At that point the balance between “unique self” and “part of the whole” shifts to the broader cultural identity, so some portion of the unique beliefs become abandoned and the religion becomes integrated into the modern secular mixing pot.

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One Comment

  1. I think broader American trends are at play with the various religious developments in the 19th century. The Romantics, the Transcendentalists, the feminist , etc. were all very active at this period. The post Civil War American culture became inundated with tons of social movements and utopian projects that appeared around the West. I think that the 19th century religious movements that were founded on charismatics and enthusiasts were probably related to this over arching cultural trend. Also certain populations within certain conditions have to be taken in to account as well. The Lutherans never really had any these big dramatic movements spring out from among them, even though many of them settled the frontiers of the middle west. At the same time, many of the New England urban populations fell to Unitarianism.

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