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Church History: A Biblical View
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Part VI - The Modern Age: Lesson No. 39 - New Organizations and Philosophies

I. Establishment of Denominational Independence in America

The American groundswell of religious fervor known as "the Great Awakening," which began in 1726, was dissipated by the distractions of the American Revolution. Men's minds were on politics and patriotism rather than religion. However, the American Revolution had more than a negative impact upon American denominationalism. Almost since its beginning several forces had merged in America to make it a country of greater religious liberty and independence than had been known in Europe. Chief among these forces, perhaps, was the very multiplicity of faiths. This prevented one church from gaining a national majority and asserting the upper hand. For this and other practical reasons it was easier to practice religious toleration. However, there were some groups which advocated religious freedom as a matter of religious principle. The Deistic persuasions of many of the young country's leaders also inclined America toward religious freedom on a political and legal level. To be sure, some regions of the country had been under the domination of a particular religious faith (as Puritanism in New England) and some groups, such as the Quakers, had been singled out for persecution, but the general movement of the country was toward religious freedom, and that movement gathered momentum as independence dawned. Finally, the First Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1791, provided that Congress should make no law respecting religious establishments or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Geographical separation from European mother countries and churches also made for ecclesiastical separation. More importantly, with the advent of the American Revolution continuance of organizational ties with European churches seemed even more undesirable. Such ties seemed unpatriotic. The Church of England in America especially suffered from the war. Following the war the old name was dropped and the name, "Protestant Episcopal Church," was adopted. An independent organizational structure was also devised and American candidates applied for, and eventually received in 1787, consecration as bishops from the English bishops.

The Methodist Church in America followed suit. At Baltimore in late 1784 the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed, and Francis Asbury was appointed deacon, elder, and superintendent. Though John Wesley had ordained Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as superintendents, he was much chagrined when they were made "bishops." Other American denominations, such as the Dutch and German Reformed Churches, Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Lutherans, had almost or altogether established their autonomy by the outbreak of the Revolution. The Revolution hastened completion of the process or prompted reorganization. American Catholics, of course, never established independence from Rome, but in 1808 Baltimore was made the seat of an archbishopric under John Carroll.

The Revolutionary period also witnessed the evolution in America of a new religious body - the Universalists. As the name suggests, Universalists believed that all men would be saved. John Murray (1741-1815), the father of organized Universalism, believed that Christ had made full payment for all men and that at the judgment all unbelief in God's mercy would vanish and immediate blessedness would there begin for all. That blessedness begins now for those who fully believe. Another Universalist advocate, Elhanan Winchester, asserted that all would be saved by ultimate "free" submission to God. However, unrepentant men would be purified by protracted, not eternal, suffering (Matt. 25:41,45; Mk. 9:47,48; II Thess. 1:8,9; Jude 7; Rev. 14:11). Yet another Universalist of great influence was Hosea Ballou, who asserted that Christ's atonement was moral; that is, it was not intended as a legal payment for sin but merely as a demonstration of God's love to draw men unto Him (Matt. 26:28). Additionally, he believed men would be punished for sin, here or hereafter, until they turned from it. Ballou also was unitarian in his views, and Universalists followed him in denying the divinity of Christ. Universalists became increasingly liberal through the years until almost any religious, or even irreligious, person could join their fellowship. In 1961 a union was effected between Unitarians and Universalists.


II. The German Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement which emphasized the power of human reason to discover the avenues to man's freedom, progress, and happiness. Therefore, its emphasis was upon natural religion and its goal was improvement, or even perfection, of men in their earthly life rather than salvation from sin. Whatever in religion seemed contributory to such a goal was accepted and used; all other religion was rejected. The movement was brought on by Deism and rationalism and had its heyday during the Eighteenth Century.

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781), an eminent German writer, set forth the idea that the human race, like the individual, passes through successive stages of development as it matures and the Scriptures had been given by God to meet the varying needs of each stage. Thus, the Old Testament was supposedly given for mankind's childhood and the New Testament for its youth, but in its adulthood mankind should be motivated by its sense of duty and ruled by its reason. Thus, the gospel of Christ was made to appear to be an inferior system of the past. Others involved in the Enlightenment subjected the Bible to textual and historical criticism, one effect of which was the assertion of composite authorship for Genesis. Adherents of this movement were not reluctant to criticize and reject any Scripture or teaching which to them seemed unreasonable. The supernatural elements of the Scriptures, including the deity of Christ, were particularly rejected. Jesus was viewed simply as a great moral teacher. At best, the Bible was merely the handmaid of the natural religion and morality which were discoverable by man's own reasoning.



III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) (T or F) The Anglicans in America changed the name of their church because the old name was unscriptural.

(2) (T or F) The New Testament is not suited to men in their full maturity (I Cor. 13:8-13; II Tim. 3:17,17; I Pet. 1:22-25).

(3) (T or F) The goal of Enlightenment thinkers was human and their guide was human .

(4) What was the impact of the American Revolution on American religion?


(5) Why did Episcopal candidates for the bishopric seek consecration from English bishops? What is inconsistent about this?


(6) Universalists believed in:

"Yes" or "No"



(a) universal salvation


(b) eternal punishment


(c) the deity of Christ


(d) open fellowship


(e) Christ's death as atonement for sin


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