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From Europe to America
The movement of Christianity from Europe to North America was immensely complex migration, extending over centuries and filled with tragic disillusionment as well as unanticipated successes. It amounted to one of the most important transformations in the entire history of Christianity. In the year 2000 the worldwide affiliated Christian population amounted to approximately two billion people. Of that number, over 15 percent, or more than 300 million, were found in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Five hundred years earlier, of course, there had been virtually no Christians in North America.
The place of the United States as the world's only remaining superpower magnifies the importance of the Christian history of North America. The spread of American influence around the world has meant that American versions of the nature, purpose, and content of the Christian faith have also spread widely. At the end of the twentieth century the churches of the United States were sponsoring approximately 70,000 overseas missionaries, with another 8,400 from Canada and 2,400 from Mexico. As just one concrete example of America's reach overseas, the American evangelistic organization Campus Crusade for Christ in 1979 produced a motion picture on the life of Christ, based on the Gospel of Luke. As of early 2001, copies of that film had been distributed in 638 separate languages, it was being shown actively in more than a hundred countries, and it had been viewed by over four billion people. Therefore, to inquire about what happened to Christianity in its transplantation fromEurope to North America is to raise not only an important historical question but also one with considerable bearing on the worldwide fate of Christianity at the start of the twenty-first century.
For a historical approach to the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to North America, it is instructive to begin with specific cases. Some of these cases present simple stories. Others are more complicated, and complicated in different ways. Together, these narratives underscore the complexities confronting any effort to account for Christianity as it traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to a New World.
The Transportation of Christianity as a Simple Narrative
On June 4, 1893, parishioners who attended the 7:00 a.m. mass at St. Wenceslaus Church in Spillville, Iowa, deep in the American Midwest, heard something remarkable. On the organ a visitor was playing the beloved Czech hymn, "Boze pred tvou velebnosti — O God before Thy Majesty," and the congregation, unaccustomed to music at the daily mass, was being asked to sing along. The organist was Antonín Dvorák, who only the day before had arrived in Spillville for a vacation from his work as musical director of the National Conservatory in New York. He had come to this tiny Midwestern community on the Turkey River in northeast Iowa because of its reputation as a well-maintained enclave of Czech immigrant culture. In New York, as in Europe, Dvorák practiced his Catholicism faithfully, but he was not in the habit of playing the organ for services as he did throughout the summer of 1893 in Spillville. For Antonín Dvorák, the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to North America meant no change in the material content of his faith, but deeper emotional satisfaction in its practice.
A similar sense of continuity between European Christianity and North American Christianity, but with much broader effects, is illustrated by events that occurred in the city of Montreal during the early 1840s. Montreal was then (as it is now) a center of French-Catholic civilization in Quebec. Each night from 13 December 1840 through 21 January 1841, Mgr. Charles de Forbin-Janson held a well-attended preaching mission in the new diocese of Montreal. Forbin-Janson, a native of France who had arrived in North America only in 1839, was co-founder of the Missionaires de France (later known as the Fathers of Mercy). Early in his clerical career, at the request of Pope Pius VII, he had devoted himself to public preaching and heightened concentration on the sacraments as means of winning his countrymen back to the church after the disengagements of the French Revolution. Now he was using these same techniques in the New World. Forbin-Janson's preaching had been effective in the United States, but not nearly as successful as it was in Lower Canada, where he enjoyed the dedicated assistance of Mgr Ignace Bourget, soon to be Montreal's second bishop. Shortly after Forbin-Janson's mission ended, Bourget embarked for France, where he recruited a host of Europeans to aid the work of his diocese: Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Jesuits, Sisters of the Sacred Heart, nuns of the Good Shepherd from Angers, clerics of St. Viator, and Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters of the Holy Cross. Historian Louis Rousseau credits a combination of local conditions, the Forbin-Janson mission of 1839-1840, and Bourget's dedicated leadership for a revival of ultramontane Catholicism in Quebec. For Forbin-Janson and Bourget, the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to North America meant an opportunity to create in Quebec one of the most conservative, and one of the most durable, organic Christian societies found anywhere in the world.
Another Catholic voice can be enlisted, this time with more complexity, to suggest the same sort of continuity. In 1925, Gerald Shaughnessy published his landmark study of Catholicism in the United States, Has the Immigrant Kept the Faith? In this generally optimistic account Shaughnessy nonetheless reported that, especially among Italians, there was at least some leakage of immigrants to non-Catholic churches, where, as he reported, Protestants occasionally employed "statues, altars, candles and other similar appurtenances ... to entrap the unwary and the ignorant" by fooling them into thinking they were attending Catholic churches. Yet despite losses from such underhanded practices, Shaughnessy was able to report that, even among Italian-American immigrants, the rate of Catholic retention was much higher than he and a host of other interpreters had thought possible. For Shaughnessy, the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to North America meant new opportunities for frauds to imitate the one true faith, but also an unprecedented flourishing of the Catholic church, a flourishing that Shaughnessy could only consider "a living, vital, irrefragable, concrete proof of the power and the grace of God."
Many of the Protestants who came to North America felt just as strongly that the movement of Christianity From Europe was a straightforward affair, but one with exactly opposite connotations. Alexander Campbell was born near Ballymena, Country Antrim, Ireland, in 1788, the son of a Seceding Presbyterian minister. After study in Scotland, he came in 1809 to the United States. Immediately upon his arrival in the New World, Campbell abandoned the Presbyterianism in which he had been trained because he found its theology, its polity, and its sacramental restrictions far too confining in the openness of the new American republic. Throughout the long career that followed, Campbell became one of the leaders of the "restorationist" movement that was defined by efforts to promote a Christianity shorn of Old-World excrescences and pared back to the essentials of a simple New Testament Faith. For these restorationist purposes, Campbell could not imagine a better place than the United States of America. In one of many such statements about his new country, Campbell proclaimed in an 1830 address that the declaration of American independence on July 4, 1776, was "a day to be remembered as was the Jewish Passover.... The American Revolution is ... the precursor of a revolution infinitely more important to mankind[,] ... the emancipation of the human mind from the shambles of superstition, and the introduction of human beings into the full fruition of the reign of heaven." For Campbell, the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to North America meant an opportunity to strip away the corruptions of Europe, to join Christian faith with liberating aspects of American experience, and so to approach the millennium of Christ's reign on earth.
The Transmission of Christianity as a Complex Narrative
By no means were all migrations of Christian faith to North America such straightforward affairs. Many were far more complex, with a complexity as instructive as the simplicity of the previous examples.
Isaac Buchanan was a Lowland Scot who came to Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the 1830s to pursue his economic betterment. Through a long and active Canadian business career, he nonetheless remained an earnest practitioner of the evangelical Presbyterianism of his youth. Along with many Scots of his day, age, social location, and religion, he looked upon Canada as an extension of Scotland and so easily transferred religious expectations from the Old World to the new. One of the pieces of ecclesiastical baggage that Buchanan brought with him from Scotland to Upper Canada was the conviction that church-state establishments were not only permissible, but essential for the well-being of religion and society. This conviction he maintained in the New World even after the Canadian Presbyterian church imitated a schism in Scotland between Free and established Presbyterians in 1843 and split itself in two. It was not until Buchanan, on trips back to the old country, heard arguments from members of the Scottish Free Kirk attacking church-state establishment, and not until he also applied to ecclesiastical life the arguments he absorbed in Britain about the virtues of free trade, that Buchanan changed his opinion on ecclesiastical establishments. To quote a fine doctoral thesis on Buchanan: "It was in Britain that he first spoke out against church establishment and argued for the complete financial separation of church and state. Only later did he suggest that the granting of financial assistance to religion was as incorrect in the Canadas as it was in the homeland." For Buchanan and the issue of church-state relationships, the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to North America meant that instruction would come from the Old World concerning how to act in the new.
Complex connections between the Old and New Worlds can be observed in other ways as well. The swarming of Scandinavian immigrants to the United States after the mid-nineteenth century resulted in a mass of complicated religious choices. The story of Lars Paul Esbjörn (1808-1870) is one of the most complicated. In Sweden, Esbjörn's ardent advocacy of trans-denominational pietism — complete with active revivalism, temperance societies, Sunday Schools, attacks on slavery, and a willingness to adjust the Augsburg Confession — prevented his rise in the state Lutheran Church. This background of discontent with religion in Sweden led him to migrate to the United States in 1849. In his new land he first came under the influence of a sectarian pietist, Olof Gustav Hedström, and he almost joined Hedström's Swedish Methodist church. Later he sought support for his labors from yet another denomination, the American Home Missionary Society of the Congregationalists. Soon, however, Esbjörn began to be worried about the excesses of religious freedom in his new land, and so he organized a Lutheran church in Andover, Illinois. Later he came out strongly for the defenders of strict confessional Lutheranism who took their stand on an unaltered Augsburg Confession. Fourteen years after Esbjörn came to America, he returned to Sweden, where he accepted a position in the established Lutheran Church, the very church he once had abandoned as hopelessly corrupt. For Esbjörn the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to North America meant at first unprecedented opportunity to advance an activist pietism, then growing concern about the excesses of American liberty, and finally a return to traditional European institutions.
Still other voices testified to a different kind of complexity in the westward movement of Christianity. In 1865, Philip Schaff, the Swiss-born emigré church historian, returned to Europe from the United States to lecture before Protestant audiences on the meaning of the American Civil War. In the course of these speeches, he could barely contain his enthusiasm for the progress of Christianity in his adopted land, especially for "its careful observance of the Sabbath," which to Schaff was one of the most powerful proofs "of the God-fearing and Christian character of the American nation." Schaff wanted his hearers to know that the American who honored Sunday, which stilled even the "otherwise so busy commercial life" of the United States, was "no judaic sabbatarian and slavish legalist." Rather, this was someone who voluntarily chose to honor the day in the freedom "of the Gospel and of the Spirit." Sadly, Schaff also felt compelled to tell his European audiences that the peace and sanctity of the American Christian sabbath was now "being threatened, above all in New York City, by the huge mass of immigration pouring in from all countries of the Continent." By mentioning specifically that New York's population of about one million included 220,000 Irish and 150,000 Germans, and by singling out the sabbath-despisers' "smoke-filled taverns and pleasure palaces" as the scenes of greatest sabbath desecration, Schaff left little doubt as to where he thought the most serious threat was arising to a gloriously Christian social practice. For Schaff the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to North America meant an opportunity for the faith to flourish as it was flourishing nowhere else in the world, but also a lesson in how a lack of discipline brought from the Old World could undermine piety in the new.
Shortly after Schaff made these comments, an entirely different view was expressed on the fate of Christianity in the United States. Orestes Brownson, after earlier careers as humanist, reformer, Unitarian, and Transcendentalist, had entered the Catholic church in 1844. During the American Civil War (1861-65), he championed the North as promoting both civilization and true religion. Yet afterwards he came to doubt the compatibility between American civilization and the principles of his adopted church. Brownson's disillusionment grew so great that in 1870 he could write: "I defend the republican form of government for our country, because it is the legal and only practicable form, but I no longer hope anything from it. Catholicity is theoretically compatible with democracy ..., but practically, there is, in my judgment, no compatibility between them. According to Catholicity all power comes from above and descends from high to low; according to democracy all power is infernal, is from below, and ascends from low to high. This is democracy in its practical sense, as politicians & the people do & will understand it. Catholicity & it are as mutually antagonistic as the spirit & the flesh, the Church and the World, Christ & Satan." For Brownson the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to North America created a challenge to preserve the one true faith in an environment alien to that faith.
Excerpted from The Old Religion in a New World by Mark A. Noll. Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||From Europe to America||1|
|3||The Churches Become American, 1730-1830||48|
|4||The Separation of Church and State||72|
|5||The High Tide of Protestantism, 1830-1865||95|
|6||A New Christian Pluralism, 1865-1906||113|
|7||Divisions, Renewal, Fragmentation, Acculturation, 1906-1960||136|
|8||The Recent Past, 1960-2000||161|
|10||In the Shadow of the United States - Canada and Mexico||209|
|11||The Fate of European Traditions - Lutherans and Roman Catholics||235|
|12||Day-to-Day Christian Spirituality and the Bible||253|
|App. A||The Largest Denominations (as of 2000) in the United States and Canada||282|
|App. B||Regional Variations in the United States and Canada||287|