Fantasyland 4. American churches go from crazy to insane and unhinged: 1800 to present

Preface. This is the fifth of nine posts about Fantasyland. This is a very important book on how and why a large percent of Americans have has been irrational for 500 years.

Evangelism threatens to create a non-democratic, authoritarian government, so the history of how nutty religious history has been since 1800 explains a lot about how evangelism could even exist. 

Links to the 9 parts of this book review:  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Kurt Andersen. 2017. Fantasyland. How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History. Random House.

In Kentucky in 1801, a Holy Fair was held with dozens of ministers. As many as 20,000 people arrived and stayed to hear the gospel, to be saved, to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime human carnival, an unprecedented lollapalooza.

Things really got rolling 24 hours in, as Saturday afternoon turned to dusk. Campfires and bonfires burned. Darkness descended. Preachers preached from trees and wagons, several at once. Dozens of ordinary people—women, children, anyone moved by the Holy Spirit—were self-appointed “exhorters,” shouting the truth of the gospel as they believed or felt or imagined or otherwise knew it. People screamed uncontrollably. People ran and leaped, barked and sang uncontrollably. People laughed and sobbed uncontrollably. Hundreds were overcome by “the jerks,” convulsive seizures of limbs and necks and torsos that sometimes resolved into a kind of dance. And of course, hundreds or thousands of sinners found Christ and repented.

An equivalent American gathering today, as a fraction of the U.S. population, would be more than a million people. As the Vanderbilt historian Paul Conkin and Harold Bloom of Yale have both noted, Cane Ridge was the Woodstock for American Christianity, an anarchic, unprecedented August moment of mass spectacle that crystallized and symbolized a new way of thinking and acting, a permanent new subculture.

More Baptist and Methodist preachers organized more camp meetings all over the country, but especially in the South, and more mobs of people assembled to go over the top and out of their minds.

They committed to a version of Christianity more thrilling and magical right now, as well as a sure-thing payoff for eternity. Thus the new American way: it was awesome, it was democratic, you’re a winner if you believe you’re a winner.

Like his pioneering predecessor Whitefield a century earlier, he understood that in America Christianity should be a kind of show business: “to expect to promote religion without excitements,” Finney wrote, “is…absurd.

The religious divergence of Europe and America became more pronounced, as Europeans swung toward the calm and reasonable, Americans toward the excited and fantastical.

By means of hundreds of end-is-nigh pamphlets and books and periodicals and tent meetings, Miller acquired almost a million American believers, as many as one in ten northeasterners. After 1843 came and went normally, Miller and company decided they’d miscalculated the date and changed it to the following April—no, wait, October, 1844. But October 22 turned out to be just another Tuesday. The disappointed masses who kept the faith broke into different factions, one of which was the Seventh-day Adventists.

But the big, long-lasting impact was the mainstreaming of the belief among modern American Christians that they might personally experience the final fantasy—the end of days, the return of Jesus, Satan vanquished. Around the same time, another Protestant minister was devising an even more complicated version of end-of-the-world prophecy. The Reverend John Nelson Darby, by means of two decades of cross-country preaching tours, permanently embedded the Bible’s end-time prophecies into the heart of American Christianity.

Darby recast the apocalypse in a far more appealing light—for believers. All so-called premillennialists agree that an ugly period of worldwide tribulation will be humankind’s existential denouement—war, famine, pandemic disease. But Darby more or less invented the idea of “the rapture,” a moment just before all hell breaks loose when Jesus will arrive incognito and take Christians away to heavenly safety to wait out the earthly horrors. Then He and the lucky saints return to Earth for the happy ending.

Americans often resist the idea that educated experts can tell them what is and isn’t true, but from the Puritans on, we’ve also been more than happy for scholarly fellow believers to confirm our beliefs and make them more impressively complicated. It is a modern wish for proof of one’s premodern fantasies. “The enduring appeal of prophecy belief for evangelicals,” as the historian Paul Boyer has written, is its “quasi-empirical ‘scientific’ validation of their faith.” Explainers like Darby “explicitly portrayed their endeavor…as a science.

The Shakers were among the more successful of dozens of smaller American sects and cults in this period, each led by an electrifying individual who claimed to have a direct line to God or His angels. A large fraction of Americans wanted or needed to believe they lived in an enchanted time and place, that the country swarmed with supernatural wonders, and that mid-nineteenth-century America was like the Holy Land of the early first century,

The All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith, Prophet

Smith published the Mormon “bible” in 1830, the year after he dictated it. It’s a doozy. A heretofore unknown prophet named Lehi escaped besieged Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. and sailed with his family and friends to the Americas, where their descendants founded a civilization. The civilization split into two warring peoples, one white and the other dark-skinned. The freshly resurrected Jesus Christ appeared among the white half, appointed twelve of them as his new, second set of apostles, and repeated the Sermon on the Mount. Thanks to Jesus’s visit, the light- and dark-skinned American nations reunited for a while, but then in the fifth century A.D. they went to war again, the darker people annihilating the whiter people. Smith’s interlocutor Moroni was one of the last whites alive when he buried the plates. (Smith said later that God told him American Indians are descended from the dark-skinned group.)

American Christians from the start tended toward the literal and hysterical and collectively self-centered. Joseph Smith met that bid and raised it a million. Like the American Puritans as well as the new millennialists of his own era, he prophesied that Armageddon was coming soon. “The heavens shall shake and the Earth shall tremble,” he said God had informed him, and for the unlucky, “flesh shall fall from their bones, and their eyes from their sockets.

The grandiose anything-goes literalism of his theology knew no bounds. He said that “God…has flesh and bones,” and he suggested that Jesus was conceived by means of literal sexual congress between God and Mary.

American Christians had always nudged the Bible in the direction of America. Smith made America a literal second Holy Land, settled by literal Israeli émigrés and visited by the literal Jesus Christ.

If one considers the Bible, in the main, to be historical fiction, then what Joseph Smith produced was a monumental and pioneering work of fan fiction, the most successful ever.* Fan fiction, as one scholar has written, is created by fans to “fill the need” among other fans for “narratives that expand the boundary of the official source products.” Smith’s official source products were the Old and New Testaments.

One could argue that the New Testament itself was a collaborative anthology of fan fiction inspired by the Old Testament—We’ll give Jehovah a son, part god and part human!) But it took hubris of a particularly entrepreneurial American kind for an individual to produce such a comprehensive work of fan fiction over the course of just a few years, one purporting to have been dictated in part by the original author, God himself. According to Smith, according to God, Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden was not the tragic Fall of Man but a good thing, because it enabled ordinary pleasure and joy, let humans be human.

The term fan fiction was coined in the 1960s to describe stories written by fans of a science fiction series, and Smith’s Heaven is very sci-fi. It has distinct quality levels, like American Express cards—one for run-of-the-mill people who don’t deserve Hell, one for good Christians, and a super-premium level for Mormons. There you’re not just one of a mass of a billion indistinguishable souls in some ethereal netherworld, but a king or queen of your personal planetary fiefdom as a resurrected immortal physical being, continuing to produce princes and princesses. God lives near an actual celestial object called Kolob, a definite number of miles away from Earth.

Plus, any dead friends or relatives can be posthumously baptized and sent along to Heaven as well. Better history, better future—and at least for men, a better present, now that sex with multiple women was no longer a sin but a holy commandment.

America was created by people resistant to reality checks and convinced they had special access to the truth, a place founded to enact grand fantasies. No Joseph Smiths emerged elsewhere in the modern world. And if they had, where else would so many responsible people instantly abandon their previous beliefs and lives and risk everything on the say-so of such a man making such claims?

The new American Christianity emphasized not just the ancient miracles but miracles right now, feeling the supernatural by believing in it strongly enough. We had become a country where millions of evangelical Christians were rising up breathlessly from the sinners’ “anxious bench” to channel the Holy Spirit and be born again instantly. We were a practical country, so along with moral lessons and promises of an eternal afterlife, churches in the early 1800s were providing instant solutions, miracle cures for feelings of meaninglessness and emptiness.

Quack alternative medicine affected Christianity too: the Church of Christ Scientist

Mrs. Patterson hurt her back in an accident. After reading the Bible’s account of Jesus curing a paralytic, she found her own injury cured. She set about inventing her own quasi-Christian pseudoscientific belief system, which she presented in a book called Science and Health. There’s only “belief in pain.” “We say man suffers from the effects of cold, heat, fatigue. This is human belief, not the truth of being, for matter cannot suffer,” and “what is termed disease does not exist.” And not just pain, not just illness, but dying and matter itself—none of it is real.

Mary Baker Eddy, and founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. Her followers, forming more than a thousand Christian Science churches in America within thirty years, were called not believers but scientists.

An individual mesmerist or phrenologist or hydropathist could make a decent living, but selling professional services was not really scalable as a national business. Inventing a religion, as Mary Baker Eddy did, was one way to scale.

Southern Christianity

Southerners turned ever more to their churches for definition as Southerners. Revised hymns and new stained-glass windows conflated Christian and Confederate imagery and themes. White Southern religious culture became kind of a rump Confederacy. Believers doubled down on the supernatural, looking toward a miraculous do-over, an ultimate victory on Judgment Day and in the hereafter. Instead of squarely facing the uncomfortable facts—slavery was wrong, secession a calamitous mistake—they shifted into excuse-and-deny mode. For a great many white Southerners, defeat made them not contrite and peaceable (like, say, Germans and Japanese after World War II) but permanently pissed off. Which in turn led them to embrace a Christianity almost as medieval as the Puritans’.

Christianity grows more extreme

In America, even as the moderns declared victory, the committed magical thinkers weren’t giving up. And they fell back on one of the original Protestant and Puritan reflexes: if the decadent elite was stigmatizing believers as bumptious zealots, persecuting them for their unfashionable faith, the believers would go even more hardcore.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, millions of backlashing Americans became more invested in the idea that God had dictated the Bible, that it was 100% nonfiction, and that reading between the lines was permissible only if it confirmed their belief that Christ would return soon to stop the torrent of modern demonic corruption once and for all.

Moody’s most important protégé was a corrupt and alcoholic Kansas lawyer and politician named Cyrus Scofield. After deserting his wife and children, he became an evangelical minister, cofounding his own Bible schools, launching his own correspondence course, and finally, in 1909, publishing his own Bible. This wasn’t a new translation; rather, he took the King James Version and, in his lawyerly way, filled almost half of each page with explanatory text, publishing his take on the new evangelical take on the meaning and timing of the scriptural stories and prophecies—including the calculation that God created the world in the autumn of 4004 B.C.E. All those footnotes made the most outlandish versions of Christian myth appear more bona fide. It was published by Oxford University Press and became a phenomenal bestseller.

Science had proved that humans descended from animals—which is tough to reconcile with a literal reading of Genesis, in which God forms man from the dust of the ground by breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. In the half-century since Darwin’s The Descent of Man, intellectually supple Christians around the world—the “modernists”—had reconciled Scripture with scientific evidence: the astronomers, geologists, paleontologists, and biologists were simply discovering the operational details of God’s miraculous creation.

So God in his amazing way created man, but not in a single day, and not by blowing on a dirt statue.

A large fraction of American Christians, however, refused to move beyond the picture of human creation they’d had as children. “I don’t believe your own bastard theory of evolution,” Billy Sunday snarled. “I believe it’s pure jackass nonsense.” In the winter of 1925, he preached for two weeks in Memphis, where 250,000 people (in a city of 200,000) turned out to hear him rail against Darwin and godless biology. Immediately the state of Tennessee enacted the strictest of several (Southern) laws that criminalized science’s bastard theories, making it “unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities…and all other public schools of the State…to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal.

As grassroots Christian beliefs grew more implausible in opposition to the liberalizing mainstream, some of the grass roots yearned for more implausible and flamboyant Christian practice

Forming their own churches, one-off and regional operations that shared a brand (the Church of God), but even more decentralized than the Baptists, with no national leadership or headquarters, every church free to do its own thing. This kind of self-franchising felt correct, more righteous and American. Members wanted to live strictly virtuous lives—without liquor or tobacco, without singing or dancing, without theater or movies. And at their services, they weren’t content just to hear sermons, get baptized, and pray. Indeed, maybe to compensate for the everyday asceticism, the lack of intoxicants and fun, they sought another sort of mind-altering and mind-altered entertainment: camp meetings, traumatic and ecstatic public conversions, faith healing. They were Americans, so they wanted more. They’d read in the Bible’s Book of Acts that some weeks after Jesus’s crucifixion, His apostles were temporarily granted supernatural powers to perform “wonders and signs”—the so-called Pentecost. Among those miraculous powers had been the ability “to speak with other tongues”—instant fluency in all the languages spoken at that time in multicultural Jerusalem.

Four hundred years after Luther said that “we are all priests,” Americans took the notion a hysterical step further: every believer could now be a prophet as well, each equal to one of Jesus’s apostles, commissioned to perform and reveal miraculous wonders and signs, and not just temporarily.

The two main founders of Pentecostalism were a pair of young evangelists, former Methodists by way of the Holiness Movement. Charles Parham had set up a little Bible college in Topeka for people “willing to forsake all, sell what they had, give it away, and enter the school,” where he taught that the end-time was near. On the very first day of the twentieth century, this twenty-seven-year-old put his hands on a student, a thirty-year-old woman, and, according to him, “a halo seemed to surround her head and face, and she began speaking in the Chinese language and was unable to speak English for three days.” Although a local Chinese person said that what she spoke wasn’t Chinese at all, the believers believed, and soon more Topekans, including the minister and his clerical peers, were excitedly speaking dozens of different made-up foreign languages.

The new L.A. church, in a ramshackle building in Little Tokyo, was instantly successful. Thousands made their way downtown for the nonstop performances. Two weeks into the madness, the great 1906 earthquake leveled San Francisco and shook L.A.—a coincidence that encouraged the believers on Azusa Street to believe they were receiving bulletins from God about Armageddon and Christ’s return.

A North Carolina preacher who’d recently switched from Methodist to Holiness in order to accommodate his beliefs in faith healing and the imminent end-time crossed the country to witness the free-for-all in L.A. Immediately converted, he returned home and barnstormed the South to recruit other evangelical ministers for the new sect—who in turn set up Pentecostal denominations that endure today. Within a decade, the main Pentecostal denominations had millions of American members.


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