Preface. In another post about critical thinking, “What percent of Americans are rational?”, I list the results of 10 polls about what Americans believe. Here are the questions about Christianity. When there’s more than one figure, they’re from different polls:
- Angels: 77%, 72%, 72% 88% of Christians, 95% of evangelical Christians
- Creationism: 36%
- Devil: 61%, 60%, 58%
- Heaven: 71%, 75%
- Hell: 64%, 61%
- Jesus born of a virgin: 73%, 61%, 57%
- Jesus is God or son of God: 73%, 68%
- Jesus’s resurrection: 70%, 65%
- Life after death: 71%, 64%
- Miracles: 76%, 72%
Only 48% of people agree with the statement “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today. The rest believe evolution happened via the hand of God.
A quarter believe that president Obama was, or is, the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches. Remarkably, no more than one in five Americans believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables.
What follows are the parts of Fantasyland that cover the early history of Christianity in the U.S.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com 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.
The Conjuring of America: 1517–1789. I Believe, Therefore I Am Right: The Protestants
America began as a fever dream, a myth, a happy delusion, a fantasy. In fact, it began as multiple fantasies, each embraced around 1600 by people so convinced of their thrilling, wishful fictions that most of them abandoned everything—friends, families, jobs, good sense, England, the known world—to enact their dreams or die trying. A lot of them died trying.
After the launch of this new Christianity, the new printing enabled its spread. Luther’s main complaint had been about the church’s sale of phony VIP passes to Heaven. “There is no divine authority,” one of his theses pointed out, “for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately [when] the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.
Out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything
Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people—that is, critically expanding individual liberty—Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a good Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered.
Although Raleigh never visited North America himself, he believed that in addition to its gold deposits, his realm might somehow be the biblical Garden of Eden. English clergymen had calculated from the Bible that Eden was at a latitude of thirty-five degrees north—just like Roanoke Island, they said. And there was still more fresh (hearsay) evidence of divine magic in Virginia: a botanist’s book, Joyful News of the New Found World, reported that various plants unique to America cured all diseases. A famous English poet published his “Ode to the Virginian Voyage,” calling Virginia “Earth’s only Paradise” where Britons would “get the pearl and gold”—and plenty of English people imagined that it was literally a new Eden.
Alas, no. A large fraction of the first settlers dispatched by Raleigh became sick and died. He dispatched a second expedition of gold-hunters. It also failed, and all those colonists died.
In 1606 the new English king, James, despite Raleigh’s colonization disasters, gave a franchise to two new private enterprises, the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, to start colonies. The southern one, under the auspices of London, they named Jamestown after the monarch. Their royal charter was clear about the main mission: “to dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold…And to HAVE and enjoy the Gold. Two-thirds of those first hundred gold-seekers promptly died.
The gold fantasy wasn’t limited to colonists in the South. Those dispatched at the same time by the Plymouth Company, 120 of them, landed up on the Maine coast, also looking for gold
Unlike their Virginia compatriots, however, the English colonists in Maine quickly accommodated reality and admitted defeat. Half left a few months after arriving, the rest six months later. They were not credulous or imaginative enough to become Americans.
But…maybe they just hadn’t talked to the right natives! Or looked in the right places! In 1614 yet another Plymouth Company expedition sailed to New England, this one exclusively in pursuit of gold. They had an inside man aboard, a native who’d been captured and enslaved by an earlier Plymouth Company ship off Cape Cod. The Indian had spent his time in captivity in London learning English and the nature of his captors’ shiny-metal fixation, so he concocted a story just for them: There’s a gold mine on my own island, he lied, and I’ll take you back there to claim it. When the English anchored off Martha’s Vineyard, he jumped ship, and his tribal brothers covered his escape with bow-and-arrow fire from canoes. The Englishmen realized they’d been played and sailed home.
Down in Virginia, meanwhile, more than 6,000 people had emigrated to Jamestown by 1620, the equivalent of a midsize English city at the time. At least three-quarters had died, but not the abiding dream. People kept coming and believing, hopefulness becoming delusion. It was a gold rush with no gold. Fifteen years after Jamestown’s founding, a colonist wrote a friend to request a shipment of nails, cutlery, vinegar, cheese—and also to make excuses for why he hadn’t quite yet managed to get rich: “By reason of my sickness & weakness I was not able to travel up and down the hills and dales of these countries but doo now intend every day to walk up and down the hills for good Minerals here is both gold [and] silver.
But back in England the investors and their promotional agents continued printing posters, hyperbolic testimonials, and dozens of books and pamphlets, organizing lotteries, and fanning out hucksterish blue smoke. Thus the first English-speaking Americans tended to be the more wide-eyed and desperately wishful. “Most of the 120,000 indentured servants and adventurers who sailed to the [South] in the seventeenth century,” according to the University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall’s history of America, Freedom Just Around the Corner, “did not know what lay ahead but were taken in by the propaganda of the sponsors.
The historian Daniel Boorstin went even further, suggesting that “American civilization [has] been shaped by the fact that there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe in advertising.
In his London circles, Bacon said, it was all “gold, silver, and temporal profit” driving the colonization project, not “the propagation of the Christian faith.” For the imminent next wave of English would-be Americans, however, propagating a particular set of Christian superstitions, omens and divine judgments were more than just lip-service cover for dreams of easy wealth. For them, the prospect of colonization was all about the export of their supernatural fantasies to the New World.
Most supernatural religious beliefs aren’t falsifiable. The existence of a God who created and manages the world according to a fixed eternal plan, Jesus’s miracles and resurrection, Heaven, Hell, Satan’s presence on Earth—these can never be disproved.
Unlike Roman Catholicism, with its old global hierarchy and supreme leader, the new Protestant Christianity was by its nature fractious and unstable,
When official leaders lose their way, pious anybodies can and must decide the new improved truth on their own—that is, by reading Scripture, each individual determines the correct meaning of the Christian fantasies. The Protestants’ founding commitment to fierce, decentralized, do-it-yourself truth-finding and spiritual purity naturally led to the continuous generation of self-righteous sectarian spin-offs.
What really distinguished the Puritans from the mainstream were matters of personality, demeanor. To be a Puritan was to embody uncompromising zeal. (They were analogous to certain American political zealots today, who more than disagreeing with their Establishment’s ideas just can’t stand their reasonable-seeming manner.) Moreover, a good Christian life, the Puritans believed, was one consumed by Christianity. The most extreme of the
But changing where they lived didn’t change who they were—sticklers and malcontents. They lived in Leiden, a place full of all the normal real-world ungodliness of a large Dutch city. Leiden was also the center of a liberal sect of Protestants. In other words, the English Puritans in Holland were surrounded by a new species of disgusting heresy. For them, hell for now was other people who didn’t share their beliefs with full fervor.
America was founded by a nutty religious cult.
It’s telling that Americans know and celebrate Plymouth but Jamestown hardly at all. The myth we’ve constructed says that the first nonnative new Americans who mattered were the idealists, the hyper-religious people seeking freedom to believe and act out their passionate, elaborate, all-consuming fantasies. The more run-of-the-mill people seeking a financial payoff, who abandoned their dream once it was defunct? Eh. We also prefer to talk about Pilgrims rather than Puritans, because the former has none of the negative connotations that stuck permanently to the latter.
The Puritans are conventionally considered more “moderate” than the Pilgrims. This is like calling al-Qaeda more moderate than ISIS.* The Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans’ theology was really no less mad.
The Middle Ages are generally reckoned to have ended at least a century before America’s founding. By the 1620s in the Old World, literal belief in biblical end-time prophecies was fading, along with other medieval artifacts. But not among the Puritans. They took the Bible as literally as they could, especially this most spectacular piece of it. That the Catholics had for centuries downplayed end-of-the-world prophecies was, for Puritans, all the more reason those prophecies must be true.
Christ’s return and reign wouldn’t be some airy-fairy symbolic spiritual thing but a real kingdom on real Earth. And ground zero of the coming Apocalypse, God versus Satan, would be in America.
The Boston Puritans’ first leader, John Winthrop, was talking to his shipmates about the end-time.
His most important successor as a leader of the New England theocracy, Increase Mather, also preached “that the coming of Christ to raise the dead and to judge the Earth” might happen any minute now. Mather even had evidence: meteors or comets visible in the skies over Boston, for instance, could be signs of God’s unhappiness and “presage great calamities.” As the religious historian Paul Boyer says, “The Puritans really expected the end of time to come very, very soon.
Cotton, who’d been preaching sermons since he was sixteen, took over for his father as pastor of Boston’s main church. The younger man soon began issuing specific dates for the end of days and kept doing so for the rest of his life. Six years from now! Okay, thirty-nine years from now—no, wait, fewer than twenty! And when that year passed normally, Cotton Mather announced it would actually be the following year.
Enlightened and emboldened, her followers took to walking out of church in the middle of sermons by ministers they weren’t feeling. Anne Hutchinson, resident in America for only a thousand days, was leading a movement to make her colony of magical thinkers even more fervid. Protestantism had started as a breakaway movement of holier-than-thou zealots—and in the even-holier-than-thou zealots’ state-of-the-art utopia, they now had a still-holier-than-thou mystic militant in their midst.
Once a faction of the colony’s leaders signed on to Hutchinson’s more magical, passionate, extra-pure Puritanism, she became problematic.
Anne Hutchinson had gone rogue. She was charged and tried for defaming ministers
When her trial resumed the next day, she let it all hang out. It wasn’t just the Bible that guided her but the Holy Spirit—that is, God, speaking to her personally, just as He had spoken to people in the Bible. It was, she told them, “an immediate revelation….by the voice of his own spirit to my soul….God had said to me…‘I am the same God that delivered Daniel out of the lion’s den, I will also deliver thee.’?” Governor Winthrop and his forty fellow judges had assembled to convict her of something, and now she’d made it easy. Furthermore, she threatened them and their misguided regime with God’s own wrath: “Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.
“Mistress Hutchinson,” a once and future Massachusetts governor among the judges said during the trial, “is deluded by the Devil.” And a witness against her, one of her fellow shipmates on the passage from England, testified that she’d made “very strange and witchlike” pronouncements when they’d landed in America three years earlier. The court might have brought a conviction for witchcraft and executed
“This is the thing that has been the root of all the mischief,” Winthrop bellowed, pointing at her. And also: “I am persuaded that the revelation she brings forth is delusion.” We’re all irritating, self-righteous Christian nuts, he did not add, but good God, woman, even we have our limits.
Hutchinson is so American because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality. She’s so American because, unlike the worried, pointy-headed people around her, she didn’t recognize ambiguity or admit to self-doubt. Her perceptions and beliefs were true because they were hers and because she felt them so thoroughly to be true.
Anne Hutchinson lost her battle in Cambridge but would finally win the war. For the Puritan leaders, it was their way or the highway. But in America there was an infinity of highways and new places not so far away where outcast true believers could move.
The Quakers’ famous civic reasonableness—tolerant, democratic, pacifist, proto-feminist, abolitionist—tends to obscure their own founding zealotry: each person could directly commune with God, which variously took the form of prophecies, trance-like rants, and convulsions.
Individual freedom of thought in early America was specifically about the freedom to believe whatever supernaturalism you wished. Four centuries later that has been a freedom, revived and unfettered and run amok, driving America’s transformation.
A Puritan minister had warned that “Satan visibly and palpably reigns” in America “more than in any other known place of the world.” What? Yes, another Puritan leader explained, as Christianity had spread through Europe during the previous fifteen hundred years, taking market share, the devil at some point arranged for a swarm of Asian infidels to cross the Pacific Ocean to America—“
The American Indians, in other words, weren’t merely unbelievers—they were Satan’s soldiers.
For their first sustained war on Indians, however, the colonists recruited other presumed demons to help them exterminate a tribe of definite demons, the Pequots. The Pequot War’s most famous episode was a one-day massacre in 1637 of hundreds of native people, including women and children. According to Increase Mather, his side won this war fought before he was born due “to the wonderful Providence of God.
Over the next two generations, as the English population quintupled, exceeding the Indians’, the natives naturally grew…restless. As a result, after a half-century the settlers’ long-standing fantasy of a pan-Indian conspiracy became self-fulfillingly real: the natives finally did form a multi-tribal alliance to fight back. The public case for wiping out the newly militant Indians remained supernatural, however. For Christians who imagined themselves battling satanic beasts, conventional rules of war no longer applied.
Yet another Harvard-educated minister, serving as chaplain to one of Massachusetts’s military units, exhorted his soldiers to “kill, burn, sink, destroy all sin and Corruption…which are professed enemies to Christ Jesus, and not to pity or spare any of them.
Cotton Mather happened to see a cabbage root with two branches, which looked to him like swords and an Indian club—clearly a warning from God of this imminent new battle against the hounds of Hell, he preached, a “prodigious war made by the spirits of the invisible world upon the people of New-England…[by] the Indians, whose chief[s]…are well known…to have been horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurers, and…conversed with demons.
The big piece of secular conventional wisdom about Protestantism has been that it gave a self-righteous oomph to moneymaking and capitalism—hard work accrues to God’s glory, success looks like a sign of His grace. But it seems clear to me the deeper, broader, and more enduring influence of American Protestantism was the permission it gave to dream up new supernatural or otherwise untrue understandings of reality and believe them with passionate certainty.
The scientific method is unceasingly skeptical, each truth understood as a partial, provisional best-we-can-do-for-the-moment understanding of reality. In their travesty of science, Protestant true believers scrutinized the natural world to deduce the underlying godly or satanic causes of every strange effect, from comets to hurricanes to Indian attacks to unusual illnesses and deaths. For believers in the new American religion, the truth was out there: everything happened for a purpose, and the purpose wasn’t so hard to suss out.
Edwards was all about obsessively believing and feeling the magic. He was, Mark Twain wrote to a pastor friend, a “resplendent intellect gone mad.
According to Edwards’s reading of Revelation, the golden age of Christianity wouldn’t begin for hundreds of years, and Jesus would still be the absentee overlord until he returned as the king of the remade planet another thousand years after that. Yet under such a “post-millennial” scheme, the glorious happy ending is so far in the future it might as well be…imaginary, metaphorical. Which is to say, for a lot of Americans, too boring. A religion that doesn’t get the believer’s blood pumping right now can be like a marriage without sex.
Edwards is known as the Last Puritan, he was also somewhat Anne Hutchinsonian, a mystic visionary, consumed by the Bible but also by the totally subjective visionary experience of holiness.
Five generations after the first Puritans arrived, the zealotry had diminished. Americans still read the Bible and went to church, but the religious boil had become more of a simmer. Reverend Edwards found he could turn up the heat, whipping proper New Englanders into ecstatic and agonizing deliriums that he and they took to be miraculous proofs of God.
More preachers awakened more congregations. Their listeners didn’t just pledge to stop sinning and believe more strongly in God. They didn’t just read and discuss the Bible and the sermons. In the middle of church services, respectable people felt the Holy Spirit, which produced “the Affections”—moaning, weeping, screaming, jerking, fainting.
Edwards, this sudden madness of the crowd was also evidence of the supernatural big picture manifesting. “?’Tis not unlikely,” he wrote, “that this work of God’s Spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture”—that is, the slow-but-sure final act. “There are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.
A Whitefield appearance was fabulous theater—but his was apparently authentic emotion, a channeling of the Holy Spirit, a reality show. Most of his audience arrived with disbelief pre-suspended, and his performances let them believe the fantasy. At least as much as Edwards’s and Wesley’s sermons, Whitefield’s preaching made people involuntarily twist and shout. Whitefield was the pioneering multimedia evangelical marketer of himself. Newspapers advertised his sermons and published accounts of the ecstatic mobs he attracted. He published a successful autobiography at 26—the first of several. Within a couple of years of his arrival, Whitefield may have been the most famous person in America.
By quoting again and again the biblical passage where Jesus tells a chief rabbi that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Whitefield implanted in American Christianity one of its big ideas.
As the Great Awakening spread, the Christian Establishment loathed all the embarrassing emotional displays of me me me fanaticism—as one critic at the time wrote, these awful “perturbations of mind, possessions of God, ecstatic flights and supernatural impulses.” Sure, the religion was founded on stories of miracles and individual visions and revelations, but whoa…miracles and revelations right here, right now? To which the delirious mob responded yes, exactly. Whitefield wrote that the “screaming, trembling” that he and other evangelists provoked were surely just like the “sudden agonies and screaming” that Jesus provoked among His converts. “Is not God the same yesterday, today, and forever?” It was Anne Hutchinson’s argument all over again. Give us the magic now!
“The most distinctive characteristic of early American Methodism,” according to one of its modern historians, was “this quest for the supernatural in everyday life.” Early American Methodists thus put “great stock in dreams, visions, supernatural impressions, miraculous healings, speaking in tongues.” Of course, each preacher and believer of every sect knew that his or her idiosyncratic version of the truth was the truth.
If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise. That’s the real-life reductio ad absurdum of American individualism
Franklin and his fellow Founders’ conceptions of God tended toward the vague and impersonal, a Creator who created and then got out of the way.
John Adams fretted in a letter to Jefferson that his son John Quincy might “retire…to study prophecies to the end of his life.” Adams wrote to a Dutch friend that the Bible consists of “millions of fables, tales, legends,” and that Christianity had “prostituted” all the arts “to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud.” George Washington “is an unbeliever,” Jefferson once reckoned, and only “has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances.” Jefferson himself kept up appearances by attending church but instructed his seventeen-year-old nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” He considered religions “all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies,” including “our particular superstition,” Christianity.
When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.” Thus none of the Founders called himself an atheist. Yet by the standards of devout American Christians, then and certainly now, most were blasphemers. In other words, they were men of the Enlightenment, good-humored seculars who mainly chose reason and science to try to understand the nature of existence, the purposes of life, the shape of truth.
Adams was friends with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose 1748 essay “Of Miracles” was meant to be “an everlasting. Adams was friends with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose 1748 essay “Of Miracles” was meant to be “an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion.
“As long as there are fools and rascals,” Voltaire wrote in 1767, “there will be religions. [And Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd…religion which has ever infected this world.
Christians, instead of seeing telegraphy, high-speed printing presses, railroads, steamships, vaccination, anesthesia and so on as part of the Enlightenment and moderating their beliefs, saw God in these developments, that these marvelous things had happened because well obviously—God was with us.