|Methodist Circuit Riders
"The lad who emigrated... was perhaps not himself a convert, though he had always gone to church. He awaited the day when the Holy Spirit would marvelously elect him to church membership. In the new country he might temporarily violate the Sabbath, swear, or drink too heartily, but he always expected another revival to change his ways." Whitney Cross, The Burned Over District pg. 8
There were literally thousands of converging factors that created the atmosphere of religious movements in western, NY in the early to mid 1800's. New England was maturing nicely, Boston was stubbornly settled, and a beautiful, rich land called young men west with promise and adventure.
The building and completion of the Erie Canal along with investment from the east inspired a number of players when it came to religious expansion and gospel proclamation. The region was rich with Methodist Circuit Riders, thousands of printed religious tracts, journals, newsletters, and magazines as well as missionary movements; all well funded and full of promise.
In the literature of the day, the religious attitude was described by a number of phrases: 'fervent revivalism', 'emotionalism', 'moral intensity', 'enthusiastic religion', 'waves of seasonal enthusiasm', 'strenuous evangelism', 'religious fervor', with fewer and fewer settling with 'intellectual theology".
There were a vast number of differences in methodology and theology, though many seemed to find common ground in debates against freemasons and for abolition, women's suffrage, and premillennial expectations.
Also, most movements have constant foils which help to actually inspire the progress. In the case of the Burnt over District, this proved to be the Universalists.
Regardless, through many efforts, endless capital, in the new cities and towns of opportunity, progress was measured by a need to see "exhibitions of zeal". And though the motives may seem pure, needing to 'see' a faithful heart to God can lead to premonitions and problems. Visionary speculation and pioneer living produced heresies and errors both minor and major.
And it didn't take long to see conflict as much as zeal:
"All protestant churches united in condemning Catholics. Evangelicals united against Universalists and Unitarians. Baptista and Presbyterians opposed the Disciples of Christ, Methodists, and Free Will Baptists and each denomination suffered rivalries between enthusiasts and conservatives in their own rank." (Cross)
It didn't help that many of these different sects shared facilities. It was common to hear a sermon in the gathering space that demanded a response from the next preacher. I was a 19th century version of rival cable news networks!
And of course, there is always politics in the soup! When William Morgan was kidnapped in 1826 and subsequently disappeared forever after an attempt to tell and sell masonic secrets it became even more clear that masons held many offices across authoritarian power in government and church.
These concerns were just pieces of the coalition of the growing Whig party and dislike of the Jacksonian policies. In fact, the politics of the day resembled the fragmented church in the district to the point that few knew who to blame in the Panic of 1837 where speculative lending, decline in cotton prices, no central bank, and a subsequent run on those assets produced a 7 year recession and massive unemployment. Sound familiar?
This purpose of this post is not to suggest solutions to the problems presented in this spasmodic soup of factors and factions. I hope that will come in later posts.
I want to set a stage or setting to understand the movement and explore efforts we should make when faced with some of the same circumstances.
We live in a spasmodic soup ourselves.
Fast moving, free flowing, fire burning, frenzied schedules is the primary factor in our cultural burnout.
This makes us susceptible to variations of thought and practices that have no true Biblical basis. And sadly, we can become hardened or dull to potential corrections.
Years ago, I read a commentary on Isaiah by Dr. Ray Ortlund, Jr. I have never forgotten a statement he made early in his analysis:"Every time you hear the word of God preached, you come away from that exposure either a little closer to God or a little hardened, but you are not the same.
The same message that is enliving you to Christ is hardening someone else. James 1:21 'Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your soul'
As we consider the impact of the burned out culture may be having on our lives, let's never forget there is a God who is in control and a grace that covers our ineptitudes:
“If your heart does not leap at God’s grace in Christ, what you need is more grace. Nothing can save us from our own deadness. We should fear the hardness of our heart more than anything else. Beware of rigidity, beware of a demanding spirit, beware of an unmelted heart that is NEVER satisfied, beware of a mind that that looks for excuses to not believe, beware of the impulse that always finds a reason to delay a response, beware of thinking how a sermon applies to someone else."
Over the next few posts we are going to have to deal more with problems than solutions, but in the final post of the series I hope to propose specific attitudes, actions, and principles that will help us be part of a solution.