Thursday, February 16, 2023

What Can the 'Burned Out' Learn from the 'Burned Over'? Perfectionist Movements

One thing that is unique in the burned over district in New York in early to mid 1800's is how quickly some ideas and tastes found common ground and deep roots. You can't help but wonder if the beauty of the land, the youthful optimism of progress, the proof of product East, and the Erie Canal west lent itself to  predictable but unintentional consequences,

And there were some unifying causes that helped as well, both positive and negative. Though post-millenium views had dominated the early theology of the Princetonians, there was a growing pre-millenial view among some denominations that had more secular, socio- religious applications and  discussions about Revelation 20:1-10.

“It can be stated without fear of contradiction that the postmil position was the historic position of Princeton Theological Seminary.” J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1971)

And we have to note that these terms had slightly different definitions than we use them today.

"However, the term amillennialism, as we will see, was not used in the nineteenth century, and the origin of the term is shrouded in mystery. Accordingly, Gaffin asks the poignant question in this regard, “Who coined the term amillennial?” The problem is that apparently there is not a clear-cut defining moment when the term amillennial comes into standard usage and the position is recognized as something quite distinct from postmillennialism." Kim Riddlebarger, Princeton and the Millennium A Study of American Postmillennialism.

The growing optimism of progress, combined with a surge of religious enthusiasm and revivalism pressed the ideas on an early arrival of Christ to inaugurate the thousand year reign on earth before the 2nd coming and the end of the world.

And once these ideas took root, it didn't take long for some to want to codify holy living through civil law.

There is a great irony of human nature here. I spend many days pondering this amazing observation of Whitney Cross in his famous analysis of the burned over district.

"The whole tribe of Yorkers exhibited a trait which bears on the nature of the burned over district 'credulity'. Against the 'holy enterprise of minding other people's business' which produced a marked community mindedness these folks balanced a stubborn introspection in the fashioning of personal beliefs, which recognized no authority this side of heaven. Frank curiosity, pride in independent thinking, a feeling that action should be should be motivated by sound logic and never by whimsy, a profound skepticism  of any rationalization looking to less than the supposed good of society, and, once arrived at, an overwhelming confidence in one's own good judgement- ALL these attitudes differently demonstrate the same trait. The mores of the community must definitely be observed when established and agreed upon."

These human characteristics led to pressure to insist upon perfectionist laws but also indirectly lead to heretical reactions....

Whitney finished the thought- "but in practice they (mores of the community) remained open to challenge and subject to revision. No apology was required for unorthodoxy dictated by conscience in conference with Scripture; rather any difference from custom created a compelling obligation for the individual to press toward conformity with his own new light."

The effect of this 'spasmodic' individual  incoherence was pressing blue laws and temperance notions on one hand and granting momentum toward abolition and women's issues on the other.

The ultimate impact was a splintering of orthodoxy and open doorways to heresy.

Another mitigating factor was the rapid rise of printed materials. Almost every town had its own news sheet. Whitney commented again on this factor by noting, "these people had an original predilection for justifying themselves in public." 

I don't know if I have ever found a better definition for twitter!

Ideas though, do have consequences and the mixture of anti-Mason passions, pressure to codify morality in law, rural/urban rivalries, and tangible (even muscular ) shows of faith sowed seeds that birthed crusades, some of these were commendable but some were also problematic.

I personally find empathy for the struggling Presbyterian church in this moment. They found themselves constantly on the frontlines of these battles. There were concerns about getting credentialed pastors to the frontier, theological wars against growing liberal tendencies, Bible and tract circulation (the existence of tracts was controversial as well), Sabbath observance campaigns, calls for anti-Masonry, strange new 'isms' of faith, and the growing temperance ideas that would eventually lead to the 18th amendment  in 1920.

A dominant voice at this time in America, the Presbyterian church became more and more subject to criticisms of oppression and intolerance. These pressures resulted in numerous fractures and divisions and the voice of authority waned both in public and the private meetings of social engineers.

We find similar times and elements today as well.

I think the most  important takeaway from studying the pressures of so called perfectionist movements is that once you drift from of the Scriptures as authoritative and gospel proclamation/discipleship as the primary mission of the church, you can get swept away in an ocean of dissension, controversy, and fragmentation. A lot of great pastors and churches finally give in to the temptation of becoming culture warriors (with good intentions and good reason) but in the end there are too many windmills to tilt toward and the backlash is brutal. Railing against sin and even the pressures to use law to change hearts and minds is actually counter-productive. I have always said we need to be hard toward our own sin and gentle to others. This doesn't mean we don't warn about the consequences of sin, but we need to deal with it factually, clinically, and take the emotion out of it. Let the Holy Spirit convict the masses when He may.

 It is good to practice discipline within the body of a church but even here, the tools and procedures are found within the principles of Matthew 18 which is small, localized, and sandwiched between a lot of love and forgiveness. The goal is restoration and reconciliation.

We have to always be wary that a natural human disposition is to make everyone behave like we want them to. In a way, it makes us want to be the king of their heart and the judge of their lives. Fervent pressure to force people to live a certain way is fraught with dangers. I get it, we want especially our loved ones to avoid the fruit of wayward living- but prayer is the best pressure. It puts it on God and keeps us from having to be the Holy Spirit.

I grew up in an environment where it was impressed on us that real Christians were those who didn't cuss, drink, smoke, or listen to rock music. My early understanding of sanctification was living clean. As I began to read Scripture I soon realized that my deep sins of selfishness, apathy, idolatry, and lack of love for others were as deadly as any vice.

I'm not saying we promote sinful behavior... I'm saying we don't treat them like checklists where some sins are worse than others. 

These are not easy issues... but culture wars never win. It is the love of a new affection that drives out the darkness.

We can get burned out and bloody when we start swinging fists. And the results create burned over, lifeless, and disinterested souls.

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