If you ever watch Star Trek (and everyone should), then you know that one little change in history can have unexpected consequences (Ask Captain Kirk after he lost Edith Keeler). In history, we like to play with sci-fi scenarios but we call them historical counterfactuals (mostly because our students stop taking us seriously when we endlessly quote Klingon proverbs). Here's one (a counterfactual not a Klingon proverb): what might have happened if Calvinists hadn't so wretchedly committed to the idea of infant damnation?
As it turns out, I'm not going to entertain that counterfactual because I find it much more entertaining to tell you what happened because they did not abandon that notion. Wacky things happened. It led to Spiritualism and Paganism and Witchcraft and radical, wise-ass Quakers. It led to free thought and free love and communes of all kinds. So hurray for the doctrine of infant damnation! Without you, American history would not be worth my time.
(Note that this blog entry is grossly simplified because this is the kind of topic that flings me off in all kinds of tempting directions that will be of no interest to most human beings. Seriously, I've written hundreds of pages on this topic. Imagine how dull!)
There are (at least) two currents of religious thought in the U.S. by the early 19th century that interest me. We have Calvinism with which we are pretty well familiar. Miserable stuff. We also have more liberal traditions which, because they are liberal, are also diverse so it is difficult to lump them together. There were the deists, of course, about whom we hear so much in our history of the Revolutionary War and there were Unitarians who evolved from Calvinists and the Transcendentalists who evolved from Unitarians. There were the Friends who have a long history of annoying Calvinists and there were wild and crazy Baptists and Methodists too. By no means was there monolithic agreement on what it meant to be Christian in antebellum America.
Two very interesting things happened in the 1820s. The first was the schism between "Hicksites" and "Orthodox" Friends. I put these terms in quotation marks because neither group chose their own designation and both designations are not quite accurate. The "orthodox" Friends were actually decreasingly orthodox inasmuch as they were increasingly connected to the methods and values of American Protestant evangelicalism (See *3*) and the Hicksites, including Elias Hicks, thought it really cheeky of the "orthodox" to attempt to characterize them as all blind followers of Hicks as if they were all intentionally a bunch of wayward schismatics. They felt that they were being orthodox too. Indeed, except for the fact that the "Orthodox" had more power and money and numbers than the Hicksites, we might just as easily say that the "Orthodox" Friends were being schismatic and not the other way round. One could very easily argue that the Hicksites were reacting to increasing tensions created by wealthy and powerful urban Friends' desire to get cozy with the wealthy and powerful evangelical Protestants. So who was schismatic? It all depends on perspective.
In any case, in the early 1820s, Presbyterian minister, Eliphat Wheeler published a challenge to Quakers in the Christian Repository to which Friend Benjamin Ferris responded. These letters are published as the the Letters of Paul and Amicus and are over 500 pages long. They are well worth reading despite their length because they so excellently delineate the key differences between Calvinist and liberal Quaker religious thinking of that time period and address issues not only of predestination, infant damnation, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the sacraments of communion and baptism, atonement, and the role of clergy but also issues like slavery, colonialism, missionary work, bible societies, and comparative religious studies. The letters regarding "Hindoos" in India are most interesting and show important distinctions in Quaker and Calvinist approaches not merely to missionary efforts and colonialism but to attitudes regarding diversity and the value of non-Christian perspectives.
In reading Amicus, one is amazed at how very readily he might fit into a contemporary liberal Christian Quaker context. Amicus was clearly influenced by the emergent popular availability of scientific and philosophical works both secular and sacred. He obviously read widely and deeply (and he reminds me that I should watch less television and spend less time online). In fact, as I read him, I think, "Hey! I would have fit in with Friends even back in the day." But I would be premature in this assumption. The problem was that Amicus hadn't considered how much his thinking didn't fall in line with the most powerful Friends of that time whose thinking on many key issues was more in line with Paul. Such Friends were particularly distressed by the fact that Amicus was not clear about things like the divinity of Christ and they were a bit put out by his comfort level with other religious traditions.
By 1828 Friends had split in two. Not everyone who sided with the Hicksites was a rip roaring radical but lots of them were and those people continued to challenge the country's religious status quo with all their new-fangled ideas about social equality and diversity. Friends like Lucretia and James Mott, Martha Coffin Wright (read out of meeting for marrying a non-Friend), Mary Ann and Thomas M'Clintock, Amy and Isaac Post, Jane Hunt,Rhoda de Garmo and Daniel Anthony were among the more radical Friends. These were the folks who got themselves involved in such capricious activities as abolitionism and woman's rights. They worked with those crazy Methodists and Baptists I mentioned earlier who shared in their belief that it was high time Christians stop condemning everybody to Hell and start creating the Kingdom of God on Earth. Which brings me to...
The Burned-Over District. In 1825, New York State opened the Erie Canal and the commercial and cultural destiny of the entire nation was irrevocably altered. Indeed, I would say that the Civil War was won in 1825 (but that's a whole 'nother post which you'll never see here because I'm really not that interested in it.) Western New York went from backwater to bustling in a matter of months. Indeed, Rochester became the fastest growing city in the nation.
Folks from New England and Pennsylvania (Calvinists and Quakers)arrived in large numbers. Imagine sending off your son or daughter to the wilds of the west. (But, Mother! I'm going to Rochester, not Timbuktu. They have post offices and stores and churches there and everything!") Fathers and mothers didn't listen and they fussed and worried over the state of their kids' souls. As well they should have. There were far more bars and brothels in western New York than there were churches...at first. So they sent along itinerant preachers. Scores of them. Evangelists rained down on Central New York like a cloud of locusts. Of these, Charles Grandison Finney was the most popular and the most influential of the evangelical revivalists but he had lots of competition for the souls of Upstate New Yorkers.
Because there were few long-established centers of religious authority in the region, new religious and spiritual trends could develop relatively unmolested by established denominational hierarchies. Mormons, Shakers, Christian socialists, Millerites, Spiritualists, and many other groups either emerged from this transitional cultural milieu or moved there to escape more restrictive environments. In the developing urban centers of such places as Troy, Syracuse, Utica, and Rochester, the rapidly shifting population of working people, including many moving onto points even farther west, discouraged the development of a centralized societal authority and community-mindedness. While the old families, churches, and political parties of New England could command a certain amount of respect and compliance, there existed no such structures in New York State to prevent a proliferation of dissenting opinions and religious strategies. Into this environment, evangelical preachers of all stripes came to spread whatever word they believed the people most needed to hear. The people responded by the thousands to a multitude of spiritual leaders, lecturers, and innovators.
Meanwhile, a group of abolitionist, free thinking Hicksites who had grown too radical even for Hicksite tolerance levels were sharing meeting for worship at the Junius Ponds meeting house. Persons associated with this group were the Posts, M'Clintocks, Hunts and a young attender, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Lucretia Mott, on one of her frequent visits to sister, Martha Coffin Wright, was helpful in their organization and sympathetic to their aims but she never belonged to this group who would rename themselves Progressive Friends in the 1850s (with a young woman named Susan B. Anthony as one of their early clerks). This group of Friends, as loyal readers may recall, was also the group primarily responsible for organizing the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. They were also behind the emergence of Spiritualism as we shall see in *5*
1848, two young girls and their parents move from Rochester to a rented house in Newark, N.Y. where they begin to report hearing spectral rapping noises. They visit the Posts in Rochester where Amy and Isaac become convinced of the legitimacy of the rapping sounds and interpret them as a manifestation of the divine Spirit. Spiritualism spreads through the ultraist Quaker population in Upstate New York, then onto other strongholds of liberal Quaker population. Quaker meeting and Spiritualism share characteristics. In both there is a period of expectant, waiting worship sometimes punctuated by a ministry given by an individual who acts as a mouthpiece for the Spirit. In both, the ministry of women and girls is recognized and encouraged. The fundamental assumption is equality of souls. Both Hicksite Friends and Spiritualists react strongly against Calvinist teaching of predestination and infant damnation. In a time during which the death of loved ones (particularly children and women in childbirth) was relatively common, Spiritualism offered formerly Protestant believers an alternative view of afterlife. One's loved ones were not only well and well-loved in Divine care but could continue to communicate their love for those they left behind.
Friends were the first to attribute religious significance to modern Spiritualist manifestations. I believe one can still see their early imprint. Nineteenth-century Spiritualists were actively involved in the free-thought movement, in abolition, women's rights, and other human rights reform movements. When the Spirits spoke, they always seemed to side with the downtrodden. They were always champions of the lowly. It was not long before Spiritualism began to draw converts from the Protestant denominations. People, especially women, were weary of dark Calvinist sin-centered doctrine. As women had particular care of infants, children, the disabled, the dying, and even of the bodies of the dead, they were particularly motivated to take up a spiritual system that denied concepts like eternal damnation or the damnation of infants. Women also flocked to a faith that not only allowed, but encouraged female leadership and public speaking. As Spiritualism grew increasingly popular throughout the English-speaking world, audiences grew accustomed to seeing women public speakers address all the important and controversial topics of the day (often under Spirit trance). Free speech, free produce, free thought, free love: all were topics addressed by Spirit. The early American civil rights and Spiritualist movements were inextricably connected in these early years.
Over time, the Spiritualist movement evolves in various directions. Some of these directions are just silly and freakish (women pulling fully formed apparitions out of their what-nots) but others are significant. The Theosophical Movement grows out of Spiritualism and provides a popular forum for interfaith research and comparative religious studies. Theosophists combined American Spiritualism with an interest in Eastern philosophy and mysticism. The introduction of Buddhism and Hinduism to American religious liberals irrevocably changed the history of religions in the United States. Significantly for the human rights movement, leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage shifted their suffrage focus to serious criticism of phallocentric religion by the close of the nineteenth-century. As a result of her involvement in Spiritualism and Theosophy, Gage became a prototypical American Neo-Pagan and suggested that women should begin referring to the Goddess as well as to God in their systems of personal spirituality. Together, she and Stanton wrote extensively about their religious ideas. Their challenge to the patriarchal Christian Church was applauded by the more radical, intellectual members of the suffragist groups but drew condemnation from most including Susan B. Anthony who feared their radical spiritual position would alienate more conservative suffragists.
Susan B. Anthony has her way for awhile but over time, fragile thread by fragile thread, we weave a history of "alternative spirituality" in the United States. It is a parti-colored tapestry. The strands are not always clear. I've had to spend some time teasing out the connections, searching out private letters and rare quotations and references. Often I find an individual has a sense that they are evolving away from the religion of their youth in isolation but I do find that there are predictable references to certain movements, traditions and authors. One of the predictable references is to liberal Hicksite and Progressive Friends whose history is so neatly interwoven into the fabric of American religious liberalism.
Some may say that radical Friends lost their way. I don't think so. I think that the growth that resulted from the schism had significantly positive outcomes for humanity. I think that what happened here in the Burned-Over District was a manifestation of obedience to the Light that resulted in an elevation of the rights and dignity of the human being. I'm proud that I have inherited this crazy history. I recognize that it is not "Friends' History" writ large. Friends in Ohio or Kenya or even England might think this was just some peculiar or even perverted understanding of Quaker belief and practice. Progressive Friends' influence on the development of American Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, Freethought, and Atheism is atypical Friends' history. But it did happen. Friends invented American Spiritualism. Spiritualism morphed into Theosophy. Theosophy informed the beginning of American Paganism. All the above religious movements were intricately interwoven in the emergence of feminist spirituality and human rights activism. It may be a wacky Friends' history peculiar to this wacky place I call home, but it is Friends' history nevertheless. It did the world good, and I will not apologize for it.