What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By by Louis Cassels
Louis Cassels was for many years the religion editor of United Press International. His column "Religion in America" appeared in over four hundred newspapers during the mid-nineteenth century.
What’s the Difference was published in 1965 by Doubleday & Company, Inc. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
What’s the Difference was published in 1965 by Doubleday & Company, Inc. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 8: The Faiths Born in America
In addition to the churches that were transplanted from Europe, America has eight thriving religious movements that are native to its own soil. They differ enormously in size, polity, and doctrine. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that they were born in America. Some are Protestant bodies. Others, while bearing traces of the Protestant culture from which they emerged, have moved so far from orthodoxy that they cannot be described as Christian without giving to that term a latitude that deprives it of all meaning.
Oldest and largest of the religions movements indigenous to the United States is a fellowship whose members reject all denominational labels and call themselves simply "Christians."
There are two main branches of this movement. One has about 8,000 local congregations, with 1.8 million members. Each congregation enjoys complete autonomy in managing its affairs, but there is a national convention which meets once a year, and a national secretariat with offices at Indianapolis, Indiana, to provide some degree of organizational cohesion. This body is known as The International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) and its members are known informally as Disciples.
The other branch comprises about 10,000 local congregations, with an estimated 2 million members. Each local congregation is termed a Church of Christ, and the movement as a whole bears the name Churches of Christ. But it is even more loosely knit than the Disciples of Christ, having no national convention and no central offices or agencies of any kind. The nearest thing to a national meeting is a Lectureship held each year by Abilene Christian College, Abilene, Texas, which draws thousands of Churches of Christ leaders from various sections of the country for five days of informal consultation and fellowship.
Both the Disciples and the Churches of Christ are represented in all fifty states. Disciples’ strength is greatest in the South and the Midwest. Churches of Christ are concentrated in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
The Patriarch of the Movement
Patriarch of the movement was a frontier preacher named Barton W. Stone, who was born in Maryland in 1772. He was an ordained Presbyterian clergyman when he went to the frontier to begin his career as a conductor of revival meetings. But he soon became convinced that denominationalism is the curse of Christianity. In 1804, he issued a manifesto, repudiating all the denominational labels and "man-made creeds" that divide Christians. He called upon believers in the Bible to unite in a new fellowship, based solely upon the teachings of Scripture, he suggested that they call themselves "Christians" to make it clear that they were not any particular brand or denomination of Christians.
In his impatience with denominationalism and disunity, Barton Stone was one hundred and fifty years ahead of the ecumenical spirit that pervades today’s churches. But even in the early nineteenth century, he found plenty of people who shared his sentiments. The Christian movement gained adherents rapidly, especially in the frontier communities of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri.
It got a tremendous impetus after 1809 from the leadership of a remarkable father-and-son team, Thomas and Alexander Campbell. The Campbells were Irish Presbyterians, who immigrated to America and became frontier evangelists. Like Barton Stone, they were passionately convinced that all Christians should unite — not in a hierarchical church but in a voluntary fellowship based on the sole authority of the Bible and the absolute independence of each local congregation.
Alexander Campbell was a formidable preacher who won the admiration of intellectuals like James Madison as well as the enthusiastic response of frontier tent-meeting crowds. In an era when Protestant and Catholic contacts were virtually nil, he cultivated a close friendship with the Catholic Archbishop of Cincinnati, the Most Reverend John Purcell, and once engaged in a public debate with him.
No Creed but Christ
The Christian movement carried to its logical conclusion the Protestant principle that each man is free to read and interpret the Scriptures for himself. "No creed but Christ" is a slogan dear to the heart of every Christian. In practice, it means that any person who accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour is welcome as a member of the fellowship, without any further doctrinal tests or standards.
This "creedlessness" does not lead to as much doctrinal anarchy as an outsider might suspect, however. For belief in the Bible is an equally cardinal tenet of the movement. Some Christians take the Bible literally; others are quite liberal in their approach; but all take it seriously as the one and only yardstick of doctrine. This attitude also has been enshrined in a popular Christian slogan: "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent."
Even this slogan, however, is subject to various interpretations. Does it mean that modern churches are to eschew practices that are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible — such as the use of organs and other instrumental music, or the formation of missionary societies? The more conservative Christians believe that it does mean this. The more liberal ones believe that churches are free to do things that are in the spirit of the New Testament, or that can reasonably be inferred from the practices of the primitive church.
The Rift in the Movement
This question caused a rift in the Christian movement after 1906, and led to the present existence of two entirely separate branches, which have relatively little to do with one another.
Both the Disciples and the Churches of Christ resemble the Baptists in practicing baptism by immersion and in restricting the rite to those mature enough to make a personal decision of faith in Christ. Both also have the distinctive custom of celebrating the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. Christians feel that these two practices are warranted by Scripture.
Churches of Christ still forbid all instrumental music. And they do not have missionary societies. Each missionary is supported by an individual congregation. A minister is referred to as Elder Jones or Mr. Jones, but never the Reverend John Jones. Use of the title Reverend is considered very unscriptural.
Disciples of Christ have organs in their churches, and have evolved not only missionary societies, but most of the other organizational trappings of a typical American Protestant denomination. Unlike the Churches of Christ, whose fear of ecclesiastical organization causes them to keep aloof from ecumenical bodies, the Disciples have played a major role in the National Council of Churches. They also were charter members of the Consultation on Church Union, which was formed in 1961 to explore the possibility of a six-way merger of leading American Protestant bodies.
Thus the Disciples are continuing to display — in a modern context — the devotion to the cause of Christian unity that brought the movement into being.
UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS
The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961 by the merger of two denominations that originated in New England in the early nineteenth century.
The word Unitarian (from the Latin, unis) originally signified a rejection of the orthodox trinitarian concept of God as three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — united in one Godhead. The unitarian view was expounded as early as the fourth century by Anus of Alexandria, who taught that Jesus was sent from God, but was not actually God incarnate. This doctrine was branded a heresy in A.D. 325 by the Council of Nicea, which asserted in the Nicene Creed (still adhered to by a large majority of the world’s Christians) that Jesus was "very God of very God . . .being of one substance with the Father."
Unitarian views continued to bob up over the centuries. A Spaniard, Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva in 1535 for teaching "unitarian heresies." During the eighteenth century, a number of English and European intellectuals embraced a unitarian philosophy.
The New England Unitarianism
It was in America, however, that the Unitarian movement first emerged as an organized denomination. It flowered in New England after 1819 under the leadership of William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker.
For a time, Unitarianism threatened to engulf the long-established Congregational churches of New England. Within a few years, one hundred twenty-five of New England’s leading Congregational churches, including twenty of the oldest in America, turned Unitarian. Thomas Jefferson, who was greatly attracted to the new movement, predicted that within a generation every American would be a Unitarian.
This forecast proved to be very wide of the mark. The Unitarian Association never grew larger than 200,000 members. But it enjoyed a prestige far exceeding its size because among its members were such men as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry David Thoreau, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
The early Unitarians considered themselves to be Christians because, even though they did not regard Jesus as divine, they did look upon him as one sent by God to lead men into the way, the truth, and the life.
But the Christian orientation of tile Unitarian movement diminished steadily through the years. From the start, Unitarians placed great emphasis on individual freedom of belief. Revolting against the Calvinist tendency to spell everything out in rigid orthodoxies, the Unitarians refused to have any creed, any dogmas, or any definitions of faith. They left each member free to "seek the truth for himself," and to believe only what he personally found to be reasonable and logically persuasive.
Today there are still "conservative" Unitarians — especially in New England — who revere Jesus as the greatest of all teachers, and who try to emulate his life and follow his teachings as they appear in the New Testament. But there are many other Unitarians who do not attach any more value to the teachings of Jesus than to those of Buddha or Abraham Lincoln, and who feel that the Hindu Vedas, the Hebrew Talmud, and the writings of Earl Russell are as good a source of inspiration as the Gospels. There are, indeed, a substantial number of Unitarian ministers and laymen who do not subscribe to the concept of a personal God, and who are indistinguishable in their beliefs from atheistic humanists.
The Evolution of Universalism
Universalism has gone through a similar evolution. It started as a religious movement animated by one distinctive conviction: that all men would be saved. From this doctrine of universal salvation, it progressed by degrees to a denial of the divinity of Christ, and a rejection of other orthodox Christian doctrines.
The first Universalist congregation was established in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1779 by a former Wesleyan minister named John Murray. It gained adherents rapidly among people who were reacting against the harsh Calvinist doctrine of predestination. By 1790, there were enough Universalist churches to establish a national association. But the new denomination failed to maintain its early growth rate. By the time of its merger with the Unitarians in 1961, the Universalist Church claimed only about 70,000 members.
The charter of the Unitarian Universalist Association refrains from mentioning the name of Jesus. It proclaims the purpose of the Association: "to cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judaeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man.
It says that members of the Association have come together in religious fellowship in order "to strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth" and "to affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships." Another purpose of the Association is "to implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace."
As these articles indicate, Unitarian Universalists tend to be liberals not only in theology, but in their attitude toward public affairs. No religious denomination has been more outspoken in combating social injustice and in working for a stable world peace.
Preoccupation with Social Problems
The preoccupation of Unitarian Universalist churches with social problems is reflected in their worship services, which usually feature topical sermons that are really lectures on current events rather than expositions of Bible texts.
Although they do not regard baptism and Holy Communion as sacraments, they recognize that these traditional Christian rites may have sentimental associations for some people; they therefore provide for what might be called denatured observances. In lieu of baptism, for example, some Unitarian Universalist churches have a "child dedication ceremony" in which water is used as "a symbol of purity."
As a substitute for communion, some churches conduct a service in which each member brings his favorite flower. The different kinds of flowers represent the individuality and uniqueness of each human personality. They are gathered into bouquets to represent the bonds of unity among mankind. Upon leaving, each person takes another type flower with him. This indicates that "in intercommunion with each other we give and receive, not always knowing to whom we give or from whom we receive."
Mormons are the products, and in some sense the prisoners, of a unique history.
Their history begins with a farm boy named Joseph Smith, Jr., who lived near the village of Palmyra, New York, in the early nineteenth century. He was strongly affected by revival meetings, to which his mother took him, but he did not join a church because he was confused by the great variety of doctrines that were being stridently proclaimed by the various Protestant denominations as they jostled for converts in frontier communities.
In 1820 when he was fourteen years old, Joseph Smith began to spend much time alone in the woods near his home, experiencing what he later described as a series of religious visions. In these visions, he said, he was visited by an angel named Moroni, who finally directed him to a secret cache in a hillside where he found a box full of golden plates inscribed with strange hieroglyphics. Moroni also provided a pair of "instruments" — called Urim and Thummin — to enable the barely literate farm lad to understand the writing on the golden plates, and to dictate an English translation to a local schoolmaster. The result, published in 1829, was the famous Book of Mormon (a name which Smith said was a compound of English and Egyptian, and which he translated as "more good").
The Book of Mormon tells the story of a lost tribe of Israelites who migrated to America about 600 B.C. and who became the ancestors of the American Indians. After his resurrection, Christ came to America to visit these people, and to establish his church among them. The members of the original church were wiped out in a tribal war in A.D. 385, but the last survivor, Moroni, managed before his death to hide the golden plates on which their history was recorded. The book ends with a prophecy that the true church of Christ would someday be restored in America by a group of "latter-day saints," who would correct the doctrinal errors of the other churches and restore the communal life of the New Testament Christians.
The Book of Mormon caused a sensation along the frontier, and Smith soon found himself with a fairly large body of disciples and a much larger body of enemies. His disciples called him "the Prophet" and themselves "the Latter-day Saints."1 In 1831 Smith established the first Mormon community at Kirtland, Ohio. It began with one hundred fifty settlers and quickly grew to more than one thousand. In the same year, Smith visited Jackson County, Missouri, and founded a Mormon community near the present site of Independence, Missouri.
Pastors and members of old-line Protestant churches looked upon the new movement with horror. They held the Bible in great reverence, and felt that Smith and his followers were committing the worst kind of blasphemy in depicting the Book of Mormon as an addition to the Holy Scriptures. Persecution of the Mormons began almost immediately. Within a few years they had been driven out of Missouri by armed vigilantes, aided in some instances by the state militia. The refugees from Missouri joined forces with Smith’s following from Ohio to found a town named Nauvoo in Illinois. Smith was its mayor as well as its spiritual header, and it quickly grew into a larger and thriving city. But public hostility toward the Mormons was further inflamed by reports that polygamy was being practiced in Nauvoo; in 1844 the governor of Illinois sent the militia into Nauvoo. Smith was arrested, and taken to the nearby city of Carthage, where the militia permitted a mob to storm the jail and lynch him on June 27, 1844.
The mantle of the martyred Prophet passed to Brigham Young, a Vermont house-painter who proved to be one of the greatest leaders ever produced on the American frontier. Young decided that the only way Mormons could avoid persecution was to go to a land so bleak and unpromising that no one else would want it. He found what be was looking for in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in Utah (then a part of Mexico), and in 1847 he led the first Mormon pioneers in the grueling overland trek to Utah. Thousands of Mormon families followed during the next thirty years, suffering incredible hardships. Many walked every foot of the way, pushing their meager belongings in handcarts. Hundreds died along the way, and hundreds
more did not survive the first winter of settlement in as harsh and inhospitable an environment as was ever selected for colonization.
Merely to have survived the rigors of their new home would be a tribute to the hardiness of the Mormon pioneers. But they did more than survive. Bearing one another’s burdens in a close bond of community fellowship, and fired with the zealous faith that persecution always seems to produce, the Mormons turned the Utah desert into one of the most fertile and prosperous lands on earth. It is fashionable today for outsiders to raise eyebrows at the vast wealth of the Mormon Church — and it is one of the richest institutions in the world, with huge holdings
in agriculture, transportation, real estate, and other industries — but it should never be forgotten that the Mormons made their fortune the hard way. And if much of the community’s wealth was held in the name of the Church, that was a natural result of a historical situation in which the Church was the center of business, educational, and social as well as religious life.
The Polygamy Issue
But moving to Utah did not end the Mormons’ persecution. After the Mexican War in 1848, Utah became a United States territory. At first the federal government left the Mormons to manage their own affairs, with Young as territorial govern or. But the polygamy issue became a political football in the East, and to appease Protestants (who seem to be able to work up a greater pitch of fanaticism where sex is concerned than on any other subject) the government sent troops into Utah in 1857 to depose Young as governor. The Civil War gave the Mormons a respite from federal harassment. By 1887, however, the anti-Mormon bigots were in business again, and Congress passed a law disenfranchising all Mormon votes and confiscating all church properties.
In 1890 the Mormons finally made peace with the Guardians of Morality in Washington by outlawing the teaching and practice of plural marriage. Restoration of church property and Mormon voting rights followed, and in 1896 Utah was finally admitted to the Union as a state.
It is a colorful history, and one that does great credit to Mormon courage and fidelity. It has left its imprint on the Mormons of today. You can see its influence, for example, in the storehouses which the Church maintains in easy reach of every Mormon community. There is enough food and clothing in these storehouses to take care of all members of the Church for more than a year, and no Mormon ever needs to turn to public welfare agencies in time of need. The strong bonds of fellowship forged during the years of common suffering also are reflected in the continuing clannishness of Mormon communities, and in time sacrifices that Mormons cheerfully make for their church. The zeal for their faith which was fanned by past persecutions is manifested today in the readiness of young Mormons to devote two years of their lives to missionary service, at their own expense.
But Mormons are also prisoners of their history, in the sense that they have inherited from Joseph Smith, and to a lesser degree from Brigham Young, a number of doctrines that set them apart from normative Christianity and stamp them in the minds of many as a peculiar sect.
Distinctive Mormon Doctrines
There is a strong tendency in modern Mormonism to soft-pedal these distinctive doctrines and to emphasize the articles of faith that Mormons hold in common with mainline Protestant bodies. In fact, you could attend a Mormon Sunday school for weeks in a row without hearing any teaching that would be recognizably different from that which you might encounter in a Fundamentalist Protestant church.
But the Mormon distinctives are still there — in the Book of Mormon and other writings which are officially held to be based on divine revelation — and there seems to be no way in which the Mormons can escape them without repudiating their own history, which they are not about to do.
One of these distinctive Mormon teachings — which has lately been a source of great embarrassment to such Mormon politicians as George Romney — is that all human beings have an unremembered pre-existence in the spirit world. The black skins with which Negroes are born is a sign of divine displeasure with their conduct in that prior life. Thus, Negroes are forbidden to enter the Mormon priesthood, which is otherwise open to all males.
Mormon views about God and Jesus Christ are hard for an outsider to fathom. Much Mormon literature and preaching today seems to say substantially what Protestants and Catholics say. But one can also find in Smith’s writings and other Mormon literature the concept that God is a flesh-and-bones person, who became supreme by mastering universal knowledge. Jesus, in these writings, is depicted as God’s son, but only in the sense of being the first of many children to go through a phase of incarnation after a long prior existence in the spirit world. Mormon doctrine holds that all human beings who live worthily in this stage of their existence can look forward to a future life in the exalted status of sons or daughters of God. And this future life will be a bodily one, which will include marriage and the procreation of children. Indeed, to be married and beget children is in Mormon belief one of the essential conditions of celestial bliss. That is why there was great social pressure for plural marriages in a society where women outnumbered men. To a Mormon woman, a polygamous marriage was infinitely preferable to entering heaven without a husband.
Because the link between Mormons and polygamy is so strong in many minds, it should be emphasized that only a very small percentage of the Utah families ever practiced plural marriage; their motives were religious conviction, not sexual lust; and polygamy has been strictly outlawed for the best part of a century. Moreover, polygamy was never condoned by one substantial branch of the Mormon family, which did not join the trek to Utah but continued to live in the East, with its center at Independence, Missouri. This branch is called The Reorganized Church of Latter-day Saints and it now has about 160,000 members. (It also rejects the teaching that Negroes are under a divine curse.)
The main LDS church, which has its world headquarters in Salt Lake City, has 1.8 million members in the United States, and about 500,000 more in England, Western Europe, Australia, and other overseas areas where Mormons are conducting vigorous missionary work.
The LDS church has no professional clergy as such. Every Mormon boy is eligible for ordination to the priesthood at about the same age that he would be confirmed in another church. Local congregations are called "wards" and the man who serves as pastor is known as a bishop. He is usually a business or professional man who handles his pastoral duties on a part-time basis, without salary. At the head of the Mormon hierarchy is the Council of the Twelve Apostles and the President of the Church, who is regarded as a divinely guided prophet.
Mormons observe strict rules of personal morality. They do not approve of tea, coffee, tobacco, or alcohol. They disapprove of birth control, and divorce is unthinkable, especially if the couple have been united in a Mormon temple ceremony (the only kind that is considered capable of cementing a celestial marriage that will endure into the next life). Mormon churches provide the most extensive and best-organized youth programs of any denomination, hands down and no contest.
Seventh-day Adventists are Christians in a hurry. They believe that the Second Coming of Christ is imminent. So they feel a strong sense of urgency about getting on with the Lord’s work — particularly in fulfilling his command to preach the gospel to every nation.
The first Adventist missionary, John Nevins Andrews, was sent out (to John Calvin’s Switzerland, for some strange reason) in 1874. Today there are Adventist missionaries at work in 189 of the world’s 223 nations. Although the denomination has only about 300,000 members in the United States — its home base — it has at least three times that many in its foreign missions.
The far-flung Adventist missionary program — which totally eclipses the efforts of many large Protestant denominations — is carried on by an efficient, highly structured world-wide organization, which is made up of more than 6,000 ordained ministers and some 50,000 other full-time salaried workers, including doctors, nurses, teachers, and technicians. Adventists operate more than 5,000 schools, nearly 300 hospitals and clinics, and 44 publishing houses that turn out religious literature in more than 200 languages.
The Most Generous Fundamentalists
Adventists finance this massive global enterprise by giving more generously to their church than do the members of any other large denomination. Virtually all Adventists tithe, and many give a "double tithe" — 20 per cent of their income. When the National Council of Churches publishes its annual report on contributions, the per capita figure for Seventh-day Adventists is always about five times the average of all Protestant denominations.
Adventists belong to the Fundamentalist wing of Protestantism, which believes in literal interpretation of the Bible. In fact, they go beyond many other Fundamentalists in regarding the laws and prophecies of the Old Testament as being as fully applicable to modern Christians as are the teachings of the New Testament. That is why they observe the seventh day of the week — the traditional Jewish Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday — as a day of worship, instead of the Christian Sunday.
Their reading of biblical prophecies, especially those found in the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation (Apocalypse), convinces them that the time is near for Christ to return to earth in the promised "Second Advent." Exactly how near, they do not profess to know. The Church strictly forbids any attempt to set a specific year or date.
The Second Advent and Emphasis on Health
This rule is deeply rooted in Adventist history. Early in the nineteenth century, in this country and in Europe, a movement developed spontaneously around the belief that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand. Its adherents were first called "Millerites," after one of their leaders, William Miller, who predicted that the Day of Judgment would fall between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. Thousands of believers sold their property, gave away all their money, and waited prayerfully for the event. When the deadline came and passed, most of these early Adventists abandoned the movement in disillusionment.
But a small group in the New England states remained convinced that the Second Advent was likely to come at any time, even though the precise day and hour could not be reckoned. This group included a remarkable woman named Ellen White, who wrote scores of books and hundreds of articles and pamphlets that set the theological tone of Seventh-day Adventism.
The Church was formally organized in 1863 at Battle Creek, Michigan. It had an initial membership of about 3500.
Mrs. White was a strong advocate of good health, and this emphasis has become part of the Adventist heritage. The first Adventist medical institution was the famed Battle Creek Sanitarium. The denomination now operates excellent hospitals, sanitariums, and clinics around the world.
Adventists are forbidden, on grounds of health, to use alcohol, tobacco, tea, or coffee. They are urged to stick to a simple vegetarian diet, avoiding meats, hot spices, and rich desserts. But vegetarianism is not a "test" of membership.
The Church also frowns on movies and dancing, which it regards as unwholesome influences on young people. Adventist girls may use cosmetics in moderation, but they are advised that jewelry is "a display of pride and vanity" and a waste of money that should be used in the work of the Kingdom.
Although their hopes are vividly fixed on another world, Adventists take very seriously Jesus’ example of ministering to human suffering in this one. In addition to their globe-circling network of medical institutions, they carry on one of the largest welfare programs ever undertaken by a private agency. Each year, more than 6 million indigent people receive food, clothing, or other help from Seventh-day Adventist welfare workers.
Adventist work around the world is directed from a General Conference headquarters in Washington, D.C. Local congregations are largely self-governing, but their pastors are appointed by regional conferences, composed of elected delegates from each church.
Adventist ministers are required to have completed five years of college and two years of internship before they are ordained. They are never called "Reverend" (Adventists believe that that term belongs only to God), but are known as "Elder" or "Pastor."
One Thursday evening in February, 1866, a frail young widow named Mary Baker Eddy was seriously injured by a fall on an icy sidewalk in Lynn, Massachusetts.
She was carried unconscious to a nearby home. For two days she remained in critical condition and her friends despaired of her life. Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Eddy asked for a Bible. She read (in the ninth chapter of Matthew) the account of Christ’s healing of a man bedridden with palsy.
Although she had read the familiar passage many times before, on this occasion Mrs. Eddy found in it a new significance. After a brief prayer, she closed the Bible, arose from bed, dressed herself, and walked into the parlor to greet her startled friends.
Out of this event, and Mrs. Eddy’s subsequent reflections, grew one of America’s major religious denominations — The Christian Science Church. Formally established in Boston in 1879, it now has more than 3200 branches in forty-eight countries. In keeping with Mrs. Eddy’s wish, the Church does not publish membership statistics, but it is known to have several hundred thousand adherents.
Their Basic Philosophy
Christian Science is usually identified in the public mind with spiritual healing. But the Church’s distinctive teachings about health can be understood only in time context of its basic theology, which is outlined in Mrs. Eddy’s book Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures.
Christian Scientists believe that God is "infinite good," and that all "reality" in the universe is necessarily good because God created it.
The evil, sickness, and death that men think they see in the world could not have come from God; hence, they must be essentially unreal. They afflict men only so long as erring human belief causes them to seem real. When men achieve true spiritual understanding, the "illusions" of sin and sickness vanish, just as a bad dream evaporates when the dreamer awakens.
Christian Scientists say that thousands of people have been healed of every kind of disease and ailment, from cancer to broken bones, by the application of this insight. They do not regard these healings as "miracles" but as the natural working of divine laws which are impartially available to all men.
It should be emphasized that, in Christian Science teaching, the "healing" that flows from apprehension of spiritual truth is not confined to physical illness, but also applies to family and business problems, social injustices, psychological tensions, and, most important of all, to moral weakness. "The emphatic purpose of Christian Science," Mrs. Eddy wrote, "is the healing of sin."
Although Christian Scientists acknowledge Jesus in their formal creed as the Son of God, their favorite term for him is "The Way-shower." They believe that Christ came to save men from a false material concept of existence, by demonstrating in his healing ministry and his resurrection "the allness of soul and spirit and the nothingness of matter."
The Christian Science Church has no ordained clergy. The healing ministry is entrusted to "practitioners," men and women who are licensed for this service after careful examination of their understanding of Christian Science doctrines.
In local churches, all of which are branches of the original "Mother Church" in Boston, Sunday worship services are conducted by "readers" elected by the congregation. Passages from the Bible and from Mrs. Eddy’s Science and Health are read at every Sunday service. At midweek, usually on Wednesday evening, Christian Science churches conduct testimonial meetings at which persons healed of illness relate their experiences.
Most churches also sponsor one or more "Reading Rooms," at which any interested person may find extensive literature on Christian Science.
America’s fast-growing Pentecostal movement is composed of more than twenty organized denominations plus uncounted thousands of independent local churches and storefront sects.
Their common bond is an intensely emotional approach to religion.
Pentecostals adhere to the characteristic doctrines of Protestant Fundamentalism, including the literal interpretation of the Bible. But they have an additional doctrine which is distinctively their own, and which is the hallmark of their movement: They believe that authentic religious conversion is an ecstatic experience, and should be accompanied by all the "signs" which attended the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon the first Christian Apostles.
The Gift of Tongues
The New Testament says that these signs included "the gift of tongues." On the first day of Pentecost, when the Apostles were filled with the Spirit, they found themselves able to speak and understand many strange languages that they had never learned.
Pentecostals say this phenomenon still occurs among believers who are stirred by genuine religious fervor. Other churches do not experience it, they say, because they have allowed "ecclesiastical formalism" to stifle the natural expression of religious emotions.
At their worship services, Pentecostals display their feelings in an uninhibited and often exuberant way. They shout, clap hands, sing, and march. Some may speak in tongues or fall to the floor in a trance. This has prompted some irreverent outsiders to apply to Pentecostals the derisive nickname "Holy Rollers."
The Pentecostal movement was an outgrowth of the popular religious revivals that swept the world during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Although there are some Pentecostal churches in other countries, the movement has always centered predominantly in the United States.
No one knows how many Pentecostals there are in the United States today, but the figure is well in excess of 2 million, and is growing very rapidly. Many religious authorities say that Pentecostal groups are expanding their membership at a faster rate than any other type of church.
The spread of the movement is illustrated in statistics of the General Council of the Assemblies of God, which is the largest and best-organized Pentecostal denomination. It was established in April, 1914, at a meeting of three hundred Pentecostal pastors and laymen at Hot Springs, Arkansas. By 1937, it had 3473 local congregations with a total of 175,362 members. Today there are more than 8,000 Assembly of God churches in the United States, with a total membership of more than 500,000.
The Assemblies of God, like most Pentecostal bodies, place heavy emphasis on foreign missions, and now rank fifth among all U.S. denominations in the size of their missionary force abroad. They maintain nine colleges and Bible institutes in this country, and sixty-six Bible schools in other countries.
The next largest group of Pentecostals are the Churches of God. The Yearbook of American Churches lists nine different denominations with this title or some slight variation of it. Their total membership is about 400,000.
There are at least nine organized denominations with the word Pentecostal in their titles. They include the United Pentecostal Church, The Pentecostal Holiness Church, and The Pentecostal Church of God of America.
Thousands of local Pentecostal congregations are not affiliated with any denomination.
The Pentecostal movement is strongest in the South and West, but it has been growing fast lately in the Middle West.
THE HOLINESS CHURCHES
Historically related to the Pentecostal groups, and often confused with them in the public mind, are the so-called "holiness" churches, which are typified by the Church of the Nazarene.
The common bond of all the holiness denominations is a strong emphasis on John Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, which holds that the Holy Spirit achieves such a purifying of the hearts and motives of truly consecrated Christians that they are freed from their natural human proclivity toward sin and are rendered capable of perfect holiness, here and now, in this earthly life.
The more sedate of the holiness churches — such as the Church of the Nazarene — do not practice tongue-speaking or any other outward manifestation of religious ecstasy. Their services are as decorous as even a Presbyterian could ask.
Nazarenes are almost as austere as old-time Quakers in their personal habits. The rules of the church forbid drinking, smoking, attendance at movies or plays, immodesty in dress or behavior, and any type of frivolity (even reading the newspapers) on Sunday.
But for all the strictness of their discipline, they do not seem to feel that holiness is burdensome. One is impressed in reading Nazarene literature by its constant emphasis on religion as a joyous experience.
Nazarenes attach great importance to personal evangelism, or "witnessing." They are also great givers. The church teaches the principle of tithing and it is evident that a large proportion of the membership practices it: Nazarene contributions average more than twice the overall average for Protestant denominations.
When it was founded on October 13, 1908, at Pilot Point, Texas, by the merger of two small regional Holiness Associations, the Church had only 10,414 members. Today it has nearly 300,000 members in North America, and an additional 45,000 in the forty foreign areas where Nazarene missionaries are at work.
America’s fastest growing religious body is a Brooklyn based sect whose adherents believe that Doomsday is hard at hand. Its official name is the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. The members are better known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During the past twenty years — a period in which the membership of other churches approximately doubled —the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses has increased by 700 per cent. Today there are about 900,000 full-fledged Witnesses, and perhaps an additional one million fringe members who read time Society’s literature, attend its meetings, and generally sympathize with its doctrines. One third of them are in the United States. There also are list-growing branches of the Society in West Germany, France, Latin America, and Africa.
Their phenomenal growth rate is the result of a zeal for evangelism that puts the established churches to shame.
Every Witness is regarded as an ordained minister, and is sent out to ring doorbells, pass out literature on street corners, and preach the Society’s message to as many people as possible. The average Witness, working in assigned territory, makes personal calls on at least ten homes each week.
Expectance of Armageddon
Behind this passion for convert-winning is the firm conviction of the Witnesses that the end of human history is imminent. They expect it to come at any hour, and almost certainly within the next ten years.
The end will come, they say, with a titanic Battle of Armageddon between the forces of God and the forces of Satan. The awesome pyrotechnics of this struggle "will make atomic explosions look like firecrackers." The only survivors will be Jehovah’s Witnesses, who will thereafter live eternally and blissfully, not in heaven but right here on earth.
Because they regard all other religious bodies as instruments of Satan, Witnesses feel that they can express their love of neighbor only by relentless proselytizing — by bringing as many people as possible into their own fold before it is too late.
They also look upon all human governments as instruments of Satan, and therefore refuse to pledge allegiance to any flag or to serve in any nation’s armed forces. This stand has brought them into constant conflict with the law, and exposed them to many mob attacks, tar-and-featherings and other savage persecutions, both in this country and elsewhere.
But the Witnesses are not adverse to using the judicial processes of government. Since 1938, they have carried fifty test cases before the United States Supreme Court and have won thirty-seven of them. Through this litigation they have won the right to preach on the streets, refuse jury duty, avoid salutes to the flag, and to carry on house-to-house solicitations.
Leading constitutional lawyers credit the eases brought by the Witnesses with achieving a major expansion of civil liberties for all Americans.
But this was a purely incidental by-product so far as the Witnesses are concerned. They care nothing for improving social conditions or righting injustice in human society, which they feel is corrupted beyond all hope of redemption and already doomed to fiery destruction.
Heaven for the Few Only
Witnesses or their literature have created the impression that they are an off-beat body of Protestants. But the Witnesses have a distinctive theology of their own, which can hardly be described as a version of Christianity.
In his excellent study of the Witnesses, Armageddon Around the Corner (The John Day Company, New York), Professor William J. Whalen, of Purdue University, says Witnesses may be described as "fundamentalist Unitarians."
"They regard the Bible as the infallible word of God, a word which must be taken literally and at face value," says Professor Whalen. "At the same time, they stoutly deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. An orthodox Christian Theologian would recognize bits and pieces of a dozen ancient heresies in Witness theology.
Witnesses believe that the Almighty is wrathful at Christians because they call him God instead of using his proper name, Jehovah. They have their own translation of the Bible, in which the word Jehovah has been substituted for God more than six thousand times.
Although they look forward with joy to an imminent and fiery destruction of the present world, Witnesses do not believe in a hell. The wicked people who do not qualify for perpetual bliss after the Battle of Armageddon will not be condemned to eternal punishment. They will simply be extinguished.
Witness theology does provide for heaven, but only a select "Little Flock" of 144,000 persons will go there. (This is based, like much Witness teaching, on an obscure passage in the Book of Revelation.) Others saved from the final debacle will remain on earth, enjoying a troublefree existence forever.
The official name of the Society is derived from the tithe of a magazine, The Watchtower, founded in 1879 by Charles Taze Russell, an Allegheny, Pennsylvania, haberdasher who was attracted to Adventist doctrines of biblical interpretation.
He acquired a body of followers, originally known as Russellites, and predicted that the world would come to an end in 1914. (Witness theologians have since reinterpreted his prophecy, and hold that 1914 marked the beginning of an "invisible struggle" in heaven that will culminate in the fiery Battle of Armageddon on earth, any day now.)
After Russell’s death in 1916, the movement was headed by a Missouri lawyer, "Judge" Joseph F. Rutherford. He continued the emphasis on an imminent end of time, and was author of the famous Witness prophecy, "Millions now living will never die."
Rutherford died of cancer in 1942 and was succeeded by Nathan H. Knorr, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who had been a full-time Witness since he graduated from high school in 1923.
Knorr is a quiet and retiring man compared to his colorful predecessors. He has been responsible for the present high degree of organizational efficiency in the Society, as well as for putting its prodigious output of literature (125 million books, tracts, and magazines a year) on a businesslike basis.
The Society’s headquarters, called Bethel House, and its printing plant are located in Brooklyn. Full-time workers, of whom there are about five thousand in the movement, receive their room, board, and fourteen dollars a month spending money. Everyone, including President Knorr, lives on the same standard.
Other Witnesses earn their own living in everyday jobs and carry on their house-to-house evangelism during evenings and weekends. The movement in modern times has been notably devoid of scandals. Witnesses are excommunicated if they fail to maintain high standards of morality in their private lives.
1. The official name of the principal Mormon body is still The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But outsiders have always called it The Mormon Church, and in recent years Mormons have bowed to the inevitable and accepted this synonym.