Sophisticated Primitives Then, Primitive Sophisticates Now

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article is based on an address given at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. It appeared in The Christian Century, June 7-14, l989; pp 588-591. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Marty comments on several studies of “primitivism” and its place in the life of the church, especially in America.

PRIMORDIUM. It's time to get used to the term. Next to it one might mentally store such words as "primitivism" and "restorationism," terms that will come in handy for interpreting America's past. Paradoxically, though they refer to various sorts of pasts, they are also convenient tools for understanding how many Americans are interpreting the present and envisioning the future -- though they may not know they are primitives or restorationists or that they believe in and measure life from a primordium.

Among these are members of the Churches of Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), two of the fastest growing bodies in the U.S. and wherever they send missionaries.

"Primordium" is the most obscure and thus the easiest to define of the three words. University of Iowa professor Theodore Dwight Bozeman in his sound and exciting new book To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension of Puritanism relates it to Mircea

Eliade's concepts. Eliade spoke of an "originative, repeatable primordium, " a sacred, mythic "Great Time," which invited mortals to a consoling "nostalgia for the perfection of beginnings" and which helped them explain the world, even as it became "the exemplary model for all significant human activities." But for Eliade as for Bozeman and other historians, the Puritan primordium. differed from others in that the Great Time occurred not in prehistory but within human history.

Specifically, the Puritan and Christian American primordium -- not the only primordium available on the current market -- refers to a sort of mythic time. In essence this was "the primal (or "primitive" or "first") time in which Christianity was given and unfolded in fullness. " The time of Jesus, the apostles and the earliest Christian community was "the normative time to which men and women of the present must, in imagination, 'return' for saving guidance and empowerment."

There were some early warning signals that the community of scholars and citizens would some day have to attend to this subject. Bozeman connects the restoration of primordial concepts to Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, which Arthur 0. Lovejoy and George Boas published in 1935. Eliade's concepts were translated in 1960 and 1963. Those of us who sat at the feet of Sidney E. Mead, as I did at the University of Chicago and as Bozeman, Hughes and Allen did at Iowa, heard him saying what he wrote in 1956 about "the tendency chronic in Christendom, but perhaps more acute among Englishmen, to support every contemporary innovation by an appeal to 'primitive Christianity.' " On the frontier, leaders insisted "that there was really nothing new but only the repristination of the apostolic and hence normative ways. " In 1968 I signed off as adviser on a thesis by Marvin S. Hill, "The Role of Christian Primitivism in the Origin and Development of the Mormon Kingdom, 1830-44. " So those who studied Great Times with Eliade or who had great times with Mead were long being pushed to clarify the concept.

With the publication of The American Quest for the Primitive Church, edited by Richard T. Hughes, and Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875, by Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, primitivism is becoming a key interpretive category the way "millennium" once did. Of course, the "millennium" had always been a theme in doctrinal works (with which American Catholics, Lutherans, secularists and others did not much bother). But it was inert until books like Ernest Lee Tuveson's Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (1968) appeared. Today knowing the difference between pre- and postmillennialism is important for interpreting the interpreters of both Middle East and domestic politics When former President Ronald Reagan told a group that he had been reading "'your" theologians, he was referring to Armageddonned millennial tracts.

The new category is "primitivism." Historians will argue endlessly, but not fruitlessly, about definitions of the term, but their colleagues and the public will not wait for a neat definition. The book that Hughes edited contains an exchange between a Churches of Christ scholar, Thomas Olbricht, and evangelical Mark Noll. Noll is puzzled: how can Olbricht include as primitive the impulse of New Englanders to collect European books, to write 6,000 pages of manuscript as Cotton Mather did, to study German as Moses Stuart did, or to undertake perilous voyages to the Old World to hear complex lectures on early Christianity? "All of these seem like traditionalism instead of primitivism," Noll observes. Precisely. But, imprecisely, Noll will lose his effort to narrow definitions. Paradoxically, Olbricht and Noll agree that the sophisticated early Unitarians were the true biblical primitives of early America, since they "rested their case with the. primitive Christian documents. " Again: precisely.

Which suggests that it always took sophistication, even on the frontier where books were few, to work one's way across history, to forget what today we call hermeneutics and to claim to be replicating, restoring, repristinating, the pure norms of early Christianity. Some of the pioneers called themselves Disciples of Christ or members of the Churches of Christ, and others called themselves Latter-day Saints. Methodists and Baptists also found complex ways to say that they were following simple, unsophisticated ways. But Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith, the grand gurus of Great Time thought and action, were anything but intellectually primitive.

Let me illustrate how primitivism surfaces. I recall visiting the World's Fair in New York in the mid-'60s. A religious pavilion featured a large display by the Churches of Christ. The showpiece was a primitive but to us, then, awesome computer, surrounded by beautiful young women and dashing young men as acolytes. The banner of the display said something to the effect that here were first-century answers for 21st-century life. Passersby could ask the computer any of 300 questions. The prepacked answer, a kind of Chinese-fortune-cookie type message, came inside a capsule. In each case, the answer was simply a Bible verse. I tried out the question about the proper age, mode and purpose of baptizing and got back a very non-Catholic/Anglican/ Lutheran/Orthodox answer. We were back to the beginnings, as the boothkeepers saw them.

The incident seems trivial, but I suggest that the popularity of that crowded display at the fair points to a deep need among moderns. It was satisfying to know that in the midst of technology and pluralism one could rely on the simple message of early Christianity. All through American history, especially Protestant history, the winners of disputes seem to be those who have best made the case that they represent the authority and purity of the simple Bible and the primitive Christian generation.

Letters to the editor in Baptist, Methodist and many other kinds of denominational magazines reveal how simple and primitive the concept of a primordium, a Golden Age of beginnings, remains. The writers want all arguments settled on the basis of the simple gospel of the first generation of the church. Intervening history not only does not matter; it corrupts.

Simplicity is hard to come by. Think of how complex it is to live with wood-burning stoves, to find or grow organic food, or to replicate the little white church and little red schoolhouse world in metropolitan and pluralistic America. One recalls the observation made years ago when, to compete, Detroit automakers built economy cars with expensive gadgets: "This proves that Americans want economy, and they will pay any price to get it." Americans want simplicity, purity, beginnings, and they will go through tortured, compromising and historically "fallen" routes to convince themselves that they have found them.

While the heirs of the sophisticated primitives live on, the land is full of primitive sophisticates. The Puritans and Campbell and their kinds, and even Smith in his own way, had to retrace all Christian history and doctrine to posit or find the restorable early Christian primordium. Today one finds everywhere analogues to that primordium. The market is full of products gobbled up by hungry consumers who are unaware of how much work it takes to be simple. Consumers confront on every corner someone who reduces complexity to a single key, be it New Age, macrobiotics, holistic health care, the latest variation on Zen or "the simple Jesus." But the impulse that unites sophisticated primitives and primitive sophisticates is the search for purity, simplicity and wholeness.

The drive toward primitivism has four aspects. Psychologically, modernity fragments life and lives. It generates what Peter Gay called a "hunger for wholeness, " which William James claimed impels a restitutio ad integrum. The term is an analogue to our subject: there is to be a restitution to wholeness, integrity, a presumed earlier condition of simplicity and health.

Ideologically, there is a strong drive to follow the simplifiers. Gay, writing of the hunger for wholeness in the Weimar Republic, sees that drive leading to an acceptance of Nazism's totalitarian simplicities. In America the search for the simple, whether at Walden Pond for Henry David Thoreau, Yosemite Falls for John Muir, or in the pure gospel for the millions, usually comes down to the notion that with a few clear absolutes in mind, life will hold together and we can outargue other sects and outlast the ayatollahs.

Politically, there is constant appeal to the purity of the founders, beginning with George Washington and the Constitutionalists. One does not go far in politics without, as the media say today, "dumbing it down" or following the injunction KISS, "keep it simple, stupid. " "Simple" does not just mean linguistically or conceptually so, but also substantially. Politicians and economists like to suggest that we as a nation "fell," first into the clutches of robber barons or, later, into the hands of Keynesians and socialists and bureaucrats. Purity calls us to reduce and simplify government and restore primitive individualism of the sort our grandparents exemplified. Frederick Jackson Turner's influential frontier thesis in historical studies was but one evidence of this drive. David Noble in Historians Against History anticipated the current interest in primitivism by showing how the semisecular historical tradition uttered constant jeremiads against an America falling into complexity.

Ecclesiastically, in a nation in which churches have mattered much, everyone from fundamentalists through ecumenists argues for the "one" church that he or she represents. The liberal ecumenists spoke of the "reunion" of Christendom, even though most scholars say earliest Christianity was itself divided and complex, an intricate web whose essences and outlines cannot be retrieved.

The past in "simple" Christian history is not Eden but early Christianity; in the Republican version, not current times but antiquity or the age of the national founders. One cannot test whether advocates of such purity are right in contending for their particular versions of it against myriad competitors. The past is irretrievable; one can argue only about the traces, which look simple to primitivists and complex to others.

The primitive cannot be clearly assessed in the present, either. All who advocate simplicity, whether they are the Milton Friedmans in economics, the "Small Is Beautiful" E. F. Schumachers or the holistic therapists, make the rules of the game too tough for verification . When the economy goes wrong, the environment gets polluted, or the cancerous cells multiply, we are told that it was not the simple prescriptions that were at fault, but that the public simply did not trust these enough.

And, of course, one cannot accurately predict the future of a primitivist movement. Historians do not have to be cynics but only historians, however, to show that all past envisionings of millennium, utopia, or primordium-projected-forward have been complex and have failed. Campbell produced a scheme for a single, pure, primitive church, and he was opposed to denominationalism and even the term denomination (and Churches of Christ still resist the inevitable designation). But he succeeded only in adding one more denomination- -no, many more, for there were schisms -- to the Yearbook of American Churches. When the future becomes present, the simplicity disappears. This means that one takes the future on faith -- which in no way diminishes simplicity's imaginative and summoning power.

Primitivism and restoration are always under threat. In psychology, schizophrenia at worst and distraction at least complicate efforts at restitutio ad integrum. In philosophy, relativists are always at hand to threaten absolutist simplicities. In politics, there is always the danger of anarchy and the confusions of the other party. In church life, schismatics and dissenters haunt the structure. Meanwhile, scholars jumble things by pointing to the falleness of even the pure in history, the diversities and divisions of earliest Christianity and the difficulties of remaining historyless while moving through history.

Once one puts on restorationist spectacles, it gets ever easier to see the primitivist impulse in American history. What Tuveson accomplished with a few colonial millennialists, extending their vision into the whole mission of America, all kinds of Americans are doing with the primordium.

Catholics have not used the language of primordiurn much because they see biblical history within the tradition and the tradition within history, but the conservatives are often primitive in their views about origins of episcopacy and papacy, and contemporary moderates often try to settle things by going back to biblical accounts of early ministry and communal life. Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx both have acquired American followings for arguing thus.

As for the Puritans, Bozeman has elaborated on their sophisticated primitivism in detail and with stunning impact. If he is right, they were much more primordial than they were progressivist millennial. thinkers. If he is but slightly right, one would still be ill-advised to talk about Puritanism without at least accounting for his evidence. As for the extension of Puritanism to the frontier, where Disciples of Christ, Mormons and Churches of Christ made and lived the case, Hughes and Allen and their companions are making that case forcefully. And utopian communities, Shakers, Oneidans, Owenites and all the rest, also sophisticatedly worked for primitive restoration.

One should not close the book on these signals by restricting them to formal religion from Native American through present-day Churches of Christ. From at least Daniel Boorstin and Sidney E. Mead on, scholars have seen the leaders of the American Enlightenment -- the religion of the republic that animates present-day civil or public religion- -as being advocates of some sort of primitivism. Hughes and Allen devote only five pages to this subject, since it falls beyond their "Protestant" scope, but they are clear: "the quest for the primordium persisted; the rationalists simply substituted one book -- the book of Nature -- for another and exchanged the primordium of the early church for the primordium of Eden. The basic theological question continued to be What is truth?"

The authors cite Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson as what I call sophisticated primitives. In a deliciously perverse last chapter they see the attraction of elites to Allan Bloom's absolutist simplicities in The Closing of the American Mind as an example of what I am calling primitive sophistication. That is, the Thomases knew what they were doing and argued strenuously; Bloom, in their reading, does not seem to know what he is doing, and is apodictic rather than argumentative in his historyless presuppositions and statements. Bloom's book was "fundamentally a restorationist treatise, tapping deeply into the bountiful. wellspring of American restorationist ideology."

So the primitive sophisticates live on, advocating a return to a Native America that never was, an Enlightenment that never could be simple, a Socratean set of absolutes, an Africa untainted by Western corruption, the timeless, historyless religion of the East. The back-to-the-basics Christian fundamentalists, the Nature Religionists and the New Agers complexly live their dream of remembered and mythic simplicity, recalled from the primordium. Where such a pursuit is part of a worldview and not just the latest marketed fashion, it is impossible to argue someone out of it.

Hughes and Allen and Bozeman and their colleagues serve the primitivist tradition well, if ambiguously. They cherish its impulses and artifacts, they devour its documents, mostly they adhere to its heritage. But they pick up enemies by showing that historylessness has a history, absolutists get relativized by everyone else, purist dreams become inevitably compromised, and one should never simply trust the advertisements of the simplifiers. They recognize the power in myth and the mythic power of this set of "illusions of innocence." People acting on illusions can produce realities of power, as Americans have proved in politics these past eight years.

Through it all one sees ironies. That is what the realization of "illusions" is all about. Because all historical intentions turn out somewhat differently than intended, it would be easy for condescending and cynical historians to say simply, "What fools these mortals are," or "Hindsight tells us how stupid our ancestors were," or "It does not pay to try anything." But to do so would be a failure of Christian and other humane ironic visions, which intend only to bring perspective. They remind us that humans are not God, that God is beyond human intention and aspiration and advertisement and yet that God holds humans responsible and encourages and, yes, expects and blesses action. So the ancestors were not, or at least not simply, foolish; no more foolish than we are. They were wise and ambitious in their own ways.

Some of the tests one can put to them are pragmatic. If their outlook produces better relations between whites and Native Americans, leads people to care more for the environment, promotes good health or encourages political reform and Christian unity, it is hard to wish away the primitivist impulse even while relativizing it with historical perspectives.

Maybe the impulse one needs in the face of the lures of primitivism, restoration and the search for a primordium is best stated in Alfred North Whitehead's words to natural scientists: "Seek simplicity and distrust it."