Recent Religious Developments in America

From time to time, however, reports reach us that there seems to be a springtime of reli­gion in Russia. In the scant news that trickles through the iron curtain one realizes that the people are athirst for the Word of God.

By DANIEL WALTHER, Professor of Church History, Theological Seminary

In a recently published book God's Under­ground a Roman Catholic discusses the theory that Soviet Russia, godless Russia, is riddled with various kinds of religious Chris­tian movements which have gone underground, and declares that it is possibly the "strongest underground in the world since the martyrs of the catacombs toppled the Roman Empire." That the Roman Catholic Church is insidiously active everywhere is well known, and that she seeks martyrdom in Russia and elsewhere should not be surprising.

From time to time, however, reports reach us that there seems to be a springtime of reli­gion in Russia. In the scant news that trickles through the iron curtain one realizes that the people are athirst for the Word of God.

The same author suggests that there is an underground not only in Russia but also in the West, particularly in the United States. At first it seems absurd to speak of a religious un­derground when we know that in the United States the population is by education and tem­perament Christian, that the churches are thronged as never before, and that people are engaged in various charitable works. Pious words are frequently heard, and generous re­ligious endeavors abound. In the United States religion is not only tolerated; it is encouraged. Surely there is no need for such an "under­ground" in a nation where religious liberty is part of the very life of the people.

But let us.not be too hasty in our conclusions. To be sure, one of the greatest threats to civil­ization today is Communism—and the Roman Catholic Church certainly does not make the least effort to annihilate this conviction—but it is not the only threat. There is another threat that is more real than we like to admit—god­lessness.

But again, how can we speak of godlessness when there is greater church attendance than ever before ? In a recent article in Religion in Life, Dr. Samuel McCrea Cavert points to the apparently healthy condition of the religious life in American churches.' There are about two hundred and fifty thousand local congrega­tions of worshipers. Never was the percentage of people belonging to churches higher than it is now. One hundred and fifty years ago only one out of fifteen inhabitants was a church member. In the Puritan colonies the percentage was even smaller—only one in twenty in Vir­ginia. Today there are more than one out of two inhabitants in the church. How, then, can we say that there is godlessness ? Because the greatest threat to American civilization resides within that very civilization. In spite of all its churchgoers, it is predominantly secular and materialistic.

For one thing, it must not be forgotten that this high percentage of churchgoers does not mean that all are active church members—there is much dead wood. Many are reportedly church members, who in reality only figure on the books or who attend church as they would a social club. Then again, the vast economic resources that abound in this favored country have produced a facile optimism—that nothing will ever destroy it—and an indestructible, naïve faith in science and technical achieve­ments. This "scientific faith" is fundamentally opposed to the moral values which are basic in religious thinking and living. We live quantita­tively rather than qualitatively in the religious cause.

Although religious institutions seem to be flourishing, and nominal Christians are on the increase, there is a pervasive secularization, and an intrinsic indifference which cannot be argued away merely by pointing to a thriving membership.

After all, should we as Seventh-day Advent­ists be surprised at this? The one surprising fact is that we constantly seem to be strangely unaware of happenings and conditions which we have preached for more than one hundred years. Could it be that this institutionalism and this increase in membership should also take the place of true, genuine religion with us? Could it be that quantity and machinery are preferred to qualitative religious living?

Usually it is more difficult to determine the actual religious condition of the nation of which we are a part. A visitor from abroad, al­though biased, and though his statements may be sophisticated, may have a more correct concept, whether it is to our liking or not.

What would strike our observer first of all, of course, would be the multiplicity of denomi­nations (it is often forgotten that in other An­glo-Saxon countries there are relatively as many sects). According to the last Federal census of religious bodies there are 256 or­ganized denominations in the United States (97 percent of all registered church members are found in 50 larger denominations, each with a membership of 50,000 or more). More than 200 of the listed groups are so small that they count together for less than 3 percent of the entire church membership in the United States. Dr. Cavert further points out that 80 percent of the American Protestant church membership is found within eight denomina­tional families. By way of comparison it might be of interest to recall that Seventh-day Ad­ventists list fourteenth as far as church mem­bership is concerned. In membership gains, Seventh-day Adventists rank eighth; Roman Catholics are ninth. Number one on the list of membership gains is the Cleveland, Tennessee, branch of the Church of God.'

One characteristic trait in American Chris­tianity is that religious freedom is based on the concept of separation of church and state. This does not mean a separation of Christianity and citizenship. It does not mean "a rejection of any official interlocking between any organized reli­gious body and the national government," for when the Federal Government came into exist­ence in 1787, the old church patterns were re­jected. The recent clash between Cardinal Spellman and Mrs. Roosevelt on the question of Federal aid to parochial schools indicates on one hand the increasing arrogance of Roman Catholicism, at last showing its head impu­dently, without a mask; and on the other hand the healthy reaction against the intrusion of Federal (or local) Government into church affairs.'

Further, Continentals often speak of Ameri­can activism, to which the Americans retort in speaking of European intellectualism. This clash between Old and New World approach is particularly brought to light in the lively exchange of opinions of America's Reinhold Nie­buhr and Europe's Karl Barth, in The Chris­tian Century.' American Christianity is practi­cal, and has no need to apologize for its "busy bee" religion, especially with regard to its wel­fare work and missionary endeavors.

After all, American revivalism and the camp meeting idea were made necessary by the re­lentless westward movement of the nineteenth century. There was not much room for intel­lectualism; revivalism was frankly emotional and practical. Religious emotionalism soon be­came part of America's religious patrimony. Jonathan Edwards, in his Religious Affections, has made religious emotion theologically and intellectually respectable.' After all, the tre­mendous missionary endeavors, with an annual expenditure of about forty million dollars, car­ried on without any Government support, are one of the outstanding achievements of our age. In fact, these movements could not have had that elan, had they not been private in motiva­tion. Americans need not be ashamed of this sort of activation, in which Seventh-day Ad­ventists play such a conspicuous part.

In the article previously quoted Dr. Cavert mentions the rising concern in America for ecumenical fellowship. The United States, hav­ing witnessed the greatest variety of Christian bodies, has also pioneered recently in inter-church cooperation, which in part has been due, precisely, to the multiplicity of sects. Earlier religious bodies have stressed Christian individuality, but in the twentieth century they have shown an ever-growing concern for Christian solidarity.

There is no question as to the vigor of this united action among the Protestant church bodies, among which we should mention par­ticularly the Federal Council of Churches, now forty years old, and the Councils of Churches, which, through seven hundred channels, keep in touch with neighboring congregations. These efforts go beyond mere cooperation, for there is evidence of amalgamation of churches, such as the Evangelical Church and the United Brethren. A more recently proposed union is that of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, and the Congregationalist Christian Church (each of which is a product of a rather recent merger). Such a union would mean a denom­ination of about two million. On the other hand, small denominations which have come into existence in the twentieth century have a surprisingly vigorous growth, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Pentecostal sects. Their justification for proselytizing is their op­position to the older churches which have spent their spiritual quality.

Seventh-day Adventists have no part in ecu­menicalism. In the frame of a Christianity rap­idly developing as to quantity and numbers, it is our God-given task to stand firmly on our principles. While the Christian world grows ever more worldly and even shows signs of in­creasing godlessness, we are called upon to be genuine and humble witnesses of a message which we need not be ashamed of, which on the contrary we should live and preach with greater fervor and a stronger courage. Thus among the insipidity of spiritually disintegrat­ing religious bodies, we will truly be the salt of the earth.

1 FATHER GEORGE, God's Underground. Appleton­Century-Crofts, 1949. (See also article on this book in Life. April 18, 1949, P. 34.)

A Look at the American Churches," Religion in Life. Summer, 1949, pp. 324-331.

3 Christian Herald, August, 1948.

4 On the question of separation see an Englishman's opinion, JAMES BRYCE, The American Commonwealth (1919), vol. 2, p. 763. (See also W. L. Sperry, Re­ligion in America [19461, PP. 8, 9.)

5 Christian Century, "Continental Theology vs. Anglo-Saxon Theology," Feb. 16, r949 ; "Niebuhr's Answer to Barth," Christian Century, Feb. 23, 1949.

6 W. W. SWEET, Revivalism in America (1946), pp. xii-30.

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By DANIEL WALTHER, Professor of Church History, Theological Seminary

December 1949

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