Review of Edwin Gaustad’s “The Religious History of America”

The Religious History of AmericaWhat an amazing book! It is a real revelation of the spiritual climate of America; of where we’ve come from (which is relatively good), where we are (which is bad), and where are probably going (which isn’t good).

In the 1500s-1600s, the Anglicans, Pilgrims, and Puritans dominated the religious landscape of America. Since they lived in different colonies, the Pilgrims and Puritans were civilly protected from the persecution they would have otherwise had in England for being non-conformists to the Church of England. For the Anglicans, the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer defined their theology, as well as Thomas Cranmer’s Books of Homilies. But the Anglican priests were of a very poor character; outcasts in England, they came to America, as a last resort in ministry.

The Pilgrims and Puritans, basically took their theology from the Westminster Confession and from various Puritan theologians from the past. Although this era was very hard economically and spiritually, and some entertained thoughts of missionary activity among the Indians:–for the most part, these white Christian settlers kept to themselves. I would say, in this era of America, the theology was totally orthodox; you couldn’t get more orthodox than the 39 Articles, being directly influenced by Martin Luther and salvation views of the Protestant Reformation. And with the Westminster Confession, although a bit tough to swallow on its doctrine of unconditional predestination, offered a solid Biblical vision of what Christian life is supposed to look like, both in theory and practice.

In the late 1680s, different immigrating Dissenters from England and Europe began to unsettle the orthodox settlers: Quakers, Arminians, Baptists, Antinomians, Jews, etc. It was the beginning of religious diversity in America. It started off in Rhode Island and then took shape in Pennsylvania, which was Quaker territory. The orthodox Reformed and Calvinistic Puritan vision was over with. No more Puritan America. No more Reformed America. Now it was a melting pot for every Dissenter from England that was not burned at the stake. It was a place where all these different religious opinions, could flourish under the banner of economic cooperation, and tolerant political leadership.

The 1700s was a time of promise and peril for American spirituality. The bad news was, that in order for the nation to stand unified against the English king; and maintain its independence, the politicians figured they needed a philosophy that would allow government leaders a level of tolerance and allowance for all these different religions. That philosophy was called Freemasonry. George Washington (d. 1731), Benjamin Franklin (d. 1790), and most of the Founding Fathers joined this sect in order to gain a sort of universalist viewpoint of all these religions; and then unify all the people “under God” or “the Grand Architect of the Universe.” Steering away from the Anglican and Puritan vision of God, the Founding Fathers embraced a universalism couched in terms of Enlightenment rationalism and deism; which then led to liberal Christianity flourishing in the nation.

But God rose up two prophets to respond to this satanic apostasy: Jonathan Edwards (d. 1758) and George Whitefield (d. 1770). Edwards is considered the “last of the Puritans,” and known for his Hell-fire and brimstone sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The Great Awakening took place under his fiery preaching; and there were great outpourings of the Holy Spirit during his church services, and many very wicked people were brought to a thorough repentance from sin, and resolved to live in holiness. Whitefield was the Calvinist and neo-Puritan counterpart of his Arminian-Anglican friend and Methodist church founder John Wesley (d. 1791). Whitefield came to America and preached the Gospel of repentance and faith for salvation from an eternal Hell; in collaboration with Edwards and other Great Awakening preachers. It would be wrong to say that Edwards and Whitefield made the whole nation reformed Christians again; that would be entertaining an unrealistic notion. But they did revive a great mass of reformed Christians out of a spiritually dead cesspool and melting pot of apostasy and religious diversity. The Great Awakening was Puritanism’s “last hurrah” in America.

Liberal Christianity got worse and worse through the influence of Enlightenment rationalism. In response to the apostasy, the Second Great Awakening was spearheaded by Charles Finney (d. 1875). He was a Presbyterian with an Arminian or Wesleyan influence; and he innovated the idea of creating and organizing revival meetings. This led to the Methodist-dominated camp meetings, where revivalist-style preaching and prayer meetings could occur; where deeper holiness could be pursued, and sometimes, spiritual gifts were experienced, such as dreams, visions, trances, and even tongues. The Holiness and Methodist leadership also used this as a platform for the cause of Abolition of the slave trade. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed, however, by some disenfranchised black Methodists who felt they were being racially discriminated against in their white-dominated Methodist churches. This also led to other independent black churches being formed, such as Baptist ones. But it is clear, at least in my estimation, that a truly spiritual and even prophetic–almost Catholic saint-level–of holiness and spiritual gifts was attained by some of the black women in these Methodist-holiness camp meetings, such as Jarena Lee and Zilpha Elaw.

Highlights from the book end here.


Following in this spiritual heritage, William J. Seymour (d. 1922), a black Holiness pastor, appeared on the Los Angeles scene with his Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission, proclaiming an experience of the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the Bible evidence of speaking in tongues. Many people, especially the Methodist-holiness types flocked from all over America, and other countries, to receive the experience for themselves. So, this Azusa Street Revival lasted from 1906-1909, for three years; and was eventually quenched when a white woman became jealous that Seymour married a black woman instead of her. This jealous woman, Clara Lum, stole Seymour’s mailing list for his newspaper The Apostolic Faith, so he no longer had a donation base for his ministry; and also, had no means of communication with the newly forming Pentecostal Movement.

The Charismatic Movement of the 1960s and 70s was not as Wesleyan as the Azusa Street Revival, but it probably had much of God’s Spirit at work in it. America’s Christian culture had become much more diverse than Pennsylvania ever was in the 1600s. Now there were Eastern religions and New Age cults everywhere; and liberal Christian denominations, known as “mainline,” had become the most popular; Hell and repentance and old Puritanical ideas were lost mainly; and only a love and a Father and universal brotherhood idea of Christianity remained. Yet there were some conservative reformed types, but they all opposed the Charismatics entirely. Dennis Bennett (d. 1991), an Anglican priest who was baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues, appears to have been the most orthodox of the leaders in this movement.

The Neocharismatic Movement began in the early 1980s under the ministry of John Wimber (d. 1997) and his formation of the Vineyard churches. This was like a “phase 2” of the Charismatic Movement. Because, whereas that move had focused on bringing tongues and spiritual gifts to liberals:–the Neocharismatic or “third wave” movement was focused on conservative evangelicals like Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. This gave rise to “reformed Charismatics” and “Charismatic Calvinists” like Jack Deere, Mike Bickle, Sam Storms, John Piper, and Wayne Grudem. But it has to be noted that in the early days of this movement, Leonard Ravenhill (d. 1994) played a role as a prophetic revivalist type of overseer to which a lot of these guys looked up to. Ravenhill, a Holiness preacher from an era long past, who was deeply influenced by William Booth and the Salvation Army in his youth–was not opposed to “signs and wonders and prophecy” per se–but his preaching emphasis, as always, was on SALVATION, PRAYER, and HOLINESS. May we follow in his footsteps all the way to Heaven. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Further Reading

Edwin Gaustad’s The Religious History of America.

Harry Stout’s The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism.

Michael Crawford’s Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in its British Context.

Dee Andrews’ The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800.

William McLoughlin’s Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham.

Charles Johnson’s Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion’s Harvest Time.

Donald Mathews’ Religion in the Old South.

Christine Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt.

Vinson Synan’s The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition.

Mack Tomlinson’s In Light of Eternity: The Life of Leonard Ravenhill.

About Wesley Gospel is self-published in the spirit of John Wesley and the Reformers, as when they used the printing press. The truth of God won't be censored or suppressed!
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