American Originals
By Paul K. Conkin
University of North Carolina Press. 336 pp. $18.95



In a sermon to the shareholders of the Virginia Company in 1622, John Donne, poet and Dean of St. Paul’s, discerned a divine purpose in the Company’s desire to settle the American wilderness: “You shall have made this island, which is but as the suburbs of the old world, a bridge, a gallery to the new, to join all to that world that shall never grow old, the kingdom of heaven.” What Donne prophesied came true. Each generation of Americans has attached itself to powerful and ever-renewing spiritual energies, with the consequence that religion has never grown old here. Instead it has been an innovative force. But this innovation has often been undisciplined and unpredictable, taking on strange forms that would have shocked the orthodox Donne.

In what European country of the eighteenth century, for example, would the scientist Joseph Priestley be allowed to lecture on religion to the heads of government, denying the Trinity, the Incarnation, indeed any form of spiritual substance, while yet affirming that the man Jesus literally rose from the dead? Priestley did exactly that in Philadelphia in 1796 and President George Washington invited him over to his residence for tea and further conversation. Where else but in America could twenty thousand backwoods people, black and white, caught up in a bizarre, four-day, spiritual hysteria of dancing, jerking, barking, and fainting become a decisive event in the history of the religious life of the nation whose effects continue two hundred years later? But that is precisely the meaning of the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting in Bourbon County, Kentucky, in 1801. What Christian nation has ever produced a sect remotely like the Mormons, let alone allowed them to flourish? Who can imagine American religious history without the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy, or Aimee Semple McPherson?

In his absorbing new study, Paul K. Conkin of Vanderbilt University examines this exotic material-what he calls “American originals”-in order to gain perspective on the uniqueness of the American religious pulse. In six lengthy essays, each of which could stand on its own, he describes the historical origins and theologies of a host of denominations, organizing them under typological categories: the Christian Church and Disciples of Christ represent “Restorative Christianity”; Unitarians and Universalists exemplify “Humanistic Christianity”; Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are “Apocalyptic Christianity”; Mormons are their own category; Christian Science is “Spiritual Christianity”; and the Pentecostalist movement is identified as “Ecstatic Christianity.” Conkin tells the stories of these churches fairly and takes their ideas seriously. Appended to each chapter is an informative two-page bibliographical essay. If the reader is looking for an accurate guide to Christian sectarian belief in America, or the religion teacher a convenient textbook, then look no further; Conkin’s study does the job.

In his “Preface” and “Afterword,” both modest in length, Conkin ventures gingerly into the realm of generalization. He notes, to begin with, that size matters. These “American originals” are not small tributaries to the river of modern church history, but a vital part of the mainstream. Conkin observes that the denominations that make up the American originals account for twenty-one million Americans, “15 percent of all Christians, active and inactive, and 25 percent of all Protestants.” They exceed the combined membership of the “United Methodist, Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Churches, American Baptists, and the United Church of Christ.” They are larger than the Southern Baptist Convention considered by itself. Most importantly, their missionary impulse is remarkable: “These originals have been the most successful in exporting American Christianity. Today over half of all Christians in the world who owe their conversion either directly or indirectly to American mission efforts are Mormons, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Pentecostals.”

To be sure, these impressive numbers do not apply to groups such as the Unitarians or Christian Science. What these denominations lack in numbers, however, they make up in cultural impact. Emerson’s “American Scholar” and “Divinity School Address” are classics of American literature. Harvard Divinity School continues to turn out soldiers for the ragged army of Liberal Protestantism. And the Christian Science Reading Room has long been a familiar part of the landscape on Main Street.

Theologically, the originals are all over the map. A number of them are like the proverbial sausage: a close examination of their contents decreases the intellectual appetite. This is certainly true of the apocalyptic types who extracted elaborate scenarios from the books of Daniel and Revelation, as well as in the crude features of Mormon cosmology and in the unsavory story of Joseph Smith’s adoption of polygamy. But it also affects one’s assessment of the cultured elite. Conkin’s treatment of Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, reminded me how imperious this most famous of Unitarians could be. Take the famous sermon Emerson preached in 1831 against the practice of the Lord’s Supper: “This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. This is reason enough why I should abandon it.” Like an immature teenager filled with himself, Emerson turns his impulse toward humanism into sheer, vacuous subjectivity.

Despite the undisciplined variety of ideas, Conkin identifies trends of thought. The originals fit into the general paradigm that Ernst Troeltsch long ago defined as the “sect type.” They are for the most part suspicious of institutionalized hierarchy in church government, although they are prone to authoritarian, charismatic leaders. Their doctrines of salvation and the church tend to be extremely voluntaristic-before God and before his chosen community, the believer stands freely. An extreme case of this voluntarism is the Mormon doctrine of the baptism of the dead, where even in the netherworld, the ancestors of Mormons, joined to the community by an act of surrogate baptism, are free to accept or reject the benefits of the deed.

Conkin interprets this sectarian voluntarism as a direct attack on the doctrines of predestination and human depravity, twin pillars of Christian orthodoxy that are particularly important to classical Calvinism. These doctrines were rejected as pernicious distortions of the relationship between the divine and human: “Functionally, if not in theory, the departure point for new American prophets was the specter of a Calvinist god (too arbitrary or too cruel), and in reaction to such a god they affirmed the existence of a deity who, by nature, either was finite and thus limited in power or so opened up to the course of human history as to allow a degree of self-direction by humans.”

Conkin’s reflections on the doctrine of God, although brief, are fascinating. He argues that in the effort to return to the pristine origins of Christianity the originals showed little regard for the heritage of Nicene orthodoxy: “An orthodox understanding of the Trinity was not crucial to any of the new denominations and some . . . completely rejected it. Unitarians, Universalists, early Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists all affirmed unitarian or Arian positions.”

The way in which these groups spoke about the oneness of God was also different. With the notable exception of Unitarianism, the originals rejected the inherited metaphysical assumptions of Western dogmatic theology. Against abstract notions of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, the originals affirmed what Conkin calls “a governmental deity” who is “closely related to early Jewish images of Yahweh, including their earliest concept of a finite, tribal deity, the master of his plantations in Eden and more powerful than the gods of the Canaanites.” The originals “were closer to Moses than to Plotinus.” The God they affirmed is one who performs miracles in personal lives, who communicates regularly through angelic intermediaries, who is opposed by Satan and his minions of darkness (an opposition that for some will climax in an earthly battle and an earthly Kingdom of God), and whose son, Jesus, is a corporeal deity who answers our hopes and dreams. In some quarters of Pentecostalism, it is Jesus himself who becomes the exclusive representation of the Divine, the so-called “Jesus-only doctrine.” However conceived, the God of the originals is not distant and ideal, but intimate and invasive in human affairs, dedicated to the personal fulfillment of his righteous supplicants.

If these originals are a powerful and growing force, who in American will speak for Nicene orthodoxy? There is, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, but Catholicism represents a divide that the vast majority of Protestants will not cross. The sorry tale of Protestant mainline denominations remains sorry; for thirty years, they have waged their own war against orthodoxy. That leaves what Conkin identifies vaguely as the only group of Protestants that is larger than the originals: “a somewhat incoherent pooling of all non-Pentecostal American evangelicals and fundamentalists.” In American Protestantism, the future may belong to leaders emerging from these factions. I would add to this elements of Pentecostalism that have proven amenable to traditional forms of Christian theology. How these groups adapt themselves to the missionary challenge of Christian faith, both at home and abroad, will be, I wager, central to the story of Christianity in the next century. To prepare oneself for the unfolding of this future, Conkin’s American Originals is valuable reading.

Walter Sundberg is Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.