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Does America's religious history have a parallel in England? Give me the details.
July 16, 2008 8:12 PM   Subscribe

Does America's religious history have a parallel in England? Give me the details.

In retrospect, it's pretty clear that fervent religious sentiment was a major influence on American history from times colonial to modern. But what about the parallel history of religiously-minded Englishmen? Those colonists with an unwavering commitment to God presumably left behind church-going brothers and sisters, cousins, and neighbors who adhered to the very same principles. What happened to these communities of faith over the course of 300 years since some of their members came to America? Did the religious fervor eventually die down in the face of the Enlightenment? Was there a specific point in English history where the speeches about hell and damnation, brimstone and fire go completely out of fashion while they continued to thrive on the American continent? Or are there are some hidden corners of England that are still under the sway of 17th century-style zealotry?
posted by gregb1007 to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You mean the Puritans? It says there that they took over England for a short while and they ran the country under Oliver Cromwell. Then the royalists took back the country and reestablished the Church of England. Though at the end of the article, it claims that some churches trace their lineage back to the Puritans.
posted by CrazyJoel at 8:37 PM on July 16, 2008

"Low Church" is a common term for the more Puritan, evangelical end of Anglicanism. (As opposed to "High Church," which in the extreme is basically Catholicism without a Pope.) You might also want to look into Muscular Christianity, a Victorian political/religious movement that influenced modern American Conservative Christian orthodoxy.
posted by Iridic at 8:58 PM on July 16, 2008

As has been mentioned, you want to look into the Civil War and the Commonwealth.... but I suspect that a lot of the hellfire/damnation/rapture bullsh.. dogma which is so popular in the US is a local product, not particularly an English import. The idea of the dispensationalist rapture, for example, post-dates colonisation.
posted by pompomtom at 9:50 PM on July 16, 2008

Muggletonians. Review of a new book on their history. The last one died in 1979.
posted by lukemeister at 9:51 PM on July 16, 2008

FWIW I think that those who were sufficiently keen on their religious ideas to move continents did so. Those that stayed behind included a large majority who didn't feel so strongly about the whole thing. Hence the early, ex-UK, settlers were by definition a self-selected group of religious 'keenies'.

As to the way religion is viewed in the UK in more recent times it seems to me that by about 1750 people had spent more than a century arguing the toss over Catholicism/Anglicism and had come to learn that doing so was a dangerous, expensive and probably rather tedious exercise. I think the result was a society in which religion was observed but in which religious fanaticism was considered in rather poor taste.
posted by southof40 at 10:10 PM on July 16, 2008

"Was there a specific point in English history where the speeches about hell and damnation, brimstone and fire go completely out of fashion while they continued to thrive on the American continent?"


Wesleyanism, the revival movement that became the Methodist church and the Welsh Methodist Revival.

Oxford Movement, Roman Catholic tendencies among Anglican clergy.

The Salvation Army.

Baptist Charles Spurgeon regularly preached to crowds of tens of thousands in the 1800's. The Plymouth Brethern were another Evangelical denomination founded in the U.K. Wikipedia says they were in communion with D.L. Moody, an American and the Billy Graham of his day, who preached to huge crowds in London. Moody also backed the China Inland Mission which was founded in England. (Billy Graham, by the way, also took his missionary preaching to London starting in the '50s with quite a bit of success.) Also the London Missionary Society. Among there most famous members was Olympic Gold Medalist Eric Liddell. His devotion to evangelicalism is dramatised in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire.

For contemporary traditionalist anglo-catholic Anglicans see Forward in Faith. There may be a similar organization for Anglican Evangelicals, but I can only find the centrist one.
posted by Jahaza at 10:53 PM on July 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's a very hard question to answer because the history of religion in the UK is vastly complicated and v. much connected with class movement. So often upsurges of fire and brimstone have been linked to uprisings the lower classes. (To put it rather simplistically.) I think in the US and other countries these upsurges are more often a result of, or reaction against, perceived laxity in society.

But in both countries there is the same cycle of new enthusiasm->establishment->apathy->new enthusiasm as reaction against apathy etc etc. I would be wary of connecting the puritans in either country however with the relatively new fundamentalism which is fairly young. As to that, as to the question why the US has far more fundamentals in it than the UK (which have a few) I would venture to suggest (a bit controversially) that the UK's well-worn combination of church and state leads to a less extreme outlook on religion in general. The fundies have no basis to criticise what is basically a Christian state, and so have become less extreme - or less likely to meddle in other people's affairs.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:05 AM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would venture to suggest (a bit controversially) that the UK's well-worn combination of church and state leads to a less extreme outlook on religion in general.

I don't think this should be controversial, I can't fault the logic. Personally I would put a slightly different spin on it though, the UK is the land of the fudge. We're a religious state that isn't really religious, a monarchy that is fairly democratic and a European country, which looks towards the US. Fundamentalism is regarded with some suspicion here, why be a fundamentalist when a good fudge can cover your arse better?
posted by munchbunch at 2:36 AM on July 17, 2008

Picking up on low_horrible_immoral's point, the industrial towns of England and Wales (I don't know if Scotland fits) were marked out by their strong nonconformist leanings: the Wesley chapels and meeting houses and Sally Army citadels existed alongside, and sometimes even more prominently, than Anglican or RC churches. (My maternal grandmother's father was S.A., my paternal grandmother's father a Quaker minister.) While 'enthusiasm' (inner light) was a dirty word for both enlightenment deists and Methodists by the late 1700s, the landscape changed so radically towards the end of the century, bringing populations into areas that weren't arranged to fit long-established parishes and a way of life where Sunday was likely the only day not dictated by the shift clock.

The big factor here was the Test Acts that limited attendance of university and various public positions to communicant Anglicans. This survived until the 1820s, and someone better versed in the history than me will be able to say whether 'dissent' was a working-class phenomenon because the middle-classes preferred to swear the oath for personal advancement, or whether institutional exclusion actually strengthened dissenting (and politically radical, because under-represented) populations in mill and mining towns.

Quakers weren't considered quiet chocolate-loving types in the 1600s, either.
posted by holgate at 3:19 AM on July 17, 2008

Though that reminds me of Joseph Rowntree, who epitomises the relationship between nonconformism and social justice, which is a different kind of evangelism to the Great Awakenings. Even around the time of Jonathan Edwards, you had Hume writing against enthusiasm; Wesley was the religious rock star of that era, and much of the really wild brimstone had gone by the mid-1700s.
posted by holgate at 3:31 AM on July 17, 2008

I suppose the question is why here and not there?

I'd look at the biggest difference between the two--a huge population of slaves. One cam assume that cultural trends moved more slowly and died out at a slower rate through this population which until the First World War remained relatively isolated. It can been seen as a resevoir of the fire and brimstone which influenced its neighboring white population.

But I'd especially like to point out the impact of the modern civil rights movement on the mainstream white population. It drove whites towards conservatism and reaction. Those movements have always been associated with the churches.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:13 AM on July 17, 2008

The book America's God, by Mark Noll details some of why American religious history differs so drastically from much of English and European religious history despite their ties to each other. I think you will find very satisfactory answers to your questions in this book, as he carefully demonstrates how certain social, cultural, and historical factors birthed different religious movements in the U.S. and Europe.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 1:32 PM on July 17, 2008

Does America's religious history have a parallel in England?

Yes, very much so. To take your specific example: the Puritan movement in New England was closely paralleled, on the other side of the Atlantic, by the nonconformist sects which broke away from the Church of England after 1660 to form the Dissenting churches (Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist; sometimes called 'Old Dissent' to distinguish them from the Methodist churches that sprang up in the eighteenth century). More generally: there were very close religious and cultural contacts between England and America, and most religious developments on one side of the Atlantic can be paralleled on the other; e.g. the break-up of orthodox Calvinism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and the emergence of a more rationalistic school of theology that tried to make religion compatible with reason. Unfortunately, these close parallels have often been obscured by religious historians, who tend to study England and America in isolation from each other. Also, many American historians are fixated on the notion of American exceptionalism, which makes it difficult for them to perceive the similarities between America and other countries.

In retrospect, it's pretty clear that fervent religious sentiment was a major influence on American history from times colonial to modern.

True enough. But don't get carried away by the continuities between colonial and modern times. That can lead to a very skewed, WASP-centred view of American history in which New England looms disproportionately large. Any serious study of 'fervent religious sentiment' in modern America would have to take in a whole lot of other factors, e.g. the influence of African-American churches on American Protestantism, or the influence of Hispanic churches on American Catholicism. Don't assume that it can all be traced right back to the early Puritan settlers.

Was there a specific point in English history where the speeches about hell and damnation, brimstone and fire go completely out of fashion while they continued to thrive on the American continent?

I agree that the belief in hell (and the fire-and-brimstone preaching that went along with it) has largely died out in England. This is partly to do with the decline of Calvinism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but mostly to do with the rise of a more liberal school of Protestantism, associated with theologians like F.D. Maurice, in the mid-nineteenth century. Historians of religion in England are surprisingly unanimous in identifying the 1870s as the crucial decade when many people stopped believing in hell. (See, e.g., Geoffrey Rowell, Hell and the Victorians, and Hugh McLeod, Class and Religion in the Late Victorian City.) But is this just an English phenomenon? I think not. Exactly the same developments were going on in America at exactly the same time. The liberal Boston pastor George A. Gordon declared in 1903 that the old school of New England theology had 'lost its authority' and suffered total 'collapse'. Another American liberal, Henry Churchill King, commented in 1901 that 'one of the remarkable phenomena of our time' was 'the way in which elaborate systems of theology .. have simply disappeared from the practical use and thought of men'.

Are there some hidden corners of England that are still under the sway of 17th-century style zealotry?

Some corners of Scotland and Northern Ireland, maybe. (The Revd Dr Ian Paisley is probably the last of the old-fashioned, 'ye're all .. DAMNED!' fire-and-brimstone preachers.) England, not so much, though there is the odd case of Lewes, in Sussex, where the Cliffe Bonfire Society continues to burn the Pope in effigy every Guy Fawkes Night. The dominant form of Protestantism in England is now 'open evangelical', and the more conservative groups like Reform are too small to make much of an impact except as part of a wider evangelical alliance.
posted by verstegan at 6:15 AM on July 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

I believe the “Pilgrims” moved out precisely because they could make little headway in a populace well accustomed to both bigotry and the horrors of religious intolerance yet who had somehow collectively come to an understanding that the rule of law out trumped the Bible.

I would respectfully suggest that the drive for ‘religious freedom” had as much to do with the desire by religious leaders to regulate “the flock” as they saw fit, rather than the freedom to practice.

Religious “courts” had long been the norm in Britain for a millennium but this was largely gone by the wayside by Henry xiii time, and, as the State progressed to a sitting Government exercising more and more authority, any religious groups claiming “Gods will” over ruled State authority would naturally become targets for suppression by the establishment.

It would logically, then seem natural to view this as religious persecution by those affected, and with a whole world now open to those brave enough the migration/exodus became both the means of “seeding” the new world with Protestant fundamentalism and purging the parent nation of those same tendencies.

Short version, Religious fundamentalism claiming roots in Britain (Wesley, Knox etc) found more fertile ground for their views in the American Colonies. The Church of England, (being an arm of government) made sure that any groups it found to differ significantly from official dogma (Catholic, Puritan) were discouraged.
posted by plainjs at 11:00 AM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

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