Was blind, but now I see.

2 : 5 April 2003

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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


Carolyn Johnson


The history of the gospel in America is a long and complex one, stemming from the very beginning of the gospel message. Its latest and most specific descent was from Roman Catholicism, which has its roots in the teachings of Jesus Christ while he was on earth. However, the gospel message looked quite different from Jesus' teachings when it made its way to the New World, thanks to several influential figures, hundreds of years, and the evolution of man's thinking.

The journey of the gospel to America began over a hundred years before the Mayflower ever set sail. It began in Europe, during a period we now refer to as the Reformation (1517-1648). The Reformation emerged in history as several influential theologians voiced their contrasting ideas regarding Catholicism. These reformers were Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwindli, and John Calvin.


Martin Luther (1483-1546) is known most notably as the "Father of the Revolution." He believed, contrary to the predominant catholic population, that man was saved from his sin by faith in Christ's sacrifice alone, not by works. Upon realizing this profound truth, and turning from his devotion to monk-hood, Luther also saw the unimportance of many of the catholic religious practices and offices: intercession of priests, prayers to the saints, indulgences, penance, and the like. Soon after his first epiphany, Luther came to understand the Scripture as the one authority for Christian faith and behavior, not papal authority or councils (Shelly, 241).

Martin Luther declared his beliefs in the writing of his 95 theses at the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany. He was, of course, excommunicated from the Catholic Church. His new ideas about Christianity appealed greatly to many Europeans. Under his teachings, ministers were allowed to marry, common-folk were able to read Luther's German translation of the Latin Liturgy, and German political leadership had a large part in the operation of the Church. This last benefit, however, proved to be the pitfall of Luther's theology; the Prince of each province in Germany was to force all those under his rule to participate in either Lutheranism or Catholicism, whichever he preferred. Therefore, faith became religion identified with governmental loyalty.

In 1555, after Luther's death, a document was drawn in England called the Peace of Augsburg, which "recognized in law not one, but two, forms of the Christian faith" (Norwood, 110). However, as Norwood writes, " Cuius regio, eius religio was a poor substitute for religious freedom; but it was a step on the new road" (110).


Ulrich Zwindli (1484-1531) is the father of the Anabaptist movement. Born just a year after Luther, Zwindli ironically followed in similar reformed footsteps in Zurich. Zwindli led the movement of reformers anxious to reform the already reformed. As was predictable, with the freedom to study scriptures, came more zealous believers who sought a purer devotion to Christ. The disputable subject they discovered was the issue of infant baptism. Zwindli believed baptism was to come only after a conscious decision to put one's faith in Christ as Savior, and an infant is incapable of such faith. As a result, the Anabaptists, or Re-baptizers, were born. They also held strongly to pacifism and, consequently, many were killed during the early years of their rebellion against Catholicism and Lutheranism. This group of believers came to be known collectively as the Puritans, for their pursuit of ideal purity in many areas of life.


John Calvin (1509-1564) made his home of reformation in Geneva and was coerced into leadership rather than pursuing it from his own desire. After several years in leadership, Calvin began to understand God's sovereignty in a powerful way. He saw it as the inspiring factor to serving God. Shelly says it well: "Man is not justified by works, yet no justified man is without works. This rigorous pursuit of moral righteousness was one of the primary features of Calvinism" (261). Contrary to Lutheran's beliefs, Calvin argued that the government should not be over the church because the church is under God as its authority. Consequently, the church, having a supreme head even over government, should have some say in the government concerning spiritual matters. Calvin's followers were excited at the prospect of finally having a system of checks and balances in the church rather than one direct authority as a monarch.


By the mid sixteenth century Europe was a boiling caldron of theological ideas from Protestant (as all non-Catholics were called) believers and fights for freedom from the Catholic Church, papal authority, and religious oppression. As one author put it, "religious freedom came as a vigorous expression of the Christian faith" (Norwood, 111). This made the prospect of sailing for the recently discovered New World somewhat pleasant to the commoner. After Columbus' discovery of the Americas in 1492, and the many expeditions for the following 50 years, England, Spain, and Portugal all had beachheads established in North America. Many settlers were also well established, having been brought across the vast ocean in Pilgrim ships like the Mayflower, which sailed from Plymouth in 1620. England settled most of the eastern North American coast, Spain settled a large portion of Mexico, Central America and South America, and Portugal settled Brazil and a small portion of South America.


An interesting fact to note here is that the gospel spread westward, across the vast Atlantic Ocean, rather than to the neighboring lands of Asia, Africa, and Northern Europe. Perhaps this was a result of the Crusades or other negative relations that had been formed between the various lands. Whatever the reason, it seems God had a plan in the discovery and settlement of the New World- a plan to create a nation distinct from any other that currently existed or had existed in history; The United States of America.

Many who had ambitions to travel to America believed that it would be the "New Jerusalem." It was a land totally undiscovered and, most importantly, unclaimed and unruled by any government or religion. It offered the ideal of a concept as priceless as pure gold; the freedom of religion. For this reason, many of the followers of Zwindli and Calvin especially, but also Luther, had dreams of establishing America as a land where their religious beliefs could flourish, unhindered by the papal authority of the Catholic Church. Because of this view of America's provisions, many of those who sailed to the New World felt that they were the "chosen ones," finally given their land promised by God in the Old Testament.


And so, at the turn of the 16th century, the Pilgrims set out for the Americas, hoping for freedom from religious oppression they had endured for centuries and carrying with them the banner of the gospel - tailored to their religious affiliation. This evangelistic ideal, however, was eventually squelched by the dominating driving force of the desire for political rule and power by the European nations.

The entire movement of settlers to America was government-funded and endorsed. This should have been a red flag, especially to the Calvinists, who desired separation of Church and State, that the religious emphasis would eventually sour. But the spirit of adventure was in the air and had been embraced by a large majority of pilgrims to the New World. In reference to these people in his address on "Conciliation with America," Edmund Burke wrote, " The People are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it" (Norwood, 164).


As time went on, colonies began to form in various areas along the Eastern coast of America, as did churches, both of which heavily influenced one other major aspect of colonization; the Natives. Along with colonization and evangelization of the Natives came a distinction of one religious group from another and soon denominations were forming. Needless to say, the whole operation became a mess quickly.

But the desire Europe had for colonial control was the strongest driving force. As Colonies were established, corresponding European leadership struggled for control of their distant lands. Swiftly, this era of discovery and evangelization turned into an effort by the European powers to simply retain dictatorship of those ambassadors they sent out to the New World. They were much more concerned with conquering and dictating the New World than spreading the gospel message.

This may not have been too apparent at first, though. Europe still desired churches to be planted - churches, albeit, but only European styled ones. This posed a great problem to evangelization because the people they were evangelizing were not European; they were Native Americans.

These Natives didn't speak the English language, didn't wear the same type of clothing that Europeans were used to, and basically had everything else in contrast with the settlers. But the Protestants and Puritans went about evangelizing them as though they were the same sort of people.

When a native converted from his ancestor worship, polytheism, superstitions, and magic, he was immediately removed from his family and relatives and put into a kind of foster home or orphanage. This was done to begin the process of indoctrinating the natives with the European lifestyle, religious practices, and social norms; basically, to completely reform him from a native into a European. Needless to say, this way of developing new believers didn't have a lasting effect or success. The converted natives usually returned to their old ways for acceptance and restoration of a lifestyle that was comfortable for them. Eventually groups of natives moved away from the Protestant settlements in order to escape their imposing beliefs.


This didn't stop the Protestants though. Some groups of settlers moved into areas where Natives were established and by force compelled them to submit to the European religious beliefs and practices of worship. European-style churches were erected and natives were forced to attend European-styled services. If there was rebellion on the part of the natives, they were dominated by the settlers forcibly.

Although the Native American way of life had survived and thrived for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived on the scene, the Europeans somehow felt that these people were mentally and spiritually inferior to themselves. This is one reason why force was used to "convert" the natives. After conversion, there was little or no effort made to disciple the converts because it was assumed that they would not be able to understand the teachings anyways. One would wonder why evangelization was even attempted to a people believed to be too ignorant and psychologically incapable of learning the basic concepts instead of annihilation being implemented. (Well, to be accurate, it was later). The Europeans, justified by their ethnocentric concept of this new people group in America, then took the Natives as salves.

In short, the entire attempt to evangelize the Native Americans and bring the European Church to the New World was a failure. Yes, the Church came (Protestants, Catholics, Puritans), but it was never embraced by the Natives of the land. The Church conquered for the government of Europe… similar to the Crusades, but with much less initial death and hatred.


So, the Natives, having mostly been deterred from the gospel message, New England was left with the concept of total separation from Europe and recently aroused differing opinions of religion among brethren of similar theological persuasions; Lutherans divided among Lutherans, Catholics among Catholics, Calvinists among Calvinists, Anabaptists among Anabaptists. Rather than fighting within churches, a new concept was born. Inspired, no doubt, by the vast expanse of land to the west, disagreeing Protestants and Puritans began to move away from each other, breaking into separate congregations. This was the beginning of church denominations.

After the Puritans and Protestants had settled into America, they felt the freedom that hundreds of miles of vast ocean expanse provided and decided that their freedom was something worth pursuing. Not just freedom of religion, but total freedom from Europe.

Eventually the colonies won their independence from Europe (a subject far too complicated and detailed to address here), and the nation of the United States of America was formed in 1776. It was founded on the truths of the Christian Bible and morals supported therein. Its Constitution embraced human equality and freedom- especially the freedom and toleration of religion.


Over the years, America has come to be known as the Land of Opportunity, welcoming enormous numbers of immigrants from across the globe. Inherent in this influx of population came the influx in diversification of religious beliefs. By the 19th century many religions were already significantly represented in America: Eastern Mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism, and many other variances of Christianity, cults, etc. Immigrants saw America as a safe haven for them to practice their religion without the fear of persecution, and more than anywhere else in the world, it was just that.

Among all the diversity and distinction from church to church, some unity came in the form of a young preacher, John Wesley (1702-1791). Born at the turn of the 19th century, Wesley swept across the country, "criss-crossing…an incredible quarter of a million miles astride a horse… he preached at thousands of outdoor evangelistic meetings… eventually unifying a strong church body" (Miller, summary). Along with his passion for evangelization, Wesley brought structure to the Church in America. He introduced pews, the skeleton of the order of service, and the entirely new practice of writing and singing hymns. This structure was spread across the country and many churches adopted it as their own. During the next two centuries, a profound number of hymns were written and sung spanning the entire continent.


During this same time period, as Wesley rode cross-country preaching, masses of individuals were motivated to go as missionaries to the World who had still not heard the truth of the gospel message. This missionary movement was considerably radical in several ways; missionaries often died en route to their destination because of the hardships they encountered along the way. Most of them left with their possessions packed in their own coffins, planning a lifetime of service, whatever length. And even families were separated for the cause of preaching the gospel - husbands left their wives and families to go!

There was an obvious period of growth in commitment among the Church during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the number of those who were heavily involved in the Church did not reflect the same enthusiasm.


Although diverse crowds of people flocked to the New World, Christianity still remained the core of American civilization and the majority as well. This was true until the late 18th century (Norwood, 173). For many years after the foundation of America, individuals were born into Christian homes and taught Christian principles. As a result, Christianity was sustained generationally. In the late 1700's though, only 5 to 7 percent of Americans regularly attended churches (Norwood, 173). Throughout the next couple hundred years, the American population gradually adopted secular and other religious ideas. By the early 1900's, communication in America had grown drastically. The moveable type, radio, and television were all invented within only a short number of years from each other. This made the flow of information much more available and, consequently, the flow of ideas as well.

Soon an era of appeal to liberalism dawned. The church was still flavored after Wesley, focusing on tradition and hymns, but people began to think outside the box created by years of mindless repetition. The façade of religion was fading and there was a craving for something more substantial. The Church longed for yet another purification of Christianity- this time from the chains of tradition spurned from the original Reformation.


This was the time that a young evangelist entered the scene. His name and renown we know well today; Billy Graham. In 1949 Billy Graham began his first "Crusade" in a tent in Los Angeles, CA. He spoke with a boldness unprecedented in his day and touched many lives with the radical truth of the gospel in an age when people were crying out for substance in religion as never before. The result of his efforts? Today "tens of millions of people have heard Billy Graham preach personally. Hundreds of millions have seen him on television or heard him on the radio. His books have sold millions of copies. He is one of the most widely known men in the world today" (Flint, 9). Obviously, Graham had an impact on society as a whole and brought vigor and vitality to the lives of many Christians.

In the prime of Billy Graham's ministry, in the 1960's and '70's, the "Jesus Movement" began in America. It was a time when people, predominantly young and middle-aged, were seeking a less structured church and relationship to God. Church was taken into the streets and into homes, instead of being confined to the church building only. A radical attitude of freedom from tradition was prevalent across the developed country and dispute arose between the younger generation and those in the older generation who had grown to cherish the same tradition these young people were seeking to destroy.

Obviously, the traditional Church never disappeared. But after thirty years of cries for less tradition and a return to the apostolic form of Church meetings, we have seen a great change in the way Church is "done."

Church buildings have evolved into more modern-looking buildings rather than the traditional vaulted roof and steeple. Pews have been replaced by mobile chairs. Often the officiating representative of the people stands not on an elevated stage, but on the same level of floor as the congregation. More involvement and interaction of the people is also encouraged in some churches. The modern day "Protestants" have made a difference and it is apparent in the majority of Reformed churches today. However, the Catholic Church has maintained, to a significant degree, its tradition. The one major exception to this is that the Mass is now recited in English rather than Latin (a recent adaptation to culture). This change was decided at the Vatican Council II, in our generation.


Focusing on the Protestant Church's history, it has been interesting to witness the gradual evolution from the structured service, long sung hymns, and traditional architecture to a return to the original - even apostolic style of the First Century Church. Most Protestant churches in America are switching from hymnbooks to praise lyrics on overheads. Instead of organs and pianos, guitars, drums, and keyboards are commonly used to lead worship. And most importantly, the Church seems to be waking up again to its responsibility to reach the world with the message of the gospel; another mission-minded generation is being born today.

It is exciting to look back over the history of the American Church and see its roots so deeply ground in the European, and consequently the Apostolic, Church. Although the journey to where the church is today was a long and often hard one - marred by many mistakes and needless oppression; bought with the price of many lives - knowing the story adds insight into what the church should be like today and the ultimate goal we should strive for. It is interesting to see the "progress" made through history from the Apostolic Church, to the Reformation and the tradition that was born at that time, to the "backward progress" of returning to the Apostolic Church today. The overarching lesson that seems to present itself most powerfully is simply the need for a genuine relationship with Christ Jesus in Christians. Out of the overflow of the heart of an individual devoted to Him will flow springs of living water and a vibrant Church bringing glory to God - a Church that will endure for all generations.


Birkey, Del. The House Church, A Model for Renewing the Church. Herald Press, Scottdale, Penn. 1988.

Flint, Cort R. The Quotable Billy Graham. Droke House Publishers, Anderson, South Carolina. 1966.

Miller, Basil. John Wesley. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN.

Norwood, Fredrick A. The Development of Modern Christianity Since 1500. Abingdon Press, New York; 1956.

Shelly, Bruce L. b, 2nd Ed. Word Publishing, Dallas. 1995.


Carolyn Johnson
6820 Auto Club Road, Suite A
Bloomington, MN 55438, USA