Tuesday, April 12, 2005

An Entrepreneurial Spiritualism

The April/May issue of Boston Review has a fascinating essay by historian Gary B. Nash entitled, "Christ's Militia: How evangelical Protestantism came to dominate American religion." The essay explores what can be called a certain entrepreneurial spiritualism among three preachers raised on the margins of society in the half century after the revolution. Nash first delves into Richard Allen, a former slave, who, overcome with religious ecstasy, set out on foot to preach the gospel. By 26, "Allen became the Methodist preacher for free blacks in Philadelphia." Allen would go on to break from the white Methodist church and create his own church focused exclusively on blacks. Nash writes:
The creation of the first autonomous black Christian denomination was as significant for black Americans as Martin Luther's withdrawal from the Catholic Church was for his German followers 240 years earlier.
It was another example of early America's religious life being organized by the common folk, not clergy or theologians. Appropriately, Allen was keen on preaching Jesus' maxim concerning entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven: "The last shall be first and the first shall be last."

The second preacher Nash focuses on is Jarena Lee, a black woman born free. After hearing one of Richard Allen's sermons in her late teens, Ms. Lee heard a voice imploring her to "Go preach the Gospel." Unable to convince Allen to let her preach, she followed his advice and walked the countryside preaching to anyone that would listen. In 1819, back in Allen's church, she arose during a Sunday service as "words tumbled from her mouth"...as... "[t]he crowded church fell under the power of her words." Afterwards, Allen relented, opening the pulpit to her stirring words. According to Nash, her capturing of the pulpit would not occur in other denominations - whether black or white - until the 1970s and 80s.

The last preacher Nash describes is Lorenzo Dow, a poor New Englander that experienced his conversion at 16. Hitting the barriers of parent and preacher alike, Dow struck out on his own at 18 to preach the gospel truth as he perceived it. He was immensely popular, converting so many that the established Methodist church couldn't challenge his right to speak. His power laid:
...in his militant egalitarianism and his understanding of common people. He may have been crazy, but always he was the roving messenger of spiritual equality. In a country born in revolution and founded on the notion that all men are created equal, he warned that concentrated power and ill-gotten wealth were a great beast loose in America...He insisted that God made no distinctions between rich and poor—indeed that the rich were less likely to be heaven-bound than the dispossessed. He railed against tyranny, social pretension, aristocratic airs, the professions of law and medicine. He told common people that they were sovereign, that they must stand independent, that they must think for themselves, take matters into their own hands, and fight all those who were ever ready to oppress and exploit them.
The gospel to these preachers wasn't about dogma and orthodoxy, but about the individual's personal relationship with God, social justice, and liberation.Concepts today's religious right has no affiliation or allegiance to any longer, making them inimical to freedom of religion and democracy itself.