The Church through history

Session 1: Being Christian in the World We’re In

Sunday, September 16, 2018, 9-10 am

The beginning of the U.S., the Industrial Revolution, and Evangelicalism

The beginning of the United States coincided with the Industrial Revolution. Goods were increasingly produced at centralized factories in towns and cities, rather than individually by craftsmen in towns and villages. People started moving away from rural areas where they had been impoverished, subsistence farm laborers, to more prosperous towns and cities where there was more cash—for the factory workers and for everyone who made a living in those towns. This continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

There was a lot of benefit – and a lot of disruption – that went along with a shift from rural to urban, from agricultural production to manufacturing. And that disruption applied to Christianity, too. The village church, with its old graves, was often far away from the grandchildren of the people buried there after they migrated to the cities, or to the frontier.

WhitfieldIt was during this time that Evangelicalism developed. Rather than focus on the continuity of the Christian community, the church, with sacraments and clergy as part of a cohesive fabric, Evangelicalism addressed the dispersed Christians, providing them with a more individual faith, with focus on the Bible as a book, and an image of Jesus as a familiar – even as a friend: “What a friend we have in Jesus…” is a typical hymn from this period.

often hear people talk about the need for “a personal relationship with Jesus” or “a personal commitment to Jesus.” Those are concepts that emerge from this Evangelical response to the circumstances of widespread cultural disruption and change. Some might think that this was the way Christianity has always been. But it’s actually quite a recent response – throughout its existence, Christianity has evolved in response the circumstances in which the Church found itself.

Christianity started off very small, as a Jewish sect. Outside of the New Testament and a few other documents written by the church, there is very little historical mention of Christians during its first 150 years or so. The early Christians had values that put them at odds with the Romans, especially in their focus on the dignity of the poor and valuing compassion over power. They got little attention as they spread and gradually grew in the middle east and throughout the Roman Empire. But by the third century, their numbers and influence were greater, adherents were constructing dedicated church buildings and some of their writers like Origen, were becoming well-known.

In the third century, Christianity was one of many religions in the Roman empire, which had its own official pagan religion that included the gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman mythology we learned about in school. (Remember stories like Pandora’s box and the labors of Hercules?) Christians were still in a minority at that point, but it had become a significant minority in a number of places.

The thing that distinguished Christianity, along with Judaism, was its insistence on monotheism—a single God, and worship of that God alone, and of the revelation of that God in the Bible. The focus of Christian worship and teaching was on that one God and his identification with Jesus, both as majestic and worthy of praise. We have a typical hymn from this time in the Book of Common Prayer, which is said Evening Prayer and in the opening of Calvary’s Vestry meetings:

“O gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed! Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing your praises O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of life, and to be glorified through all the worlds.”

Prior to 300 A.D., Christians were sometimes persecuted, but it was sporadic, and mostly on a local level. Around that time, however, persecution became more general, most likely because Christianity was becoming more widespread and was viewed as more of a threat to the established order.

But about a decade later, Christianity got an unlikely boost from the emperor Constantine who decided that the way to win an ongoing civil war was to adopt Christian symbols. Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Imperial household. With that one action, Christians went from being persecuted to being the favored religion of the Roman Empire.

It was a masterstroke for the still young Church – having the Emperor elevate your religion above all others. More important, now that this was the official religion, there had to be a structure in place, as Constantine put it: “Who speaks for the church for its official answers to the Emperor?” (This is something like the relationship of the Queen of England to the Archbishop of Canterbury.)

So now relations between bishops had to be formalized and councils of bishops convened to come up with clear and unambiguous answers to major disputes. Constantine and his mother Helena, officially designated sites in the Holy Land where New Testament events occurred. Some of these designations were based on – let’s be kind and say that they were based on less than compelling evidence. Constantine’s mother – a formidable woman in her own right – went on pilgrimage to Palestine and, from all that historians can glean – stood on a particular hillside and said: This is where the Sermon on the Mount took place. And lo and behold, it was. She was, after all the Empress.

A perfect illustration of what was happening in the early Church as it was becoming an institution is the life of St. Augustine of Hippo. st-augustine-of-hippo-9-236x300Augustine was born in north Africa; his father was pagan and his mother was Christian. For the early part of his adulthood he embraced Manicheanism, a rival religion to Christianity with an “edgy” set of philosophical teachings and spiritual practices, like a rejection of the material world because they believed the world came from an “evil” God, while the “good” God was outside the world.

Augustine went to Rome and Milan as an orator and teacher of rhetoric. There he was converted to Christianity. He was baptized by Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan who had been in great controversies with Arian churches in the same city, which were associated with the Empress. Arianism is the variant or heretical form of Christianity that Constantine had gathered the first great ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 A.D. for the bishops to resolve. We say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, which has the formulation “one holy, catholic and apostolic church,” which was, in essence the proclamation of a united Catholic church.

We’re now at a point in history 70 years after the Nicaea council and 90 years after Constantine became emperor and favored Christianity.

Augustine went back to Africa to become a bishop. When he died as an old man in 430 A.D., the Vandal invaders were occupying the area near his home. While the Fall of the Roman Empire is much more complicated than a barbarian invasion, and the transition continued for a few more centuries, the works of Augustine became the foundation for Christian Western Europe and the Middle Ages, which some historians date as beginning roughly in 500 A.D.

The Technology of the Printing Press and the Protestant Reformation

The Middle Ages lasted a long time, roughly 1,000 years, and its history and achievements are rich and complicated. I’m not going to go into them here, but I want to talk about the end. In the 1450s two important things happened. The Islamic Turks conquered Constantinople, which had been the capital of the Byzantine Roman Empire, the seat of Eastern Christianity; and Johannes Gutenberg published his Bible in Mainz, Germany. So Islamic governments surrounded Europe from Greece on eastwards and all across Africa. This both caused a flood of manuscripts to be brought west by refugees and it cut off communication with the east to a large extent. The printing press became a technological innovation that transformed Europe, especially European Christianity.

By the 1400s the Church, European culture and European government overlapped completely. Anyone who wasn’t a Christian, like the Jews, was an outsider. Authority in the church had adapted to being very like authority in government, with unquestioned monarchical power and obedience being paramount. It didn’t always work out terribly, but sometimes it did, with a lot of the same kind of political corruption we see in our own modern world’s politics. And, like in American politics, fundraising was paramount. This led to some odd distortions of theology, especially for ordinary people. A rationale was developed to “solicit contributions” from the “penitent” for “indulgences.” The theology was that repentant sinners still had to make up for the harm they had done others by their sinful behaviors—a bit like the “amends” in 12 Step groups. Sometimes this couldn’t be finished during a lifetime, so there was the theory of a time or place called Purgatory—meaning a cleansing. An indulgence was a determination by the Pope or a bishop that certain acts would accomplish some measure of cleansing for an individual or a loved one. In practice, often these indulgences were printed forms which would be filled out and signed based on cash payment. In more corrupt circumstances this looked a lot like coercing money out of people to get into heaven.

Martin Luther, who was born in 1485, was a theologian who had a lot of problems with the state of indulgences, and also with what he viewed as distortions of the biblical message in official theology. This all might have been resolved relatively quietly in the universities of the time, except Luther was a passionate man, he posted his objections on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and someone using the new-fangled technology of the printing press printed them as pamphlets. His message went viral–spread widely helped along by pamphlets that could be printed cheaper than ever before – this technology was, in its way, more revolutionary than twitter and Facebook. The pamphlets could be Reformation pamphletvery harsh; I’ve seen some so vitriolic that they would make the worst trolls on the Internet blush.

The Protestant Reformation was underway. Luther’s slogans were “justification by faith alone, apart from any works of the law” and “Sola Scriptura—by the scripture alone.”

Luther’s principles mushroomed quickly – out of them came the various Protestant churches and various strands of protestant theology. Not only pamphlets but learned books multiplied quickly on all sides of the issue, including in the Catholic Church, and there was more than a century of intense debate and division in the church. Ultimately it changed how both the church and the state were governed. Fifty years after Luther, the Council of Trent in the Roman Catholic Church made many reforms and changes in how the church was governed, for instance.

Conclusion: The Church in changing circumstances

I hope you notice that none of these situations is simple. The circumstances that people found themselves in were not simple. Christian faith has been consistent all along, yet our responses and formulations and theologies change—faith requires it. Our context shifts and we respond to all the things that have happened. Church and society have changed a great deal over the past 50 or so years. Many people have stopped trusting the church and fewer people attend on Sundays. Jesus, however still appeals to people, and people still are looking for hope trust and compassion. How will we respond to the gospel of Jesus in the time to come?

Discussion Questions

After spending some time with the reading, consider the following questions. If you wish, be prepared to discuss one or two of these questions when we meet on Sunday
  1. What images and concepts come to mind when you think about what it means to be a Christian today?
  2. What surprises you about the reading?
  3. Is there any part of the reading that makes you uncomfortable? Why?
  4. What part of the reading made the greatest impression on you? Why?
  5. In considering the reading, what is there to be thankful for? What is there that needs forgiveness?
  6. How would you turn the reading into a prayer?






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Calvary Episcopal Church

This is a forum for learning and discussion about Christianity. Calvary Episcopal Church is an open and welcoming community of Christians in Flemington, New Jersey

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