United Church of Christ New York Metropolitan Association
      History and Polity of the UCC
 

   

The Redeemer Nation

By Rev. Elizabeth Wheeler

Jonathan Edwards was right but Thomas Jefferson was not wrong. The words of Jefferson 's Declaration of Independence were the words that Americans spoke in the post-Revolutionary years of the 1820s and 30s. They became the American creed:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitles, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

In this moment pietism and rationalism converged. Enlightenment values stimulated the search for the natural laws governing all creation as the beneficent gifts of God as well as the popular uprising against authority that undermined established churches. A soul passionate for freedom would exercise its “inalienable” rights unfettered by doctrine or priest. No magistrate could take away these rights neither could they be given away. They inhered in nature by God's will.

The Enlightenment mind had to think for itself and sought universalities through the mastery of reason and science. Employed properly, technology and democracy could produce peace and prosperity for all because they were founded on universal principles from God.

Yes, there was a God, an after life and the Golden Rule. But all the rest – the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, original sin, the presence of God in the sacraments -- were priestly contrivances that blocked individual autonomy and material progress. They were throwbacks to medieval ignorance and should be replaced by the scientific method so that humanity could be freed from guilt and fear. The tyrannies of a sovereign God went out with the tyrannies of the sovereign King George and Americans found a friend in Jesus.

By the early 1800s the Puritan faith had been drained of Puritan passion for godliness and America exploded with democratic energy, immigration, the Great Awakening and westward expansion. The “accelerating transformation of consciousness among groups of oppressed peoples and the growing sense of collective power” (Dubois 18) found its first expression in the anti-slavery movement long brewing and coming to a boil in the 1780s. The people were taking Jefferson 's creed to heart.

In November 1775 Abigail Adams knew that Congress was creating a government for an “empire”. She worried about how liberty and order would be preserved and about what kind of government it would be. A monarchy or a democracy? She admonished her husband John at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia to “remember the ladies” (Schuffelton #91) in any new code of law because men would be tyrants if they could. John laughed at her, comparing the “despotism of petticoats” to the despotism of monarchs. Both are abhorrent to liberty-loving men, he responded, and fixed his attention on a coat of arms for the new nation.

He wanted the hero Hercules resting on his club and about to choose between ascending the mountain of virtue or lying down in sloth upon the ground beneath him (Schuffelton #128). The republican virtues for him were courage, industry, fair play, the ambition to excel. None of his children should grovel or creep physically or mentally and he urged Abigail to harden their bodies and exalt their minds. Her field of responsibility was the family and in this role she was the mother of liberty.

Abigail didn't dispute him but she didn't suppress her opinions either. She would also have outlawed slavery. (Schuffelton #120). To her justice, truth and righteousness were the foundations of the Constitution. These are the rocks neither storm nor tempest can overthrow, she wrote. (Schuffelton #120) For John it was the zeal for liberty that would bind all differences, manners, laws and religions.

Both agreed that since the people had “unbounded power” in the new government, they had to be purified of venalities and dishonors through the “furnace of affliction.” John put his trust in Providence and “lay to heart” the “frown of Providence ” when misfortune struck the patriots with a small pox epidemic during the Canadian campaign of 1775. July 4th should be celebrated as a “day of deliverance” he wrote, with acts of devotion to God as well as parades and bonfires, church bells and games. (Schuffelton #114, #115)

Women's discontent crystalized in 1850s. By then they had joined the vision of equality articulated in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence with the organizational skills they learned as abolitionist agents. After years of ferment, they translated their discontent into radical demands for franchise. It had been 75 years in coming.

The abolition and suffrage movements found traction in the dissonance between the creed and reality. By the 1830s women made common cause with abolitionists and in them the abolitionists found eloquent evangelists. The Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, were the most “notorious” and Antoinette Brown was in their mold. All were worn down by Congregational clergy. All persisted.

The Grimke sisters were Quaker and the first female antislavery agents. In 1837 they were in Massachusetts gathering signatures in a petition against slavery. A Pastoral Letter from the Council of Congregationalist Ministers had warned the churches of Massachusetts against them. But everyone knew the “Abolition Women” were about to turn the world upside down.

On Wednesday, February 21, 1838 a huge crowd gathered outside the State House in Boston to hear a woman address a committee of the legislature! Angelina Grimke was bringing to the legislature an antislavery petition with signatures from 20,000 women. The Liberator of March 2, 1838 reprinted her speech: (Lerner 227-9)

Grimke opened with the story of Esther. Esther created the right moment to appeal to the King of Persia on behalf of herself and her people by gratifying his sensual appetites before her request. Grimke positioned her Chairmen's sentiments toward her appeals against slavery by addressing his better nature.

Yes, I feel that if you are reached at all, it will not be by me, but by the truths I shall endeavor to present to your understandings and your hearts. The heart of the eastern despot was reached through the lowest propensities of his animal nature, by personal influence; you, I know, cannot be reached but through the loftier sentiments of the intellectual and moral feelings.

Let the history of the world answer these queries. Read the denunciations of Jehovah against the follies and crimes of Israel 's daughters. Trace the influence of woman as a cortezan and a mistress in the destinies of nations, both ancient and modern, and see her wielding her power too often to debase and destroy, rather than to elevate and save. It is often said that women rule the world, through their influence over men. If so, then may we well hide our faces in the dust, and cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes. It has not been by moral power and intellectual but through the baser passions of men – The dominion of women must be resigned – the sooner the better; “in the age which is approaching, she should be something more – she should be a citizen; and this title, which demands an increase of knowledge and of reflection, opens before her a new empire.”

I stand before you as a southerner, exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash, and the piteous cry of the slave. I stand before you as a repentant slaveholder. I stand before you as a moral being, endowed with precious and inalienable rights, which are correlative with solemn duties and high responsibilities; and as a moral being I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave, and to the deluded master, to my country and the world, to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crimes, built up upon the broken hearts and prostrate bodies of my countrymen in chains, and cemented by the blood and sweat and tears of my sisters in bonds.

Grimke then proceeded for 2 ½ hours to discuss the merits of the anti-slavery petitions she was delivering to the legislature.

Angelina Grimke died in 1879 at the age of 74 after a long service to the abolition and suffrage movements. Lucy Stone was one of the eulogists at her funeral and Antoinette Brown was Stone's closest friend at Oberlin. Oberlin was founded in 1833 by liberal minded Congregationalists and Presbyterians. It was the first college to admit women and to attract a faculty devoted to abolition. It also called a revival preacher to its presidency in 1851-66. In 1835 Charles Grandison Finney had moved his headquarters to Oberlin and the college grew primarily because his ideas fit the tenor of the times: a hunger for holiness and a reaction against the rigidities of established church worship. People wanted the experience of God directly and feel the assurance of God's mercy upon them.

In 1839 an Oberlin student asked if sanctification were attainable in this life and the Oberlin faculty answered, Yes! Taking Finney's “Christian perfectionism”, they argued that perfection meant anyone could experience the fullness of Christ's love and that this experience was a higher holiness than justification by faith. Perfect love would inaugurate God's kingdom on earth and to achieve perfect love required Finney's revival techniques or “New Measures.”

“Mankind will not act until they are excited,” he said (McLoughlin 125) and new times required new measures: all night prayer meetings, praying for people by name, allowing women to pray and exhort in the company of men, denouncing Old School ministers as cold, dead and dumb, speaking to God familiarly, using the Anxious Seat for struggling sinners and encouraging shouting, weeping, fainting. The established ministers of the German Reformed Church of the Ohio Synod did not take kindly to New Measure men who invaded their congregations and “praying through” with sinners singled out by name did not sit well with small town congregations.

During the decades after 1830 1.5 million Germans settled in the west. Life in this wilderness was hard, their language was isolating and although the field was ripe for evangelists, the ministers were few. There may have been 2500 church members in 1840 when the New Measure men spread through Ohio and the Synod churches. They split the church in 1844 and for 8 years the Ohio Synod struggled to regain its balance from what some called the Oberlin heresy and others the Western enthusiasm.

Finney's Oberlin platform of personal holiness and humanitarian reform confused the German churches. They agreed that their churches needed ministers and drunks needed reform. But they opposed the idea that salvation could be achieved by exciting human emotions to conform human will to God's grace. False conversions and fanatical excess by rude, self righteous intruders simply proved that sin could not be erased by human will or revival fever. The goal of a sinless life was impossible. Following the commandments might improve the character of most people but removing sin was by God's grace alone because sin was the intractable human fault.

The critique of Finney's new measures by John Nevin and Philip Schaff of Mercersburg Seminary helped to steady the German churches. Mercersburg theology countered Finney with history and tradition. A people ignorant of their history are easily manipulated by demagogues and blown hither and yon by every passing fad. In history and tradition are the resources that have stood the test of time and in which the people can have confidence.

These resources had been accumulated in the church for centuries – refinements of doctrine, understandings of good order, teachings of scripture, the mysteries of the liturgy, intellectual leadership by trained ministers. All these traditional practices and wisdoms had renewed the church again and again and nurtured congregations into mature and independent Christians. Finney's new measures for the saving of souls might get immediate numerical results but then what would sustain these souls later?

These were the objections of the Massachusetts Congregationalists as well. When they warned their churches against the Grimke sisters in 1838 they were opposing Finney's “radicalism” which they considered real threats to the faith, “dangerous new measures” according to Henry Ward Beecher. (McLoughlin 123) Beecher did not want New Measure men ridiculing the Congregational renewal efforts or stealing members from the established churches. But by 1858 Finney's program had contributed to the moral energy behind abolition movement and defections from the Congregational Way into a more rationalized Unitarianism and a more mystical Episcopalianism were well under way.

His program also contributed to the emancipation of women. Into this weather sailed Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown with all flags flying. They were not the first women to receive a bachelor's degree from Oberlin. Four women graduates in 1841 were the first to do that. Brown entered Oberlin in 1845, finished the undergraduate course in 1847 and applied for the theological course for certification as a religious teacher and ordination. Women, however, were prepared to care for the indigent and the poor not ordained ministry. No church except the Quakers had women ministers. And the faculty demurred.

They relegated Brown and Stone to the “ladies course.” The townspeople, too, warned Brown off. They thought she was joking and they recoiled in horror at the manish specter of a female minister. Denied homiletics training, Brown and Stone organized a women's debating society. They met in a black woman's house and sometimes in the woods in order to avoid “intruders.” Had they been discovered they would have been punished for defying authority. “I did wish God had not made me a women,” complained Brown (DuBois 23). Eventually the faculty agreed to let them study theology but not for a degree.

She finished the course in 1850 and committed herself to the great reform “which was about to revolutionize society”. She believed she could train pioneers of righteousness to redress the suffering of the slaves and work without sympathy from anyone. But “what hard work it is to stand alone!” she wrote Stone in 1852. “I am forever wanting to lean over onto somebody but nobody will support me.” (DuBois 29-30) Finally in 1853 someone did. The First Congregational Church in South Butler, NY affirmed her ministry and she was ordained on September 15th. She was 28.

By then she had achieved some prominence as a public lecturer and itinerant organizer for women's rights. But she resigned from Butler in 1854 because she could not reconcile the idea of original sin with her experience. And she became a Unitarian. Her public life came to an end with her marriage in 1856. She and Stone married brothers. Stone continued actively in the movement. Brown, somewhat sidelined by 7 children, kept on writing. She returned to the lecture circuit in 1870 when her husband's business failed and lived to vote after the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919. She died in 1921 at the age of 96.

Before the Civil War the women's rights movement depended upon the American Anti-Slavery Society for its constituency. Abolition made the women's rights movement. The Grimke sisters, Stone and Brown were itinerant organizers of women's anti-slavery opinion. From the anti-slavery movement they learned how to articulate their discontent as women and escape the clerical authority that kept them in their place.

They found an ideology of equality in the natural law enshrined in the Declaration and the Constitution which guaranteed all other rights and they believed that social change could be advanced by arousing public conscience. The movement also had the eloquent voice of Sojourner Truth. Her speech before the Women's Rights Convention in Akron OH, 1851 sets the tenor of the times

There are two recordings of this speech: a newspaper account from the Anti-Slavery Bugle , Salem OH June 21, 1851 and the 1863 remembrance of Frances Gage, abolitionist and president of the Convention. No exact record of the speech exists but the Gage account has become the “classic report” because of its vivid detail. (www.kyphilom.com/www/truth.html)

Several ministers attended the second day of the Women's Rights Convention, and were not shy in voicing their opinion of man's superiority over women. One claimed “superior intellect”, one spoke of the “manhood of Christ,” and still another referred to the “sin of our first mother.”

Sunday, Sojourner Truth rose from her seat in the corner of the church. “For God's sake, Mrs Gage, don't let her speak!” half a dozen women whispered loudly, fearing that their cause would be mixed up with Abolition.

Sojourner walked to the podium and slowly took off her sunbonnet. Her six-foot frame towered over the audience. She began to speak in her deep, resonant voice. “Well, children, where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter. I think between the Negroes of the South and the women of the North – all talking about rights – the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this talking about?”

Sojourner pointed to one of the ministers, “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody helps me any best place. And ain't I a woman?”

Sojourner raised herself to her full height. “Look at me! Look at my arm.” She bared her right arm and flexed her powerful muscles. “I have plowed, I have planted and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain't I a woman?”

“I could work as much, and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne children and seen most of the sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain't I a woman?”

The women in the audience began to cheer wildly. She pointed to another minister. “He talks about his things in the head. What's that they call it?”

“Intellect,” whispered a woman nearby.

“That's it, hone. What's intellect got to do with women's rights or black folks' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full? That little man in the black there! He says women can't have as much rights as men. ‘Cause Christ wasn't a woman.”

She stood without stretched arms and eyes on firs. “Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from?” she thundered again. “From God and a Woman! Man had nothing to do with him!”

The entire church now roared with deafening applause.

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side up again. And now that they are asking to do it the men better let them.

Truth, Brown, Stone and the Grimke sisters were pioneers in the movement to Christianize society and make America fit for God's immanent return. It was this vision that sustained them because they saw freedom just ahead. They were saturated with optimism. Manifest Destiny, that “most wearied phrase” was common currency even before John O'Sullivan's editorial in the Democratic Review of 1845.

Like the divine call of 1630 to an “errand to the wilderness” Manifest Destiny also inspired veneration. It gave authority to the young nation because of its biblical associations and plot: from the new Jerusalem in Massachusetts to Paradise in California . Chaos would be redeemed by progress and progress was westering.

God's providential hand was creating and cultivating America and Americans. And Americans persuaded themselves that they came to indigenous peoples as missionaries not conquerors, to civilize and Christanize and moralize. Here was a great overarching mission worthy of a great nation. Here was the fever of the women's revolution.

Human progress was limited only by the inevitability of human perfection. The self-evident propositions in Jefferson 's Declaration of Independence were built into the natural order and manifested most perfectly in America . God blessed America because Americans accepted God's laws of government and economics i.e. democracy and capitalism. Although inequities of wealth certainly occurred, money did not make the man even though a self made man could become somebody by making money. (Fresonke 8)

And although America slid into the “mire of democracy” from the republican virtues enumerated with such certainty by Abigail and John Adams, a government by and for ordinary people did create “something like a general will” -- The People. It was The People who through the contest of many minds and voices were together strong and wise and would decide. Henceforth, America 's greatness would lay not in her great men and women or in her high culture and noble souls but in her ability to bring earthly benefits to common people. (Wood 360-9)

Walt Whitman captured the spirit that still lures Americans onward. He is still the most American of poets and the chanter of our perpetual youth. In 1856 he beckoned America to progress along the grand roads of the universe. Forever alive, forever forward, the souls of men and women go toward the best – toward something great, he sang. The goal that was named for them could not be countermanded, not by war or poverty, by enemies or desertions. Drop everything and come with me! We'll stick together as long as we live! he cried.

I Hear America Singing (1860)

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those mechanics, each one singing his as it should be
blithe and strong.
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or
leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat,
             the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck.

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter
             singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way to the
             morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown.
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife
             at work or of the girl sewing or washing.
Each singing what belongs to the day – at night the party of
             young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was too much of a Calvinist to be swept away by Finney's or Whitman's euphoria and lusty self-celebration. Her stories describe one woman's journey from the sure pieties of the ancestral faith in 1843 to a more humane and humanized Jesus. Stowe could not conceive of writing a novel without a moral purpose within a religious context. Puritan discipline demanded a constant surveillance of the saint's progress toward God and Puritan spiritual autobiographies described these victories and defeats. Stowe worked out her struggles with the faith through her stories. But these stories found their emotional power through her mother's heart.

Her first summing up was Uncle Tom's Cabin . It was motivated by the death of her son Charley in 1849 and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. The psychological and spiritual issue for her was to withstand the temptation of bitterness and despair and to give, as the faith required, a meaning to her grief and outrage.

When her other son Henry was drowned in 1857 the crisis was more profound. For it brought her into direct conflict with doctrine. The problem was not simply to confirm doctrine but, in her view, to reclaim it from the distortions and perversions that had undermined instead of strengthened the faith. Puritanism had become puritanical. It insisted that hell was the home of every unbaptized and unregenerate child. The Minister's Wooing is the second summering-up of her struggles and the most intense spiritual inquisition she was to face.

She could not quite accept the new Unitarian heresy that human beings sinned on their own by an assertion of their own natures. Nor could she accept the ancestral tenants that the inherited taints of an infected Adam were fatally passed to every newborn forever. She needed some hope, some peace, some gentleness.

In 1848 she converted to the Episcopal Church. The blessed assurance she required, however, came not from the absolution of her minister father but from the comfortable words a black woman, a fictional character in The Minister's Wooing. Candace appreciated Puritan rectitude and she revered Dr. Hopkins, modeled after the Puritan divine Mark Hopkins, for his abolitionist stand. But she did not like his dogmatics. Here are the words Stowe wrote for Candance who was speaking to Mrs. Marvyn, Stowe's stand in and like her sick at heart:

I knows our Doctor's a mighty good man, an'larned – an'in fair weather I hain't no ‘bjection to er hearin' all about dese yer great an' mighty tings he's got to say. But hone, dey won't do for you now; sick folks mus'nt hab strong meat; an' times like deses, dar jest ain't but one ting to come to, an' dat ar's Jesus. Look right at Jesus. Ye can't live no other way now. He knows all about mothers' hearts; he won't break yours. It was jes ‘cause He know'd we'd come into straits like dis yer, dat He went through all dese tings. Look an' see what He is – don't ask no questions and don't go to no reasonin's – jes look at Him, hangin' dar, so sweet and patient, on de cross! All dey could do couldn't stop his lovin' ‘em. He prayed for ‘em wid all de breath He had. Dar's a God you can love, ain't dar? (EHW pg 32-33 Holmes pg 36???)

That she could not in the end conform her feelings to doctrine was less a denial of Calvinism than a restoration of the balance of mind and heart achieved by Jonathan Edwards and a recognition of her own cravings for the earthly beauties banished by the austerities that the faith of her father expected of her. Oldtown Folks is the resolution of her dilemma and is her third summing-up.

Ancestry was her point of intercession between the ancestral faith and her converted faith. Past could nourish as well as smother and bring a powerful stabilizing power to unmoored and isolated individuals in a chaotic world. For her if the “new” of Whitman were the only goal of ones career on earth, the individual would be helpless, unstable and confused. Aimlessness would join sin in tormenting God's children. . And in her last group of stories, Poganuc People, she sought the blessing of her father for abandoning the ancestral faith and came to rest in the memories of her childhood.

Hers was a journey many made. In 1885 seven year old Harry Emerson Fosdick cried himself to sleep. His mother could not calm the terror that he would die and go to hell a sinner condemned eternally by all the things he had done wrong and for which God could never forgive him.

When he told this story in 1935 he rejoiced that the bright optimism of progressive modernism had given him another perspective on the faith. It was a necessary stage in his faith journey. But by then he also knew his liberation into society was not enough and that a church so well adjusted to society was dead. For the “lush optimism” of the two previous generations had, he said

bewitched them into thinking that everyday in every way man was growing better and better. Scientific discovery, exploration and invention, the rising tide of economic welfare, the spread of democracy, the increase of humanitarianism, the doctrine of evolution itself, twisted to mean that automatically today has to be better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today – how many elements seduced us in those romantic days into thinking that all was right with the world!” and that there was nothing at all to fear.

But there was something to fear, a great deal to fear and by 1915 he knew dread and sin. He knew that evil could and does lead men and nations to damnation – just as his ancestors said it would. And he knew that if we were to have any faith at all, it must be gained “from the very teeth of dismay.” The real church must stand apart from the world to challenge nationalism, imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, and all the new gods of the new Constantinian rulers. (Fosdick October 1935)

The elder Whitman had also felt a change in the wind as early as 1860. And once women's consciousness had been raised, what were they to do with it? Like the wistful Whitman who was seeking the “yet unfound” in California , women, too, were stopped at the water's edge of the promised land. Sorrow had entered Eden and not just women, poets and preachers would have to live in the bloody 21st century. We all would.

Facing West from California 's Shores (1860)

Facing west from California 's shores,
Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound,
I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity
             the land of migrations, look afar,
Look off the shores of my Western sea, the circle almost circled;
             Kashmere,
From Asia , from the north, from the God, the sage, and the
             hero.
From the south, from the flowery peninuslas and the spice
             islands,
Long having wander'd since, round the earth having wander'd,
(But where is what I started for so long ago?
And why is it yet unfound?)



References

Gerda Lerner The Grimke Sisters From South Carolina New York: Oxford University Press 1998

Ellen Carol DuBois Feminism and Suffrage Ithaca : Cornell University Press 1978

Frank Shuffelton editor. The Letters of John and Abigail Adams New York Penguin Press

Kris Fresonke West of Emerson Berkley : University of California Press 2003

Gordon Wood Radicalism of American Revolution New York: Vintage Press 1991

Harry Emerson Fosdick The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism preached at The Riverside Church in the City of New York October 3, 1935

Elizabeth Wheeler Harriet Beecher Stowe manuscript.

William G. McLoughlin. Revivals Awakenings and Reform . Chicago : University of Chicago Press. 1978.