A religious denomination begins as a sect, a small group of passionate believers who set themselves apart from society, like the Puritans who fled England because they refused to conform to the establishment Anglican Church. Once the Puritans settled in Massachusetts, they were no longer outsiders. They were the establishment. The sect grew into the Congregational Church, which dominated New England in the same way that other colonies were dominated by the Episcopal Church (the American branch of Anglicanism). Those mainline churches received government subsidies and could survive without attracting passionate new members.
Their clergymen were well-educated gentlemen, not charismatic rabble-rousers. They preached elegant, cerebral sermons based on the theology they had studied at Harvard and Yale, where rationalism was prized and emotionalism disdained. They had been taught to see God as distant and abstract, a vaguely benevolent deity nothing like the wrathful figure in the Old Testament who condemned sinners to perdition. The sophisticated modern clergyman did not use the pulpit to thunder about eternal damnation. He didn’t necessarily even believe in hell.
The revivalists did—most emphatically. George Whitefield told his American audiences not to be lulled by modern theologians who denied “The Eternity of Hell-Torments,” as he titled a sermon in Georgia. “Woe unto such blind leaders of the blind,” he said, warning that their denial of hell was the surest way to “promote infidelity and profaneness.” He urged sinners to imagine themselves forever tormented by “insulting devils” and “everlasting burnings” and the “never-dying worm of a self-condemning conscience.” That scene was elaborated by Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon of 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Forsaking the theology he’d been taught at Yale, he compared his listeners in Connecticut to a “loathsome insect” dangling over the pit of hell.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in. ’Tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit,” Edwards warned. “You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.”
Those sermons appalled the theological establishment. An association of Congregationalist ministers denounced Whitefield for using “his utmost Craft and Cunning, to strike the Passions and engage the Affections of the People.” Harvard’s faculty charged him with the crime of “Enthusiasm.” Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist minister who went on to become Yale’s president, complained that the revivalists’ strategy was to drive people “seriously, soberly, and solemnly out of their wits.” The mainline churches used their political power in some places to prevent the revivalists from preaching, but it was a losing struggle, especially after the American Revolution produced a nation that did not recognize any official religion. Once the mainline churches lost their privileged status (and subsidies), their preachers had to compete, and the competition was hell—literally.
As a motivational strategy, fire and brimstone prevailed during the First Great Awakening and long afterward. Since the eighteenth century, the rate of church membership has tripled in the United States, which is remarkable by contrast with the centuries-long secular trends in Europe. Why do two-thirds of Americans today belong to a church while so many pews in Europe are empty? In their incisive sociological analysis, The Churching of America, Finke and Stark conclude that it’s not because Americans are an inherently spiritual people or suffer from peculiar cultural anxieties. The difference is that while European governments have continued to officially recognize and subsidize the establishment churches, the United States hasn’t given any church a monopoly.
Once competition began in the eighteenth century, the greatest surge in devotion occurred not in mainline churches but in new Methodist churches continuing the hellfire tradition of Whitefield and Edwards. The Methodist preachers, far from being products of divinity school, were often local residents, unpaid amateurs supervised by visiting circuit riders who themselves lacked seminary training. From a tiny sect in the 1700s, the Methodists grew by 1850 into America’s largest religious denomination—and then they ran into the familiar problem of mainline churches. As the Methodist Church prospered, it established seminaries whose graduates came to preach a gentler message known as the “New School.” Traditionalists complained that the “characteristic idea of this system is benevolence.”
Once again, the benevolent message could not compete with hell. By the end of the nineteenth century Methodists were no longer the largest religious denomination in America. The newly triumphant upstarts were hell-fearing Catholics and Baptists, whose churches grew quickly into the twentieth century. Eventually many of their clergy modernized their message, and they, too, lost ground to revivalist preachers, this time to the evangelical and Pentecostal sects that grew so rapidly in the 1980s and beyond. beyond. As always, the establishment complained about the upstarts’ crude theology, but in the 1980s one mainline clergyman, Bishop Richard Wilke, urged his fellow Methodists to learn from the competition.
“The churches that are drawing people to them believe in sin, hell, and death,” Bishop Wilke explained. “Jesus, who knew what he was talking about, explained them, experienced them, and conquered them. If there is no sin, we do not need a Savior. If we do not need a Savior, we do not need preachers.” Without evil and the threat of hell, preachers would be out of luck, out of relevance, and out of a job. The history of Christianity in America isn’t a controlled experiment, but the data set is impressive: hundreds of millions of people exposed to competing incentives. They…
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