American Religion

I drive past the church several times without seeing it, which I find hilarious once I start to grasp the tenets of Christian Science. I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting the exterior of the building to be white, which I’ve read is the color favored by Christian Scientists to represent the “divine light of truth.”

The third time past it seems to materialize: an ordinary little brown-shingled building, not particularly church-like, more reminiscent of a small medical office, but obviously my destination. I pull into the parking lot a few minutes late, and run inside.

Harold Bloom, the lauded cultural critic, uses the term “American religion” for those off-shoots of Protestantism invented solely on these soils. These include the Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists but culminate with Joseph Smith and his Latter-day Saints. It wasn’t until my journey through Christianity was well underway that I even dared pick up a copy of Bloom’s book The American Religion. It’s a good thing I waited, too, because otherwise I wouldn’t have understood what the heck he was talking about.

According to Bloom, early America was particularly ripe for religious innovation not only because of broad social changes like rapid urbanization, but also because the notion of God as punishing and judgmental had leached into every nook and cranny of the national subconscious.

The first waves of settlers had been heavily influenced by Protestant reformer Calvin who taught that everyone was either saved or damned from birth. Unlike Luther, who said anyone with faith could be saved, Calvin insisted God had made all those decisions before we got here; never could we know or change our status. This idea may have worked for a self-confident theologian and his supporters with prosperous and stable lives, but it was too much for most Americans whose difficult circumstances offered no proof of salvation. As if times back then weren’t stressful enough, here was another reason for one’s anxiety to turn crippling.

These years seem to be unique in the degree to which physical illness preceded religious innovation. Ellen White, spiritual head of the Seventh-Day Adventists, was often bed ridden. But perhaps no one suffered more than Mary Baker Eddy, who “discovered” Christian Science.

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby flat out blamed Calvin for the overwhelming number of ill patients who walked through his doors. Quimby was the clockmaker-turned-healer who treated Mary Baker Eddy when her condition failed to improve under the care of traditional doctors. He claimed his mission in life was to free people from Calvin’s “iron grip.” For many, Calvinism seemed to ratchet up the anxiety associated with perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the human condition: death. As Quimby surmised, “The fear of death is the cause of nine-tenths of all disease.”

Quimby was all for Christianity, but he advocated a return to the healing aspects of Jesus’ work. It’s hard to imagine today because so much progress has been made in the fields of medicine and psychoanalysis, but fewer than 200 years ago it was not unusual for doctors to give up on patients whose indeterminate sources of suffering did not respond to the usual remedies. This is where Quimby came in. He treated hordes of people, some of whom travelled great distances to his office in Maine for help.

What was Quimby’s remarkably effective medicine? Empathy.

He noted that if traditional doctors couldn’t categorize the disease, the patient would be labeled “nervous, spleeny or hypochondrical and receive no sympathy from anyone.” His treatment included holding hands with his patients and listening intently to their tales of woe. For a time, he cured Mary Baker Eddy with his care and attention.

11 thoughts on “American Religion

  1. Corinna, Thank goodness you have moved on to a new Church! I was just about to sit down and beg you to do so when this post popped on to my screen! There has been too much rancor. It is easy to see how people are moved to blows defending their religious beliefs and/or recruiting others to their way of thinking. I think this is the very reason that has moved some of us towards other ways of believing…..some choosing to just be “nones.” Too much us versus them……and I understand that…..but it does seem to shut out love and civility, even in people who seem to values there things. Let’s get on with your journey!!

    • Well said, Merrill. There is an alternative to us v. them–“We”. The entire human race shares this one mote of dust in space. I think what disappoints God most of all is our uncanny ability to ferret out and exploit every difference we can find, whether it be racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious, and using it to separate ourselves from one another and from Him. The idea that there is only one “right” path that can be defined by a denomination seems, not only terribly presumptuous, but also as if we are trying to limit the way God can work in the world. I prefer to leave that up to Him. We should be concentrating on Jesus’ command to bring His Kingdom to the here and now.

  2. Now you at my grandmother’s church, Corinna. Every night when I would sleep over, she would tuck me in and recite the Scientific Statement of Being to me. But my family were Anglicans who went to doctors when we needed to. Ah, well. You might be interested in a book entitled The Diving Supermarket by Malise Ruthven, an Anglo-Irish academic who came to the USA in the late 1980’s, bought a camper van, and toured the USA looking for authentic American versions of Christianity. It’s an engaging book about varieties of religion that have a particularly American view of God and the USA, sometimes supernatural, but mostly with the idea that humankind can perfect itself with God’s help.

  3. I remember when I was a little girl, four or five, I had very bad teeth. (I’m 63, and visits to the dentist back then weren’t common when money was tight.) One day I had an awful toothache, and our housekeeper pulled me in her lap in the rocking chair and began furiously rocking two and fro, calling out to God to “heal this child, take her pain away, Lord!!!!!” There was utter ferociousness in her tone of voice and in her rocking, and in my crying with pain. Then, suddenly, the pain went away. Gone. And it did not come back.

    Since that time, I have firmly believed that ‘healing’ of many kinds can happen by prayer and DOES happen by prayer.

    BUT, I am also an eminently practical person, and I feel that one of the reasons we have doctors and progress and medicine and improving health care is because GOD gave man the brains he uses! So I have never really understood the reason for, say, dying of an untreated disease because you don’t want to go to the doctors GOD created! (Sorry, shaking head here!)

    Why not use BOTH? I am sure that the Christian Scientists will tell you why, lol. Meantime,

    Yours in Christ

  4. In the news right now is a Pennsylvania couple, the Schaibles. They lost their 8-month-old son, Brandon, last week after he suffered from diarrhea and breathing problems for at least a week, and stopped eating. Four years ago, another son died from bacterial pneumonia. They were on parole after having been convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of the child with pneumonia. They belong to a fundamentalist church that believes “it is a definite sin to trust in medical help and pills; and it is real faith to trust on the Name of Jesus for healing.” Thank God their other 7 children have been placed in foster care.
    This makes me sad and mad.
    I’m with Patti, why not use BOTH? What gives us the right to say “God is here (in supernatural healing), but he is not there (in medical healing)?” What gives us the right to demand anything of God?

  5. The story goes around about Ernest Holmes the founder of Religious Science (not Scientology), who was visited for spiritual healing by a woman who complained that she had had a headache for a week and the spiritual mind treatments she was doing weren’t working. He asked her: “Have you tried taking an aspirin?”

  6. On another note, it makes me really sad that Calvin’s work has been so truncated that his ideas about predestination are all that people know of him. He had such an unbelievable picture of God’s love for all of us, and taught how to search for and have union with God through the Holy Spirit so that we can actually personally experience that love and peace. In fact, he believed that personal experiential faith, not just intellectual belief, was necessary to know God. He talked about knowing God as being as close and intimate as a marriage (or at least what a good marriage is when filled with love, care, and intimacy!). He wrote about how to have genuine faith and overcome doubt. There’s nothing innate in it. But those things go by unnoticed.

    Calvin lost his firstborn son shortly after birth, and his wife never fully recovered from the pregnancy and delivery and died a few short years later. The overwhelming pain of these loses turned him toward God. That’s a stretch for many, who might rather have blamed God. But that’s a different subject.

    I would think Calvin would have turned to whatever medical treatment would have been available without hesitation, seeing it as Patti mentioned above. As a cancer survivor myself, I am so grateful for my doctors, and I saw the hand of God because my cancer was discovered by a computer “mistake” made when the wrong tissue was biopsied. But it was where the cancer was. 🙂 I’m happy to be here and grateful for surgeons, oncologists, and radiologists.

  7. Frank, I am also reminded of a story (considerable shortened here) of a man who was being flooded out of his home. I’m betting you’ve heard it.

    When he first had to climb to the second story, a fire truck came by and offered to rescue him. He responded that, no, he was praying and God would save him. When the water came up and he had to climb to the roof, a rowboat came by and offered to pick him up and he said “no, I’m praying and God will save me.” When he reached the roof, and the helicopter lowered a rope, he said “no, thanks, God will save me.”

    When he drowned, and met St. Peter, he asked why God hadn’t saved him. St. Peter said “You didn’t notice the fire truck, the rowboat or the helicopter???>???????”

    That, again, is my concept of God providing both faith and doctors. I feel sad when people do not show the common sense that God gave a piss ant! Alas, many don’t.

    • Yes, I’ve heard the story in the context of other religions as well. My favorite Christian Science story is the one that tells of a Priest and a Rabbi and a Christians Scientists finding themselves in hell. The Rabbi asked the Priest, “Why are you here?” The Priest said, “I liked my meat on Fridays……and what are you doing here Rabbi?” The Rabbi said, “I like to eat pork.” Then they both turned to the Christian Scientist and said, “How did you get here.” He responded, “I’m not here.”

  8. Corinna: Thanks so much for this post. A couple things struck me: one concerns the attitude of doctors. I heartily agree that we should use them, in the meanwhile asking God for healing. That doctor who worked with Mary Baker Eddy showed more the spirit of what medicine is about than most doctors I’ve ever visited. Empathy (I suppose that would be ‘love’ on a professional level) heals a multitude of hurt….
    The other thing that struck me was your comments (via Bloom) that some American religion came about in reaction to Calvin. I think Bloom’s right, but I also appreciated Ginger’s comments addressing his tender side. Calvinism has a reputation for harshness and religious snobbishness. Calvin’s heart has definitely been reinterpreted by his descendants–and maybe some of his doctrine as well. There are many who speak today in the name of Calvin without ever having read him. Essayist Marilyn Robinson has some striking pieces addressing that. She has been a rebuke/reminder to me to go back to the horse and listen to his mouth. I intend to do that in the next year, and I’m hoping it will help me better understand this man to whom has been attributed much responsibility for some of the most screwed up religion imaginable.

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