When the American colonies declared their independence, Catholics made up less than 2 percent of the population. Until the nation came to encompass what had been Spanish and French territories, the spread of Christianity in these United States was not primarily the work of Catholics. And it was not accomplished by the descendants of the pilgrims, who had settled in New England. Puritanism was more about exclusion than evangelization, keeping apart from those who practiced impure versions of the faith. So, who evangelized the New World? Who took Christianity across the Alleghenies, beyond the territory of the 13 original seaside colonies?
The spread of Christianity in these United States was not primarily the work of Catholics.
It was men like William Winans, a cobbler’s son from western Pennsylvania, who preached in Mississippi. And Hope Hull, who left his carpenter’s apprenticeship in Baltimore to preach in western Georgia and eastern Alabama. Shadrach Bostwick of Maryland set aside his medical studies to become a circuit-riding minister is upstate New York, western Massachusetts and in what is now Ohio. William Stevenson, an ancestor of the presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, was the first to preach in Texas and Oklahoma.
All of these men were Methodist circuit riders. In The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, Sam Haselby likens them to a Protestant religious order. They were ascetics. Very few of them were married, and they earned very little. One itinerant traveled over 1,000 miles to preach and returned with the same 50 cents with which he had set out. Typically, they lacked education, erudition or style, though they were described as “fine looking men, strong, bold, with bodies of athletes.”
Advent begins where our liturgical year just ended. It ponders the coming manifestation of Christ and the close of history.
What made them so successful? Methodism had no truck with the Calvinist notion that only a few would be saved. Instead, they thought that if you got your act together and put in some old fashioned effort, God would do the rest. “Methodist hymns recognized free will, the power of individual discipline, and the possibility that change lay within reach.”
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus stands ready to save you
Full of pity, love and pow’r.
These wandering men of God struggled with their own demons. Contemporary churchgoers would be appalled by the hatred they poured onto lust, though early American congregations were fascinated by their rather vivid description of the sins to be avoided. The historian Lillian Smith says that people listened to them because they preached on the “sins that tough frontier men committed: drinking, fighting to kill, fornication, self-abuse, gambling, and stealing.”
Christian, or post-Christian, America has begun its Christmas season. The Catholic Church will not do that for another two weeks. Instead, Advent begins where our liturgical year just ended. It ponders the coming manifestation of Christ and the close of history.
This first Sunday of Advent we hear of longing, a longing that God would bring an end to the suffering that sin has brought upon us.
Yet the Christmas lights that cover our communities are not completely removed from the Advent wreaths in our churches. This is a wintry season, one that plays upon the contrast of darkness and light, cold and warmth. Even before Europe was evangelized, the season of Yule was about light shining in darkness.
This first Sunday of Advent we hear of longing and of sin, a longing that God would bring an end to the suffering that sin has brought upon us.
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old (Is 63: 17 & 19b).
Yet here is the trouble—if I can use a preliminary term—with the church’s message this first Sunday of Advent. It is the same problem previously faced by Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, the Divine Mercy movement and, for that matter, the poor guy on the urban street corner, waving the repentance placard. How do you preach mercy to those who do not perceive a need for it? Of course, not knowing of a need does not mean there is none. Every hour people enter emergency rooms because of physical needs that a few hours earlier they were unaware of. Still, if we moderns do not think of ourselves as sinners, how does the church shine a light into that sort of darkness?
How do you preach mercy to those who do not perceive a need for it?
The church does understand the challenge. She has always insisted that sin blinds us. It is like a lethal drug that lulls us into a lethargy, from which we must struggle to emerge if we are to survive. Contemporary preaching, however, departs from the accusatory approach of those early Methodist circuit riders. They preached to frontier folk, who knew that life was harsh and who understood that much of this was their own fault, the result of their own moral failings.
Today, however, we preach to those who are, thoroughly and comfortably, blinded by sin. This applies as well to those of us preaching. Because we moderns cannot recognize sin, we have to do more than urge people to reject it. We must help them recognize sin. We have to speak of the emptiness of a life lived under its sway. We have to show people why they are lonely, depressed and without hope for the future.
Can each of us, in some quiet hour, sit down and ask ourselves how we might be deceiving ourselves?
Advent asks us to begin again. Can each of us, in some quiet hour, sit down and ask ourselves how we might be deceiving ourselves? First, I suspect, we will become even more aware of the sins and shortcomings of others. Push beyond that. It is a smoke screen of the deceiver. We are seeking out sin in our own lives. Look especially at the parts of your life where you are unhappy. Sometimes unhappiness is foisted upon us. Often, we forge our own.
Maybe the thing we have never admitted to be our fault really is...our fault. Maybe what we call our natural desires and inalienable rights really are sins, things that keep us from being truly happy, truly free.
I will go home and ask these things of myself. You do the same. We cannot throw grace at another. Each of us must make some small opening in ourselves. And to do that, we have to find our own wounds.