American Christianity: Origins and Introductions

Why have we decided to take up this task of chronicling and introducing the various movements in American Christianity? The answer is very simple. We must know from where we have come to see where we are.

September 1740. Charleston, South Carolina
A cross-eyed minister in a black gown stands in a field. Thousands flock to hear the famous preacher. He preaches with fire and zeal. Has his equal been seen in the Church of England? He urges, pleads, and calls “come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ.”

August 1801. Cane Ridge, Kentucky
With a whoop and roar a man ascends a tree. Several others fall on their bellies. Another writhes on the floor like a snake and barks like a dog. The largest camp meeting of the Second Great Awakening is underway. Two men of Presbyterian background have gathered to unite the denominations of America and usher in the Millennium.

September 1823. Palmyra, New York
A young farm boy, after much struggle, is pointed to the place where he will find a “golden bible.” He claims the angel Moroni has visited him and revealed the location. A restored Christianity will be proclaimed, a new church founded, one that could only be made in America.

These three seemingly unrelated events hold the key to understanding American Christianity in her current form. While the thread of history may at once seem unwound and broken, we will see through this series of articles how the fever that sweeps America through two Awakenings and beyond is but a common symptom of the kind of Christianity fostered in the colonies and in the original west.

Why have we decided to take up this task of chronicling and introducing the various movements in American Christianity? The answer is very simple. We must know from where we have come to see where we are.

While most readers of this publication find themselves either ethnically or contextually among North American Lutherans, they still live in an environment colored and shaped by the broader religious context of America. Indeed, the very language they speak is a result of the most significant settlers of the New World.

As a nation, we are shaped by English speakers. As a culture we are formed by Presbyterians, Anglicans, and later Baptists. Many are sons of the Great Awakenings. More still are influenced by them whether they realize that or not. We find ourselves amidst the heirs of those who were drunk on the Millennium, which is a phrase that will make more sense as the series continues.

America before and after the Revolution was rural and isolated. She found herself hungry for religion, but with scant men to preach it. The hunger for preachers was satiated by the Methodist circuit rider, the open-air evangelist, and the self-called independent preachers of a new religious fervor. In the decades prior to the Revolution, we would see men seeking to work within established denominational frameworks, forever changing the tenor of those groups. As the nineteenth century dawned, new denominations rapidly developed—unique movements, nearly all of which claimed to have a restored version of the Gospel. We will quickly move from men earnestly affirming at least some form of historic creedal Christianity to those who would cast aside all creedal fences and blaze their own trail.

We see in the nineteenth century the beginnings of a fire that would sweep even beyond America’s borders in the twentieth. For even a movement like that of Azusa Street in the 1900s, where Pentecostalism was born, is an extension of what was observed at Cane Ridge and countless other camp meetings before it.

American Christianity was birthed by Calvinists: theologians who understood that man is by nature born in sin and bound by it. Man is not free to choose Christ. Man must hear the Word and be changed by the monergistic work of God in accordance with His inscrutable will. Yet even the Reformed would find themselves in a vicious, intramural debate over just how to preach among such hardened sinners. While a preacher in the 1740s might have understood that the Spirit worked as the Word was preached, one in the 19th century might believe that man’s oratorical ability played a part in the conversion of the lost soul. The struggle between old and new Calvinists would be fought on American soil.

As Methodism found a home in America, Arminianism—hallmarked by its belief in man’s free will—would soon become the dominant view among Americans concerning the doctrine of salvation. Arminianism would be a natural fit for the revivalist preaching that would so enrapture the new nation. Even the once-Calvinistic Baptists would within two generations be transformed into something resembling the largely Arminian body we know today.

As the historic Protestant denominations were changing, new denominations were forming. Some of them would be begrudgingly accepted among the general American Christian landscape. Groups like the Church of Christ, Christian Churches, Churches of God, and others would find their genesis in this period. These movements would have a profound effect on how Americans viewed not only theology but church history.

Cheap printing would serve the purposes of these new groups. Each one would have its own publishing house, sometimes belonging to individual prophets, who would, from the Scriptures, show how their church was the one found in the Acts of the Apostles and how all other churches were, to greater or lesser degrees, apostate.

At this point it may seem as if early American Christianity was an exercise in sectarianism and debate. In many ways it was. However, these disparate movements were all orbiting around a few similar themes.

A return to primitive Christianity was one such theme. What was the church of the Apostles? Does it exist? Has it been found? Can it be restored? How did the early church worship? New movements would unite and divide around these questions, some eschewing instruments altogether, while others co-opted the popular sounds of the day to bring in their crowds and form new flocks.

The drum beat of revivalism is another theme that runs through most of these movements. Can a man be born again if he does not feel it? How can we give these men the religious feeling necessary for true regeneration? Do the ends justify the means?

Several significant holdouts from the old Calvinism, and even old Methodism, would debate these questions. This would lead to even more new denominations in America, many of which still survive today.

Nothing has been mentioned of the Catholics and Lutherans so far. The Roman Catholic Church existed in early America; however, they develop in a very different way and do not arrive in large numbers until later in the narrative, usually along bodies of water. They are not well represented in the prairies and hamlets where the new American Christianity spreads.

The Lutherans were present during the colonial period, in what would eventually become New York, but do not have significant numbers until the nineteenth century. Their language and liturgy would separate them from the larger American landscape, yet they were by no means completely insulated from the culture in which they chose to settle. It would take several generations before the Americanization of the Lutheran church. Even with a change of language and a diversity of worship styles, the American Lutheran church is still seen in many parts of America as foreign. This is a direct result of the movements referenced above.

All these topics will be detailed in future articles.

I hope this brief introduction to the series has given you an appetite for the history of your nation. Perhaps it will make sense of why your neighbor is closing the blinds and shuttering the windows as you bundle your infant in white and enter the family van on the way to his Baptism, eager to sing a chorale and settle into the familiar rhythms of the Common Service.

It is my hope that by shining a light on the mind of your typical American Christian (or Latter-day Saint, or Jehovah’s Witness) you might better be able to communicate the truth of your faith to them, to understand that they are products of something unique in Christian history, and to understand that, while new, they have their traditions, their presuppositions, and an earnest zeal in what was handed down to them from the last several generations.

It is my greater hope in discussing these movements on the American continent that we may find a hunger for the Faith once delivered to the saints, find hope in the pure well of Scripture, rest in the strength of the historic Creeds, find the zeal of the early fathers, both Apostolic and Lutheran, and guard and maintain our way as we travel the path to glory.

Table of Contents for This Issue of Christian Culture

Subscribe to
Christian Culture


Rev. Willie Grills

Rev. Willie Grills is the Pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Alexander, AR.

Subscribe to
Christian Culture

Christian Culture is the magazine of Luther Classical College. Visit for more information about the college.

Keep Subscriptions to Christian Culture Free

Make a donation today!