What Are the “Turning Points” in American Church History?

Noll, Turning PointsYesterday Elesha Coffman proposed a fun historical exercise over at the Religion in American History blog: develop an American equivalent to Mark Noll’s list of fourteen Turning Points in church history.

It’s not as easy as it might seem. For example, she argued that

American church history is both too big and too small to lend itself to a “top 14” list. It’s the classic survey course problem. With an unfathomably large subject, like Western Civ. or church history from Acts to the present, you know you can barely scratch the surface in one semester, so you pick your spots and go with it. You can’t possibly be blamed for not touching on everything. OK, you actually will be blamed, by students whose favorite subjects are slighted or by the yahoos who write state curriculum standards, but deep down you’ll know that kind of criticism is rubbish.

American church history, though, initially seems manageable enough to extract its essence through a dozen-plus perfectly selected focal points. But the list can’t just feature a cast of white, male Protestants. And it can’t be too New England-centric. And if African Americans or Roman Catholics or women or (fill in the blank) only get one turning point, that will look like tokenism. And then there’s the whole question of world religions and world events that aren’t in American church history but exert a strong influence on it. Very quickly, the list of possible turning points balloons out of control.

But at the same time, it’s a useful exercise, if only because it would help teachers of the topic like Coffman if she “could identify, at least for myself, the short list of things students ought to remember, and what these things illustrate, and why it matters.”

I’m neither an Americanist nor (really) a religious historian, so I’m not going to be so foolish as to attempt a full list. But I will suggest two from the century I know best, then wait for my readers with more training in this field to point out my errors and misunderstandings.

The Azusa Street Revival (1906)

Before we get any further, let’s pause and admit that most of the events we pick for this list are going to be relatively insignificant in the larger history of Christianity. Even if we start “American church history” with the first Spanish, French, English, and other European encounters with the indigenous peoples living on the current territory of the US of A, we’re looking at a time period equivalent to a mere quarter of the larger story of Christianity. And people and events that loom large in this country might cast little shadow elsewhere.

Marsden, Jonathan Edwards
None of this means you shouldn’t read this book…

(For example, I suspect that the First Great Awakening would show up on a fair number of American “turning points” lists, and some American theologians and church historians seem to view Jonathan Edwards as an “American Augustine” — the title of a Books and Culture essay by George Marsden. I don’t want to suggest that he is unknown once the Atlantic coastline is out of view, but it’s telling that when Noll — a Reformed evangelical — chose to write about 18th century awakenings as a turning point, he focused on the Wesleys and didn’t – as far as I can recall — write about Edwards. Or consider these highly imperfect but perhaps suggestive measures… According to an Ngram search of Google Books, of late “Jonathan Edwards” has shown up in the English corpus 7-8 times as often as in the Spanish equivalent — and that’s after a recent surge of interest in the latter. If you go back twenty years, the factor swells to nineteen. Even within the English-speaking world… Marsden’s acclaimed biography of Edwards has been reviewed nearly sixty times on Amazon, but only once on Amazon’s British site.)

Noll’s own list includes no event that takes place in the USA, though American Christians played important roles in two of his turning points: the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910, presided over by John R. Mott; and the Lausanne Congress of 1974, where Billy Graham and other American evangelicals were key participants. (American bishops were at Vatican II, which Noll clusters with Lausanne as his fourteenth turning point, but I’m in the dark as to the centrality of their roles in producing the outcomes for which Vatican II is known.)

But in his afterword, Noll does point to one USA-hosted event that would probably come close to topping my list of “turning points” in American church history:

William J. Seymour
William J. Seymour (1870-1922), the leader of the Azusa Revival

One of the most momentous developments in the recent history of Christianity must certainly be the emergence of Pentecostalism as a dynamic force around the world. In 1900 there were, at most, a bare handful of Christians who were experiencing special gifts of the Holy Spirit similar to those recorded in the New Testament. By the year 2010, as many as 600 million (or more than a quarter of the worldwide population of Christian adherents) could be identified as Pentecostal or charismatic….

The beginnings of Pentecostalism, with its characteristic practice of speaking in tongues as evidence of baptism by the Holy Spirit, is usually associated with a revival beginning in 1906 at the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles…

From its origins Pentecostalism was a multiracial, multicultural, and transnational phenomenon, and it’s become an especially important movement in the Global South — where Christianity has grown fastest in the 20th and 21st centuries. So my first turning point dovetails with my second…

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Before this reform went through Congress (with bipartisan support) and abolished the old quota system, this country’s foreign-born population was as low as it had ever been, about to dip below 5% of the national total, and about three-quarters of immigrants came from Europe. Apart from the USA, only three countries were the birthplace of at least a million Americans in the 1960 Census: Italy, Germany, and Canada.

LBJ signs the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act
Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. In his remarks he called the previous system “un-American in the highest sense” – Johnson Presidential Library

Thanks to the 1965 act, not only has immigration generally increased (as of 2010, the foreign-born population is 40 million), but the sources of immigration have shifted dramatically to the Global South, with Latin America (53%) and Asia (28%) now accounting for more than four in five new arrivals. (Europe is down to 12%.) Each of the following countries was the birthplace for at least a million Americans counted in the 2010 Census: Mexico, China, India, The Philippines, Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, and Korea.

The effects on religion in America are complicated, since recent immigration has included Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, atheists, and other non-Christians. But for church history… I suspect that we’ll look back from 2050, 2025, or whatever point that most American Christians are not European-American and identify 1965 as a turning point. In particular, Catholicism and evangelicalism should look quite different as an indirect result of what Congress did that year.

(There’s a lot out there on the effects of immigration from the Global South on American Christianity: here’s an accessible starting point.)

3 thoughts on “What Are the “Turning Points” in American Church History?

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