See also: "European Origins of American Churches"

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By Ralph V. Harvey

Definition of Church Structures

State Church

Church and state have seldom been completely separated (exception: Albania!).
  •  Many religions seek political power and some insist on absolute political control.
  •  Similarly, many governments have found it convenient to use religion in subjecting citizens.
  •  The Roman Emperors were worshipped as deities.
  •  Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity brought about a dramatic historical change. Leaders of the church sought personal power and affluence. This was one reason Constantine decided to move the capitol of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (Istanbul). He might have accepted the idea of a state church but he feared that his empire could become a church state.
  •  Theodosius proclaimed the Christian Church to be the only legitimate religion and all others were considered to be heresy. The propagation of heresy was punishable by death.
  •  Russia, Greece and Serbia are primarily Orthodox (state church). European and most Latin American countries are Roman Catholic. England is Anglican.

Church State

  •  Henry IV walked to Canossa in 1077 and stood barefoot in the snow for three days in front of the Pope’s palace before his excommunication was annulled. The church was clearly in control, making the Roman Empire a church state.
  •  Muhammed was a good observer of Christianity and student of history. He decided that a church state was superior to a state church and that it would only work if religion and state were one. Islam is both a political and religious concept, and these two aspects are inseparable. He incorporated Jewish and Christian beliefs to make Islam palatable to these groups. Nearly all Arab nations are officially Muslim. The clear objective of Islam is world dominion with zero tolerance for other religious and political systems. All other political and religious constellations are considered illegitimate.
  •  America has no state church and it certainly is not a church state, but there are religious groups in America which would like the status of a state church. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, sought the office of US President with this goal in mind. His follower, Brigham Young, sought to establish a church state in Utah.

Free Church

Religious groups which neither seek nor tolerate such political privileges are called "free churches." The earliest New Testament Christian churches met in homes, as did later movements such as the Waldensians and Anabaptists. Most churches in the USA are free churches in a political sense, but many are organized in denominations with a hierarchy that keeps them from being true free churches.

Church History

Many Christians have little knowledge of their own church’s history, let alone the history of the Christian Church in America or of church history since apostolic times. Church history is actually HIS STORY of HIS PEOPLE. A major portion of God’s Word is church history.

I see certain parallels between church history in the New Testament and Church history in America. I divide the history of the Christian church in America into four periods. The early period, the revival period, the post-revival period and the “Laodicean” or post Christian period. Please bear with me as I attempt to show these similarities below.

Early Period

Pre-Pentecost Believers in the New Testament

Pentecost is rightfully considered the birthday of the church, but we sometimes overlook the fact that there were true believers ever since the beginning of the world. Old Testament believers looked forward to the coming of the Messiah while we look back on his coming.

At the time of Christ’s earthly pilgrimage, most Jews were traditionalists. They were devout and faithful to their religion, but it was just their religion. They were Jews by inheritance. Religion and nationality were one and the same. Jews were divided into factions and constantly quarreling about who was right. There were Sadducees (the liberals), Pharisees (orthodox), Essenes (fundamentalists), Herodians (state church – Episcopal), Samaritans (worldly), Galileans (southern gospel) and Greek (cultivated) Jews. Paul said that many of these had “uncircumcised hearts,” yet all claimed to be Jews.

Pre-Revival Christians in Colonial America (1565 – 1680)

The situation in early America was similar to pre-Pentecost Israel. Early explorers and settlers in America claimed almost without exception to be “Christians,” but their intentions and motivations were quite varied. Some came with the aim of forming a church state or a state church in the New World. Others came as adventurers or to find great wealth. Still others were religious refugees who had suffered much for their faith in Europe. They only wanted freedom to worship as they believed was right and to raise enough food to feed their families.

American school children learn that the first permanent settlement in North America was established in 1565 when the Spanish Admiral, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founded St. Augustine. What few history students are told, is the fact that there was a special urgency in his mission. In the previous year, a group of French Huguenots (followers of John Calvin) landed in Florida and founded Ft. Caroline. They, and not the pilgrims of Rhode Island, celebrated the first Thanksgiving on American soil on June 30, 1564. They hoped to establish a safe haven for other Huguenots to follow, but their hopes were short-lived. One year later, Spaniards under the leadership of de Avilés landed in Florida and slaughtered the Huguenots in a great massacre. They established St. Augustine near where Ft. Caroline had stood. Spain’s intent was to establish a church state in the new world.

Swedish Lutherans were sent to found a Lutheran colony in New Jersey, but they were chased across the Delaware by mosquitoes! The Dutch, Scottish & Irish Reformed, Anglicans (Church of England) and others also attempted to establish state churches. The Colony of Virginia was established in 1607 by England and was intended to become “a great Anglican nation.” By 1616, 1,600 colonists had arrived from Europe in Virginia, but due to prevailing hardships, the population of the colony numbered only 350.

Dissenters, Separatists, Puritans, Quakers (Shakers), Huguenots, Anabaptists (Mennonite, Amish, Hutterites, Brethren) also arrived in America. Some were strongly influenced by their leaders or had radical tendencies (witch hunts, quaking, severe church discipline etc.), but many sought to simply live by the Bible.

In 1620, England advertised for more settlers who would live in the Virginia Colony, but news of hardships and deaths discouraged many adventurers. A group of Baptists (sometimes called Anabaptists) under the leadership of Roger Williams felt that they had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so they volunteered. The King encouraged these religious dissenters, believing that it would do no harm to rid his kingdom of such troublesome people. On September 16, 1620, the settlers set sail for Virginia aboard the now famous Mayflower. Due to inclement weather, the ship got far off course and landed in Plymouth Harbor on November 19, 1620. Roger Williams and his followers founded the Colony of Rhode Island. Nineteen years later, in 1639, the first Baptist (they rejected the term “Anabaptist”) Church in America was founded.

All these settlers brought their baggage with them, and although most claimed to be Christians and sought God’s blessing, they had differing opinions on how this was to be obtained. It certainly didn’t look hopeful for founding a United States of America in the early colonial period, 1565 – 1680!

Revival Period

Pentecost in Jerusalem

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he gave the disciples specific marching orders (Acts 1:4-8). They were told to remain in Jerusalem until they received a special baptism of the Holy Spirit. Jesus mentioned the Holy Spirit twice in these few verses, and this is of supreme importance! He promised that this would occur “not many days hence.” The crucifixion coincided perfectly with the Feast of the Passover, when Israel celebrated its exodus from bondage and salvation by the shed blood of a lamb. The Feast of Pentecost was to begin in just a few days, so the disciples might have guessed that the baptism of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promised could possibly coincide with that special event. Together with the Passover and the Feast of the Tabernacles, Pentecost was one of three major Jewish holidays. It was their harvest festival.

Jews were gathered from all nations, languages and cultures in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:5-11). They had heard of the magnificent temple that Herod the Great had built and were anxious to see it.

The eleven disciples traveled obediently from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem. They came together for fellowship in an upper room where about 120 persons were present. The mother of Jesus and at least some of Jesus’ half siblings were present (Mary had at least 7 children according to Matthew 13:55-56). They “continued in prayer and supplication,” waiting patiently for something to happen. Waiting was definitely not one of Simon Peter’s traits! Peter is known as the impetuous disciple who often acted or spoke before thinking. Peter decided that he had to say something. There is a big difference between having to say something and having something to say. Peter told the group, that according to his understanding of scripture, they needed to choose someone to replace Judas. He didn’t stop to consider that Jesus himself had selected the 12 disciples including Judas. What made him think that he or even 120 Christians could select an apostle without Jesus and before the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit? Was he attempting to regain dominance as a leader after having failed so miserably at the crucifixion? We don’t really know and it isn’t important. We only know that two candidates, Joseph Justus, Son of Sabas and Matthias were selected and that straws were drawn to see which one God wanted. That is the first and last we hear of either person.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit changed everything! (Acts 2:1-4) God chose Peter to preach a Pentecost sermon after which 3000 were saved and baptized. I know a veteran missionary who once baptized 69 people in the Congo. Each of the twelve apostles must have baptized 250 persons on the day of Pentecost! There was great unity and sharing of resources. Nationality and tradition was no longer of great importance. That situation didn’t last forever, but those early Christians “turned the world upside down!”

While eating breakfast on Pentecost Sunday in 1998, we heard “the sound of a mighty rushing wind” outside! We ran to the window and actually saw people with “tongues of fire” above their heads! You are probably thinking that we were “full of new wine,” like the people at that New Testament Pentecost said of the apostles. A huge hot air balloon passed by our kitchen window and landed in a freshly mowed hay field near our house. The roaring sound and the tongues of fire came from its gas burners! It was all perfectly timed for Pentecost Sunday!

Revival Period in America “The Great Awakening” (1681 – 1745) and the second revival period (1800 – 1860)

As was the case in Jerusalem, many nations, languages and cultures were represented in colonial America. Nearly all claimed to be Christians, but there was divisiveness and little hope for unity in the colonies.

By 1670, British trading companies had established 12 colonies along the eastern seaboard, but they were not paying large dividends to investors. The total population of the colonies was no more than 150,000. Pennsylvania and New Jersey had only around 10,000 colonists each.

At this dark hour, God sent revival. It didn’t come like it did at Pentecost, but was nonetheless a special outpouring of God’s Spirit on colonial America. It would not have been possible to write a constitution and form a government like ours if God had not manifested his glory and power in a wonderful way.

The seeds of revival were sown in 1679, when eleven Quakers under the leadership of William Penn, purchased the proprietorship of New Jersey from Fenwick, Byllinge and Carteret's heirs. In 1681, Penn also received a land grant from King Charles II of England in payment for a debt that the king owed his father, a famous admiral. The grant measured 600,000 square miles west of the Delaware (present day Pennsylvania is only 46,058 square miles)! Penn promised settlers a safe haven where Quakers and other persecuted Christians could live in “love and brotherly kindness” (Philadelphia). This marks the beginning of the revival period, often called “the great awakening.”

The groundwork having been laid, a number of gifted preachers began to travel though the colonies, preaching the gospel and calling people to repentance. The first of these preachers was Theodore Freylinghuysen, who arrived in New Jersey in 1720. He was an ordained Dutch Reformed minister, but much influenced by the Puritans. William Tennant and his four sons were effective preachers in the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jonathan Edwards brought revival to the Congregationalist Churches of New England and perhaps the greatest preacher of them all, George Whitefield, was effective in igniting revival fires in the 1740s.

Even after the Peace of Westphalia was signed on October 24, 1646, religious freedom in Europe was very limited. For this reason, millions of religious refugees came to America. Whereas most of the earlier settlers came for personal gain or fame, or that of their sending nation and church, immigrants who arrived after 1681 were primarily religious refugees. They were Quakers from Scotch-Irish or English backgrounds, Dutch, German and Swiss Anabaptists. These settlers brought very little baggage and were thankful to God for freedom of worship and the ability to live in peace. And these settlers were determined that their new homeland should never become a church state and that no religious group should receive the status of state church (Contrary to popular belief, our Constitution does not insist on the separation of church and state, but merely forbids the formation of state churches and a church state).

Much happened in America during the second half of the 18th century. The total population of the colonies climbed from one million to 5.3 million. There was the revolutionary war, Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Congress was established in 1786. In 1789, the Supreme Court was established and George Washington was made President of the United States. Without that outpouring of the Holy Spirit, history would certainly have taken a different road.

From 1800 – 1860, there was a second revival period beginning with Charles Finney and ending with Dwight L. Moody.

Growth Period

The immediate effects of Pentecost:
  •  The Christians that were in hiding suddenly went public. “It was noised abroad” - this attracted devout pilgrims from all over the world.
  •  The apostles spoke of the mighty, wonderful works of God, not their own interests, experiences and achievements!
  •  Language and cultural barriers were overcome.
  •  The gospel was preached with boldness and 3000 were saved and baptized!
  •  All feared the Lord.
  •  The apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit.
  •  Christians shared their possessions not just with each other, but “with all men“ (Acts 2:44-45).
  •  They had unity and joy.
  •  What is most unusual, the general public liked what was happening.
Ultimate effects of Pentecost:
  •  The Christians continued steadfastly in fellowship, teaching the Word, prayer and communion (Acts 2:42).
  •  They became faithful church members! (“daily from house to house”)
  •  Church growth – in Acts 2:41 “3000 were added”
  •  Jews from all parts of the then-known world were present (Acts 2:5-11). These returned home to their own cultures, and cities and families, sharing their faith.
  •  The Palestinian Christians also shared their conversion experiences and Christians began to multiply.
  •  Acts 2:47 “And the Lord added to the church daily”
  •  Acts 4:4 “many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about 5,000.”
  •  Acts 5:14 “And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.”
  •  Acts 6:1 Growth continued, and with growth came problems. *  The apostles asked the believers to choose 7 capable and spiritual men to handle the work of providing aid to needy Christians (Acts 6:2-7) while they devoted themselves to teaching ministries. At least two of the new deacons, Stephen and Phillip, also started teaching and preaching with God’s blessings.
  •  Acts 6:7 Christians multiplied. Even many Jewish priests were getting saved!
  •  Acts 6:9 False accusations, slander and persecution from the Jews. Incidentally, Stephen’s sermon was almost entirely church history!
  •  Many Christians fled to Rome, Alexandria, Greece and Turkey, called Asia Minor in the Bible. The gospel went with them!
  •  Saul of Tarsus was converted and became Paul the Apostle. He too took the gospel to all the world.

* An apparent cultural bias which existed in Jewish society carried over into the young church. Jewish believers with Greek cultural backgrounds complained that believers with Hebrew backgrounds were given preferential treatment. Two centuries before Christ, Alexander the Great conquered much of the then-known world. Jewish merchants were attracted to regions where commerce flourished. These Jews adopted much of Jewish culture and became “Hellenized.” As the Romans gained power, Greek influence waned, and along with it, Greek affluence. Many Jews who had been attracted to Greek settlements lost their shirts and returned to Israel in hopes of making a new beginning. Hellenistic Jews and native Jews lived together in Israel, but they didn’t always get along.

Post Revival Church in America (1860 - 1963)

Displaced persons are more open to the gospel. People of different cultural backgrounds tend to be less apprehensive of each other and are more inclined to friendliness and generosity. Emergency situations lend to openness. Animals react differently in a flood or forest fire.

Immediately following the attacks of 9-11, Democrats and Republicans displayed an unusual solidarity by joining hands and repeating the Lord’s Prayer together!

Change can open doors. When the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall disintegrated in 1989, people from East and West Germany showed great excitement and unity. West Germans were handing out large denomination bills to the East Germans who crossed the open borders into their country, so they could do some shopping. Austrians displayed the same friendliness and generosity towards Czechoslovakians and Hungarians who came to see what it was like in the West. Just one typical example: a junk yard owner put up a large sign inviting Easterners to help themselves to any parts they needed to fix their cars!

The following conditions prevailed following the great awakening period in America:
  •  Churches were filled and everyone was excited about his or her salvation.
  •  Settlers sought to make friendships with native tribes and settlers of other religious persuasions.
  •  Many schools, colleges, hospitals and churches were established during this period.
  •  Word got back to Europe of God’s mighty working in America. “It was noised abroad” and even more immigrants arrived.
  •  Like Pentecost, settlers overcame language and cultural barriers. By 1776, they could agree on English as the nation’s official language. Even German-speaking signers of the Declaration voted for English.
  •  Bible truth rather than denominationalism became the basis of faith and for founding the nation.
  •  Like believers at Pentecost, early Christians were intent on sharing God’s blessings with others - not just with each other, but “with all men“.
  •  Second generation Christians began to assume leadership of churches.
  •  Millions more immigrants poured into the country during the 1800s and 1900s and churches grew numerically as well as spiritually.
  •  Sunday Schools and camp meetings became popular.
  •  This period was also marked by a sharp increase in affluence as industries flourished.
  •  Christians began to assume responsibility for world missions.
An interesting side note: I was born and raised in South Jersey. In 1746, Presbyterians founded colleges in Princeton and in Daretown, the latter being my home town. America’s greatest theologian, Charles Hodge (born 1797), was licensed to preach in Daretown on October 20, 1819, after which he preached his first sermon. He later became the President of Princeton. Samuel Cornish was licensed to preach along with Hodges, the first recorded ordination of a black minister in America. Young men continued to receive training in Daretown and Princeton until financial problems forced the Presbyterians to decide which school had to close. Daretown was closed because it only consisted of a log structure and there were fewer students.

Laodicean or Post Christian Era (1963 - ?)

John’s letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 could have been written to American churches. As the New Testament churches grew, so did problems. The same is true in America. Denominationalism set in. Like the church in Ephesus, American Churches lost their first love. Political and financial gain began to take precedent over the Holy Spirit’s leading. Relations with the Indians soured. Alcohol became a growing problem even among Christians. Some churches joined the temperance movement while others defended their freedom to consume wine in communion services. Slavery was another factor that divided Christians. Between 1750 and 1850, mysticism, sects and cults began to multiply. Literature and reading became popular and perpetrators of many false and unbiblical ideas began to fill the book shelves of Christians, sometimes replacing the Bible.

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful to read the Bible in schools and public places. This ruling marks the beginning of the post-Christian era in America. Today, New Age ideas are infiltrating churches. Many churches have become lukewarm social centers that provide fellowship, entertainment and a good feeling.

A majority of American Christians have departed from God’s Word and turned back to old European style “tolerance” (compromise). There will be serious consequences!

Future Prospects?

When God sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, 120 Christians were gathered in that upper room, praying in obedience to Christ.

In 1679, William Penn and a few Quakers were praying and obeying Christ. God sent Holy Spirit revival! If we yearn for revival today, we need to devote ourselves to prayer and obeying the Lord.

Although I do not foresee widespread revival in America, I can perceive a return to smallness for those Christians who are faithful to God’s Word. Already, the house church movement is a trend in China and other nations. It is also a lively movement in metropolitan areas where property is too expensive for churches. Many serious Christians are unhappy with the anonymity and shallowness of large “feel-good” churches. They long for a church in which there is interaction and not just looking at the backs of other people’s heads. I believe that fellowship in small groups and house churches is the wave of the future. House churches in apostolic times grew and multiplied. When Christians were herded into large state churches, God’s Word was neglected. Some Christians protested, but others met secretly in homes and thrived. The Waldensians and Anabaptists met mostly in homes. The cycle may soon be complete with the trend towards house churches.

Ralph V. Harvey, January, 2009