I just finished Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875, by Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen. The book has been an interesting and challenging read, taking me into the world of the primitive impulse in the early American mindset and my religious heritage.
The concept of primitivism looks back to the pristine and the pure from earlier times. The authors use the language of the “primordium” to refer to the earliest and purest times. Primitivists also believe in a fall or corruption during the intervening period, and they attempt to restore and re-introduce the purity of the first times.
To some degree, I realized that the primitivist impulse existed in other religious groups, but the book gave me a fuller explanation to the thought process of these groups. These groups often emphasized different aspects of the primordium that they wanted to restore. Since the authors both have a background in the Restoration Movement, Campbell and Stone were probably emphasized, but others groups were noted, too.
The 17th century New England Puritans like John Cotton and Roger Williams provided contrasting views that both sprang from primitivist thinking. Cotton, for example, promoted a return to the purity of the early church and its ceremonies. He argued for a congregational rather than a hierarchical model of church government. He said that the accounting for the time of the observance of the Lord’s Supper from evening until evening rather than morning to morning because this was the way it was done in the first century. He believed in a capella singing, and argued for songs to be sung from the Psalter. No new songs were to be created for uses in the church. Cotton and others did not promote a separation of church and state, and he fought against religious toleration within New England Society. He attempted to establish laws within Massachusetts that were based upon ancient Israel. Strict observance of the laws were to be enforced by the magistrates and dissenters were expelled in order to maintain the purity of antiquity.
Roger Williams, on the other hand, pursued the same goal of restoration of the church and its original forms, but he did not demand the same level of conformity. One of the reasons for his stance is that he believed that restoration was primarily a work of God and not man. For example, he believed that churches could only be started by apostles or apostolic measures as evidenced by the example in Scriptures. He also desired to restore the original ethos of the church. Christians were a persecuted lot, and were to remain separated from culture and the world.
Another approach came from James Graves and the Landmark Baptist movement that started in central Tennessee in the middle of the 19th century. Graves argued that the Landmark churches were the Churches of Christ from the first century, and they alone bore this distinction. He appealed to a divinely prescribed pattern for the church in Scripture that defined its organization, worship, ordinances and practices. Following this pattern would produce the “church of Jerusalem” and every other church failed to live up to the standard. He diligently attacked other churches, including “Campbellites” and other Baptist groups.
The authors next examined the 19th century “Christian” movement of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. Both of these men had a Presbyterian background, and they believed the religious establishment created disunity by demanding greater allegiance to a particular creed rather than Christ. They believed that a return to the Bible as the only creed would produce the type of unity that would usher in the millennial reign of Christ. The New Testament was a collection of facts, and they collected these facts with an inductive approach to establish the truth on a given subject. They allowed the facts to speak for themselves with little to no interpretation, establishing the truth with scientific precision. Following the pattern would produce the church of the New Testament.
The last group considered by Hughes and Allen are the Mormons, which occurred around the same time as the Restoration Movement of Campbell and Stone. With a disdain for pluralism that rivaled the other primitivists, Joseph Smith purportedly started to receive divine revelation after asking the question about which church was right. The Mormons borrowed heavily from restoration concepts and ideas, attempting to get back to the primordium for all things. They did not seek to restore any one particular age. Rather, they saw particulars in different ages of Israel and the church as approaching God’s ultimate truth. They wanted to commune with the infinite rather than mere approximations in different ages. They saw the restoration of spiritual gifts, including latter day revelation, as a major component in this restoration.
I was less aware of how much these ideas were part of the American experience and naturally seeped into the religious efforts and goals of the day. The Restoration Movement is one of the few religious movements that was completely born in the American frontier. America has been founded with the belief that its form of government, economy and civilization was derived from the principles of nature. They are natural and universal principles that all other countries and civilizations should accept. With these beliefs in hand, they often practiced aggressive expansion with military might, trampling inferior and less civilized cultures and governments. The superior American and Christian way of doing things was used to justify the treatment of the Native American “savages” and expand imperial interests during the Spanish-American War. These concepts continue to this day in America’s ambivalence in foreign policy. Today, there are still efforts to force capitalism and democracy on others in the name of freedom.
The authors note make a few main points throughout the book.
- First of all, there were many different primitivistic approaches in the early American context. They all sought restoration to a purer, earlier time, but they emphasized different aspects of restoration and created different models for the primitive church.
- The attempt to go back to the primordium creates a sense of “historylessness.” Many primitivists deny that they even have a history, or if it is acknowledged, they consider it unimportant. The intervening period between the beginning and the present day was a period of corruption. For this reason, they want to skip back to the beginning, downplaying their history in the process.
- Primitivists often started their movement as an attempt to attain freedom by escaping the shackles of corrupted and powerful institutions. Over time, their movement approached narrowly defined beliefs and practices that were strictly enforced. The particular system of primitivism was promoted and defended as much as the earlier creeds that had been criticized.