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On Jordan's Stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye,
to Canaan's fair and happy land, where my possessions lie.
I am bound for the Promised Land, yes I am.
I am bound for the Promised Land.
O who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

Early settlers on the American frontier sang that song at camp meetings, revivals and church services across the frontier. While the words are identified with Protestant hymnody, the sentiments easily could be applied to many of those Christians, Protestant and Catholic, who braved the frontier's "howling wilderness" to stake out a new life in a new world. Indeed, the words carry a double meaning. While they declare the wondrous joy of the world to come, they also betray a decided air of this-worldliness. For those who came west, whether they sang about crossing Jordan or the Venite Creator of Catholic hymnody, the stormy banks were as real as the swirling Ohio and the Promised Land as immediate as Nelson, Scott, and yes, even a place called Bourbon county, Kentucky.

The Protestants in this crowd were heirs of the Reformation that swept the 16th century church, divided it once, twice, and then innumerable times for the next 500 years (and counting). Reformation principles were enunciated by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and assorted Radical Reformer/Anabaptists, most of whom were burned or drowned before many people could learn their names. These included the classic ideals of sola fide (faith alone), sola scriptura (scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone). Church was where the word was preached and the sacraments rightly observed (Calvinists added discipline, being good Calvinists). Luther's doctrine of the priesthood of all believers shaped Protestant dogmas concerning the role of the laity and the vocation of the clergy for multiple denominations. Indeed, one great legacy of Protestantism was the denomination, its roots in 16th century Europe, but burgeoning among the English Puritans of the 17th century, transported to the American colonies where it became the religious order of the day. Indeed, with the Constitution and its first amendment for religious liberty, the denomination became the chief means of organizing religion in the United States. Denominations, centered in Protestant principles, applied those principles in specific ways, with great diversity, competition, and a growing sense of identity. Denominations became ways of identifying the one form of the Protestant mission, one expression of the church among the many churches. If the Reformation introduced important ideas about theology and practice to the church, creating transition, controversy, organization and reorganization to the Christian communities, so did America, especially the American frontier. America became a seed bed for sects (s-e-c-t-s). (I threw that in for all you pastoral care types.) The frontier confronted American churches with major challenges for developing and passing on identity in a brand-new environment, a long way from Europe, and from Boston.

Thus, my thesis with you this evening is this: The Protestant Reformation helped define Christianity for great numbers of Europeans and Americans. The American frontier called Protestants to redefine and reorganize to fit a new context. We are in the midst of another frontier that is also creating transition and the need for redefinition in ways not seen since the post-constitutional period, the opening of the frontier, and the development of denominations as the primary way of organizing religious communities in America.

Two important events shaped the religious life of the frontier from that day to this: For Protestants it was the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting, a gathering of 10,000-20,000 people near what is now Paris, KY. Held in August of 1801, Cane Ridge was a revival meeting which shaped evangelical Protestantism for Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Disciples of Christ. From its religious fervor and spiritual enthusiasm new converts established churches throughout the region.

Likewise, the establishment of a cathedral at Bardstown in 18O6 had a similar impact on frontier Catholicism. That cathedral became the mother church of innumerable communities of faith throughout the "American Holy Land," as Father Clyde Crews describes Bardstown and its neighboring communities, a center of Catholicism in frontier Kentucky. Churches—Protestant and Catholic—confronted the challenge of the frontier, an environment in which old ways of deve1oping institutions, forming spirituality, appealing to constituents, and mediating, dare we say it, "family values," did not, could not, always work. Religious communities were on their own, faced with a new context for being the church and living the gospel.

The American frontier, was a pretty rough place in the early days of the 19th century. Liquor sold for as little as 25 cents a gallon and flowed freely at births, weddings, barn-raisings, at the local stores and every social gathering. Its abuse led to shootings, beatings and other social problems. Invented, many suggest, by a Baptist preacher named Elijah Craig, it was the chief money crop in many parts of Kentucky. Church members often pledged barrels of whiskey to pay their preachers and their priests.

Alcohol was often the source of violent fights—no holds barred wrestling matches as they came to be called. One observed noted that "tearing, kicking, scratching, biting and gouging each other's eyes out by dexterous use of thumb and finger" was all too common. Another settler commented: "A little whiskey and a few squirts of tobacco juice are indispensable. If there is a fellow a little more greasy and dirty than another, be sure to hug him. All this and you will be a popular man." Peter Cartwright, the Methodist circuit rider, described Logan county Kentucky as a Rogues' Harbor, full of cutthroats, murderers and thieves. And those were only the Republicans. Methodists were formidable. Their circuit riders were everywhere. One frontier saying described terrible weather thusly: "Its so cold today there's nobody out but the crows and the Methodist preachers." A defender of frontier Catholicism observed: "One Methodist preacher would do more mischief in this colony than a dozen thieves." Methodists sang their faith boldly in songs like this:

The world, the Devil, and Tom Paine
Have tried their worst but all in vain.
They can't prevail, the reason is,
the Lord defends the Methodists.
They sing and pray and preach the best
and do the devil most molest.
If Satan had his vicious way
he'd kill and damn them all today.
I'm bound to march in endless bliss
and die a shouting Methodist.

We Baptists met the Methodist challenge with a hymnody of our own:

 

Not AT the Jordan River,
But IN the flowing stream,
Stood John the Baptist preacher,
When he baptized HIM.
John was a Baptist preacher,
when he baptized the Lamb,
So Jesus was a Baptist,
and thus the Baptists came.

Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics debated each other forcefully wherever they could draw a crowd. Infant baptism was a frequent topic at such debates. Peter Cartwright, the Methodist preacher, declared that Baptists made so much over baptism by immersion that one would suppose that heaven was an island and the only way to get there was by swimming. Lyman Beecher, Protestant patriarch and father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and twelve other Beechers, was so concerned about the "Catholic threat" that he issued a "Plea for the west," imploring Protestant preachers to move west lest Catholics sweep down from Canada across the Ohio River val1ey and cut a swath of popery down the center of the continent. Beecher wondered out loud about the moral state of the new region. His rhetoric got away from him as he declared: "There is no danger that our agriculture and arts will not prosper: the danger is, that our intelligence and virtue will falter and fall back into a dark minded, vicious populace—a poor, uneducated reckless mass of infuriated animalism, to rush on resistless as the tornado, or to burn as if set on fire of hell." (God's New Israel, 127) Catholics likewise were alarmed by the Protestant impact on the faithful. Church leaders fretted over the shortage of priests, indifference toward church attendance and the loss of faith evident among immigrants. One bishop despaired: "Deprived of all religious assistance, almost never seeing the missionaries, a very large number of Catholic émigrés from Europe end up by entirely forgetting all practice of religion and fall into a mortal indifference." "Their children," he continued, "raised in ignorance or drawn into the Protestant schools, then enter by marriage into Protestant families whose errors they adopt." (Doian 8-9) Even into the 1840s another prelate warned: "The widespread heresy of our land, and its vast efforts of progagandism, the mixture of Catholics with Protestants especially in parts seldom visited by a priest, the growing materialism of the age...are causes that still operate largely to the disadvantage of religion, and call for the most vigorous measures to oppose their influence." (Dolan, 23)

So it was in 19th century frontier settlements—rough and rugged, violent and controversial; uncharted both geographically and religiously. Some said it was a paradise; others said it was barbaric. Many thought it was both.

Two hundred years later, we stand on the threshold of a new century, and, it seems, a new frontier no less fearful and challenging than the earlier one. The differences are clear, the similarities intriguing. Our frontier is primarily urban, not rural; it is characterized by crowded cities, not frontier expanse—both of which can be places of isolation. Its people are linked by interstates, cellular phones and home shopping channels, not by horses, wagons, or circuit riders. The naivete of 19th century democratic idealism has given way to more mature, sometimes cynical, democratic realism.

But there are also commonalties of purpose and concern. Today's citizens still seek housing for themselves and their families—a prospect often as elusive in American towns and cities today as on its prairies long ago. Like those people, we confront violence as real as handguns—our weapons are often semi-automatic, not muzzle-loaded, however—a citizenry which seems at times armed to the teeth; frontier violence has not been contained in our supposedly more enlightened Promised Land; loneliness and anonymity lurk in urban apartments just as in frontier log cabins.

While education seems more attainable in our culture than in theirs, it is no less elusive to many of our children. Many children and adults in our world cannot read any better than folks on the frontier.

Protestants and Catholics in the frontier environment felt compelled to compete with each other. Indeed, Protestants competed among themselves for the souls and minds of the frontier people. In our urban frontiers we no longer have the luxury of such competition. The task is too great, the time too short for us to revive old hatreds and religiously motivated abuses. Let us have done with religious wars and the rhetoric that spawns them. We have come a long way but we have a long way to go.

In such a day, with such a challenge, some Catholics in l9th century frontier Kentucky built cathedrals, first in Bardstown, then in Louisville. Protestants—Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians and others—moved from campmeetings to meeting houses in rural and county seat areas throughout the South. In doing that they created what we might call "sacred space," a place where the challenge of the frontier might be confronted. It was a community built on Ohio's sometimes stormy banks looking to the Promised Land of the coming Kingdom but also attempting, audaciously perhaps, to provide a taste of that promise here and now.

Cathedrals, meeting houses, denominations, provided sacred place for persons and religion is about place. There really is no generic religion, without specificity. Good religion may transcend place, but it cannot escape it either. Place, region, and locale, whether geographical or spiritual, give form and substance to religion.

Catherine Albanese suggests that: "a regional religion...is born of natural geography, of past and present human history, and of the interaction of the two. In such regionalism, the common landscape becomes not just an external condition, but also an internal influence, transforming the way people view both ultimate and everyday reality."

Sacred space is at once vulnerable and unpredictable. Finding and maintaining it is serious, messy business. As Tom Driver notes, such sacred space is both "literal and metaphoric." Jonathan Smith calls sacred space a "focusing lens" by which "the ordinary... becomes significant, becomes sacred, simply by being there. It becomes sacred by having our attention directed to it in a special way." Sacred places differ from ordinary places because they carry a meaning beyond themselves.

Nowhere is this idea more evident than in the life and writings of Thomas Merton. Merton applied the theology of place to the Trappist monastery of Gethsemane, writing on one of his first visits: "This is the center of America. I had wondered what was holding the country together, what has been keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart. It is places 1ike this monastery...This is the only real city in America—and it is, by itself, in the wilderness. It is an axle around which the whole country blindly turns, and knows nothing about it. What right have I to be here?" For Merton, Gethsemane was at once a geographic location and a spiritual experience efficacious even for those who did not know its whereabouts. Merton himself occupied that monastic place and is forever associated with it. Yet as a mystic and spiritual friend to millions, Merton moved beyond the boundaries of the monastery.

If Merton's writings suggest the importance of a specific location, historian Samuel Hill has long reflected on the role of an entire region, the American South, in shaping religious identity. Twenty years ago or more, Hill wrote that the "religion of the Southern People and their culture have been linked by the tightest bonds. That culture, particularly in its moral aspects could not have survived without a legitimating impetus provided by religion..."

But even the South is changing. Sociologist Wade Clark Roof suggests that there may be an "enduring South," but it is neither static nor unchanging. Indeed, he concludes that "no longer can an intact southern religious culture be simply assumed." Clearly, religion in the South, as in other regions, has become more generically American in the last decade. All regions of the country, and most religious traditions have been impacted by what seems the Wal-Marticization of the American republic in which everything from rock videos to shopping malls contribute to a generic national culture. (They even have tractor pulls in Boston, these days.)

Thus we acknowledge that religion in America is in a state of transition, in a sense we are living between the times, experiencing the end of one era and the beginning of another. In many respects we occupy a position similar to our forbearers at the beginning of the 19th century. In that day forces of democracy and freedom reshaped irrevocably religious and political life in the new nation.

What, then will religion look like toward the new millennium? Sociologists Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney suggest five demographic trends already underway. They include:

  • First, the Roman Catholic population in America will "at least remain level and will probably rise."
  • Second, Judaism "faces severe demographic challenges" due to a declining population. (Jews are 2 percent of the population and declining.)
  • Third, "black Protestantism should continue to grow numerically and increase in importance as a societal force."
  • Fourth, they predict that churches of the so-called mainline denominations "will continue to lose ground both in numbers and in social power and influence." Conservative/evangelical churches will continue to grow, often because the relative youthfulness portends lower death rates, continued above average numbers of births, and, compared to liberals, favorable switching patterns among the younger populations.
  • Finally, they conclude that the nonaffiliated sector will probably continue to increase throughout the population. They observe that "The number of Americans growing up outside the major religious traditions is increasing, which suggests the likelihood of an even larger, more distinct secular constituency in the future."

In a related study Roof suggested that non affiliation involved the following numbers: 53 percent in the west, 45 percent in the east, 43 percent in the Midwest, and 41 percent in the South. He observes that a growing number of Americans seem to be "believers but not belongers" when it comes to institutional religion. Even those who participate in religious communities wear their allegiances loosely. Sociologists and historians generally agree that fewer and fewer religious Americans perceive their primary religious identity in terms of a specific denomination. Today, religious and secular media alike chart elements of the demise of the denomination or at least the presence of a post-denominational era. I, for one, would not write denominations off too quickly. Denominationally related churches remain the chief doors to ordination and ministry, ministerial placement, and, oh, yes, annuity. What we might suggest is that denominations are not the only ecclesiastical game in town, options in an ever increasing landscape of religious institutions, organizations and networks.

The loss, breakup, or fragmentation of denominational networks, however, has serious implications for religious institutions across the U.S. For example, denominations provided ways of organizing religious communities, passing on identity, linking individuals and congregations in educational, benevolent, missionary, and evangelistic efforts. They provided a means of identifying specific theological and liturgical traditions while creating mechanisms for passing on such identity to successive generations. They established institutions of higher learning, hospitals, and agencies for facilitating churches' individual and collective ministry. Given that those systems are breaking down, what will replace them in carrying out necessary functions and inculcating identity?

While the transitions in denominations may reflect the existence of a kind of popular ecumenism which transcends old sectarian boundaries, it may also indicate that consumerism has a religious as well as a secular dimension in American life. Roof and McKinney write that "Modern America thus creates for believers a situation quite different from that found in more traditional settings. Less and less bound to an inherited faith, an individual is in a position of 'shopping around' in a consumer market of religious alternatives and can 'pick and choose' among aspects of belief and tradition." Persons, Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, move through varying traditions and back again . Thus religious communities cannot take for granted that worshippers understand symbols, signs, sacraments and teachings.

Any discussion of changing religious communities cannot overlook the role of the so-called megachurches already exercising a powerful ecclesiastical presence across the nation. Megachurches are congregations that manifest a membership of several thousand persons, provide various specialized services for target subgroups, are led by a charismatic pastor/CEO, and are organized around specific, intentional marketing techniques. Megachurches are mini-denominations, offering through one congregation services of education, mission, publishing and outreach which previously came through denominational networks. Most wear their denominational affiliations loosely if at all. Many intentionally eschew old organizational methods and labels. Some newly constructed facilities seem more like shopping malls than cathedrals, creating comfortable space for seeker/consumers uncomfortable with more traditional religious place. Many are aimed at seekers, those who have no background in religious life and are searching for something, uncomfortable with old, traditional rituals and forms of religious life. They set agendas of worship and method for religious traditions throughout the U. S.

These trends in the denominations have not left theological education unaffected. Seminaries and divinity schools from Harvard to Church of God Cleveland, Tennessee, are experiencing a changing constituency in the churches and their own student bodies. This profile involves an older student—32-35 is now the average age for a seminarian in the U.S. Many are second career folks or individuals "considering" a religious vocation. Many have family or employment responsibilities which demand only part-time student status. Student bodies still have their share of white males, but significant proportions are ethnically diverse, with significant female populations. Most wear their denominational alliances loosely. Denominational down-sizing, financial exigencies, and other factors mean that support for theological education is difficult to discover or maintain. The future of numerous theological institutions, old and new, is shaky or at least problematic toward the new century.

Megachurches, the decline of denominational loyalty, changes in theological education, the increase of non affiliation raise questions of identity, place and tradition on the way to a new century. In the quest for identity we might consider issues of theology, community and ritual. First, questions of theology will continue to divide, invigorate, shape and chal1enge the church and the churches. Frontier Protestants and Catholics debated each other over questions of baptism, salvation, authority, church and state. Many of the issues remain with us, indeed, are ever a part of the life of the church. As a Baptist in the South, I can attest to the damage, the turmoil, indeed the dysfunction which doctrinal debates have created within the Baptist family during my experience as a teacher. Nonetheless, in many respects they "go with the territory." Communities are ever formed and re-formed around great ideas, profound truths, and controversial actions. Sadly, our dealing with such matters often leads to pettiness, to cruelty and a desire not simply to debate, but to destroy, our theological adversaries.

Here the early Baptists in England and America may be good models for us. The Baptists, thrown out of Puritan/Christian Massachusetts, founded Rhode Island as a colony where complete religious freedom was available for orthodox, heretic, and atheist alike. Roger Williams and others debated Quakers, Jews and Catholics as to the veracity of their ideas, but they all lived next door to each other, freely and openly. All this at a time when the Christian commonwealth of Massachusetts was exiling Baptists, and hanging Quakers on Boston Common in the name of theological orthodoxy.

Toward the future we need to nurture environments where we can debate important ideas, but not burn anybody. Questions of authority, Biblical and Ecclesiastical, of faith and baptism, male and female, biology and ethics divide our country and our region. We cannot ignore those ideas but we must continually find places, moments, and methods for addressing them.

Theological seminaries and divinity schools might again reassert their role as sacred or at least safe places for theological dialogue and communication for students and churches alike. Here, may we say, that Wayne Oates anticipated certain necessary, indeed inevitable trends in theological education long ago. Not only did he establish pastoral care within the body of divinity in theological speculation and practice in this country, but he also saw the need to link the theological education with the broader disciplines of medicine, psychology, and with sidekick Henlee Barnette, ethics. Like Mohammed's move from Mecca to Medina, Oates' move from Southern Baptist Seminary to the University of Louisville, signaled a new way of understanding religious life and thought in a broader context, carrying theological dialogue and action into the market place of other disciplines. Cross disciplinary theological education, linking various communities and disciplines is essential toward the new century.

Second, like our frontier forbearers, we can discover ways to renew and reaffirm community. In a recent book on the images of religion in America, Robert Ferm, professor of Religion at Middlebury college, suggests that contemporary Christians should renew their concerns for Christian community. He writes that, "What we have lost is a sense of community, the fundamentally corporate nature of our common humanity." Such community offers persons a place of acceptance and understanding but also provides a place to stand from which to confront personal and corporate issues of human life. This identity should not turn individuals inward on themselves but outward on the world. Ferm notes insightfully; "We are one world, and the task of the Christian is to find a way to express a distinctive way of being in the midst of conflicting paths and loyalties, yet one that does not claim an undeserved universality." Such a community, he says affirms a gospel that is best understood as "testimony to weakness and power, to deprivation and strength, to a costly global view of our common salvation without platitudes or painless pap."

Faith always carries a personal dimension but it never exists apart from the community of faith. Roof and McKinney note that "membership stability is not a matter of liberal or conservative theology. " Rather, "stability appears to be more a reflection of communal belonging." Community offers sanctuary in the best sense, not as a place to hide from the world, but to find courage to cope with the world.

Third, a community understands and articulates its identity best through a specific tradition expressed in rituals. Toward the next century, American sinners, like other regional sinners, might choose to look beyond corpse cold propositionalism and superficial pop-spirituality, turning toward movements which nurture transcendence and mystery within the context of an intentional religious community. Samuel Hill describes such communities as those which enable persons "to encounter transcendence within ordinary experience."

Tom Driver writes that "A ritual is moral territory, sometimes secular, sometimes religious, that has been staked out. Ritual marks the boundary at which wilderness, moral desert, or profane life stop." He suggests that "rituals mark locations in time and in space, but they do so in order to define ethical behavior. A ritual is a party at which emotions are welcome. If the emotions are too strong, threatening to swamp the party, the ritual scenario can be used to guide and moderate them; and if the emotions are too weak, draining the event of its energy, the ritual can invoke them, like spirits to be present, through the use of rhythm, display, and other summoning techniques."

All religious communities need and create ritual. Catholic liturgy, Quaker silence, and Pentecostal glossolalia are rituals which shape specific communities of faith in our midst to this day. Two decades ago Morton Kelsey reminded us that "ritual actions" speak to the total person, warning that to view them only with the "logical mind' was to miss something of their transforming power. He wrote that "The two most vital rituals of the church are the communion or Mass, and baptism. We can do no greater disservice to modern man than to try to rationalize these services. The trouble is not that sacramental, ritual actions are outmoded, but that modern man is primitive religiously ... He needs the services of the church, its rituals, to pull him back to life and meaning. He needs those that are intimate and informal, and also the numinous sacraments which arouse the mythical and the archetypal depths within ...."

Rituals overtake us all our lives, when we are looking or when we're not. Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, our church place for four years, packed with 700 African Americans, and us, on a given Sunday morning. There our family learned the ritual of raising our hands in praise to God at the morning choral/congregational prayer hymn. It was a ritual these cerebral white folks would never have accepted in white congregations, leading us with new brothers and sisters, closer to grace. In the Cathedral of the Assumption, Louisville, where I served on a history committee in preparation for the renovation of the wonderful building, I was overpowered two years ago by the celebration of Pentecost with a congregation packed to the rafters with suburban and urban worshippers, in a church built in 1852, almost lost to urban blight, renovated and renewed spiritually and architecturally ready for a new century.

Years ago I was in London with a group of students and on a rainy, stormy Sunday morning we decided to attend worship at St. Martin's in the Fields, an old Anglican church across from Trafalgar Square. Rain poured in buckets throughout the service and when it was over we went to the undercroft for tea. Down there we found the room filled with street people sleeping or eating in that dry place. A student commented insightfully: "Sometimes the church is simply a place to come in out of the rain." And so it is. The church offers the love of Christ in many ways, doesn't it, spoken and unspoken, a safe place for saint and sinner alike, no strings attached.

All with no greater calling than that which Jesus himself articulated in St. Luke's gospel: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord' s favor."

I'd build cathedrals and churches on that, wouldn't you? Opening their doors to the sounds and struggles of the 21st century. Singing out to a new millennium an old, old song of hope:

I am bound for Promised Land, yes I am
O who will come and go with me,
I am bound for the Promised Land.