Thursday, March 14, 2013

Remembering Sidney Mead's The Lively Experiment

This essay was written in 1992 when I was living in Provo, Utah doing research on the sociology of Christianity and the sociology of Mormonism at Brigham Young University. Sidney Mead, who I met in the mid-1970s when he was a visiting scholar at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, is one of the most important historians of American Christianity. His book, The Lively Experiment, which I was reading for the first time and out of which this essay arose, is one of the most important books in American Christian history. Everyone and anyone with an interest in the social captivity of the Christian church should read it and ask him or her self what impact the American experience has had on Christianity, a religion that claims to be universal in doctrine and practise but, of course, isn't. the Jan Shipps book I mention at the end of this appreciation, by the way, was the book that made me want to go into Mormon Studies.

In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s Sidney Mead was one of the masters, if not the master, of American church history and a historically infused American Christian theology. The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (1963), largely a collection of significant articles he published in the 50s and 60s, was one and remains one of the most important books written in American religious history during those years.

The essays in The Lively Experiment explore how Christianity became peculiarly American and how America became singularly Christian, specifically Protestant, in the years between the 1600s and the early 1900s. Mead argues that Christian pietism allied with Enlightenment rationalism helped to bring about that unique variety of religious freedom in the United States in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. America became a land of denominations, each without state support, and each competing for members on the free and open member market. Equally importantly The Lively Experiment describes the process by which Pietism realigned with traditional religion, what remained of Orthodox, Old Light, Puritanism to stave off the "irreligious" influence of deist (and sometimes not so deist) rationalism.

Both of these processes, claims Mead, brought into existence a religious culture of voluntary religious organisations, denominations, who had to compete for members in a free market situation. No American denonimation, in other words had nation-state assistance in their quest to conquer America for Jesus. This situation, this interaction between Christianity and democracy, gave rise to a situation in which religion and political economy, democratic capitalism, came to be regarded by most churches as coextensive. Christian theology in the United States thus can be seen as a support for and elaboration of the Puritan concept of the "city on a hill" in which America became a beacon to the world, the instrument through which the earth will be Christianised, i.e., made into a world of Christian democratic capitalist states. As Mead notes, an oppositional theology developed to this more laissez-faire "Gospel of Wealth" in which financial gain was seen as a sign of God's favour and this wealth was to be stewarded to help the "worthy poor", the "Social Gospel". The "Social Gospel" proclaimed the good news that good Christians were to work in the slums of decadent cities to recover souls for Christ. The former is the more conservative free-market variant of American classical liberalism, the latter the ameliorating non-laissez-faire variety of the same liberalism. American Christianity, as Mead notes, wasn't only divided between those who proclaimed the Gospel of Wealth and those who proclaimed the good news of the Social Gospel. Liberal Christians over time adapted to and adopted many of the ideologies of science and American Progressivism. Those opposed to this adaptation and adoption of scientific and progressive values eventually became America's Protestant Fundamentalists. All, as Mead notes, were specific adaptations to the American environment.

It is hard even today not to be impressed with Mead's historical analysis, his attention to symbol and ideology, and his attention to the political and economic factors which interact with them changing both in the process. An application of a similar approach can be seen in Jan Shipps' analysis of the transformations that occurred in Mormon symbology (Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, 1987) when Mormonism, faced with the political, economic, and cultural pressure the U.S. brought to bear on the Church, had to drop plural marriage and theocracy ideologies or theologies. What impressed me most about The Lively Experiment, however, was Mead's analysis of the Americanisation of Christianity. Clearly, as Mead notes, most American denominations view America as in some way the promised land of the chosen people. And that has made American Christianity very American and probably less Christian. Not being a Christian I will leave this last issue to the faithful. For Mead, as much of a theologian as a historian, the solution to the cultural captivity of Christianity, was for Christian theology to be adaptive to the new scientific-technocratic-urban situation in the United States, for, in other words, a Christianity that was captive to history and to science.

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