If you get CHI’s daily emails about this day in Christian history, you won’t have missed the fact that the June 4 quote is from a very popular person around here lately—Francis Asbury. In it, he bemoans the state of religion in New England, at least as he saw it, on his first visit there on June 4, 1791: “We are now in Connecticut; and never out of sight of a house; and sometimes we have a view of many churches and steeples, built very neatly of wood; either for use, ornament, piety, policy or interest—or it may be some of all these. I do feel as if there had been religion in this country once; and I apprehend there is a little in form and theory left.”
Asbury’s view of religion had not nearly as much use for steeples as it had for an intense experience of piety and power: “Could these people be brought to constant, fervent prayer,” he added, “the Lord would come down and work wonders among them.” As he rode through the American landscape (he probably rode in his lifetime over 130,000 miles and preached once every three days) his preaching, and the disciplined organization of Methodist laypeople he left in his wake, transformed the fabric of the new nation.
Despite our stereotype of early America as a faith-full society, it was in fact in many ways and places not so much. Religious ties from the “old country” had broken. Many people lived in isolated places where the law had not yet reached but crime and lawlessness had. Popular recreations included some of a, shall we say, very irreligious kind. Asbury and his followers changed all that. And they changed American religion, too. Emotional worship? Personal devotion? Expectation of dramatic encounters with God? A sense of fellowship that approached dwelling on the borders of heaven? Early Methodists had all of that and more. Sometimes they built churches with steeples too, like this one and this one. But their focus was on the prayer as much as the steeples.
We are actually demanding a church that is dependent on empire, that is served by kingdoms and governments. We want a church that needs to have all other activities banned during its worship. We long for a church that needs its prayers taught in schools and that seeks power by influencing political leaders…..As if the church lives and dies by us. Christ’s church has been around for 2000 years. It began by spending 300 years on the margins of a religiously plural world. It was subsumed into being the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire. It has been nearly blown by up schism. Almost over-run by the empires of other faiths. It has crusaded and begun terrible holy wars. It has been cracked and splintered by reformation. It has been challenged to its core by renaissance and scientific revolution. The church has survived all of that, against all odds. But now our social angst and apathy, and our institutional intractability is going to finally put the church out of its misery? Because we cannot be the church of empire or let social structures do our evangelism for us, the church will just fade away?
A declining church does not equal a declining God….So maybe, just maybe, this declining stuff… this dying stuff that the church is doing… is just what always comes right before empty tombs and being known in breaking bread.
Our situation is not all that different from the one confronting Asbury. And when faced with it, Asbury didn’t succumb to hand-wringing. (As one of my friends said when I shared Parker’s column on Facebook, “All the hand-wringing in the world won’t accomplish what ten minutes of prayer will do.”) Instead, he prayed, and then he got on his horse. He went out to seek and to save, to preach and to organize, and to tell people that they could know the risen Christ in the empty tomb and in the breaking of bread.
Read more about Asbury and his followers in Christian History #114.