Sister Aimee and the “Anabaptist Nation”

"Sister Aimee" McPherson

I heard an interesting description of how American Christianity effectively developed into a form of Anabaptism. Dr. R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (WSC), was interviewed this past week on Christ the Center podcast episode #157 regarding his contribution to Always Reformed, a festschrift that has recently been published in honor of WSC President and Professor of Church History, Dr. Robert Godfrey (see Dr. Clark’s post here). From what I’ve been able to gather over the past couple of years, Dr. Godfrey is an earnest student of the phenomenon of Sister Aimee McPherson’s ministry in the 1920’s, and holds her up as an example of what American Christianity is. Clark’s chapter is entitled, “Magic and Noise: Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America.” To some extent, it seems that this very subject of the Anabaptistic flavor of American Christianity is at the heart of this chapter, as may be inferred by the chapter’s title itself.

About twenty-two minutes into the interview, Clark introduces this topic by urging the study of “Sister” (as she is wont to be called) on Reformed believers. He does this because, according to Clark, in many ways McPherson’s type of Christianity is more indicative of the nature of American Christianity than the Reformed faith can lay claim to anymore. America has come a long way since the faith of the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock and the Salem witch trials (which is probably all Americans remember about those early Christian settlers (for help with that, listen to this and this). Clark believes that the Reformed would be aided in reaching America for Christ, and American evangelicals for the Reformed faith if they would see themselves more as cross-cultural missionaries, rather than natives.

Dr. Clark offers the disclaimer that his Anabaptist diagnosis of American Christianity is largely due to the fact that his primary field of research is the sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformation, rather than early twentieth century Christianity. He admits that in part he is interpreting the McPherson phenomenon and the nature of “native” American Christianity in the light of the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement, but he does attempt to support his conclusion with appeals to others who have written more extensively on Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

There are parallels between the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century and current American Christianity. Clark explains that people tend to think of the Anabaptist movement as just another facet of the Protestant Reformation, but he points out that the Anabaptists (also known as “Radical Reformers”) more or less “rejected all of the key doctrinal commitments” of the Protestant Reformation in favor of much more radical positions. Clark’s thesis is that the way American Christians commonly think about the nature of authority, epistemology (how we know what we know), Scripture and its authority, the church and eschatology (the doctrine of the end times) often bears strong resemblance to sixteenth and seventeenth century Anabaptism. Dr. Clark goes into a little more detail on this in the interview between minutes 33:15 and 42:06.

This portion of the interview caught my attention because Clark’s comparison is consistent with a conclusion I came to in my own personal pilgrimage from independent Baptist fundamentalism to Reformed theology and practice. After learning that the ultimate source of the bulk of historic Baptist theology comes from the Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (see my newly updated “Creeds, etc.” page), and the parallels I saw between Baptist distinctives and the historic Anabaptist movement, I concluded that everything that’s right in the Baptist tradition was learned from the Reformed tradition, and everything that’s wrong in the Baptist tradition was learned, or “caught,” if you will, from Anabaptism. I realize that the 1689 Baptist Confession disclaims any formal connection between their doctrines and those of the Anabaptists, but the parallels are just too striking to Reformed paedobaptists.

This is why I encourage you to take time to listen to at least this section of the interview, if you don’t have the time or inclination to enjoy all of it. It’ll be thought-provoking time well-spent, if you ask me.

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10 responses

  1. I tried the “Reformed” Baptist thing several years ago. I came to similar conclusion quickly. I also noticed that Baptists tend to use similar language to that of Charismatics and Pentecostals. Language like “the anointing of the Holy Spirit” and the “leading of the Holy Spirit” just sound too much like my Pentecostal past.

    No, thanks. I’ll go with a truly Reformed theology.

    Charlie

  2. Right you are, Charlie. Although I went straight from four-point Arminian Baptist to Presbyterian, bypassing the transition through Reformed Baptist. Baptist life of any variety is just a little too autonomous for me, with all due respect to my Baptist brethren.

  3. Pacifism is one of the core distinctives of Anabaptism. To call American Christianity Anabaptist is laughable.

    1. Pacifism is not all there is to Anabaptism. The Munster Rebellion, in which Anabaptists attempted to establish a communal theocracy in Munster, Germany gave a black eye to the movement as a whole, even though so many others were indeed pacifistic.

      Did you listen to the podcast to which I linked? Dr. Clark elaborates more there in what ways American culture and therefore American Christians tend to parallel some of the tendencies that happen to be evident in historic Anabaptism. In the podcast, Clark appealed to Nathan Hatch’s book, “The Democratization of American Christianity,” and coupled its findings with his own expertise in Reformation-era Anabaptism.

      To be redundant, Clark was not asserting that there was a purposeful effort to study the Anabaptists and attempt to reproduce their principles in American culture, Clark merely sees something of an analogy there. He’s mostly focusing on things like American individualism and how that tends to lead American Christians to divorce their understanding of Scripture from the collective understanding passed down from the best teachers of the past in favor of a radically individualistic and sometimes mystical approach to interpreting Scripture; likewise, Anabaptist groups took approaches that parallel this in their rejection of academic scholarship and sometimes even viewed Scripture as the “dead letter” and focused more on various forms of direct revelation. This and other tendencies are the kinds of things Clark was talking about. You simply can’t disprove his presentation because you find one aspect or another of Anabaptism that isn’t represented.

      Same goes for a hyper-millennarian outlook among many American Christians. Dispensational premillennialism, in fact, was devised by a member of the Plymouth Brethren (a modern Anabaptistic movement), John Nelson Darby. Many American Christians fear that anyone who doesn’t hold to Dispensational Premillennialism is likely guilty of some sort of heresy–that’s how ingrained this Anabaptistic eschatology has affected American Christianity.

      Please, listen to the podcast, and if you’ve got the time, read Hatch’s book.

      Additionally, many unitarians are numbered among America’s founding fathers. Unitarianism looks to historic Anabaptism as part of their heritage. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams come to mind as examples. To say that they had no influence on the philosophical, cultural and political trends in America and therefore American Christianity would be asking too much. At the very least, their influence saw to it that the separation of church and state was a prominent feature in this country.

  4. The term “Anabaptist” refers to a theological mindset that places subjective “leading of the Holy Spirit” and personal revelation above Scripture and a commitment to a confessional statement of faith drawn from Holy Scripture.

    The Pentecostal movement is a good example of a modern Anabaptist mindset. The Oneness Pentecostals split from the Trinitarian Pentecostals when one of them, John G. Shaepe got a revelation at a camp meeting in 1913 in Arroyo Seca, California that the only valid way of being baptized is according to Acts 2:38. From there they then denied the Trinity and adopted an aberrant view of the Incarnation of Christ.

    When we put the emphasis on Scripture and sacrament rather than personal experience there is a safeguard against these kinds of extremes.

    Charlie

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oneness_Pentecostalism

    1. Excellent example, Charlie!

  5. It’s interesting that Dr. Robert Godfrey left the Christian Reformed Church and helped form the United Reformed Church in North America over an encroachment of broad evangelicalism and theological liberalism in the CRC. That’s worth noting in this talk in and of itself.

    Charlie

    1. Yes, indeed, Dr. Godfrey has proven to be part of the solution. May the Lord increase his tribe!

  6. I did listen to the podcast. It was very informative to say the least. I find you blog to be well written and spot on. I’ll be linking to your articles in the future.

    In Christ,

    Charlie

    1. Thanks, Charlie. I appreciate the encouragement. But I was urging Matt to listen to the podcast. I assumed you had.

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