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.