Old Times


Some time ago, Pr. Beisel wrote about Lutheranism’s struggle against “The Old Tyme Religion.” He wrote, “This is one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of American culture, and it is the reason why Lutherans, at least those of the Hypo-European bent like myself, will always be lonely, will always be unpopular, will always be “Roman.” (“What We’re Up Against”)

Old-Time Religion has a big family Bible on a stand right next to an American flag. Old-Time Religion boasts of “heart-warming hymns,” like “Sweet Hour of Prayer;” “I’ll Fly Away;” “Does Jesus Care;” “Love Lifted Me;” “Beulah Land” and so forth. Old-time religion is what passed for churchin’ on the radio before television, and what was church for many, a mix of God and Country, Morals and hard work, a heart-warming for the hard-working.

Old-Time religion hasn’t died. It changed stripes, it metamorphosed into Evangelicalism of some sort, transferring the heart-warming “over yonder in heaven” with “my dearest sweet Jesus” of the love songs for Christ. No longer about “that strand beyond,” but more of comfort today, the country twangs and sliding thirds replaced with soft-rock sixths and drum machines.

This is American Christianity, a Christianity founded upon the individual, upon emotions and escapism, upon the economic misfortune of the late 19th and early 20th centuries coupled with an ironic belief in the progress of man. It is a Christianity of me and Jesus alone, a Christianity of shedding behind this mortal coil and “flying away” to a land where we can fish and farm and hunt in the great zephyr beyond. A Christianity of sentiment but no sacrament.

Obviously it bears but some resemblance to the Christianity that existed for two millennia previously. It’s a folk expression of Christianity that all too often replaced genuine Christianity.

6 comments on “Old Times

  1. We have a slightly different take on that here: not so much a mythical Golden Age as the new Folk-Christianity which is largely subscribed to by the unchurched and is an a-la-carte mixture of whatever takes your fancy from a variety of Christian, Eastern and New Age philosophies.

    Religion is alive and well in Britian, its just not necessarily recognisable as a conventional faith.

  2. This sounds so creepy when you type it out loud! But I completely agree with your observation regarding the metamorphasis.

    I have to admit that “old tyme religion” pretty much bypassed me in my little world…being raised Roman Catholic and then marrying Lutheran. However, I caught glimpses of it in two specific cases. When I was in the 9th grade we moved to Kansas. I was the new kid in an area where most of the kids had grown up together. To better integrate and meet more friends I joined (with my priest’s permission) Rainbow Girls…a “girl” spinoff of the Masonic Lodge / Eastern Star and got my first taste of the “Old Tyme Religion” thing. Much later…it started to sneak in at a couple of the Lutheran churches we attended in its newer evangelical form. “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs are the absolute unforgivable worst!

    So how did this happen? Perhaps it has to do with losing the sacred…the saints, the sacraments. Once sacred things are tossed the best religion can be is a form of the culture. And in the US…that would be “me”, pulling myself up by my bootstraps….and Jesus?

  3. Doorman-priest: Thanks for your observations from across the pond. I was thinking of you when I was writing, trying not to make the dual mistake of Americanizing the world, nor of being a self-loather.

    Dixie: Good to see you comment here again! I’m horrified your priest allowed you to join the Rainbow Girls. Good observation, though, on the confluence between Old-Time and the Masons.

  4. In the deep south, “old tyme religion” is still very much alive and remains distinct from the modern evangelical movement that is slowly replacing it.

    Even though they come from the same folk-emotionalism roots, modern evangelicalism has the same struggle with “old tyme religion” that it does with other traditionalists. The Purpose Driven Church is cutting out their classic hymns just like ours.

    I helped convert an “old tyme religion” church to the modern evangelical system. There was a great deal of resistance and animosity. They remain greatly opposed to each other and the congregation-splitting conflicts fall along largely generational lines. They view it as a conflict between conservative and progressive movements inside of the church, but it is really a battle between progressive and more progressive.

    I trace all of this back to the enlightenment that helped found this great nation and the strong Deist roots that are still present in American patriotism (which can be found in the philosophies of men like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine just to name a few.)

    It was Rationalism and Diesm that gave birth to the model for the American Christian and the political activism of both movements can still be seen in modern evangelical action committees. It is a mindset that determines one’s ethics first and then attributes it to God’s will apart from divine revelation.

    This rugged individualism that stubbornly stood against tyranny and looked upon collective hierarchies with suspicion and contempt harkened back to even earlier sentiments from many of the Protestant sects that colonized the Americas to get away from the theological (and physical) oppression of European churches. From her beginning, America has been a skeptic of the historic, organized religion; she has always prized individualistic spirituality. This alarm does not stem from doctrine, but from a fear of losing liberty.

    A prime example of this American mindset was the great opposition that this country experienced to the canidacy of Roman Catholics like John Kennedy… not because they disagree with his theology, but because he might be a stooge for the Pope. Such religion is more patriotic than doctrinal.

    These humanist foundations had a great deal of influence on how Americans view the relationship between God and man. Since her founding, it seems that Americans are fond of reducing God to an abstract concept or ideal to which one must choose to acknowledge and follow on principle. Christianity in America has always been an ethical system of philosophy more than a religion. This “duty to God and Country” is very different from how it is viewed in European nations and it helped to propel American Revivalism.

    It did not stop with the revolutionary generation, the religious patriotism of America amplified the Rationalist tendencies of the European immigrants that arrived at that time and gave birth to the American seeker-sensitive mindset of the “Great Awakening”. It is from this Christo-patriotic legacy that both of the modern movements under discussion draw their heritage and motivation (ex: modernists like Joel Osteen has no cross in his church, but there is an American Flag at the back of the stadium.)

    One movement may play rock music; the other still plays an organ… but what they both hear is the fife and drum that marks a distinctly “American” Christian.

    So, in my humble opinion, modern Evangelicalism is more of a younger brother to “Old Tyme Religion” than a child of it. They stem from the same progressive roots that turned it’s back on Rome, Luther, and the “European” religion in the 1700s if not earlier.

  5. Mike wrote, “One movement may play rock music; the other still plays an organ… but what they both hear is the fife and drum that marks a distinctly “American” Christian.”

    I’m glad you pointed out the modern Evangelical struggle against Old-Time Religion. But I agree with the quote above and your conclusion: Contemporary Evangelicalism and Old-Time are siblings. The style has changed somewhat(as I noted), but the substance is the same.

  6. Pr Hall,

    As usual, your keen insight is right on the money. I was not really disagreeing with your point at all. I was just trying to add to your original thesis.

    The debate that Lutheran orthodoxy has with Contemporary Evangelicalism is a matter of both doctrine and practice. Old Tyme Religion and Contemporary Evangelicalism have the same conflicts. It is important to note that there are differences between these two folk-emotional groups.

    There are more than 50 distinct associations, denominations, and groups of American Baptists alone. So it is important to see the evolution of Contemporary Evangelicalism as more of a coincidental gestalt than an organized, cohesive movement. When one understands that all congregational churches are autonomous units who have total independence and sovereignty, it is obvious that any changes must occur from within the membership of the individual church.

    Alot of people mistakenly think that Contemporary Evangelicalism is a natural evolution of Old Tyme Religion or that there is an organized effort to remake one into the other. I have not found that to be the case. They are siblings of the same error; not parent and child. If Contemporary Evangelicalism naturally grew out of Old Tyme Religion, Rick Warren would not encounter the harsh resistance within the Southern Baptist Convention that he does. Contemporary Evangelicalism’s mindset has more in common with Woodstock than the Old Tyme Religion that it is trying to replace. They are rivals and the competition can get fierce.

    In my own past experience, our church converted to Contemporary Evangelicalism independent of outside influence. Individual members with charismatic leanings (like me) began to exert very gradual changes to correct “out-dated worship.” The congregation did not start using official Purpose Driven material until many years after that conversion was complete. While they hold to Contemporary Evangelicalism today, they did not convert to that mindset through the efforts of an external movement. It was through the independent effort of individual members of the congregation.

    Most of the Fundamentalists within Old Tyme Religion still believe that any English translation of the Bible that is not King James is inherently flawed and cannot be trusted. That does not mesh with the translation-hopping approach of Contemporary Evangelicalism at all. Most Fundamentalists know their favorite hymns by heart. As a Contemporary Evangelical, I hated those hymns and held organ music in contempt. When my praise band performed these old hymns, we always “jazzed” them up with new meters and modern musical instruments. To be honest, we only performed them to, “appease the blue-hairs that would complain if we left them out.” If we could have left them out, we would have abandoned them entirely. As a rebellious youth, I wanted to put as much distance between the modern church and the old (boring) church as possible.

    So the appearance of Contemporary Evangelicalism is just as unwelcome among Old Tyme Religion types as it is among those of us with a European leaning. I have yet to see a church that naturally evolved into Contemporary Evangelicalism. It is a change that must happen by force. Old Tyme Religion is not progressive. So it is not Conservative Orthodoxy versus the Old Tyme Religion that is becoming Contemporary Evangelicalism. It is a three-way conflict: Conservative Orthodoxy versus Conservative Old Tyme Religion versus Progressive Contemporary Evangelicalism.

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