America, Hurricane Bonaparte, and The Papal Bulwark

Around the turn of the 19th century, Europe was still reeling from the hurricane that was Napoleon Bonaparte. He had swept through Europe in the aftermath of the blood-soaked mess that had been the French Revolution, in an attempt to create his own world Empire. Alas, it was not to be and when Napoleon was finally exiled to the Island of Saint Helena Europe breathed a collective sigh of relief and then took a good look around. The fallout was enormous and there was debris everywhere.

As Europe began to rebuild itself socially, politically and economically it began to cast about for some kind of stabilizing safety net. A kind of socio-political or even religious pillar that could bear the weight of the whole. As it turned out Europe grasped the hand of the only pillar it had ever known since the dawn of the Medieval age; the Papacy.

The Papacy, at this juncture, was not in the best shape. Napoleon’s general Louis Berthier had marched into Rome in 1798, taken Pope Pius VI captive and restored the Roman Republic, that had in many respects been a fatal wound to the head of the Papacy. After the Napoleonic wars had ended the Papacy still found itself stripped of much of its power. Much of Europe still looked to the Pope for stability but, unlike Medieval times, Europe as a whole had been through the Reformation.

Many in Europe had studied the Bible for themselves and knew the prophetic interpretations of Daniel put forward by the Reformers which pointed to the Papacy as the Little Horn of Daniel 7 and 8. So while there were some political and social elements in 19th century Europe that still looked to the Papacy for stability it was not something universally acknowledged.

Movers and Shakers: The Protestant Revivals

Meanwhile, Protestantism, which had experienced somewhat of a slump in both England and America was experiencing a spectacular revival in the late 18th century and early 19th century. In England, the work of the Wesleys and the exponential growth of Methodism was the center point for this change.

In America, the original fervor and devotion of the pilgrims had begun to wane under the growing load of challenges faced on the new frontier but here, too, revival began to make inroads with the work of Whitfield, Methodism, Finney, and others. The great religious awakenings of the 18th and 19th century made a huge impact on the American frontier leading to the conversion of thousands.

These revivals led to a growing desire for the restoration of primitive godliness which centered solely around the Bible. This, in turn, led to a decided move away from established church doctrines. Soon an interdenominational vibe began to permeate the entire scene pulling together different groups of individuals into new communities of faith, based on shared beliefs they had come across through personal study of the Bible.

Many of those who attended the revivals were from uneducated, low socioeconomic groups, made up mainly of farmers, factory workers, and laborers but because the Bible was freely available in English and many of them could read their socioeconomic status didn’t deprive them of a rich spiritual experience.

Some of the groups that mushroomed as a result of these revivals were utterly fascinating. For instance, there was the Community of the Woman in the Wilderness established near Philadelphia in 1694. There was also the Ephrata Cloister, founded by an ex-German Dunker (baptist) who had to separate from his faith community because he became convicted about keeping the Seventh-day Sabbath. The Ephrata Cloister also rejected the idea of an eternally burning hell, rejected war and violence and followed a two-meal a day vegetarian diet.

Then there was Jemima Wilkinson who proclaimed herself a prophetess after a prolonged trance-like vision and established a community of followers near Seneca Lake in New York. Interestingly Jemima also believed in the Seventh-Day Sabbath but it was her insistence on celibacy that led to the disintegration of her group after her death in 1819. Then, there were the Shakers who believed that their founder Mother Ann Lee Stanley was the incarnation of the female nature of God. They too believed in celibacy and strongly championed equality of the sexes.

Rappings and Mutterings

Added to this mix of spiritual revival was an equally strong interest in spiritualism. In 1844 an 18-year-old New York cobbler by the name of Andrew Jackson Davis claimed to have a trance in a country graveyard. During the trance, he claimed to have spoken to the ancient Greek physician Galen and other dead scholars. Davis ended up becoming America’s first popular Medium.

After Davis came the Fox sisters in 1849 who gained popularity as a result of interpreting the mysterious rapping in their home in Hydesville, New York. Their home is looked upon by many as the birthplace of modern spiritualism.

Spiritualism, in turn, gave way to increased attempts to communicate with the dead and the number of spiritualist mediums exploded across the United States.  

Social Reformation

The spiritual revivals also brought with them a call for social reform and many who attended the revivals of men like Charles Finney also engaged in humanitarian work. There was also a call for foreign missionary work as a way of taking the gospel to the countless millions who had never heard the name of Jesus.

The missionary movement began with William Carey’s arrival in India in 1793 and was followed by the organization of the London Missionary Society and a similar chapter in New York. Soon missionaries were leaving England and America in search of those who needed the gospel in foreign lands. Hudson Taylor, Lottie Moon, David Livingstone, Amy Carmichael and many others wove their way across China, Africa, and India with the good news of the gospel. These missionary endeavors were then supported by the mushrooming Bible Societies which sprang up globally.

At home, Robert Raikes began to have a burden for the many young people who so desperately needed a good spiritual grounding but were not being provided for in their homes. He started the Sunday School movement in England which soon caught hold in America as well.

There were also other great social reform movements that had a deep impact on American society as well. The temperance movement and the abolitionist movement all sprung up as a direct result of the spiritual revivals that took place in the 19th century. Then there were the feminist movements that championed gender equality and also the health reform movement that added to the mix.

Economic Factors

Economic conditions in England and America contributed heavily to the boom of foreign missionary endeavors as well. England was in the midst of the first industrial revolution and many made fortunes in manufacturing and trade with an ever growing and opening global market. Many of these merchants began to funnel their money into the missionary endeavors of some kind.

The economic booms contributed to advancements in transportation and communication which connected America and the rest of the world as well.

At the tipping point of the Millerite movement and the great Advent awakening, American and European society was in the midst of a vast array of spiritual, spiritualistic and socio-economic upheavals. There was confusion and clarity, revival and regression but put together each of these elements provided the right conditions for the perfect storm that was brewing on the horizon.

Citations and Further Reading

  • Schawrz, R.W. and Greenleaf, F. (1979) – Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Revised Edition)
  • Knight, G.R. (1999) – A Brief History of Seventh-Day Adventists (3rd Edition)
  • Burt, M.D. (2011) – Adventist Pioneer Places (New York and New England)