It might be factious to say that America’s great contribution to Christianity is showmanship, but maybe it’s not. It says a lot that the first original religious movement in America is arguably the Methodist movement. Methodism certainly is not a religion founded on a desperate need for entertainment, but it was founded to fulfill an emotional void that John Wesley felt in Anglican Christianity of the time—and that is a problem that has long succeeded his particular movement.
Methodism is a faith rooted in increasing holiness, although it was never intended to be a unique faith in its own right. Wesley was ordained an Anglican deacon in 1725 after a short lifetime of serious intellectual inquiry, to the point of being declared a religious fanatic. But in 1735, a boat ride to Savannah, Georgia would forever change his life after he faced a crisis of confidence observing the confidence and faithfulness of his fellow Moravian shipmates—with Wesley recognizing the inadequacy of his own faith.
The movement that would emerge from this existential crisis was the Wesleyan Methodist movement, which focused on the importance of sanctification and evangelization throughout the English world. It was not even intended initially to be a schismatic church, instead imploring members to seek communion with the Anglican Church while attending sermons and meetings outside of Sunday worship.
Alas, this status quo did not last and the Methodist Church began formally administering the sacraments in 1795, formally severing the Wesleyan tradition with the Church of England. And this has largely proven to the detriment of the church. The Methodist Church is currently the fifth largest Protestant denomination in America, but it is a church riddled with schism and political controversy at the moment, likely due in part to the fact that its theology and authority as a tradition were not rooted in tradition or strict hermeneutics but grew as an appendage of the Church of England.
This has largely been reflective of a certain kind of American Christianity that has taken root since the time of the Revolutionary War—a kind of Evangelicalism rooted in good-hearted people attempting to build something new without the theological roots necessary to survive the trials of entropy and ideological subversion.
The Methodist Movement and the First Great Awakening of the 1740s also carried elements of this tendency. John Wesley was followed by the fire and brimstone of Jonathan Edwards and the flashy speeches of George Whitefield—which impressed even the deistic and religiously apathetic likes of Benjamin Franklin enough to study his words and speech style.
Early America was largely not the den of religious idealism that history tends to remember it being. As the contrarian historian Peter Manseau claims in his book One Nation Under Gods, only 17% of American colonists were members of a church in 1776, due largely in part to the difficulty of traversing distances to local churches. Less religiously hostile studies put church membership around 60% by the end of the 18th century, depending on the region and state laws, but this does not speak to the sincerity of those people’s faith.
Regardless, Christianity did spread across the frontier with the expansion of the population. When religion slowly spread across the colonies, it largely did so thanks to the Methodists and Baptists, who planted thousands of churches for the unchurched isolated laborers and farmers living among the hills—and the spectacle of Whitefield and Wesley went with them.
One such spectacle came in the frontier of Kentucky, in a deep underground cavern of all places, hundreds of feet below the surface of the Earth. Revolutionary War veteran John Houchin (an ancestor of my family) discovered a large cavern in the ground near Kentucky’s Green River on his plot of frontier land in 1797. Little did he know at the time that he had discovered the world’s longest cave system, currently mapped at nearly 430 miles in length.
A quarter mile into the cave system, there is a large chamber overlooked by a series of large hanging rocks. This chamber has come to be known as “The Methodist Church,” named for Rev. George Slaughter Gatewood, who used the chamber in the 1830s to host candle-light fire-and-brimstone sermons for hours at a time, often borrowing congregants lamps to keep them from being able to navigate out of the cave during his talks. He stood on the overhanging rocks, drenched in lantern light, and preached to his congregation 180 feet below the surface of the Earth—likely to powerful effect in the dark, humid, 55-degree cavern.
Slick spectacle is something of a feature and a bug of religion in the South. The American South is arguably the largest holdout for mainstream Christianity in the U.S., and yet it is also filled with contradictions, flaws, and hucksterism. Movies like Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter and Netflix’s The Devil All the Time capture this tendency well—portraying the horrific collision of sincere faith and slick snake-oil salesmanship that amounts to many prominent Southern preachers being wolves in sheep’s clothing—best encapsulated in modern preachers like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Olsteen and their heretical prosperity theologies.
I recently attended the Tennessee State Fair and saw multiple examples of this firsthand. Mixed in with the usual suspects of aggressive proselytization—Jehovas Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Gideon International, etc.—was a small booth owned by a kind man from Tennessee who claimed to own a piece of Noah’s Ark. At his quiet table in a back room of the state fair, was a piece of petrified wood and photos from his various journeys to Mount Ararat in Turkey, with him claiming that his personal archeological expeditions had finally found Noah’s Ark—and he let you touch it.
I’m not one to impune another man as being dishonest, but I did find it odd that this irreplaceable religious relic, in his words, “just sits in my garage for most of the year till I bring it to the state fair.”
America is a still country filled with religious showmanship, now more than ever. Some of it is well-meaning, while some of it is dangerous lies. It has become the bread-and-butter of Evangelical culture, with every year new examples of wild stunts and gimmicks being reported on as a perverse show of non-denominational Christianity’s attempts to constantly one-up itself; bungee jumping pastors, parades of farm animals through Good Friday services, and one Oklahoma church recently put on an entire Easter musical production with dancing, pyrotechnics and costumes.
Our lovely Catholic friends are not even immune to these problems. The post-Vatican II church has liberalized enough that “Polka Masses” and other such aesthetic nightmares have become legends. And occasionally, similar masses coming out of more liberal Dioceses still go viral, with pop songs blaring, balloons falling from the ceiling, air horns, and priests dancing in the aisles. Some Bishops don’t seem to mind homilies being rewritten as rap songs or techno DJ parties before mass.
Much of this is absurd but it must be said that the underlying attempt in all of these spectacles is an attempt to make the church feel more real and connect with people who might not otherwise be receptive to it. In practice, these appendages usually devolve into cancerous masses over time. American Christianity is highly disunified and rootless at a moment when authority and intellectual consistency are more needed than ever before, and these attempts at showy evangelization are a horrific bastardization of what theologians like Weslyn, Edwards, and Whitefield did—saving tens of thousands of souls in the process.
And to be fair to our Evangelical friends, they are aware of these problems. Evangelical filmmakers even made a movie about it called Church People in 2021 to satirize this absurd tendency—depicting a non-denominational church attempting to literally crucify one of its teenage church members for an Easter service in a desperate bid for media attention.
That which cannot go on forever will not go on forever, and the parts of this showmanship that cannot survive are rapidly dying and will likely not exist for more than another 20 years. And maybe that is a good thing. Maybe American Christianity needs to pluck its proverbial eyes out and cast its sinful arms away from it. Perhaps the church has been overdue to let some of this hucksterism and desperate spectacle die away. Maybe a remnant of American Christianity more focused on reverence and deeply rooted theology stands a chance at sparking a long-awaited Fifth Great Awakening, but with deeper-set roots.
All of that remains to be seen. The famous Asbury Revival in February showed that tens of thousands of Americans are starved for a connection to the divine, but it faded from public memory as quickly as it came. Much like the Parable of the Sower, poorly rooted movements are doomed to be scorched.