Desperation and Urgency “Under the Sun”

Desperation and Urgency “Under the Sun”

by Nick Kersten, Librarian-historian


The global scene was bristling with danger as world powers waged war. America’s forces were stretched perilously thin, engaged in minor conflicts in many locations. The ideological landscape was rapidly changing as the standard ways of thinking about life, morality, and faith were being regularly challenged.

Technology was changing how the world operated in basic and pervasive ways. Christianity had become stale as some believers had substituted civil religion for genuine faith, and moral decay was widespread. Yet despite this seeming chaos, a new movement of God seemed poised to invigorate the nation once again.

Despite the similarities, I’m not talking about America today—I’m talking about America around 1800.

America was in transition. The smoke was still clearing from the Revolutionary War. The Constitution, passed in 1787, had been ratified in 1789, with the Bill of Rights added in 1791.

After years of unity surrounding the Revolution, the elections of 1796 and 1800—pitting John Adams against Thomas Jefferson—were rancorous and divisive, and partisan sentiment reigned. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic wars in Europe were causing problems for America, as attempts to trade with the combatants yielded reprisals.

Our young nation was growing as settlers crossed the Appalachian Mountains. This growth was augmented by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which led to even further moves westward. The “Great Awakening” of the 1740s brought a renewal of faith and more robust spiritual discussion for a generation, but it had fizzled out, and discontent had set in.

The long-standing philosophical tradition of rationalism was being challenged by David Hume, a British philosopher whose works began the empirical movement. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published in 1777, Hume challenged the Christian faith by denying the possibility of miracles and other essential elements of the faith that could not be tested or observed with the senses. They were tumultuous and perilous times, and SDBs did not escape the difficulties of them.

In 1801, Henry Clarke returned to his old church in Rhode Island from his new congregation in Brookfield, N.Y., to propose creating a General Conference to help send missionaries to the newly opened West. Within a year, several other congregations had agreed to cooperate in the missionary efforts. It is likely that the realities of the changing times helped to contribute to this proposal, along with Clarke’s own experience on the frontier.

Over the next four decades (40 years—hardly a blip!), SDBs attempted to meet the challenges of the changing world with sincere and empowered faith. These efforts demonstrated a deep sense of urgency. The churches in the East had sent their friends and family into the unknown as the world morphed around them, and they seem to have been desperate to assure that the Gospel went with their loved ones.

Interestingly, the organizational impulses which crystallized in our Boards and Agencies came well after the initial attempts to meet the needs of the times in other, more direct and less structured, ways. When something needed to be done, there were far fewer questions about what structure could be employed to achieve it and far more individual responsibility undertaken, both by local churches and the individuals who comprised them.

Without the existence (and excuse) of a devoted organization to achieve necessary ministry, individuals had to step up and fill the gaps, or risk seeing necessary ministry go undone. Two hundred years ago, SDBs choose to fill those gaps.

With this example in mind, as we approach our changing and tumultuous times, we can agree with the book of Ecclesiastes that there is “nothing new under the sun.” Do we have the same sense of desperation and urgency?

Will we take personal responsibility for our ministry, or will we passively point the finger at the organization that is meant to unite, enable, and equip us to do it? Much depends on your answer.

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