The second president of the United States was a Christian…well sort of. Born to a Puritan family, John Adams converted to Unitarian Universalism. His beliefs were rooted in Jesus’s teachings but his adherence to UU views denying the Trinity and questioning the divinity of Jesus was controversial.
Adams once said, “Ever since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate a free inquiry? Touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your legs and hands, and fly into your face and eyes.”
In our times, many of those nests have been disturbed. The hornets of church dogma fly into the faces of those who see things differently. Twenty-first century church wars are front-page stories.
The Mormons excommunicated Kate Kelly, founder of a women’s group, because her organization staged demonstrations to permit women to join the faith’s lay clergy. The harsh punishment is obviously designed to send a message in the hopes of putting a quick end to the nest disturbing.
The Methodists recently defrocked Frank Schaefer for presiding at his son’s same-sex wedding. On appeal, a higher authority reversed the decision, putting Schaefer back in the pulpit. It’s uncertain what disturbed the nest most, the wedding or the appellate decision.
Church wars over marriage equality rage throughout most denominations. The Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly June vote to allow Presbyterian ministers to preside at same-sex weddings will unfortunately mean the exodus of some members. The differences on this issue are irreconcilable for many. Just as the Presbyterians lost congregations when it voted to ordain gays and lesbians others may leave in the wake of this decision.
This isn’t the first issue to initiate church wars. Social issues have walked through the church doors and sat in the pews or stood at the pulpit since the nation’s founding.
The Revolutionary War was a struggle for freedom and independence for most Americans. But for many church members it created a conflict between loyalty to what became the United States and their oath to the King of England. More than half the colonial Anglican priests gave up their ministries rather than violate their promise to serve the King.
Next came slavery. Mainline Protestantism tried, without success, to deal with slavery. Some denominations voted to excommunicate members who bought and sold slaves. Methodists found such rules unenforceable and withdrew them.
Virginia Baptists denounced slavery. Kentucky's Elkhorn Baptist Association tried to draft a resolution against slavery in 1791 but it proved a hot potato and the association dropped it.
Presbyterians in New York and Philadelphia called for members to gradually end slavery in 1787. In 1818, anti-slavery preacher George Bourne insisted on slavery's cessation. Like Rev. Schaefer, Bourne was defrocked.
When the 1844 Georgia Baptist Convention appointed a slave owner as missionary to the Cherokee Indians, his petition for approval was denied. Southern Baptists then withdrew and formed the Southern Baptist Convention.
Methodists founded their first anti-slavery association in 1834. When Georgia's slave-owning bishop was suspended, Southerners withdrew and formed the Southern Methodist Church
In the 20th century, the “Red Scare” visited its divisions on American churches. Charges that some churches were soft on communism dated to the Chinese Revolution of 1949, and critics found it easy to apply that rhetoric to antiwar protesters and civil rights marchers.
Church wars were fought over the civil rights movement and the war in Viet Nam.
These issues have political implications. They are also spiritual as they deeply impact the lives of people. Christianity was founded because of divisions with Judaism. Divisions are a part of our spiritual journey, a winnowing process that allows us to grow.
Why should issues that divide Americans not divide the church? Jesus said, “I didn’t come to bring peace but a sword.” He knew truth always collides with dogma and some nests ought to be disturbed.