Strange, how some odd moments stick with you. I remember the prof, remember the material, but nothing else about the class--what the classroom looked like, the names or faces of any of the other students. It was 1972, my first semester as a grad student, the prof's name was Marvin Fischer, and we were starting on Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"What do you think raised the ire of the traditionalists more than anything else about Emerson's transcendentalism?" he asked us.
I didn't know but neither did anyone else because soon enough he offered an answer himself: "It had to have been the belief in continuing revelation."
To Ralph Waldo, the Bible was not closed. That persistent belief stands at the heart of his transcendentalism--that Jesus Christ was no more the one-and-only savior than was Davy Crockett. What Jesus did was demonstrate how each of us can be divine. God told him so--Emerson, that is. I'm not sure what he may have told Davy Crockett.
I remember thinking Marvin Fischer was likely right. Even if I hadn't thought of it myself, I should have, even if I'd really liked reading Emerson. Still, the idea that the Bible is still being written was every bit as "out there" to me as it must have been to the Old Lights.
At just about the time Emerson was writing that goofy classic, "Nature," things were popping theologically out west in New York, most famously, perhaps, on the farm where young Joseph Smith lived with his parents, the place where two indistinct angels came to him and told him there was another scripture burned on golden plates and buried in the earth at the top of a hill, another bible, another revelation of God that he should look for, translate, and open up to the world. Smith's revelation created, single-handedly, the faith both Mitt Romney and Harry Reid hold to, Mormonism.
Smith and company didn't stick around Palmyra, New York. They left, like so many others, for the untrammeled west to find a place of their own, a place where Smith could be mayor/prophet. That place was Nauvoo, IL, where Smith also died, by the way, at the hands of a mob. God may well have spoken to Joseph Smith, but what he said he wasn't telling everyone.
In Palmyra, Smith was hardly an eccentric. All through the region, circa 1830, there were dozens other rogue theologians--spiritualists and Shakers and what not else--most of them created by the furious spirituality of the Second Great Awakening. Just a few weeks ago, we stopped at the place where Smith had his vision, walked through an almost heavenly museum, and got ourselves evangelized by Brother Something-or-Other, a paunchy apologist who'd left his Idaho farm, once he'd retired, to sing LDS praises to pagans like ourselves, right there where it all so blindingly began. The truth is, there were a dozen other Joseph Smiths, each touting his or her own religion, toting their own versions of God's revelation.
Historians have called the region "the Burned-Over District" because of the almost endless succession of devout believers, some outright crooks, some just plain loony, who brought their own versions of God's immediate revelation to wanting souls in the region. Wave after wave after wave swept through in the 1830s and 40s, each of them lighting revival fires that sometimes fueled the souls and sometimes simply consumed them--hence "burned-over."
In The Burned-Over District: the Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion on Western New York, Whitney R. Cross, a historian who was born in nearby Rochester, lays out cause-and-effect in ways that seem, at least to me, perfectly plausible, attempting to explain why people seemed to go religiously nuts right there, right then. All of them were millennialists, all of them were Arminian, all of them believed passionately in immediate revelation.
Old Jonathan Edwards loved the First Great Awakening a century earlier because it lit up slumbering souls. Ben Franklin thought that wide-spread revival of the 1740s perfectly extraordinary. Even though he didn't buy in himself, when he heard revivalist George Whitefield hold forth in Philly, he tossed in a couple bucks when someone passed the hat. The guy's performance was that impressive, Franklin says in his Autobiography.
But Edwards, in "A Divine and Supernatural Light," suggested to spiritual hot heads that one test whether any ongoing revelation has currency--yours, mine, and the weirdo's down the street--is that what God whispers in your ear isn't something he's not said before, which is to say that if he tells you to take out your four-wheeler and knock down every stop sign in the county, you shouldn't listen unless you can find a similar injunction somewhere in Deuteronomy. I think Edwards was on to something.
Just yesterday I listened to a man go on and on about what God was telling him. I don't think he's about to start a movement or evolve in the next few months into some hell-fire and brimstone itinerant, although he's well on his way. Besides, I don't think he'd disagree with Jonathan Edwards.
But if what happened in the Burned-Over District of western New York in the first half of the 19th century is any witness, and if Harold Camping's bizarre end-of-times predictions are of any value at all, please forgive my skepticism.
Skepticism is the opposite of faith, I suppose, isn't it? What's more, if I have it, I've got to know, sadly, that I'm not among those who hear the peculiar voice of God, at least not out here in a snowy landscape north of Alton.
Tell you what. If I do--if I tell you that God almighty told me to put up a tent and ignite a real revival right here beneath that towering cottonwood on the banks of the Floyd River, and if you spot dumped stop signs around the county, promise me you'll nod courteously, give me a gracious smile, and make other plans.