Well, it’s time to bring this First Contact series to a close. As you have read, I have had a lot of First Contacts. Everyone does, I suppose. I could have written more, but I wanted to concentrate on just my first contacts with various religious and philosophical groups. There are plenty of other first contacts I could have written about like jobs, girls, sports, etc. But I didn’t want to go too crazy with this project. Actually there are a few other religious groups I have had contact with that didn’t warrant a full post. I thought I would mention them here in this concluding post.
In Part 21 I talked about the Baptists. But in reality there are a number of different types of Baptists. One kind is the American Baptists. Back in the 1980’s Kathy and I took a long vacation out west. On our way home we stopped to visit some friends that attended an American Baptist Church. The Sunday morning service we attended was memorable for one reason; the preacher complaining about having to wear a tie. During his sermon, the preacher was talking about things we do for the benefit of others. He lifted up his tie and said something like, “For instance, I wear this tie each week. I hate wearing ties, but I wear it because you expect me to.” My thoughts were, “Amen, brother. Preach it!!”
Just an hour north of my hometown is an Amish community. My first contact took place when I was an older teenager. My cousin needed a small wagon for a parade he was going to participate in. He and his dad along with me and my dad traveled up to the Amish community to check out one particular Amish man my uncle had heard could build wagons. While parked alongside the road, I noticed an Amish man exiting his driveway (perhaps better called a trotway) on a horse drawn wagon. I lifted my camera to take a photo. The horse started rearing up and going nuts. The Amish man told me to put my camera away, which I did. Who knew that horses could be that camera shy? My family passes by the Amish community quite often on our way to Nashville, TN, and points north. Occasionally we will stop at a store on the main highway and buy some sweets. They’re good, but nothing special in my opinion. One time we actually drove out into the community and found a roadside stand in front of one of the homes. The food was at the stand, and payment was made using the honor system. While we were browsing the goods, a long-bearded barefoot man exited the house and greeted us. We picked out a few items and paid him. He began asking my son his age and whether he was married or not. When he discovered Andrew was in his 20’s and not married, he began insisting that it was time for him to wed. I guess they encourage marrying young in the Amish community.
There have been two US presidents that were Quakers: Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. This is interesting to me since I think of colonial America, oats, and motor oil when I hear the word Quaker. But the Quakers still exist today. You may know them as The Religious Society of Friends. I have never been to a Quaker church, but my wife’s niece works at the private Friends Select School in downtown Philadelphia. When we were visiting there a few years ago, she gave us a tour of the school. It was quite impressive. The school is in a multi-floored building with an indoor swimming pool and an athletic field on the roof. As you might expect, the cost of attending this school is quite high, but probably well worth it if you have the money.
Perhaps you have heard of the Shakers, also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. If not, you may have heard of the Shaker style of furniture, which consists of simple cuts for panels and other things. According to Wikipedia, the Shakers were founded in the 18th century in England, some of whom came to colonial America. The Shakers were a spinoff of the Quakers, their name being a shortened version of Shaking Quakers, which came about as a result of their shaking behavior during worship services. I remember visiting the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, many years ago with my wife and her parents. We were told that members were separated into men’s dorms and women’s dorms. They were not allowed to come together except for worship. Members were to remain celibate, which meant that the only way to replenish the sect was to bring in converts. As you might expect, they didn’t last. I guess there just weren’t enough people who wanted to go their entire lives without sex. What a surprise!
After my father’s death about two years ago I began receiving a lot of his mail. Somehow certain organizations thought my dad was still alive and living in my house. And even more surprising, I began receiving mail addressed to my mom who died over 12 years ago. One magazine I began to receive of hers was “The Way of Truth”. It is a publication of the Church of God (Universal). The masthead states it has no published subscription price and exists based solely on freewill donations. So, I don’t know whether or not my mom gave them money or not. I am still receiving this magazine, having just received the April 2015 issue. Apparently the main church is located in Hagerstown, Maryland. Some people online were claiming they were a cult, trapping family members in it. Others countered by saying they were probably just dealing with a few overzealous members. I have read some articles in their magazine and I just listened to parts of a recent sermon online. It all sounds like typical church teaching and preaching to me, so who knows.
One thing that I find fascinating is how many different denominations there are in the Christian religion. The differences started immediately after the Christian Church started. You can see these differences emerging in the New Testament itself. One of the first divisions was over who could be a Christian. For quite some time after Jesus’ death, only Jews were converting to Christianity. Some leaders, such as James, the head of the Jerusalem church, initially had a problem with Gentiles coming into the faith without first becoming a Jew via circumcision. Paul, who claimed to have received his gospel directly from God rather than from the apostles who walked with Jesus, believed differently. Eventually James relented and decided that only four things were required of the Gentiles converting to The Way, which you can read about in Acts 15. We also know from the New Testament that Christians were dividing themselves up by who had baptized them or who they admired. Paul talked about this in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.
Another well known division was over the relative importance of faith and works. Paul emphasized faith, basically believing that a person of faith will do good works. James, the writer of the epistle carrying his name, believed that works was how one shows their faith. A subtle difference to be sure, but apparently there were some that believed that faith alone was what saved people. Hence the need for James to address this issue in his epistle.
Over time the church split over issues such as what the essence of Christ consisted of. Also, the Gnostic movement came about teaching that secret knowledge was needed to be a Christian. The Gospel of John gives you a taste of what this type of Christianity was like, but there are other non-canonical Gnostic gospels also. Keep in mind that during the time of the early church much of the New Testament had not been written and as Paul wrote his letters not every church had every letter. Also, over time many “Christian” documents were written, not all of which were accepted by every Christian. Charges of heresy were being slung back and forth between different groups all claiming to be true Christians. It is easy to see how such confusion occurred during those times.
The infighting subsided to a great extent when Emperor Constantine became a Christian and called for some order in the church. Eventually many of the contentious issues were settled, not to everyone’s liking of course, but settled nonetheless. This brought at least a semblance of unity in the church. For hundreds of years the church was one in the form of the Catholic Church. This ended in the early 15th century when rival popes eventually caused the church to split into the Roman or Catholic Church (aka the Western Churches) and the Orthodox Churches (aka the Eastern Churches). The next great split came after the time of Martin Luther. His efforts to reform the Catholic Church eventually led to the Protestant movement.
The thing that brought back many divisions in the church was the printing press. With this invention, copies of the Bible could be printed at a low enough cost to make it available to the common man. Before this, every copy of the Bible had to be handwritten, which was an expensive and time consuming endeavor. Common men not being able to read the Bible allowed the clergy to maintain control of the Bible’s interpretation. In addition to Bibles becoming affordable to more people, a number of scholars began translating the Bible into the languages of common men. This really threatened the clergy. I’m sure they knew that once that happened, they would lose their control over the Bible’s meaning. Every man would be able to determine its meaning on his own. Thus, the church outlawed this practice. But the Bible was like a modern day drug. If people want something bad enough, no law can hold them back. Thus, over time huge numbers of denominations sprang up as many different interpretations of the Bible became commonplace.
So, divisions came full circle. The divisions of the early church due to a lack of canonical books morphed into divisions due to differing interpretations of canonical books. Oh, well.
I hope you have enjoyed this series of blog posts. I certainly enjoyed writing them. I am toying with some ideas for a new series, so stayed tuned.