There are many inspiring tales, from history and quite recently, of nations experiencing massive conversions to Christ. This is a story from one of those nations, led from its paganism to Christ in the early middle ages by dedicated missionaries. It became a shining city, a people seamlessly united in catholic Christianity and deep individual piety through the centuries.
That was then. This story is an opposite account. It has never before appeared in English, as far as I know. It recounts how that nation experienced the reverse, the destruction of the united, sacramental and devout church of a whole people until, more than a century later, only a feeble shell remains.
That is discouraging. Even more alarming is that the same pattern which destroyed that church is currently playing out among us. Perhaps if that tragedy has a value at all, it could be to warn us before it is too late.
Sweden in the mid-nineteenth century was mostly rural. Village society centered on the parish church. That was where everyone (yes, everyone) was baptized, where all received communion and heard the Word of God, where they began their married life and ended their earthly days, to rest in the attached churchyard. The great majority also had daily extended family devotions at home, reading from the Bible and books of sermons and prayer. The parish pastor was a central figure, and by virtue of his office chair of the school board. There were distinctions among the residents; aristocrats and peasants, rich and poor, educated and ignorant. But all gathered in the inclusive congregation around the altar, both the mighty and the humble, and all received Word and Sacrament equally.
It was also the time when the American West was being settled, and in those days, immigrants were welcomed and took up their posts on the prairie, many rural Swedes among them. They encountered the religion of the frontier in the process, and were greatly influenced by it in a milieu profoundly different than the one they had left. In time, some were converted and returned home to share the new faith with their countrymen.
The frontier-style revivals exploded like bombshells across the tranquil Swedish countryside. Crowds flocked, and many were saved and born again. A small percentage of these left the Church of Sweden to become Baptist or Methodist. But the great majority stayed within the Church and dominated many parishes. They had a powerful impact on those parishes. For the first time, the united community was sharply divided, into the “saved” and “unsaved.” The former adopted a puritanical lifestyle and had separate prayer meetings by themselves. No longer was the pastor’s preaching on Sunday and the orthodox sermon books of daily devotion the only proclamation of God’s Word. Now, ordinary folks, without education but with the Spirit could hold forth as greater authorities.
Sacramental life was greatly weakened, as people were warned against receiving Communion, since they were “unworthy.” Since Eucharist was irrelevant to revival and being saved, it wasn’t really necessary anyway. Likewise, infant baptism was still available, but it was of no use unless one could be saved through revival upon reaching the “age of reason.”
The flames of religious zeal burned brightly in many communities for a season. But as subsequent generations appeared, the ground became burned out. The children and grandchildren rebelled against the puritanical, and not infrequently hypocritical, standards of the elders. Without the foundational authority of Word and Sacrament within the united community, they were easy pickings for new enthusiasms of social and political change and material progress. These were not anti-religious as such, but in the context of the burned-over village, filled a vacuum left by the demise of the former united Christian community. By the 1890’s, church participation of all kinds had dropped precipitously, and continued downward for a century more.
The situation was ideal for a scientific study of what happened, because it dealt with only one Church, to which everyone belonged, in a homogeneous society. Add to that, centuries of meticulous statistics in that Church. As well, the revivals happened unevenly across Sweden, so some parishes and whole dioceses unintentionally formed a control group where the revivals did not penetrate.
The definitive study was done in the 1960’s by the theologian/ sociologist Carl Hendrick Martling in a little book called “Kyrkosed och sekularisering.” He sorted all the possible variables to explain the drastic drop in church participation: industrialization, the social democratic movement, mobility, etc. None correlated to the drop. Only one phenomenon resonated.
Where the revivals had been was where church participation, of all kinds, had tanked. The revivals, notes Martling, had fired “a shot against the principles and norms of the unified Church.” Those were experienced by the people in the villages as “not so much a system of dogma, but a common life lived by faith in God.” The demands of the revivals for one to be “born again” and live a puritanical lifestyle carefully distinct from others destroyed the common life. When the revival style was rejected by the new generations, there was no longer a common life to return to. Sweden has been spiritually adrift ever since. In the areas untouched by the revivals, parish participation remained almost unaffected. Even by the 1960’s, while those areas had finally begun to show some losses, participation remained much higher than in the burned-over areas of the revivals.
In America, multiple variables and the lack of a unified church scene to begin with, make a similar study more difficult. Yet the basics are crystal clear. The so-called “evangelical” style expressed through revivals, crusades, para-church organizations, mega-church gatherings, all stressing Christian commitment through an adolescent or adult experience of being “born again” or “saved,” followed by a puritanical lifestyle, is the way of death.
Really smart people learn from other’s mistakes, being thereby spared the pain of having to make those mistakes themselves. Christians in America now have such an opportunity presented to them by this data from Sweden, tested now for over a century. We know that people thrive in a unified community rich in Word and Sacrament, with non-judgmental and inclusive outlooks built around grace, and strongly committed to the historic truth and standard of the Christian Faith. We know from Martling’s study that revival theology can destroy that, by dividing people, condemning some, and removing sacramental grace and lifestyle from the center of the community.
As America now experiences the same kinds of participation decline that Sweden did some time ago, how long can we afford to wait before applying the lesson to here? It is more difficult for us, because we must build the unified sacramental community, whereas the 19th. century Swedes already had it. On the other hand, we have the data from their situation to know that the present identification of Christianity in America with the Evangelical movement will end in death, or drastic decline, for Christianity. Anybody listening to the story?
(Quotes from Martling are my own translation)