Does this sound familiar? Conservative Americans become increasingly alarmed at the lack of moral virtue and its corrosive effect on the fabric of society. They find a charismatic person who appeals to their desire for a pure, Colonial experience. Hope for a better America compels them to ignore some controversial aspects of their newfound leader.
Squint your eyes just a bit, and we could be talking about Glenn Beck, right? Conservatives railing against an immoral society. Beck rallying these conservatives with a back-to-the-Founding-Fathers message. Beck’s followers indignant towards those of us who point out that he’s a Mormon.
Only the first scenario I mentioned isn’t about Beck at all, but a prophetess named Jemima Wilkinson, who was born before America’s Revolutionary War.
Real American History
Years before our Founding Fathers crafted our Constitution, religious Colonists had witnessed the Great Awakening, a double-edged revolt against domineering church hierarchy and the increasing immorality permeating the New World. Like many people in New England, Wilkinson became dismayed that society was abandoning the strictures of simplicity, holiness, and personal responsibility – religious ethics that their somber Puritan forefathers had sacrificially established on New England’s rocky shores. Raised as a Quaker in Rhode Island, she became convinced that her fellow countrymen – in a New World only a century old – had become too secular, and needed a more emotional spirituality. Apparently, the era of our Founding Fathers wasn’t as pure as some conservatives today like to think it was.
From the Great Awakening and it's younger sibling, the Second Great Awakening, came Methodists, Baptists, and various other splinter groups forming religious sects in response to America’s moral decline and dissatisfaction with the Church of England. One of those splinter groups pursued a sexual utopia, called the Oneida Community, and ended up becoming more famous for the silverware they crafted. Another group became the Mormons, the faith espoused by Beck himself.
Indeed, Wilkinson became so concerned about immorality in the fledgling United States that she founded a religious group called the Universal Friends Society. Personal freedom and a commitment to disavow materialism were hallmarks of Wilkinson's group, which incorporated in New York State in 1791 – before ratification of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion. Apparently, she had little original rhetoric, but the force of her personality quickly earned her a loyal following. She became the first American-born woman recognized as the leader of a religious organization in the New World.
The Universal Friends Society settled in western New York State, clearing land for farms and homesteads, and building a grist mill and saw mill. Oddly enough, so many religious revivalist sects settled between the Finger Lakes and Buffalo that it became known as the “Burned-Over District”. After Wilkinson passed away in 1819, along with other founding members, succeeding generations ended up suing each other over the increasingly valuable land, and the sect officially dissolved in 1863, during the Civil War.
Colonial America Wasn't Perfect
We conservatives have a hard time with history. Many of us assume that America’s early years must certainly have been better than what we’ve got today. But we forget that our Founding Fathers were slave owners who would have laughed out loud if one of their wives – or renters, for that matter - wanted to vote.
We also love compelling personalities, sometimes to our detriment. People who can appeal to our mental picture of how we think things were, and how they should be. As a young woman, Wilkinson suffered a temporary illness which sent her into a coma for several days; when she awoke, she claimed to have been re-purposed in life and adopted male clothing in what her detractors decried as a misplaced Messiah complex. But her supporters wouldn’t be dissuaded, and she was able to convince them the Promised Land lay southwest of what is now Syracuse.
Dealing With Reality
As a convert from Catholicism to Mormonism, Beck hails from a long line of Americana purists, adherents to a conviction that the New World was God’s gift to civilization. Which, as any Dispensationalist can tell you, is ultimately untrue, since they cannot find the United States in their End-Times prophecy. That means that contrary to popular opinion, our country - as wonderful as it is - is just one of many sociopolitical experiments that has graced the world’s stage. Even though our day in the sun has been particularly profitable and illustrious, we aren’t the final word in virtuous democracy.
With which Beck would probably agree, at least currently, insofar as he’s trying to convince people of faith to return to God and what he claims were the Founding Fathers’ intentions regarding a beneficent society. And Beck isn’t wrong when he points out the many problems we face here in America. But just as the Universal Friends Society proved, historical perspectives are deceptively relative, and considering the hedonistic lifestyles many evangelicals live today, both Wilkinson and George Washington - Beck's hero - would probably be stunned by our temerity to claim Christ for ourselves.
While several other similarities exist between Wilkinson and Beck - including no college education and a preoccupation with finding a "new Jerusalem" - a lot of differences also exist between the two. For one thing, she only had less than 300 people following her, while Beck has millions. Her stated purpose was overtly religious, while Beck cloaks whatever religious aspirations he may have with overt political dogma. Neither is Beck calling on people to withdraw from general American society, as Wilkinson ultimately did; only to change it.
Who's Your Leader?
But alas, some things never change. People still want to have their emotions stoked and their utopias validated, don't they? It doesn't take much more than charisma and a well-timed line of shtick to take elements of reality and create an imperative for action. For Wilkinson, it was a brave new community in the wilderness, away from the impurities of the larger culture. For Beck, it's a return to religious deities, a set of patriotic ideals, and a fuzzy enshrinement of virtue.
The problem with both of these leaders is that their very agendas distract from the Person towards whom believers should be addressing their hopes and concerns for themselves and our country. For example, a common refrain from Beck's supporters is excitement that finally somebody is empowering them to a renewed sense of conviction for America.
My question is simply this: If we'd been relying on Christ all this time, why would we need any other leader?