Sunday, October 16, 2011

Omaha's History of Crazy Religious Sects, Pt. 1

The time between 1880 and 1920 has been described by historian Jackson Lears as a time when America was imbued with a desire for rebirth and transformation.  It was a time of great tumult and cultural shifts and, within the ever-changing religious milieu, a number of new religious expressions sprang up.  In previous blog posts, I've mentioned some of them:


1) The social gospel - A Ristchlian-influenced and highly Christocentric theology founded on biblical higher criticism that stressed the application of Jesus' teachings to social problems as well as to individual piety.  It was especially influential in the academic institutions, theological seminaries and pastorates of mainline denominations (Congregationalists, Northern Baptists, Northern Presbyterians and eventually Methodists) in the Northeast.

2) The holiness movement - A broad movement within evangelical denominations that stressed the need for Christians to experience the "second blessing" of sanctification and to then strive for Christian perfection in their lives.  By the 1890s, independent Holiness denominations had sprung up, such as the Church of the Nazarene and the Church of God (Holiness).  There were also some groups, such as the Salvation Army, that focused on working among the poor as a way to live a life fully consecrated to God.

3) Pentecostalism - Building on such influences as Wesleyan-style Holiness teachings and the "Four-fold" gospel of A.B. Simpson, Pentecostalism began to form as a movement after the outbreak of a series of revivals at the Azusa Street mission in Los Angeles, CA in 1906.  The movement stressed the need to be baptized in the Holy Spirit in order to receive the "latter rain" of God's spirit, which was being poured out for the purposes of evangelism in the last days. Speaking in tongues was seen as the only definitive evidence one could have that one had truly received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.  Denominations such as the Assemblies of God were formed as a result of this movement.

4) Fundamentalism - In the 1910s and 1920s, a reaction against theological liberalism  led to a struggle for control and an eventual split in the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations.  Although fundamentalists are best known for their anti-evolutionary views and their defense of a literal interpretation of the Bible, their caricature as an anti-intellectual, backwoods religion misses the point.  Instead, fundamentalism was a highly intellectual movement that accepted a technical and complicated reading of Scripture called "dispensationalism" and was usually premillennial in its eschatology.  It also relied on Princetonian biblical inerrancy as taught by Charles Hodge and BB Warfield, and was built on the foundation of Scottish common-sense philosophy.  In the wake of events such as the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, many Fundamentalists retreated from mainstream American public discourse into their own web of Bible Institutes and Colleges, only to emerge into mainstream American life again in the mid-1900s, rebranded as "neo-evangelicals" and represented by Billy Graham and Carl Henry.    

Those four developments, all of which happened between 1880 and 1920, are well known today because they have had a lasting impact on currently existing Protestant traditions.  However, it should be no surprise to note that there were also some new religious expressions that have had little to no impact on religious life today.  Instead, they can be looked at simply as historical curiosities.  In my research on religion in Omaha from 1880 to 1920, I've come across a couple such historical curiosities: new religious sects that never gained a following, and have since died away.

First up: John Morrow and "An Omaha Church Church That Dresses Like the First Parents Before the Fall"


In the 1880s, Morrow had been associated with a faith-healing home in Pittsburgh, PA.  The home was part of an informal network of "divine healing" homes that were loosely affiliated with A.B. Simpson's nascent Christian and Missionary Alliance.  However, in Pittsburgh, Morrow had been kicked out of the home when he began teaching that Paul's admonition to "greet each other with a holy kiss" should be taken literally -- even (especially?) if young girls were involved.

By 1895, Morrow made his way to Omaha, where he took the teaching of Christian perfectionism to a new extreme.  He claimed that if the Holy Spirit had truly made one free and sanctified from sin, then one should be able to avoid any lustful temptation.  As a way to "prove" this, he taught that mature Christians should hold special meetings in the nude as a demonstration of their freedom from sin.  Morrow's practice generally involved him picking out a specific woman (in Omaha, there were two married women who participated in his ceremony) and suggesting that they bathe each other.  When Rev. Charles Savidge of Omaha found out about Morrow's practice, he immediately wrote a letter to the Omaha newspapers and effectively ran Morrow out of town.

From that point in 1895, it appears that Morrow disappeared from the historical record, and no followers are credited to his name.  However, he does serve as an example of some the excess and extremes that religious movements can take.  Even in our day opportunistic people like Morrow, who use the veneer of religious authority to fulfill their own selfish desires, exist.