From the Sawdust Trail to the Canterbury Trail

One of the earliest memories I have of my pre-teen years is being invited by a devout Baptist friend to attend a week-long revival with his family. The meetings throughout the week were held in a large tent, filled with folding chairs, and the ground was covered with sawdust. As I recall, we attended a Saturday evening session. I don’t remember a great deal about the evangelist’s message, but I do recall two specific things he said: first, early in his rather fiery sermon he asked the question: “Do you know for sure if you were to die tonight that you will go to heaven?” I had not reflected much on that heavy question but concluded that perhaps I should. Second, as his message drew to a close, and just before he delivered the altar call to invite people to come forward and “give their lives to Christ,” I remember him lifting his arms and hands high above his head and shouting out, “There’s power in the blood! There’s power in the blood!” While I remember being touched by his declaration, at that early age I certainly had no idea what he meant. He was absolutely right, of course. People of all walks of life—are in desperate need of the sanctifying power that issues from the spilt blood of Jesus Christ.  That was my first intense engagement with Evangelicalism.

Over the years, I have deeply appreciated the work Randall Balmer has done on Evangelicalism. Reading a number of his books has assisted me immeasurably in the  twenty-year “Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue” of which I have been a part. In particular, I have been especially appreciative of Balmer’s treatments of the historical roots and development of 21st-century Evangelicalism, including its movement into the political realm. Almost twenty years ago, I invited Randall to visit Brigham Young University and conduct some workshops on Evangelicalism with many of the BYU Religion faculty, which was amazingly helpful and well received. When we know but little of another religious denomination or movement—its history, development, and doctrinal teachings—it’s easy to misunderstand and even misrepresent what people of that faith believe and how they live out their faith. Since I hate it when people choose to misrepresent my own faith, I have tried my best to speak honestly and respectfully of persons of other faiths.

Reading Randall’s book Growing Pains: Learning to Love My Father’s Faith (Brazos, 2001) some years ago was extremely valuable in my coming to better understand and appreciate much of the world in which I was brought up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Beloved friends, cousins, uncles, and aunts worked tenaciously to “save” me and my family. While there was certainly love between all of us, there was also a quiet tension whenever God, Christ, and Religion were the topics of conversation. In Growing Pains Randall shares a piece of his soul when he wrote that “throughout my life, my perception of God was very much tied to my childish perception of my father—distant and austere, disapproving and abandoning. Psychologists call this conditional love.”

Now having read Balmer’s “Respectful Conversation” piece, I was reminded of what he had written in his book about his life after doctoral studies and his later appointment with Barnard College at Columbia: “[S]omething, somewhere, went wrong, although I tried to ignore it for a long time. Why did my life seem empty, despite all my achievements? Why did I find going to church such utter drudgery? Why was my Bible gathering dust on the bookshelf? Why did God—this same God I had celebrated for years in Sunday school as ‘closer than a brother’—why did that God seem so remote and distant? What happened to the triumphant Christian life that I was supposed to experience, moving from victory to victory until I tasted sweet union with Jesus?” (pp. 18-19.)

At the bottom of page 1 (2nd paragraph) of Randall’s essay, he shared the following: “Despite my appreciation for the religious formation of my childhood, I began to yearn for something deeper.” He than adds “two explanations for my spiritual pilgrimage”: (1) the “aesthetic development of my childhood,” which I take to mean the spiritual depth to be found in liturgy and a deeper focus on the sacraments; and (2) a resistance to the inclination/temptation within the Evangelical tradition to repeatedly “try something new.” As a historian who has dealt almost always with the past, however, Randall “wanted to respond, ‘No, let’s try something old instead.’”

I can really identify with this last comment. There’s something special about having a long religious past, such as in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, both of which claim to reach to the beginnings of the early Christian movement. I have especially felt this in the last twenty years or so as I have spent more concentrated time and energy studying the writings of the Early Church Fathers, those who were so much closer to the time of Jesus and his apostles.

As a Latter-day Saint, my past only goes back to 1830, although as a Restorationist or Christian Primitivist movement we make the following claim: “We declare that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, organized on April 6, 1830, is Christ’s New Testament Church restored. This Church is anchored in the perfect life of its chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ, and in His infinite Atonement and literal Resurrection.” (“The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, A Bicentennial Proclamation to the World,” April 5, 2020.)

On page 2 (paragraph 4) Randy speaks of his love for the Book of Common Prayer, the “reverence of the liturgy, the soaring descants of the Anglican musical tradition and prayers that do not include the phrase, ‘Lord, we jus’ wanna.’” While I have some appreciation for his sentiments here, I am less enthusiastic about set prayers. I would be interested in knowing how young Episcopalians or interested investigators respond to the liturgy and prayers of the Church. Second, how do Anglicans avoid falling into the spiritual trap of “using vain repetitions” (King James Version) or “[heaping] up empty phrases” (New Revised Standard Version) in the use of set and established prayers (Matthew 6:7)? Third, I would be interested in better understanding how in using a set liturgy and prayers members of the church can enjoy the kind of spiritual spontaneity so prevalent in the first century Church.

On pages 3-4 (paragraphs 5-8), Professor Balmer emphasizes that Anglicans focus much less on doctrine than other traditions: “[A]lthough Anglicanism has its share of good theologians as well as the Thirty-Nine Articles, doctrine does not lie at the core of Anglican or Episcopal identity. . . . The focus of Anglican identity is worship and sacraments and liturgy, especially as encoded in the Book of Common Prayer. That is what holds us together as followers of Jesus. Anglicans and Episcopalians can—and do—disagree on many things, but we find common ground in the Prayer Book.”

I can understand where Randall is coming from. Evangelicalism, the world he came from, seems almost to believe that salvation comes only by correct theology. I have taken my share of hits and denunciations from Evangelicals and been told scores of times that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot, simply cannot, be a Christian Church, because of its false theology—such as our rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity and our belief in modern prophets and latter-day revelation. That is, salvation comes by correct theology. I have often asked my beloved Evangelical associates, somewhat in jest: “How much bad theology do you think the blood of Jesus Christ can cover?”

On the other hand, my Church focuses a great deal on doctrine. One of our senior Church leaders made a statement that has basically become an article of faith: “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel.” (Boyd K. Packer, October 1986 general conference.) In fact, most of our doctrine grows out of our history.

I am very grateful for Professor Randall Balmer’s essay, and, more particularly, I am appreciative of his willingness to share with us candidly a piece of his heart—his journey from the sawdust trail to the Canterbury Trail. It is a fascinating story, one that has heightened my appreciation for Anglicanism and motivated me to read and search for a deeper understanding.