It has been said that there are two men who did more to shape the American psyche and culture than anyone else:
#1: Roger Williams, Founder of Rhode Island
Roger Williams moved from England to Boston in the 1600’s to be part of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts
The Puritans’ goal was to create a pure church, free from politics, corruption, and compromise.
Roger Williams loved this idea… the only thing was: after a while he noticed some things in the church there in Boston that he didn’t really like. Things such as how baptisms were carried out, and how the church was managed.
So, do you know what he did? He left.
Roger moved down south of Boston and established his own colony, with its own church, in what is now Providence, Rhode Island.
But then, guess what happened… After a while, Roger found some things he didn’t like about this new church, and some of the people there (the very church he himself had founded!). And so, Roger Williams left that church as well, and established another church nearby.
And then he left that church too…
Every church he started, he eventually left – because he found things he didn’t like… and they never completely matched his vision for what a perfect church should be, which is particularly interesting since he was the leader of these churches.
Roger Williams ended up alone, still having faith, but completely withdrawn from Christian community.
#2: Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau was a writer, who famously encouraged us to “march to the beat of our own drum.”
He lived in a hut, next to Walden Pond, and would write about going for walks in the forest alone.
Thoreau expressed a very powerful theme for Americans: we take care of ourselves, we work for ourselves, we answer to ourselves — and when it comes to church, we do that for ourselves too.
Thoreau shaped American culture by putting the self at the heart of the American psyche.
His biographer put it this way: Henry David Thoreau “stands as the most powerful example…of the American mentality of: self-trust, self-reverence, or self-reliance.”
But here’s the thing: if you look at Thoreau’s life, you don’t find a happy person. He struggled to engage in long-term, meaningful relationships with others, and at the end of his life he had no friends.
Rugged Individualism + Personal Religion = Selling Us Short
The “rugged individualism” of Thoreau plus the “personal religion” of Roger Williams shapes American culture to this day.
Like fish in water, it is hard for us to imagine things any other way, but thankfully God’s Word gives us God’s vision for what the Body of Christ, the gathered, redeemed People of God, AKA: the Church is intended to be and called to be. And when understood, it becomes clear that our culture of rugged individualism + personal religion is selling us short. God has something better for us!
See the article: A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It
I love this quote from Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson:
We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.
For more on this, check out the book: A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together by Scot McKnight