By Roland Worth, Jr.
“David Martin tells an interesting parable. He describes a time and a place where the elite of a society have become agnostic and skeptical. The masses are superstitious; the young either do not care about religion or are experimenting with strange oriental sects; political leadership pretends to be religious for its own purpose. Religious organizations continue to exist, but there is little of the prophetic about them in their ministry to the cultural and psychological needs of their members.
“Is this the decline of organized religion pictured in Harvey Cox’s The Secular City? Is this the beginning of religionless Christianity prophesied by Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Not exactly, for what Martin is talking about is the city of Rome in the year 30 A.D.” (Andrew M. Greeley, Religion in the Year 2000, Sheed and Ward, New York: 1969, p. 15).
The story is one worthy of being kept in mind whenever we hear the doomsayers speak of the dismal future ,of religion. Time and again the pessimists have spoken of the imminent collapse of all religious faith. Voltaire even predicted that within a century the only remaining Bibles would be found in museums. How wrong they were!
Part of our problem is that we have created a halo around the past. We take for granted that they were more “moral” than our own age. This myth of a “righteous past” is one reason we exaggerate the evils of our own age, as if ours were the worst that ever was. Let us briefly look at the past in order to keep things in perspective. Most of the leaders of the American Revolution were deists and only a very small percentage of the population claimed church membership in any form. One recent (and excellent) historian by the name of Rowland Berthoff estimates that “it was well before 1800, the earliest date for which a general estimate can be made, that church membership fell below 10 percent of the adult population” (An Unsettled People: Social Order and Disorder in American History, Harper and Row, Publishers, New York: 1971, page 235). In the 170O’s “half of the frontier ministers themselves lamentably had to be disciplined at one time or another for intemperance, wrangling, licentiousness, or heresy” (p. 241). The corruption of society had rubbed off on organized religion to a degree that we would consider shocking even today. During the 1800’s there was even a period in which there was “a vogue for illicit abortion” (p. 206).
Nor was the American family in all that great a shape. An Italian wrote in 1827 some words that sound strangely applicable to our own era, “In a large family the sons gather together at mealtime, each coming from his business; each enters the room, says not a word to father or brother; opens not his mouth, in fact, except to put something therein; devours in a few instants the few ill-cooked dishes, and whoever is first satisfied, without waiting till the others have finished, rises, takes his hat and is off” (pp. 206-207). Likewise families were, as today, child-centered to a fault in the mid-1800’s (pp. 214-215 ).
Times may be rotten and things gone to an extreme but there have been times in the past just as bad or even worse! That there will always be religious faith in some sense seems certain. However, whether there is a genuine, biblical faith is something we must decide by our conduct and conviction.
Truth Magazine XXII: 17, pp. 284-285
April 27, 1978