Children of God: An American Epic

Children of God: An American Epic

Children of God: An American Epic

Children of God: An American Epic

Excerpt

In the frontierland of Western New York, Palmyra was only a small town, but more itinerant evangelists had come to it than the pious Smiths could remember. Here, and in the thinly settled wilderness roundabout, there had been in the early years of the nineteenth century one religious revival after another, with crusaders invoking all the terrors of hell upon an unbelieving world. Farther east, in such nests of infidelity as Yale and Bowdoin College, students were reading the French atheists, swearing by the memory of Tom Paine, and predicting that in another century Christianity would be as dead as Jonathan Edwards. Persons who pretended to be civilized went to church, if indeed they went at all, with caps drawn down to hide their cynical faces; and they sat in dark corners and smiled. God to them was a generic term for every Jehovah and Zeus who had lived as a dark and terrible myth in the minds of men.

Westward, upon the great sweep of the emigrant trails, religion was still a mighty force--from the Hill of Cumorah to the valleys of Tennessee; and prophets of all kinds declared new highways to salvation and God. Down in Kentucky, only a few years before, a Presbyterian preacher had awakened a whole countryside to frenzy: fifteen thousand persons writhed in the madness of the damned and then fell abject and hushed into a trance. Some, aghast at their sins, wild with anxieties and eager for purging, sat like hypnotized idiots, wagging their heads and chanting a dismal dirge to their lost souls; others fell to hands and knees and hopped about and ground their teeth and barked, as if they had returned to the ancient and terrifying jungles; and still others broke into solemn and terrible laughter that died away in chilling and inhuman overtones where the black shadows lay beyond the campfires. A few, beside themselves with ecstasy or woe, left the groups sotted with despair and wandered into the woods and the night, and with sexual orgies attempted to cleanse the disasters from their hearts and minds. The frantic preachers, as crazed and witless as any who heard them, built their thunderous sermons into such pictures of a race doomed and forgotten that an appalled listener, or . . .

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