Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The American Quest for the Primitive Church / the Primitive Church in the Modern World

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The American Quest for the Primitive Church / the Primitive Church in the Modern World

Article excerpt

The American Quest for the Primitive Church. Edited by Richard T. Hughes. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1988. Pp. ix, 257. $14.95 paperback.)

The Primitive Church in the Modern World. Edited by Richard T. Hughes. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1995. Pp. xviii, 229. $14.95 paperback.)

Trying to transform the present through recapturing the strong, pure time of origins-Eliade's myth of the eternal return-represents a seductive theme in American religion. These collections demonstrate how powerful the pull of primitive purity is from many perspectives. Edited by Richard Hughes, whose career has centered on analyzing primitivist and restorationist dimensions in American religion, the volumes resulted from conferences at Abilene Christian University (1985) and Pepperdine University (1991). The American Quest for the Primitive Church contains all the papers and responses from the first; The Primitive Church in the Modern World features most presentations from the second conference.

The second volume, more theoretical than the first, is more intellectually tantalizing. For example, Scott Appleby and George Marsden both ask whether contemporary fundamentalisms are properly perceived as efforts to restore an idealized past; both conclude that the label is problematic. Franklin Littell,John Howard Yoder, and James William McClendon look at the Reformation era, particularly its "left-wing" or "radical" side, to probe whether appropriation of an ideal past necessarily denies the value of history. Underlying them is the dilemma of attaching the labels "restorationist" or "primitivist" to any religious movement that sees either a time of origins or an idealized past time as models for the present-in terms of belief, practice, or structure.

Other essays in The Primitive Church in the Modern World are case studies of particular traditions popularly classified as restorationist. David E. Harrell looks at the cluster of movements emerging from the Stone-Campbell matrix (Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ), Susie Stanley at the Church of God (Anderson), Grant Wacker at Pentecostals, Thomas G. Alexander at later nineteenth-century Mormons, and Theron Schlabach at American Mennonites and Amish. All insist that despite claims to the contrary, every use of the past is filtered through the present. So they all illustrate how what Stanley calls "bumping into modernity" has subtly modified the possibilities of restoring any aspect of the past or of origins. Their value is precisely their reminding us that not only historians, but also leaders of religious communities are people of their own times and that even the questions they pose of that mythic primal time emerge from a contemporary context. …

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