In this brilliant book that traces the roots of unbelief, agnosticism, and atheism in America, one thing James Turner discusses is how religion moved out of the head and into the heart. In other words – and for better or worse – at one point in American history, belief in God was spoken of as a matter of modernistic scientific knowledge. But since the arrival of Darwinism, American religious leaders were forced to prove the existence of God in other ways. Since evolution began to dominate the scientific field, it became difficult to use science and scientific reasoning to prove God’s existence.
So in the 19th century the emphasis of religious feelings, individualistic emotions, raptured hearts, and love-sick souls arose in American religion. The existence of God was reduced to a feeling in the chest, emotional high, or spiritual experience. These things are clearly evident in many hymns from the 19th century. Turner uses a few different religious figures from the 19th century to explain this.
“Now, to more and more people, belief in God seemed to express feeling rather than to state knowledge. Chauncey Wright called faith in God, ‘a sentiment, not a faculty of knowledge.’ Henry Adams described it as a form of ‘imaginative and emotional expression,’ ‘a state of mind, like love or jealousy.’ Lester Ward defined it as ‘the embodied and organized state of the emotions.’ The neurologist George Beard said bluntly that ‘to prove a religion would be to kill it – to transfer it from the emotions, where it belongs, to the intellect, where it can find no home’” (p. 198).
Lyman Abbott captured this inward turn when he said, “If I was to retain any really forceful belief in God and immortality, or even in practical morality, I must believe in the trustworthiness of spiritual experience” (p. 188).
As I said before, I cannot recommend this book enough when it comes to the studies of American religion. If you truly want to “engage” American religious culture today, you have to trace the roots of our religious past. Without God, Without Creed by James Turner is one of the best and most readable resources for that purpose. In other words, this book will make you see the 19th century American connection between 1) the Mormon “burning bosom in the chest,” 2) the words of the hymn, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart,” and 3) the theology of today’s Hallmark card.