Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Bioshock Infinite, New Religious Movements and Utopian Communities

It is sometimes joked that the United States has never met a heresy that it didn't like. Constitutional barriers to the establishment of religion and the frontier mentality of American settlement fermented a petri dish of new religious movements throughout the Nineteenth century, many of which translated into would-be utopian communities. These communities were not strictly religious either, with many established on secular political, economic and philosophical ideals. All of them failed in one way or another, whether they fractured from within or could not sustain themselves in conflict with the laws of the nation. Both of these trends are reflected in Bioshock Infinite's flying utopian city of Columbia and its cult-like leader Zachary Hale Comstock.

Father Comstock sees a vision of a floating city, a new Eden.

When the Nineteenth century began, Christianity in the United States was in the early stages of what would be called the "Second Great Awakening." This movement was expressly evangelistic, restorationist and personalistic, eschewing the established denominations for forms of religion that emphasized personal conversion, charismatic leaders, heightened emotionalism, and counter-culture radicalism, while dispensing with what they perceived as accumulated traditions, and expressed through ad hoc associations like "cults," camp meetings and tent revivals. Their success can be attributed in many respects to what was later described in Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis": an ethos of individualism and self-reliance that was responsive to the demands of frontier settlement, with a mistrust of the established, systemic authority of governments, aristocracies, the arts, churches and academics (including scientists and formal theologians). The more spread out Americans got, the more they looked for solutions that fit their particular contexts and values. Some might argue that we still see echoes of these tendencies in the American zeitgeist.

Camp meetings and tent revivals were a particularly fruitful endeavor, as they supplied two benefits for the price of one. On the one hand, they promoted the Second Great Awakening values of individual conversion, charismatic experience and a sense of cultural/counter-cultural vitality. On the other hand, they supplied entertainment. The evangelist and his entourage would roll into town and set up shop, either in a building utilized by a host congregation or in their own tent, and stay for a week or more of nightly shows. Meetings provided novelty, music, and fiery speeches... The religious equivalent of a circus, vaudeville show, touring Shakespeare company or traveling medicine wagon, all of which were part of the rural American Nineteenth century cultural experience. Like these other entertainments, the tent revival was also a money-making venture, and eventually achieved infamy for fleecing the flock. The Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 in Cane Ridge, Kentucky is regarded as the first of these, and 125 years later Sinclair Lewis wrote the satirical novel Elmer Gantry to criticize such evangelists, famously made into a film in 1960 starring Burt Lancaster.

Trailer for Elmer Gantry.

Lewis' novel was denounced across the United States, and especially by Billy Sunday, the athlete-turned-evangelist whose life the character of Elmer Gantry followed a little too closely. Born towards the end of the Second Great Awakening in 1862, the evocatively named William Ashley Sunday originally trained as a baseball player but converted to Christianity in 1886 or 1887 after attending services in local inner-city missions in Chicago. Sunday began speaking in churches and YMCAs, learning the ropes of good sermon writing. In the late 1890's, Sunday hit the "Kerosene Circuit," the rural Illinois townships so-named because they had not yet been wired for electricity. With his wife Nell as his business manager, Sunday was free to preach his charismatic sermons focusing on social ills like drinking and gambling, as well as the everpresent threat of damnation. It is estimated that over 1.25 million people heeded his altar calls over his career spanning 1896 to 1935 (for the uninitiated, an altar call is when an evangelist summons forward anyone who would like to repent and/or convert). Ultimately what brought an end to the ministry of him and other revivalist preachers was the advent of electronic and pre-recorded mass entertainment, such as radio and cinema. However, these fire and brimstone speakers adapted to the new media, giving rise first to radio preachers and eventually televangelists. Tent revivals, through their televangelist heirs, still form the dominant popular image of religion in the United States to this day despite how little they reflect the daily reality of local parish churches.

Early 19th century tent revival, New York.

We're going to need a bigger tent.
Late 19th or early 20th century revival, Mississippi.

Besides televangelist hucksterism, one of the theological fruits of revivalism was the Holiness movement. An offshoot of Methodism and popularized by camp meetings - its first exclusive one being held in 1867 - Holiness originally began as a predominately female-driven movement. Methodist ladies Sarah Worrall Lankford and Phoebe Palmer organized a series of services called the "Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness" in New York City in 1836, and for the first while, women attended almost exclusively. The Holiness movement holds to belief in two "works of grace." The first is salvation by grace through faith in Christ, which is typical Protestant Christian doctrine. The second work of grace is personal experience that is believed to cleanse the believer of the desire to commit willful sin, in principle a "baptism by the Holy Spirit" that has not only cleansed one of the guilt of sin but also of the intention to sin. While some of Palmer's writings went on to inspire the founders of the Salvation Army, the Holiness movement's main offshoot was Pentecostalism, which originated with the preaching of Charles Fox Parham and the Azusa Street Mission of the early 1900's.

Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Pentecostal
Foursquare Church and one of the most popular evangelists
of the early 20th century, preaching at a tent revival c.1922.  

Pentecostals took ecstatic experience as a key part of the second work of grace, believing that  if one was truly "baptized in the Holy Spirit" they would exhibit signs like speaking in tongues, faith healing and prophecy. Pentecostalism and its sister movement of modern Evangelical Christianity were alike influenced by the soup of apocalyptic, reactionary ideas floating around America in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. In England in the 1830's, an evangelist named John Nelson Darby invented an idea called "Dispensationalism." In this view, all of history is divided into segments or "dispensations" governed by a different set of Divine laws. The dispensation immediately preceding the life of Jesus was the "Mosaic Age" or the age of the law handed down by Moses. Following the life of Jesus is the age of the Church. Of particular concern to Dispensationalists is the end of the world, and it is from them that we hear of such things as the "Rapture" - when Christ will return to usher His "true followers" (read: Dispensationalists) into Heaven - and the "Tribulation" when God will violently punish anyone who is not a Dispensationalist, Republican, heterosexual or American. No one knows with precision when Dispensationalist thought entered the United States, but it was most widely popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible published in 1909. The most well-known work to espouse this view today is the novel and film series Left Behind.

Dispensationalist charts by evangelist Clarence Larkin, 1918-19.

Biblical "higher criticism" in the Nineteenth century, known today as the "historical-critical method," occupied itself with reconstructing the historical context of the Bible's writings and attempting to understand their true intents in those contexts. For many, conservative and liberal, believing and unbelieving alike, this exercise was perceived to pose a threat to the authority of Scripture. Advancements in biological and geological sciences (particularly evolutionary theory), archaeology and other historical disciplines were also seen to challenge the accuracy of the Bible as interpreted through certain literalist lenses. Amongst conservative believers, it necessitated a response in the form of "Princeton Theology," so-named for the Princeton Seminary where it was originally formulated. Princeton Theology held to the absolute inerrancy of Scripture as a reaction against modernism, and felt that modernist and liberal Christianity was an even more surefire a path to damnation than atheism and heathenism. Belief in Biblical inerrancy justified Biblical literalism, the view that all Biblical texts are true in every sense, including and especially historical and scientific matters. Thus came doctrines like Creationism, invented as a reaction against evolutionary theory (non-literal, allegorical interpretations of Genesis predate Christianity, and were expounded on by such early Christian thinkers as Augustine of Hippo and Origen). Biblical inerrancy and Biblical literalism were two of the doctrines outlined in the tract The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915, which formed the basis of modern Christian Fundamentalism.

Believing in an inerrant, literal Bible does not mean that any one interpretation is inerrant, and so copious movements rose, each claiming to "restore" Christianity to its original First century form. After years of involved study in the prophetic books of Scripture, a Baptist churchman named William Miller began to preach and publish on his conclusion that Christ's Second Coming would occur sometime on or around 1843. His idea was slow to pick up when he first began to lecture in the 1830's, but by 1834 he was forced to mail out tracts summarizing his views in response to the flood of inquiries. Publication increased Miller's reach, with "Millerite" newspapers being printed out of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Rochester in the United States, Montreal, Sherbrooke and Hamilton in Canada, and Liverpool and Bristol in England. These papers reached hundreds of thousands. By some estimates even millions heard the message of Christ's impending return. One of these papers - Signs of the Times - is still in publication today.

Prophecy is not an exact science, or much of any kind of theology to speak of, so Miller himself was vague on the date. He was sure that the Heavens would open sometime in 1843 or 1844, but whatever specific months he gave kept passing with no event. That changed at a camp meeting in August 1844 when a preacher named Samuel S. Snow pushed the exact date of October 22, 1844. His charisma and dubious logic caught on at the grassroots level, leaving Miller and the movement's other leaders in the dust. As we all know, October 22, 1844 came and went and we're all still here. "The Great Disappointment" devastated the interdenominational appeal of Millerism, but it did spur the creation of the Adventist denomination. The largest extant group of Adventists are the Seventh Day Adventists, formed in 1863 on the prophetic visions and leadership of Ellen G. White. Seventh Day Adventism is renowned for a strict, though piecemeal, adherence to certain precepts of Old Testament law, most notable being worship on the traditional Jewish Sabbath. Historically, Christianity took to worshiping on Sunday (the first day of the week) because that is the day on which Jesus rose from death. Seventh Day Adventists deny this and opt to worship on Saturday (the seventh day). They also take the view that worshiping on Saturday will be the test by which a returning Christ will identify His own during the apocalypse.

Charles Taze Russell came to different conclusions than William Miller (and you have to hand it to Bioshock Infinite writer Ken Levine for giving Zachary Hale Comstock a suitably preachery-sounding name). Divorcing himself from mainline denominations, Russell formed a Bible study group in 1870 from which originated a reinterpretation of Scripture that denied many of the foundational doctrines of Christianity. Eventually he began to publish the Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence tract to promote these ideas, which included Christ's immanent return, the refusal to participate in holidays like Christmas and Easter (because of presumed pagan origins), and a denial of the Holy Trinity and Jesus' Divinity. Between 1880 and 1912, the products of the Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society spread far and wide, influencing hundreds of independent congregations based on their teachings, and making Russell one of the most published religious authors of his time. Their main method of spreading their influence was by door-to-door "pilgrims" who approached people's homes with tract in hand. This practice continues in the denomination that coalesced from those independent congregations: the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Often the desire to adhere to a new religious vision comes with the desire not only to be set apart denominationally, but to set apart a specialized religious community. One could argue that the first of these on America's shores were the Puritans. Through the decade of 1630 to 1640, approximately 20,000 colonists arrived in New England having fled Old England amidst the tripartite conflict between Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans. In that first year, the preacher John Winthrop delivered a sermon to the passengers of the ship Arbella outlining his vision of life for the future Massachusetts Bay Colony:
Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be knitt together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other's conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community in the worke, as members of the same body. Soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his oune people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our wayes. Soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome, power, goodness and truthe, than formerly wee haue been acquainted with. Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it likely that of New England." For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God's sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing. [sic]
The sermon not only established a religious vision for the colony that would be centred around the cities of Boston and Salem, but also established a religious vision for the whole of the future United States. The imagery of the "City on a Hill" would come to be used as shorthand for America's Providential, Messianic importance in world affairs, a view that would come to be called "American Exceptionalism." Intrinsic to Winthrop's vision of a "City upon a Hill" is the idea that "This love among Christians is a real thing, not imaginary" which translated in practice into actual, institutional unity amongst the Puritan community... and persecution of anyone who did not fit into it. The Salem Trails are the most famous example of this practice, but there are other examples. Roger Williams was banished for his religious views (which were still Christian) and founded the colony of Rhode Island for other dissenters and exiles. Anne Hutchinson was a colony midwife who stood at the centre of a doctrinal controversy over the old issue of salvation by grace or by works, and she was also banished, fleeing to Rhode Island and establishing the town of Portsmouth. The Quaker denomination was outlawed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, resulting in the hanging of four Quakers in Boston between 1659 and 1661. These executions forced the hand of King Charles II of England, who intervened in the otherwise independent colony to forbid the execution of Quakers. Finally in 1684, England revoked the Massachusetts charter and turned it into a formal English colony with an English governor and English law.

Nearly 200 years after the arrival of the Puritans, a young man in Palmyra, New York, became caught up in the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening. Keenly interested in the Bible, religious studies, revivalism and the folk magic practices of New England, he received what he believed to be a vision of God in a wooded glen in 1820, instructing him that all existing denominations had strayed from His path. Amongst the folk magic practices the young man specialized in was dowsing with "seer stones," and he made enough of a name for himself that he was brought up on charges of fraud in 1826. His greatest treasure, he claimed, were a set of golden plates he was led to by an angelic visitor named "Moroni." The angel instructed him to translate these plates using special tools of interpretation he also "discovered," and the treasure hunting days of Joseph Smith Jr. were over. In 1830, he published The Book of Mormon and began his career as the leader of a new religious movement called the Latter-Day Saints.

Stained glass window depicting Smith's first vision.

Smith found a receptive flock in Kirtland, Ohio, who were also caught up in the fervors, revivalism and visionary experiences of the time. In 1831 he asserted his prophetic authority and developed the first rendition of Mormonism. The commune grew to 2000 adherents and began to try the patience of the surrounding non-Mormons. Smith dedicated a temple in 1836, but the community fell apart shortly thereafter, due in no small part to the repeated failures of church-run banks and hounding by creditors. A warrant was issued for Smith for banking fraud, precipitating his flight to Missouri in 1838. The arrival of the prophet brought with it increased militarism and a virtual guerrilla war broke out between Mormon faithful and anti-Mormon factions. Eventually the Mormons surrendered and Smith was arrested and court-martialed for treason, which carries the punishment of death. Being a civilian, however, led to his sentence being downgraded to four months in prison. Mormon lands were confiscated, and when Smith was released, the lot moved to Illinois. Together they established the city of Nauvoo as a nearly autonomous territory and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints underwent further doctrinal development, culminating in Smith being elected "prophet, priest and king" of a "millennial monarchy" just as Missouri was looking to have him extradited on suspicion of conspiracy to assassinate the state's governor. Ultimately it was his own followers who did him in. A rift within the leadership of the church led to Smith declaring martial law in Nauvoo, which in turn inflamed the governor of Illinois, who sent in the state militia. Smith eventually surrendered and was tried for treason, but before he could be sentenced a mob broke into the jail in Carthage, Illinois, and shot Smith to death as he attempted to escape out the window.

The Latter-Day Saints took on a life of their own, and after a brief leadership crisis, Brigham Young merged as its head. A war with the state of Illinois, and the mob burning of the temple in Nauvoo, prompted the "Mormon Exodus" across the Great Plains of North America to Utah. Young, claiming to be guided by God, decided that their best course of action was to settle in an area that nobody else wanted to live in, which brought them to Great Salt Lake. Mormon settlers arrived in 1847, a year before Utah was officially claimed by the United States as a spoil of the Mexican-American War, and it fell upon them to build their utopian community from scratch, including the central temple, streets, schools, farms and irrigation. The settlement was a success and Mormon colonizers began to radiate out in every direction, including Canada. Official statehood was denied to Utah, however, when news of Mormon polygamy spread. Much like before, the government in Washington was not thrilled with a fringe theocracy operating within the United States and flouting its laws, prompting military action that resulted in the transfer of secular authority from Young to a territorial governor. In 1890, Mormon officials outlawed polygamy and Utah became a state six years later.

As Joseph Smith was seeing visions of angels, Romantic thinkers across the Eastern seaboard began dabbling in the philosophy of Transcendentalism. This loosely-defined movement rejected post-Enlightenment Rationalism in its myriad forms, including strict Rationalism, the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination, and industrialism with its expression in Capitalism, consumerism and urban blight. Inspired by English and German Romanticism, Eastern and Vedic thought, Unitarian-Universalism and the spiritual power of the natural world, Transcendentalists believed that religious and philosophical principles derived from the inner spiritual world and that "civilization" - the political and religious establishment - was a corrupting and degrading force. Ralph Waldo Emerson emerged as one of the watershed philosophers of the movement with his 1836 publication Nature. The following year he delivered a speech summarizing his view of the Transcendental American: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds... A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."

To express these views, many Transcendentalist utopias emerged in 19th century America. One, named Brook Farm, was co-founded in 1841 by author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would satirize his experience in the book Blithedale Romance. At Brook Farm, labour and the products thereof were held in common, under the belief that this would free individuals to pursue their own scientific, philosophical and artistic endeavours. Petty squabbles and financial trouble split the community apart only a few years later, in 1846. Another such community was "Fruitlands," established in 1843. Whereas Brook Farm was virtually libertarian, Fruitlands was virtually authoritarian. Members were obligated to a vegan lifestyle, drinking nothing but water, and practicing absolute celibacy even within marriage, while being forbidden from using animal labour, hot baths or artificial light. Community organizers felt that only rigorous discipline could ensure the self-sufficiency of their agricultural lifestyle, even though its founders had no practical experience in farming or self-sufficient living. Louisa May Alcott's father was one of Fruitlands' founders, and affected bitterly by its inevitable collapse in 1844. She wrote a scathing critique of a thinly veiled Fruitlands in her 1883 short story Transcendental Wild Oats:
They preached vegetarianism everywhere and resisted all temptations of the flesh, contentedly eating apples and bread at well-spread tables, and much afflicting hospitable hostesses by denouncing their food and taking away their appetites, discussing the " horrors of shambles," the "incorporation of the brute in man," and "on elegant abstinence the sign of a pure soul." But, when the perplexed or offended ladies asked what they should eat, they got in reply a bill of fare consisting of "bowls of sunrise for breakfast," "solar seeds of the sphere," "dishes from Plutarch's chaste table," and other viands equally hard to find in any modern market.

Reform conventions of all sorts were haunted by these brethren, who said many wise things and did many foolish ones. Unfortunately, these wanderings interfered with their harvest at home; but the rule was to do what the spirit moved, so they left their crops to Providence and went a-reaping in wider and, let us hope, more fruitful fields than their own.

Luckily, the earthly providence who watched over Abel Lamb was at hand to glean the scanty crop yielded by the "uncorrupted land," which, "consecrated to human freedom," had received "the sober culture of devout men."

About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away. An easterly storm was coming up and the yellow stacks were sure to be ruined. Then Sister Hope gathered her forces. Three little girls, one boy (Timon's son), and herself, harnessed to clothes-baskets and Russia-linen sheets, were the only teams she could command; but with these poor appliances the indomitable woman got in the grain and saved food for her young, with the instinct and energy of a mother-bird with a brood of hungry nestlings to feed.

It was not simply religious or "spiritual but not religious" leaders who accumulated followers to themselves, but those promoting various secular utopian philosophical, social and political visions. An anarchist utopian collective dubbed "Home" was formed in 1895 in Washington state. Three men - George H. Allen, Oliver A. Verity, and B. F. O'Dell - purchased land at the site alongside Puget Sound and established the Mutual Home Association, which helped other freethinkers to purchase homes in the community (while retaining all deeds to the property). Immigrants merely had to agree to the community's anarchist principles, which became a major draw for other anarchists, socialists, communists, feminists, various dietary nonconformists (i.e.: vegetarians), nudists, atheists and other assorted social misfits. Lectures were given by noted anarchist Emma Goldman, communist leader William Foster, and Elbert Hubbard (writer of the 1910 book Jesus was an Anarchist), and feminist Lois Waisbrooker was a resident. The community came under external threat after the assassination of President William McKinley by an anarchist agitator in 1901. However, it was ultimately internal factionalizing that brought Home to its knees. More than its anarchist principles, it was the issue of nudity and open promiscuity that pitted members of the community against each other. By 1919, the Mutual Home Association was dissolved. Today, Home is a gentrified community of beach cottages boasting nearly 1400 residents.

One notable community was designed as a scientific utopia. The colony of Harmony, Indiana, was originally founded by the "Harmonist" religious sect after their emigration from Germany to the United States. The settlement was laid out in an orderly grid pattern and the lives of its people ordered in the town's various industries, which included farming, a wool-carding and spinning factory, brewery, distillery, winery and vineyard, tanneries, and mills for cotton, grain and wool. What drew the original Harmonites out of their settlement was the need to expand and move closer to the markets for their various wares... A rare example of a relatively successful utopia. Harmony was purchased by Robert Owen in 1825, a wealthy Welsh industrialist and social reformer. He desired Harmony - redubbed "New Harmony" - for his experiments in socialism and scientific utopianism. Though dedicated to science, technology, education and communal living, the people of New Harmony were not necessarily as dedicated to the principles of socialism. Disputes rose between the laboring and non-laboring classes, the distribution of housing and a growing overpopulation crisis, and the inability to procure enough skilled tradesmen to produce enough goods to become self-sufficient. A constitution signed in 1826 had a great deal to say about the moral quality of citizens' lives but dwelt little on the pragmatic concerns of how the city should run. Owen's son Robert, Indiana congressman and Smithsonian supporter, quipped that New Harmony was "a heterogeneous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in." By 1827, the community was through... Dissenters moved away, every possible formulation of government was tried and found wanting, land was parceled off to private ownership, and Owen was forced to pay off their debts. However brief, New Harmony's influence did survive in the actions of many notables of 19th century American naturalism, botany, geology, palaeontology, art and politics.

A visualization of New Harmony as conceived by Owen. This plan was never built.

One could argue that one of the biggest and most disastrous would-be utopias of the 20th century was the USSR, forged in the Bolshevik Uprising of 1917. That is beyond our scope in this essay, though certainly reflected in Bioshock Infinite's Vox Populi. The emergence of this faction is indicative of the instability of new religious movements and utopian communities throughout the 19th century, as well as a wry commentary on Tea Party/Occupy politics in modern America. At the close of the game, Elizabeth observes that there is always a man and always a city, but she might have added that there is always the collapse of idealistic fantasies that try to shelter a chosen few people away from the corruptions of society. That is because the corruption does not lie within society, but within human nature. No society and no religious (or irreligious) movement can hope to survive that does not concern itself with real human beings, as they are in the complexity of their lives together and not as idealism would have them be. Josiah Warren was one of the original founders of New Harmony, and he learned that indomitable humanity will always emerge victorious over social theories:
It seemed that the difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just in proportion to the demand for conformity... It appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us... our 'united interests' were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation... and it was evident that just in proportion to the contact of persons or interests, so are concessions and compromises indispensable.

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