Beltane in the Context of American Religious History

By:  Kenny Smith  

While popular imagination tends to think of colonial America (e.g., 17th and 18th centuries) as a land in which universal religious freedom reigned, the early America religious landscape was in fact quite the opposite. “In all but the largest cities,” James Hudnut-Beumler, Dean of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, writes in his recent an quite excellent book, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (2007), “there was no choice in the matter of which church to attend. There [was] but one church for [each] settlement, [and] citizens were taxed to support the official faiths.”  In Massachusetts, this meant the Congregational church, in Virginia and other southern colonies, the Anglican church, and in Maryland, the Catholic church.  Frequently, citizens were legally required not only to support “state churches” financially, but to attend them regularly.  Religious dissenters (that is, those offering brands of Christianity at odds with the official churches), were subject to social, and sometimes even legal, censure, fines, and punishments.     

The state-church system ultimately failed in America; by 1830 or so, the last of the state-church monopolies (in Massachusetts) had been swept away, and over the ensuing two centuries the concept of “freedom of religious expression” has come to be understood in progressively broader terms, including not only different brands of Christianity (e.g., Mormonism, Christian Science, 7th Day Adventist, New Thought) but religious traditions that look to other sources of inspiration beyond the biblical text (e.g., Scientology, Wicca, New Age).  Today, one may “be religious” in an enormous number of ways, and scholars have even begun to wonder whether the most staunch atheists are, in fundamental ways, likewise “religious.”     

Scholars who study American religion have also wondered why, exactly, American history played out in ways that have emphasized a philosophy of personal religious liberty.  Some point to theology, noting the individualism implicit in Protestant understandings of Christianity, which emphasizes an individual’s relationship with God, to some degree unmediated by religious institutions and authority figures.  Others look to geography, arguing that, as colonial Americans explored and “settled” an endlessly wide-open frontier (though one suspects native American peoples saw the matter somewhat differently), they were forced to think and live along more ruggedly individualistic lines.  Still others have insisted that, from its earlier years, the colonial American landscape was, as Jon Butler tells us, far more “complex and bumptious” than has been previously acknowledged, and thus the enshrining of religious freedom in constitutional principles was simply a pragmatic acknowledgment of this basic social reality.      

Butler, who teaches at Yale and is a giant in the field of American religion, overturns some widespread assumptions about the American religious past. The colonies certainly had their share of pious Puritans (New England), Anglicans (the southern states), Quakers (Pennsylvania), and Catholics (Maryland), as well as raucous “upstarts” like the Baptists (Rhode Island), Methodists, and Presbyterians (some of the “dissenters” frowned upon by state churches).  They also, however, had atheists and agnostics, and less philosophically inclined others who were simply indifferent to religion and more deeply invested in trying to carve out a livelihood for themselves and their families in the uncertain and often treacherous New World.     

Perhaps even more surprising, Butler argues, colonial America was filled with “magical” beliefs and practices.  These were entertained and practiced by people of every class, age, race, and gender, and included such things as: astrological lore and the casting of horoscopes; use of charms or enchantments in influencing people, animals, weather, and good fortune; conjuring of angels or spirits of the dead; banishment of evil spirits or forces; communication with animal “familiars”; foretelling the future through prophetic dreams, visions, and the reading of omens in the natural world; the use of amulets for healing or protection; the finding of lost items or persons.  As Catherine Albanese (another giant in this field, and who teaches at UC Santa Barbara), it is a “virtual certainty, given the geographical sources of immigration to New England, that cunning folk, witches and wizards were disembarking from English ships in Massachusetts Bay along with everyone else.”    

Albanese, in fact, traces four different waves of British immigration to the American colonies between 1629-1775, each of which brought distinctive magical beliefs and practices to different colonies.  The first of these was the English Puritan immigration to Massachusetts between 1629-1640.  These folk hailed from Suffolk, Essex and Cambridge counties in eastern England, a region known for its central role in English witch-hunting.  Thus, alongside Puritans, into colonial New England came “the rural and village metaphysics” of “cunning folk” who could see signs of the future in the present, manipulate the weather, discern the truth of hidden matters, heal illness, ease childbirth, and so forth.  The second wave, a Royalist gentry class from southern England (with large numbers of indentured servants in tow) came to Virginia between 1649-1675.  These possessed an “educated Hermetic inheritance,” one preoccupied with reading one’s personal fortune in the stars and in games of chance. With the third wave, hailing from the North Midlands regions of England and Wales and settling in the Delaware Valley from 1657-1725, “[f]olk magic came to Pennsylvania and West Jersey…even if the Quaker leadership discouraged it in favor of the doctrine of the inner light.” Here, witchcraft beliefs became common, as did “prophecy, divination, geomancy, chiromancy and astrology.” The fourth wave, from the north of Britain and Ireland, came to the Appalachian backcountry between 1718-1775. Among these peoples it was believed that “the signs that came to ordinary folk came from nature…in impersonal and unfailing ways and a source of wisdom, guidance, and, especially, warning in everyday life.” Of course, many of these practices were illegal up into modern times, and those who engaged in them would necessarily do so discreetly.  At the same time, they were often deeply interwoven with Christianity and the popular culture of the time, an issue which scholars are really just beginning to address.    

The latter half of the 20th century has seen a number of attempts to revive these, and still older, magical pre-Christian traditions.  Typically these traditions go by names such as Wicca, Paganism, Druidism, Heathenism, often grouped together under the label Neo-Pagan. Taken together, they constitute one of the fastest growing religious communities in America over the past two decades, conservatively estimated as representing at least 1% of the American population. This places them in a virtual tie in numerical significance with a great many other groups, such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, each of which represents somewhere between 1-2% of Americans (the largest groups are Protestants at 50%, Catholics at 25%, and those professing “no religion” at 15%).     

For many Neo-Pagan persons and communities, this past Saturday night saw the celebration of a major holiday, Beltane. The Neo-Pagan calendar is quite distinctive, varying from the dominant western calendar in a number of important ways.  For Neo-Pagans generally, the year does not come to a close in late December, but rather in the last days of October, when the agricultural cycle is winding down (after the harvest of fruits, grains, and animals).  The course of eight major holidays (Sabbats) that follow (about every six weeks or so) trace out not just seasons and the changes in weather, but the ways in which sunlight and darkness change in relation to one another as the year progresses.  Neo-Pagan calendars tend to be oriented around winter and summer solstices (the shortest and longest days of the year), and spring and autumn equinoxes (days in which light and dark are perfectly balanced). More, they are linked to the ways in which the Goddess and God (female and male aspects of divinity, or divinities), grow, mature, and develop, as the seasons pass. Beltane is a celebration of the coming of summer, a time at which the Goddess and God are young, filled with creative, loving, life-giving energy.  Beltane is considered a very powerful, indeed fertile, time.      

The Neo-Pagan “Wheel of the Year” is clearly a different way of experiencing time.  Interestingly, as religious minorities that choose (and often need) to remain quiet about their religious identities (staying “in the broom closet,” as it were) Neo-Pagans learn to live in two calendars simultaneously, that of the dominant culture, and that of the sacred.

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