The Theology of Americanism

The Declaration of Independence famously asserts:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This statement summarises the philosophy upon which American values were built and underpins the ‘American Dream‘: ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’.

American religion – and the American approach to religion – as envisaged by the Founders bore no relation to the kind of fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism which is often erroneously seen as being the majority belief system in the United States.

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who famously lived by the maxim ‘God helps those who help themselves’, is an archetype of the American Dream, being a self-made man with a rags-to-riches story. In his autobiography, he describes his religious views as follows:

I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.

Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States, said the following in his First Inaugural Address:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…

Despite the vocal nature of America’s Christian Right, a look at the values and beliefs held by Americans today shows a striking continuity between America’s foundational principles and its contemporary outlook.

AMERICAN VALUES

In an oft-cited article, L. Robert Kohls, Director of Training for the U.S. Information Agency and Executive Director of The Washington International Center, listed the following as ‘The Values Americans Live By':

  • Personal control over the environment
  • Change
  • Time and its control
  • Equality/Egalitarianism
  • Individualism and privacy
  • Self-help concept
  • Competition and free enterprise
  • Future orientation
  • Action/Work orientation
  • Informality
  • Directness, openness, and honesty
  • Practicality and efficiency
  • Materialism and acquisitiveness

Charles H. Tidwell, Professor of English, Communication, International Business at Andrews University, offers the following as ‘10 Core American Values‘:

  • Individualism
  • Equality
  • Materialism
  • Science and technology
  • Progress and change
  • Work and leisure
  • Competition
  • Mobility
  • Volunteerism
  • Action and achievement oriented

The family also remains a core American value, with recent surveys showing that 78% of American adults rate marriage as important to society and that 77% say a two parent home is very important for children. Indeed, 79% of American adults ‘view the harmonious balance of career and family as being the ultimate success in America, over power, possessions or prestige’.

Patriotism continues to be a core American value. 88% of Americans completely agree (52%) or mostly agree (36%) with the statement ‘I am very patriotic’. 32% consider themselves ‘extremely patriotic’.

AMERICANS’ RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

While the results of polls and surveys can vary significantly, and fluctuate regularly, they nonetheless provide a useful insight into the beliefs of everyday Americans. The following statistics from recent polls of American adults give an indication of America’s true religious outlook:

  • 76% identify themselves as Christians (50% identify as Protestants) and about 6% of Americans identify with a non-Christian religion.
  • 74% state a belief in God.
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death.
  • Most American Christians do not believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit exist.
  • More than half (53%) of Americans in 2014 reported attending religious services at least monthly, including 41% who attended weekly or almost every week.
  • The Bible continues to be named as America’s most popular book and 88% of households own a Bible. 50% of all adults agree that ‘the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life’, although only 37% of US adults read the Bible once a week or more.
  • Only 28% of Americans profess the fundamentalist belief that ‘the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word’, and a mere 9% give assent to six core fundamentalist Christian doctrines (even among ‘born again Christians’, less than one in five held such beliefs).
  • Less than half (43%) were able to name the first five books of the Bible.
  • 82% believe ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse and a majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family.
  • 60% believe God wants people to be wealthy.

From 2001 to 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton carried out a research project on the religious and spiritual lives of American adolescents, the results of which were published in their book Soul Searching. When all the data had been analysed, Smith and Denton concluded that a belief system they termed ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ is the predominant religious viewpoint held by American teenagers of a variety of religious backgrounds. The basic beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are said to be the following:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

In an article summarising the findings, Smith writes of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

It believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful […] It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.

Smith and Denton found that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not a belief system solely of those with a Christian background. In fact, it is more simply an American belief system:

This religion generally does not and cannot stand on its own. So its adherents must be Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Jewish Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Mormon Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, and even Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists […] In effect, these believers get to enjoy whatever particulars of their own faith heritages appeal to them, while also reaping the benefits of this shared, harmonizing, interfaith religion. This helps to explain the noticeable lack of religious conflict between teenagers of apparently different faiths. For, in fact, we suggest that many of them actually share the same deeper religious faith: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What is there to have conflict about?

Despite Smith and Denton’s study being focused on American teenagers, they do not believe that this is merely a belief system followed by adolescents:

[W]e are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religious faith limited to teenage adherents in the United States. To the contrary, it seems that it is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.

Looking at American Christianity, this is arguably the case.

THE AMERICAN GOSPEL

Joel Osteen is the Senior Pastor of Lakewood Church, America’s largest Protestant megachurch. The Houston Business Journal reports that Lakewood has a weekly congregation of 45,000 attendees and that Osteen’s sermons, delivered in a 16,000 seat former sports stadium, also reach a television audience of 10 million Americans each week. Osteen is the author of five books, each of them a number one bestseller. Worldwide, they have sold 10 million copies.

Osteen, alongside his wife Victoria, preaches a positive, upbeat message of the transformative power of faith in everyday life:

I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people.

It’s time to use our words to declare good things! Speak blessings over your life and your family. Throughout the day, say things such as, “I have the favor of God. I am strong and healthy. I’m well able to do what I need to do.” … Friend, if you’ll do your part and speak words of victory, God will pour out His favor in exciting, fresh ways in your life, and you will live the abundant life He has in store for you.

Instead of focusing on the human as fallen and sinful, Osteen highlights human potential:

There is a winner in you. You were created to be successful, to accomplish your goals, to leave your mark on this generation. You have greatness in you… Put your shoulders back. Hold your head up high. Walk with confidence. Winning is in your DNA, and it’s about to come out in a greater way.

Winning is in your DNA. The most high God breathed His life into you. You’ve got what it takes. This is your time. This is your moment. Shake off doubts, shake off fear and insecurity, and get ready for favor, get ready for increase, get ready for the fullness of your destiny. You can, you will!

Osteen’s first book, Your Best Life Now, looks at how to:

  • Enlarge your vision
  • Develop a healthy self-image
  • Discover the power of your thoughts and words
  • Let go of the past
  • Find strength through adversity
  • Live to give
  • Choose to be happy

The basic message is that God created humans with the intention that they should thrive, prosper, and enjoy life. As such, the Osteens’ preaching focuses on getting the most out of life in the here and now, rather than dwelling on what happens after death. What matters in the preaching of the Osteens, as in the lives of most people, are matters such as realising your full potential and having a happy marriage and family life. Victoria Osteen writes:

In many relationships, after time, people neglect to walk in love. One day, they realize that their hearts have changed. You hear it all the time: “We just grew apart.” Joel and I remind ourselves often that God brought us together. He’s got a good plan for our marriage. You need to remind yourself that God has put that person in your life, and He’s got good things in store. If you will do your part by being kind, respecting one another, treating each other the way you want to be treated, God will do His part, and you can live in love!

The Osteens are far from alone in preaching such a message. Joyce Meyer, for example, a hugely successful televangelist and author, argues:

Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.

In Look Great, Feel Great, she writes:

God has a great future planned for you and you need to be ready for it! You need to look great and feel great, ready to do whatever God asks of you.

God cares most that you go forth clothed in righteousness. But righteousness plus a nice outfit never hurt anyone. If people see that you respect yourself, they’ll respect you too.

Such a message is uniquely American, and its claim to being ‘Christian’ at all is unsurprisingly widely questioned.

The Osteen and Meyer style of Christianity is not, as some might assume, relatively marginal. Historian Kate Bowler argues that the message of such preachers ‘has consecrated America’s culture of optimism’ and ‘become the foremost Christian theology of modern living’. Conservative Christian commentator Matt Walsh agrees, stating that ‘the Osteens do not represent the theological fringe. They are as mainstream and common as can be’.

On the question of whether this theology is Christian at all, Michael Horton writes:

I offer statistics supporting the remarkable conclusion that those who are raised in ‘Bible-believing’ churches know as little of the Bible’s actual content as their unchurched neighbors. Christ is ubiquitous in this subculture, but more as an adjective (Christian) than as a proper name. While we swim in a sea of ‘Christian’ things, Christ is increasingly reduced to a mascot or symbol of a subculture and the industries that feed it. Just as you don’t really need Jesus Christ in order to have T-shirts and coffee mugs, it is unclear to me why he is necessary for most of the things I hear a lot of pastors and Christians talking about in church these days.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues:

The Osteen message does not differentiate between believers and unbelievers — certainly not in terms of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In their sermons, writings, and media appearances, the Osteens insist that God is well-disposed to all people and wills that all flourish, but there is virtually no mention of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No reference to sin as the fundamental issue. No explanation of atonement and resurrection as God’s saving acts; no clarity of any sort on the need for faith in Christ and repentance of sin. Instead, they focus on happiness and God’s “immeasurable favor” to be poured out on all people, if they will only correct their thinking.

Jason Byassee, pastor of Shady Grove United Methodist Church, states of Joel Osteen:

One doesn’t doubt that his counsel helps people to have better marriages, careers, families and lives. Salespeople, whom Osteen often addresses, will indeed perform better with more upbeat, self-confident attitudes. These claims are true, as far as they go. But that doesn’t make them Christian.

In an article for Charisma News, Joseph Mattera contrasts American and Biblical Christianity:

Much of the preaching in American churches regarding faith has to do with using faith so we can have a nice car, home, job, financial security and comfort. The biblical focus on faith is on risking our physical health and material goods to promote God’s Kingdom […] Americans shop for a church today based on what meets their personal and family needs the best. It is almost like a supermarket mentality of one-stop shopping. While it is good if churches attempt to meet the practical needs of families and communities, the focus should be upon equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.

Christian Smith argues:

[W]e have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of ‘Christianity’ in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear … to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.

Succeeding in life, having good marriages, families, and careers, living comfortably, having a positive outlook, being thankful for blessings, being kind and respectful to others: these are the things that lie at the heart of the message of a major and very successful brand of Christianity in America. All of those things are good, and all are a part of the American Dream and fit into the American value system, but none of them are specifically or uniquely Christian or Biblical. In reality, much of what comes dressed as Christianity in America is nothing of the sort, and is, rather, a uniquely American religion; a religion arguably rooted in the foundational principles of the United States.

AMERICAN CIVIL THEOLOGY

A comparison of the religious views of Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson with those of so-called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism demonstrates striking similarities. There is arguably a strong philosophical continuity between their ‘benign religion’ and what Smith calls the ‘alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness’ of contemporary Americans.

Benjamin Franklin:

  • A Deity exists, who made the world and governs it by his Providence.
  • The most acceptable service of God is doing good to others.
  • Our souls are immortal, and all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter.

Thomas Jefferson:

  • There is an overruling Providence, which delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.
  • Religion should inculcate honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of others.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Jefferson stated that America was:

enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…

Of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Smith argues that it:

mirrors and may very well interface with American civil religion at the highest level by providing the nation’s inhabitants a parallel and complementary common, unifying, functional faith that operates at a more apolitical, private, and interpersonal level of human life.

Franklin said of his stripped down version of religion:

These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.

Smith notes, of those who live by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

In effect, these believers get to enjoy whatever particulars of their own faith heritages appeal to them, while also reaping the benefits of this shared, harmonizing, interfaith religion. This helps to explain the noticeable lack of religious conflict between teenagers of apparently different faiths.

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, towering figures in the foundation of modern America and its philosophy on life, would surely be pleased to see that so many Americans today continue to share and promote ideas on religion which so closely mirror their own. The religion scornfully dubbed ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ by Smith and Denton is not, as they contend from their traditional Christian perspective, ‘pathetic’, but is, rather, a truly American religion.

THE THEOLOGY OF AMERICANISM

America – or Americanism – can be seen to be underpinned by, and sustained through, a unique theological conception, based partly on biblical visions of a promised land, partly on the values of the Enlightenment, and partly on an ideology of living free, working hard and enjoying the fruits of one’s labours. This theology presents a God who is largely concerned with this world and this life, and who calls the American people forward to ever greater things. This vision of God is of a God who has filled humans with the potential for success and wills that they should prosper and seek enjoyment in life, and do so in a state of freedom. This is the God of a proud people, filled with the conviction that theirs is the greatest nation on earth and convinced that their values offer hope for a better, freer, more prosperous and peaceful world. While, for many, Christian fundamentalism and the Religious Right are seen as the ‘public face’ of American religiosity, the actual theological basis of Americanism has very little in common with the worldview of the New Testament and arguably constitutes a theology birthed in modernity.

European-American Folk Traditions

When settlers from the British Isles and Germany arrived on the shores of North America, they brought with them not only Christianity, but also a variety of folk beliefs and practices related to every aspect of life and death.

To Appalachia was brought a belief in signs and omens, numerous proverbs, and folk healing practices centred on ‘Granny Women‘. Three fascinating posts on Appalachian folk magic can be read here, here, and here.

To the Ozarks came a form of folk magic very firmly grounded in Protestant Christianity, while holding much in common with other folk religious and magical systems. A helpful glossary of Ozark folk magic can be found here.

Meanwhile, the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ brought from Germany a magico-religious systemknown as brauche, or ‘powwowing’. Powwowing is rooted in German esoteric traditions and makes use of both the Bible and material derived from European grimoires. Even today, the practice persists, albeit often still under a veil of secrecy. A good website providing information on the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions can be found here.

The wakes and feasts of country parishes

In pre-modern England, the anniversary of the dedication of the community’s church to its tutelary saint was marked yearly with great celebration. The following accounts of such festivities give an indication as to how far removed the Christianity of ordinary rural people was from the staid church-going of today.

Celebrations in the South West:

Then the inhabitants deck themselves in their gaudiest clothes, and have open doors and splendid entertainments, for the reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on that occasion from every neighbouring town. The morning is spent for the most part at church, though not as that morning was wont to be spent, not in commemorating the saint or martyr, or in gratefully remembering the builder and endower. The remaining part of the day is spent in eating and drinking. Thus also they spend a day or two afterwards, in all sorts of rural pastimes and exercises, such as dancing on the green, wrestling, cudgelling, &c.[1]

Festivities in Lancashire:

The eve of such anniversary was the yearly wake (or watching) of the parishioners; and originally booths were erected in the churchyards, and feasting, dancing, and other revelry continued throughout the night. The parishioners attended divine service on the feast day, and the rest of that day was then devoted to popular festivities. So great grew the excesses during these prolonged orgies, that at length it became necessary to close the churches against the pageants and mummeries performed in them at these anniversaries, and the churchyards against the noisy, disorderly, and tumultuous merry-makings of the people. Thenceforth the great seal of the revels was transferred from the church and its grave-yard, to the village green or the town market-place, or some space of open ground, large enough for popular assemblages to enjoy the favourite sports and pastimes of the period. Such were the general character and features of the wakes and feasts of country parishes, changing only with the name of the patron saint, the day of the celebration.[2]

References:

[1] John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.5. Citing Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, Or The Antiquities of the Common People (1725).

[2] John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson (1867) Lancashire Folk-Lore (London: Frederick Warne and Co.), p.213.

Love and death in British folk magic

In addition to healing, attracting good fortune, and so on, compulsion is often an important element in folk magical systems, particularly in regard to love and relationships. This is illustrated below, where we see reference made to two candle rituals aimed at compelling the appearance of a lover, as well as the allegation of the use of powders for a similar effect.

As folk magic emerges from within the lived experience of ‘ordinary’ people, and as it is integrally linked to the everyday and the earthy, it should come as no surprise that in addition to petitions to God and use of religious items and symbols, an appeal to the mysterious power of death itself is sometimes made, whether that be through attempting to harm another or through seeking restoration through the use of items touched by death. Examples of this are also found below.

Compelling others in matters of the heart:

‘Buckinghamshire damsels desirous to see their lovers would stick two pins across through the candle they were burning, taking care that the pins passed through the wick. While doing this they recited the following verse:

It’s not this candle alone I stick,
But A.B.’s heart I mean to prick;
Whether he be asleep or awake,
I’d have him come to me and speak.

By the time the candle burned down to the pins and went out, the lover would be certain to present himself’.[1]

Women in Durham placed the end of a tallow-candle stuck through and through with pins in a box to hasten the visit/return of a lover.[2]

‘Whenever the superstitious person is in love, he will complain that tempting powder has been given him’.[3]

Harnessing the power of death:

‘It is said in Devonshire that you may give [ague] to your neighbour, by burying under his threshold a bag containing the parings of a dead man’s nails, and some of the hairs of his head: your neighbour will be afflicted with ague until the bag is removed. In Somersetshire and the adjoining counties, the patient shuts a large black spider into a box, and leaves it to perish…'[4]

‘Moss growing on a human skull, if dried, powdered, and taken as snuff, will cure the headache’.[5]

‘The chips or cuttings of a gibbet, or gallows, on which one or more persons have been executed or exposed, if worn next to the skin, or round the neck in a bag, will cure the ague, or prevent it’.[6]

18th Century Devonshire cure for convulsions: Make a ring, which ‘must be made of three nails, or screws, which have been used to fasten a coffin, and must be dug out of the churchyard’.[7]

References:

[1] William Henderson (1866) Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties Counties of England and the Borders (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.), p.139.

[2] Henderson (1866), p.138.

[3] John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Volume III (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.308.

[4] Henderson (1866), p.118.

[5] Brand (1849), p.277.

[6] Brand (1849), p.277.

[7] Brand (1849), p.300-301.

Sacred Wells in Britain

Sacred wells (or ‘holy wells’) were once found throughout the British Isles and represent an aspect of pre-Christian belief which survived as a result of ecclesiastical ‘reinterpretation’ rendering them (just about) orthodox. The idea underpinning sacred wells is that there is a benevolent spirit (akin to a genius loci) which somehow inhabits, or has responsibility for, the well and can be engaged with in order that the water of the well might have a healing effect. While such wells came to be associated with various saints in order that they should be cleansed of pagan connotations, the same underlying principles remained intact.

A person in need of some kind of healing (which could include healing of both bodily and mental ailments) would visit a sacred well and make an offering to the spirit/saint of the well. An offering might be made as a down-payment in advance of a successful healing or left out of gratitude for a healing that had already occurred. Sometimes ritual words would be spoken or ritual actions undertaken (walking around the well a certain number of times, and so on). Sometimes a well would be visited at a particular time of year which was said to be especially fortuitous or powerful. Offerings and rituals varied from place to place but some common practices do emerge.

Rag wells were a common form of sacred well, particularly in Scotland and the North of England. At such wells, rags were left as offerings to the spirit of the well and were often tied to trees and bushes adjacent to or overhanging the well. In addition to rags, other common offerings included pins, needles, nails, shells, pebbles, and coins of low value. Such devotion was still in evidence in the Nineteenth Century. John Brand, writing in 1841, comments:

The leaving of rags at wells was a singular piece of popular superstition… This absurd custom is not extinct even at this day: I have formerly frequently observed shreds or bits of rag upon the bushes that overhang a well in the road to Benton, a village in the vicinity of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which, from that circumstance, is now or was very lately called the rag-well. The name is undoubtedly of long standing: probably it has been visited for some disease or other, and these rag offerings are the reliques of the then prevailing popular superstition.

(Brand, 1841, p.224)

The leaving of rags at sacred wells continues to this day, although I am unsure as to whether this is through unbroken local tradition or through modern revival; perhaps it is a mixture of both.

In addition to these traditions, particular types of tree are also associated with sacred wells and have often been found over them or nearby. The types of trees held to have sacred qualities that were found near holy wells are hawthorn, elder, ash, oak, hazel, holly, yew, and rowan (Varner, 2009, p.62). The elder was long associated with pagan devotion and was the object of censure from church authorities (ibid, p.63). Wulfstan, an 11th Century Archbishop of York, for example, had the following to say:

And it is right that every priest eagerly teach Christianity and crush all heathenism; and forbid the worship of springs, and necromancy, and divination and incantations, and the worship of trees and stones, and the devilish trick people perform in which a child is dragged across the earth, and the superstitions practiced with various auguries on New Year’s night and at pagan shrines and elder-trees, and a great many other errors which men practice much more than they should.

The yew has also long been held to be a tree of special significance, being planted in numerous churchyards, a practice which Brand suggests ‘might be nothing more than a remnant of that superstitious worship paid by the ancient northern nations, in their Pagan state, to trees in general, and to oaks and yews in particular – a deeply rooted habit, which for a long time infected the Christian converts of the north of Europe’ (Brand, 1841, p.260-261).

Further reading on the topic of sacred wells:

Buttons, Bras and Pins – The Folklore of British Holy Wells

What are Holy Wells?

Related:

Wishing Well

Wish Tree

British Crossroads Magic

In Britain, as elsewhere, the crossroads has traditionally been a place of spiritual power. For a long time, suicides and murderers were buried at crossroads, as it was believed that this would confuse their spirits and ‘bind’ them there, thereby protecting neighbouring communities from their influence. The crossroads was an intimidating place, yet at the same time also a powerful place, and divination took place there, as it did across Europe.

Various rituals intended to rid the individual of ailments were carried out at the crossroads. An Oxfordshire cure for warts involved the sufferer binding a large black slug upon the wart for a night and a day, then going at night to the nearest crossroads and flinging the slug over the left shoulder. People of Exeter and the surrounding area suffering from fevers would visit at the dead of night the nearest crossroad five different times, and there bury a new-laid egg, thereby transferring the illness to the egg and ridding it from their body.

On the Isle of Man, people wanting to get rid of evil spirits and bad luck would should go to where four roads meet, and sweep the intersection clear. This was done at midnight when there is a full moon and a broom was used.

It wasn’t just people who wanted to get rid of evil who visited the crossroads for ritual purposes at night, but also those who sought to raise and make contact with spirits for occult purposes. Accounts of such activities can be found in John Beaumont’s book of 1705 entitled An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices. In this book, Beaumont presents the case of a 20 year-old acquaintance of his from Gloucestershire named Thomas Jerps. Jerps was a man who had sought to engage with spirits at the crossroads:

I ask’d him several particulars concerning the method he used, and the discourse he had had with the Spirits; He told me he had a Book whose directions he followed, and accordingly, in the dead time of the Night, he went to a cross way, with a Lanthorn and Candle, which were Consecrated for this purpose, with several Incantations: He had also a Consecrated Chalk, having a mixture of several things within it; and with this he used to make a Circle at what distance he thought fit, within which no Spirit had power to enter; after this he Invoked the Spirits, by using several forms of Words; some of which he told me were taken out of the Scriptures, and therefore he thought them lawful…

About a Quarter of a Year after this, he came to me again, and told me he wished now he had taken my Advice, for he thought he had done that, which would cost him his Life, and his Eyes and Countenance shew’d a great alteration. I asked him what he had done? he told me that being Bewitch’d by his Acquaintance, he resolved to proceed farther in this Art, and to have some Familiar Spirits at his Command, according to the directions of his Book, which were to get a Book made of Virgin Parchment, and Consecrated with several Incantations, as also particular Ink, Inkhorn, Pens, &c. for this purpose; with these he was to go out as usual to a Cross-way, call upon a Spirit, and ask him his Name, which he was to enter in the First Page of his Book, and this was to be his Chief Familiar.

Sources:

Beaumont, John (1705) An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices. Online.

Devereux, Paul (2010) ‘Talking and Walking with Spirits: Fresh Perspectives on a Medieval Necromantic System’ in Patrick Curry (ed) Divination: Perspectives for a New Millenium (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing): 243-250.

Rogers, Liam (1996) ‘The Enchanted Crossroads’, White Dragon. Online.

Roud, Steve (2006) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (London: Penguin Books).

Eighteenth Century British Folk Religion

In the third volume of his Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1849), John Brand quotes the following from a manuscript entitled Discourse of Witchcraft, which is attributed to ‘Mr. John Bell, Minister of the Gospel at Gladsmuir, 1705′:

Guard against devilish charms for men or beasts. There are many sorceries practised in our day, against which I would on this occasion bear my testimony, and do therefore seriously ask you, what is it you mean by your observation of times and seasons as lucky or unlucky? What mean you by your many spells, verses, words, so often repeated, said fasting, or going backward? How mean you to have success by carrying about with you certain herbs, plants, and branches of trees?

Why is it, that, fearing certain events, you do use such superstitious means to prevent them, by laying bits of timber at doors, carrying a Bible meerly for a charm, without any farther use of it? What intend ye by opposing witchcraft to witchcraft, in such sort that, when ye suppose one to be bewitched, ye endeavour his relief by burnings, bottles, horseshoes, and such like magical ceremonies?

How think ye to have secrets revealed unto you, your doubts resolved, and your minds informed, by turning a sieve or a key? or to discover by basons and glasses how you shall be related before you die? Or do you think to escape the guilt of sorcery, who let your Bible fall open on purpose to determine what the state of your souls is by the first word ye light upon?

In 1725, a book was published which sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. In the book, Henry Bourne collects together the results of his research into the beliefs of his fellow Englishmen and highlights the fact that both the customs/rituals they observe and the beliefs they hold to be true are in the large part not of an orthodox Christian nature; in fact, they really constitute clear examples of folk religion and folk magic. Speaking of the majority of the English population of his day, Bourne states:

As to the Opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious, being generally either the Produce of Heathenism; or the Inventions of indolent Monks, who having nothing else to do, were the Forgers of many silly and wicked Opinions, to keep the World in Awe and Ignorance. And indeed the ignorant Part of the World, is still so aw’d, that they follow the idle Traditions of the one, more than the Word of GOD; and have more Dependance upon the lucky Omens of the other than his Providence, more Dread of their unlucky ones, than his Wrath and Punishment.

Sources: 

John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Volume III (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.268-269. Available online at Google Books and the Internet Archive.

Henry Bourne (1725) Antiquitates Vulgares: or, the Antiquities of the Common People. Giving an account of several of their opinions and ceremonies (Newcastle: J. White). Download the book at Google Books or read online here.