The Gilded Age of the Church
Updated: May 6, 2022
Pam and I have been watching the series “The Gilded Age.” It was created by the folks who brought us Downton Abbey. It takes place during the era in US history known as “the Gilded Age”- roughly 1875 through 1905, though it can vary depending upon the scholar. The term was coined by Mark Twain. Often something is gilded with gold to mask something of less worth underneath. At that time our country was a hotbed of technological progress which led other avenues of “progress” including urbanization. It was a time of both immense wealth accumulated by the Rockefeller’s, the Vanderbilt’s, Andrew Carnegie and others. The top 1% owned 51% of the country’s wealth. However, underneath that gold, this era saw the rise of terrible poverty and slums, dangerous and low paid labor, as well as irrational fears of immigrants (such as my great grandparents faced when they came over from Germany). This did lead to a rise of progressive reform and relief efforts such as settlement houses to aid the poor.
As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” I wonder if our country is repeating some of these same harmful characteristics today. I also wonder if we have been witnessing the gilded age of the church from 1980 to 2020. We had many large mega churches with superstar pastors devoting large resources to building their religious empire. I know because I unsuccessfully tried to be one. Fortunately, not all mega churches are guilty. And most of these golden churches, like Carnegie, did much good, but they also gave the illusion that all was well with the American church. Yet under the glitter, many churches had lost touch with the main mission of helping earth to be more like heaven by reaching out and working with the under resourced and disadvantaged. They traded spiritual power for a taste of political power or popularity. Recent publicized scandals reveal that superstar leaders had no system of accountability.
The Gilded Age led to reforms which helped shape the future in the 20th century. This same is happening for the church. I am hopeful because I see a new generation of pastors who will not repeat the mistakes which I, along with others made, in missing our main mission. While the church may look rusty right now to the public, there is true gold underneath in the process of being recovered. Have hope.