The religious tendencies of the American people are manifest. They cling to Protestantism in spite of its shifting doctrines and shambling organizations because it offers them the sovereignty of Jesus Christ for their soul’s salvation. According to the last census there are about thirteen millions of Protestant church members, and a moderate estimate of “adherents” would not fall short of a number three times as large.
Nothing can account for this condition but the prevalence of a powerful religious sentiment, dominant, almost universal, among our non-Catholic countrymen — a determination to secure eternal happiness by obedience to the Gospel of Christ. The entire nation is eager for religion. Earnest and virtuous men and women can win adherence everywhere to any form of Christian belief.
It is not mainly by family traditions, nor by social influences that the Protestant churches are kept up. It is by downright appeals to the religious sense of the people and by honest personal choice. The more worldly attractions are but adjuncts to the deep stirrings of religious aspirations.
It is pitiful to see how this fertile soil is wasted. Apart from the errors of the common run of sects, the most grotesque delusions gather followers if advocated by earnest men.
Having repudiated polygamy the Mormons enter the field with no small chance of success. If this preposterous and till recently unclean sect, can win converts in a typical American community, what cannot the Church of the living God do? And why do the Mormons succeed? Not because of their errors, but because of their earnestness, and because of the fragments of religious truth they have. “Holiness to the Lord!” is their motto, and after holiness the people yearn. Only brigands or monsters are drawn together by untruth or vice. Our fellow-countrymen are allured to the various sects by promise of union with God, made to them by deeply earnest missionaries — union with God by pardon of sin and the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit. Many of them, indeed, if not most of them, change from one erroneous view of the great problems of life to another, and keep on changing. But there is every reason to believe that the Catholic Church with its unity of truth, its perfect rest of soul in the pardon of sin, its twofold union with God in the outer gift of the Holy Eucharist and inner touch of the Spirit, would win and hold them all. But this fulness of truth must be made known to them as their own sects have been — urged, pressed, thrust upon them by every missionary medium, and chiefly by that most resistless of all influences, earnest and devout men and women.
Everywhere in the rural districts (and this article does not refer to the larger cities) one hears of the missionaries of the various Protestant denominations. They hold meetings in the school-houses, they invite all to attend, and they plead for the love of Christ like men on fire. Nothing draws like Christ preached by a zealous man or woman. Then these rural “evangelists” go to the houses of the people, crave leave to pray with them and to read the Bible to them. The result is an increase of membership in the nearest church and often the formation of a new congregation. They organize the society, a minister is engaged, the country church is built, and so they continue for some years. But after a time, their children, if not themselves, are captured in the same way by a rival denomination, a Baptist missionary, a Methodist, a Campbellite, a Seventh-day Adventist, a Mormon, while you and I, brethren of the Apostolic Clergy, stand by and are content to laugh at the grotesque antics of our deluded brethren, as they leap up for the fruit of the tree of life and grasp only the leaves. Would that all of us loved the fruit as earnestly as many of them love the leaves.
— Walter Elliott, American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. I (XI.), September 1894, no. 3.