Patricia Appelbaum: Protestant Blessings and Cultural Change
We welcome to the blog a guest post by Patricia Appelbaum, author of St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America’s Most Popular Saint. How did a thirteenth-century Italian friar become one of the best-loved saints in America? Around the nation today, St. Francis of Assisi is embraced as the patron saint of animals, beneficently presiding over hundreds of Blessing of the Animals services on October 4, St. Francis’s Catholic feast day. Not only Catholics, however, but Protestants and other Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and nonreligious Americans commonly name him as one of their favorite spiritual figures. Drawing on a dazzling array of art, music, drama, film, hymns, and prayers, Appelbaum explains what happened to make St. Francis so familiar and meaningful to so many Americans.
In anticipation of the annual Feast of St. Francis and the blessing of the animals this Sunday, October 4, Appelbaum shares the history of giving blessings—a practice that began with Catholics and spread to Protestants.
It’s the season of blessings again. In many places there are blessings of backpacks for the new school year. Here and there, bicycles that were not blessed in spring will have another chance. On October 4, religious groups all over the country and around the world will hold “blessings of the animals” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. What I find remarkable is how many of these ceremonies take place in Protestant churches.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was growing up, Protestants did not bless things. Events like the “blessing of the fleet” or the “blessing of the cars” were strictly Roman Catholic. We outsiders thought they were kind of quaint. There were exceptions, of course: many Protestants asked blessings on meals, and Methodists and Lutherans sometimes blessed houses. But these practices were small-scale and largely private, not large public events. Blessings were generally for people, not for things.
Protestant worship books confirm this absence. For example, the Book of Common Worship of 1932—an ecumenical collection of model services—has no blessing rites at all. The Congregational worship book for 1948 included only the blessing of a civil marriage. Presbyterians in 1966 provided for table grace, but not for services of blessing. Into the 1980s, the pattern was similar.
By contrast, the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1907 says, “Inanimate things that subserve the equitable needs and conveniences of society may receive from the Church the stamp of her benediction.” Catholic clergy could bless seeds, working animals, mills, telegraphs, and steam engines, among other things. Today, American Catholic practice allows for an entire book of authorized blessing rites.
In the mid-1980s, though, things began to change for Protestants. The “blessing of the animals” service—reinvented in an Episcopal church—caught the public eye and quickly became popular. One likely reason for this was a new cultural interest in animals.
What’s less obvious is that the 1980s were also the cultural moment for the act of blessing. Why was that? To begin with, mainline Protestants by that time felt less of a need to define themselves in opposition to Catholicism. Following a long series of historical shifts, Roman Catholics were now more open to ecumenical engagement, and mainliners were seeking resources in Catholicism for social action and spiritual practice. At the same time, charismatic and Pentecostal movements were emphasizing practical actions like healing and blessing. In a different way, so was feminist spirituality. Matthew Fox’s religious bestseller Original Blessing helped to popularize the idea of blessing. Another factor may have been the controversies over gay partnerships: sympathetic religious communities offered formal blessings of relationships when they could not legalize them, and in the process they made the practice of blessing more familiar.
And there is still more to it. Blessing services provided an attractive way to reach out to the public, especially for mainline churches. By the late 1980s, these churches had realized that their numbers were in steady decline after the upheavals of the previous two decades. They found aggressive evangelism off-putting, however, and so did the people they most wanted to reach. Blessing services were an appealing way to invite people in.
Blessings also fit well with our consumerist age. A blessing is transactional. It’s a single act at a specific moment. It doesn’t require commitment, either. Unlike formal membership, which is long term and general, a blessing is particular and circumscribed. The participant need not belong and barely has to believe. So it is a way for churches to make something available in the short term, in a positive way, to a cautious or suspicious public.
In no way am I suggesting that these blessings aren’t meaningful. Many people who give and receive them testify to their emotional power. For others they may be perfunctory, of course. But what I’m wondering is what made it possible for this practice to take hold in these communities at this moment in history; to be received in a way that has led to general acceptance and further creative iterations.
Here’s what I see: A blessing is short, concrete, and transactional. It’s beneficial and positive. It’s visible and material—performed physically, attached to an object or animal. It’s particular, specific, and personal. It’s only lightly theological. It’s powerful but not too awesome or frightening.
Maybe it’s mainstream religion for the postmodern age.
Patricia Appelbaum, an independent scholar of religion and American culture, is author of Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture between World War I and the Vietnam Era. Her latest book, St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America’s Most Popular Saint, is now available. To keep up with the author’s encounters with St. Francis in America, follow her website St. Francis Sightings.
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