Evangelical Protestants exerted an enormous cultural influence in nineteenth-century America. In 1791 the population totaled four million, 5 to 10 percent of whom, or less than 400,000, joined any church. By 1870, 40 million people inhabited the United States, 20 percent of whom, or more than eight million, were evangelicals. Methodists and Baptists outnumbered every other denomination, together accounting for two-thirds of Protestants.
The term "evangelical" originates in the Bible, translated from the Greek euaggellion and the Anglo-Saxon godspel, meaning good news of salvation from sin through faith in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The so-called Great Commission, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15 KJV), has inspired generations of Christians with confidence in the power of language to transform the world. Protestants first called themselves evangelicals during the Reformation, when Martin Luther's (1483–1546) followers in Germany adopted the name Evangelische Kirche, or Evangelical Church. In addition to his famed ninety-five theses, Luther circulated sermons, tracts, hymns, and broadsides to communicate the gospel.
The name "evangelical" developed a more restrictive meaning during the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century. Self-proclaimed evangelicals reserved the label, which had earlier referred to all Protestants, for a subset of church adherents they approved. Evangelicals distinguished themselves from high church traditionalists, whom they accused of relying on the sacraments instead of the gospel, and from rationalist liberals, whom they charged with denying the gospel's power. Transatlantic revivalists like George Whitefield (1714–1770) and John Wesley (1703–1791) wrote or republished hundreds of periodicals, tracts, books, and hymns to reinforce their preaching. A subsequent wave of revivals, the Second Great Awakening, reached its peak in the 1830s. These revivals stimulated the formation of moral reform societies, many of which employed the press to gain adherents.
Scholars typically emphasize individual conversion as the apex of evangelical experience. Yet conversion marked the first step in a lifelong, communal pilgrimage toward holiness or sanctification, as Christians progressively modeled their lives after Christ's. Printed texts—both those traditionally classed as literature and a much wider array of sermons, histories, memoirs, gift books, Sunday school libraries, periodicals, and hymnals—played a critical role in sustaining and transmitting evangelical values both within evangelical communities and across American culture as a whole.
By the mid-nineteenth century most American Protestants thought of themselves as evangelicals but no less often described themselves as members of a denomination. According to denominational theory, one Christian Church divided into multiple branches, each of which contributed to the growth of the whole. The establishment clause of the First Amendment (1791) prohibited Congress from supporting any particular denomination; every state followed suit in formally dis-establishing religion by 1833. Under a new voluntary principle, denominations developed into fuller institutional dimension in the United States than in Europe.
Evangelical and denominational identities blossomed simultaneously and in tension. Denominational rivalries cut across the shared fabric of evangelicalism, generating fierce polemics around issues such as baptism and free will. Simultaneously, many Protestants hoped that interdenominational unity would hasten the millennium, or thousand-year period prefatory to Christ's Second Coming. More than fifty American and European denominations sent representatives to the first meeting of the Evangelical Alliance, held in London in 1846; an American branch formed in 1867. The alliance promoted fellowship, cooperation, and prayer for united action against the forces opposing evangelical religion—enumerated by the convention as Roman Catholicism, ignorance, strong drink, and an irreligious press.
Evangelical denominations, despite biting antagonisms toward one another, strove to form a united front against common opponents, including Catholics, liberal Protestants, and other sects perceived as unevangelical. Robert Baird (1798–1863), a spokesperson for Presbyterianism and for the nondenominational American Bible Society, American Sunday-School Union, and Evangelical Alliance, used his influential history Religion in America; or, An Account of the Origin, Progress, Relation to the State, and Present Condition of the Evangelical Churches in the United States, with Notices of the Unevangelical Denominations (1844) to solidify popular perceptions of difference between what he termed evangelical and unevangelical denominations. According to Baird, evangelicals, those who recognized "Christ as common head," included Protestant Episcopal churches, Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, German and Dutch Reformed, Methodists, Moravians, Lutherans, United Brethren, Winebrennarians, Mennonists, Quakers, and Baird added "with much hesitation," Disciples (p. 251). Baird similarly compiled a list of unevangelical denominations, which he defined as those "not ranked with those for whom the whole Bible and only the Bible is a foundation" (p. 270). Although recognizing that not all unevangelical churches shared the "same footing," Baird listed together Roman Catholics, Unitarians, the Christian Connection, Universalists, Swedenborgians, Dunkers, Jews, Rappists, Shakers, Mormons, Atheists, Deists, Socialists, and Fourierists. Not everyone would have compiled the same lists, but Baird's division of the religious world into evangelical and unevangelical segments reflected and perpetuated a perception widely held by self-identified evangelicals.
EVANGELICAL USES OF LITERATURE
Lists of denominations that fell within or without evangelicalism do not tell the whole story of evangelical influence. Although twenty-first-century terminology often confuses the terms "evangelical" and "fundamentalist," nineteenth-century evangelicals were not fundamentalists in the sense of being culturally defensive, frozen in a world withdrawn from the broader milieu. Evangelicals participated in the American literary market both to exert an influence and to appropriate useful resources. Certain individuals, such as Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791–1865), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), and Susan Warner (1819–1885), inhabited both evangelical and nonevangelical literary worlds and attempted to bridge the gap between them.
Evangelicals distinguished between literature written as an end in itself and language calculated to be useful in promoting heavenward progress. Usefulness, more than genre or form, marked texts as evangelical rather than secular. Evangelicals read and wrote literature to influence a scripted action pattern: moving readers forward along a spiritual pilgrimage through this world toward the holiness of heaven. The Protestant Episcopal Lydia Huntley Sigourney's How to Be Happy (1833) pairs a children's narrative with instructions to study the text daily to learn to do good. Those who systematically practice the "science of being good and happy . . . are taken to heaven" (p. 118).
In choosing the pilgrimage metaphor from among alternative tropes for the Christian life, evangelicals placed themselves within a narrative framework constructed by the English Puritan John Bunyan's classic, The Pilgrim's Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (1678), a text more familiar to nineteenth-century readers than virtually any other excepting the Bible. The Congregationalist William Simonds's (pseudonym Walter Aimwell, 1822–1859) The Pleasant Way (1841) was one of many texts that retold Pilgrim's Progress using contemporary scenes, events, and characters. Even literary works better classed as secular than evangelical, such as the transcendentalist Louisa May Alcott's (1832–1888) Little Women (1868–1869), assumed readers' long companionship with Bunyan. Little Women opens with Mrs. March advising her daughters to playact Bunyan's story in earnest; several chapter titles allude to stages in the Christian's journey.
Evangelicals who participated in the American literary market worried about the influence exerted by secular literature, particularly novels. An anonymous physician warned in Confessions and Experience of a Novel Reader (1855) that the "popular literature" of the day had opened a "floodgate" of "public poison . . . from beneath whose slimy jaws runs a stream of pollution, sending forth its pestilential branches to one great ocean of immorality" (pp. 26–27). Evangelicals criticized secular authors for merely exciting the imagination instead of provoking moral action on behalf of others. Rather than eschew literature altogether, evangelicals wrote and read religious genres envisioned as alternatives to secular fiction. Doctrine reinforced religious truth, memoirs offered models for Christian character formation, science and history explained God's providence, travel narratives encouraged interest in missions, periodicals sustained community awareness, and hymnals unified evangelicals despite denominational divisions.
John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) exerted a deeper influence on nineteenth-century literature and culture than did any other text excepting the Bible.
This book it chalketh out before thine eyes The man that seeks the everlasting prize: It shows you whence he comes, whither he goes; What he leaves undone; also what he does: It also shows you how he runs and runs Till he unto the gate of glory comes.
Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress, p. 21.
Many evangelicals also read and wrote fiction, arguing that imagination could be made to serve religious purposes. The Congregationalist Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (serialized 1851–1852) employed sentimentalism to move its audiences to oppose slavery and oppression. Stowe's use of sentiment reflected certain evangelicals' growing appreciation of feeling, as opposed to intellect, as a legitimate, even superior, faculty of religious knowledge that promoted useful action. Readers motivated to feel right necessarily acted to right the inherent wrong of slavery. Stowe portrays Little Eva, Uncle Tom, and the Quaker Rachel Halliday as evangelical Christians and as types of Christ, who achieve Christian victory by exemplifying the Last Supper, crucifixion, and heavenly communion. Simultaneously Stowe warns of God's coming wrath toward professed evangelicals who fail to do what they can against slavery.
Other evangelical fiction similarly offered readers models of Christian pilgrimage. Following in the Calvinist literary tradition of the exemplum fidei, Susan Warner's (1819–1885) best-selling The Wide, Wide World (1850) traces Ellen's religious growth as she learns to submit to God's will. Encouraged by Christian friends to read her Bible, hymns, and Pilgrim's Progress, Ellen makes her way through the world seeking to live as a servant of God. The novel's popularity can be partially explained by Warner's omission of references to particular denominations or doctrines; any evangelical reader could identify with Ellen's struggles and triumphs.
Ellen, in Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850), uses her Bible and Pilgrim's Progress to grow as a Christian and to influence others to become Christians.
"Wouldn't it be pleasant, while you are lying there and can do nothing,—wouldn't you like to have me read something to you, Mr. Van Brunt? I should like to, very much."
"It's just like you," said he gratefully,—"to think of that; but I wouldn't have you be bothered with it."
"It wouldn't indeed. I should like it very much."
"Well, if you've a mind," said he;—"I can't say but it would be a kind o' comfort to keep that grain out o' my head a while. Seems to me I have cut and housed it all three times over already. Read just whatever you have a mind to. If you was to go over a last year's almanac, it would be as good as a fiddle to me."
"I'll do better for you than that, Mr. Van Brunt," said Ellen, laughing in high glee at having gained her point.—She had secretly brought her Pilgrim's Progress with her, and now with marvellous satisfaction drew it forth.
"I ha'n't been as much of a reader as I had ought to," said Mr. Van Brunt, as she opened the book and turned to the first page;—"but, however, I understand my business pretty well and a man can't be every thing to once. Now let's hear what you've got there."
With a throbbing heart, Ellen began; and read, notes and all, till the sound of tramping hoofs and Alice's voice made her break off. It encouraged and delighted her to see that Mr. Van Brunt's attention was perfectly fixed. He lay still, without moving his eyes from her face, till she stopped; then thanking her he declared that was a "first-rate book," and he "should like mainly to hear the hull on it."
From that time Ellen was diligent in her attendance on him. That she might have more time for reading than the old plan gave her, she set off by herself alone some time before the others, of course riding home with them. It cost her a little sometimes, to forego so much of their company; but she never saw the look of grateful pleasure with which she was welcomed without ceasing to regret her self-denial. How Ellen blessed those notes as she went on with her reading! They said exactly what she wanted Mr. Van Brunt to hear, and in the best way, and were too short and simple to interrupt the interest of the story. After a while she ventured to ask if she might read him a chapter in the Bible. He agreed very readily; owning "he hadn't ought to be so long without reading one as he had been." Ellen then made it a rule to herself, without asking any more questions, to end every reading with a chapter in the Bible; and she carefully sought out those that might be most likely to take hold of his judgment or feelings. They took hold of her own very deeply, by the means; what was strong, or tender, before, now seemed to her too mighty to be withstood and Ellen read not only with her lips but with her whole heart the precious words, longing that they might come with their just effect upon Mr. Van Brunt's mind.
Warner, The Wide, Wide World, vol. 2, pp. 140–141.
Despite scholars' claims that women's religious fiction weakened orthodox theology, many women used fiction to preach evangelical doctrines. SteppingHeavenward (1869), by the Presbyterian Elizabeth Prentiss (1818–1878), sold over 100,000 copies in the United States during the nineteenth century, besides British, French, and German editions. Formally Stepping Heavenward is an imaginative rendering of a young woman's diary. In the unfolding narrative of everyday experiences, Katy takes daily steps heavenward. The text is doctrinally rigorous, privileges intellectual principle over fluctuating feelings, and legitimates women's experiences not by undercutting theology but by imbuing domestic life with theological significance.
LITERARY CRITIQUES OF EVANGELICALS
Just as evangelicals challenged secular dominance of the literary market by writing religious literature, secular literature critiqued evangelical doctrines and practices. Stowe became increasingly critical of Calvinist doctrine in her later works, such as The Minister's Wooing (1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869), as she turned toward high church Episcopalianism. Similarly, The Gates Ajar (1869), by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911), articulates an alternative to Calvinism. As the novel opens, Mary has just learned of the death of her brother Royal. Mary describes herself as a "member of an Evangelical church, in good and regular standing," who questions a God and heaven that seem to her distant and unattractive (p. 10). In contrast to Dr. Bland's exhortation to submit to afflictions sent by Providence, Aunt Winifred encourages Mary that heaven is like happy, domestic life on earth.
Although Stowe and Phelps objected to what they considered austere doctrines, The Deerslayer (1841) by James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) instead portrays evangelicalism as intellectually vacuous. Raised by Quaker parents who attended Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, Cooper in this novel suggests a more distant relationship to evangelicalism. Hetty Hutter's unquestioning religious faith provides evidence of her feeblemindedness. Cooper contrasts Hetty's purity with the immorality of most other white characters in the novel (excepting Quakers and Moravians) yet ridicules her conviction that reading the Bible to the Hurons will convince them to release their captives. Natty Bumppo is Cooper's ideal; he has little use for the Bible, which he cannot read, but his innate Christian integrity gains the respect of whites and Native Americans.
The most common charge that nineteenth-century literature raises against evangelicals is hypocrisy. "The Celestial Railroad" (1843) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) parodies Pilgrim's Progress. Modern pilgrims, who are wealthier, more respectable, and more liberal-minded than those of Bunyan's day, enjoy a faster, more comfortable journey to the Celestial City on the railroad. These pilgrims retain their financial interest in the City of Destruction and employ Christian's adversary, Apollyon, as engineer. A small minority of pilgrims continue to travel on foot—despite the persecutions of the railroad's passengers—but the vast majority of professed pilgrims never complete their heaven-bound journey.
Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville (1819–1891) similarly critiques evangelical inconsistencies. Father Mapple, for example, preaches rigorous duties to God while physically distancing himself from his congregation. The Quaker captains Bildad and Peleg exhibit greed and irreverence, respectively, treating religion as distinct from the practical world and using the Bible to justify paying Ishmael absurdly low wages. An avowed Presbyterian, Ishmael joins Queequeg in pagan worship because this heathen exhibits more Christian kindness than do professed evangelicals.
Whether endorsing or attacking evangelicals, nineteenth-century literature reflects the group's far-reaching cultural influence. As evangelicals used literature to transform the world, they articulated a high moral standard to which critics held them accountable.
Baird, Robert. Religion in America; or, An Account of theOrigin, Progress, Relation to the State, and Present Condition of the Evangelical Churches in the United States, with Notices of the Unevangelical Denominations. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1844.
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to ThatWhich Is To Come Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. 1678. New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Gates Ajar. Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1868.
Physician, A. Confessions and Experience of a Novel Reader. Chicago: William Stacy, 1855.
Sigourney, Lydia Huntley. How to Be Happy: Written for theChildren of Some Dear Friends. Hartford, Conn.: D. F. Robinson, 1833.
Warner, Susan. The Wide, Wide World. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1851.
Brown, Candy Ann Gunther. "The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Rachel Stearns, 1834–1837: Reinterpreting Women's Religious and Social Experiences in the Methodist Revivals of Nineteenth-Century America." Church History 65 (December 1996): 577–595.
Brown, Candy Gunther. The Word in the World: EvangelicalWriting, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Mission for Life: The Story of theFamily of Adoniram Judson, the Dramatic Events of the First American Foreign Mission, and the Course of Evangelical Religion in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Macmillan, 1980.
Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1977.
Fisher, Philip. Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Moore, R. Laurence. Selling God: American Religion in theMarketplace of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992.
Reynolds, David S. Faith in Fiction: The Emergence ofReligious Literature in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work ofAmerican Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Candy Gunther Brown