Professions: Clergy

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Professions: Clergy

Like every other American profession, the clergy confronted massive political, social, and cultural upheavals in the years between the late colonial and Jacksonian periods. To adapt to these changes, denominations had to innovate in the recruitment and training of young men for the ministry. While ministerial roles evolved, the clergy's overall cultural importance suffered no diminution. Indeed, the American churches rose to the challenges of the times. To take just one measure, the per capita supply of clergymen outpaced the rapid growth of the American population during the early Republic by more than three times.

the late colonial background

Regional variations differentiated the place of the clergy in colonial America. Congregationalism was established throughout New England outside of Rhode Island, although Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers were tolerated. The region was the best supplied with ministers, because they could receive the requisite liberal arts education at Harvard or Yale. Local pastors encouraged promising young men to study for the ministry, as did families who viewed it as an appropriate station for their sons. After graduation, aspiring ministers lived with a clergyman for several months, in order both to study theology and to observe day-to-day pastoral work. Following this training, a young ministerial candidate would begin preaching with the hope of receiving a call from a local church that, if accepted, would lead to his ordination. It was the expectation of minister and townspeople alike that his settlement over that church would be for life. In the eighteenth century, the local Congregational minister played a central role in town life, was accorded the status of other social leaders, and typically enjoyed the deference of his flock.

In the colonies from Maryland southward, the established Anglican minister likewise enjoyed status among the gentry. Anglican clergymen were educated at both American colleges and British universities, but they all had to be ordained overseas, since there was no American bishop. In part because of this requirement, the Church of England suffered from a chronic undersupply of clergymen in the colonies, which prevented it from expanding with the frontier. The social pretensions of the Anglican leadership also inhibited evangelization of the large slave population.

Diversity of religions characterized the middle colonies, where there was no single dominant denomination or established church. Quakers did not require formal education for the ministry, relying instead on the Spirit to equip believers. They competed for adherents with Anglicans and a host of immigrant denominations, such as Dutch Reformed, German Lutheran, and Scottish Presbyterian, which often still had significant ties to European ecclesiastical bodies. Newly arrived clergymen sometimes complained about their ambivalent status amid middle colony diversity, but they were nevertheless critical anchors for their communities.

The Great Awakening that struck various locales throughout the colonies from the 1740s through the 1770s often divided the clergy as factions disputed the theological meaning of the revivals and the propriety of itinerant preaching. Such infighting may have lessened the clergy's social standing. Baptists, relying on a part-time ministry, recorded substantial gains in both New England and Virginia. The Awakening inspired a number of enslaved men and women to take up preaching, and their efforts led to the first large-scale conversions of African Americans to Christianity. The Awakening also led to the founding of several new colleges for the training of ministers, including the College of New Jersey (founded by Presbyterians in 1746 and now known as Princeton University), Rhode Island College (Baptists, 1764, now Brown University), Queens College (Dutch Reformed, 1766, now Rutgers University), and Dartmouth College (Congregationalists, 1769).

revolutionary transformations

The loyalism of many Anglican clergymen forced them to flee during the Revolutionary War. This, combined with the libertarian logic of the Revolution, led to the Church of England's disestablishment after independence. Patriot ministers, meanwhile, often served as military chaplains, and their preaching provided important ideological sanction for the rebellion.

During the early national period, New England Congregationalists sided with the Federalist Party, which eventually undermined their position in a closely divided region. As a result of this political contention and the surging number of dissenters, they too were disestablished during the first third of the nineteenth century. Moreover, lifetime pastorates declined, and clergymen found new career paths in the early Republic's proliferating voluntary organizations, missionary societies, and educational institutions. Education for the ministry took a giant step forward with the founding of theological seminaries, starting with Andover in 1808. Congregationalists, the Dutch Reformed, and Presbyterians jointly supported the American Education Society, founded in 1815, to fund the training of aspiring ministers of modest means. Still, these denominations struggled to train enough educated ministers to keep pace with the nation's demographic and geographic expansion.

The new nation's small Jewish community faced an even more drastic problem of a total lack of any traditionally trained rabbis prior to the 1840s. Into this vacuum, a synagogue's hazan, or "salaried reader" (Faber, p. 19), often stepped forward as not only its liturgical leader but also its publicly recognized spokesman to the community at large.

insurgents of the second great awakening

The shortage of Protestant clergymen would be more than filled by the Baptists and Methodists. These denominations did not require a college education for the ministry and instead emphasized spiritual experience and preaching ability. The young, single men who were usually recruited into the ministerial ranks could relate to the early Republic's ordinary folk. Their preaching largely fueled the revivals of the Second Great Awakening during the first third of the nineteenth century. Among the Methodists, ministers worked their way up the hierarchy from class leader to exhorter, local preacher, and itinerant. Bishop Francis Asbury (1745–1816) modeled the life he expected from his circuit riders by crisscrossing the nation repeatedly. By the 1820s, however, both of these denominations were placing greater emphasis on respectability and education and accordingly founded colleges.

By not requiring a college degree in their early phase, the insurgent denominations of the Second Great Awakening for a time opened a door to the participation of women and African Americans. More than one hundred women used their spiritual authority to become exhorters among the Christian Connection, Freewill Baptists, and Methodists, although they did not press for ordination. Black preachers too played a critical role in the evangelization of African Americans, both free and enslaved. However, African Americans often found themselves relegated to subordinate roles; among Methodists, for instance, they could exhort but not become licensed itinerants. As a result, the early nineteenth century saw the founding of numerous independent "African" churches and the organization in of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination with Richard Allen (1760–1831) elected as its first bishop in 1816.

See alsoEducation: Colleges and Universities; Religion: Overview; Revivals and Revivalism .


Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Brekus, Catherine A. Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Faber, Eli. A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820. Vol. 1, The Jewish People in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Scott, Donald M. From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750–1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

Wigger, John H. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Jonathan D. Sassi

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Professions: Clergy

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