1783-1815: Religion: Overview
1783-1815: Religion: Overview
Old-Time Religion. The old meeting house, a barnlike building with a tall white steeple, was the center of life in the New England village of the 1790s. Every Sunday the steeple bell rang solemnly, breaking the austere stillness of the morning. Virtually the entire town gathered together for the Sunday service, just as naturally as they woke up or had breakfast. In the summer the church filled with hot sunshine; in winter months the congregation shivered as the wind rattled the loose windows. No one ever left early, however, “for everybody was there, mother, aunts, grandmother, and all the town.” In the meeting house, the leading citizens, including the minister’s family and the wealthier farmers, sat in front, dressed in ruffles and plush coats. Farther back were families with less money, whose clothes were not elaborate but were scrupulously clean, worn only to church. A blacksmith asserted the dignity of his work and his democratic principles by wearing a clean leather apron. On simple benches to one side sat families of Indians, descendants of the Native Americans converted by Puritan missionaries in the area a century before. In a separate gallery on the other side sat the town’s blacks, some free, some slave. All listened as a minister in a flowing black robe, wearing a wig and black gloves, delivered a sermon, often an hour long. After the sermon the congregation sang a hymn or two together, although there was no organ. The minister would lead prayers for families in trouble of one kind or another, trouble the entire congregation would already know about. As they were leaving the church, people greeted each other and gossiped about the news. Sunday was a quiet time, but it was also the only break in the weekly routine of hard work. No one wanted to miss the chance to be godly and socialize at the same time.
Myth and Reality. Harriet Beecher Stowe, most famous as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), offered this picture of New England religion in Oldtown Folks (1869), a novel that drew on her childhood experiences in Connecticut in the early 1800s. Perhaps because she was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, one of the most famous ministers of the time, she appreciated how important religion was to the lives of many Americans in the early republic. Stowe’s Oldtown Folks is a myth about early New England, and the importance of the region for the development of American culture after the Revolution. But like all good myths, it has a large element of truth in it. Many Americans did go to their village’s one church every Sunday, as Stowe described, and did meet their neighbors and their God there. This was true in New England as well as in other regions, and the independent congregation’s weekly service was a basic building block of religious experience for people across the new republic. But religion was more than Sunday meetings. It was personal meditation on the Bible, as well as rowdy “camp meetings” on the frontier. It was a social force that restrained America’s movement toward individualism, even as it became one of the main arenas in which newly free Americans asserted their individuality. It was an experience that changed for many Americans over the course of the early national era, as they moved from church to church seeking truth, and as the churches remade themselves for the new times. Early national religion was as varied as early national America, but some unifying themes were discernible. Oldtown Folks provides some understanding of what Americans meant when they talked about religion and what religion was like in the early national era.
Everyday Life. Perhaps the most important clue Stowe provides about religion in the period after the American Revolution is that it was everywhere. For many early Americans religion was not only something for Sunday or for the church. It was also something to talk and argue about at home, on the street, and in school. It was something you did by yourself, with your family, and with the whole town. It was a way of making connections to strangers, and it could also divide neighbors from each other. It was the basis for making decisions about what to do with your life, how to judge others, and what to think about the world outside your town. It shaped your whole life. One sign of the widespread presence of religion was the Bible, by far the most widely available book in early America. Between 1777 and 1799 there were sixty-eight different editions of the English Bible printed in the United States. If a family owned a book, it was sure to be the Bible. A large, illustrated family Bible was almost always on a table in a middle-class family’s parlor. The Bible was physically present everywhere, but was also part of everyday conversation, a source for children’s names, and a constant reference in the political speeches of the day. Its many uses indicate how religion pervaded all aspects of early American life. Few Americans distinguished sharply between religion and other parts of their culture; religion to most people meant all the things that being human meant. As Stowe suggested, being religious was as natural as having breakfast.
Changing Christianity. The presence of the Bible reminds us that the religion of Oldtown Folks was a specific kind of religion. Many early Americans were Calvinists. Calvinism was a branch of the Protestant movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s. Many of the Europeans settling North America held Calvinist beliefs, and those beliefs were central to several American religious groups. The most famous Calvinists were the New England Puritans, whose descendants populated Stowe’s Oldtown Folks. Puritans or not, American Calvinists held to the idea that God is absolutely powerful, humans are fundamentally sinful, and God had sent Jesus to redeem humanity and provide a chance for some to go to heaven at the Last Judgment, all as described in the Bible. Some of these ideas were changing quickly in the early national era. Many liberal thinkers were increasingly restless with traditional ways. They wanted a wider scope for human freedom in religion as well as in politics. They found the dour Calvinist God oppressive and imagined a more benevolent and humane deity. One result of these new ideas was that Americans had a variety of religious choices in the early national period. By 1815 there were so many churches and denominations to choose from that religious diversity was rightly being seen as an essential part of American culture. So while religion for most Americans in this era meant Protestant Christianity, it also meant to many Americans a degree of freedom in their beliefs and practices.
Christianizing America. Religion was present everywhere, but that was no accident. Many Americans worked hard in the early national era to make sure Christianity was impossible to escape. In general the period was a time of unification and institution building in response to the disruption of the Revolutionary era. Part of that disruption had been a decline in church membership. The churches regrouped after 1783 and began a recruiting drive that became one of the most powerful forces in American culture. Taking seriously the biblical order to “Go and teach all nations,” the Protestant churches began to Christianize America, with some spectacular results. Rates of church membership steadily rose over the period, faster than the population grew. People flocked especially to the newer denominations such as the Baptist, the Methodist, and that of the Disciples of Christ, which exploded onto the frontier west of the Appalachian Mountains. These western areas were one center of Christian evangelizing, where the churches worked hard to bring souls to Christ and civilize the wilderness at the same time. At times the religious outbursts of the period seemed quite spontaneous, but the circuit riders and revivalist preachers at the camp meetings of this era planned their work carefully, with an eye toward the needs of early Americans and the opportunities presented by conditions in the new republic. This intense evangelization produced emotional conversion experiences in many Americans, who in turn took up the job of spreading Christianity in their homes, schools, and churches.
Free Individuals. The hard work of evangelizing the United States meant that while religion was a mechanism for social unity, it was also a cause of social conflict. Stowe’s picture of the entire community gathered together on Sunday morning was only partly true. There were always people who did not join a church and stood outside the social order Stowe portrayed. Even those who were in the churches often fought with each other over what they believed and what they did. Many times their differences seemed more important to them than their basic similarity as Christians. The early republic saw not only the growth of large denominations such as the Methodists, but also the emergence of hundreds of small religious groups, called sects. Several of these had very unusual views about religion; some even abandoned Christianity. This was too much religious freedom for some Americans, and they struggled to contain the new forms of religious expression. They also struggled to control more-mundane kinds of freedom that seemed to threaten religion and social order. This often meant preaching against drinking, dueling, and other disruptive social practices that were too common in the era. But it also meant wrestling with the implications of freedom itself, the republican value that had fueled the Revolution. Some people would have criticized the democratic Old-town Folks blacksmith for feeling free to wear his apron to church, no matter how clean it was. One prominent Baptist minister reacted to social disorder in 1787 by reminding his listeners that “the Command of God is ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’” But for many Americans religion was a matter of individual choice, and the message of submission to authority, even divinely ordained authority, was starting to sound quite old-fashioned.
Race. Stowe described the Oldtown Folks blacks and Indians as sitting apart from the rest of the congregation, and this is a reminder that for many Americans the experience of religion was largely determined not by their free choice as individuals but by their race and social status. Both Native Americans and African Americans were the targets of some of the most intense evangelizing efforts in this period. To Native Americans, Protestant missionaries preached a message of Christian freedom. However, it went hand in hand with constant pressure from white Americans to give up their land and traditional cultures, so to many Indians Christianity was a sign of something lost. The situation for African Americans was even more complex because so many were enslaved. Slaveowners used Christianity to defend the system of bondage even as Christianity also offered hope for spiritual freedom to those held in slavery. A few Americans in this period, black Christians among them, used religion to attack slavery and racism. But there was no consensus on this, and American Protestants, black and white, would struggle over this issue until the Civil War, and even after. Christian unity and peace was more a hope than a reality, especially with respect to race, and religion to many Americans meant something for a future time instead of what they had now.
A Millennial America. The heady days of the American Revolution had led many to think that humanity was facing a watershed, no less than the final days of God’s judgment. This feeling, called millennialism, increased with the onset of the French Revolution, and the spread of war throughout Europe, which the United States finally joined in its second conflict with England, the War of 1812. People pored over their Bibles looking for help in reading the “signs of the times.” Anticipating the end times gave an intense urgency to religious tasks. It inspired evangelists in their preaching since the rapid growth of conversions to Christ was one sign that judgment was coming quickly. Millennialism made the task of social reform more urgent too since some thought the end times would begin with a thousand-year period of a perfected social order. For many, America had a special role at this particular crisis of history. As the place where the new order of freedom and equality first took hold, it was naturally the home of this perfected world. Preachers such as Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, spoke of America as a new Israel, meaning that Americans were the people chosen by God to lead the world into the millennial heaven. And despite the official separation of church and state, political leaders from George Washington on down regularly asked for God’s blessing on America and considered the nation’s work to be God’s work too. So for many Americans religion was strongly mixed with national pride, and a sense of how exceptional the new country was in God’s view. They strongly believed that what one poem called the “rising glory of America” was a divine sanction for optimism and activism of all kinds.
Women. When Stowe wrote that everyone in Old-town Folks was at church, the ones she named specifically were all women. Females dominated the membership of churches in this era, even if few were leaders or preachers. There are many reasons for the presence of women at the heart of so much religious activity in the early republic. One was that American Protestantism was becoming for many a religion of the heart. The revivalists and other evangelicals of the era tried hard to prompt an intensely emotional response to God, one that would affect individuals so strongly that they would feel a “new birth” and convert to faith in Christ. The language they used to talk about God was filled with phrases such as “searching your heart.” Emphasizing feelings of God’s presence, rather than ideas about God, meant that religion was accessible to all, regardless of background or training. That a woman had not been to college was no bar to her having as much insight into religion as the most educated minister. Indeed, because women in this era were understood to be more naturally emotional than men, they supposedly had more insight into religion. This was a double-edged sword, of course, since women were probably more constrained than they were freed by the way people thought about gender. But for half of the American population, religion meant a social world especially attuned to women’s feelings and needs. It reflected women’s experiences even if it could not resolve the contradictions of those experiences.
Democratic Religion? Probably for all Americans in the early republic, religion was a combination of something traditional and something that was part of their time and place. They were living through the aftermath of the Revolution and trying hard to adapt older ways to new ideas and circumstances. This was as true of religion as of art, education, or politics. They had many different views about religion because they also found themselves in a wide variety of circumstances. For many the new nation meant freedom and equality, a chance for an individual to shape the world for himself or herself. Early Americans often experienced religion in the same way. In the exuberance of a frontier revival meeting, it was easy to see American Protestantism as open to all, shaped by individual participants and not by autocratic priests, a symbol of the democracy emerging in America. There is truth in this, as there is truth in Stowe’s picture of the New England origins of this national phenomenon. But in freely choosing evangelical Protestantism, many early Americans also freely embraced a religion that was authoritarian and that considered humans to be sinful and saved only by God’s action, not their own. America’s religious culture was a mix of elements which can seem contradictory to us today. The story of early American religion is more complicated than any one telling captures, and the details of the varieties of religious experience in the new republic are just as revealing as the big story of the emergence of an evangelical culture in the newly independent United States.
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