1800-1860: Religion: Overview
1800-1860: Religion: Overview
Churches in the Expanding West. To Anglo-Americans in the nineteenth century the “West” was a migratory concept, continually being relocated as the next geographical region beyond white settlement. At the turn of the century the “uninhabited” frontier—though home to some 120,000 Native Americans—was the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Waves of migration swept into the region from two primary directions: settlers from the Upper South and Middle Atlantic states streamed across the mountains into Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio, and impoverished New Englanders pushed into western New York and northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois territories. Migrants carried their religious background with them to their new homes, but settlement had to reach a certain density before pious inclinations could be expressed corporately. Although the rudiments of survival distracted from institution building, churches often took priority because they served multiple functions as vital centers for secular fellowship as well as for spiritual comfort. Communities, however dispersed, could use the churches as reference points for the assertion of behavioral norms. Denominational leaders were well aware of the potential for either good or ill in the areas of expanding settlement and reached out to the West with evangelizing programs. Without the civilizing presence of churches and the consolations of religion, the vulnerable communities might become hotbeds of immorality and lawlessness. A Christian West, however, promised not only a harvest of souls but also a pristine environment in which virtue and godliness might become a beacon to the jaded, older states. Whatever future awaited, one thing seemed certain as the nineteenth century opened: religious developments in the West were pivotal to the religious destiny of the nation overall.
Presbyterians. Religious freedom, enshrined as a revolutionary principle, meant that the denominations entered the West as equal competitors. Of the three major groups in the early republic—the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Baptists—the Presbyterian Church was the oldest and most established, and those attributes often made it attractive to people seeking stability in the midst of very uncertain conditions. The Scots-Irish, who formed a large bloc of the Presbyterian membership, had tended to migrate to the fringes of settlement in the eighteenth century. Strategically located in the Southern backcountry and the Ohio River valley after the American Revolution, they were among the first to move westward, and they carried their native faith with them to new communities. The structure of the church allowed local control through the elders, who handled the daily affairs of the congregation, while the regional presbyteries and synods ensured that the scattered flocks maintained order and orthodoxy. The Calvinist theology of Presbyterianism, spelled out in the Westminster Confession, declared that the salvation of the elect was achieved by grace alone, not by any effort on the part of the individual. Doctrinal conformity required the guidance of properly educated ministers and catechistic instruction, both of which were in short supply in the West. Given time, these disadvantages might have lessened, with accommodation in the interim to the practical realities of the sparse settlement, but the Presbyterian Church, still shaken by a schism in the eighteenth century, remained fearful that any compromise in polity or doctrine opened the floodgates to ungodliness.
Plan of Union. Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches dominated New England at the turn of the century, and one characteristic they shared was that they held ministerial aspirants to strict standards of education and experience. Consequently, both denominations suffered a dearth of ministers, and both were hamstrung in their ability to serve the communities quickly forming in western New York and the Ohio River valley. Under the Plan of Union in 1801, the two groups allowed the creation of joint churches, with the minister and polity to be chosen by the majority. This “presbygational” hybrid was an innovative strategy for evangelizing the West, yet it had long-range consequences for both churches. In institutional terms the Presbyterians’ more aggressive structure tended to absorb the Congregational churches, but in doctrine the Congregational infusion served to weaken Presbyterianism’s Calvinist orthodoxy. Fears of corruption led conservative Presbyterians to question the benefits of all interdenominational programs and set the stage for a later division.
Methodists. Methodism had originated as a reform movement within the Church of England, but with American independence, the Methodist Episcopal Church had ventured out as a distinct denomination. By the early nineteenth century Methodism was enjoying explosive growth, especially in the West. Its key innovation—the circuit rider, or itinerant preacher—seemed admirably suited to the needs of far-flung settlements. The circuit rider would journey into the wilds, close on the heels of the pioneers. Evangelizing wherever there were people, he would gather converts into classes to meet, read the Bible, and keep one another out of sin’s reach until his return. Long circuits covering hundreds of miles gradually divided and contracted as more people moved into the area, increasing the number of local societies. To ensure connection with the larger Methodist fellowship, the circuit membership assembled quarterly for a “refreshing” time of communion and witness. In its organization the church was fundamentally hierarchical. Authority flowed downward from the bishops to the itinerant preachers, who met in annual conferences and laid out standards of belief and practice for the members. Yet in other respects the church displayed democratic elements. The Methodist preacher was an ordinary person who had been raised up from a class and had proven his dedication and abilities before a conference of fellow itinerants. Equality of opportunity was the rule for lay leadership as well. In theology Methodism repudiated the exclusivity of Calvinist election. Instead, salvation, offered by the grace of God, was open to all, and human beings could choose to accept or refuse the gift. Free will thus supplanted predestination. (This religious stance was popularly known as Arminian, in reference to the sixteenth-century theologian Jacobus Arminius.) By deciding to accept God’s invitation, the convert set out on a rigorous journey of “sanctification,” which could lead the faithful toward the ultimate Methodist goal of perfection—perfect in love and perfect in understanding. Methodism, then, seemed to respond to the two conflicting needs of religion in the West. Its celebration of free will and open opportunity meshed with the independent image of the pioneer, yet its structure and discipline provided cohesion and behavioral boundaries. The numbers substantiated Methodism’s appeal, and competing churches ruefully acknowledged the legendary speed with which Methodism advanced into every new territory. By 1820 Methodist membership had reached 250,000, and by 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest denomination in the nation.
Baptists. The spontaneous emergence of Baptist churches in newly settled areas distinguished the denomination from other groups. The farmer-preacher simply felt a calling that, if acknowledged by his peers, could lead to the gathering of a congregation. This liberated concept of the ministry was one of the Baptists’ three defining principles—the other two being adult baptism by immersion and intense Congregationalism. The absence of organizational controls beyond the local church gave the Baptists flexibility as they planted new congregations, but they submitted to voluntary discipline and oversight through regional associations. The theological alignments of the Baptists paralleled their institutional focus on autonomy. Although Baptists in the Northern states often claimed a Calvinist heritage, confirmed by subscription to a shared confession, many Baptists in the Upper South had emerged from the revolutionary fires with less patience for binding creeds or Calvinist uniformity. Distinctly Arminian principles of free will and general redemption were among the traditions carried to the Trans-Appalachian West by Virginia and North Carolina Baptists.
Cane Ridge Camp Meeting. The nineteenth century awakened to scattered signs of revival in New England, but it was a camp meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801 that became the symbol and standard of religion in the early republic. Cane Ridge was the climax to a series of gradually expanding revivals, spearheaded by Presbyterian minister James McGready. During prolonged church services filled with impassioned sermons and prayers, McGready encouraged an emotional response from his listeners. His success among his churches in Logan County, Kentucky, enthused fellow minister Barton W. Stone in neighboring Bourbon County. Stone announced that a camp meeting would be held in early August. Rumors of a miraculous work astir had already generated a considerable amount of curiosity, and this meeting, publicized for more than a month, was set closer to the center of Kentucky’s population. When the day arrived, Elder David Purviance remembered that “the roads were literally crowded with wagons, carriages, horsemen, and people on foot, all pressing to the appointed place.” More than ten thousand people from all walks of life gathered at Cane Ridge, convincing participants that a divine hand was indeed guiding events. The revival continued for five emotion-charged days. Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian ministers joined forces to evangelize the masses, and the air was filled with exhortation, hymn singing, and wailing. The spectacular experience was the stuff of legends. Stone carefully detailed in his memoirs the sights and sounds, especially the various “exercises” that struck the people as they wrestled with sin and then discovered their salvation: bodily jerks, dancing, singing, laughing, barking, and falling down. Col. Robert Paterson also described the scene: “in the woods, ministers preaching day and night; the camp illuminated with candles, on trees, at wagons, and at the tent; persons falling down, and carried out of the crowd, by those next to them, and taken to some convenient place, where prayer is made for them; some Psalm or Hymn, suitable to the occasion sung.” Another contemporary wrote that “there were present, besides 18 Presbyterian ministers, and a number of Baptist and Methodist preachers, the Governor of the State, each of whom was personally and busily engaged, either in preaching, praying, or exhorting!”
Reaction to Cane Ridge. News of the Cane Ridge camp meeting spread to the East, becoming the butt of jokes to critics but evidence of a second Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit for others. Opponents explained the reports of the participants’ behavior as evidence of nervous troubles, feeblemindedness among frontier people, or susceptibility to mass delusion. Sympathetic observers pointed to altered behavior as proof of the meeting’s benefits. The Washington Intelligencer published George Baxter’s favorable account in 1802:
On my way to Kentucky, I was informed by settlers on the road, that the character of Kentucky travellers was entirely changed; and that they were now as remarkable for sobriety as they had formerly been for dissoluteness and immorality. And indeed I found Kentucky, to appearance, the most moral place I have ever seen … [The revival’s] influence was not less visible in promoting a friendly temper among the people … It has confounded infidelity, awed vice into silence, and brought numbers beyond calculation under serious impressions.
Coming as it did at the cusp of a new century, Cane Ridge offered seemingly indisputable evidence that God was sending a “new dispensation” to regulate human affairs. As a result it nourished the millennial hopes of the early nineteenth century, and its location in Kentucky seemed to indicate a special role for the West in bringing about Christ’s anticipated reign of peace and holiness. The Cane Ridge camp meeting inspired a chain reaction not only along the frontier of Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio but also among the Eastern churches, until the entire nation seemed on fire. The organized revival became the means to congregational growth, especially among Baptists and Methodists. The number of Baptists in Kentucky grew from 4,700 to 13,500 within a year of Cane Ridge, and from 1801 to 1806 the Methodist membership in Kentucky and Tennessee increased from 3,000 to 10,000. The Methodists in particular embraced the camp meeting and, in their usual methodical way, stylized it until it was a carefully structured event by the 1830s. As the decades passed, some came to view Cane Ridge as an uncontrolled explosion. Writing in his 1856 autobiography, Peter Cartwright had to acknowledge its power though he was not so complimentary of its aftershocks:
I suppose since the day of Pentecost, there was hardly ever a greater revival of religion than at Cane Ridge; and if there had been steady, Christian ministers, settled in gospel doctrine and Church discipline, thousands might have been saved to the Church that wandered off in the mazes of vain, speculative divinity, and finally made shipwreck of the faith, fell back, turned infidel, and lost their religion and their souls forever. But evidently a new impetus was given to the work of God, and many, very many, will have cause to bless God forever for this revival of religion throughout the length and breadth of our Zion.
From both vantage points Cane Ridge remained a symbol of the age: looking forward in anticipation of the “new dispensation” and looking backward at the wreckage caused by human frailty.
Second Great Awakening. The wave of renewed interest in spiritual concerns crested in what historians refer to as the Second Great Awakening, forever changing American religion. In confronting colonial Calvinism an evangelical sensibility emerged that extolled free will in claiming redemption and human agency in effecting change. For the first three decades of the nineteenth century, its distinctive characteristics included a consuming zeal to reform the world and a millennial conviction that the United States was singularly poised to realize, as Alexander Campbell wrote, “that ultimate amelioration of society proposed in the Christian Scriptures.” The feverish burst of religiously motivated activity was the product of hope as well as fear. Harmony best characterized the godly society, yet from the beginning the nation had experienced discord, and the new century boded more instability and conflict. The generation coming of age in the early republic felt keenly the burden of the revolutionary legacy, and the uncertainty expressed in the common reference to “the American experiment” was no euphemism. The evangelical persuasion was thus simultaneously optimistic and apprehensive, fearing that unless every Christian shouldered the cross, the experiment would crash. Inspired and prodded by widespread humanitarian campaigns in Great Britain, an “evangelical united front” of voluntary associations sprang up to tackle such issues as temperance, prostitution, prison conditions, slavery, and women’s rights. Shared dedication to a cause took precedence over denominational differences, which again seemed to augur the idealistic possibilities for the nation’s future under Christian influence. The coalition behind this “benevolent empire” lasted until the late 1830s, when it was battered and overwhelmed by economic and political forces.
Missionary Impulse. The missionizing push by benevolent societies to the unchurched and unconverted in the Western settlements was a key development for religion in the West in the nineteenth century. Andover student Samuel Mills toured west of the Alleghenies from 1812 to 1814 and galvanized concerned Christians with his stories of distressed frontier communities lacking ministers, churches, or Bibles. In the territorial capital of Illinois, for example, Mills could not find a single complete copy of the Bible. These “fact-finding” expeditions were extremely influential in an age of limited communication, and they inspired local churches and regional organizations to engage in mission projects. The urgency of the problem seemed to demand wider cooperation, so national groups formed to address the problem of the Western settlements. Their objectives were two-fold: to prevent barbarism from overtaking the new and unchurched communities and to bring the Native Americans into the protecting fold of Christian civilization. Although achieving the second goal would facilitate the first, it was the particular concern with Indian “uplift” that initially drew missionaries into the field. The evangelical thrust to Native America was an important manifestation of religious aspirations for the West in the first half of the nineteenth century. It occurred in two stages. Interdenominational associations, such as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), at first concentrated on the Indian groups nearest to white centers of population: in the areas of the Old Northwest, the Southeast, and just beyond the Mississippi. The second push began in 1831, after four Indians from the Columbia Plateau arrived in St. Louis seeking “the white man’s book of heaven.” Methodists, Presbyterians, and Jesuits turned their attention to the distant lands beyond the Continental Divide until 1847, when the massacre of eleven people at an Oregon mission brought a dramatic halt to missionary projects in the region. The confrontation between the belief systems of indigenous peoples and Euro-Americans was a clash of sacred worlds: an encounter not initially of conquest and domination but of interaction and eventual alienation. Indians responded variously to religious representatives: utilitarian curiosity over a potential new source of power, theological critique, adaptation, conversion, and/or nativist countermovement. The most universal consequence of the missionary impulse for native peoples was factionalism within communities, as Indians individually and corporately struggled to comprehend within a religious framework the changes provoked by westward-expanding settlements.
Cumberland Schism. After the Cane Ridge camp meeting, denominational leaders had rejoiced that revivals in the West had encouraged the spread of churches, but they soon discovered that such an intense release of religious energy was hard to contain. The Presbyterians, the first to enjoy the harvest of the camp meeting, were also the first to suffer schism. Exhilarated by the revivals, the Kentucky Presbyterians sought to keep the momentum going, but that required ministerial leadership. To supply their own needs in the face of a denominationwide shortage, the revivalists took a practical approach and borrowed a leaf from the Methodist manual: they sent unordained licentiates to the scattered settlements to preach the gospel. Nor were they as strict about how closely new converts adhered to the Westminster Confession. These tactics reopened old wounds within the denomination. Facing opposition from more-traditional Presbyterians, the revivalists affiliated as the Cumberland Presbytery, but the Synod of Kentucky refused recognition. Upon appeal to the General Assembly, the highest governing body, the synod declared that its objective “was to suppress the growing irregularities in the west, and yet save one of her Presbyteries from disruption and final ruin.” The assembly reprimanded the dissidents, so they declared their independence from the synod in 1810 and finally severed ties in 1816. The emergence of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was a direct response to the circumstances and needs of the frontier in the wake of Cane Ridge. The church adopted revival methods and a version of the Westminster Confession that was more amenable to free will. Its ministers were also subject to less-rigid educational demands. The Cumberland church grew rapidly in the Trans-Appalachian states, from Mississippi to Indiana, where its membership numbered approximately seventy-five thousand by 1850.
Unity and the Christian Movement. The pride of the Cane Ridge camp meeting had been the unusual spirit of cooperation displayed among the ministers, who set aside their denominational differences for the higher goal of bringing salvation to the wayward. Many believers regarded such disinterested behavior as a sign that unity within Christendom—an essential if elusive prerequisite for the ultimate triumph of the universal Church—was at last within reach. The call to unity was a strong current in the religious aspirations of the early republic, but as seen in the Cumberland division, the desire for harmony among churches confronted the reality of competing claims to religious truth. The “Christian” movement was the most radical response to sectarian rivalry and was especially prominent in the religious landscape of the Trans-Appalachian West. Ironically, its institutional form emerged as the result of two rifts. In 1803 Barton Stone and other revivalists separated from the Presbyterians, called themselves simply “Christians,” and declared their allegiance to the New Testament as their sole guide. Spreading from Kentucky to Ohio to other states bordering the Mississippi, the number of Stone’s followers grew to more than twelve thousand by the late 1820s. Meanwhile, in 1809 Thomas Campbell withdrew from his Seceder Presbyterian Church in Western Pennsylvania and formed a nondenominational “Christian Association.” His son Alexander gave the movement a clearer theological identity, and in 1827 the churches formed by their followers adopted the name “Disciples of Christ.” Five years later the Stone and Campbell churches were loosely affiliated, though congregations continued to call themselves Christians or Disciples of Christ, according to preference. By 1860 membership in the combined churches totaled two hundred thousand and was concentrated west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Mormonism. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known as the Mormons, originated in Western New York in April 1830 under the leadership of Joseph Smith. Hailed by his followers as God’s new prophet, Smith provided the Latter-Day Saints with an indigenous scripture: the Book of Mormon, which he allegedly had translated from ancient plates hidden in a hill near Palmyra, New York. Pushed relentlessly from place to place by opponents, the church attracted increasing numbers of adherents, apparently answering the longings of many for reassurance and purpose in troubled times. In 1840 Mormons began to construct an impressive “New Jerusalem” in Illinois, but success did not bring acceptance from nonbelievers. On 27 June 1844 a mob descended on the Carthage jail where Joseph Smith was awaiting trial on charges of inciting a riot. He and his brother Hiram were murdered. Brigham Young assumed the leadership of the official church, and from 1846 to 1848 he guided some twelve thousand Latter-Day Saints across Iowa and then a thousand miles to the Salt Lake valley. Isolated, the Mormons prospered and expanded, at the same time outraging the East by the practice of polygamy and by claiming a vast “empire” under their control. In an attempt to secure their position, the Mormons created a state they called “Deseret.” The federal government instead designated the area a territory in the Compromise of 1850. The conditions were ripe for conflict. In 1857 President James Buchanan decided to dispatch federal troops to the region to assert federal authority over the rebellious Mormons. Enthusiasm for the half-hearted Utah expedition quickly waned, and the so-called Mormon War had the unintended consequence of confirming the practical autonomy of the Mormon monolith. A towering presence in the religious history of the West, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints challenged the nineteenth-century Protestant establishment with a faith that both reflected and refracted the culture in which it flourished.
New Harmony. In the early nineteenth century the United States became home to a number of communitarian experiments, Utopian as well as millenarian. The most famous communities—such as Brook Farm and Oneida—were located in the East or had a minor role in the religion of the Trans-Appalachian West. An exception was New Harmony, a religious community in Indiana Territory founded by German pietist George Rapp. Fleeing persecution for refusing to worship in the state church, Rapp and three hundred of his followers had arrived in the United States in 1803 and started a community in Western Pennsylvania. In search of better agricultural land, the group decided in 1814 to move to a tract on the Wabash River in Indiana Territory. The Rappite community, now numbering about seven hundred, quickly became the largest and most impressive town in the territory. New Harmony was a model of agricultural and manufacturing productivity, with woolen and saw mills and flourishing vineyards and orchards. The community owned twenty thousand acres of land and 180 brick, frame, and log buildings—churches, shops, granaries, mills, factories, barns, stables, and houses. Visitors from the East and from Europe came to New Harmony and extolled its neat appearance and the industry of its people; reformers looked to it as an economic model. Yet the primary purpose of New Harmony was to accumulate wealth for Christ’s use when He returned, and Rapp considered his congregation to be the bride of Christ, as described in Revelation. Since the Second Coming was thought to be quickly approaching, the Harmonists remained celibate, held all property in common, and submitted to the paternal guidance of their founder, who served as religious leader and confessor. Despite the visible accomplishments of New Harmony, within a decade the leaders decided to return to Pennsylvania, disheartened at the toll taken by malaria and missing the advantages of residing in a state amenable to people of German ancestry. In 1825 they sold all holdings to Robert Owen, who transformed New Harmony into a socialist experiment. The Rappites’ third settlement in Economy, Pennsylvania, became renowned for its woolen manufacture, but after the death of Father Rapp in 1847 the spiritual character of the communitarian project faded. Linkages to the outside world increased interest in secular affairs, dampening chiliasm, or millenarianism, and the drive for sinless perfection. In that respect, the evolution of New Harmony was somewhat analogous to the drift of antebellum religion overall.
Searching for Order. During the 1830s the centrifuge of religious ferment slowed, and the impetus shifted away from the disorder of creative experimentation in matters of faith toward a desire for respectability. In the East a new wave of revivals addressed urban anxieties in particular: the doubts and fears accompanying rapid economic growth, changing work patterns, widening gaps within society based on wealth, and incredible immigration. The area around Rochester, New York, was so inflamed by revivals that it became known as the “burnedover district.” Once again, revived Easterners turned their eyes to the West in missionary zeal, but with altered perception. Observing the settled areas beyond the Appalachians, it now seemed apparent that simply building churches would not “civilize” the behavior and manners of the Western communities. Cultivation of the character through formal education had to go hand in hand with care of the soul. (In fact, this shift in attitude echoed the debate over “Christianization or civilization” of the Native Americans.) In response the nondenominational American Sunday School Union vastly expanded the work it had begun in 1824 and for the rest of the century provided rudimentary education for many children in both the East and the West. The religious influence of the Union was formidable since its teachers were essentially missionaries and its instructional materials were mostly Bible stories. Especially in Western areas newly opened to white settlement, Sunday school missionaries often arrived before churches had been organized, and they provided a bridge to civilization with religious instruction that instilled such moral virtues as punctuality, cleanliness, and industry. The domestic mission drive was spearheaded primarily by the American Home Missionary Society (AMHS), founded in 1826. Representing Presbyterians and Congregationalists, the AMHS supplied much of the personnel for the West: college-age men from New England and the Middle Atlantic who shrank from the challenge of the slave South and so directed their ardor westward. Asa Turner was one of seven Yale theological students to form the “Illinois Band,” pledging himself to missionary and educational work in 1829. Ten years later, as the first AMHS minister in Iowa, he wrote to the society asking for more helpers. In 1843 Turner received a reply from a group of students at Andover Seminary. This Iowa Band offered to come to the territory and help establish churches. The seasoned Turner doubted that their youthful idealism could withstand the rigors of pioneer life, but in fact ten of the Andover group did found Congregational churches in Iowa. They complemented their long ministerial service with the establishment of Iowa College in 1848. Through the AMHS, New England religious and cultural influences reached beyond the Mississippi to Western settlements.
Sectional Prejudice. Since Easterners tended to regard Westerners as perfectly content in their barbarism, missionaries were often contemptuous of those whom they served. Missionary John Parsons, stationed in southern Indiana in 1833, railed at the “universal dearth of intellect” and the lack of interest in self-improvement. “Need I stop to remind you of the host of loathsome reptiles such a stagnant pool is fitted to breed! Croaking jealousy; blotted bigottry; coiling suspicion; wormish blindness; crocodile malice!” Other prejudices came to the fore in the less conciliatory mood of the 1830s. The AMHS persisted in calling areas “destitute of both religious and moral principles” even when Baptists or Methodists were firmly entrenched there. A Presbyterian missionary reported to the society that “Campbellism is the great curse of the West—more destructive and more injurious to the cause of religion than avowed Infidelity itself.” Church adherence may best illustrate the reaction of the West to being civilized by the East. Although the Presbyterians led in the educational invasion of the Old Northwest states, they could claim less than 250,000 members in 1840. Meanwhile, the Methodists had 850,000 and Baptists more than 570,000. The Eastern denominations may have supplied the educators, but Western people signed up with other communions. As expressed in the familiar slogan “no creed but the Bible,” Protestants in the Trans-Appalachian West required basic literacy skills in order to decide religious matters for themselves, but they disdained intellectual pretense. The popularity of religious journals spoke to their commitments despite the scorn of New Englanders. For example, during 1831–1832 the post office in Jacksonville, Illinois, received 133 periodicals, 42 of which were religious journals.
Charles Grandison Finney. Charles Grandison Finney, one of the most important religious figures to emerge from the antebellum era, made Oberlin College in Ohio his professional home beginning in 1835. A schoolteacher then a lawyer in New York, Finney abandoned both and turned to evangelism in the 1820s. He came under the influence of New Haven theology, developed in the late 1820s at Yale Divinity School by Congregational minister Nathaniel Taylor. Taylor furnished an intellectual foundation for revivalism by softening Calvinist orthodoxy in order to place more emphasis on free will and thus human instrumentality. By the early 1830s Finney’s fame and powerful preaching had swept urban centers in the East. Oberlin then became the focus for his “new measures” in revivalism, which included carefully planned methods to win converts and a postconversion commitment to Christian reform. Finney’s conviction that people chose the way of Christ and the way of holy living—that “perfection” meant the potential for unlimited moral improvement—had both sacred and secular implications. Consequently, though Finney’s theology emerged from an urban landscape that was alien to the West, his prescriptions harmonized with a Western milieu. His was a familiar language of activism (especially regarding temperance reform), of pragmatism, and of millennialism. As Finney declared, “If the church will do her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years.” However, Finney’s new measures were also a telling sign of the religious change since Cane Ridge. Then the revivalists had seen the hand of Providence at work, heralding a divine dispensation. In Finney’s view revivals were not miraculous but only the purely calculated result “of the right use of the constituted means.” The advent of a new age certainly required God’s blessing, but it would come about as the intentional product of human endeavor.
Lyman Beecher. In 1832 Lyman Beecher, famed New England Presbyterian minister, became head of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati—a physical separation from his roots that was paralleled in theological distance. Although he was more conservative than Finney, Beecher also favored New Haven theological modifications. In fact, in Ohio a trustee of the seminary made a formal complaint to the synod about Beecher’s doctrinal deviation, and though he was acquitted of heresy, the event drew the church one step closer to schism. Beecher’s denomination was not the one sweeping the West, yet he emerged as the spokesman for the West’s role in the nation’s destiny, and, given his own profession, he visualized both the role and the destiny in religious terms. Beecher published Plea for the West in 1835, and the work was widely reprinted and cited. To Beecher, the driving question of the age was whether republican institutions could be reconciled with universal suffrage. The danger, he declared, was that “our intelligence and virtue will falter and fall back into a dark minded, vicious populace—a poor, uneducated reckless mass of infuriated animalism.” The remedy was Bibles, schools, and seminaries—strong institutions infused with religious purpose that would apply “needed intellectual and moral power.” Not only the nation was at risk but also the entire world. “If this work be done, and well done, our country is safe, and the world’s hope is secure … nation after nation, cheered by our example, will follow in our footsteps, till the whole earth is free.” The West had become the testing ground for the entire America!) experiment. In hindsight, the irony of Beecher’s dramatic appeal was his perception that mobocracy posed the major threat to the republic. Meanwhile, in 1834 an alarming number of Lane Seminary students, including future abolitionist-firebrand Theodore Weld, decided to attend Oberlin because there they would be able to take a stronger stance against slavery.
The Denominations Divide. At the turn of the century the strength of revival currents had fostered interdenominational cooperation. Churches were means to the greater end of realizing God’s special plan for the nation. During the late 1830s and 1840s the religious mood began to change, and denominational lines hardened under the discipline of orthodoxy. Controversies, especially slavery, became the points on which faith turned. The Methodist church, for example, split into Northern and Southern branches in 1844, over the issue of excluding slaveholders from the ranks of preachers. Western Methodists thus had to take sides as they formed their own societies. For the Presbyterians and Baptists, policies directly related to the West triggered division. Over the years conservative Presbyterians, known as the Old School, had protested the liberal policies of the New School majority, but to no avail. The key grievances of the Old School were, first, that the New School had been lax in enforcing doctrinal conformity; and, second, that the support of interdenominational societies had weakened the Presbyterian mission. Finally, New School boldness pushed conservatives and moderates together, and the General Assembly of 1837 took decisive action. The delegates voided the Plan of Union of 1801, which nullified the four Western synods organized during the life of the Union. The assembly removed more than 500 churches and between 60,000 and 100,000 members from the Presbyterian rolls in one swoop. The Old School majority created the Board of Foreign Missions (BFM) with explicit instructions to pursue a strict Presbyterian line and informed other mission groups to stay clear of BFM stations. The struggle between new and old schools continued as tensions heightened over slavery, and the denomination split in 1838. Missions were also the bane of Baptist unity, but while the Presbyterians had been primarily concerned about heterodoxy, the Baptists chafed at external efforts to contravene the will of congregations. Combined with different opinions over slavery, the result was explosive. At first Baptist evangelization of the West had occurred under the auspices of regional associations, but in 1814 representatives of Baptist churches met to develop a more comprehensive mission thrust. Over the next twenty years the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Missions, known as the Triennial Convention, sent out more than one hundred missionaries, across the continent and abroad. This extracongregational body did not have the support of many Baptists, who declared their resistance by calling themselves Primitive, Hard-shell, or Anti-mission. Particularly in the Trans-Appalachian West, Baptists remained committed to local control. The issue that brought matters to a head was the evangelization of the slaveholding Cherokees in the Indian Territory. In 1844 antislavery Baptists withdrew from the Triennial Convention to form their own missionary group. In answer to a direct query from the Alabama Baptists, the convention’s executive committee replied that it would never certify a slave owner as a missionary. In 1845 the Baptists split into Northern and Southern branches, and the Southern Baptist Convention remains a separate body today.
Roman Catholicism. By the 1830s many Protestant leaders regarded Roman Catholicism as a clear threat to the American republic. The Catholic Church had quickly added an institutional branch to its hierarchy to cover the new nation, but the number of communicants was modest until the 1830s. That decade marked the beginning of large-scale Irish Catholic immigration. The potato blight of the early 1840s turned the Irish departure from their homeland into panicked flight. By 1850 the census recorded 961,000 Irish in the United States, with 200,000 immigrating in that year alone. Meanwhile the arrival of nearly 1.5 million Germans in the 1840s and 1850s also boosted the number of Catholics in the United States. The results were staggering. From 1830 to 1860 the nation’s population grew from 13 million to 31.5 million (two and one half times). The Catholic population burgeoned from 300,000 to over 3 million. Consequently, by the middle of the century there were more Catholics in the United States than any other denomination—though they remained a minority in a nation dominated by varieties of Protestantism. Moreover, a severe shortage of priests kept the church at a competitive disadvantage. At the Catholic Church’s first American plenary council in 1852, the record revealed 1.6 million Catholics but only 1,800 priests to serve its 1,600 churches and mission stations. Before the Civil War the Catholic population beyond the Mississippi was relatively modest and was concentrated in the Southwestern region. Given its minimal presence, the primary role played by Catholicism in the West was in the fertile imagination of Protestant leaders. Lyman Beecher’s Plea for the West, in fact, appended a long expose of the great Catholic conspiracy to conquer the Western region. Despite his hysteria, anti-Catholicism and nativism did not seem to be a significant factor in the religious life of the West as it was in other regions, though the efficient advance of the Jesuits in Western missions did put the Protestant missionaries on the defensive. In any event, neither the Jesuits nor the Catholic Church lived up to their nefarious image as an “evil empire.”
Catholicism in the Southwest. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, the United States purchased California and New Mexico as the spoils of the Mexican War. These acquisitions, combined with Texas state hood in 1845, presented the Catholic Church with a Southwestern population of nominal Catholics, possibly 25,000 in New Mexico and 10,000 in Texas, as well as the remnants of the Franciscan mission system in California. Since the mid eighteenth century the attentions of Iberian Catholicism had wandered away from New Spain. Over the years, then, Hispanic settlers had developed a unique folk Catholicism, which was characterized by an abundance of local patron saints and religious holidays, an emphasis on the Virgin Mary, and lay religious brotherhoods. In New Mexico, for example, Los Hermanos de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, or the Penitentes, assumed much of the burden for worship and parish ministrations, though Catholic authorities looked askance at their use of physical penance and their autonomy. Under the umbrella of United States possession, the Catholic hierarchy embraced the region but could do little more than assert administrative control, given the dearth of priests. Jean Marie Odin was named bishop of Galveston in 1847, and six years later Jean-Baptiste Lamy became bishop of Santa Fe. Odin’s multinational constituency included Hispanics as well as Germans and Silesian Poles. Such diverse ethnicities, and the linguistic hurdles they posed, placed an even greater strain on American Catholicism in this period. Technically the Catholic Church did not have exclusive control over the Southwest, but Protestants found that determined opposition from the bishop was enough to empty their schools and bring their evangelism to a screeching halt. In New Mexico, Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian representatives charged into the territory soon after its acquisition, and one by one they abandoned their efforts to convert the Hispanic-Catholic population, not to return until after the Civil War.
California. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 prompted a vast migration that affected the state’s religious environment: the population rose from 14,000 in 1848 to 200,000 four years later to 380,000 in 1860. The sudden emergence of a makeshift society exclusively devoted to the accumulation of wealth captured the attention of the nation. One common image of gold-rush California depicted it as a breeding ground of a creeping corruption that could infect the rest of the country. By the 1850s the Protestant establishment became absorbed with California as the bellwether for the evangelical impulse; that preoccupation now displaced the earlier enthusiasm for the conversion of the Native Americans. In the words of historian Kevin Starr, the state’s religious significance came down to a struggle between “California as Babylon, as hopelessly flawed, and California as Eden of the West, as continual recipient of special grace.” Entangled within the debate was California’s position as the jumping-off point for the Orient and thus as a vital hub for the westward march of American Protestantism—perhaps even giving it new life, since large areas and many people of the West had proven impervious to its summons. Although contemporary accounts bemoaned California’s unchurched wasteland, there were a few stalwart clergymen accompanying the Forty-Niners, and they industriously established at least fifty small churches within a short time. In the early years of the gold rush, the letters and reports of the overworked ministers tell of the endless round of duties—marriages, funerals, care of sick and dying—interspersed with street-corner and saloon evangelism. Methodist minister William Taylor exhorted daily on San Francisco’s wharf, to ensure that the first words heard by arrivals would be the gospel.
The Lessons of California. The state’s dramatic religious diversity discomfited evangelical Protestants, for their faith represented merely one option among many. The multiplicity of ethnic groups in California stretched the idea of religious competition to unheard-of lengths. Besides the major denominations there were Unitarians, Mormons, Jews, Spiritualists, Theosophists, Russian Orthodox, and, from the 45,000 Chinese laborers who arrived in California between 1849 and 1854, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Blacks had also responded to California’s siren call, as fortune seekers and as slaves accompanying masters. Their churches quickly emerged as focal points for the black community, paralleling the importance and multiple functions of the black church in other regions. In 1853 Catholicism officially extended from shore to shore with the organization of the archdiocese of San Francisco. Yet many Hispanics found themselves marginalized as the church tried to respond to a wide range of immigrants. In southern California, Hispano-Catholicism did not surrender so easily, though communicants had to battle the disciplinary bent of their bishop, who tried to weed out folk practices and “corrupt Catholicism.” In the view of recent historians, adopting a Pacific Coast vantage point in American religious history can suggest an alternative to the usual model of a Westward march of religious institutions and beliefs from the Atlantic seaboard. California’s extreme pluralism was therefore an integral part of antebellum religion rather than an aberration. Moreover, after a decade of labors amid the bewildering religious variety in California, evangelical missionaries were forced to admit that the tried-and-true strategies of revivalism had failed to work. Church attendance and membership remained discouraging, and the situation seemed to call into question the efficacy of revivalism itself. By challenging the universality of the evangelical appeal, the California experience set the stage for theological shifts later in the century.
Western Judaism. The corporate life of American Jews in the West took shape with the gold-rush immigrations in the 1850s. Before the Civil War, Jews were a recognizable presence in Portland, Denver, and other Western towns, but it was California that became home to the largest Jewish communities. In 1860 the census recorded about 5,000 Jews in San Francisco, 500 in Sacramento, and 150 in Los Angeles. The commercial needs of booming areas opened the door to Jewish bankers and merchants, and they often became a stable center amid rapid change. Pioneer Jews served as community founders and organizers alongside gentiles, and they frequently held public office, though not significantly represented in the electorate. Anti-Semitism thus was less apparent in the West than in other regions, perhaps because, as the historian Moses Rischin has suggested, the lack of structure made all outsiders potential insiders. Indeed, in contrast to other religious outsiders in California, including the Chinese Buddhists and the Mormon polygamists, Jewish religious differences seemed tame, placing them from the start on a better footing in relation to the Protestant majority.
The Iowa Example. At midcentury the “West,” defined for these purposes in terms of Euro-American population density, barely extended beyond the Mississippi. Each type of Western society—the boom towns of the Gold Rush, the gradually expanding territorial settlements, the maturing communities in older regions—had its own religious character. Even so, by the close of the antebellum age, pluralism had emerged as a distinguishing trait of religion in the Trans-Appalachian West. While California may have represented one extreme on the spectrum, Iowa, which became a state in 1846 and shared with California the attentions of evangelists, serves as an example of the quintessential Middle West. According to the 1860 census there were 90,000 Methodists, twice as many as any other group. The Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Catholics each claimed 20,000 members or more. Diversity sprang from the soil of religious freedom: the state was home to Dutch Reformed, Quakers, Swedenborgians, and Mennonites. The Community of True Inspiration, a movement originating in Germany, moved westward from New York in 1855 and established the Amana Colonies in east-central Iowa, practicing a form of communal theocracy. Despite the proliferation of options, the census recorded the “unchurched” population (meaning those who did not indicate a denominational preference) at about 60 percent. Even so, it is likely that membership numbers did not tell the complete story of either churchgoing or patterns of belief. Iowa boasted a church for every 711 residents; by comparison, the national high was Ohio, with one for every 449 people, while California bottomed out with one church for every 1,103 people (Euro-Americans). Iowans, in common with residents of other states, would have considered themselves “religious” as long as they could individually define what that meant.
Conclusion. In denominational terms, the significant events of the period from 1800 to 1860 in the religion of the West were the ascendancy of the Methodists and Baptists and the emergence of the Christians and Disciples of Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In terms of religious expression, the common language was evangelical Protestantism, operating within a voluntarist and pluralist framework. Yet the diversity of dialects within evangelicalism in the West exposed contradictory currents within antebellum society as a whole: interdenominationalism and schism, individualism and communitarianism, postmillennial optimism and premillennial pessimism. Overall, what dominated in the Protestant West was the “democratization” of American Christianity. According to the historian Nathan Hatch, the religious terrain was populist, not because church polity or doctrine were intrinsically democratic but because religion responded to the spiritual needs and life circumstances of ordinary people. They claimed the privilege of interpreting Scripture and organizing churches for themselves. The result was not necessarily libertarian, since sometimes thinking for oneself meant choosing to submit to authority. The right to define one’s own faith was empowering, if not liberating. The Western religious experience during the first decades of the nineteenth century was thus an addendum to the revolutionary story, as Euro-Americans tested certain radical implications of freedom in matters of faith—such as the extent of tolerance in a regimen of religious liberty and the proper means to a harmonious society. Gradually, a Romantic worldview began to transform perception and change what people asked of their faith. In the words of the historian William McLoughlin, rather than adopting an inclusive religious vision, “Americans discovered who they were by deciding who they were not.” That sense of the religious “other” emerged in divisions among denominations, between Protestants and Catholics, and along racial lines, as Euro-Americans gradually displaced Native Americans from the physical and sacral landscape of the West. By the Civil War, religion in the Trans-Appalachian West had assumed many features of its Eastern fountainhead and was affected by the same trends, but it was never a replica. The relationship in matters of faith remained symbiotic, for there was a persistent sense that the West, in its ever-shifting definition, represented the potential redemption of the East and of the nation.
"1800-1860: Religion: Overview." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/1800-1860-religion-overview
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