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1815-1850: Religion: Overview

1815-1850: Religion: Overview

Religious Resurgence. Visiting the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, there is no country in the world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men. While his statement probably seemed accurate to most of his contemporaries, just thirty years earlier the situation had been vastly different. In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution the disestablishment of the state churches, the religious radicalism of prominent revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, and the demands of forming a new nation had left church membership at an all-time low. Over the first third of the nineteenth century, however, Americans joined churches and religious organizations with unprecedented enthusiasm as a series of religious revivals, collectively known as the Second Great Awakening, swept the nation. Beginning with camp meetings on the Western frontier and spreading into both the South and the Northeast, the awakening brought thousands of new converts into the Protestant fold and evoked a renewal of faith in thousands more who had long felt disconnected from the religious traditions in which they had been raised. Evangelical Protestantism surged to the forefront of cultural and social influence in the nation in the 1820s and 1830s as wealthy businessmen and influential families of the Northeast increasingly brought their faith to bear upon public life.

Revivalism and Urbanization. While it is impossible to provide a single explanation for the dramatic success of urban revivalism in the 1820s and 1830s, most historians have focused on the rapid economic changes experienced in the Northeast between 1815 and 1850. This period saw the onset of industrialization and the growth of cities as improved transportation networks enlarged the scope of commercial activity. Population growth had begun to outstrip land in many places, so children could no longer expect to inherit a farm sufficiently large to support a family. While some who could afford the cost of migration headed westward in an effort to duplicate the self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle of their parents, thousands of young men and women converged on the cities, where they became wage earners in shops and factories. In the process they were forced to abandon the networks of cooperation and extended family ties that had characterized rural farm life. As single people moved to the cities to live in boardinghouses and artisans who had once lived in their masters households resettled in workingclass neighborhoods, traditional lines of authority and social organization were disrupted. Surely for some this brought a welcome sense of freedom, but others felt isolated and disoriented. Equally affected by economic change were middle- and upper-class men and women, in whom the new pace of urban existence evoked anxieties about the corrupting potential of excessive wealth as well as concern about the rise of vice among the unsupervised working classes. Under these circumstances many people turned to religion in an effort to make sense of the changing world and order their lives.

The Northern Revivals. Like the great frontier revivals that took place at the turn of the nineteenth century, some of the most successful urban revivals were prolonged affairs in which prayer meetings were held in the same locations for several consecutive nights. They were attended by thousands and led by energetic men such as Charles Grandison Finney, who worked hard to be both persuasive and entertaining as they prompted the assembled crowds to consider the state of their souls and convert to Christ. The response was enthusiastic as audiences were drawn into a state of heady excitement and heightened awareness of their spiritual conditions. Conversions and public confessions of sin were frequent, and it was understood that a truly converted person would experience a change of life, becoming entirely guided by virtue and Christian duty in the conduct of everyday affairs. Most of the revivals in the Northeast were led by Presbyterians and Congregationalists, the denominations that historically held sway in the region, but Methodists (who held their primary influence in the South and West) had an impact as well. Although the denominations did compete for membership, on the whole revivalism was an ecumenical phenomenon, in which members of different denominations prayed together and worked together to convert as many souls as possible. In 1831 alone one hundred thousand new members were added to church rolls across the nation.

Millennialism. Defined as the belief in the imminent return of Christ (the Second Coming) to establish his kingdom on earth, millennialism was one of the dominant themes of nineteenth-century American religious thought. Widespread belief that the end times are near has characterized numerous societies over the course of Christian history, often during periods of war, famine, or social stress. Times of affluence and religious enthusiasm have also sparked millennial hopes, usually among people who believed that their societies were approaching a state of perfection that would inaugurate the thousandyear period of peace and happiness that was to accompany Christs return. Both of these forms of millennial belief existed in early-nineteenth-century America. One was an essentially pessimistic view that saw the social changes wrought by population growth and industrialization as a sign of the impending apocalypse, the other an optimistic view that saw the increased religious fervor and the economic prosperity of the nation as progress toward perfection. The latter view was far more common, for the success of the American Revolution, the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, and the elevation of religious elements in public life seemed to demonstrate what many had suspected since the Puritans arrived in New England: America was a nation specially chosen by God. Here and now, they believed, society would be perfected and the millennium of peace and harmony begin. Not surprisingly, however, there were many competing notions of what a perfect society should look like. While evangelicals sought perfection through revivals and reform movements that would eliminate sin throughout the nation, there were thousands of people who turned their backs on society and withdrew into Utopian communities where they attempted to construct the millennial order within the limits of their own walls. Visions of perfection were diverse, but all contributed to a sense of expectation that permeated the American consciousness.

Reform. Inspired by millennial expectation and confidence in human ability to improve and perhaps even perfect the world, most Northern urban revivalists urged good Christians to play active roles in the moral and social progress of the nation. The first efforts to follow their dictates were made by laymen and laywomen who traveled long distances, both at home and abroad, to distribute Bibles and spread the Christian message. Following quickly on the heels of these missionary efforts were a host of social and moral reform movements that emerged in the 1830s and 1840s and continued for many decades. These included societies to promote peace, Sabbathkeeping, and religious education and societies to curb such antisocial behaviors as drinking, gambling, dueling, and prostitution. Other organizations promoted health, which was seen as closely linked to virtue, through proper diet and manual labor. These crusades, intended to rid America of behaviors defined as sinful, received the support and voluntary efforts of thousands of Protestants who hoped to use moral suasion to protect the nation from emerging spiritual dangers. Deeply concerned with the corruption and vice they saw in the cities and on the frontier, they were equally confident that the situation could be changed for the better. Women had a particularly important role in these movements since many social ills were viewed as direct threats to the safety and stability of the family. Furthermore, many middle- and upper-class urban women, freed from domestic chores as their husbands succeeded in business, were able to achieve personal satisfaction and positions of authority as active leaders in the battle against sin. Ultimately, the most important reform movement was the crusade against slavery. Religious sentiment, particularly a pervasive belief that the national sin of slavery was the main obstacle standing in the way of the millennium, was the driving motivation for a significant number of antislavery activists.

Southern Evangelism. During the colonial period the Anglican Church (Church of England) had dominated the religious life of the South. Beginning in the 1770s, however, two new groups, the Methodists and the Baptists, began to experience rapid growth in the region. Not only did they convert large numbers of white Southerners, but they also succeeded (where Anglicans had largely failed) in converting thousands of black slaves to Christianity. Much of the success of these denominations among Southerners of both races was rooted in their styles of preaching and worship. While erudite Anglican ministers held solemn and orderly services in which they expounded at length on matters of theology and doctrine, early Baptist and Methodist preachers led rousing, emotionally charged meetings that focused on the spiritual experiences of believers. Their dynamic exhortations, tales of dreams and visions, and use of Scripture stories to elucidate everyday events appealed to poorer, less educated Southerners who sought religious experience but were left unmoved by Anglican sermonizing. During the period from 1815 to 1850 these strongly evangelical denominations grew rapidly, with Baptist membership surging from about two hundred thousand in 1812 to more than one million in 1850. Methodist growth was even more impressive.

The Churches Divide. Over the course of this period both denominations, but particularly the Methodists, became increasingly socially respectable. Colleges and seminaries were established, producing a crop of learned ministers quite different from the zealous men of little formal education who had first brought life to the churches. Men and women of greater economic means and social standing were converted. Missionary societies were founded, and groups that had once met in homes built churches and established regular Sunday-school classes. At the same time, under pressure from influential members of Southern society, the message of spiritual equality and the antislavery position that had attracted slaves in the late eighteenth century were replaced by an emphasis on the natural inferiority of black people. Ministers offered scriptural proof that slavery was approved by God and supported slaveholders in the belief that they were moral stewards, whose Christian duty was to care for the bodies and souls of a less civilized people who would be lost without their protection. This position was not accepted by nonsoutherners, and as a result the 1830s saw schisms between Northern and Southern branches of the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches.

The Black Churches. For many African Americans, both enslaved and free, the church was the most important center of community life. In the South the Christianity of the Methodists and Baptists blended with some elements of African religious belief and practice, resulting in a unique and vibrant form of religious worship that focused on emotion, music, and dance. In the eighteenth century slaves generally heard white preachers and worshiped with whites, but as the number of black converts grew in the nineteenth century, the number of black ministers grew as well. Black Christians formed their own congregations, and even when owners prohibited religious gatherings, slaves often managed to meet in secret for preaching, prayer, and singing. Like the style of their worship, the themes of their meetings were often different from those of their white neighbors. While slaveholders looked to the behavior of the Old Testament patriarchs to justify slavery, their slaves turned to the book of Exodus, where the struggle of the Israelites gave them hope for deliverance from bondage. For some this idea was simply a comfort; for others it was a call to action. The two most well-known slave revolts of the period, the Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822 and Nat Turners rebellion of 1831, were guided by religious visionaries. More commonly, Christianity gave slaves a sense of self-worth and strength for smaller forms of resistance in everyday life on the plantation. In the free North the church became a crucial locus not only for spiritual guidance but also for helping people build social networks and community identity in the face of tremendous hostility. In 1816 Richard Allen, a minister and former slave who lived in Philadelphia, organized the first African American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. By the 1820s African American churches had begun to send out missionaries to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Haiti. African American church leaders were important participants in the abolitionist movement, and many also participated in other reform movements of the day.

Immigration. Until the 1830s the vast majority of Americans of European descent were Protestants. Although Catholics and Jews had lived in America since the early colonial period, their relatively small communities posed no challenge to the cultural dominance of Protestantism. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, a variety of economic, political, and religious hardships had driven millions of Irish and Germans, most of them Catholic, to leave their homelands for the promise of America. Jews also began to immigrate to the United States, mostly from Germany. Many Catholic and Jewish immigrants initially hoped to retain the distinctive character of their faiths and cultures but faced pressure and prejudice from the Protestant majority that made it hard for them to gain social acceptance and economic success. Catholics in particular faced accusations of antirepublicanism and conspiracy for their perceived alliance to a foreign power (the Pope). As a result, conflicts arose among both Catholics and Jews over the extent to which they should Americanize, or accommodate their lifestyles to those of the Protestant majority. Significant changes did occur, as the structure of the Catholic Church became more democratic and the more liberal Reform tradition became a force in American Judaism. At the same time, some Catholics achieved considerable success in politics, many Jews gained wealth and social status, and more immigrants arrived each year, guaranteeing the continued growth of both faiths.

Religious Diversity. Although evangelical Protestants comprised the most visible religious group in the early nineteenth century, democratic America proved to have room for variety. By midcentury the nation had become a virtual spiritual hothouse as dozens of new religious movements and Utopian communities arose across the country, offering competing conceptions of religious life, social norms, and national destiny. Some sects, such as the German Rappites and the English Shakers, migrated from Europe in search of an opportunity to practice their faiths without opposition. Many other sects, such as the Christians, or Disciples of Christ, led by Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, arose on American soil, often motivated by dissatisfaction with the beliefs, practices, or cultural assumptions of the mainstream denominations. Best known of these groups were the Mormons, founded by selfdeclared prophet Joseph Smith, whose claims of divine revelations, miracles, visions, and promises of admission to the glorious Kingdom of God for all who joined him attracted thousands of Americans of low socio-economic status who sought a better life. For those who found themselves unaffected by the calls of revival preachers and uninterested in the claims of sects and their prophets, there were various new, informal spiritual movements with no institutional structures. These included Transcendentalism, which stressed the divinity of man and nature and incorporated the beliefs of Eastern religions and ancient philosophers, and Mesmerism, a healing technique that was also said to foster insight into occult mysteries and provide some subjects with extraordinary mental powers, including extrasensory perception. The teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, with his innovative biblical interpretations and mystical doctrines of the connectedness of all aspects of man, God, and the physical universe, had gained a wide audience by midcentury. Finally, the opportunity to communicate with the dead promised by Spiritualism became immensely popular after 1848. By 1850 the extraordinary spiritual vitality and creativity of the early national period insured that the Protestant hegemony that had existed since the nations founding could no longer be taken for granted.

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