1850-1877: Religion: Overview
1850-1877: Religion: Overview
Common Bonds and Individualism. Americans in the mid nineteenth century had a profound sense of religious freedom. According to the First Amendment to the Constitution, Congress could make “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” At the level of organized religion, this provision meant that each faith had to operate its churches without government assistance. At the personal level, the First Amendment left individuals free to follow their consciences. Even after they joined religious groups, Americans retained their sense of personal control. Individuals or groups were free to reform existing faiths or to create new ones. Many people listened to their religious leaders but arranged their lives in accord with their own personal interpretations.
Branches of Protestantism. Between 1850 and 1877 Protestantism was the single largest religious sect in the United States. Protestants did not consider themselves one huge group; they were acutely aware of many differences that had divided them in the three centuries since the Reformation. One of the most important differences was polity, or how religion was organized. The most traditional group was the Episcopalians, who had a national body which appointed bishops, who in turn appointed priests to parishes in their dioceses. The Methodists also had bishops, although they did not have priests and parishes. The most radical were the Baptists and Congrega-tionalists. Their congregations, or local groups of believers, were the basic unit of organization; there was no group that oversaw the beliefs and practices of the many individual congregations. The Presbyterians had a system similar to the Episcopalians in that it was a pyramid, but built from the bottom up. Individual congregations were organized into local synods, which in turn formed the General Assemblies. As new groups, such as the Disciples of Christ, appeared in the mid nineteenth century, they tended to start with congregations linked by common belief, and then added some sort of structure above the congregational level either to maintain orthodox beliefs or to help congregations work together in the mission field or in extending charity.
Christology. Protestants were also conscious of differences of opinion among themselves as to who Christ was and what he represented. Almost every group considered Jesus to be the son of God, and therefore God himself, a part of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The one exception was the Unitarians, who claimed that the most reasonable belief was that God was a single being and that Jesus was simply a perfect man. Nearly every group of Protestants had historically considered the Crucifixion to be the act of salvation. This idea that Christ died for sinful humanity was called the doctrine of the atonement. There were, though, competing theories as to how Christ saved humanity. The Unitarians, for example, did not consider Christ’s death as having a special saving value, because it was not the death of God. Instead, they claimed that Christ’s most important action was his teaching; he provided the moral laws by which human beings should live. Other Protestants focused not on death or teachings, but on Christ’s life because he manifested God’s love for human beings.
Predestination. Mid-nineteenth-century American Protestants were also aware of differences among themselves on the issue of how individuals came to be saved from eternal damnation. The theory of predestination held that God had chosen the people who were going to heaven even before they had a chance to live their lives. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and some Baptists had a history of believing in double predestination, in which case God chose, before human history began, whether each individual human being was going to heaven or to hell. (It was reasonable to think that an allknowing, all-powerful God would have this all arranged beforehand.) Accordingly, it was possible to know from the general tenor of a person’s life whether God had chosen him or her. People who seemed to enjoy God’s favor on earth would not suffer a sudden reversal of fortune after death. However, it was not true that everyone who prospered on earth was undoubtedly headed for heaven; a more certain sign was a conversion or an awareness of one’s own sinfulness and of God’s salvation despite that sinfulness. In the meantime, one lived a good life simply out of respect to the all-powerful God who had laid down the moral law. Episcopalians, Methodists, and some Baptists were universalists, who claimed that God intended all humanity, not a chosen few, to be saved. People, though, had to respond to God’s call for salvation. They had to believe what the New Testament stated, that salvation came through Christ alone. They had to act as though they believed, trying to lead good lives and to make themselves in some small measure worthy of the promise of eternal life. This idea that one’s own behavior was necessary to salvation helped fuel mid-nineteenth-century interest in personal moral reforms.
The Millennium. One of the theological questions that most interested Protestants was that of the millennium, or the end of the world. For all Christians, the world’s end was coordinated with the Second Coming, or the return to earth, of Jesus Christ. According to Matt. 24:36: “As for the exact day or hour, no one knows it, but the Father only.” This Gospel verse was interpreted to mean that God would set in motion the chain of events leading to the world’s end; there would be a cataclysmic event that would sweep away sinners and unbelievers, and then Jesus would return to rule over the few who remained, known as the “saved.” Small congregations arose during this period that stressed believers’ personal experiences and their relationship with the divine. These congregations tended to see historical events as the working out of a history predicted long ago in Scripture. They also tended to follow a leader—such as the Seventh-Day Adventist Ellen Gould Harmon White—who interpreted Scripture and who sometimes claimed to receive personal revelations.
Liberal Evangelicals. Other groups believed that sin would be defeated first, after which Christ would return. Accordingly, Christians were supposed to reform the world and make it a fitting place for Christ to come and reign as king. Believers poured their energy into spreading the Gospel and into passing laws that reflected their understanding of how God wanted the world to run, which they developed by consulting Scripture. These Protestants were liberal because they believed God intended the world and whole human family to be saved; they were evangelical because they believed that the Gospel outlined how to carry out divine will and that part of making the world ready for the Second Coming was converting it to Christianity.
Philosophic Inquiries. Both Gentiles and Jews continued the philosophical trends of the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century intellectual movement. One hallmark of the Enlightenment was subjecting received wisdom to common sense and scientific method of study and rejecting traditional beliefs as unreasonable. The result was a tendency to disregard those elements of Christianity which could not be proved, such as the divinity of Christ, and to emphasize those parts that were reinforced by reason, such as monotheism and the importance of morality.
Spiritualism. Another trend also tested the boundaries of American Protestantism. Throughout most of recorded history, humans have divided reality into the physical or supernatural, which did not have boundaries of time, space or physicality. All Christians shared the belief that each soul was incarnated into just one person and that the soul had a life after the death of the body. The relation between the living and the dead was a matter of debate. Catholicism taught that the living could pray that the dead would go to heaven and become saints and that the saints could intercede with God to produce miracles. Protestants believed that each soul’s fate was determined by the time of death, although different groups had their own teachings as to how. In the mid nineteenth century some people believed that they could communicate with the supernatural. Educated and prominent persons such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln were among the most famous practitioners of spiritualism.
Denominationalism. American religions in general, and Protestantism in particular, were divided into various denominations, separate religious entities, each with its own history, order of worship, organization, and clerical training. The name, such as Presbyterianism or Epis-copalianism, usually described some unique feature at the time of the denomination’s inception, but this was not always true by the middle of the nineteenth century. Congregationalists, for example, were not the only denomination that had different communities of worshipers; it shared this trait with the Baptists. Northern and Southern Christians agreed with other denominations in the same region more than they did with those of the same denomination in another geographic area.
Diversity through Expansion. The frontier also influenced American religious history. The purchase of the Louisiana Territory (1803) and lands obtained from Mexico (1848) added many Native American faiths as well as French and Spanish Catholics to the religious population of the United States. The frontier encouraged easterners to move west, where they had more freedom to develop according to their own inclinations. John Humphrey Noyes, who founded the Oneida community in upstate New York, and the Mormon Brigham Young of Utah were just two examples of religious leaders who sought out isolated areas so that their groups could live out their convictions without interference.
Diversity through Migration. Immigrants profoundly affected the religious landscape of the country during this era. Although German Jews were not being so actively persecuted as they were in earlier or later centuries, their chances for social and economic advancement were still greater in the United States. By the 1870s efforts in Germany to create a unified nation-state included an anti-Catholic cultural movement which, in turn, encouraged Catholic migration. By and large, though, new arrivals in America were actually economic migrants, people who had been displaced by the transition from agricultural to industrial economies at home and who preferred to ply their old trades in a new setting. One group came because of an economic and ecological disaster. Although Irish Catholics had been discriminated against at home, it was not until a blight destroyed successive years of potato crops that they migrated in large numbers.
The Lutheran Experience. When they migrated, people did not simply transplant their religions from the old home to the new. The Lutherans serve as an example of the complexities that could develop. During the nineteenth century the German Lutheran farmers and artisans who had settled in the countryside and rural towns of the Middle Atlantic area were joined by Lutherans from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. As the numbers of Lutherans grew, congregations joined together in local synods which were formed into a General Synod, the better to found new congregations, to protect doctrinal standards, and to provide for an educated ministry. Unity in a synod, though, meant all the Lutherans together had to decide what stand to take on doctrinal questions. A confrontation began brewing in 1850, when some Lutherans began to protest that the denomination was becoming too American; it was using English, instead of German; it was incorporating doctrines from outside historical, or confessional, Lutheranism; and it was dropping traditional Lutheran practices and adopting those of other Protestant neighbors.
The Lutheran Spirit. Other Lutherans, though, led by Samuel Simon Schmucker, a professor of theology at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, thought the changes made for a purer and more authentic Lutheranism, free of historical entanglements with Catholicism. In 1855 an anonymous forty-two-page pamphlet called Definite Synodical Platform forced Lutherans to start taking sides. It recommended that the next General Synod meeting reject specific Lutheran teachings as leftovers from Catholicism and replace them with teachings developed in America. By 1857 the Lutheran Church had two national synods, the American-leaning General Synod and the Melanchthon Synod (named for Philipp Melanchthon, a sixteenth-century Lutheran theologian and author of one of Luthranism’s basic documents, the Augsburg Confession). Thereafter, synods multiplied, and when the Civil War broke out, Southern Lutherans organized their own synod, not out of doctrinal considerations but simply to reflect the fact that they were now in a different country. After the war, they did not reunite with the Northern branch but maintained a separate United Synod of the South.
Divisiveness. Meanwhile, the Northern synods continued to divide. One particular group, the upstate New York Franckean Synod, borrowed heavily from non-Lutheran evangelical liberals. When the General Synod admitted the Franckean Synod in 1864, other synods left and three years later formed a new General Council. Still more splits followed as more Lutherans immigrated to the United States and had to choose between joining other Lutherans or preserving the original ethnic context of their faith. In 1866 some immigrants served notice that ethnic context was more important than doctrinal purity; Lutheran and other German Protestants combined to form the Evangelical Church-Union of the West. Non-German Lutherans also preserved their ethnic background. As early as 1872 Finnish immigrants had their own Solomon Korteniemi Lutheran Society.
Faith and Slavery. The rise of a proslavery argument in the United States coincided with a shift in the view of many churches. Before the 1830s some Protestant ministers declared slavery to be immoral. By the 1850s, however, most members of the clergy had changed their outlook, arguing that slavery was not only compatible with Christianity but also necessary for the proper exercise of the Christian faith. Clergymen maintained that slavery provided an opportunity to display Christian responsibility toward one’s inferiors and helped African Americans develop the virtues of humility and self-control. Meanwhile, Southerners increasingly criticized Northern antislavery evangelicals for condemning the allegedly superior social hierarchy of the South. After the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution made slavery unconstitutional in 1865, the question was whether the denominations could adjust their theology again and begin to consider the ethics of race relations.
The Next Challenge. Communist theoreticians Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw in the American Civil War proof of their theory that history progressed on the paths hacked out by economic change and class struggle. In the Civil War the rising middle class of the Union defeated the historic aristocracy of the slaveholding South. Marx and Engels expected that soon thereafter the middle class would be challenged by a rising proletariat determined to halt capitalist exploitation of the working class. During the war troops had to be used to quell riots in which the working class protested being drafted for what seemed “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Although they rejected the antireligious stance of Marx and Engels, American clergymen clearly saw that the relation between classes was a major question of the day, one that challenged the theological resources of many denominations. As heavy industrialization of the United States progressed, religious leaders began to question the assumptions of classical economic theory. Clerics viewed unrestricted business competition as an arrogant denial of Christian ethics and the unfair treatment of workers as a violation of basic Protestant virtue. Nevertheless, these concerns would not receive true expression until the Social Gospel movement of the last decades of the nineteenth century.