1878-1899: Religion: Overview
1878-1899: Religion: Overview
New Outlooks. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century industrialization and urbanization profoundly affected the manner in which Americans viewed their society. Great cities arose and industrialization proceeded so quickly that within two generations the United States emerged as the worlds supreme economic power. Massive waves of European immigrants arrived to find jobs in factories, mines, farms, and transportation networks. Meanwhile bold new ideas circulated faster and farther than ever before, and, as the prestige of the natural sciences rose, evolutionary themes reshaped the ways in which educated men and women thought about the world and the future. Optimism and even confidence about humanity’s new capacity to solve ancient and intractable problems began to take hold in many quarters. American religious life shared fully in this sense of growth and rapid change. Protestantism continued to hold a central, although unofficial, place in the nation’s life. Formal membership in churches and other local religious organizations continued along the upwardarching path set during the early nineteenth century, reaching the highest levels yet known in the history of the nation. In sharp contrast to the situation in Europe, the proportion of the population that claimed formal religious membership was growing faster than the rate of increase in the population at large. Along with this growth, however, came a sense of the increasing diversity in American religious life. Cities in particular exhibited religious, ethnic, and racial complexity. New intellectual currents also stirred religious life. For more than two centuries Calvinism (the theological system of John Calvin [1509-1564] marked by a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the depravity of mankind, and the doctrine of predestination) had dominated American theology. However, it began to weaken in many quarters, and during the 1870s and 1880s liberal voices held the initiative among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. In general, these liberals sought to soften dogmas that seemed outdated or insupportable in the light of the scientific and intellectual advances of the day. A sense of optimism about the human future also permeated much of the “New Theology.” Liberal theologians increasingly emphasized God’s love and presence in the world rather than human sinfulness. By the late 1880s, however, strong conservative reactions against liberalism were developing in many religious communities. A series of highly publicized heresy trials occurred, and, especially among Protestants and Jews, a strong polarization of religious attitudes and outlooks became increasingly evident during the 1890s.
Regional Variation and Division. The United States was a religious patchwork with remarkable variances in religious demography: evangelical Protestantism, for example, held sway in the South and in much of the Midwest, while Catholicism dominated many new metropolitan centers in the North. New waves of immigration were also creating a larger and more religiously conservative Jewish community in northeastern cities. The regional diversity of religion was also reinforced by the failure of many Protestant denominations to heal the breaches caused by the Civil War and the struggle over slavery. Of the major Protestant denominations, only the Episcopal Church was able to reintegrate its organizational life after the Civil War. The Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, which had set the pace in the rapid expansion of American church life during the early decades of the nineteenth century, remained divided into separate Northern and Southern denominations for many decades.
Protestantism. Protestant churches continued to play a privileged and dominant role in American religious life. Approximately 60 percent of the population viewed itself as Protestant, and the major Protestant denominations all grew faster than the rate of population throughout the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in many communities Protestantism seemed all but formally established as the state religion, with Protestants playing a leading role in public education, charitable activities, and the Republican Party and among the rising middle and upper classes. Many Protestant denominations and congregations experienced a remarkable burst of energy during these decades. They mobilized large cadres of volunteers and donors to support missionaries at home and abroad and advocated social reform movements such as temperance and relief for the poor. Strong elements of continuity also flavored Protestant life. Revivalism, which had shaped Protestant church life in the early nineteenth century, continued to play a central role, with celebrated preachers such as Dwight Moody carrying the evangelical message into the cities with energy and success. The nation’s public school system reflected a Protestant ethos, and popular education movements such as the Chautauqua also tapped deep Protestant attitudes and values. Although a small proportion of immigrants who arrived during the period 1878-1899 were Protestants, these new arrivals adjusted readily to American patterns—even the Lutherans, who preferred to maintain both ethnic and denominational distinctions in their church life.
An Uneasy Dominance. In many ways, however, it was also becoming clear that American Protestant dominance was not completely solid. Protestantism remained an amazingly diverse and, in moments of stress, fragmented phenomenon. At the end of the century most Protestant groups still shared some elements of the evangelical revivalist tradition and Calvinist heritage, but they were divided by significant theological, regional, class, ethnic, and racial divisions. Viewed from a Catholic or Jewish perspective, American Protestantism seemed well organized and determined. But from within, the Protestant church was often beset by rivalries, tensions, and a small but unquenchable sense of foreboding about the increasing religious diversity of the nation.
Protestant Liberalism. Perhaps the most significant internal tension in American Protestantism was the growing debate over theological liberalism. During the late 1870s and the 1880s a new school of theologians and clergy worked to weaken and even dismantle the nation’s longstanding Calvinist theological consensus. Scholars such as Charles Augustus Briggs of Union Theological Seminary in New York and Newman Smythe, a Congregational pastor and seminary instructor, introduced American schools to new methods of biblical studies that had been pioneered in German universities. These methods emphasized attitudes of scientific rigor, historical research, the mobilization of linguistic and archaeological evidence, and an attitude of skepticism about inherited doctrines and creeds. Liberal scholars saw themselves as seekers of the truth whose task was to purify Protestantism by exploding myths and revealing errors that had crept into sacred texts and teachings over the course of centuries. They sought, in particular, to refute the rigid literalism that had governed American Calvinist interpretations of Scripture and theology earlier in the century. The work of these “New Theologians” reflected the optimism about the human condition and the broad popular impact of evolutionary thinking, which convinced many late-nineteenth-century thinkers that human progress was an unbreakable law of history.
Conservative Response. The work of these liberals stirred up both enormous enthusiasm and growing opposition. Princeton Theological Seminary, in particular, asserted itself as the great bastion of conservative Calvinist literalism. A wave of heresy accusations and trials punctuated the late 1880s and the 1890s, contributing to a growing sense of polarization within American Protestantism. The Presbyterian Church, which was firmly committed to Calvinist creeds and traditions, emerged as a particular battleground. Conservatives worried that liberal innovations were gutting the Bible of basic Christian doctrines. Liberals, on the other hand, believed that if Christianity refused to test itself against the most rigorous standards of truth and intellectual honesty, it would, in the age of science, appear morally and intellectually bankrupt. The clear division of mainstream Protestantism into modernist and fundamentalist camps would take place, however, only in the twentieth century.
The City. Protestants of all theological stripes also began to worry that their faith was not faring well in the anonymous world of the modern industrial city. American cities seemed to be dominated by strange new groups: a swelling and seemingly permanent and impoverished working class; millions of foreigners with alien religions, customs, and languages; and a new business culture that seemed to dismiss traditional moral imperatives and to lure successful churches and prosperous “Princes of the Pulpit” into the uncritical affirmation of wealth and success. Protestant thinkers such as the Reverend Josiah Strong began to treat the situation in the cities as a pressing moral and religious challenge for Protestants. In Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885), Strong confidently predicted the worldwide triumph of “Anglo-Saxon” political, economic and religious values in the Darwinian struggle of races, religions, and cultures for dominance—but only if America could resolve the challenge of its cities, which presented the threats of unchecked capitalism, dehumanizing poverty, the explosion of non-Protestant populations, and the specter of socialism. Evangelists such as Dwight Moody targeted the growing cities with some success, aided by militant and highly organized support from the Salvation Army, which arrived in the United States from Britain in 1880 to spearhead conservative Protestant responses to urban poverty and diversity.
Catholicism. After decades on the margins of American life, Catholicism came into its own as a major, and in many places dominant, force during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Millions of Catholic immigrants flooded into the United States after 1880. Discrimination and prejudice against Catholics remained common and was often virulent, but the sheer size and increasing acculturation of their community made it harder for Protestants to ignore or exclude Catholics. Much of the church’s leadership persuasively articulated the case for Catholic participation in American life. But the dominant trend in American Catholic life was the creation of a distinct Catholic subculture with its own religious practices, institutions, rich community life, and boundaries. The Third Plenary Council of America’s Catholic Bishops, held in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1884, helped I set strong tones of unity and solidarity. Sitting under the chairmanship of the charismatic James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, the council produced a uniform administrative code for the church, called for the creation of a parish-based system of education in response to Protestant control of public schools, and planned the establishment of a national Catholic university. The bishops also approved the text of a standard catechism that proved to be the touchstone of Catholic religious education in America for more than a century. The call for a parochial school system was not new, but it caught hold in an unprecedented manner in the late 1880s. The millions of Catholic immigrants who arrived after 1880 embraced the parochial-school movement and made the creation of a Catholic subculture possible.
Catholic Diversity. The accelerating diversity of the American Catholic Church also made it extremely difficult to secure harmony and unity. It was the internal experience of diversity that troubled American Catholics most during the Gilded Age, not anti-Catholic discrimination. Irishmen and Germans had dominated the stream of Catholic immigration earlier in the nineteenth century. By the 1890s, however, at least a dozen major Catholic ethnic groups were establishing themselves in the United States, particularly in the cities. Tensions erupted between immigrants who wished to preserve their own ethnic and religious customs and autonomy and the followers of American bishops, most of whom were of Irish origin and tended to insist on the goal of creating a unified, English-speaking Catholic community in the United States. While theological liberalism was never a major issue in the American Catholic community, a group of bishops, priests, and lay leaders did stake out a new kind of liberalism characterized by optimism about the possibility of Catholic assimilation in the United States and an emphasis on the compatibility of Catholicism and American traditions of democratic politics, especially the separation of church and state. Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and bishops such as John Ireland of Saint Paul, Minnesota; John Keane of Richmond, Virginia; and John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, Illinois, shared a vision of a unified Catholic culture in America, one that would be open to the possibilities and promises of the United States. More recently arrived European immigrants, however, often resisted the Americanist platform, preferring that parishes be organized by ethnicity and centered around the preservation of homeland languages, cultures, and religious traditions.
Internal Tensions. Clashes between Irish American bishops and German, Slav, and French Canadian Catholics were common. During the 1890s Catholic emigrants from Poland and other eastern European nations who practiced Eastern Rite Catholicism broke with the American church in protest over the demands of bishops for uniformity and obedience. Restless Catholic immigrants often received support from their home countries, especially Germany, where church activists and politicians such as Peter Paul Cahensly lobbied the Vatican and continuously voiced their concerns that the policies of Americanist bishops were causing millions of Catholic immigrants to drift away from the faith. Cahensly in particular sought the creation of ethnic dioceses as well as ethnic parishes in the United States. Liberal bishops, shielded by the effective diplomacy of Gibbons, received a large measure of papal support until the mid 1890s. After that point, papal authorities began to grow concerned about the effect that American arguments for the separation of church and state were having in Europe. Papal disapproval of the Americanist position was stated clearly in two papal encyclicals: Longinqua Oceani (1895) and Testern Benevolentiae (1899). The latter branded Americanism as a specific heresy for allegedly suggesting that the Catholic Church should alter its historic and foundational religious teachings in order to accommodate itself to the modern world. Gibbons and other bishops hotly denied that any such heretics existed in America. The papal crackdown had a marked and lasting conservative impact on American Catholicism. “National” parishes, which were organized on the basis of immigrant identity, became increasingly common in the United States after 1890; however, all of them continued under the authority of local—and usually Irish American—bishops. Nevertheless a universal Catholic identity prevailed, and the church did not suffer the lasting organizational divisions that affected so many other American religious denominations in the late nineteenth century.
Reform Judaism. Religious liberalism advanced further in the American Jewish community than in virtually any other American religious group. By the early 1880s the Reform movement in Judaism, which was committed to the modernization of the faith and its reconciliation with the modern world, had captured virtually the entire American Jewish community. In 1880 American Jewry totaled about 250,000 members scattered thinly across the nation. The Reform movement rose along with German Jewish immigration in the late 1840s and 1850s. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, Ohio, was the movement’s organizing genius, but its intellectual leader was Rabbi David Einhorn, who emigrated from Germany in 1855. He was an uncompromising religious radical who demanded a restructuring of Judaism, defining it as a monotheistic and ethically oriented religion, and rejected the teaching that Jews formed a separate people. Einhorn’s attacks on Jewish law and ritual profoundly influenced the rabbis who gathered to draft the “Pittsburgh Platform” of 1885, the theological manifesto for Reform Judaism for the following five decades. Within a few years, however, the Reform movement’s dominance was being drastically eroded by massive Jewish migration from eastern Europe. This influx brought to the United States hundreds of thousands of observant Orthodox Jews who bitterly rejected liberalism. Orthodox synagogues and periodicals proliferated during the late 1880s and 1890s, especially in the northeastern cities where large Jewish populations settled. While both the Reform and Orthodox movements had their origins in Europe, the 1880s also produced a distinctively American movement within Judaism, Conservatism, which offered a middle way between the radical experimentalism of Reform and the unyielding traditionalism of Orthodoxy. By 1900 the Reform movement was far outnumbered by its more conservative competitors. It remained, however, a powerful voice in the Jewish debate over adjustment to both the United States and modernity.
African Americans. The failure of Reconstruction deeply affected African American religious life between 1878 and 1899. As white supremacy reasserted itself in the South, where 90 percent of the nation’s blacks lived, religious institutions persisted as the most influential and independent African American entities. The clearest religious trend among freed slaves was withdrawal from white-dominated denominations into black churches. Only a small percentage of black Christians remained affiliated with the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational denominations; the overwhelming majority affiliated with one of three black Methodist denominations or with Baptist groups. These black denominations followed the general patterns of theology and organization. The largest black church, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. was organized in 1895 under the leadership of E. C. Morris. For most African Americans the Protestant religious life fostered by these churches provided a sheltered space free from racism and relatively independent of white control. Ministers, who derived their livelihoods from their congregations, were often the most independent figures in black communities. The black denominations also struggled to preserve the networks of schools, colleges, and seminaries that had been created after the Civil War. These schools produced successive generations of black leaders in many fields. Black denominational publications focused on racism, and church meetings provided a forum for religious, cultural, and political discourse. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the first generation of formally educated black theologians emerged into prominence. Theologians such as Theophilus Steward of Wilberforce University in Ohio produced pioneering theological texts that offered fundamental critiques of white Christianity. Steward, for example, offered a scathing analysis of the shortcoming and sinfulness of white Protestantism and called for the evangelization of Africa by black Christians rather than white ones.
Native Americans. During the 1870s and 1880s Native American opposition to white expansion in the West was crushed. As had been the case since the early seventeenth century, relations between the Indians and whites reflected mutual incomprehension and suspicion. In the realm of religious life, the period featured both white attempts to settle the Indian problem conclusively and Indian efforts to formulate a religious response to white encroachment. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, besides mandating the gradual elimination of most tribal lands and their allotment to individual families, also provided for the systematic introduction of both Catholic and Protestant missionaries on the reservations. These missionaries had the responsibility of educating the Native Americans, an effort whose chief goal was to eradicate Indian identity, often by sending Indian children to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages or practice their tribal religions. Soldiers and officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs also attempted to eradicate traditional religious and cultural practices, including the annual Sun Dance held by the Lakota. This ritual was suppressed by the federal Office of Indian Affairs in 1883, causing a profound crisis among the Lakota, whose religion taught them that the return of the bison herds was dependent on petitions to the natural powers that sustained all life. In this period of crisis, an extensive series of religious movements swept through the surviving Plains Indian tribes. The most famous of these was the Ghost Dance religion, which, like many of these spiritual movements, was characterized by attempts to use rituals and prophecy to roll back white encroachment and restore the physical and cultural conditions of the early nineteenth century. The Ghost Dance religion, which originated in a vision given to a Northern Paiute named Wovoka during an eclipse of the sun on 1 January 1889, spread rapidly across the plains. Practitioners danced in a circle to achieve an ecstatic state and open communications with the dead. Those returning from the trance state reported that the “old ways” would soon return. The Ghost Dance spread despite the many significant variations and differences in tribal religions and had to be reinterpreted by Indian teachers and prophets to make sense in the context of local religious systems. Among the Lakota, who were extremely responsive, the Ghost Dance offered a means to revive ritual forms banned by the government and missionaries, thus defeating the whites and creating the circumstances for the return of the buffalo. Practitioners of the religion were actively persecuted by federal troops, culminating in the tragic massacre of a band of Lakota Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota on 29 December 1890. The massacre of Wounded Knee ended Indian resistance to white control, although some groups continued to practice elements of the Ghost Dance religion well into the twentieth century.
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