Chapter 5 The Search for Reform 1835-58
State of the Church, 1835
II. The Religious
V. Humanitarian Reforms
During the last quarter century of antebellum America the
optimism and the desire for reform and improvement reached every
corner of the United States. The spirit of individualism and
freedom was fostered in every movement whether it was religion,
politics, manifest destiny, popular culture, immigration,
literature, and especially reform. Alexis de Tocqueville analyzed
it best by writing, "The ideas of progress and of the
indefinite perfectibility of the human race belong to democratic
ages. Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but
they are haunted by visions of what will be."
By 1835 the American church was firmly entrenched along the
traditional lines of the Protestant denominations and doctrines.
Where the spirit of nationalism and federalism had prevailed
during America's first half century, now sectionalism dominated.
The same was true in the church. With the disestablishment of all
churches they now enjoyed an independence from state control. As
one author put it, "what God had put asunder, let no man
join together." Moreover, while divisions continued within
the Protestant churches, every denomination began calling for a
greater loyalty among their members.
Revivalism was now a widely accepted practice. The anxious
bench, protracted meetings, and the prayer of faith for salvation
were standard procedures. The great evangelists Finney and
Beecher withdrew to Ohio colleges in Oberlin and Cincinnati. Old-time
religion from the days of camp meetings and the earlier
awakenings no longer supplied a major social attraction as they
did earlier in the century. Now, excitement and enthusiasm could
be found in the hustle and bustle of any growing urban center or
from the next torchlight political campaign. Religion was not the
center stage attraction like it was in the heyday of the Second
Nevertheless, a new revolutionary racket over religion was
reaching for the nation's attention. It was the supernatural. The
Second Great Awakening had extented Christianity to an accent on
personal experience and divine intervention. Some of the new and
disruptive movements went beyond the Bible and the Christian
church in the name of religious sects and even to the periphery
as cults. The most widespread attention was given to Spiritualism.
It claimed two million believers by 1855.
The young nation was experiencing tremendous growth and
expansion. The East was leading the USA into the industrial age.
Factories, canals, railroads, cotton and textile production, the
corporation ...science and industry were all fueling American
confidence and prosperity. The West with its Paul Bunyan
mentality and Manifest Destiny purpose further motivated the
expansion from sea to shining sea. However, an economic enemy was
appearing almost every decade, it was called a "panic."
It happened in 1819 and again in 1837, and in neither case was
there any interest in religion.
As Europeans viewed America from the other side of the
Atlantic, the opportunities looked even more enticing than in
previous generations. Immigrants from the Revolutions of 1830 and
1848 particularly the Germans, and from the Irish potato famine
were attracted to the freedoms and opportunities in the US. Their
chances in a laissez-faire economy and a squatters rights land
policy offered a hope to everyone except slaves and Indians. The
US population was almost doubling every 20 years.
Another cultural movement influencing America was the optimism
of Romanticism. Like revivalism in religion its placed a high
value on emotion, imagination, and the supernatural. The two both
dreamed of improving people and making a better society.
Consequently, as was true in the nation and the church, the
leading reform issue was slavery. While the nation was racing to
stretch from East to West, it was being pulled apart from North
to South by the abolition question.
I. The State of the
During the first four decades of the century the Methodist
church had increased seven-fold, the Presbyterians four-fold, and
the Baptist church had tripled in church membership. The
Methodists were now the largest body with over a million members.
The time had been a golden age of heaven-sent expansion for the
Protestant church in America. Their passion for evangelism was
everywhere. Salvation was clearly understood that an experience
of conversion or rebirth was needed to enter heaven. The prayer
by the seekers or comers was for a "new heart" which
came with the conversion.
In previous generations concerns were always voiced that some
church members were unconverted. They had grown up in the church,
and their parents were active members. However, spiritual growth
and discipleship was vague in their lives and in the life of the
church body. Such was not the case after Wesley and Finney. They
had emphasized sanctification, holiness, and perfection after a
salvation experience. Converts were expected to show signs of
growth in Christ and repentance away from sin. But with the rapid
increase in church membership, a new plumb line was appearing and
it was church attendance.
Many converts were being won in the revival meetings outside
the church or at protracted meetings outside of the Sunday
morning service. Some Baptists revivalists like Jabez Swan made
baptism a requirement for fulfilling the conversion experience.
Now with a clear assurance of eternal life, the newly converted
did not see regular, Sunday morning, church attendance as
obligatory or even a necessity. The forsaking of the assembling
of one another together was becoming a concern within the church.
Edward McKendree Bounds, who was born in this generation and
became a Methodist pastor and a Civil War chaplain, wrote that
revivals "are to be expected, proceeding, as they do, from
the right use of the appropriate means...that a revival was not a
miracle was powerfully taught by Charles G. Finney." Bounds
emphasized that, "All revivals are dependent on God, but in
revivals, as in other things, he invites and requires the
assistance of man, and the full result is obtained when there is
cooperation between the divine and the human. In other words, to
employ a familiar phrase, God alone can save the world, but God
chooses not to save the world alone.....this cooperation (requires)
first of all, and most important of all ...we must give ourselves
By 1835 revivalism had earned mainstream credibility as part
of the American religious scene. W.T. Stead in his
Americanization of the World about the 19th Century religious
movements said, " The first and most persistent has been
Revivalism. This was distinctly American in its origin."
With the right man and the right means a revival could be
produced in a local church or at a large urban crusade. However,
critics maintained that true revival was unexpectedly and totally
the sovereign work of God alone. Every denomination had their
recognized and effective revival men. The Presbyterians had
Albert Barnes, Jedediah Burchard, and of course the non-ordained
Finney. A Southern Presbyterian Daniel Baker labored in Texas
until he became president of Austin College. Edward Norris Kirk
was the noted Congregationalists from 1826 to 1874. The Baptist
had Jacob Knapp and Jabez Swan. Another Baptist Emerson Andrews
held over 300 protracted meetings and won 40,000 converts in his
35 year career. Methodist revivalists were John Newland Maffitt,
James Caughey, and John Inskip. The famous 1841-42 Boston revival
was led by Knapp, Finney, Kirk, and others, and added over 4,000
members to the evangelical churches.
The revivals were appearing to be man-made and well managed.
Critics said that they lacked the spontaneity of the Kentucky
days. The procedures and messages were becoming a standard
operation. The urban crusades had an ecumenical staff. The event
was well reported in the newspapers. The protracted meetings had
the anxious bench, an alter call, and a prayer for a new birth or
a new heart. The speaker wore a suit to avoid clerical formalism.
Some laymen did the praying. Choirs were local members not
professionals. The music gave listeners a chance to respond, and
in the Watt's practice the final hymn applied to the sermon. An
appeal was made for benevolent use of their money and property.
Seekers were conditioned to make a public confession of faith.
Even the professional revivalists could expect to be blessed
with a prosperous income as a full-time evangelist in the urban
crusades. Jacob Knapp conducted over 150 New York and New England
meetings in his career and claimed 100,000 converts during his
career until 1874. He was the first to gain fame for his annual
income which was over $2000 a year from his meetings in the early
1840's. Evangelists could always defended their incomes by saying
that, "they were only asking for free-will offerings."
The average church pastor didn't earn a fourth of Knapp's figure.
However, distressing public rumors and accusations were appearing
about the sexual scandals of too many men in the religious field.
Three of the western revivalists were involved in "free love"
experiments and a fourth one was unfrocked for adultery. Theodore
Weld reported in 1844 that "Within the last four years not
less than thirty ministers of evangelical denominations have been
guilty of the most flagrant licentiousness and been removed from
the ministry." Their conduct undoubtedly contributed to the
timing of Hawthorne's story of Hester Prynne and her scarlet A in
Another liability over the "new measures" during the
restless 40's and 50's was the qualifications of revival men.
Where the local pastors mostly seemed divinely appointed there
were no such credentials for some of the revivalists. Too many
were fast talking showmen, who had little education and even less
Christian experience. They emphasized a little Bible and too
often they criticized the ministers and their churches as
lukewarm and spiritually dead rather than relying on the churches
to disciple those professing faith.
The revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings created
a good deal of speculation over Millennial doctrines. The
heavenly work in the two previous revivals caused Christians to
think that its had been a preparation for the return of Christ
and his thousand-year reign. A second principle of millenialism
was the apocalypse or destruction of the world. Some had surmised
that Napoleon might be the Antichrist.
Nevertheless, the single most embarrassing event for the
American Christian church was when William Miller, a Vermont
Baptist minister predicted the Second Coming of Christ and the
Day of Judgment in 1843. He had to re-calculate the end of the
age to October 22, 1844. Estimates ran as high as 50,000
Americans dressed in white, "righteous" robes, who
stood on the highest ground in their locale waiting for the
Lord's return and the beginning of the millennium. People left
their jobs and their responsibilities. When nothing happened
disappointment and disillusionment followed, but the event just
added to the religious commotion and chaos of the age. Eventually
the followers of Miller became the Seventh-Day Adventist
Every denomination suffered dissension and division. The
Presbyterians and Congregationalists had long cooperated with the
Plan of Union and the Home Missionary Society. In 1837 a clear
theological difference over Calvin's position on original sin
split them into the Old School and the New School. The
Episcopalians, also, traveled two roads: the high churchmen moved
back toward the Catholics, and the low churchmen or evangelicals
favored sending missionaries to the frontier. Lutheran groups,
also, splintered in 1845: the Buffalo Synod, in 1846: the
Missouri Synod, and in 1854: the Iowa Synod.
Perhaps the biggest dissension came with the growth of Roman
Catholicism, the traditional rival of the Protestant church. It
was the oldest Christian church in America, and in the past its
Western Hemisphere roots were Spanish and French. Now, a new wave
of European immigrants came from Ireland and Germany and tensions
. In 1829 the First Provincial Council met in Baltimore. They
called for a parochial school in every parish. They also adjured
them not to teach from the King James Bible. The auspicious
gathering established direction for six major Eastern cities and
several Western diocese. It was a notable foundation for the
nearly 600,000 American Catholics However, xenophobia raised its
head on a rumor that guns were stored in the Catholic buildings
and they intended to capture America for the Pope. In 1834 at the
Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, crowds attacked
the successful girl's school. They shouted, "No papacy!"
The mob broke into the building, and they demolished it and set
it on fire. Rioting continued against the Catholics in Boston for
several days. By 1837 the Native American political candidates
began appearing in the elections. They called for limitations on
immigration and for stronger naturalization requirements.
Eventually, they became known as the Know Nothings or American
Party. Their members were kept secret members in the 1850's, and
they had a strong anti-Catholic platform. For the "new"
Americans loyalty to the Red, White, and Blue would not come easy.
The Irish were starved from the Potato Famine and settled mainly
in the big cities, but hope and opportunity were met with the
signs "No Irish need apply." They were a hundred
The Germans, who came from political oppression, moved to the
Great Lakes states in the Midwest. Their road to assimilation was
easier because of the large number of second and third generation
ancestors from the fatherland. Also, two kinds of Germans
immigrated: the Roman Catholics and the Lutheran Protestants.
Some lived side by side and some got along because they were both
strangers in a new land. But that old unchristian nemesis bigotry
was always lurking in the shadows. When the Mexican War broke out
in 1846 more strife was incited by a Roman Catholic enemy under
Santa Anna. Although patriotism called for a memory of the Alamo,
it was forgotten that the symbol was a Catholic mission. However,
like everything else, the issue became pale compared to the
larger struggle over slavery.
While antebellum America looked righteous in reform and social
change, the nation of immigrants became dishonorable in their
race relations. The reality of freedom and equality for each new
group in the American "melting pot" was easier to write
in words than perform in deeds.
A final antebellum church was the African American or the
"colored" people's church. Because it was illegal to
teach the Blacks to read and write their pre-Civil War records
are very limited. Nevertheless, a clear change took place from
1830 to 1835 because of Nat Turner's rebellion. With the death of
55 whites in Southampton County, Virginia most states made it
illegal for Blacks to assemble for church or otherwise, unless
whites were preaching or in charge of the meeting. During that
period slaves were expected to worship in their master's church.
Some believing slaves met in the seclusion of the woods or in
hidden enclaves on the plantation, and it became known as the
Christianity for the Negro, slave and free, was influenced by
both their African roots and the European traditions. The
preacher or exhorter was usually from the itinerant mold and he,
or even she, had the verbal skills to entertain and move the
hearts of the listeners. The message was filled with the emotions
of the revival-style about the God of deliverance and of freedom.
Their music changed from European hymns like "Praise God
from Whom All Blessing Flow" to the spirituals. The
spirituals used Biblical words, but the themes were freedom,
Moses, the Jordan, Jesus, the Lamb's blood, and a hope of a
better future. Their worship became the highly-rhythmic singing,
clapping, and dancing in part from the emotion of the Second
Great Awakening and some from the pulsating pattern in their
In the large urban areas the Black Baptist or Methodist church
was the largest one in town. Some of the best Black preachers
attracted white visitors, although their services were usually
longer and more emotional. The morality and behavioral
expectations as Christians didn't differ much between the Negroes
and the white. However, the whites liked to hear the Apostle
Paul's verse "Slaves obey your masters" (Col 3:22)
quoted. One vestige of African religions that followed the Blacks
was voodoo. It had been imported through Haiti and was centered
in New Orleans by the 19th Century. It also followed the Catholic
calendar. The practitioners hoped for healing, or warding off
evil, and perhaps good or bad fortune to someone.
The Religious Racket
Jon Butler in his Awash in a Sea of Faith wrote a great
chapter on the spiritual activities during the antebellum period.
He called the era a "spiritual hothouse." His very
descriptive terms included religious enthusiasm and eclecticism,
rambunctious religious enthusiasm, fascination with divine
intervention, and popularity with the supernatural.
The American belief in witches, dreams, astrology, fortune
telling, phrenology, and even the use of divining rods increased
during the 19th Century. The belief in ghosts and the attempts at
contacting the dead through seances was not a rare phenomenon.
Even Mary Todd Lincoln tried to contact her dead sons through
spiritualists. Although there are claims that the President
looked on, his private secretary's biography denies it. Many
treasure seekers hoped that divining rods, peep stones, and even
dreams would expose hidden wealth to them. Biographers say that
Joseph Smith was beguiled by such attractions.
The trust in supernatural healing practices through faith,
alchemy, folk medicines, and especially the mysterious elixirs of
a traveling medicine man enticed many Americans. At the same time
medical schools were adding those successful practices and
knowledge to the field of healing and health. The appearance of
so many unconventional groups has drawn a great deal of the
attention from secular and religious historians. Critics have
accused them of excessive focus on fringe groups, who had
marginally committed followers for short terms and small numbers
of partisans. Perhaps their promiscuous sexual standards offered
a fascination for many Americans, who avoided their deviant
morals. Nevertheless, the curiosity, the romanticism, and the
interest in the beyond was an increasing widespread reality.
Sydney Ahlstrom called Mesmerism or animal magnetism the first
harmonial religion. Adherents believed that correspondence or
rapport with the cosmos or some universal force would give them
health, wealth, and even wisdom.
Swedenborgianism emphasized correspondence with God, the dead,
and the world of animals, vegetables, and minerals. The founder
wrote over thirty volumes on his interpretations from the Bible
on doctrines and revelations. Although he was radical in his
time, every major American city had congregations in the 19th
Century. Even Johnny Appleseed had a passing interest in it.
The secret and magical beliefs of the Freemasons did not
attract much attention until 1826. The Masons were accused in the
Morgan Trials of murdering a former member, who gave away their
secrets. The Anti-Masons became the first political party to hold
a national Presidential nominating convention. For awhile all the
mainline denominations barred their members and especially their
pastors from being Masons.
The largest movement was Spiritualism. It originated in
Hydesville, New York in 1848. The Fox sisters Margaret and
Katherine experienced strange rappings, table turnings, and
clairvoyant feats, when they moved into an old house in
Hydesville. A rapid growth took place in America and Europe.
Mediums and interpreters claimed all kinds of extra-terrestrial
contacts. When P.T. Barnum signed up the Fox sisters, they became
celebrities. The movement attracted mainly white, middle to upper-class,
Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It was soundly denounced by the
preachers. In the first half of the 19th Century there was an
explosion of these non-Christian organizations that gleaned
purpose and status from the earlier successes of evangelical
Christianity. They appeared to be just more sects and subgroups
just breaking away from mainline Christianity. However, there
were doctrinal departures and non-religious dogmas that claimed
many spiritual victims even into the 20th Century.
In the 1830's in New England, America's spiritual breeding
ground, another earnest interest attempted to produce moral and
spiritual reforms. It was transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson
was their spokesman. Out of a Unitarian background and a
dissatisfaction with religion Emerson created his theories of
"Self Reliance" and his mystical "Over-Soul"
theology. The lyceum movement increased the contact between small
town people and "celebrity" speakers, and Emerson was
in the greatest demand. His concepts on the individual, nature,
and moral law were affirmed by some prominent names of the day
like: Henry David Thoreau, George Ripley, Bronson Alcott, Oretes
Brownson, Theodore Parker, and Margaret Fuller. In retrospect
historian Sydney Ahlstrom called Ralph Waldo Emerson America's
first "death-of-God" theologian. Another non-Christian
sect that developed along the Unitarian lines was the
Universalists. In 1803 the Winchester Platform emphasized the
perfectibility of man, the ultimate salvation of all souls, the
varied character of divine revelation, and the humanness of
Christ. Basically, they believed that God was too good to damn
people forever. By 1855 they grew to a quarter of a million
Meanwhile in New York's burnt-over district, Joseph Smith
claimed to have received some golden plates from an angel Maroni
in 1827. The inscriptions were written in a "reformed
Egyptian" hieroglyphics which he translated by using two
"seer" stones. The document became known as The Book of
Mormons. Rev. Solomon Spaulding claimed that Smith had
plagiarized his unpublished 1814 novel. His document is still at
Oberlin College today. Smith's revelation involved the Nephites,
an American Indian tribe that descended from the lost tribes of
Israel, and had been destroyed in a war. Smith claimed that Jesus
had appeared to them and that they were the "true church."
He alleged that an apostasy had occurred after the Apostolic Age,
and for seventeen centuries the true church was lost. He said
that the Bible had become corrupted and the churches were in
darkness and sin. He claimed that the resurrected Jesus had
appeared to him to restore the priesthood, the gospel, and the
true church. His organization was called The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-Day Saints or the Mormons. Immediately several
LDS doctrines were questioned. The obvious one was the
preeminence of the Book of Mormons over The Bible. Many were
infuriated when Smith proclaimed "I will be a Second
Mohammed." The practice of polygamy was in direct
disobedience to the laws of the government. Another issue was
baptizing pictures or stand-in people for the dead and for their
salvation. The convert's property and assets were to be held in
common by the church. When Smith's bank failed in Ohio, he was
accused of violating the state banking laws and he fled.
Smith and the Mormon's began a trek for the earthly "City
of Holiness." In 1831 they moved from Fayette, New York to
Kirtland, Ohio. Smith and Sidney Rigdon set up a church and
several businesses. In 1837 the Mormons went to Jackson County,
Missouri. They bought up the entire county and the 15,000 Mormons
lived in peace for several years. Again economic woes occurred
and tithing (which Smith and Rigdon were exempt) was introduced.
But mob violence drove them out of the state to Nauvoo, Illinois
which would became the largest city in the state.
The "New Jerusalem" in Nauvoo became a prosperous
community and converts came from as far as England. Smith
organized a militia, a university, and another temple. When he
revealed his revelation on polygamy and his over 20 "spiritual"
wives, newspaper editors of the Expositor opposed the new
doctrine. The editors were arrested and their printing press was
destroyed. In June 1844 the Illinois militia arrested Smith and
his brother for treason, and jailed them in Carthage, Illinois.
Some say that the two were killed trying to shoot their way out
in a jailbreak, but the devotees claim a mob broke into the
Carthage jail and murdered them.
With Smith's death his widow and son moved some of the Mormons
to Independence, Missouri and started the "reorganized"
church. They denied Smith's polygamy. Under the leadership of
Brigham Young the other Mormons reached their final destination
outside the United States in the Mexican territory of "Deseret"
at Salt Lake City in 1848. The industrious "saints" and
their irrigation projects made the community an economic success.
In 1890 when the practice of polygamy was retracted, Utah was
granted statehood. Their worldwide missionary endeavors continued
to win millions of proselytes. The Christian community still
labels the Mormons a cult because of Smith's claims of private
revelations and his new sacred books superior to the Holy
Scriptures. His accusation that the Roman Catholic, Greek
Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Protestant churches were all
apostate for 1700 years does not fair well with the Mormon's
claim of being another Christian church. Their salvation is based
on "good works" according to Smith's gospel rather than
the unique and complete atonement by Jesus Christ alone.
Ahlstrom's summary on the Mormons was, "One can not even
be sure if the object of our consideration is a sect, a mystery
cult, a new religion, a church, a people, a nation, or an
American subculture; indeed, at different times and places it is
all of these." Leonard Woolsey Bacon called Mormonism,
"a system of gross, palpable imposture contrived by a
disreputable adventurer, Joseph Smith, with the aid of three
confederates, who afterward confessed the fraud and perjury which
they had been guilty."
III. The Utopian Societies:
The lofty revival goals of individual perfection and social
reform led to many experiments in utopian communities. Most felt
they could best achieve their purpose by leaving the present
corrupt society. The idea of communal living in an agricultural
environment was attractive in the growing industrial societies of
Britain and America. By returning to the simpler, good old days
they hoped to develop an ideal social structure. The utopian
societies were all voluntary and most felt that money and
selfishness were the causes of evil, so the members were expected
to turnover all their worldly possessions to the communal order.
Generally they had economic goals like socialism and communism,
and many had religious convictions of establishing a heaven on
earth or a perfect society.
The Shakers were the earliest sect in America and laid the
groundwork for the other utopian societies. Their leader Anna Lee
claimed to be the female version of Jesus Christ. Their
missionaries came to America during the Kentucky Revivals and
they gained many members. The notable beliefs included celibacy
and a program of twelve virtues. Their dancing and leaping in
worship received much attention. They were nearly 6,000 members
in 20 communities during their zenith years from 1830 to 1850.
Because they did not produce any children they died out, however
their simple and practical furniture designs still remain today.
The Rappites were a group of German Pietists led by George
Rapp, who refused to stay in the state church. They had similar
beliefs on celibacy and community property. Like the Shakers open
confession of all sin was the norm. Their thriving agricultural
community in New Harmony, Indiana was described as a garden in
the wilderness, and they became noted for their Ohio River
flatboats. They lasted from 1814 to 1824, when Robert Owens, an
English social reformer, bought out the commune. He set up a two-
year "free love" experiment. It was branded "one
great brothel" and quickly failed. Frances Wright had a
similar free sex community for Blacks at Nashoba in Tennessee.
Another German Pietist community that came to the US for
religious freedom was the Amana Society or the Community of True
Inspiration. In 1843 they migrated from New York to central Iowa
and set up several prosperous agricultural villages. Their
remnant remains a successful appliance and furniture cooperative
John Humphrey Noyes, a Finney convert and a divinity student,
founded the infamous Oneida, New York commune in 1847. It was
famous for the "love-in" philosophy that all men and
women were married to each other. They also produced the quality
knives and silverware that still bears the name today. Outside
pressure caused their "complex marriage" system to
collapse. In 1879 the community incorporated into the successful
Oneida Community Plate business.
The least successful and probably most famous community was
the Transcendentalist's Brook Farm in eastern Massachusetts.
George Ripley founded the religious experiment so each individual
would have the freedom to realize his or her powers and gifts.
Their education system emphasized discussion, learn by doing, and
personal tutoring. It was well financed and some famous New
England families joined the cause from 1841-1847. When they
adopted ideas of French socialism, the community failed at
farming and financially. Then the farm was sold.
The American democracy with its guarantees of religious
freedom and its designs on separation of church and state was
producing an atmosphere of opportunity for diversity,
individualism, even nonconformity, and especially change. The
vast stretches of land enabled any strange and peculiar group to
develop with nominal interference. But, to most groups even the
constitutional freedoms or their fervor and optimism did not
impose a change on the moral direction of other individuals or
the nation. They do however remain famous today because some
writers of history like to over glorify the different and fringe
movements regardless of how small or short-lived their existence.
from Sea to Shining Sea:
In 1838 John L. O'Sullivan wrote of America's optimism and
expansion, "The far-reaching, the boundless future will be
the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space
and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to
mankind the obedience of divine principles; to establish on earth
the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High
- the Sacred and True." He coined the term "Manifest
Destiny." In 1845 he wrote, "the right of our manifest
destiny to overspread and possess the whole continent which
Providence has given us for the development of the great
experiment in liberty and federated self-government entrusted to
us." Timothy Smith in his Preface on Revivalism and Social
Reform said of the age, "The Calvinist idea of
foreordination, rejected as far as it concerned individuals, was
now transferred to a grander object - the manifest destiny of a
Christianized America." It was now believed that the United
States had a God-given responsibility or a God-ordained purpose
to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even carry
Christianity around the globe.
Justified by such a high spiritual calling "expansion"
became the American term for what others called imperialism, or
colonization, or even an empire. "Life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness" were fragile words when combined with
the desire to conquer someone else's land. "Sea to shining
sea" sounds nice in song, but others were in the way. The
land was occupied by Indians and Mexicans, and claimed the by the
Spanish, British, and Russians.
John Quincy Adams' boundary arrangements were disrupted, when
the American migrants took over Texas, and then they asked for
statehood in 1836. Annexation would be a troubling discussion,
since the House of Representatives had just imposed the "gag
rule" on any slavery proposals. The Jackson administration
recognized the Lone Star state's independence, but refused to
expand the issue and annex Texas into the USA. Seldom mentioned
is that "the father of Texas," the great Sam Houston
gave his life to Christ through a frontier evangelist, who was
the great-grandfather of Lyndon B. Johnson. In Texas fashion both
Houston and LBJ bragged of that occasion. In the meantime Oregon
fever was growing, too. In 1823 a schoolteacher Hall Jackson
Kelley had challenged New England farmers "to promote the
propagation Christianity... on the shores of the Pacific."
In 1832 Nat Wyeth made it to Oregon in eight months. Others
followed a Methodist Jason Lee, who set up a school in the
Willamette Valley in 1834. Presbyterians Dr. Marcus and Narcissa
Whitman with Henry Spalding and his wife were the first
missionary couples to cross the Rockies. The Whitman's
transcontinental return and their furlough report on their
friendship with the legendary Jim Bridger, their ministry among
the Indians at Walla Walla, Washington, and their 1847 death
during a Cayuse Indian raid became the classic missionary story
of The West.
Another outstanding story of the Northwest was Father Pierre-Jean
DeSmet, a Jesuit priest, known as the "Apostle to the
Flatheads." His 1842 mission in the Bitter Root Valley of
western Montana claimed 6,000 converts. His praise and trust of
the Indians was characterized by his stand against the offensive
term for them as "savages."
The reality of the nation's vision for The West came to pass
when the darkhorse Presidential candidate James K. Polk won the1844
campaign with the slogan "54-40 or fight." Because of
his election Congress annexed Texas. During his Presidency he
added Oregon and provoked war with Mexico by sending Fremont to
California and Taylor to the Rio Grande River. After winning
every battle but one, and settling the Treaty of Guadalupe
Hidalgo, James K. Polk's administration had been responsible for
adding more territory to the US than the entire Louisiana
Purchase. It included parts of a dozen states, and "sea to
shining sea" was accomplished by 1848.
The American military victory over Mexico, also, preserved the
finest spiritual heritage west of the Mississippi. In the 18th
Century the great Franciscan friar Junipero Serra founded a chain
of twenty-one missions from San Diego to San Francisco. When
Mexico won their independence from Spain in 1821, the government
began the secularization of the missions and the removal of the
Spanish missionaries. The funds and lands of the missions were
confiscated by the Mexican government and the missionaries
returned to Spain.
When the US took over California in 1847 under military
governor Stephen Kearney, he made this promise, "The
undersigned is instructed by the President of the United States
to respect and protect the religious institutions of California,
to take care that the religious rights of the its inhabitants are
secured in the most ample manner, since the Constitution of the
United States allows to every individual the privilege of
worshipping his Creator in whatever manner his conscience may
dictate." Unfortunately Father Serra's mission system had
been shattered, but Eastern missionaries would follow the gold
rush to California
During the days of Samuel Mills and John Schermerhorn the West
was seen as "home missions" by the eastern churches and
mission's boards. The Bible societies and the denominations
produced many books, Bibles, tracts, and magazines for the West.
The frontier missionaries served as schoolteachers first, and
then they started Sunday Schools rather than being church
planters. As the immigrants and emigrants were further inspired
by every rumor of wealth from furs to California gold, the
Eastern benevolent organizations invested their money in the
spiritual welfare of the West by sending pastors and sometimes
The Second Great Awakening and Jacksonian Democracy proved
that society could be changed by the common man. By the 1830's a
major age of moral reform was underway. Most of the humanitarian
movements had been inspired by evangelical Christianity and
clearly on Christian principles. Nevertheless, the reformers were
from every kind of background and for every kind of humane cause.
They attempted it with a religious zeal. The reforms were joined
by men and women. The importance of the individual and the
opportunity of voluntary service provided the energy for many
campaigns to purify and perfect society.
The first successful cause was temperance. Many believed that
alcohol was the cause of poverty, crime, and other social ills.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence,
was one of the first to speak out against its use. In 1826
because of the preaching of Lyman Beecher, sixteen Boston
clergymen and laymen formed the American Temperance Society. By
1836 a national organization was meeting. However, their cause
was hindered by adding other issues like slavery. But in the 1840's
Father Theobald Mathew won national acclaim with his pledges for
abstinence, and his famous followers were called the "Cold
Water Army." Finally, 1846 Portland merchant Neal Dow led
the State of Maine in passing the first prohibition law.
Another early notable reform was for the physically impaired.
Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, who graduated from Yale College and
Andover Seminary, united some Connecticut minister for prayer
about an institution for the deaf and dumb. The Connecticut
legislature appropriated $5,000 for an asylum at Hartford, the
first of its kind in the United States. Samuel Gridley Howe soon
became the noted leader of the campaign for educating the blind
and the Perkins School was founded in Boston.
A similar cause was a call for kindness to those in
confinement in prisons and hospitals. Rev. Louis Dwight, an agent
of the American Bible Society, was shocked by conditions that he
saw while visiting prisoners. He innovated the Auburn System of
rehabilitation through cell blocks and labor groups for work,
Bible study, and meditation that replaced the isolated, solitary
confinement. Dorothea Dix, a Sunday School teacher, was appalled
by the treatment of the mentally ill. Her vivid reports to the
Massachusetts legislature resulted in some compassionate changes.
She earned an international platform to reform the hospitals for
the insane, and had institutions established in over 30 states.
In the New York City Sarah Doremus, a godly Presbyterian woman of
numerous urban ministries, started a rehabilitation home for
discharged female prisoners from the city prison. For more than
30 years she served to restore these woman to society.
The movement for world peace began in 1815 with the New York
Peace Society. The leaders were David Low Dodge, a merchant and
progenitor of a long line of Christian philanthropists, and his
father-in-law, who was a clergyman and convert of George
Whitefield's ministry. The two clergymen started the
Massachusetts Peace Society. The Quaker's peace position became
the basis for the American Peace Society in 1836. By 1840 their
President William Ladd, an earnest Congregationalist, was calling
for a Congress of Nations.
Although America had the highest literary rate in the world,
reformers still cried for more and better education. Some wanted
it more secular, and Christians wanted it more Christian. It was
estimated that 90 percent of the pre-Civil War college Presidents
were clergymen. The great textbook with Protestant virtues was
William H. McGuffey's Eclectic Readers. Over 120 million copies
influenced the 19th Century education system. However, the
leadership of Horace Mann and the secular crusaders made the
biggest changes in teacher training, normal schools, and free
A spin-off reform of education was the increase of women's
rights. In 1821 Emma Hart Willard founded the first seminary for
women in Troy, New York. Mary Lyon, the best known female
educator, established Mount Holyoke College for women with a goal
that "every student would be brought to a personal knowledge
of Jesus Christ." Oberlin College admitted the first female
in 1837 and graduated the first woman in 1850 with a theological
degree. Soon women were teachers, schoolmistresses, and
The first great women's convention in Seneca Falls, New York
in 1848 was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton with a Quaker
Lucretia Mott. The two-day gathering had 68 women and 32 men sign
a Declaration of Sentiment and a list of 18 grievances. The
Women's movement gained support by including other causes in
their platform like temperance, suffrage, property rights, and
especially abolition. They soon made progress in the professions
like law and medicine, and legislatures passed laws to improve
The industrial revolution was considered a major cause of the
social ills in the 19th Century. The employment of children,
women, and immigrants for low wages and long hours were targets
of the reformers and the labor unions. The 10-hours work day and
the right to form a union and strike were all goals of the labor
It was not just the Christians, who endeavored to improve
society. Many Transcendentalists and Unitarians, who graduated
from Harvard, were influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and William
Ellery Channing. They added their zeal to the cause of many
In the pursuit of honorable reforms and the ideal of
Jacksonian democracy one cause failed. The Indians not only lost
ground, but they were removed. Under President Jackson, who
became famous as an Indian fighter, Congress adopted the Indian
removal policy. Although Chief Justice Marshall tried to protect
Indian lands, the Cherokees were evicted and marched away in the
infamous Trail of Tears. One-fourth died on the trek to Oklahoma,
and their funds were stolen by government officials. Their lands
were occupied by whites. Every Indian tribe was forced beyond
Mississippi, except the Seminoles, who survived by hiding in the
VI. The Abolition Movement:
Of all the reform movements the "fire bell in the night"
became the greatest moral crusade of the era. The other campaigns
dissipated while free soil and free men intensified. It was the
great irony of history that a nation founded on liberty and
freedom with Christian principles would continue the
Constitutional guarantee of slavery with its cruelties,
mutilations, immoralities, and degradation's to the Africans. So
many honorable and principled people owned slaves like the
founding fathers: Washington, Jefferson, Randolph, and Pinckney.
The issue split families, the churches, and the states.
The first call for manumission was by a Quaker preacher John
Woolman in an 1754 document. The Quakers began expelling members,
who owned slaves, and they organized perhaps the world's first
anti-slavery society in 1775. Although slavery was permitted in
the Constitution, few were told about the devastating conditions
on the middle passage. Some were appalled and embarrassed by the
public slave trade in cities like Baltimore. In 1808 Congress
closed slave trade, but the traffic still continued. A Quaker
editor Benjamin Lundy organized an anti-slavery society in 1815,
and he worked for emancipation and African colonization. By 1822
Liberia was established as a colony for ex-slaves, but the
attempt was ineffective. During the decade abolition societies
began dwindling. Lundy recruited a 22-year old reformer to his
newspaper work. His name was William Lloyd Garrison. By 1831
Garrison was publishing The Liberator and strongly attacking
slavery as sinful and criticizing the slaveowners as criminals.
Southerners were infuriated and offered a bounty for Garrison.
Another influential publication in Boston was the pamphlet Appeal
in Four Letters by an ex-slave and a Baptist David Walker. He
warned that if slavery continued the nation was doomed "For
God will tear up the very face of the Earth!"
The abolitionists received an immense impetus in 1833 when the
British Empire emancipated their slaves and compensated the slave
owners with not more than 20 million pounds. British actress
Fanny Kemble on her American tours included a condemnation of
slavery. Before the year ended the American Anti-Slavery Society
was formed in Philadelphia with Arthur Tappan as President.
Manumission agencies began to spring up again.
However, two acts of violence transformed the decade and
polarized the two sides even more. The first was the 1831 slave
insurrection led by the Rev. Nat Turner, a Baptist preacher in
Virginia. After a Bible study and prayer he proclaimed a divine
calling to kill his master Joseph Travis and the family. Nearly
sixty whites died and more than a hundred Negroes were killed in
this Southampton uprising. The South immediately tighten their
Black Codes, and the previous conspiracies of Denmark Vessey in
1800 and Gabriel Prosser in 1822 were rehearsed.
Secondly, the first white martyr of the abolition movement Rev.
Elijah P. Lovejoy was killed in Alton, Illinois in 1837. The
newspaper editor and ordained Presbyterian minister had his press
mobbed for the fourth time. His murder was called "a shock
as of any earthquake." The heat on slavery increased, but
still most of the Northerners were indifferent. The abolitionists
were divided over the timetable for emancipation whether it
should be immediate or gradual.
While Garrison remained the staunch abolitionist in the North,
he was joined by others during the decade of the 30's. Some
joined like Lovejoy because of his spiritual conversion during
the Second Great Awakening. He saw slavery as incompatible with
Christianity. Others were enlisted by the Unitarians of Harvard
from the influence of William Ellery Channing and the idealistic
writers from Transcendentalism and Romanticism. Garrison's most
famous disciple was Harvard grad Wendell Phillips, who was called
"abolition's golden trumpet." He denounced the
Constitution for slavery and called for a dissolution of the
Arthur and Lewis Tappan, the wealthy New York silk merchants,
supplied money for Finney's crusades and the abolition societies.
Both served as officers in the American and the American &
Foreign Anti-Slavery societies. They also backed Garrison's
effort in the early 1830's, and they added enormous influence to
Theodore Dwight Weld, a convert of Finney's preaching, used
the revival preaching style to attract supporters to the crusade.
He spoke in 40 Ohio cities during a three-year campaign. Weld was
one of the most courageous abolition advocates. He suffered from
verbal abuse, beatings, rocks, and he was nearly the first martyr
for the cause. His wife Angelina and her sister Sarah were the
famous Quaker Grimke sister's of the women's rights and abolition
causes. Both had renounced their slave property. Another Quaker
woman Lucretia Mott was spoke boldly for both causes.
An ex-slave owner from Kentucky James G. Birney's argument
against slavery was that all men were created in the image of God
and that Jesus taught the universal brotherhood of man. In 1834
Birney wrote a Letter to the Ministers and Elders calling for an
end of slavery because of the doctrines in Christianity. He moved
to Cincinnati and joined the Weld, Garrison, Tappan, Lovejoy, and
Meanwhile, other radical abolitionists had organized the
Underground Railroad. The institution was unofficially
incorporated in 1804, but the term was not coined until 1831. The
escape route for runaway slaves linked "stations" or
nightly rendezvous, which followed the North Star or in their
secret lingo "the Drinking Gourd." Levi Coffin, an
Indiana Quaker, was the so-called President; and Harriet Tubman,
the Black Moses, was the most famous conductor. She personally
led 300 slaves to freedom. Coffin became famous for a funeral
procession which he used to march 28 slaves to freedom. By 1850
it was estimated that 100,000 slaves valued at thirty million
dollars made it to the North or Canada. By the end of the decade
the abolitionists had surrounded two camps. The Garrison faction
criticized the churches for not taking a firm stand, and the New
York coalition under Lewis Tappan tried to work with the churches
for abolition. However, others determined that political action
was needed against the Constitutional and the legislative
protections on slavery, and they formed the Liberty Party.
In the elections of 1840 and 1844 they ran James Birney as
their Presidential candidate. Although they polled only 60,000
votes in 1844, the 15,812 votes in New York were enough to swing
the crucial state to the Democrat candidate James Knox Polk, who
was a descendent of the famous Scottish reformer John Knox. By
the end of Polk's administration Texas was a state, Oregon was re-organized,
and a vast territory had been won from Mexico. The anti-slavery
people now hoped to contain slavery in the 15 slave states. They
supported Martin Van Buren and the Free Soil party in the
election of 1848. Van Buren drew 290,000 votes, and he beat the
Democrat Lewis Cass in three states including New York.
During the 1840's two prominent ex-slaves became powerful
speakers for the anti-slavery cause. Frederick Douglass, a
runaway slave and licensed preacher in the AME Zion Church, began
speaking for a moderate abolition position in 1841. He was in
great demand in America and Europe and was quickly the most,
outstanding abolitionist orator. In 1845 he wrote his
autobiography. From 1847 to1860 his newspaper the North Star was
a moderate voice on abolition which opposed Garrison's more
radical opinion. Eventually he was called to serve in the Lincoln
The second spokesperson was Isabella, who was known as
Sojourner Truth. She was emancipated in 1828 when New York state
ended slavery. As a member of the AME Zion church, she became a
street preacher and an evangelist in New York City. Her deep
voice and mystical messages were effective in the women's rights
movement, too. Her famous lines at the 1851 Women's Rights
Convention were, "And ain't I a woman?.. I have borne
thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery,
and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard
me! And ain't I a woman?" For the most part whites in the
North appeared disinterested toward emancipation. Abolitionist
speakers found it difficult to rent meeting places, and often
mobs broke up their programs. The anti-slavery groups complained
that the government was not protecting their right of free speech
or defending them against the violence. By the middle of the
decade the gag rule on slavery in the House of Representatives
was ended through the efforts of John Quincy Adams and Joshua
Giddings of Ohio.
Nevertheless a larger impact was made by the general
conferences of the churches in 1845. It is now regarded that the
first ecclesiastical North-South separation began with the
Presbyterians in 1837. They generally avoided an open discussion
on the issue. However, their official position was that the
government should deal with slavery through legislation. Such was
not the case with the Methodist General Conference and the
Baptist General Convention in 1845. Both split over the slavery
issue into a Northern and a Southern organization. The other
denominations did not suffer schisms because they tended to be
governed on a regional basis.
By 1850 almost 2,000 anti-slavery groups had a membership of
nearly 200,000 and the list of prestigious names included
Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Longfellow, Melville, and the "bard
of abolition" John Greenleaf Whittier. The Underground
Railroad could list over 3,000 active workers with many other
anonymous operators. However, the fugitive slave laws were being
enforced by the federal government. Also, the Wilmot Proviso was
rejected in its attempt to stop slavery in the Mexican Cession
territories. Since the anti-slavery people could not establish a
free soil policy in the territories, the boundary between slavery
and abolition remained the old Missouri Compromise 36-30 line and
the Ohio River.
In 1850 the Congress made a dramatic departure in their
slavery policy with the Omnibus bill, when California made a
sudden application for statehood because of the 49er's gold rush.
The compromises included Stephen Douglas' popular sovereignty in
the Mexican Cession territories and the dreaded fugitive slave
laws were strengthened
When Douglas' untested theory of choice was included in the
Kansas-Nebraska Act, it appeared that the door was now open for
slavery in the North and above the 36-30 line of separation. The
practical application of popular sovereignty became "Bleeding
Kansas" with both sides emigrating and sending weapons. It
was becoming obvious that increased violence and not a peaceful,
legislative settlement would be the result. In 1852 the nation
was confronted with the stark reality of slavery, when Harriet
Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was printed. She was the wife
of a Congregational professor of Old Testament and the daughter
of the famous Presbyterian clergyman Lyman Beecher. Her novel
immediately sold 300,000 copies and was a theater hit on Northern
stages. It was called "the most influential novel ever
published...a verbal earthquake...an ink-and-print tidal wave."
Simon Legree, Elisa, Little Eva, and Tom all became familiar
characters. The North was angered over the enforcement of the
fugitive slave laws, and the South was angered for over
dramatizing of slavery. Meanwhile the South defended the peculiar
institution and their way of life. Biblical support was argued
from the Old and New Testament on the position of slavery. The
Baptists adopted Rev. Richard Furman's apologetics "the
right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy
Scriptures, both in precept and example."
The 1844 Methodist General Conference agonized over their
first slaveholding bishop, when Georgia Bishop James O. Andrew
acquired slaves from his second wife. Southerners argued that
bishops were beyond the conference's control. After an 11-day
debate a Northern-led majority vote asked him to desist from
episcopal labors until he got rid of his slaves.
Politicians, educators, and churchmen asserted their defense
of slavery. The leading pro-slavery argument was the inferiority
of the African and the need to Christianize the slaves. George
Fitzhugh argued that economically slaves were better off than
Northern workers because they were given food, clothing, and
shelter without competing for jobs. The Supreme Court even
supported the position that a slave was property in the Dred
Scott decision. Another Southerner Hinton Rowan Helper, who
converted to the abolitionist cause, wrote The Impending Crisis
of The South, which sensationalized the gap between of the rich
planters and the poverty of the poor whites.
The intersectional strife widened when a new major party The
Republicans made free soil a key platform plank. Abraham Lincoln
became their most famous candidate, when he shot holes in Stephen
Douglas' popular sovereignty of letting the territories choose
between free men or slavery. The differences were irreconcilable.
The North could not afford to buy freedom for the slaves or give
compensation to the owners, and the South could not afford to
free the slaves and then pay them for their labor. There was no
middleground between the two positions. Any limitations on
slavery in the territories threatened the South, and the property
rights for Dred Scott threatened the North. Their positions were
on a collision course.
After John Brown, who claimed to be divinely called, raided
the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, and the election of
Lincoln, who held an anti-slavery position, seven Southern States
led by South Carolina seceded from the Union. During the Civil
War President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation emancipated only the
slaves in the secession states. The four border states in the
Union still had slavery. Finally, all slavery was ended with the
13th Amendment in 1865.
E. D. Branch referred to the period 1836-1860 as the "Sentimental
Years" because they were times when good works flourished as
never before. There were societies to promote education, to
reform prisons, to stop prostitution, to promote world peace, and
even in case of war, to protect the prisoners and care for the
wounded. In many cases Great Britain was the avant-garde for
these social reforms, but to the credit of their colonial
offspring America followed in their train. However, more than
anything else, as the great writers Orr and Latourette have
verified, in many cases the evangelical Christians spearheaded
One final reform that needs mentioned is the Evangelical
Alliance. It was founded in London in 1846 as an ecumenical
attempt to form a united voice on moral and religious concerns.
This federation joined nearly fifty evangelical groups from both
England and America with an ultimate goal to "promote the
cause of Christ everywhere." As the ideas and principles of
the organization expanded in America and into the 20th Century,
it did express the major doctrinal points of unity in
the Protestants churches of that time.
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