United States of Amazing: The 1800s

“The perfect good-nature with which the American public submits to a clever humbug.”

—P. T. BARNUM, The Life of P. T. Barnum (1855)

“We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. It is held in reverence. Some think it the voice of God.”

—MARK TWAIN, “Corn-Pone Opinions” (1901)


The First Great Delirium

REASON AND LEARNING AND SCIENCE did indeed become proud parts of the American march of progress during the nineteenth century. In the 1700s the Enlightenment had been all hopeful theory and writing and talk, an intramural discourse among the elite. But in the 1800s it was authentically and democratically realized. Education became free and compulsory in the United States. The literacy rate climbed to 90 percent. Newspapers and books multiplied, public libraries appeared, then public colleges and universities. As modern science begat modern technology, the proof was irrefutably in the pudding: we got telegraphy, high-speed printing presses, railroads, steamships, vaccination, anesthesia, more. We were rational and practical. We were modern.

If you were a devout American Christian, it had all turned out so well because—obviously—God was with us. We were fulfilling biblical prophecy, creating a virtuous new Christian nation that would pave the way for the millennium. But you didn’t need to be very religious to consider the Revolution and Constitution a consummation of some kind of providential plan. Like prophets creating new religions or novelists creating fictional worlds, Americans together had, astoundingly, created a new nation from scratch—a nation that guaranteed personal liberty above all, where citizens were officially freer than ever before to invent and promote and believe anything. So Americans promptly began believing almost everything.

We started to believe attractive falsehoods about our founding. Successful leaders had been glorified always, but America’s mythologizing happened immediately and had a particular sanctimonious flavor. The best-known fact about Washington’s first forty-five years, concerning the cherry tree—“I can’t tell a lie, Pa….I did cut it with my hatchet”—was a lie in a bestselling biography that appeared months after he died. One of the best-known facts about his war service, the time he knelt in prayer at Valley Forge, was almost certainly untrue. A bestselling work of fiction in the 1800s, The Legends of the American Revolution, 1776, included a story called “The Fourth of July, 1776.” A quasi-angel—“a tall slender man…dressed in a dark robe”—mysteriously appears among the Founders in Philadelphia and delivers a five-minute speech (“God has given America to be free!”) that makes them finally stop arguing and sign the Declaration. Then he mysteriously disappears. Americans from across the religious spectrum chose to regard that fantasy as historical fact, and they still do today.*1

Instead of turning all Americans into reasonable, rational Ben Franklins, the onslaught of newness and amazing technology drove many citizens more deeply into fantasy, Christian and otherwise. As much as the nineteenth century was an American age of incredulity and wisdom, it was also an age of belief and foolishness. Cultural historians have focused on the religious side, the invention and expansion and growing emotionalism of Protestant denominations. But that frame is too narrow. As the Yale religious historian Jon Butler has written, the early United States was an “antebellum spiritual hothouse,” Christian faith blending freely with folk magic—belief in the occult, clairvoyance, shamanic healing, and prophetic dreams, much of it old folk superstition no longer constrained by Puritan doctrine and order. America was ripe for and rife with magical thinking of every kind.

Indeed, I’m proposing that the Second Great Awakening in the first half of the 1800s was just one part of something larger—the Great Delirium. During this First Great Delirium, new fantasies of every sort erupted—not just religious but cultural, pseudoscientific, utopian, and political, all variously radiant and lurid, feeding one another in a synergistic national crucible. Over the next few chapters, I’ll discuss each domain. But first, let’s look at how American Christianity wildly reinvented itself.

IN THE THREE centuries since its founding, dissident, hot-blooded Protestantism had spun off dissident sects of believers who wanted to remain hot. In England and Europe, the new denominations faded away or got absorbed by state churches. For Christians in Europe, one’s official religious choice was essentially binary—subscribe to a state-sanctioned church, Protestant or Catholic, or to no organized religion at all.

But America was different. We had got started as a land of excitable escapees (and of hustlers and the hustled) determined to spread and devise fantastic new truths, and those origins defined us. While most of the thirteen colonies had a state church before the Revolution, afterward the Constitution outlawed them. Every set of beliefs and practices—old or new, more or less reasonable or plainly nuts—was officially equal to every other. In other words, a new American culture and psychology emerged during the 1600s and 1700s—which the new government then codified, allowing our native peculiarities to continue. Here in the land of homespun truth-finding and institution-making, Protestants’ founding impulse—nonconformist, dissenting, protesting—waxed and waned but never went dormant. Established leaders were regarded with chronic resentment and renegade leaders with cultish devotion, individual believers determined to experience and radiate holiness. American Protestantism remained fully, perpetually fissile. As soon as a church’s leadership got too high and mighty, or its doctrine and worship too reasonable and abstract and boring, the denomination was apt to explode and spin off new sects…which could grow and cool and then explode, on and on.

Nowadays the South is our most vehemently Christian region. But it was not always thus. In 1785 Thomas Jefferson created one of the first charticles, summarizing for a French aristocrat friend America’s regional differences. He included this, about religion:

In the North they are…

In the South they are…

superstitious and hypocritical in their religion

without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that of the heart

Back then probably a minority of colonial Southerners attended church. Compared to New Englanders, they tended to be cavalier about sin and Jesus and Satan and Heaven and Hell and the Apocalypse. In the South, the governments jettisoned state churches during and right after the Revolution, but it took New England another half-century of argument to separate and privatize its churches entirely.

Throughout the South, church had meant the Church of England, before its post-Revolution rebranding as the Episcopal Church. Religious life was more about priests leading neighbors in the repetition of ancient communal ceremonies—scripted prayers and assertions, music, bread and wine. During the 1700s all over America, including the South, preachers like George Whitefield had planted the seeds of a new, wilder religion—what came to be called evangelical Christianity. The Southern Anglican mainstream rejected gung-ho mystical enthusiasts, such as the new Baptists and Methodists determined to enact their personal relationships with Jesus and publicly demonstrate the supernatural effects of the Holy Spirit. Particularly in Virginia, breakaway evangelical religious services were interrupted, attendees roughed up, preachers arrested. As ever for American true believers, persecution by the benighted was proof of their own righteousness.

As the century turned, the dam broke. By reputation, Presbyterian ministers were stiff-necked boors—Methodists did the arousing. But it was a young Presbyterian whose North Carolina preaching provoked less godly locals to burn his pulpit and deliver a death threat written in blood. He moved six hundred miles to the far western reaches of Kentucky. On the frontier, nobody much objected to one more freak. Everyone was a newcomer, so there were no established churches. And his sermons rocked. They were the only regularly scheduled entertainment within a day’s ride.

Like an ambitious show business impresario, the Kentucky minister decided to expand. In the summer of 1800 he turned his regular annual communion-feast weekend into a regional festival of supercharged preaching and conversion. Hundreds came to his Red River Meeting House to watch and hear a half-dozen different preachers preach, including a Methodist. People shouted, people cried, people freaked out. “The power of God was strong upon me,” the Methodist recalled afterward. “I turned again and, losing sight of the fear of man, I went through the house shouting and exhorting with all possible ecstasy and energy, and the floor was soon covered with the slain”—that is, individuals on the floor, experiencing improvised fits of hysteria.*2

Something huge had been unleashed, and everyone realized it immediately. It was crazier than what Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield had incited in their grandparents’ day. God had entered people. They were not just enthusiastic, they were living the dream. “On Monday,” the organizer wrote, “multitudes were struck down under awful conviction; the cries of the distressed filled the whole house….There you might see little children of ten, eleven and twelve years of age, praying and crying for redemption, in the blood of Jesus, in agonies of distress.” His young friend and fellow Presbyterian minister was astonished too. “Many, very many…continued for hours together in an apparently breathless and motionless state….After lying there for hours…they would rise, shouting deliverance.”

The fantasy had been contagious. At the repeat performance organized the next month at a nearby church, people camped out, and the contagion erupted again. Hundreds gathered. Dozens were “slain.”

A year after the astonishing prototypes, the two entrepreneurial pastors decided to go even bigger. For the 1801 event at the second minister’s church in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, they booked dozens of ministers to preach, Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists. Like the first extravaganza, it was scheduled around an annual Holy Fair, the first weekend in August. Cane Ridge was in the more populous eastern part of the state, only a day’s ride from the booming little city of Lexington (pop. 1,759), so maybe they would attract not just hundreds of people but a thousand or two thousand. No more than five hundred, tops, could fit into the bamboo-covered meetinghouse, so they erected a tent and outdoor stage as well.

They were overwhelmed. Instead of three days, it continued for nearly a week. As many as twenty thousand people arrived and stayed to hear the gospel, to be saved, to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime human carnival, an unprecedented lollapalooza. For a few days, Cane Ridge was among the several most populous places in America, bigger than Providence, as big as Charleston.

Things really got rolling twenty-four hours in, as Saturday afternoon turned to dusk. Campfires and bonfires burned. Darkness descended. Preachers preached from trees and wagons, several at once. Dozens of ordinary people—women, children, anyone moved by the Holy Spirit—were self-appointed “exhorters,” shouting the truth of the gospel as they believed or felt or imagined or otherwise knew it. People screamed uncontrollably. People ran and leaped, barked and sang uncontrollably. People laughed and sobbed uncontrollably. Hundreds were overcome by “the jerks,” convulsive seizures of limbs and necks and torsos that sometimes resolved into a kind of dance. And of course, hundreds or thousands of sinners found Christ and repented—including one of the gang of drunken local blasphemers who had ridden into the throng at full speed to make trouble, fell from his white horse, knocked himself out, and finally awakened more than a day later, smiling…saved. The wonder and chaos ebbed and flowed as dawn broke and the sun rose and set again, but it never stopped, day and night after August day and night.

An equivalent American gathering today, as a fraction of the U.S. population, would be more than a million people. As the Vanderbilt historian Paul Conkin and Harold Bloom of Yale have both noted, Cane Ridge was the Woodstock for American Christianity, an anarchic, unprecedented August moment of mass spectacle that crystallized and symbolized a new way of thinking and acting, a permanent new subculture. “The drunk, sexually aroused communicants at Cane Ridge,” Bloom writes in The American Religion, “like their drugged and aroused Woodstockian descendants, participated in a kind of orgiastic individualism.” The improvised acting-out at Cane Ridge and subsequent camp meetings apparently descended from the religious fringes, such as those of African-American Baptists.*3

More Baptist and Methodist preachers organized more camp meetings all over the country, but especially in the South, and more mobs of people assembled to go over the top and out of their minds. It had gone viral. As a mass-market phenomenon in the 1800s, widespread and frequent, it was unique to America. A new and fully American Christianity had been invented, more fantastic and unsubtle than any other, strictly subjective and individual—as Bloom says, an “experiential faith that called itself Christianity while possessing features very unlike European or earlier American doctrinal formulations.” The new mode quickly spread from the frontier back east to civilization. During the year after Cane Ridge, a third of the students at Yale were converted, born again.

New, Cane Ridgier denominations were started. Along with the Baptists and Methodists, they committed to a version of Christianity more thrilling and magical right now, as well as a sure-thing payoff for eternity. Thus the new American way: it was awesome, it was democratic, you’re a winner if you believe you’re a winner.

In the years after Cane Ridge, Methodism rode the wave, growing faster than any other denomination. Church attendance probably doubled during the first half of the century, and by the 1850s two-thirds of churchgoers were Methodists or Baptists, emotional and enthusiastic. Christianity became more and more synonymous with this evangelical Christianity: sinners walking to the altar to be saved and experience an all-consuming feeling of a personal relationship with Jesus. A generation after Cane Ridge, Christian emotionalism no longer seemed so kooky in America.

One night in the autumn of 1821, for instance, a twenty-nine-year-old small-town lawyer in western New York had what sounds like a panic attack: “I had become very nervous, and…a strange feeling came over me as if I was about to die…[and] sink down to hell.” The next day “God’s voice” spoke biblical passages to him in the woods outside town. After praying and weeping until after dark, Charles Finney closed himself in a room at his offices, prayed some more, and then…shazam. The room “appeared to me as if it was perfectly light,” and then “it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face…as I would see any other man….It seemed to me a reality that He stood before me.” After Finney sobbed, “the Holy Spirit descended upon me…like a wave of electricity, going through and through me,” a wave that, it seemed, “literally moved my hair like a passing breeze.” The next morning he was a new man: “My sense of guilt was gone, my sins were gone.”

Finney promptly became a Presbyterian minister and was soon the flashy-but-respectable Christian superstar of his time, its Billy Graham, preaching to huge camp meetings all over the country. But he didn’t dwell on the Presbyterians’ buzzkill doctrine of predestination or on doctrine generally. The only point was for rationalists, like the young professional he’d been, to experience Jesus, as he’d done, and thereby—presto—become free of sin and guilt, with guaranteed passage to Heaven. Like his pioneering predecessor Whitefield a century earlier, he understood that in America Christianity should be a kind of show business: “to expect to promote religion without excitements,” Finney wrote, “is…absurd.”

The new Christian revivalist fire never caught in the Old World the way it did here. “In modern times,” sympathetic evangelicals wrote in a Yale quarterly at midcentury, “revivals of religion have been more or less peculiar to the churches of the United States.” They understood that that was because Christianity here was so high-strung from the start, with Americans hankering for religious contagions, so those expectations became self-fulfilling. “In England,” they noted, “it has been far different. To a great extent there, churches and ministers have been without the expectation.”

At the height of the Second Great Awakening, in 1831, the first American studies scholar from abroad, age twenty-five, happened to arrive in America from France for his famous nine-month tour. “On every side in Europe,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “we hear voices complaining of the absence of religious faith, and inquiring the means of restoring to religion some remnant of its pristine authority.” But he wasn’t in the land of Voltaire anymore.

The philosophers of the eighteenth century explained the gradual decay of religious faith in a very simple manner. Religious zeal, said they, must necessarily fail, the more generally liberty is established and knowledge diffused. Unfortunately, facts are by no means in accordance with their theory….America one of the freest…nations in the world fulfils all the outward duties of religious fervor….

There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America….

You meet with men, full of a fanatical and almost wild enthusiasm, which hardly exists in Europe.

The religious divergence of Europe and America became more pronounced, as Europeans swung toward the calm and reasonable, Americans toward the excited and fantastical. Here in improvisation nation, the individual liberty empowered by the Enlightenment led to a certain fanaticism when it came to finding God.

Yet as the born-again revivalists entered the American mainstream during the 1800s, the Methodists and Baptists and fired-up Presbyterians like Finney weren’t really going nuts theologically. Methodists were more and more encouraged to emulate the historical Jesus rather than his frenzied disciples, evangelizing against slavery and other injustice, doing good. The world would become a Christian wonderland gradually and subtly, as Jonathan Edwards had taught a century earlier during the First Great Awakening. Finney had seen the light and met Jesus, but he preached that Christians’ duty was to “make the world a fit place for the imminent return of Christ.” By imminent, he meant eventual. He became president of Oberlin College, a fount of social progressivism.

American Christianity was now filled, uniquely, with ecstatic conversions in church but not wild excitements about Götterdämmerung scheduled for the week after next. Among theologians and ministers, prophetic beliefs really had faded away since the Puritan 1600s. The nightmarish “tribulations” in the Bible, battles between black magic and holy miracles—the experts had decided those already happened, ages ago. Armageddon, Gog and Magog, end of days—all that was inspired allegory, not meant to be taken at face value, and certainly not subject to a countdown, the way Cotton Mather used to do.

But it turned out that a lot of Americans, being Americans, still wanted a promise of the adventure tale to end all adventure tales. They wanted to see Jesus for real, here on Earth, sooner rather than later, actually leading them in a sensational battle against monsters from Hell, a war they were guaranteed to win.

In the mid-1800s, thanks to two little-known pioneers, those beliefs revived in America and became a central feature of the Christian faith of many millions of Americans. And then they never went away.

The first of these crucial end-time heralds was William Miller, like Finney an ordinary upstate New York guy who’d been iffy about religion as a young man. Like John Wesley, he’d miraculously escaped fiery death (in a War of 1812 bombardment), which convinced him that God had intervened on his behalf. He became a born-again Baptist preacher, obsessed with a bit of the Bible attributed to the apocalyptic seer Daniel. After Daniel watched a multihorned flying goat defeat a multihorned ram, the angel Gabriel told him that in “two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” After a decade of calculating, Miller had it all worked out. He figured the angel must have issued the prophecy in 458 B.C.E. and that those 2,300 days actually meant 2,300 years. And the final cleansing of the sanctuary actually referred to the moment Christ would return. Which meant—do the math—the world was going to end in the spring of 1843. It was scholarship, completely scientific.

By means of hundreds of end-is-nigh pamphlets and books and periodicals and tent meetings, Miller acquired almost a million American believers, as many as one in ten northeasterners. After 1843 came and went normally, Miller and company decided they’d miscalculated the date and changed it to the following April—no, wait, October, 1844. But October 22 turned out to be just another Tuesday. The disappointed masses who kept the faith broke into different factions, one of which was the Seventh-day Adventists.

But the big, long-lasting impact was the mainstreaming of the belief among modern American Christians that they might personally experience the final fantasy—the end of days, the return of Jesus, Satan vanquished. Around the same time, another Protestant minister was devising an even more complicated version of end-of-the-world prophecy. The Reverend John Nelson Darby, by means of two decades of cross-country preaching tours, permanently embedded the Bible’s end-time prophecies into the heart of American Christianity.

There are a few reasons why Darby’s version of the end-time endured. First, he preached the end was coming…soonish, but he wasn’t a date-setter, so his prophecy could never be proven false. Second, he recast the apocalypse in a far more appealing light—for believers. All so-called premillennialists agree that an ugly period of worldwide tribulation will be humankind’s existential denouement—war, famine, pandemic disease. But Darby more or less invented the idea of “the rapture,” a moment just before all hell breaks loose when Jesus will arrive incognito and take Christians away to heavenly safety to wait out the earthly horrors. Then He and the lucky saints return to Earth for the happy ending. Third, Darby wasn’t trying to forge a whole new denomination, just offering new features that could be attached to any church’s existing theology.

Finally, Darby was not some crank but a legitimate scholar, a Brit educated at the best schools, author of an original translation of the New Testament. Americans often resist the idea that educated experts can tell them what is and isn’t true, but from the Puritans on, we’ve also been more than happy for scholarly fellow believers to confirm our beliefs and make them more impressively complicated. It is a modern wish for proof of one’s premodern fantasies. “The enduring appeal of prophecy belief for evangelicals,” as the historian Paul Boyer has written, is its “quasi-empirical ‘scientific’ validation of their faith.” Explainers like Darby “explicitly portrayed their endeavor…as a science.” In an increasingly scientific age, Christians could thrive by treating the Bible as an unimpeachable data set.

Although the Catholic Tocqueville didn’t attend a camp meeting during his tour, he noted in Democracy in America that “strange sects arise which endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States.” One of the best known was the sect founded by an English émigré fanatic who’d made herself unwelcome among her fellow Quakers in England and moved with a few disciples to upstate New York. Ann Lee was repulsed by sexuality, obsessed with the Second Coming, had visions, made prophecies, spoke in tongues, and magically cured the sick. Her celibate followers came to consider her the returned Jesus. Long before Methodists and Baptists and other revivalists normalized worshippers’ convulsions in America, Ann Lee’s followers were regularly doing so—so other people called them Shakers. After she died, her communal sect grew and spread during the 1800s from the Northeast to the western frontier.

The Shakers’ maximum membership coincided with their maximum hysteria beginning in the 1830s, their so-called Era of Manifestations, when members—especially young female ones—had fits during which they believed they traveled to Heaven and communicated with the dead. That’s just when Tocqueville attended a Shaker service. He was flabbergasted and privately appalled. “Can you imagine, my dear mother,” he wrote home, “what aberrations the human spirit can fall into when it’s abandoned to itself? There was a young American Protestant with us who said as we left, ‘Two more spectacles like this one and I’m turning Catholic.’ ”

The Shakers were among the more successful of dozens of smaller American sects and cults in this period, each led by an electrifying individual who claimed to have a direct line to God or His angels. A large fraction of Americans wanted or needed to believe they lived in an enchanted time and place, that the country swarmed with supernatural wonders, and that mid-nineteenth-century America was like the Holy Land of the early first century, when Jesus was only one among many itinerant prophets and wizards and healers wandering the eastern Mediterranean. And indeed, at the height of the First Great Delirium, the strangest and most astoundingly successful new American religion arose.

*1 A century later, in a commencement address at his alma mater, a celebrity alumnus told the story as actual eyewitness history, attributing it to Thomas Jefferson. The 1957 commencement speaker was Ronald Reagan. Later, as president, when he repeated the story at length in a Fourth of July essay he published, his handlers evidently persuaded him to call it a “legend” and delete the Jefferson attribution.

*2 It was a high-strung time and place. Two miles away and six years later, former U.S. senator and future president Andrew Jackson won a duel with a man who’d called him a coward and suggested his wife was a slut.

*3 Which suggests a further elaboration of the Woodstock rhyme: white Americans mixing English folk culture with black culture in order to leave reason and respectability behind, wild and emotional Christianity at the beginning of the nineteenth century, wild and emotional rock ’n’ roll in the second half of the twentieth.

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