Awakenings of Religion

When the state of Connecticut disestablished religion in 1818, the prominent revival preacher Lyman Beecher fell into depression and apprehension. He had fought hard to protect his faith from political defeat, and he had lost. “It was as dark a day as ever I saw,” he recalled. “The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable. For several days I suffered what no tongue can tell for the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God.”1 As Beecher came to realize, the change in status proved an advantageous trade-off for organized religion.

Americans eventually came to think of the separation of church and state as one of the achievements of the Revolution, and as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Actually, these common beliefs are but half-truths. The Revolution separated church and state in those places where the Church of England had been established in colonial times. But in several New England states, Congregationalist religious establishments remained in place. Unlike the Anglican establishments, those of the Congregationalists had been on the winning side of the Revolution and did not seem discredited by American independence. The Bill of Rights, added to the national Constitution in 1791, read: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Applying specifically to Congress, this First Amendment restricted the federal government only, not the states.2 The Congregational Standing Orders (as these establishments were called) persisted in Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. In Vermont the Baptists, resenting discrimination against their denomination, forced disestablishment in 1807, but in the other three the connection between church and state persisted. With slight variation from state to state, these establishments

1. The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, ed. Barbara M. Cross (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), I, 252–53.

2. States no longer have the right to maintain establishments of religion. In the twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment (adopted in 1867) “incorporated” freedoms of the Bill of Rights and made them applicable to the states.

created a presumption that all citizens belonged to the Congregational Church and could be taxed for its support, unless they filed a statement that they were active members of a different Christian congregation in their locality.3

Any establishment of religion, even as democratic a religion as Yankee Congregationalism, violated the tenets of Jeffersonian Republicanism. The Republican Party in New England embraced the goal of disestablishment, which proved good politics as well as sound ideology. After the War of 1812, rallying a coalition of secularists and religious minorities, Republicans used the issue successfully to overcome the normal Federalist majorities in New Hampshire and Connecticut. The Episcopalians (as the Anglicans were called after the Revolution) had usually voted Federalist like the Congregationalists, but the disestablishment issue won them over, along with the other religious minorities, to the Republicans. By strengthening the Republican Party in New England, the politics of disestablishment made New England more like the rest of the country and helped set the stage for the “era of good feelings.” Under Republican leadership, New Hampshire separated church from state in 1817, and Connecticut in 1818, leaving Massachusetts the only state with an establishment of religion, which would endure until 1833.4

Ever since Constantine the Great had made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire, the Western world had typically connected church and state. Now, the Americans undertook to experiment with their separation: Religion would be purely voluntary. The results astonished both friends and foes of Christianity. “They say ministers have lost their influence; the fact is, they have gained” by disestablishment, Beecher observed. “By voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever they could by queues, and shoe-buckles, and cocked hats, and gold-headed canes.”5 Far from hindering religion, the American model of voluntarism hugely facilitated it, liberating powerful religious energies. Religion, which had played such an important part in the life of the American colonies, was reinvigorated and reawakened in the life of the American republic. Religious denominations

3. The state laws providing for these establishments did not actually specify the Congregational denomination as the recipient of public support, only Protestantism; in practice, however, the support went to Congregationalism.

4. See William G. McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 1630–1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), II, 877–911 (on New Hampshire), 1025–62 (on Connecticut), 1189–1262 (on Massachusetts).

5. Beecher, Autobiography, I, 253.

and religious action organizations multiplied beyond number. Americans of this generation experienced widespread direct democracy through the creation, administration, and financing of churches and other voluntary societies. Indeed, the religious institutions they created sometimes displayed more democracy than the nation’s civic ones. Women, African Americans, and newly arrived poor immigrants were all participating in religion, often in leadership roles, before they participated in politics. The churches and other voluntary associations nurtured American democracy.6


No one illustrated the power of religious voluntarism better than the indefatigable Lyman Beecher. Son of a blacksmith, reared on his uncle’s Connecticut farm, Beecher’s attendance at the local Yale College did not get rid of the homespun rusticity of his accent and manner. But Lyman Beecher made himself one of the most influential of the many who labored to build Christ’s Kingdom in the young republic. His sermons proclaimed the universal appeal of the Risen Christ to people of every race, nation, sex, and class. From small-town pastorates in Connecticut and Long Island he moved to the big city (Boston in 1826) and then to the West (Cincinnati in 1832) to carry the message of the gospel. Wherever he went, his preaching manifested his physical vigor, sense of humor, and passionate conviction. Beecher took as his mission not simply the winning of individual souls but the transformation of society as a whole. “The great aim of the Christian Church in its relation to the present life is not only to renew the individual man, but also to reform human society,” he declared. Accordingly, Beecher not only preached revivals, he founded reform movements and the organizations needed to implement them. One who knew him well commented, “He had no small ambitions.”7

Beginning in 1812, Beecher embraced the cause of temperance, infusing it with his religious zeal. The problem he addressed was a real one. For centuries, alcohol had mitigated hardship, cold, and pain, helped celebrate harvests and festivals, and provided periodic relief from hard work. Along with the comforts of alcohol went its abuse and the toleration of its

6. See Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, 1989); Mark Noll, America’s God (New York, 2002).

7. Quoted in Autobiography, II, 399. See Vincent Harding, A Certain Magnificence: Lyman Beecher and the Transformation of American Protestantism (Brooklyn, 1991); Robert H. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York, 1994), 30–56.

abuse. Americans in the early nineteenth century quaffed alcohol in prodigious quantities. In 1825, the average American over fifteen years of age consumed seven gallons of alcohol a year, mostly in the form of whiskey and hard cider. (The corresponding figure at the start of the twenty-first century was less than two gallons, most of it from beer and wine.) Workers typically took a midmorning break and a midafternoon break, both accompanied by alcohol, as well as liquor with every meal. To entertain guests meant to ply them with several kinds of alcohol until some fell down. All social classes drank heavily; college students, journeyman printers, agricultural laborers, and canal-diggers were especially notorious. Schoolchildren might face an inebriated teacher in the classroom. Although socially tolerated, drunkenness frequently generated violence, especially domestic violence, and other illegal behavior. In such a society, intemperance represented a serious issue of public health, comparable to the problems of drug abuse experienced in later generations.8

Making temperance a Christian cause constituted an innovation, for traditional Christianity had not discouraged drinking. Indeed, Beecher recalled, ministerial conferences during his youth had been occasions for heavy convivial drinking. Unlike a later generation of crusaders, Beecher never thought the legal prohibition of alcohol a practical solution; he relied purely on changing public attitudes. This was no mean feat. To take a stand against the strong social pressures to drink took real courage, especially for young men. To help them, temperance workers paid reformed alcoholics to go on speaking tours, published temperance tracts, put on temperance plays, and drove the “water wagon” through towns encouraging converts to jump on. Publicists and organizers like Beecher struck a nerve with the public. The temperance cause resonated among people in all walks of life, rural and urban, white and black. Although it began in the Northeast, temperance reached the South and West and exerted powerful and lasting influence there.9 At first the temperance advocates restricted themselves to encouraging moderation (hence the name “temperance”); in this phase they condemned only distilled liquors, not beer and wine. At the grassroots level, however, it became apparent that total abstinence made a more effective appeal. Beecher endorsed this shift in Six Sermons on Intemperance (1825). Those who signed a temperance pledge were

8. See W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic (New York, 1979), 1–146; Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 204–15; Mark Lender and James Martin, Drinking in America (New York, 1987), 205–6.

9. See John Quist, Restless Visionaries: The Social Roots of Antebellum Reform in Alabama and Michigan (Baton Rouge, 1998).

encouraged to put a T after their names if willing to take the extra step of pledging total abstinence; from this derives our word “teetotaler.”10

This campaign to alter age-old habits and attitudes proved amazingly successful: consumption of alcohol, especially of hard liquor, declined steadily and dramatically after 1830, falling to 1.8 gallons per person over fifteen by the late 1840s.11 As important as this success, however, was the example the reformers set of organizing voluntary societies to influence public opinion. Beecher conceived the societies as forming “a disciplined moral militia.”12 The American Temperance Society, founded in 1826, served as a model for other movements. Through such issue-oriented organizations, reformers transcended geographical and denominational limitations to wage nationwide campaigns. The voluntary associations became a conspicuous feature of American society from that time forward. They distributed Bibles and tracts, supported missions foreign and domestic, and addressed such varied social problems as poverty, prostitution, and the abuse of women, children, animals, convicts, and the insane. Most momentous of all their activities would be their crusade against slavery.13

Lyman’s wife, Roxana Foote Beecher, ran a school for girls. Her academy made an essential contribution to supporting their large family, for then as now the clerical profession was generally underpaid. The school also demonstrated the Beechers’ commitment to developing the intellectual potential of women. The five daughters in the family included Harriet Beecher Stowe, the novelist, Isabella Beecher Hooker, the woman suffragist, and Catharine Beecher, the founder of home economics. Among the eight sons were Edward, who worked for the abolition of slavery, Henry Ward, the most famous American preacher in the next generation, and Thomas, an innovative urban pastor.14 The elder Beechers taught their children to think for themselves, and in adulthood the daughters and sons staked out their own theological positions. But in a variety of ways they continued their parents’ work of trying to reshape American society along moral and religious lines.15

10. Beecher, Autobiography, I, 179. See also Ian R. Tyrell, Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America (Westport, Conn., 1979), 54–87.

11. Rorabaugh, Alcoholic Republic, 8, 233.

12. Quoted in Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling, 45, from Beecher, A Reformation of Morals Practicable and Indispensable (1813).

13. See John G. West, The Politics of Revelation and Reason (Lawrence, Kans., 1996), 84–129; James W. Fraser, Pedagogue for God’s Kingdom (Lanham, Md., 1985), 25–48.

14. Isabella and Thomas were children of Lyman’s second wife, Harriet Porter Beecher.

15. The best study of the family as a whole is Marie Caskey, Chariot of Fire: Religion and the Beecher Family (New Haven, 1977).

Taken together, the members of the Beecher family demonstrate how the heirs of the Puritans coped, not simply with the disestablishment of religion, but also with the demise of the Federalist Party and New England’s shrinking political influence in a growing Union. They devised new means of influencing public opinion outside of politics: education, literature, magazines, religious revivals, and organized reform. They engaged the energies of people in all walks of life, not simply a privileged elite. As a result their evangelical movement exerted a powerful social, moral, and cultural influence over the United States during the critical transition to industrialization and urbanization.16

When Lyman and Roxana were courting, they engaged in theological discussion. Lyman had taken up a strict form of Calvinist thought developed by Samuel Hopkins. Hopkins taught that God should be loved for His own sake, not for the sake of reward; therefore the highest and most disinterested virtue must consist in being willing to be damned to hell, if God so wished. Hopkinsianism provoked much discussion at the time, engaging as it did both the high seriousness and the love of logical argument characteristic of old-time Yankees. Lyman tried it out on Roxana, to no avail. “The disinterested love to God which you think is alone the genuine love, I see not how we can be certain we possess,” she replied; “our love of happiness and love of God are so inseparably connected.” Roxana’s was the conventional Christian position: One is not required to welcome the prospect of damnation. “Could any real Christian rejoice if God should take from him the mercy bestowed?” she demanded.17

Roxana had made her point. Lyman turned away from Hopkins to a different theological mentor, Nathaniel William Taylor of Yale. Taylor addressed problems of human moral responsibility in a way that many revival preachers found helpful. He reinterpreted the Reformation doctrine of original sin to mean that sinning was universal but not causally necessary. Although all human beings sinned, they possessed “power to the contrary,” that is, the moral power to refrain from sinning if they chose. Taylor designed his formulation to facilitate revivals, by encouraging the preacher to emphasize the importance of making a conscious choice for Christ. Applied by Beecher and other revivalists, Taylor’s teachings became known as “New School Calvinism.” In wrestling with the problem of reconciling human responsibility with divine foreknowledge and

16. See Daniel Walker Howe, ed., Victorian America (Philadelphia, 1976).

17. Roxana Foote to Lyman Beecher, Sept. 1, 1798, quoted in Beecher, Autobiography, I, 56. See also Joseph Conforti, Samuel Hopkins and the New Divinity Movement (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1981).

omnipotence, Taylor participated in a dialogue that stretched across centuries of Christian history. The answers he came up with, reconciling the free choices of the autonomous individual with the intellectual heritage of the Reformation, reflected concerns typical of his own time and place. Taylor’s New School of thought largely replaced Hopkins’s doctrines among the next generation of Calvinist revivalists in the North.18

Roxana Foote Beecher died of consumption (as tuberculosis was then called) in 1816 at the age of forty-one. She had borne nine children in seventeen years; with her dying breath she consecrated them all to God’s service, a charge they could never forget.19Although Lyman remarried (twice, since he outlived his second wife too) he mourned for Roxana the rest of his life. He kept on trying to rally the diverse Protestant denominations in one crusade after another, first to prevent the spread of Unitarianism in the East, then to compete with the Catholics in founding colleges in the West. Theological conservatives called Old School Calvinists put him on trial for heresy in 1835. Beecher claimed his opponents were out to get him because of his antislavery stands; in any case, he won acquittal. Meanwhile, he had become president of Lane Seminary in Ohio. Beecher did not retire until 1850, at the age of seventy-five. When visiting the church of his son Henry Ward Beecher in Brooklyn, the old man remained as strong in spirit as ever: “If God should tell me that I might choose... whether to die and go to heaven, or to begin my life over again and work once more (straightening himself up, and his eye kindling, with finger lifted up), I would enlist again in a minute!”20


Early in the morning of October 10, 1821, alone in the woods outside the little town of Adams in western New York state, Charles Grandison Finney was born again in Christ. It was a transforming experience for the twenty-nine-year-old apprentice lawyer. Upon walking back to the law firm, Finney told a would-be client, “Deacon Barney, I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours.” With that, the young man left the practice of law and embarked upon his

18. Bruce Kuklick, Churchmen and Philosophers (New Haven, 1985), 94–111; Leo P. Hirrel, Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform (Lexington, Ky., 1998), 26–40, 63–64; William R. Sutton, “The Influence of Nathaniel W. Taylor on Revivalism in the Second Great Awakening,” Religion and American Culture 2 (Winter 1992): 23–48.

19. Harding, Certain Magnificence, 101.

20. Autobiography, II, 414.

famous career as an evangelist.21 Although lacking formal theological training (or even a college education), Finney obtained a license to preach from the Presbyterian regional authority. Like Abraham Lincoln and many other Americans of his generation, Finney was largely self-educated but not badly educated.

An identifiable conversion experience, accompanied by a once-and-for-all decision for Christ, was the central event in the spiritual life of Christians in the evangelical Reformed tradition into which Finney had been born. Based on New Testament accounts like the conversion of St. Paul, the tradition had been particularly important in America through the influence of the New England Puritans and their Yankee descendants. In the revivals that he conducted, Finney would play an important role in perpetuating this tradition and spreading it throughout the United States and Britain. The revivalists of Finney’s generation saw themselves as carrying on the work of such eighteenth-century evangelicals as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. They called the revivals that Edwards and Whitefield had participated in “the Great Awakening” and their own work “the Second Great Awakening.” The terms have stuck.22

Many observers, both in Finney’s time and since, have been struck by the differences between Finney and Jonathan Edwards rather than the similarities. Old School Calvinists considered Finney’s theology a betrayal of Edwardsean intellectual consistency. In at least one respect the difference between the two great evangelists was explicit. Edwards had regarded religious revivals as ultimately mysterious, the action of divine grace. By contrast Finney boldly proclaimed, “A revival of religion is not a miracle” but a human work, a “result of the right use of the constituted means.” The evangelist’s job was to employ these means effectively in the effort to save souls. A good evangelist should be as self-conscious about his methods as a good farmer about scientific agriculture, Finney declared. If all the farmers waited upon the sovereignty of God “to give them a crop only when it pleases him,” the world would starve.23 By putting evangelical preaching on a scientific basis, Finney and his co-workers hoped to transcend the cycle of revivals and declensions, creating

21. Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1996), 1–21; Charles G. Finney, Autobiography (Westwood, N.J., 1908; orig. pub. as Memoirs, 1876), 21–24.

22. One of the most influential books about Edwards and Whitefield, and still one of the best, was written by a scholarly evangelical clergyman of this generation: Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening (Boston, 1842).

23. Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, ed. William G. McLoughlin (1835; Cambridge, Mass., 1960), 13–14.

a continuous downpour where once there had been but intermittent showers of grace. In their new theology of how revivalism should be organized, the evangelists turned themselves into early psychologists of the techniques of persuasion.

While he held settled pastorates in several places during his career, Finney’s fame rested on his role as a traveling evangelist. The “new measures” he popularized but did not invent defined the practices of modern revivalism. Upon arriving in town, he would hold prolonged revival meetings and continue them for several days. Sometimes he singled out individuals, praying for them by name to encourage their conversion. Persons who seemed promising candidates might be seated in front of the church on what was called “the anxious bench,” especially if they were prominent citizens whose conversion would encourage others. Finney benefited from a charismatic personality and an intuitive sense of his audience. He always preached extemporaneously, never from a prepared script. He used colloquial, forthright language. America enjoyed a free marketplace in religion, and through his Lectures on Revivals of Religion (published in 1835) Finney instructed preachers on how to market their message.24 In years to come, both political and commercial applications would be found for his principles.

Finney’s innovations in promoting revivals provoked controversy, even among Christians who shared his objectives. Although he hoped for the cooperation of the settled clergy in the areas he visited, they sometimes regarded him as an interloper and a threat. He couched his message in terms of making a personal decision for Christ, not in terms of waiting for the grace of God. “Instead of telling sinners to use the means of grace and pray for a new heart, we called on them to make themselves a new heart,” he explained.25Christians loyal to the theology of the Reformation believed such an appeal left too little role for divine initiative. Some of them reproached Finney for excessive emotionalism, as other revivalists have been reproached before and since. But the feature of Finney’s revivals most criticized in his own day was the role played by women. Not only did women organize the religious and benevolent activities that surrounded and followed the revivals, they participated in the actual meetings, sometimes speaking and praying in public. Defending himself against critics of women’s public participation, Finney declared, “I had

24. Ibid. See also William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles G. Finney to Billy Graham (New York, 1959).

25. Finney, Autobiography, 189.

no agency in introducing the practice,” when it first appeared in Utica.26 This rings true: The Christian women of western New York took the initiative, and Finney accepted it. His wife, Lydia Finney (from Whitestown near Utica), encouraged the women to organize and assert themselves. In the western New York town of Seneca Falls the women’s suffrage movement would be born in 1848.27

Finney’s early clerical critics included Lyman Beecher. Beecher, however, wanted to forge an ecumenical evangelicalism that could unite evangelicals to combat the influence of Unitarianism on the one hand and Roman Catholicism on the other. Accordingly, Beecher arranged for Finney and his supporters to meet with more conservative evangelicals at a conference in New Lebanon, New York, for a week in July 1827. Both sides wanted to encourage revivals. The Finneyites agreed not to call their colleagues “cold,” “unconverted,” or “dead”; the other side consented not to call the Finneyites “heretics,” “enthusiasts,” or “mad.” On the rights of women to religious participation they had to agree to disagree. Later, Beecher invited Finney to preach at his Park Street Church in Boston as a gesture of conciliation and cooperation.28

Finney’s career took him to many places, including Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Providence, as well as Boston, west to Ohio, and across the Atlantic to England and Wales.29 He preached in the notorious, crime-ridden Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan, where he had a theater converted for his use. But he will always be primarily associated with the area of western New York state where he enjoyed his greatest revival triumphs, particularly in young Rochester. This is the area that became known as “the burned-over district,” because the fires of religious zeal swept across it.30 The region owed its growing population and prosperity to the Erie Canal. Its people were mostly Yankee migrants from New England. Among this potentially responsive audience, Finney felt “most at home,” according to his biographer, “with young and middle-aged

26. Ibid., 178. On the role of women in organizing Finney’s revivals, see Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class (Cambridge, Eng., 1981), 81–98.

27. See Nancy Hardesty, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Revivalism and Feminism in the Age of Finney (Brooklyn, 1991). Leonard Sweet, The Minister’s Wife (Philadelphia, 1983), is a broader study than the title may suggest; on Lydia Finney, see 113–27, 159–72.

28. Harding, Certain Magnificence, chap. 14; Hambrick-Stowe, Finney, 71.

29. On his British trips, see Richard J. Carwardine, Transatlantic Revivalism (Westport, Conn., 1978).

30. Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District (New York, 1950), 3; for Finney’s own use of the term “burnt district,” see his Autobiography, 78.

business and professional people, upwardly mobile master craftsmen, and women from the better families”—that is, with the middle classes responding to the opportunities presented by the new canal. They included residents of the surrounding countryside as well as those of the town itself. These people seized opportunities for bettering themselves socially and personally as well as commercially.31

Like Beecher, Finney saw social implications in the Christian message. He preached against the evils of alcohol and tobacco. He ran greater risks by his active opposition to slavery. Although New York had begun a process of gradual emancipation, some persons remained in bondage there until 1827. When Finney was preaching at Chatham Street Chapel (the remodeled Manhattan theater), he refused the sacrament of communion to slaveholders on the grounds that they were unrepentant sinners. In October 1833, he offered the chapel to a meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Their demands for immediate, uncompensated abolition met a hostile reception in New York, a city heavily dependent on the cotton trade. When a mob stormed the building, the leaders of the society barely escaped—among them the evangelical businessmen Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Finney’s chief financial backers in New York City. A series of disorders followed, all deriving from the church’s support for the antislavery cause. After the Broadway Tabernacle was built for Finney’s use to replace the theater-turned-chapel, arsonists burned it down. Finney’s undaunted New York supporters raised more money and rebuilt it; the auditorium could seat three thousand people.32

In 1835, Finney went to Ohio to teach theology at the exciting newly founded Oberlin College. Oberlin had been created by one of the major student rebellions in American history. Seventy-five radical antislavery students left Lane Seminary in Cincinnati en masse, protesting racist practices by the seminary trustees. Led by Theodore Dwight Weld, a Finney convert, the former Lane students cooperated with the philanthropic Arthur Tappan to found Oberlin and invited Finney to come teach there. Ironically, Lane’s president was the antislavery Lyman Beecher, who had admitted a former slave as a Lane student. Beecher had been out of town when the campus crisis came to a head. Explosive

31. Hambrick-Stowe, Finney, 107. On the social characteristics of Finney’s converts, see also Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837 (New York, 1978), partially corrected by Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class, esp. 103; Curtis D. Johnson, Islands of Holiness: Rural Religion in Upstate New York, 1790–1860 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1989).

32. Hambrick-Stowe, Finney, 142–62.

rumors circulated among the Cincinnati townspeople that Lane students were associating with free blacks as social equals. Fearing attacks on the school by white supremacist mobs, the trustees acted in Beecher’s absence to regulate social contact between the races and discourage discussion of antislavery. When Beecher got back, he found it all he could do to keep Lane from disintegrating completely.33

Finney taught at Oberlin College for the rest of his life, using it as a base from which to travel on revival tours. He also held revival meetings in the town of Oberlin, speaking to overflow crowds in a huge tent that flew a banner inscribed “Holiness to the Lord.” Finney was both a theology professor and minister of the local First Church, for many years the largest building west of the Appalachians. In 1851, he would become president of the college. During Finney’s years there, Oberlin defined the cutting edge of social and religious innovation. At a time when women could find little higher education open to them, it was the first coeducational college in the world. It trained Christian missionaries and antislavery activists of both sexes. Its early graduates included Antoinette Brown, Lucy Stone, and other early crusaders for women’s rights. The college was racially desegregated on more than a token basis; indeed, before he accepted his professorship Finney stipulated that “we should be allowed to receive colored people on the same conditions that we did white people.”34 Oberlin became a safe haven on the underground railroad for slaves escaping to freedom in Canada. Finney’s impact on history derives not only from his own efforts but also from the work of those he converted and trained. For some of them, the reforms that for him were ancillary to Christianity would become primary goals.

Meanwhile, Finney’s theological views evolved further away from the Reformation creeds. In 1836, he left the Presbyterians and affiliated with Congregationalism, a more decentralized denomination that left him theologically freer. More and more he emphasized the freedom of the will and the doctrine of sanctification, that is, the duty of Christians after their conversion experience to improve their conduct and purify their lives. He called the process “Christian perfection.”35 Many shook their heads at this apparent presumptuousness. Still, Finney’s great disciple Theodore Dwight Weld could well ask, “When shall we look on his like again?”36 For widespread

33. Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Dwight Weld (New Brunswick, N.J., 1950), 11–16, 70–88; Lawrence T. Lesick, The Lane Rebels (Metuchen, N.J., 1980), 132.

34. Finney, Autobiography, 333.

35. Ibid., 340–41.

36. Quoted in Hambrick-Stowe, Finney, 197.

influence, personal integrity, social conscience, and spiritual power, few American evangelists of a later age could equal Charles G. Finney.


The revivalism of Beecher and Finney was interdenominational and ecumenical in purpose. The revivalism of the early Methodists, by contrast, focused on building a particular denomination. In fulfilling their mission, the Methodist circuit riders achieved unparalleled collective success. These men, generally artisans, shopkeepers, or small farmers by background, volunteered to ride through the remote backcountry, bringing the message of the gospel to otherwise isolated settlers. Although practically none of them possessed formal theological training, they would preach sermons and offer pastoral counseling, refute freethinkers and heretics in debate, and convert sinners and Indians. Lacking much benefit of education themselves, they nevertheless encouraged literacy and schooling for others and would give away Bibles and sell other uplifting books for the profit of their movement. In the early days they usually observed celibacy, for the Methodist leadership believed single men more suited to the endless travel and hardship of life on the circuit. (The circuit riders sometimes resembled Catholic priests in other ways too, addressed as “Father” and clothed in black.)37

Peter Cartwright, one of the most renowned of the Methodist itinerants in Tennessee and Illinois, described their life in his Autobiography:

A Methodist preacher in those days, when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hard pony of a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, Bible, Hymn Book, and [Methodist] Discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.” In this way he went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle or saddle-bags for his pillow, and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any, for a covering.... Under such circumstances, who among us would now say, “Here am I, Lord, send me?”38

37. T. Scott Miyakawa, Protestants and Pioneers (Chicago, 1964), 109–16; Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 237.

38. Peter Cartwright, Autobiography, ed. Charles Wallis (1856; New York, 1956), 164.

The circuit rider—in effect a Christian Lone Ranger—stands among America’s most heroic western frontiersmen. He received a miserable stipend and often had difficulty collecting even that. The Discipline that Cartwright notes he carried and taught represented a code of behavior that reinforced family and community values in a violent society. The Discipline laid down rules against swearing, drunkenness, sexual license, and ostentatious dress and enforced John Wesley’s maxim, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” It provided a way for ordinary people to reorder their lives, even when living in hardship conditions. A man of the people, the circuit-rider brought moral order and civilization to the people.39

Methodism was still a new movement in the early national period, having originated in the eighteenth century within the Church of England under the leadership of an Anglican priest, John Wesley. Aided by the magnificent hymns of his brother Charles (most of them celebrations of Christ’s expected return), Wesley won many followers in all walks of life, but especially among skilled workers (artisans). His devotional regimen, called the Wesleyan “method,” gave his followers their name. At the time of the Revolution, Wesley’s Tory politics made his movement unpopular in the United States, and at the close of the war scarcely fifteen thousand Methodists worshipped in the new republic. American Methodism was rescued by the devotion and organizational ability of Francis Asbury, who died in 1816. During his lifetime Methodism established itself as a denomination entirely separate from Anglicanism, with bishops of its own (hence the name Methodist Episcopal Church). Building upon his legacy, the next generation of Methodist preachers made their institution the largest religious denomination in the United States. By 1850, Methodists in the United States numbered 2.7 million, including children.40

Soon after the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Methodists began to make use of “camp meetings.” These gatherings would last for several days, to make it worthwhile for rural families to spend a day or more traveling to attend. Obviously such events required extensive planning, organization, and publicity. Camp meetings took place not only on the western frontier but in rural areas throughout the United States. American Methodists held three to four hundred of them annually, drawing an attendance reliably estimated at about a million people a year. They provided welcome opportunities for socializing and the exchange of news to

39. See John H. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America (New York, 1998), 48–79, 98–103.

40. Russell Richey, Early American Methodism (Bloomington, 1991); Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America (New Brunswick, N.J., 1992), 113.

people leading lives of isolation. They also proved extraordinarily successful in winning converts to Methodism and were widely imitated by others—including Finney.41

To carry on between camp meetings or visits by a circuit rider, the Methodists organized their followers into “classes” of about thirty persons each. In 1815, some seven thousand of these classes met in the United States. They provided the indispensable grassroots structure of Methodism. The class leaders, responsible laypersons, led worship, collected financial contributions, and enforced discipline. Once every three months all the classes in a circuit would hold a quarterly meeting, a spiritual as well as administrative occasion. The Methodist system of organization demonstrated impressive effectiveness; no other association of any kind in the United States grew so dramatically and over so large an area in so short a time as Methodism. Membership of Methodist classes soared from 175,000 in 1810 to 1,247,000 by 1850, increasing by 168 percent between 1810 and 1820, and by 86.5 percent in the decade of the 1830s.42

Becoming a Methodist class leader could be an invaluable leadership experience for a person of humble origin. Circuit riders usually arose from the ranks of male class leaders. Women and African Americans could be class leaders; they could also become exhorters, the term for the laypeople who delivered what were in effect mini-sermons.43 African American men, free or slave, could also become licensed Methodist preachers, even in the South. Black preachers usually worked locally rather than on circuit—an obvious necessity in the case of those who were enslaved.44 Many early Methodists disapproved of slavery and even emancipated their own slaves at financial sacrifice. They did not generally agitate the issue publicly, however, until the 1840s.45

One of the most famous of the Methodist exhorters in this period was Phoebe Palmer, daughter of an English immigrant who had been converted by Wesley himself. In 1835, she began addressing a typical Methodist women’s prayer meeting in her living room in New York City; four years later, she opened her “Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of

41. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm, 96–97; Hatch, Democratization of American Christianity, 49–56.

42. Membership table in David Hempton, Methodism (New Haven, 2005), 212. See also Donald Matthews, “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process,” American Quarterly 21 (1969): 23–43.

43. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm, 81–83.

44. Randy Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773–1876 (Athens, Ga., 1994), 66.

45. See, for example, Peter Cartwight’s Autobiography.

Holiness” to the public, including men. Palmer brought the practices of the Methodist class to bear upon the evangelical movement as a whole, for leading evangelicals of all denominations came to hear her. She always refused to hold the Tuesday meetings anywhere but in a home (her house had to be enlarged to accommodate them). She did, however, travel widely in the United States and Britain, and she addressed many a camp-meeting revival. Like Finney, she preached Christian perfectionism and “entire sanctification.” She continued her work until her death in 1872. Phoebe Palmer came to be recognized as a founder of the Holiness branch of evangelicalism and a precursor of the Pentacostal movement.46

The early Methodists devoted more attention to organization than they did to the study of theology. Most Methodist preachers declared the Bible to be self-explanatory, requiring no learned exegesis. Following Wesley, the great majority embraced Arminianism, that is, belief in free will, rather than the philosophical determinism of Calvinism. Early Methodist Arminianism was less an intellectual system than an affirmation of the competence and autonomy of the average person, in religion and life in general. Sometimes heated debates pitted Arminian against Calvinist spokesmen, and they attracted a widespread following that Americans today may find surprising. In evangelical practice, however, the distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism appeared less sharp than in doctrinal logic. Both taught that God extended grace to human beings, which they were morally responsible for accepting. John Wesley, for all his Arminianism, greatly admired his Calvinist evangelical contemporaries George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. There were even a few Calvinist Methodists, mainly from Wales, who took Whitefield as their theological mentor. (Historians still disagree about whether to classify Charles Finney as a Calvinist or an Arminian.)47

While Beecher’s and Finney’s kind of revival activity led to the formation of benevolent associations and reform movements, Methodist exhorters and preachers concentrated on creating classes, congregations, and churches. As a result of its enormous growth during the first half of the nineteenth century, Methodism gradually succeeded in replacing the

46. Charles Edward White, The Beauty of Holiness: Phoebe Palmer as Revivalist and Feminist (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986).

47. Paul Conkin, The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, 1995), xii, 63–89; Richard B. Steele, “Gracious Affection” and “True Virtue” (Metuchen, N.J., 1994); Allen Guelzo, “Charles Grandison Finney and the New England Theology,” JER 17 (1997): 61–94.

system of itinerancy with local clergy. Many a circuit rider eventually settled down to married life in a conventional ministry. Methodists erected church and chapel buildings, making class meetings in houses unnecessary. The fifty Methodist congregations at the time of the Revolution became twenty thousand by the time of the Civil War.48

Starting in the 1820s, Methodists also founded colleges and theological seminaries, which began to train a more professional clergy. The nature of the laity evolved over time too. Early Methodists had come mainly from the ranks of skilled artisans and small farmers. As the decades went by, these people’s hard work and self-discipline paid off, and more and more Methodist laity joined the ranks of the middle class. When they did so, their characteristically austere way of life softened. The gradual refinement of Methodist homes and churches manifested personal and denominational success, but there were always “croakers” who mourned the transition and looked back fondly on the good old days of circuit riders and extreme simplicity. In the 1840s, some of those dissatisfied with the increasingly respectable character of the Methodist movement seceded to form the Wesleyan Methodist Church.49 Most Methodists, however, welcomed the innovations and saw them as the fulfillment of their (and their parents’) labors. The transformation of Methodism mirrored changes in other areas of American life, as it lost some of its rough-hewn pioneer edges.

Other Christian groups picked up where the Methodists left off, notably the Baptists. It is not easy to make generalizations about the Baptists, for they had a strong tradition of congregational independence and splintered into innumerable factions: Separate Baptists, Regular Baptists, United Baptists, General Baptists, Particular Baptists, Calvinist Baptists, Free-Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Anti-Mission Baptists, Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Baptists. But all these groups did agree in rejecting infant baptism and insisting that the rite be performed on consenting adults by immersion, not merely the sprinkling or pouring of a small amount of water. Adult baptism by immersion reinforced the dramatic importance of the conversion experience that revival preachers worked to provoke. Some of the divisions among Baptists reflected social class differences; middle-class Baptists were more likely to support interdenominational cooperation on behalf of temperance, for example, while the Primitive Baptists (also called “Hard Shell” Baptists) warned that such reform activities were distractions and corruptions of the pure gospel message. While New

48. Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, 270.

49. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm, 173–95.

England Baptists supported institutions of higher learning (beginning with Brown University in colonial times), Baptist groups in other areas could be unashamedly anti-intellectual. Anti-Mission Baptists took the Calvinist doctrine of predestination so seriously that they declared missions to the heathen a waste of effort: If God intended to save a person, He would do so.50

The Baptists shared many characteristics with the early Methodists, except for the latter’s centralized organization. Like the Methodists, they provided scope for lay leadership, recruited from the common people, and numbered women and African Americans among their leaders as well as followers. They too enforced discipline among members of their churches. They too had their itinerant preachers, as heroic if less well organized, such as John Leland, who led the Baptist fight for religious disestablishment, first in Virginia against the Episcopalians and then in New England against the Congregationalists.51 While the Methodists evolved from a working-class to a middle-class constituency, the Baptists consistently recruited among all classes, but most especially among the rural poor. Many Baptist ministers in rural areas served as unpaid volunteers and earned their living as farmers. Among the most energetic in seeking converts on the frontier were Baptists from Virginia, who had a long tradition of resistance to the Anglican gentry of the tidewater. By 1850, it is estimated, the different kinds of Baptists together counted about 1.6 million members.52

The Baptists were the largest of many “restorationist” religious movements seeking to recover the New Testament faith and practice that they considered had been lost or corrupted. One of the most remarkable and successful restorationist movements emerged from the labors of Barton Stone, Elias Smith, and Alexander Campbell, among others. Stone had participated in the famous early camp meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801. Smith came out of a New England Baptist background; Campbell, from a Scottish Presbyterian one. Since doctrinal disputes had led to such bigotry and cruelty over the centuries, these leaders reached the

50. See Gregory Willis, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South (New York, 1997); Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks; Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “The Antimission Movement in the Jacksonian South,” Journal of Southern History 36 (1970): 501–29.

51. Hatch, Democratization of American Christianity, 95–102.

52. For the sake of consistency, this includes children, although Baptists themselves count only those baptized after the age of discretion. See Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, “Estimating 19th-Century Church Membership,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 25 (1985): 185; Finke and Stark, Churching of America, 113.

conclusion that all theological and creedal formulations must be wrong; Christians should confine themselves to the language of the New Testament and affirm or deny no religious doctrines beyond that. They hoped by this means to transcend and indeed eliminate denominationalism altogether. For this reason, they rejected ecclesiastical organization in favor of local autonomy and refused any name save “Christian.” The rebirth of the primitive church was their objective; “no creed but the Bible,” their slogan. Well under way by 1815, the Christian movement won many converts in the South and West, particularly among people impatient with Calvinist theology; by mid-century it claimed more than 200,000 of them.53 The eventual outcome of the movement, however, renders a sobering judgment on human endeavors. The scriptures require interpretation, and restricting religious assertions to those of scripture proved no solution to the scandal of disagreement and division. In the end, the antidenomi-national Christian movement added to the number of denominations; indeed, they even wound up creating several: the Christian Connection, the Disciples of Christ, and the Churches of Christ.54

Among the new churches of the young republic were those of the free black people. Philadelphia, with a closely knit black community of twelve thousand in 1820, led the way. The first black Episcopal church (1794), the first black Methodist church (also 1794), the first black Presbyterian church (1809), and the first black northern Baptist church (also 1809) all appeared in that city. Often these congregations would remain part of their national denomination. But in 1816 the trustees of Philadelphia’s Bethel Methodist Church, after years of property disputes with the central Methodist authorities, secured legal recognition of their independence. Thus they created a separate denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the one institution in the United States at the time entirely under black control. In 1817, the AME Church adopted its own Discipline. Soon another independent African American denomination joined it, the AME Zion Church, founded in New York City.55

At the time of the American Revolution, a slave in Kent County, Delaware, named Richard Allen had undergone a classic conversion

53. Alexander Campbell, quoted in Edwin Scott Gaustad, Historical Atlas of Religion in America (New York, 1962), 64.

54. See David Harrell Jr., Quest for a Christian America (Nashville, Tenn., 1966); Richard Hughes and Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America (Chicago, 1988).

55. Gary B. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 127–30, 199–202.

experience. “I cried to the Lord both night and day,” he recalled; “all of a sudden my dungeon shook, my chains flew off, and, glory to God, I cried.” From then on he felt confident: “The Lord, for Christ’s sake, had heard my prayers and pardoned all my sins.” The Methodists were already active in Delaware, and Allen’s owner, Stokely Sturgis, allowed him to join them. One day he even permitted Allen to bring them into the master’s house. There Sturgis heard a sermon by one of the greatest early Methodist preachers, Freeborn Garrettson. Sturgis too converted as a result, and expressed his new faith by allowing Allen to hire himself out and purchase his own freedom for two thousand dollars in depreciated Continental currency. It took five years of hard work and thrift, but Allen made the final payment in 1786. He had already begun to cooperate with Bishop Francis Asbury to spread Methodism among African Americans, and in 1794 founded Bethel Church in Philadelphia. When the AME Church declared its independence, Allen became its first bishop.56

Clergymen like Allen and his friend Absalom Jones, founding priest of St. Thomas’s Episcopal in Philadelphia and like him a self-made former slave, established themselves as leaders and spokesmen for their community—a role the black clergy have never lost. In a world where they were shut out from so much else, African Americans found their churches a source of mutual strength and spiritual fulfillment. In a world where black talent was undervalued, their churches provided scope for it. African Americans formed evangelical moral reform associations analogous to their white counterparts, to support temperance and suppress vice, but with the added urgency of a desire for the collective “uplift” of the race as well of individuals.57 Friend and foe alike recognized the free black churches as bastions of opposition to slavery and havens for those escaping from it.

As Richard Allen’s account of his spiritual awakening illustrates, evangelical Christianity resonated powerfully among the slaves. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared Christianity a religion well suited to slaves because of its emphasis on humility. Nietzsche ignored the liberating strain in the Christian message, but many African Americans heard it. Allen’s religious metaphor expressed it well: “My chains flew off.” Missions to the plantations were among the many missions organized

56. Albert J. Raboteau, A Fire in the Bones (Boston, 1995), 79–102; Allen is quoted in Carol George, Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Rise of Independent Black Churches (New York, 1973), 26.

57. See Frederick Cooper, “Elevating the Race,” American Quarterly 24 (1972), 604–25.

by the interdenominational evangelicals; however, Baptist and Methodist itinerants got there earlier and to greater effect. Ever since the First Awakening there had been preachers and exhorters among the slaves themselves, so the religion of the great antebellum revival did not come to them as an alien “white” intrusion. Slaves embraced evangelical Christianity as an affirmation of hope and self-respect, of moral order and justice in circumstances where these were scarce and precious.

Where a critical mass of participants could be assembled, as on large plantations, slaves often worshipped on their own, thereby provoking anxiety among whites who did not share Nietzsche’s estimate of Christianity. Despite such misgivings, black preachers and exhorters, both free and slave, continued to be licensed and black congregations to be organized in the antebellum South. Of course, many slave congregations existed informally and do not show up in ecclesiastical records. The semisecret, potentially subversive network of religious associations among the enslaved has been termed an “invisible institution.”58

In southern cities, slaves could also belong to congregations organized by free Negroes. One of these was the AME church in Charleston where Denmark Vesey and two of his closest associates served as class leaders; most of those executed with him belonged to it. The congregation traced its origins to Francis Asbury’s visits to Charleston between 1785 and 1797. Drawing inspiration and instruction from the new AME church in Philadelphia, in 1817 Charleston’s black Methodists founded an AME congregation of their own with over four thousand members, the majority of whom were enslaved. The harassment of this church by the local authorities could have pushed Vesey toward a decision to rebel.59

By 1820, one Methodist in five was black, and the percentage of black Baptists was probably even higher. In the South, most congregations held biracial services, with blacks and whites usually seated separately. Members of the two races heard each other’s preaching and caught each other’s forms of prayer and praise. The Second Great Awakening in the South fostered an extraordinary religious synthesis of African American

58. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion (New York, 1978), 151–210; Donald Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago, 1977), 185–236; Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1974), 161–284. The term “invisible institution” was invented by the African American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier and has been widely used since his time.

59. Peter Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance (University Park, Pa., 1997), 25–37; John Lofton, Denmark Vesey’s Revolt (Kent, Ohio, 1983), 52–53.

and European American cultures. Preachers at camp meetings, of either race, might chant their sermons, punctuated with cries from the congregation: “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” “Lord, have mercy!” Out of this synthesis came a distinctive musical expression. From the European tradition came the practice of “lining out” the psalms: A leader sings a line, the congregation echoes it. The practice dovetailed readily with the “call-and-response” pattern of African music. It suited a society possessing more singers than hymnbooks—and where not everyone could read music or words. A northern visitor to a camp meeting in Mississippi in 1816 observed, “They sung in ancient style, lineing [sic] the Psalm, and uniting in every part of the house, both white and black.”60American Christians drew inspiration from the great European tradition of evangelical hymnody, of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. But the extraordinary creativity of the Second Great Awakening also stimulated the production of American folk music of unparalleled power: the black spirituals and the gospel music of both races. Richard Allen, who emancipated himself first from sin and then from slavery, expressed the spirit of the awakening in one of the Methodist hymns he wrote:

What poor despised company

Of travellers are these,

That’s walking yonder narrow way,

Along that rugged maze?

Why they are of a royal line,

They’re children of a King,

Heirs of immortal crown divine

And loud for joy they sing.

Why do they then appear so mean

And why so much despised?

Because of their rich robes unseen

The world is not appriz’d.

Why some of them seem poor distress’d

And lacking daily bread.

Heirs of immortal wealth possess’d

With hidden Manna fed.61

60. Quoted in Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, p. 28.

61. Mechal Sobel, Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (Westport, Conn., 1979), 97–98, 140, 153, 160, 203; Raboteau, Slave Religion, 243–66; Hatch, Democratization of American Christianity, 146–61, quoting Allen’s hymn on 157–58.


The closer one looks for the Era of Good Feelings in American politics the harder it is to find. By contrast, when one looks for evidence of religious awakening in this period, one finds it everywhere: not only in the astonishing variety of religious sects, both imported and native, but also in literature, politics, educational institutions, popular culture, social reforms, dietary reforms, utopian experiments, child-rearing practices, and relationships between the sexes.62 In terms of duration, numbers of people involved, or any other measure, the Second Great Awakening dwarfed the First. Because of its diversity, perhaps it should be called a multitude of contemporaneous “awakenings.”

While the number of religious options multiplied, so did the number of congregations and individual believers. The physical landscape reflected the formation of new congregations: Americans were erecting church buildings at the rate of a thousand a year.63While the U.S. population increased from 7.2 million in 1810 to 23.2 million in 1850, the number of church members increased even faster—although since the census did not enumerate people by religious groups, their numbers have to be extrapolated from other data. By the middle of the nineteenth century, an estimated one-third of the population affiliated with organized religion, twice the percentage of 1776, even though church membership was often deliberately demanding and difficult to achieve.64 To be sure, this still represented a minority, and the evangelical movement would always be resisted in many quarters. But the Second Great Awakening put religious practice in the United States on an upward trajectory that would continue through the twentieth century. The contrast with Europe, where religious faith declined in the same era, is striking.

The evangelical revival inevitably provoked controversy. Even many religious people criticized its methods as manipulative and overly emotional, its theology as shallow and unorthodox. Major denominations that argued over the legitimacy of revivalism included the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. And of course many people disliked religion altogether. From their point of view all the awakenings represented so much error, superstition, and meddlesome intrusion. Even the evangelists themselves disagreed with each other over issues of doctrine and

62. A provocative commentary on the broad significance of this awakening is Perry Miller’s unfinished classic, The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York, 1965), 3–95.

63. Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, 270.

64. Finke and Stark, Churching of America, 16.

practice. Some evangelical sects, including the Disciples of Christ and the Anti-Mission Baptists, promoted revivals of their own but disapproved of the interdenominational benevolent associations. Fundamental doctrinal differences excluded other religious bodies from interdenominational evangelical cooperation: Roman Catholics, Jews, and Unitarians. As time went by, disagreements over slavery would increasingly embitter relations among the evangelicals.65

Assessing the implications of such a diverse and wide-ranging phenomenon as the Second Great Awakening is complicated and therefore difficult. The Awakening had an uneven impact; for example, religious adherence seems to have been higher in small towns than in either rural areas or big cities. Some of the consequences of the Awakening seem ambiguous. For people to have so many choices about which religion to embrace (if any) enhanced individualism. On the other hand, religion also strengthened community ties among church members. Religion stimulated innovation in society, as believers tried to bring social practice more into conformity with religious precepts. On the other hand, religion also exerted a conservative influence, reinvigorating cultural heritages that various social groups were trying to preserve in a New World. The revivals sometimes encouraged interdenominational cooperation and a sense of collective moral responsibility, but they were also a divisive force that split denominations and even tore individual congregations apart. The sects could be authoritarian, yet many people found them personally liberating. It is not even obvious to what extent we should define the Awakening as American. Although the evangelical movement was unusually successful and varied in the United States, it had its counterparts all over the world, and evangelicals and revivalists in Britain and the United States cooperated closely.

American religion flourished in a society with a thinly developed institutional structure, enlisting the energies of the people themselves. The most important social consequences of the Awakening in America derived from its trust in the capacities of ordinary people. In the early American republic, the most significant challenge to the traditional assumption that the worth of human beings depended on their race, class, and gender came from the scriptural teachings that all are equal in the sight of God and all are one in Christ. Different revivals appealed to different constituencies, but taken together, the Second Great Awakening

65. See James Bratt, ed., Anti-revivalism in Antebellum America (New Brunswick, N.J., 2006).

was remarkable for embracing (in the words of the Book of Common Prayer) “all sorts and conditions of men.” Including women, the poor, and African Americans among the exhorters and exhorted, the revivals expanded the number of people experiencing an autonomous sense of self. They taught self-respect and demanded that individuals function as moral agents. In this way the Awakening empowered multitudes.

The decision for Christ that the revivalists demanded had to be made voluntarily and responsibly. Having taken this decision, the believer, regardless of denomination, should accept self-discipline while also engaging in long-term moral self-improvement, sometimes called “sanctification.” The preachers urged people to search the scriptures for themselves and apply the lessons they found there to their own lives. In short, the believer was expected to remake himself or herself into a new person— to be “born again.” The new personal identity thus attained was both follower of Christ and rational, autonomous individual—paradoxical as that may seem.66

The evangelical movement brought civilization and order, not only to the frontier but throughout the rural and small town environments in which the vast majority of Americans then lived. Evangelical revivals rolled through the canal towns where Finney enjoyed his famous successes, through rustic Vermont, and through the booming cotton lands of Mississippi. All over the country, farmers and townspeople expressed by innumerable voluntary activities their commitment to republicanism and religious toleration along with their desire for spiritual sustenance and stable values. Some evangelicals committed themselves to the moral reformation of society as a whole; these tended to be the ones concerned with interdenominational cooperation. Others concentrated attention on the moral standards of their own membership as “islands of holiness” in a sea of infidelity and immorality. This distinction would turn out to be important when evangelicals chose sides in politics.67

Social classes were more sharply defined in the cities and new industrial towns than in most of rural America, and this reality affected evangelical activity. Despite Beecher’s working-class origins and Finney’s common touch, their versions of evangelicalism appealed primarily to middle-class people. But evangelical religion also appealed to the working class. Finney and a Methodist minister held revival meetings together

66. See Daniel Howe, Making the American Self (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 114–17.

67. Randolph Roth, The Democratic Dilemma: Religion, Reform, and the Social Order in the Connecticut River Valley of Vermont (Cambridge, Eng., 1987); Johnson, Islands of Holiness; Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.

in a textile mill on Oriskany Creek in 1826 where about fifteen hundred converted, many of them mill girls. In this case, the revivalists enjoyed the support of the mill owner, who stopped production to allow the revival to take place. Evangelical religion inculcated virtues that employers generally approved, especially temperance—though there is no indication that heavy drinking among the mill girls had been a problem for this employer.68

In general, evangelical religion was not foisted upon the industrial working classes, whether artisans or factory employees. When they embraced it, they did so voluntarily and for reasons that did not conflict with their self-interest. Hardworking journeymen who joined the Methodist Church did not find its social ethics particularly different from the behavior endorsed by the Mechanics’ Society. If some employers saw the temperance movement as a means to discipline workers, some of the workers themselves viewed it as a means of “mutual improvement” and a way of retaking control over their lives.69 When workers challenged their employers in collective protest, they could draw strength from their religion. Antebellum American labor organizers did not forget that Jesus had been a carpenter. In Finney’s Rochester, working-class people held their own version of the Awakening and did not allow employers or the middle class to monopolize the Christian message. Rochester’s artisan organizations and periodicals combined Christianity with labor agitation and a working-class legislative agenda of mechanics’ lien laws and an end to imprisonment for debt. Methodist and Presbyterian church members appeared prominently in the leadership of the Rochester labor movement. Evangelicalism played a part in the making of the working class, as it did in shaping middle-class consciousness as well.70

The economic teachings of evangelical preachers contained much the same message whether their congregation was rural or urban, working or middle class, Calvinist or Arminian, white or black. Serve God in your calling. Work hard, be thrifty, save your money, don’t go into debt. Be honest in business dealings; don’t screw down the wages of those who

68. Hambrick-Stowe, Finney, 53–54. The role of employers in promoting Finney’s revival is emphasized in Johnson, Shopkeeper’s Millennium.

69. William R. Sutton, Journeymen for Jesus: Evangelical Artisans Confront Capitalism in Jacksonian Baltimore (University Park, Pa., 1998); David G. Hackett, The Rude Hand of Innovation: Religion and Social Order in Albany (New York, 1991), 90–99, 119–21, 156; Roth, Democratic Dilemma, 300–302.

70. Jama Lazerow, Religion and the Working Class in Antebellum America (Washington, 1995); Teresa Anne Murphy, Ten Hours’ Labor: Religion, Reform, and Gender in Early New England (Ithaca, N.Y., 1992).

work for you to the lowest possible level. (In that society, even people of very modest means might have a “hired man” helping on the farm or “hired girl” helping in the kitchen.) If you manage a surplus, be faithful stewards of your bounty, that is, be generous to the church and other good causes. It wasn’t bad personal advice, then or later. The message presupposed private property and a commercial order but not ruthless competition; it attempted to infuse the marketplace with moral meaning. In the South, the ministers admonished masters not to overwork or abuse their slaves and to respect their family ties. In other respects their teachings were the same as in the free states.71

Of all the social groups involved in the Awakening, perhaps none was affected more profoundly than women. Besides Phoebe Palmer, many other women evangelists emerged, despite the reluctance of most denominations to ordain them as ministers. Jarena Lee of the AME Church succeeded in getting permission from Bishop Richard Allen to become an itinerant preacher; she traveled as much as two thousand miles a year in the 1820s and published her spiritual autobiography.72 The best-known women itinerants included Clarissa Danforth, Nancy Towle, and Harriet Livermore; they all came from the “Christian movement” but preached in other churches too—Methodist, Free-Will Baptist, wherever they could get a hearing. Livermore attained such fame that she preached before a joint session of Congress and President John Quincy Adams in January 1827, taking as her text “He that ruleth over men must be just.” By defending the right of women to speak in public, the female evangelists took a preliminary but essential step in the direction of the next generation of women’s-rights activists.73

More typically, however, women occupied the pews rather than the pulpits. Joining in church activities with their “sisters in Christ” could be socially as well as spiritually rewarding, especially for women in isolated farm households. Often, wives and mothers led the way in joining a church and then encouraged male family members to convert too. A woman might welcome the discipline of a church community over the

71. See Mark Noll, ed., God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market (New York, 2002); Kenneth Startup, The Root of All Evil: Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South (Athens, Ga., 1997).

72. Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal (Philadelphia, 1836, 1849), has been reprinted in Spiritual Narratives, ed. Sue Houchins (New York, 1988), 1–97.

73. Catherine A. Brekus, “Harriet Livermore, the Pilgrim Stranger,” Church History 65 (1996): 389–404. See further the readings in Elizabeth B. Clark, “Women and Religion in America, 1780–1870,”Church and State in America, ed. John F. Wilson (New York, 1986), I, 365–413.

family as a limitation on the discipline of a tyrannical husband. Women outnumbered men by two to one in most antebellum congregations, regardless of denomination.74 (Women typically outnumber men in almost all churches, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, everywhere in the world.)

Countless thousands of women participated in church-related benevolent associations that acted as a training ground for fuller citizenship. Women distributed Bibles, tracts, and material help to the poor of cities and countryside. Frequently their organizations were officially “auxiliaries” to male associations, but middle-class women often had more time and energy to devote than their men. While men could be active in civic, political, and occupational associations, all women’s associations before the mid-1830s were religious in nature. “No other avenue of self-expression besides religion,” the historian Nancy Cott has written, “at once offered women social approbation, the encouragement of male leaders (ministers), and, most important, the community of their peers.” Religious benevolence could perform constructive social functions for women from a variety of social groups. For upper-class women, it might confirm their social position. For black or working-class women, it lent substance to their claims of respectability. Benevolent associations became important to middle-class women in somewhat the same way that getting paid employment mattered to working-class women, as a way of getting out of the house and into the larger world, taking responsibility and making decisions. The temperance movement in particular helped pave the way for the assertion of women’s rights because it so often took up the cause of wives against the abuse of alcoholic husbands.75

The laity, women and men together, saw to it that the Second Great Awakening exerted much of its influence through purposeful voluntary associations, typically headed by boards of directors on which laypersons appeared prominently. Because the associations were interdenominational and run by the laity, women could exercise many leadership functions even when clerical ordination remained closed to them. The list of evangelical benevolent associations is long and bewilderingly varied.

74. Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, 283; Hackett, Rude Hand of Innovation, 141–44; Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class, 77–81; Johnson, Islands of Holiness, 53–66.

75. Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood (New Haven, 1977), 126–59, quotation from 141; Carroll Smith Rosenberg, Religion and the Rise of the American City (Ithaca, N.Y., 1971), 97–124; Nancy Hewitt, Women’s Activism and Social Change (Ithaca, N.Y., 1984), esp. 228; Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class, 210–81.

They included the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (which also handled missions to Native Americans), American Home Missionary Society, Bible Society, Peace Society, Sunday School Union, Tract Society, Temperance Society, and the different societies into which the antislavery movement eventually split. Some, like the Peace Society, participated in international cooperation; others were distinctively American, like the Society for the Promotion of Theological Education at the West. Some had a wide remit, like the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor; others were highly specialized, like the American Seamen’s Friend Society, the Protestant Half Orphan Society, or the Ladies’ Association for the Benefit of Gentlewomen of Good Family, Reduced in Fortune Below the State of Comfort to Which They Have Been Accustomed. Many were local, like the New York Anti-Tobacco Society or the Society for the Encouragement of Faithful Domestic Servants in New York. The Seventh Commandment Society and the Society for Returning Young Women to Their Friends in the Country both addressed the problem of prostitution. A few of the associations now strike us as grotesque (the Evangelical Alliance to Overthrow the Papacy) or ludicrous (the National Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor).

Contemporaries called the interlocking, interdenominational directorates of these organizations “the Evangelical United Front” or “the Benevolent Empire.” It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the United Front aspired to transcend America’s sectarian diversity and create the functional equivalent of an established church. Its advocates declared that bringing souls to Christ and ushering in His Kingdom took precedence over the theological differences dividing the various Protestant sects. They therefore embraced interdenominational (“ecumenical”) cooperation in the service of a general “reformation of manners” both personal and institutional. Of course, their conception of cooperation did not include “unevangelical” denominations like Catholics and Unitarians.

The efforts of this benevolent empire had remarkable impact on American culture. The activities of the American Bible Society and American Sunday School Union, for example, held more importance than may at first appear. The American version of Protestantism was a religion of a book, and to practice the religion required being able to read the book. In many a log cabin, parents taught their children by candlelight the rudiments of reading in the only book they had: a Bible from the American Bible Society. In many a frontier community, the Sunday school arrived well before the more expensive public school, and in the meantime provided

children with weekly instruction in literacy.76 The wide variety of voluntary organizations themselves provided their members practice in exercising civic responsibilities. What is more, the collection of small donations from far-flung contributors, which then had to be accounted for and safely invested so as to yield an income, actually pioneered techniques for pooling capital in a society with a chronic shortage of capital. Nonprofit corporations as well as business enterprises helped shape the development of American capitalism, and women participated fully in the nonprofit sector.77

The social reforms embraced by the Evangelical United Front characteristically involved creating some form of personal discipline serving a goal of redemption. Prison reform serves as an example: No longer would the prison be intended only as a place to hold persons awaiting trial, coerce debt payment, or inflict retributive justice. Reformers reconceived the prison as corrective in function, as a “penitentiary” or “reformatory,” in the vocabulary they invented. Besides prisoners, other people who did not function as free moral agents might become objects of the reformers’ concern: alcoholics, children, slaves, the insane. The goal of the reformers in each case was to substitute for external constraints the inner discipline of morality. Some historians have interpreted the religious reformers as motivated simply by an impulse to impose “social control,” but it seems more accurate to describe their concern as redemptive, and more specifically the creation of responsible personal autonomy.78 Liberation and control represented two sides of the redemptive process as they conceived it. Christians who had achieved self-liberation and self-control through conversion not surprisingly often turned to a concern with the liberation and discipline of others.

The Evangelical United Front had no more able servant or advocate than Robert Baird. After training for the Presbyterian ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, Baird spent the rest of his life in the service of benevolent associations. He labored to distribute Bibles, to fund a state

76. Peter Wosh, Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, N.Y., 1994); Paul Gujahr, An American Bible (Stanford, 1999); Anne Boylan, Sunday School (New Haven, 1988).

77. Lori Ginzburg, Women and the Work of Benevolence (New Haven, 1990); Kathleen D. McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society (Chicago, 2003), 50–54, 81–82.

78. See Lois Banner, “Religious Benevolence as Social Control: A Critique,” JAH 60 (1973): 34–41; Martin Wiener, ed., “Humanitarianism or Control?” Rice University Studies 67 (1981): 1–84; Daniel Howe, “The Evangelical Movement and Political Culture,” JAH 77 (1991): 1216–39.

public school system in New Jersey, and to establish Sunday schools throughout the nation. Beginning in 1834, he spent most of the next thirty years in Europe as an agent for the American and Foreign Christian Union, working to promote literacy and the temperance movement and to secure rights for Protestants in countries with Roman Catholic governments. Baird crossed the Atlantic eighteen times in an age when few leaders felt at home, as he did, on both sides of the ocean. In response to requests from European colleagues, he wrote his monumental book, Religion in America, first published in Scotland in 1843, then in New York in 1844, and subsequently translated into French, German, Dutch, and Swedish. Baird intended it to introduce European Protestants of his time to American religion; the book remains to expound the worldview of the nineteenth-century Evangelical United Front to us. In it Baird explained religious freedom, the separation of church and state, and America’s extraordinary religious diversity for the benefit of readers to whom all these seemed strange. He defended revivalism (though taking account of its abuses) and the voluntary benevolent associations. While broad-minded by the standards of his day, he did not hesitate to rank-order other religions, rating Catholicism superior to Unitarianism and Judaism superior to Mormonism.79 Like many others of his generation, Baird saw evangelical Protestantism as the legatee of Puritanism, the core of American culture, the source of American democratic institutions, the primary engine of economic and political progress, and ultimately the hope of the world. The American version of evangelical Protestantism represented, for him, what God hath wrought.

The religious awakenings of the early nineteenth century marshaled powerful energies in an age when few other social agencies in the United States had the capacity to do so. Baird’s Evangelical United Front organized its voluntary associations on a national, indeed international, level, at a time when little else in American society was organized, when there existed no nationwide business corporation save the Second Bank of the United States and no nationwide government bureaucracy save the Post Office. Indeed, the four major evangelical denominations together employed twice as many people, occupied twice as many premises, and raised at least three times as much money as the Post Office. The extent to which evangelical religion dominated communication in the early republic is most vividly exemplified by the fact that, per capita, twice as

79. Robert Baird, Religion in the United States of America (New York, 1969, rpt. from the 1844 ed.), 612–13.

many Methodist sermons were heard in 1840 as there were letters received.80 The historian Richard Carwardine, after carefully estimating that about 40 percent of the U.S. population was “in close sympathy with evangelical Christianity” (not the same thing as belonging to a church), concludes, “This was the largest, and most formidable, subculture in American society.”81 It could only be a matter of time before the energies generated by religion began to make themselves manifest in politics.


Old Elias Hicks had a farm on Long Island. When a young man he had traveled as an itinerant Quaker evangelist between Vermont and the Chesapeake, preaching the Inner Light, “that lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9). His sermons were spontaneous, their emotional power reinforced by his transparent sincerity. A decade after his death they would still tell the story of how, in Virginia, he courageously called upon a planter who had threatened to shoot him for preaching against the sin of slavery, and after repeated visits persuaded the man to set his people free.82 Throughout his life Hicks rigorously defended the right as he saw it: the austere Quaker tradition of refusing to compromise with worldliness. He insisted that principled persons should avoid consuming the products of slave labor, such as sugar, rice, or cotton textiles. Besides slavery, he denounced banks, politics, and the Erie Canal. (“If the Lord had intended there should be internal waterways, he would have placed them there.”) As for scientific learning, he considered it as “trivial” as “ribbons on a young woman’s head.”83 Elias Hicks had little time for the modern world; nothing really mattered to the old man except moral integrity. In the 1820s, he became the focal point of a controversy that irreparably split the American Society of Friends.

Ever since the seventeenth century, the Society of Friends (nicknamed “quakers” for their occasional emotional trances) had conceived themselves as a people apart. Within Protestantism, they were super-Protestants. Where Protestants demystified and simplified the Eucharist, Quakers did not observe it at all, nor did they practice baptism. Their silent meetings

80. Statistics from Noll, America’s God, 201: in 1840, only 2.9 letters per person per year, but six Methodist sermons heard per person per year.

81. Richard Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (New Haven, 1993), 44.

82. Lydia Maria Child, “An Anecdote of Elias Hicks,” Liberty Bell (Boston, 1839), 65–68.

83. Quotations from Robert Doherty, The Hicksite Separation (New Brunswick, N.J., 1967), 28. On Hicks, see also H. Larry Ingle, Quakers in Conflict (Knoxville, Tenn., 1986), 39–47.

had no order of service. They wrote no systematic theology. Since both women and men possessed the divine Spirit, the Inner Light, they practiced a substantial degree of gender equality. They did not ordain clergy, though they “recorded” the fact that God’s Spirit particularly spoke through designated individuals. They dressed plainly and spoke plainly, using “thee” and “thou,” the familiar form of address, instead of “you,” considered more polite. They refused to serve in the armed forces. They refused to take oaths in court, on the grounds that one should tell the truth all the time, not just in special circumstances. But the international evangelical movement affected them in ways that two hundred years of persecution had never done. First in England, then in the United States, nineteenth-century Quakers began to share in the religious currents of their age. They started associating with non-Quakers in philanthropic organizations. Sometimes they seemed more interested in cooperating with other white evangelicals than in bearing uncompromising witness against slavery. They emphasized evangelical biblical teachings more and the Inner Light of individual conscience less. They began to speak of Jesus as Redeemer, to celebrate his atonement for sin, and even considered adopting a creedal confession of faith similar to that of other evangelical Protestants. Elias Hicks stood out against these trends. He also criticized those Quakers, chiefly in Philadelphia, who had adapted sufficiently to the ways of the world to become successful merchants and entrepreneurs.84

In April 1827, dissension wracked the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (analogous to a synod in Presbyterianism). The followers of Hicks walked out and set up their own Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Other yearly meetings had to decide which of the two Philadelphia meetings to recognize, and in doing so they precipitated a schism throughout American Quakerism. The more evangelical branch took the name Orthodox; the Hick-sites eventually called themselves the Liberal branch. The British Friends sided unequivocally with the Orthodox. In the United States, about 40 percent of the 100,000 Quakers, mainly Friends living in rural areas of the Mid-Atlantic states and Ohio, became Hicksites.85

The Hicksites continued to record ministers, as the orthodox Quakers did, and they commissioned “Public Friends” to spread the Word among non-Quakers. Sometimes these evangelists addressed camp meetings.

84. Ingle, Quakers in Conflict, 3–15; Thomas Hamm, The Transformation of American Quakerism (Bloomington, 1988), 15–28.

85. Thomas Hamm, The Quakers in America (New York, 2003), 42–43.

But the Hicksite movement also represented a religious “revival” in another, perhaps more fundamental, sense. It revived the original kind of anti-institutional, “come-outer” Quaker piety, resembling that of the founder George Fox and the seventeenth-century Friends. Surprisingly, however, though Hicks himself despised the modern world, some of his followers turned out to constitute the cutting edge of modernity. If Lyman Beecher’s followers represented the conservative wing of evangelical reform and Charles Finney’s its liberal one, those of Elias Hicks contributed the radical vanguard, what contemporaries called “ultraism.” All three of these evangelical groups could agree on many issues, such as temperance, prison reform, and public support for elementary schools. But the Hicksites displayed a willingness to pursue causes that others thought quixotic. Hicksite Quakers provided a disproportionately large number of recruits to the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery. And when at last a movement endorsing equal rights for women surfaced, the little minority of Hicksite Quakers would make themselves conspicuous in its support.86


In 1815 John Carroll, Bishop of Baltimore and the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, died. A native-born American and cousin to Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence, he had been elected bishop by his clerical colleagues in 1789, the same year his friend George Washington was elected the first president. Rome (preoccupied with more momentous events closer to home) went along with the strange procedure. Bishop Carroll undertook to demonstrate to a skeptical public that his church could reconcile itself to republicanism. Staunchly patriotic and Federalist, Bishop Carroll made it clear that American Catholics embraced freedom of religion, which he grounded in natural law. To represent his irenic and rational faith, Carroll commissioned Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, to design a neoclassical cathedral for Baltimore.87 The first Catholic Bishop of Boston, consecrated in 1810, was another cultivated gentleman, the French émigré Jean Cheverus. Respected even in that ultra-Protestant city as a broad-minded and conciliatory liberal, Cheverus remained at heart a European conservative, and in 1823 the restored Bourbon monarchy welcomed him back home, where he become Archbishop of Bordeaux and eventually a cardinal. In 1820, the pope appointed as Bishop of

86. See Brooks Holifield, Theology in America (New Haven, 2003), 320–27.

87. Jay Dolan, In Search of an American Catholicism (New York, 2002), 22–25.

Charleston an Irishman named (ironically) John England. Bishop England carried the effort to Americanize the Catholic Church still further, creating a written constitution for his diocese that included participation by elected delegates, clerical and lay, in an annual convention. This experiment in representative government did not outlive the bishop who created it. But reciprocating such overtures, the houses of Congress invited Bishop England to address them in 1826 and in 1832 chose a Roman Catholic priest as their chaplain.88

The social situation faced by the Catholic church in the young republic resembled in many respects that faced by the Protestant denominations: dispersed populations, perhaps recently migrated from other parts of the country or the Atlantic world, and often long out of touch with organized religion. The church responded with what has been called “Catholic revivalism.” Priests of several religious orders (notably, Jesuits and Redemptorists) became traveling missionaries, carrying the divine word and sacraments to the thinly scattered 150,000 Catholics living in the United States in 1815. Like their Protestant counterparts these preachers warned of the flames of hell and encouraged hymn-singing; then they would exhort their hearers to the sacraments of penance and holy communion. The Catholic itinerants did not have to take their cue from Protestants; such missions had been known for centuries in Europe (where monarchs had sometimes banned them as subversive). Like the evangelical movement among Protestants, Catholic revivalism was an international movement, but one that matched the needs of the American environment particularly well. To observe the jubilee proclaimed by Leo XII, a Catholic evangelist from Ireland rallied crowds in frontier Kentucky that resembled those at Protestant camp meetings. The emotional nature of such Catholic revivalism contrasted with the genteel piety exemplified by Carroll and Cheverus. To help the faithful carry on once the missionary had left, he would distribute prayer books containing devotions the laity could perform, privately or collectively, even without a priest.89

The extent to which the church should adapt to the American situation became a controversial issue among Catholics. In many areas the

88. David Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, 2001), 77–80; Charles Morris, American Catholic (New York, 1997), viii. For more on Bishop England, see Patrick Carey, An Immigrant Bishop (Yonkers, N.Y., 1982).

89. Jay Dolan, Catholic Revivalism (Notre Dame, 1978); Dale Light, Rome and the New Republic (Notre Dame, 1996), 248–49; Ann Taves, The Household Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (Notre Dame, 1986).

laity had taken the initiative in forming a parish and requesting a priest. In the meantime, laymen led public services (not the mass, of course). Sometimes they expected to be able to choose their priest. Furthermore, the laws of many states, reflecting Protestant assumptions, mandated that parish church property be held in the name of lay trustees, not by the clergy. Bishop England tolerated this system up to a point, but the other bishops did not, and meeting at their first council in 1829 they insisted that church property should rightfully be vested in the diocesan bishop. The lay trustees throughout the country did not always give up without a fight, however; conflicts between bishops and trustees occurred in Philadelphia, New York City, New Orleans, and Buffalo. Philadelphia had a particularly messy wrangle, which included the excommunication of a priest whom the lay trustees supported against his bishop. The trustee system had still not been entirely purged by 1848; its eventual elimination demonstrated the limits of Roman Catholic accommodation to American republican practices.90

A leading opponent of the trustee system was the redoubtable John Hughes, appointed bishop coadjutor (associate bishop) of New York in 1837, succeeding Jean Dubois as diocesan bishop in 1842, and promoted to archbishop in 1850. Very different from his aristocratic French predecessor, Hughes had immigrated from Ireland in 1817 and worked as a gardener to finance his education. Firmly asserting his ecclesiastical authority, the new bishop set a pattern for the American episcopate in the era of Catholic expansion. Hughes became known as “Dagger John,” ostensibly because the bishop’s cross he drew after signing his name resembled a dagger; more subtly, as an expression of respect for his militant toughness.

John Hughes labored to bring a largely working-class Irish constituency into a meaningful relationship with Catholic Christianity. Many of the immigrants had had scarcely any contact with the persecuted Catholicism of their homeland. At the same time, the bishop worked to conciliate middle-class Catholics and Protestant well-wishers whose financial support he needed for his amazingly ambitious program of building. Hughes conceived and commenced the great St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, hiring America’s leading architect of the Gothic Revival, James Renwick (a Protestant). Although no theologian, John Hughes ranks high for political judgment and in the significance of his accomplishments among nineteenth-century American statesmen,

90. See Patrick Carey, People, Priests, and Prelates (Notre Dame, 1987); on Philadelphia, Light, Rome and the New Republic.

civil as well as ecclesiastical. He successfully coped with fierce party competition in New York, bitter battles over the public school system, revolutions in Europe, the rise of nativism across the United States, and soaring rates of immigration after the Irish Potato Famine. He encouraged his people to hard work, personal discipline (including temperance), acceptance of the American way of life, and upward social mobility. Reconciling Catholicism with Americanism presented no problem to the bishop; the church had always been the “schoolmistress of Liberty,” he declared. Hughes backed the nation’s war effort against Catholic Mexico and later the Union’s war effort against a Confederacy that had many sympathizers in both New York City and the Vatican. Crucially, he combined his staunch American patriotism with staunch devotion to a nineteenth-century papacy deeply suspicious of all liberalism, especially Americanism.

In the end, by knowing how and when to promote both assimilation and minority group distinctiveness, John Hughes succeeded in fostering a strong Irish American identity, one centered on the Catholic faith rather than on the secular radicalism of the Irish nationalists who competed with him for community leadership. While making the Irish Americans into Catholics, Hughes and other Irish bishops like England and Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia simultaneously made the American Catholic Church dominated by the Irish. They achieved this, however, at the cost of losing to the Irish-American community the Irish Protestant immigrants, some of whom even became nativists, a term for those who sought to limit Catholic and/or immigrant political influence.91

Thanks to the energetic devotion of the religious orders and the ecclesiastical statesmanship of Hughes and other bishops, the church kept pace with Catholic (or more accurately, potentially Catholic) immigration. Most immigrants during this period came from the British Isles and the German-speaking lands, with only a minority of them Catholic by heritage. Even in the case of Ireland, before 1840 a majority of migrants were Protestant—either Scots-Irish Presbyterians or Anglo-Irish Anglicans. Still, a quarter of a million prospective recruits for the Catholic Church arrived in the United States during the 1830s and three times that number in the 1840s. Largely because of its success in ministering to this

91. See Martin Meenagh, “John J. Hughes, First Archbishop of New York” (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 2003), quotation from 55; Lawrence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York, 1986), 48–79; Kevin Kenney, The American Irish (Edinburgh, 2000), 72–116.

immigrant constituency, the American Catholic Church grew (according to the best estimate) by 1850 to a million members, about the same as the Presbyterians. By comparison, the Methodists then counted 2.7 million and the Baptists 1.6 million. Not until after the Civil War did Roman Catholicism surpass Methodism to become the largest single denomination in the country.92

In the final analysis, the success of Roman Catholicism in spreading among immigrants to the United States reflected the way it met the needs of the immigrants themselves. It did so despite, rather than because of, the nineteenth-century papacy’s lack of sympathy for the American political experiment. History gets made from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Belonging to the church helped immigrants adjust to a new and unfamiliar environment while affirming the dignity of their own ancestral group and preserving an aspect of its heritage. Most of all, through the church they found fortifying grace, communion with the saints throughout the ages, and the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar.


The evangelists of the various religious awakenings, Protestant and Catholic, adapted their message of salvation to different races, classes, occupations, regions, ethnic groups, and genders. As much as any previous generation of Christian missionaries, they followed the admonition of St. Paul to be “all things to all men.” The awakenings of religion in the antebellum United States took many forms. Revivalism was by no means the only method employed, despite its importance as a characteristically American type of Christianity. Indeed, a number of American religious leaders formulated critiques of the revival model and preferred such alternative evangelical approaches as Christian education, Christian nurture in childhood, reliance upon traditional institutions and creeds, dissemination of Christian literature (including fiction), and work for social justice. The variations and implications of Christian zeal will recur throughout our story. But whatever the differences in the evangelists’ methods and theology, and however momentous or complicated the temporal consequences of their undertakings, their goal was ultimately to bring souls to Christ. A great historian of American religion, Sydney Ahlstrom, put it this way:

92. Finke and Stark, Churching of America, 110–15.

Our final conclusion regarding all of these social results—good, bad, and questionable—is that in one sense they are only side effects of efforts that were ineffable and beyond mundane measuring, for the missionaries and church founders came above all to minister the consolations of religion—to bring word of amazing grace to wretched souls. In what measure they succeeded in that primary task God only knows.93

93. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, 1972), 471.

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