A second "Great Awakening" occurred as the nineteenth century opened. Revival swept New England, Virginia, and the inland valleys reaching as far west as Kentucky. In Kentucky, Barton W. Stone organized a "Camp Meeting" at Cane Ridge, a meeting which became history's largest outdoor revival meeting. The Awakening represented a return to orthodoxy and faith after the moral decline during and following the revolution.
This material surveys the early impact of Protestant Christianity on American society. Note the different methods used to fulfill the Great Commission and be alert for three important traditions which shape American Christianity: pluralism, voluntaryism, and lay participation.
I. Background Considerations
A. Religious Identity. In 1800, only seven percent of the American population belonged to churches. These statistics are misleading, however, because there is a general national religious identity. Perhaps twice as many people attended church than belonged. The low percentage indicated the prevalence of a belief system which made it difficult to join a church. Individuals seeking church membership professed belief, conversion, and related a confirming experience. In many cases, the church's leadership judged whether or not the experience was valid. In other situations, the church members voted to accept or reject the applicant based on their judgment of their worthiness. "Joining" church, then, was much like joining a civic club or fraternity.
Most unchurched people lived on the frontier. For future reference, the "frontier" was defined as a region where less than two people live per square mile. In such areas, given the day's transportation, you can understand why many did not attend church. Although few churches existed on the frontier, the settlers still identified with Christianity. Nearly every home had a family Bible; it often provided their only reading material. The Bible stories entertained them and, since almost every family owned one, it became their children's "reader" when their schooling began. Alexis de Toqueville reported that in 1831 a Chester County, New York, judge dismissed a witness who declared himself an atheist. The judge reputedly said he did not know of anyone who did not believe in God.
That is not to say that rough and tumble regions did not exist. Even after statehood, sections of Kentucky remained wild and wooly. Frontiersmen were hardy individualists who often felt it necessary to prove their manhood. Drunken brawls included "gouging," so it was not unusual to see men with one eye, missing ears, or facial scars. Logan County, Kentucky, was a hangout for horse thieves, road agents, and other criminal types. In fact, the county was known as Rogue's Harbor. On one occasion, the "good guys" attempted to bring order but the effort resulted in a pitched gun battle which the "bad guys" won. If questioned, however, I suspect even these boisterous pioneers would admit to a belief in God and an appreciation for His judgment.
B. Religious Pluralism. The United States Constitution guaranteed that the government would name no denomination the nation's state church. Therefore, no denomination could ever become a majority because of state support. In fact, statistics show that all denominations were minorities. 1830 statistics show the following:
These figures show that in 1830 all churches combined had less than 2 million members in nation with a total population of 23 million.
What you might miss, however, is the fact that Protestants far outnumbered Catholics. In 1740, Catholics made up only .6 percent of the population. By 1830, that percentage rose to 2 percent due to immigration. Individual denominations had no majority; Protestantism does! This obvious distinction shaped America's religious history.
C. Voluntaryism. When the states disestablish their churches voluntaryism emerges. Voluntaryism simply means that individuals voluntarily participate in churches or denominations . Some well meaning souls tried to force Protestantism on society but every effort proved ineffective. Lyman Beecher once considered the Connecticut state church's disestablishment his saddest day. He later changed his mind when he realized disestablishment put the churches in a position where they had to trust solely on God. American Christians participated in their local churches because they wanted to. They also volunteered for service in "parachurch organizations."
D. Revivalism. Revivalism continued as a major force long after the Second Great Awakening ended. Historians estimate that America saw a major revival about every 25 years. Revivals provide an important measuring rod for American culture. Sometimes wacky, the revivals usually reflect good old traditional American rural values.
E. East versus West. The American church reflects its culture. Even in the 1800s, religious life differed according to the section of the country. Eastern religion tended to be sedate and cultured. Western religion proved to be rough and ready. To some extent these differences brought variations in approach and teaching to the Christian patchwork quilt.
II. The Benevolent Empire
A complete structure of church and parachurch organizations made up what came to be called the Benevolent Empire. The Benevolent was merely an interlocking series of missionary and supporting organizations devoted to Christianizing America and the world. The Benevolent Empire grew out of early American revivalism. Revivalism stimulated church growth, particularly in America's mainline denominations and with this growth came two important concepts which in turn emphasized outreach.
The first is the concept of "disinterested benevolence." Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), an associate of Jonathan Edwards, promoted this idea. Hopkins came from Connecticut and graduated from Yale in 1741. He participated in the Second Great Awakening and spent most of his life carrying Edward's ideas into the 1800s as a Congregationalist minister.
Hopkins taught that the root of sin is self-love. To convert from sin means you must leave self-love behind and adopt love for others. Truly converted sinners always act from "distinterested benevolence." That is, they show no concern for their own reward or salvation but always demonstrate a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of others. True conversion and genuine virtue reveal themselves in a desire to be damned to hell provided it gave God glory and honor. Action marked conversion! Christians must be up and doing, busy for the Lord--but not for the purpose of earning salvation.
The second concept is that of "perfectionism." Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), a major revivalist of the period, taught this idea. Finney studied for the bench but became a preacher. Others described him as a "decent theologian." Finney successfully took early revival methods and adapted them to urban environments. Finney's "perfectionism" originated with John and Charles Wesley. Perfectionism simply means that once a converted sinner is sanctified he becomes perfected in motive and will. . . but not in fact.
Disinterested benevolence and perfection contributed to the host of organizations where these ideas were manifested. As a result, benevolence and outreach grew.
Early American parachurch organizations had much in common. All of them are openly Christian. All of them are voluntary. Many had no ties to any single religious group; most were inter-denominational demonstrating that in spite of practical and theological differences, cooperation took place. It is significant, however, that laymen rather than the clergy directed most of these societies or organizations.
Interlocking directorates made these groups succeed. Interlocking directorates mimicked secular economic practices of the day. American banks bankrolled firms during the industrial revolution hoping for large profits. These banks demanded continuing oversight of funds loaned. As a result, the banks coaxed company boards to seat bankers in order to protect their investment. Banks often held interests in more companies than they had men to put on the various boards. In time, one man served on several boards. Once that happened, these well-placed men could limit competition, fix prices, and so order business that it helped everyone or lined someone's pockets with profits. As Christian organizations multiplied, the same thing happened. Dedicated Christian laymen offered their services as leaders and they were much in demand. In time, one individual served on the boards of several Christian organizations. Such a leader had access to information from all of them. He was then in a position where he could arrange loans from one organization to another, he could urge cooperation and help avoid overlapping responsibilities. These worked to the good of the organizations and seemed to benefit everyone.
Nineteenth Century American Christians formed many different missionary and benevolent organizations. These organizations were often layered; that is, each organization supported other organizations.
First, there were Missionary Societies. Nearly every denomination but the Restoration Movement developed missionary structures between 1795-1830. The Presbyterians, Baptists, and the Dutch Reformed Churches combined to form the New York Missionary Society in 1796 to promote work among the American Indians. Other Christians established the Connecticut Missionary Society in 1798 for the same reason. In 1801, Presbyterians and Congregationalists cooperated in the Plan of Union, a scheme to evangelize the Northwest Territory. In 1826, the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS) formed to assist the Plan of Union. In 1806, students from Williams College (Congregationalist) discussed the need for missions during a college picnic. A rain shower came up and the students, all male, headed for a nearby haystack to get out of the rain. Now known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting, this discussion led several students to prepare for missions and go abroad. Some of these students petitioned a Massachusetts denominational association for support in 1810 but it was refused. This led to the formation of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The most famous ABCFM work occurred among the Cherokee Indians in southeast Tennessee and northern Georgia. In all, the ABCFM sent out some 624 missionaries. Some went to Hawaii only to be immortalized in James Michener's famous novel, Hawaii. In 1812, Luther Rice and Adoniram Judson left for India under the auspices of the ABCFM. Baptist missionaries converted them on board ship. Judson sailed on to Burma with the Baptists while Rice went back to America to raise support. In 1814, the Baptists formed the General Convention, the first national denominational convention organized solely for missionary support.
Other agencies formed to support the missionary societies. Samuel J. Mills led in the organization of the American Bible Society in 1816. This organization combined the work of several state societies. Larger printing orders made Bible distribution cheaper and more efficient. Presbyterians, Baptists, Reformed, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians all cooperated to form the American Tract Society in 1825. Christians then formed the American Sunday School Union in 1824. Robert Raikes began a Sunday School in England in 1780 to teach basic education to the poor. These first Sunday Schools organized outside the church. In America, the first Sunday Schools were interdenominational efforts to teach Christianity.
The "Mississippi Valley Plan" illustrated how all these agencies worked together. John Mason Peck, a Baptist, surveyed Missouri in 1817 to assess its spiritual needs. In 1826, he devised the "Mississippi Valley Plan" to evangelize the upper Mississippi Valley and rescue it from encroaching Catholicism. He went to the Baptist General Convention and the AHMS and convinced them one missionary could represent all agencies. One agent could sell Bibles for the ABS, distribute tracts for the ATS and start Sunday Schools for the ASSU. The agencies adopted the plan and everything got underway by 1829. The ABS promised Bibles for every family and they actually shipped 23,000 Bibles to Ohio and Kentucky in 1830. The ATS shipped $700 worth of tracts in 1827 but by 1830 the value reached a whopping $18,000. As a result of their efforts, Protestantism held on to its majority in those regions. In fact, the American Education Society organized Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio and named Lyman Beecher as president.
III. Reform Efforts.
The Benevolent Empire, fueled by "disinterested benevolence" and perfectionism, also pushed for various national and social reforms.
David Lowe Dodge, a Presbyterian, organized the Peace Movement in 1815. That same year the Massachusetts Peace Movement began in William Ellery Channing's home. Channing was a Unitarian. Never popular, the Peace Movement spoke out during the Mexican-American War because it suspected it began because southern Democrats wanted land for cotton and slavery's expansion. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau both spoke out against this war and Thoreau refused to pay taxes because of it. He spent some time in prison as a result. By the 1850s, however, the movement had all but died.
Temperance efforts began quite early in America. John Adams tried to close saloons during the 1700s. A huge consumption of alcohol in early America and tremendous alcohol abuse led to temperance efforts. Quite a number of temperance unions formed on the state level. In 1826, a national temperance union organized. Not long after that, a second national temperance union started and the two united in 1836 forming the American Temperance Union.
Other social reform efforts also began during this time. Dorothea Dix worked for reform in the care of the insane. Christians promoted penal reform in the 1830s. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony pushed for women's rights. Horace Mann and others crusaded for free public education between 1820 and 1840. Mann belonged to the Christian Connection, a descendant of the New England Christians. A number of different reform efforts directed their attention to the "peculiar institution," American slavery.
The Benevolent Empire and all its inter-relationships illustrated the power of Christianity's moving tide in the early 1800s. Many thought all this labor would usher in the millennium. Timothy Smith, in his landmark book, Revivalism and Social Reform, said:
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