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Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=dicey2.html


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The Church in America.

THE first thing almost which strikes a newly arrived traveller in the United States, is the immense number of churches. Every village has its half-dozen churches and chapels, Episcopalian, Unitarian, Presbyterian, Universalists, Calvinists, Independent, or any other sect you like to name. The country is dotted over with the wooden steeples, whose white painted sides, I must own, sparkle in the bright sunlight uncommonly like marble. Sunday is kept with a Scotch propriety; not a shop or tavern is open; the railroads are closed for the day; and the omnibusses cease running. Happily with an inexplicable inconsistency, the horse-railroads are allowed to run, though omnibusses and steam-engines may not; and therefore, there are some means of locomotion still left on the Sabbath. The churches are apparently crowded, and the number of church-goers you see about the streets is larger in proportion to the population than it would be in London. In fact, if you used your eyes only, the first attribute you would ascribe to the Americans would be that of a church-going people.

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Yet, if you used your ears as well as your eyes, you would soon become aware of a second fact, equally remarkable, and apparently inconsistent with the first, and that is, that you never hear anything about religious opinions or discussions. Throughout the whole period of my residence in America I never met, in any newspaper, with any allusion to the religious opinion of any public man, nor have I ever seen any question connected with religion discussed in the press. I don't suppose one American in a hundred ever asked, or thought of asking, what Church Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Seward, Mr. Stanton, or General McClellan, belonged to. I believe the first to be a Baptist, the second an Episcopalian, and the last two Unitarians, but I am by no means sure that I am correct in my impressions; and as nobody I met was likely to know anything about the matter, I had no means of discovering with certainty, even if I had wished it, what denomination these gentlemen, or other public men, were members of. As far as I could gather, in public life, it is better for a politician to belong to some Church or other. The mere fact of doing so, like being married, or having a house of your own, is a sort of public testimony to your respectability and morality; but which Church you select is a matter of absolute indifference to anybody but yourself. The only sect against whom there seems to exist any popular prejudice is the Catholic Church; and this prejudice I take to be derived partly from the traditions of the Old

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Country, partly from an impression, not altogether unsupported by evidence, that the power of the Papacy is hostile to the institutions of a free country. When Fremont was standing for the Presidency, an unfounded charge of being a Catholic was brought against him, and the fact of its being so brought, and deliberately disavowed, shows that some importance was attached to it. In private society religion — by which I mean controversial religion — does not seem to be a topic of general interest. It would be almost impossible for an American to mix much in English society without becoming aware whether his acquaintances were Episcopalians or Unitarians, High Church or Low Church, or without learning something of the ruling religious topic of the hour — the Gorham case, or Spurgeon, or Essays and Reviews, or Revivals, or whatever it might be. Now, of the hundreds of people I knew, to a certain extent, intimately in the States, I am not aware to what denomination more than a couple of them belonged, and in their case I only happened to become acquainted with their religious creed, because I learnt accidentally what Church they were in the habit of attending. I had chosen, I might, no doubt, have discovered — just as any man curious in such matters might discover the family history of his acquaintances in this country. But, unless you take a special trouble to acquire the information, it is not of the sort which comes to you unconsciously. Toleration, apparently, is absolute, not

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only in principle, but in practice. What Church you belong to, whether you change from one Church to another, or whether you belong to no Church at all, are questions which your own conscience alone has to settle. Anybody who is intimately acquainted with country life in England must be aware, that a well-to-do family would cease to be respectable, and would probably be looked upon unfavourably by the neighbourhood, if none of its members ever went to any place of worship. In America, dissent from the ordinary modes of faith entails no social disabilities. This state of things is not caused by public indifference as to religious matters; on the contrary, a direct profession of religion is much more common amongst men than it is with us.

I remember, when I first came to America, being astonished at hearing a young man say that, under certain eventualities, he should "join the Church." I questioned him as to which Church he intended to join, and found that he had no idea as yet. He was perfectly serious, however, and contemplated joining the Church in order to relieve himself from a liaison in which he was entangled, exactly as I might propose to join the bar in order to relieve myself from the necessity of serving on juries. Gradually, the meaning of the expression "joining the Church" became intelligible to me. In all the American Churches, with the exception of the Catholic and the Episcopalian, the fact of being

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born of parents belonging to any sect does not constitute you ipso facto a member of it. The child of Methodist parents, for instance, can be christened, if they desire it; but he does not become a Methodist, nor is he admitted to their communion until he has formally announced his intention, after arriving at years of discretion, of joining the Church. So it is with the other denominations. Every sect has a number of half-members, who attend its services, but have never formally joined the Church, and do not share its communion. These half-members have a vote, and pay rates equally with the full-members. What spiritual privileges they possess, or are supposed to possess, is an open question. Of late years, the American Churches have looked unfavourably on their non-professing members, whose number has much decreased in consequence. The calculation is, that of the whole American adult population about one-fifth are professing members of some church or other. Probably the fact that the Episcopalian Church alone, amongst Protestant sects, does not require a distinct profession of faith is one of the chief causes of its comparative increase. In many of the sects, the act of joining the Church is not supposed to be necessarily preceded by spiritual conversion, but is simply taken as a declaration that the member is a professedly religious man. The result of this system is, that the relative proportion of avowedly religious persons is larger than in England,

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while the proportion of persons who belong to a Church without any distinct profession of religion is infinitely smaller. How far this system works favourably, in a religious point of view, is a question on which I have no wish to enter. There is one social aspect, however, of the system which is remarkable. I mean the impulse it has given in America to spiritualism, and similar forms of delusion.

At home, ninety-nine men out of a hundred, who have no particular opinions on religious matters, belong naturally to the faith their fathers belonged to; and such religious wants or aspirations as they may have are satisfied by the National Church. In America, the contrary is the case. Any man who has no pronounced religious opinions belongs to no Church; and therefore whatever wants he may have of a spiritual nature remain unsatisfied. Thus any new faith, false or true, has an unappropriated public to work upon in America which it has not in a Catholic country, and to a very limited extent in England. It is true that Mr. Foster, the Spiritual Medium, whom I became acquainted with in Boston, informed me that, on spiritual questions, he had found a far more appreciative and sympathetic public in England than in America. Rare, however, as praise of England is at present in an American mouth, I fear that I cannot conscientiously consider the encomium well merited. It is possible that educated persons in England have made greater

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fools of themselves in the hands of mediums of the Foster genus than the corresponding class in America. But, on the other hand, it is clear that spiritualism has obtained a hold on the popular American mind which it has not on our side the Atlantic. What English paper, London or provincial, would contain advertisements of astrologers, clairvoyants, and mediums? Now, with the exception of some few of the New York and Boston journals, there is not a newspaper in America which does not contain astrological and spiritual advertisements. In every paper almost you can pick out advertisements similar to the following, which I quote from the Boston Herald: —

"Mrs. Leonora Smith, clairvoyant Medium, No. 15. La Grange Place, gives sittings daily for communications from the spirit-world, seeing and describing spirits." Again, "Madame Lagon, natural Astrologist and Medium, will give to the public a fore-knowledge of all the general affairs through life, seeing and describing spirits."

All this information is offered at the moderate price of one shilling for ladies and two for gentlemen. There is no town I have been into where a medium or astrologist, chiefly of the female gender, did not advertise herself in the local papers. In the West especially astrology is a flourishing trade. During my travels in the Western States I visited several of these mediums out of curiosity, in the hope of witnessing some exhibition

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of skill which might explain their success. I found most of them to be German Jewesses, sharp, shrewd women enough, but in no single instance did I see any exhibition of clairvoyance or spirit-rapping remarkable enough to bear description. If any of my readers ever consulted the hermit at Beulah Spa, or at any suburban tea-gardens, they will know exactly what was told me by these spiritual mediums. It was the old, old story of a dark lady or a fair woman, or a long journey, or letter arriving with money, or any other piece of rigmarole nonsense. The curious fact was that the waiting-rooms of these impostors were often crowded by well-dressed persons, chiefly women.

I do not suppose that the higher class of Americans wouId visit fortune-tellers of this description. A charge varying from one to five shillings is not sufficient to attract wealthy inquirers after spiritual mysteries. As fashionable amusements, spirit-rapping and table-turning have a good deal died out. Still spiritualism, as a creed, numbers many believers in America. Commodore Foote, in his address to the people of Memphis, after the capture of that city by the Federals, based his arguments against Secession on Swedenborgian doctrines, and told them "that the Civil War had been produced out of the inner life." People smiled at the announcement, but nobody seemed to think it odd that a distinguished public man, holding an important position, should be a Swedenborgian, or adhere

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to any other faith, however eccentric. As far as I could discover, the popular American judgment about spiritualism is much the same as our English one. A certain number of clever, if not sensible men, believe in it heartily. The great majority of Americans consider the whole outward manifestations of the creed to be delusions or impostures, and its internal doctrines to be detrimental to elevated morality. Still with regard to spiritualism, as to every other "ism," there is absolute toleration, and if President Lincoln chose to consult the spirits, (as for all I know he may do,) on every occasion of his life, no one would consider it a ground for objecting to his fitness as President.

I have dwelt somewhat at length upon this tolerance of spiritualism, because I consider it an important feature in American life. Even the most liberal of ordinary English critics seem to me to have adopted a parrot-cry about the tyranny of the majority in America over the minority, without ever considering whether the cry was true or not. Now all history shows that there is no subject on which people are more apt to tyrannize over a minority than on religious matters; and any one who knows America must see that religious sentiment is extremely strong there. The doctrines of spiritualism are naturally offensive to all established creeds, as they tend to destroy the whole theory of modern religion with regard to a future state. Yet there has been no attempt whatever to

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tyrannize over the spiritualist minority. With the exception of the Mormons, whose case was, in many respects, a peculiar one, there has been no instance in America of religious persecution. And what is still more remarkable, under the rule of a democracy, deep national religious convictions have been proved to be consistent with complete freedom of opinion on religious matters. There is no such thing in the North as social persecution, or loss of political standing, on account of your religion, or want of religion. How far this is consistent with the theory of the tyranny of majorities, I much question personally.

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Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=dicey2.html
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