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Historical Themes

Religious Ferment and Growth

By Julie Roy Jeffrey, Ph.D.

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The American Revolution not only affected the status of Protestantism by undermining the position of established churches in the former colonies but also contributed to decades of religious ferment. The controversies emerging during the struggle with Great Britain over the meaning of power, authority, equality and liberty did not end with independence. The debate over the meaning of these terms spilled over into religious life and energized it. Insisting that common people had the ability and responsibility to think for themselves in religious matters, popular leaders attacked the position of a learned elite clergy who told congregations how to understand the Bible and what to believe. As one Methodist preacher explained to his "bretheren and sisters . . . larnin isn't religion and eddication don't give a man the power of the Spirit. It is the grace and gifts that furnish the real live coals from off the altar." The emphasis on the Spirit rather than formal religious training offered the opportunity not only to preachers who lacked a formal education but gave ordinary men and women the confidence to speak of their faith experiences and to reject traditional doctrines and practices.

The Methodists were organized in a way that allowed them to capitalize on the changing religious landscape. Preachers who traveled on circuits brought their message to ordinary people living in many parts of the new country. With credentials based not on theological training but rather on a proven ability to reach the hearts and emotions of their listeners through direct and powerful language, Methodist circuit riders carried the message of repentance and salvation to ordinary men and women, blacks and whites, the free and enslaved. Converts were encouraged to develop their spiritual gifts and judgment in local class meetings. At these weekly gatherings guided by a class leader, members spoke freely about their progress in the religious life, their religious experiences including dreams and visions, and enjoyed fellowship in a society where rank, status, and formality had no place.

Charismatic preaching, an organized system of reaching large numbers of people, and the formation of local groups to tie believers together contributed to the rapid growth of Methodism. Also important to the expansion of Methodism (as well as other popular denominations) was the skillful use of the printing press. Inexpensive religious tracts and books, often carried in the saddlebags of circuit preachers, helped to win religious converts. By 1850, the Methodists had become the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

Popular techniques and the efforts to win adherents to a revived and more democratic form of Christianity also fueled denominational competition. The Methodist preacher, Peter Cartwright (1795-1872), who used humor as one of his means of winning over the unconverted, often participated in public debates with Baptist preachers in Kentucky and Illinois. Either Cartwright or his counterpart would offer the challenge. With crowds of people in attendance, each preacher attacked his opponent's beliefs and refuted his arguments. If the debate was lively and held the audience's attention, the encounter might be prolonged. The point of such an exercise was not only the defeat of a presumably misguided rival but also the conversion of the listeners. Whoever won the contest often baptized members of the audience and organized them into a local religious society. The debating skills Cartwright developed eventually led him to consider entering politics. In 1846 he ran against Lincoln in an unsuccessful bid for Congress.

Contributing to the heady religious mixture was the belief in the second coming of Christ. Methodist Leonidas L. Hamlin believed that process bringing about the new millennium would be gradual. "It will be, not like the springing up of worlds from chaos, but like the stealing dawn," he suggested. "The knowledge of God, or of his truth diffused throughout the earth is to transform it into holiness and beauty." But others expected a cataclysmic event bringing Christ back to "cleanse his sanctuary." Carwardine 15 William Miller, a one-time Baptist preacher in New York state, galvanized Americans with his claim that Christ's second coming would occur in1843. Publicizing his message both orally and in print, Miller recruited perhaps as many as 100,000 followers in the 1830s and early 1840s, mainly in New England, New York, the Western Reserve, and parts of Michigan. Belief faltered when the second coming did not occur in 1843 nor on October 21, 1844, the date that Miller came up with when he recalculated the numbers. The failure of Miller's prophecies diminished the numbers of his followers, but when he died in 1849, his tombstone announced, "At the time appointed the end shall be." Some did not lose hope and became Advent Christians and Seventh Day Adventists.

As Miller's career suggests, during this period of popular religious growth gave some individuals the confidence to establish their own church. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was one such person. Growing up in a religious but economically unsuccessful family, Smith found no comfort in the competing voices of New York's many religious sects. Religious controversy brought neither liberation nor illumination, Smith thought, but "great confusion and bad feelings." Influenced by a world of folk belief that valued visions, dreams, and spells, Smith, at the age of 22 (1827), revealed his encounter with an angel called Moroni. Moroni, Smith said, gave him access to golden plates that contained in unknown language a new book of the Bible. Translated by Smith with the angel's assistance and published in 1834, the text became known as the Book of Mormon. The book had a democratic energy in its attack on the clergy and the rich and pointed the way to a church in which the humble and despised would play a prominent role. Convinced of the need to build up God's kingdom (Zion) anew on earth, Smith gathered followers who regarded themselves as God's Chosen People. Most came with him as he sought to establish the new Zion, first in Ohio, then Missouri, and then Nauvoo, Illinois.

African Americans, whether slave or free flocked to the Methodists and the Baptists who accepted them as brothers and sisters in Christ. Eventually, as the welcome in predominantly white congregations became less warm, black preachers began to gather blacks into their own churches between 1790 and 1810. While many retained an affiliation with the Methodist and Baptist organizations, they developed an African character that was quite new. Independent and ministering to the spiritual needs of slaves as well as those of northern free blacks, these black churches provided sustenance to black communities and a focus for religious and social life.

While 95% of Americans were at least nominally Protestant, the arrival of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany added complexity to the religious landscape. While Catholics were a minority (in 1850 only 1,300 of the approximately 36,000 churches in the United States were Catholic), they often clustered in urban areas where they were visible. The growing presence of seemingly alien Catholics, their devotion to Catholic institutions like parochial schools, and their allegiance to the pope, seen as a foreign potentate, all helped to fuel anti-Catholic sentiments and the belief that Catholics could not be good Americans.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity (1989).
Underwood, Grant. The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (1993). Wigger, John H. "Taking Heaven By Storm: Enthusiasm and Early American Methodism,1770-1820," Journal of the Early Republic, 14 (summer 1994).

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