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Historical Themes

Evangelical Christianity

By Julie Roy Jeffrey, Ph.D.

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Evangelical Christians played a dominant role in American religious, cultural, and political life in the decades before the Civil War. While evangelicals had different denominational loyalties (including Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist), they shared many important beliefs and practices. Indeed, Presbyterian Robert Baird pointed out that such a "remarkable coincidence of views on all important points" suggested that the evangelical churches "ought to be viewed as branches of one great body." Theologically, evangelicals accepted the notions of original sin, Christ's role as savior, and the Trinity. And as Baird also made clear, almost all evangelical churches "believe[d] that there is such a thing as being 'born again'" and that this experience was the basis for church membership and a reformed personal life. Other agreements existed as well. One was the certainty that, at some point (whether sooner or later), Christ would come to earth a second time to preside over a thousand years of peace and harmony before the final judgment. This belief, called millennialism, generated among most evangelicals an optimistic outlook on the nation's future. No matter how serious were the social, economic, moral, problems Americans faced, millennialism encouraged them to believe that nation could be perfected. Many evangelicals felt that they were helping to prepare the way for the second coming by battling against the flaws they saw in their world. Others saw in their own times evidence (especially the revivals and the growth of religious and benevolent societies) that progress towards the millennium was being made. For southerners, millennialism was compatible with slavery, for slavery, by bringing Christianity to the slaves, represented progress. Moreover, slavery itself was capable of becoming an ever more perfect institution with the passage of time.

Evangelicals also tended to accept the idea of personal perfectionism. As Yale theology professor Nathaniel Taylor explained in 1828, human beings were not predestined to sin. Their depravity came from the failure to avoid sin, a feat that was within their reach. The sin, as he put it, "is in the sinning." Similarly, Charles Finney, who became a professor of theology at Oberlin College in 1835, encouraged Christians to "aim at being perfect." As people aimed at perfection, they would become more perfect. The idea that children were innocent rather than depraved (as Puritans had believed) meshed with perfectionism. A Christian education for children, Catharine Beecher emphasized, would help them move towards perfection as they matured.

Beliefs in millennialism and perfectionism colored the ways in which evangelicals (and others) viewed the nation. The conviction that the United States had a special mission in the world and that it had been chosen for God for some great purpose had been present since the earliest settlements. Millennialism and perfectionism both reinforced the sense that the United States had a sacred destiny and encouraged efforts to realize that destiny by perfecting individual lives and the life of the nation.

This commitment to active engagement drew further energy from the notion of benevolence. After conversion, reborn Christians had an obligation to pursue benevolent or selfless goals. As Charles Finney put it, Christians must "stand their ground and do their duty." Benevolent men and women were useful people who did not calculate "so much to be happy as to be useful," who were not concerned "about comfort but duty," who did not desire "flights of joy and triumph, but . . . righteousness." These were people who studied "how to know the will of God and do it."

While some southern evangelicals embraced moderate benevolence, there was less commitment to evangelical activism in the South than in the North. Many southerners felt that conversion did not call individuals to worldly action but to spiritual introspection and an upright life.

In their interest on personal conduct and the moral life, however, southern evangelicals joined hands with their northern counterparts. While righteous behavior did not earn salvation, it represented the best way to acknowledge God's place in the universe. Evangelicals emphasized the importance of self discipline and restraint and rejected frivolity (such as dancing) and indulgence (such as drinking, lust, even an overly rich diet). Personal piety and prayer were essential components of the good life. New organizations like Sabbath schools, prayer meetings, special lectures, and bible study groups all helped to nourish and further personal piety.

This emphasis on specific personal standards of conduct appealed to many middle class Americans. They believed that these standards led not only to religious rewards but to personal satisfaction and professional success.

Carwardine, Richard J. Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (1993).
Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (1996).
Rabinowitz, Richard. The Spiritual Self in Everyday Life: The Transformation of Personal Religious Experience in 19th Century New England (1989).
Scott, Donald M. From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750-1850 (1978).
Sweet, Leonard I. (ed.). Communication and Change in American Religious History (1993)

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