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Historical Themes

Main Introduction

By Julie Roy Jeffrey, Ph.D.

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In the early decades of the nineteenth century, American Protestantism was transformed in ways that led to vigorous denominational growth and influence. After the Revolution, individual states ended financial support for the individual denominations that had held official status during the colonial period. With the loss of financial support, formerly privileged churches now competed to attract the members who were essential for survival and growth. Clergy developed innovative strategies and techniques to heighten interest in and commitment to their churches. Ranging from revivals and camp meetings to a variety of church activities including missionary societies, prayer groups, and Sabbath schools, these strategies represented a network of religious involvement. In addition, democratic currents set loose by the Revolution promoted the growth of new sects, and groups once on the margin became central to religious life

Changing theological views provided the support for an increased Christian commitment. Although Lincoln never escaped from the deterministic religious views to which he was exposed as a youth, many evangelical denominations moved away from Calvinist doctrines. Calvinism had emphasized God's role as an impartial and distant judge who, despite the character of individual lives on earth, predestined a few for salvation and most for eternal damnation. In the place of this grim determinism, a view arose that pictured God as a merciful deity who wished to save not condemn and Jesus as his loving son. Rather than being unable to affect their own spiritual fates, individuals were, it was increasingly believed, able to cooperate with the work of salvation. If they acknowledged and repented their sins and opened themselves to God's help (grace), they could win salvation through the emotionally powerful experience of conversion.

While it is likely that Lincoln never had such an experience nor the conviction of salvation that accompanied it, the statistics suggest that many Americans did. Methodists (the largest denomination by 1850), Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists as well as other evangelical Protestant denominations only allowed those who claimed a valid conversion experience to become official members. In 1776, only about 17 % of Americans were members of churches. By 1860, more than 37 % were. And many more attended churches regularly. Women made up a majority of members and probably a majority of those in the pews.

The impact of religion went beyond statistics of membership or church attendance. A conversion was not just an inner individual spiritual experience but the beginning of a new life of activism in the world. Converts were urged to commence the work of "benevolence" and to combat the problems staining national life.

While individual acts of benevolence were, of course, possible, many Americans joined together to attack social and religious evils in voluntary associations. The problems and conditions voluntary associations targeted were far ranging. They included poverty, prostitution, drunkenness, improper observance of the Sabbath, the shortage of Bibles, slavery, and the plight of free northern blacks. Although members of voluntary associations hardly underestimated the difficulties of their chosen task, their endeavor suggested a basic optimism that they could reform the character of American life. Their voluntary efforts also saved money for local governments who relied on private groups to deal with social problems.

Voluntary associations might be purely local or affiliated with state or national organizations. Their membership might include both men and women, or just one sex or the other. Usually a voluntary association had a constitution, formal rules regulating membership, meetings, and dues, and a clearly defined purpose. Religious and reform organizations used both new and old forms of communication to spread their message and to gain supporters for their causes. The sermon, now less theological and more emotional, personal testimonies in Methodist class meetings or in prayer meetings, were extensions of an older oral culture persisting into the nineteenth century and beyond. The growing popularity of lectures, lyceums, and debates (of which the series between Stephan Douglas and Lincoln is just one famous example) show the continuing importance of the spoken word. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, however, as advances in printing and publishing made printed materials more available and cheaper than ever before, the printed word represented an increasingly important way of reaching a variety of different audiences. Religious tracts, stories about the damaging effects of drinking, or an alphabet book for children that highlighted to evils of slavery were inexpensive enough to produce that they could be sold for a modest sum or even distributed free of charge. Printed materials also had the power to connect readers to oral events they could not attend. People who did hear the Lincoln-Douglas debates could read about them in newspapers and sometimes verbatim transcriptions of an important debate or lecture.

The significance of this new print culture reached beyond reform causes. A proliferation of printed materials often targeted at different groups novels, family newspapers, ladies' magazines, school books to name a few helped make reading a different sort of experience than it had been when only a few books were available. There was more to choose from, more to read if one wished, and more opportunity to form an opinion without the intervention of those who considered themselves authorities than had been the case earlier when books were scarce and prominent members of a community outspoken. Reading could be purely for an individual's pleasure or for instruction or improvement. Or it could be undertaken in a group setting. Young men's associations like debating societies and men and women's literary societies fostered reading as a collective activity aimed at social, intellectual, and even professional improvement. Literary societies founded by African Americans promoted self-cultivation that would hopefully also lead to better treatment from white society.

Printed materials, especially advice books, played a critical role in shaping and propagating the genteel culture of the new middle class during the early decades of the nineteenth century. For those from rural and working class backgrounds, who aspired to rise in the world, reading offered one way of learning about the elaborate codes of behavior that were increasingly considered essential in middle class life. The development of complex rules and rituals was one indication of the economic, social, and cultural transformations in the antebellum period. Commercial capitalism, industrialization, and urban life were changing the character of work, family and social life, gender roles and expectations, as well as many other aspects of culture. Middle class men, who in urban settings, tended to work in locations outside of their homes, were expected to work with their heads not their hands. Advice books urged men to acquire particular characteristics and attitudes if they, like Abraham Lincoln, wished to advance in the competitive world of politics and business.

Women were encouraged to nourish other characteristics thought to be innately female and vital to the role the role middle class women now were expected to play. Freed of many of the onerous tasks that had been part of female domestic routines before the advent of industrialization (although there was still plenty of drudgery involved in keeping a middle class household running), society increasingly saw women as responsible for the moral training and guidance of children and the domestic happiness of their husbands. The private sphere of home and family was pictured as a peculiarly female place (at least for middle class women) in opposition to the professional and public sphere occupied by men. Yet the idea of "separate spheres" should not obscure the reality that the divisions between the public and private, male and female, were never so sharp as advice books suggested.

©Copyright 2000 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project