Diverse religious and cultural traditions met in antebellum
Illinois, not without controversy and conflict. The region's Native American
inhabitants embraced a religion quite unlike the Christianity that white
European settlers brought to North America. Indians organized their beliefs
around no central creed or dogma. Rather, individual tribes developed
rites and practices based upon a communitarian spiritual sense and reverence
for nature. Among most tribes everyday acts assumed a spiritual significance
and incorporated elements of ceremony. Western visitors, conquerors and
interpreters have struggled to appreciate Native American religion and culture
to this day.
In the seventeenth century French missionaries entered
Illinois and brought with them their Catholic faith. These priests converted
a significant number of Indians to their faith, but the French and Native
Americans lived together in a freewheeling cultural milieu that historians
have interpreted as a "middle ground" between Europeans' and
Indians' own distinctive practices.
British colonists began to move into Illinois, principally
from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, in the last decades of the eighteenth
century. Most brought with them a Protestant faith.
These southerners tended to interpret Protestant christianity
in individualistic terms that resonated with their anti-authoritarian
political beliefs. Many resisted the impulse to attach religion to any
larger cultural values, and enjoyed the frontier's opportunity to mind
their own business.
In the 1830s and 1840s large numbers of New Englanders
began to arrive in central and northern Illinois. They brought with them
their native region's intensely social, communitarian strand of Protestant
religion. Yankee Congregationalists and Presbyterians turned their religious
energies outward, toward the organization and reform of their communities.
Many took up the cause of evangelism as representatives of the American
Home Mission Society, which sent a legion of ministers and schoolteachers
west in this period.
Immigrating New Englanders embraced education, and dramatically
accelerated the development of Illinois' schools and colleges. In addition,
they introduced institutions such as the lyceum, which presented speakers
on cultural and intellectual subjects, to many small towns.
Industrious Yankee Protestants also embraced voluntary
associations and clubs to take up the cause of personal and political
reform movements for temperance, sabbath observance, and the abolition
of human slavery. Across Illinois these reformers' moral zeal and insistence
that others conform to their utopian ideals led to repeated clashes.
At the heart of the Protestant Yankee world view lay a
notion of civilization. These settlers believed that they brought the
seed of knowledge, morality and order to savage Indians, a wild frontier,
and indolent Southrons. In an era in which colonial forms of deference
to crown and noblemen collapsed, many Americans worried that democratic
society could only produce disorder. This sense of civilization introduced
powerful norms of self-control and individual conscience as the cement
holding society together.
While men tamed nature and established farms, shops, and
workshops, Yankee reformers believed that women exercised large control
over the spread of culture and civilization. This mission often conflicted
with the realities of life on the frontier. In harsh conditions men and
women often shared equally in house and field work. But reformers insisted
that women remain within the home, their own "separate sphere"
of domesticity that allowed them to tend to their families and ensure
their allegiance to the ideals of christian civilization.
In 1839 a bedraggled band called the Church of the Latter
Day Saints, or Mormons, arrived in Illinois. A religious sect organized
around the teaching of the prophet Joseph Smith, the Mormons removed from
Missouri, where they had faced intense persecution. An earlier settlement
in Ohio had failed as well.
Mormons' unusual social practices, including polygamy,
and unique interpretations of Christian doctrines, upset Yankee moralists.
An insistence upon settling together as a group and a disregard for the
American separation of church and state led Mormons to dominate community,
economic, and political life wherever they landed, thereby upsetting others
In Illinois the Mormons established a settlement at Nauvoo,
near Quincy in extreme western Illinois. By 1842 Nauvoo had become a city
of at least 12,000, the largest in Illinois. Thousands of other Latter-Day
Saints lived nearby. The church erected a massive temple. Insisting upon
controlling local institutions, the Latter Day Saints assembled the Nauvoo
Legion, a well-trained Mormon army provided cannon by Springfield officials
eager to court the bloc-voting sect.
The Mormons' exclusive social and economic organization
and clumsy attempts to influence Illinois politics quickly led to controversy
with other Illinoisans. Still hoping for restitution for damages suffered
in Missouri, Joseph Smith visited President Martin Van Buren in 1839.
Disappointed, he announced that he was a candidate for President of the
United States. Facing extradition requests from Missouri and a charge
that he had used the Nauvoo Legion to destroy a local newspaper that had
questioned the authority of his church, Smith won his freedom from Mormon courts
The situation had begun to deteriorate, and Governor Ford called out
the militia. In June of 1844 Smith met with the governor in Carthage,
Illinois to discuss his difficulties. That night an anti-Mormon mob
rushed the jail and murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Despite
the governor's ineffectual efforts to keep the peace, lawlessness persisted
for two years in what has come to be known as the Mormon War. In 1846
the Mormons quit Illinois and began their trek to Deseret, the modern
Salt Lake Valley of Utah.
While many leading Illinoisans, including Abraham Lincoln,
embraced a new faith in progress and civilization, the Mormon War suggested
that this vision remained incapable of embracing rival faiths or beliefs.
Despite Americans' confidence that a new humane ethos of civilization
had met the threat of barbarism, violence broke out in the Mormon War.
Fifteen years later Americans would prove themselves eager to resort
to violence again in the Civil War.
Abzug, Robert H. Cosmos Crumbling:
American Reform and the Religious Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Brooke, John L. The Refiner's
Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1994.
Butler, John. Awash in a Sea of
Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Greene, John C. American Science
in the Age of Jefferson. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1984.
Halttunen, Karen. Confidence Men
and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American
Christianity., New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
Kaestle, Carl. Pillars of the Republic: Common
Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.
Mintz, Steven. Moralists and Modernizers:
America's Pre-Civil War Reformers. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture:
American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875. New York: Oxford University
Rothman, David J. The Discovery
of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston:
Little, Brown 1971.
Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American
Domesticity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973.
©Copyright 2000 Abraham
Lincoln Historical Digitization Project