The Protestant Quest for a Christian America, Reform Movements, the Crisis of Civil War

THEME: The rise of Revivalist Evangelicalism as the dominant current of American Protestantism during the first half  of the 19th century, brought with it a sense of mission to make the American nation Christian in values and behavior. What some historians have called the Evangelical Benevolent Empire spawned a host of reform movements and voluntary societies that to achieve those ends.  The most controversial reform movement,  the immediate abolition  of slavery, polarized the nation and led to the Civil War, like the Revolution, a defining event in our history.

Marty, chap. 12 (227-254),
A Century of Exclusion, examines the religious dimension of reform movements, particularly the religious responses to the problems of slavery, racism, sexism, and prejudice in America. 

Marty, chap. 11, Beyond Existing Bounds, pp. 220-224, reviews the crisis of the Civil War and its place in the development of American Civil Religion. At the end of this chapter on the expansion  of churches offering various ways of pilgrimage for Americans, Marty suggests that the nation itself took on some of the functions of religious institutions in generating group values. "Sometimes church members were superpatriots who made a kind of religion out of their support of the nation. At other times non-church members saw the nation break the bounds of church religion and serve as a kind of church itself. In all American history, no one more successfully turned the nation into a spiritual center than did its sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. (p. 220)

Lincoln, Letter to J. Speed
Lincoln, Meditation
Lincoln, Fast-Day
Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural

Moore, Essay 5, African Future of Christianity


I. The Protestant Quest for a Christian America and Antebellum Reform Movements

Benevolent Empire

Evangelicalism as a Social Movement

Evangelicalism needs to be understood not only as a religious movement, but also as a social movement. As such, it was  part of a broader organizational revolution that transformed nineteenth-century American society.

18th-century Americans had lived their lives within hierarchically ordered institutions. They were oriented primarily to place, and they valued order and stability in their families, work lives, and communities. Communities were composed of a recognizable set of "ranks and orders" in which the higher orders governed and the lower orders were expected to defer to the greater wisdom and virtue of their betters. Families were mini-hierarchies governed by male heads of household who sought suitable marriages for their daughters and tried to place their sons in appropriate occupations.

By the early 19th century, however, Americans increasingly had become a people in motion, constantly moving across social and geographical space. Under the force of this fluidity, families, towns, and occupational structures lost much of their traditional capacity to regulate individual and social life. Instead, Americans devised a different kind of institutional order as they turned to an increasingly dense fabric of new organizations--religious sects and denominations, voluntary societies of various sorts, and political parties--to give needed structure and direction to their lives.

Historians have usually looked to political parties, reform societies like temperance organizations, or fraternal associations like the Masons for the origins of this new associational order. In fact, evangelicals were its earliest and most energetic inventors. Indeed, as historian Donald Mathews has pointed out, the Second Great Awakening was an innovative and highly effective organizing process. Religious recruitment was intensely local, a species of grass-roots organizing designed to draw people into local congregations. But recruitment into a local Baptist, Methodist, or Universalist church also inducted people into a national organization and affiliational network that they could participate in wherever they moved. Moreover, adherence to a particular evangelical denomination also inducted them into the broader evangelical campaign. Conversion thus not only brought communicants into a new relationship to God, it also brought them into a new and powerful institutional fabric that provided them with personal discipline, a sense of fellowship, and channeled their benevolent obligations in appropriate directions. Aggressively exploiting a wide variety of new print media, evangelicals launched their own newspapers and periodicals and distributed millions of devotional and reform tracts. (By 1835, the cross-denominational American Tract Society and the American Sunday School Union alone distributed more than 75 million pages of religious material and were capable of delivering a new tract each month to every household in New York City.) They deployed home missionaries, circuit-riding preachers, and agents from town to town preaching revivals, organizing new churches and religious reform societies, and distributing Bibles and other religious materials. By the l830s, these devices, in conjunction with the aggressive revivalism that was the hallmark of the new evangelicalism, had assembled a huge new evangelical public. Not for nothing did evangelicals and nonevangelicals alike dub this new religious phalanx the "Evangelical Empire."

Democratic  Politics and the Evangelical Empire

One way to help students understand the character and scope of this religious mobilization is to see it as analogous in form and comparable in scale to the new democratic politics associated with the Jacksonian era. Just as a new form of politics emerged in which the pursuit of power came to center on intense, organized competition for the allegiance of an expanding democratic electorate, so too did religion come to revolve around the intense competition of religious bodies old and new to win adherents of their particular belief. Sects and denominations thus can be seen as directly analogous to political parties. Similarly, just as the new-style politicians like Martin van Buren made their mark as much by their skill as organizers as by their oratory, so too did new-style evangelical clergymen like Methodist John Asbury, Congregational-Presbyterian Lyman Beecher, or Universalist Alexander Campbell. When viewed from this perspective, the religious practices associated most fully with evangelicalism represent what historian Nathan Hatch has referred to as "the democratization of American religion."

Just as the intense competition for their votes seemed to enshrine "the people" as the ultimate arbiter of politics, so too did the competition for religious adherents give communicants power. To succeed--to win elections--politicians had to fashion their message to the needs and interests of their constituents; similarly, if a clergyman wanted to win and hold adherents, he had to fit his preaching to the spiritual needs of his communicants. Individual communicants were great preacher shoppers, ever ready to abandon a "cold" and "formal" preacher for someone from a different denomination whose "edifying" preaching was more to their liking. Congregations readily dismissed clergymen whose preaching failed to move them or whose other ministrations fell short. But the tie between democracy and evangelicalism was even stronger. Not only had religion become more democratic, it was in itself a democratizing force. Evangelicalism reinforced the growing sense of the sovereign power of the individual: it made the individual's own religious experience--not the clergy's learning and authority, not formal creeds and doctrines--the ultimate spiritual arbiter. Moreover, for evangelical converts, self-esteem came not from secular social status but from spiritual standing, measured by intensity of feeling and dedication to evangelical disciplines. The respect of their brothers and sisters in the faith was more important to them than external social standing. They counted themselves in no way inferior to any person who possessed mere wealth and secular prominence.

Ideas about conversion, revival strategies, new modes of organizing--all these things were essential to the extraordinary growth of early nineteenth-century evangelicalism. But in the end they are not sufficient to account for its prosperity. It is the appeal of evangelicalism for so many Americans that needs to be explained. To get at this question we need to place evangelicalism in the context of what historian Gordon Wood has called a "social and cultural revolution as great as any in American history." No longer a relatively stable order in which people occupied a recognizable secure place, American society seemed to have become a chaotic jumble in which few things remained unchanged and few people remained in the same place, a scramble of aspiring individuals moving from place to place and situation to situation in what Abraham Lincoln called "the race of life." Americans embraced this new society as unprecedentedly democratic, a land of vast opportunity in which the individual (so long as he was male and white) was free to rise to whatever position his talent and effort took him. But if American society held out unprecedented opportunity for "rise," "betterment," and "improvement," it was also a site of uncertainty, isolation, frustration, and anxiety.

For many, evangelicalism provided a counterworld to the chaos and isolation of American life and an antidote to its insecurities and anxieties. Just as had Puritanism, evangelicalism held out a vision of order, direction, and discipline and provided its adherents with the sense of security that came with the salvational promise. As they enlisted themselves in God's plan for history, "the world" lost its hold over them. But whereas Puritanism had involved a kind of breaking of the penitents' will, the practical Arminianism of evangelicalism actually strengthened its communicants' sense of the power of their own will. Evangelical conversion did not break the will of sinners, but energized and redirected it, giving them a powerful sense of control in their lives. People came out of conversion not with a sense of the incapacity of the human will, but as Christian activists imbued with a strong sense of the power of their own individual will. In this sense, in fact, evangelical activism can be seen not simply as a response to the new individualism but as an expression of it. Indeed, though cast in a different idiom, the moral perfectionism within much of evangelicalism was not very far from the ethic of self-reliance preached by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Finally, evangelicalism inducted its communicants into an institutional setting that was in many ways the direct opposite of the chaotic, competitive, isolated, and lonely world of everyday life. Evangelical churches were essentially affectional communities, gatherings of the like-minded and like-feeling that were organized around ideas of mutual concern, love, and obligation. Church membership was not simply a matter of going to church on Sunday. It involved participation in prayer meetings, other worship sessions like the Methodist "class meetings" and "love feasts," and in various allied charitable societies, all of which reinforced a sense of fellowship and obligation. Devotional forms were often highly communal. Sunday worship services deployed various forms of collective participation including the increased singing of hymns. In addition, enlistment in an evangelical church involved accepting rules for behaving towards each other that were designed to counter the conflict of the outside world. For example, church members were forbidden from bringing lawsuits against each other, and many churches set up mechanisms for adjudicating conflicts between communicants. Church members, moreover, were charged to tend to the needs of the less fortunate among them and offer aid to other communicants who had suffered misfortune. People often sought employers or employees, business partners, and marriage partners from the ranks of their coreligionists. And when they moved on, often one of the first things they did when they entered a new town was to seek the fellowship of a comforting church.


Antebellum Revivalism and Reform: PowerPoint  Presentation

Revivalism and Benevolence, [Short lecture by Terry Matthews, Wake Forest University.]


Temperance  Movement

Ardent Spirits: Temperance Movement Exhibit

Women's Rights

Women's Bible


Abolition and Antebellum Reform [Useful short essay from History Now, online journal]

Abolition and Religion [Useful short essay from History Now,  online journal]

Abolitionism: Student Protest at Lane Seminary

A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument; By a Citizen of Virginia

Eye on John Brown & John Brown's Holy War


II. The Crisis of Civil War


The Slavery Issue and Religious Schism -

Polarization over slavery. Disliking slavery, Northerners had made few efforts to change the South's "peculiar institution" before 1840. (Indeed, when William Lloyd Garrison began his Liberator in 1831, urging the immediate and unconditional emancipation of all slaves, he had only a tiny following; and a few years later he had actually been mobbed in Boston.) But by the 1840s, Northerners could no longer profess indifference to the South and its institutions. Sectional differences, centering on the issue of slavery, began to appear in every American institution. During the 1840s the major national religious denominations, such as the Methodists and the Presbyterians, split over the slavery question. The Whig Party, which had once allied the conservative businessmen of the North and West with the planters of the South, divided and virtually disappeared after the election of 1852. When Douglas' bill opened up to slavery Kansas and Nebraska--land that had long been reserved for the westward expansion of the free states--Northerners began to organize into an antislavery political party, called in some states the Anti-Nebraska Democratic Party, in others the People's Party, but in most places, the Republican Party.


Methodist Church, The Slavery Question and Civil War, 1844Ė1865

John Wesley was an ardent opponent of slavery. Many of the leaders of early American Methodism shared his hatred for this form of human bondage. As the nineteenth century progressed, it became apparent that tensions were deepening in Methodism over the slavery question. In this matter, as in so many others, Methodism reflected a national ethos because it was a church with a membership that was not limited to a region, class, or race. Contention over slavery would ultimately split Methodism into separate northern and southern churches.

As the nineteenth century progressed, it became apparent that tensions were deepening in Methodism over the slavery question.
As the nineteenth century progressed, it became apparent that tensions were deepening in Methodism over the slavery question.
The slavery issue was generally put aside by The Methodist Episcopal Church until its General Conference in 1844, when the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions clashed. Their most serious conflict concerned one of the churchís five bishops, James O. Andrew, who had acquired slaves through marriage. After acrimonious debate the General Conference voted to suspend Bishop Andrew from the exercise of his episcopal office so long as he could not, or would not, free his slaves. A few days later dissidents drafted a Plan of Separation, which permitted the annual conferences in slaveholding states to separate from The Methodist Episcopal Church in order to organize their own ecclesiastical structure. The Plan of Separation was adopted, and the groundwork was prepared for the creation of The Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  

Delegates from the southern states met in Louisville, Kentucky, in May 1845, to organize their new church. Their first General Conference was held the following year in Petersburg, Virginia, where a Discipline and hymnbook were adopted. Bitterness between northern and southern Methodists intensified in the years leading to Abraham Lincolnís election in 1860 and then through the carnage of the Civil War. Each church claimed divine sanction for its region and prayed fervently for Godís will to be accomplished in victory for its side.

Baptists: 1845 - Southern Baptist Convention founded,  marking Baptist split over slavery

Presbyterians divide over slavery issue, 1838

Civil War from African American Odyssey

From Bondage to Holy War [PBS Faith Journeys]

Negro Spirituals by Thomas Higginson


Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Side

Battle Hymn of the Republic 


The Civil War and American Civil Religion

With 'God on our side'?

From FACSNET: American Civil Religion, By Bruce Murray
FACSNET Managing Editor

"If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,"
- Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

The impulse behind civil religion helped propel the colonists successfully through the American Revolution, and later across the western plains of America and beyond to the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippines. Americans were a chosen people, and their success proved it.

"The success of the Revolution reinforced the idea that the American form of government must be sanctified, and Americans must be special because they emerged victorious,"

The underpinnings of the new republic were challenged and eventually unglued by the institution of slavery, which was often wrongly given biblical justification, but simultaneously unjustified by civil religion. The outspoken opponents of slavery, going back to the early abolitionists at the time of the Revolution, feared divine judgment and retribution hung over the nation for the sin of slavery.

"I am assured the common Father of all men will severely plead a controversy against these colonies for enslaving negroes ... and possibly for this wickedness God threatens us with slavery," wrote the Rev. Francis Alison, a prominent Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania, in 1768.

Abraham Lincoln, regarded by many as the greatest American civil theologian, cast the Civil War as a trial of the nation's soul, and preservation of the union became an article of faith. In his Second Inaugural address, Lincoln used the language of civil religion to call the nation to account for the offense of slavery - an offense against humanity and an offense against God, who had wrought the retribution the earlier Americans had feared. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln called for the rebirth of the nation under a new covenant, purified in the blood of the fallen soldiers.

"We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth," he said.

Many viewed Lincoln's death as a parallel biblical event: As Jesus had died for the sins of mankind so that he might live, Lincoln died for America's sins so that the nation could be reborn.

"With the Christian archetype in the background, Lincoln, 'our martyred president,' was linked to the war dead - those who 'gave the last full measure of devotion' [language from the Gettysburg Address]," Bellah wrote. "The theme of sacrifice was indelibly written into civil religion."