By Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg College
Historically, Americans have remained suspicious of the pressure of European power as well as of the influence of their own material success on public virtue. There were anxieties, too, when it came to immigrants. This mix of fearfulness and confidence, of paranoia and optimism, was theological as American religion had a great deal to do with the American passion for optimism, improvement, and reform. And it all found an expression in evangelical protestant revivalism.
It is interesting to observe how easily optimism and paranoia joins hands in American prospects of their past, present, and future. The long-smoldering sense of threat from Great Britain and other European monarchies fed American fears. The constant vigilance and self-examination were in order if Americans were to preserve their Republic free from harm.
Combined with these were anxieties regarding the immigrant minorities and their different languages, folkways, and even different versions of Christianity. It also provoked fear that they, only half-cleansed from the corrupt habits of Europe, could be easily seduced and turned into instruments of political destruction.
Against this backdrop, the evangelical protestant revivalism sought to, and, to a great extent, was consciously designed to create converts who had an almost unlimited power to make themselves a new heart. It centred around the thought that, if it made sense for the convert to make a new heart in which to pursue holiness, it also made just as much sense to make a new world in which to pursue that holiness.
This conviction propelled many of the revivalists into a variety of reform efforts, such as, Charles Grandison Finney. He became one of the most famous opponents of slavery, and even barred slaveholders from communion.
The Protestant Model of Life
Steven Caldwell’s New Themes for the Protestant Clergy, published in 1851, called for tariffs to protect working class wages, and for the Christianization of public school systems. The American Bible Society (ABS), founded in 1816, aimed at distributing copies of the Bible throughout America as a kind of moral antibiotic. Within a year, the ABS had founded more than 40 auxiliary societies.
The American Sunday School Union established church-based schools for urban children, especially those children who had been recruited as child labor in the mills. In the Sunday Schools, they would be taught reading and writing on Sunday afternoons. By 1859, the New York City chapter of the American Sunday School Union was serving 65,000 children. In New York City alone, righteous evangelicals founded 76 missions for the poor, the marginalized, and the infirm by 1858.
And yet, this compulsion to reform the world had a certain hubris to it, because it assumed that the target of reform was to remodel the world after the Protestant model of a perfect life. That, of course, assumed that the Protestant model of a perfect life was, in fact, perfect.
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It also had a dark side of self-interest, because many movements for social reform and social improvement were inaugurated by many churches as a way of recapturing their lost position as the moral arbiters of American society. Few Americans wanted to give back to the churches the kind of state authority many of them had enjoyed before the Revolution, and that many churches still enjoyed in Europe.
If one formed a church-sponsored reform society, it was another matter. It might be connected with, it might be identified with, it might be supported by a church—but a reform society that wasn’t actually a church itself but was an independent association like the Bible Society or the Sunday School Union, that was a different matter.
By hiving off their reform agendas in the shape of reform movements and reform societies, Protestant evangelicals were much more successful in promoting the idea of a Christian America than they had been back at the turn of the 1800s, and much more successful in obtaining special exemptions for religious practice and for vetoing objectionable legislation when they were trying to do it as churches instead of as societies.
Ann Lee and the Second Appearing of Christ
On the other hand, there were many religious movements that aimed to solve the problem of living in an unreformed and corrupt society simply by choosing not to live in a corrupt and unreformed society. In other words, by withdrawing from contact with society to set up little separatist colonies. One of the most peculiar of what Nathaniel Hawthorne called these “come-outers” were the Shakers, who were originally founded as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, by an English woman named Ann Lee.
The Second Appearing of Christ, Lee preached, was not a future event leading to the Day of Judgment, but a present event in which she was the new incarnation of Jesus Christ. An unhappy marriage had induced Lee to add several other forms of come-outerism to her teachings. The first was that the Christ’s spirit could be communicated only to a community that was pure in heart. Therefore, one must organize a separate community, separate from the world, for true believers. The second was that since Mother Ann embodied the female aspect of the Christ’s spirit, men and women would enjoy absolute equality in a Shaker community but would live segregated lives. They came together only for communal worship, which took the form of ecstatic singing and dancing, and which gave them their name, the Shakers.
Remarkably for a sect that forbade sex, the Shakers attracted as many as 5,000 members in 19 communities. Not so remarkably, they proved unable to sustain those numbers by natural increase, and today only a handful of Shakers in the last two Shaker communities—in Maine and New Hampshire—survive.
Common Questions about Evangelical Protestant Revivalism and the Shakers
Steven Caldwell’s New Themes for the Protestant Clergy called for tariffs to protect working class wages, and for the Christianization of public school systems.
The compulsion to reform the world did have a certain hubris to it, because it assumed that the target of reform was to remodel the world after the Protestant model of a perfect life.
By hiving off their reform agendas in the shape of reform movements and reform societies, Protestant evangelicals were much more successful in promoting the idea of a Christian America than they had been back at the turn of the 1800s