Grant Wacker's "Religion in Nineteenth Century America" is a highly readable, creative, and (another) original contribution to Oxford's "Religion in American Life Series." At first glance Wacker appears to avoid the typical chronological organization that most history books seem wedded to. Instead, he chooses an organization by types of people that gives this survey of nineteenth century American religious history a high level of vitality and creativity. The chapters in the book are therefore titled: Founders, Insiders, Visionaries, Restorers, Outsiders, Warriors, Immigrants, Innovators, Conservatives, and Adventurers. The result of this type of organization is that it keeps us focused on the diverse individuals and groups that created and contributed to the very colorful tapestry of nineteenth century American religious history. Almost without noticing it we are moved along chronologically as well.
Mr. Wacker frames nineteenth century religion in America within the context of three major trends. The first is the enduring power of evangelical Protestants, in denominations such as Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian. For most of the century these groups, taken together, ran the biggest, wealthiest, and most influential organized-religion show in town. But they never ran the only show.
Their competition constitutes the second trend. Throughout the century, evangelical Protestants saw constant, intense contention from rival groups, including non-evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, and others who refused to bow to the majority.
The third long-range trend is the continual churning among denominations. Those that enjoyed dominance in one generation often found themselves playing catch-up in the next. As an example of how things can change, in 1800 the Congregationalists (once the Puritans) led the pack. The Presbyterians and Baptists ran close behind, at second and third, followed by the Episcopalians. Trailing far behind were the Methodists and the Roman Catholics.
By the middle of the century, however, this ranking had been turned virtually upside down. By then the Roman Catholics and Methodists were wrestling for first place. The Baptists were still third, but now they were followed by the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and an entirely new group, the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. In 1900 things looked completely different again. At that point the Catholics were on top, followed by the Baptists, Methodists, and, new-comers to the top four, the Lutherans. Pentecostals, who would loom large at the end of the 20th century, were just around the corner" ( pg 11).
With this overarching thematic framework in place, Wacker begins his discussion of these various types. To give readers a flavor of these chapters I thought I would discuss his analysis of "Founders," and Visionaries." Brilliantly, he uses the name of the each chapter as a type of multifaceted rubric to discuss material.
The chapter entitled "Founders" looks at this notion as beginning of the nineteenth century, as the beginning of new religious tends and movements, as the religious conceptions of the founding fathers', and the foundational document of the First Amendment. We learn that in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War the Episcopalians and the Methodists, who had specific ties to England and the Crown, were left to found their own American version of these denominations. In 1784 the American Methodist Episcopal Church was founded, and in 1789 the Protestant Episcopal Church.
The period after the war was a combination of political and religious fervor. The results included the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791, and the development of what Benjamin Franklin called Publick Religion' (pg 21) or what we would today call political or civil religion. This combination of political and religious ideology manifests in such ways as the pledge of allegiance, the Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, and July 4th national holidays, and the memorials (and pilgrimages?) to the tombs of Washington, Jefferson, and later, Lincoln. This civil religion was enhanced by the mixture of biblical themes and classical motifs that range from the Great Seal of the United States to the monumental architecture of Washington, D.C.
"Founders" also discusses the religious beliefs of our founding fathers Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Particular attention is given to the semi-deification of George Washington and to each President's theological viewpoint. Surprisingly, "all were courageous and high-minded men, but none was a Christian in any conventional way"(pg 24).
The chapter on "Visionaries" is framed through the lense of responses to the industrial revolution:...."clear that capitalism had created great inequalities. But it also opened up people's mental horizons, persuading many that the world could be fundamentally improved"(46). These new mental horizons, or visions of improvement, exploded in a plethora of reform efforts. Broadly evangelical in scope these new visionaries first concentrated on spreading Christianity overseas and to the American south and west. These Bible based movements stimulated the growth of literacy in general and Bible literacy in particular through the agency of over 700,000 Sunday Schools (51). Other social reform efforts included the temperance, women's, anti-slavery, and asylum reform movements. These new visions of society stimulated also a host of communitarian religious movements that included the Millerites, Shakers, and Oneida Perfectionists.
Mr. Wacker then pulls all these various strands of visionary tradition together in concluding the chapter with a short biography of Isabella Baumfree, or Sojurner Truth. Here we get to see directly how these impulses to reform worked themselves out in one very extraordinary life. Sojurner Truth was born a slave, but freed at age 30. Deeply immersed in Methodism, she lived for a short time in a religious commune, the Kingdom of Matthias. A deeply felt visionary experience led her to preach a doctrine of personal salvation, for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women, and for justice for the poor (59). After the war she worked hard for "government policies to protect, educate, and resettle newly freed black men and women. She lobbied for hospitals and orphanages for former bondsmen. At the same time, she pressed former slaves to take responsibility for their own welfare. It was almost inevitable that Truth would finally end up in Battle Creek, Michigan, a center of late-19th-century efforts to improve health by reforming diet, dress, and hygiene"(60).
Each chapter in this book I found to be both informative and leaving me wanting to know more. Well written and brilliantly constructed, Grant Wacker's "Religion in Nineteenth Century America" is a must for secondary school libraries and classrooms. It's a great read.
review© Tom Collins and RSiSS 2000
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