03 March 2012

The Place of Religion in Antebellum America

My second North Dakota winter is coming to a close, and I must say that this one has been much better than the first.  Days with a high below 20 have been relatively rare this year.  Last year, days with a high about 20 were rare.  I'm not complaining.

I'm also about to the end of my second year as a doctoral student and working on reading for my comprehensive exams, while teaching a class and taking a couple of classes on top of that load.  The current book I'm working through is Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought, which takes its title from the first message sent over the telegraph by Samuel F. B. Morse, himself an evangelical Christian.

What Hath God Wrought is a volume in Oxford University Press's series that covers the history of the United States.  The volume spans the period between the end of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.  Like many historians, Howe focuses his account on change over time, specifically revolutions in communications and transportation.  This emphasis disputes Charles Grier Sellers' argument that it was a market revolution that dominated this period of antebellum American history.

I am not quite finished with the book, but in the eleven or so chapters that I've worked through thus far, three of them deal specifically with religion as their main topic.  Chapters on the Second Great Awakening, millennarianism, and the intersection between religion and reason/science have been prevalent.  The Second  Great Awakening has often been tied to the emphasis on reform/temperance/abolitionism, as well as the democratization of American religion that resulted in the splintering of the major denominations--although it can also be argued that this last point was just a continuation of a trend started with the original Great Awakening.

Howe focuses his chapter regarding the millennarian movements upon such groups as the Millerites who believed Christ would return at some point in 1843-1844 and the Mormons, in addition to various utopian socialist groups (most of which failed pretty quickly and miserably).  He also points out that a belief in intelligent design was the default position in the nineteenth century, even among those who intimated at evolution before Darwin.  While I'm sure these points have been debated, one thing is obvious--it is impossible to tell the story of American history without understanding that Protestant Christianity had a major role in shaping what the nation would become.  Some people overemphasize the Christianity of the founding fathers.  Some people emphasize the lack of Christianity in the founding fathers.  This topic is an ongoing debate.  What cannot be debated is that the majority of people tended to adhere at least nominally to some form of Christianity (even today the number of professed Christians in America stands at over 80%).  Then, as now, many failed to live up to the ideal, but the ideal nonetheless impacted the formative years of the American republic. 

Regardless, the early nineteenth century is an interesting period in American church history.

No comments:

Post a Comment