American Protestantism underwent dramatic development during the nineteenth century, and many of the distinctive contemporary traits of the movement were forged at this time. That development was shaped by forces unique to the American situation, including the rapid expansion westward into geographical regions without any history of a Christian presence and an expanding Catholic population in what had once been a predominantly Protestant nation.
Between 1800 and the eve of the Civil War, the population of the United States expanded from about 5 million to 30 million. With the territorial expansion that accompanied this population growth, there was every risk that the nation's Christian moorings would be loosened as children sought to establish their independence from their parents and formed new communities to create new identities, far removed from those of the original colonies. Yet there is abundant evidence that many sought to cope with the radical social and political change of the times by rediscovering their religious roots and the secure sense of social location and personal identity that this entailed.30
Alongside such pressures that might lead to the dilution of Protestant influence, other religious groups were making their presence felt through new waves of immigration. Puritans were not the only religious minority to flee intolerance and insecurity in seventeenth-century England. In early 1634, a group of Catholic refugees settled in the Chesapeake Bay area. Maryland—named after Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I—became the first Catholic colony in America. Although Maryland was criticized for being a Catholic enclave in the New World, it soon established its credentials as a place of religious toleration. Under Archbishop John Carroll (1735-1815), Catholicism became increasingly accepted in American culture.
However, a fresh wave of immigration from European nations in the nineteenth century led to radical change in the nation's religious profile. Political instability and economic deprivation brought large numbers of Irish and Italian Catholics to cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. German refugees tended to settle in the upper Midwest, in centers such as St. Louis and Cincinnati. Strong ethnic loyalties led to Catholic émigrés retaining the social and religious habits of Europe and thus not integrating into American culture.31 This rapid rise of Catholicism in cities that had hitherto been staunchly Protestant led to social and religious tension.
Protestantism itself was nothing like a coherent movement, and it is far from clear whether Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregation-alist, and Methodist congregations had any sense of a shared identity, heritage, or faith in antebellum America. Controversies within the Protestant movement—including especially ferocious and divisive divisions about slavery32—tended to accentuate its differences rather than identify and celebrate its commonalities.33 Indeed, it might reasonably be argued that the rise of Catholicism in America in the nineteenth century brought a new unity to the hitherto somewhat diverse movement by providing it with a common enemy, replicating the patterns of Protestant identity maintenance that emerged in Europe during the late sixteenth century.
Despite all these difficulties, Protestant church attendance rose by a factor of ten over the period 1800 to i860, comfortably outstripping population growth. Twice as many Protestants went to church at the end of this period than at its beginning. Why? If any factor may be identified as responsible for this development, it is the "Second Great Awakening" (1800-1830) and the new patterns of religious revivalism that this brought about. Such religious revivals not only became the defining mark of American religion but also played a central role in the nation's developing identity, independence, and democratic principles. Although the subject of criticism at the time, revivalism became deeply enmeshed within the American Protestant consciousness.34
The first such revival broke out in rural Kentucky in 1801 in the form of large camp meetings. The most famous of these was the "Cane Ridge" meeting, which lasted a week and was attended by at least ten thousand individuals. These meetings set a precedent for a wave of revivalist meetings throughout the frontier territories that appealed primarily to common folk and emphasized emotion rather than intellect. The outcome was the transformation of antebellum America and the emergence of the Protestant "Bible Belt."
Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) was the pivotal figure of the Second Awakening.35 Following his conversion in 1821, Finney abandoned his career as a lawyer and became a Presbyterian minister. He distanced himself, however, from some aspects of the older New England Calvinism, which he regarded as in the first place unbiblical, and in the second an obstacle to effective evangelism. Finney focused on the need for people to respond to the proclamation of the gospel and on the skills that were thus required of the preacher to persuade them to do so.36 He clearly regarded it as perfectly acceptable—perhaps even as necessary—to use every technique of persuasion available in preaching for conversion.37
What sort of techniques? Finney introduced many of the standard features of revivalist preaching, which rapidly became part of a largely unquestioned tradition. One such feature was the "anxious seat," a bench reserved for those who, as a result of the preacher's message, were "anxious" for their soul's safety and wanted counsel and prayer. Yet the most familiar of all Finney's innovations was the "altar call"—the invitation to come forward in response to the invitation to receive the gospel. The technique was picked up by Dwight L. Moody, the greatest revivalist preacher in the second half of the nineteenth century, and thus passed into virtually all of nineteenth- and twentieth-century revivalist preaching, from Billy Sunday through to Billy Graham.
Finney's attentiveness to controlling and directing the revival process marked a significant shift from the days of the first Great Awakening. Edwards and Whitefield had no place for "altar calls" or other such techniques. For them, revival was a matter of God's grace, which lay beyond human control or influence. For Finney, revival was "not a miracle or dependent on a miracle"; rather, it was the "result of the right use of the constituted means." Although it would be unfair to accuse Finney of reducing revival to a set of techniques, both organizational and rhetorical, those elements are certainly present in his thought.
The impact of Finney and those who developed his ministry on the shaping of modern American Protestantism was immense. The emergence of the "holiness" movement is often seen as a response to the ideas and values of revivalism. Unlike forms of Protestantism that emphasized the defense of doctrinal orthodoxy, the holiness movement was much more oriented to ethics and the spiritual life. It tended to raise ethics to the status that later fundamentalists have accorded doctrine. This emphasis on "holy living" came to be linked with support for the abolition of slavery in the antebellum period. Oberlin College in Ohio—where Finney later served as professor of theology—became a stronghold of abolitionism and a haven for those who advocated even "civil disobedience" in the face of the fugitive slave laws.38
The "holiness" tradition's emphasis on issues of Christian living was not limited to an attempt to end slavery. Oberlin College became the center of some serious attempts to erase racial and gender barriers within both the antebellum church and society at large. Its pioneering moves toward coeducation led to its graduating some of the most vigorous and radical feminists of the era. Antoinette Brown, the first woman to be ordained in an American church, was a graduate of Ober-lin. At her ordination in 1853, Wesleyan Methodist minister Luther Lee preached on "Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel."
After the Civil War, revivalism began to develop in new directions. Revivalist rhetoric was supplemented by the emergence of a popular American hymnody. Whereas the Puritans strongly disapproved of the singing of nonbiblical texts in church, the Wesleyan revival movement in England had recognized the importance of hymns, both as a means of Christian education and as a powerful way of praising God. After the end of the Civil War, as America moved toward becoming an industrial nation, the Protestant churches were able to remain in touch with the nation's soul through the use of music. The revivalist Dwight Moody teamed up with the musician Ira David Sankey to produce a formidable double act.
The two met in 1870 after a prayer meeting for a revivalist meeting in Indianapolis.39 The day after their meeting, Moody sent a note to Sankey, asking if they could meet on a street corner. When Sankey arrived, Moody produced a soapbox and invited Sankey to mount it and sing a hymn. Sankey—who had a magnificent voice—did so. A crowd gathered to hear him. When Sankey had finished, Moody got on the box and delivered a short sermon, inviting everyone present to follow him to the Indianapolis Opera House, where the YMCA was holding its convention. It was obvious that Finney's method had been supplemented—and bettered.
One of the most significant consequences of the rapid growth of revivalism in nineteenth-century America was the emergence of the Protestant Bible Belt—a story that needs to be told in greater detail.
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