Thursday September 21, 2017

Chapter 6: Popular Religion in the Nineteenth Century

by Christopher Chantrill
May 8, 2005

AS WE HAVE SEEN, the nineteenth century was a great age of religion.  While the elite in Europe and the United States experienced the death of God as their spiritual needs fell away from the gospel of Jesus Christ, ordinary people in America flocked to churches and responded in their millions to the preaching of modern prophets. 

But hasn’t the modern industrial era drawn people away from religion, as the proofs of science and the deliberations of German philology invalidated the transcendental claims of the scriptures?  That is certainly the received wisdom.  Back in the old days, everybody believed in the dogmas of religion as a matter of course.  As the Enlightenment shone the light of reason into men’s lives they abandoned the superstitions of a pre-scientific age and came to put their trust in reason, science, and democracy rather than God, faith, and priests. 

But in America religious observance and adherence has increased since the Enlightenment, not decreased.  Contrary to received wisdom, the Revolutionary Americans were not all dour Puritans and dutiful churchgoers.  In 1776, only 17 percent of colonial North Americans were religious adherents.  But by 1850 the rate had doubled to 35 percent, and by 1890 it had increased further to 45 percent. (Finke 1992 p16)  It was a remarkable transformation.  Over the seventy five years from 1776 to 1850, when the population of the United States increased from 3.9 million to 23.2 million, the proportion of people who belonged to a church climbed from one in six to one in three, in other words from 660,000 members to 8,100,000.  At exactly the period that the educated elites were reading the German philologists and beginning to experience the Death of God, churchgoing and religious belief began to climb sharply among the ordinary American people, both in relative and in absolute terms.  By the end of the century, in 1890, the proportion of Americans who were religious adherents had increased by over two and a half times.  In terms of actual church members, the numbers had increased from 660,000 to 28 million in a little over a hundred years.

This growth in religious adherence was not exactly spontaneous.  It was, as Rodney Stark was written, a “supply-side” phenomenon driven by religious entrepreneurs.  The First Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century may have been a startup venture that mainly relied on the skills and the charisma of George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers, but the Second Great Awakening from 1800 to 1830 was run on established principles and written manuals of best practice.  In the early nineteenth century the United States was no longer the close-knit community of the colonial era, and the revival movement split into three major parts.  In New England, the leading revivalists like Timothy Dwight and Lyman Beecher were concerned about the emotional expression of religious feeling, both because they wanted to ensure that their converts were not just swept up in the excitement of the moment, and because they feared the power of the Unitarians, upscale believers centered around Harvard and Boston, to marginalize their movement.  Their  movement eschewed excessive emotion and required converts to demonstrate that their conversion experience had “taken” before accepting them into a regular church community.  The Midwest, however, was far removed from the beetling brows of Harvard Square, and Charles Grandison Finney observed of its inhabitants that “there are so many things to lead their minds off religion” that it was “necessary to raise an excitement” to get peoples’ attention. (McLoughlin 1978 p126)  In New England and the Midwest, political reform and anti-slavery formed a significant part of the revival message.  In the South, anti-slavery would not sell.  Revivalists like Peter Cartwright kept out of politics.  Southerners did not believe that religion should extend beyond converting people “to the basic moral pattern of rural middle-class virtue.” (McLoughlin 1978 p137)

But whatever the political dimension of the Second Great Awakening, its religious core was the same in North and South.  The Calvinist doctrine of predestination was abandoned.  People were in control of their own salvation.  All they had to do was repent and accept Jesus Christ and they would be saved.  And though the Calvinist rigidity had been abandoned, the basic program was still the same: escape from the meaninglessness of a life of pleasure to a life of meaning as a soldier in Christ’s army of middle-class purpose and discipline.

The most important institution driving the increase in religious observance was Methodism.  Starting from zero in 1750, Methodism grew rapidly in Britain and in the United States.  By the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Methodists represented 2.5 percent of religious adherents, but had exploded to 34 percent by 1850.  Meanwhile the old Puritan churches declined from 15-20 percent of adherents to 3-4 percent. (Finke 1992 p55)  The Baptists increased their share of adherents from 17 percent to 20 percent. 

As the numbers show, these new churches were not just grabbing members from the older churches, obtaining a bigger slice of a fixed pie, but represented instead a genuine growth in religious adherence.  The old churches maintained their memberships, so the growth in the ranks of Methodists and Baptists had to come from recruitment from unchurched Americans, from the new immigrants from Europe, and from the pioneers on the frontier.  By the end of the century, in 1890, the Methodists had lost some market share, declining slightly from 117 adherents per 1,000 population, while the Baptists had increased market share from 80 to 94 adherents per 1,000 population.  Meanwhile, the total US population had increased from 23 million to 63 million.

The United States began the nineteenth century as an overwhelmingly Protestant country.  As the century progressed, however, a trickle of Catholics began to cross the Atlantic, swelling to a tidal wave as the potato blight sent millions of Irish to North America.  In the latter half of the nineteenth century Catholics from other nations, notably Italy, joined the flood.  But the Catholic Church in America could not just re-enroll its-co-religionists from the old country.  The immigrants were just as unchurched as the revolutionary generation of 1776.  In the mid-century, the Irish “seemed a lost community, mired in poverty and ignorance, destroying themselves through drink, idleness, violence, criminality, and illegitimacy.”(Stern 1997)  Yet by the end of the century: “the sons of criminals were now the policemen; the daughters of illiterates had become the city’s schoolteachers; those who had been the outcasts of society now ran its political machinery,” and the educated elites had begun to complain about the “Puritanism” of the Irish.  The Italians were just as bad.  Archbishop Corrigan of New York in 1888 noted that of 80,000 Italian immigrants in the city, barely 2 percent went to church.  The Irish clergy were uncertain how to communicate their problem to the pope in Rome, for they found the Italians ignorant of religion and immured in “a depth of vice little known to us yet.” (Finke 1992 p116)  In Chicago, the clergy found the Italians of southern Italy and Sicily “unexcelled in their ignorance of religion.”  But the Irish hierarchy was not discouraged.  Under their leadership the Catholics managed an explosive growth, from 1 million adherents in 1850 to 7.3 million in 1880.  The architect of this remarkable achievement was John Hughes, born in 1797 the son of a poor farmer from County Tyrone in Ireland.  His story was told by William J. Stern in “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish” in City Journal in 1997.

John Hughes came to America in 1817, and “went to work as a gardener and stonemason at Mount St. Mary’s College and seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  Working there rekindled in him a childhood dream of becoming a priest,” but the head of the seminary refused the gardener’s request to enroll and study for the priesthood.  Fortunately he impressed Mother Elizabeth Bayley Seton—canonized later as America’s first native-born saint—and she interceded with Mount St. Mary’s.  Hughes was ordained a priest in 1826 and moved to Philadelphia.  Immediately he began to battle anti-Catholic bigotry.

Between 1820 and 1830, immigration had swelled the U.S. Catholic population 60 percent to 600,000, with no end in sight.  The new immigrants were mostly Irish—impoverished, ignorant, unskilled country folk, with nothing in their experience to prepare them for success in the urban environs to which they were flocking.  Hughes believed that the relentless barrage of anti-Catholic prejudice that greeted them in their new land was demoralizing the already disadvantaged immigrants and holding back their progress. (Stern 1997)

   Hughes was determined to fight the nativists that oppressed the Catholic immigrants and began a spirited campaign against the bigotry under which the Catholics suffered.  When a cholera epidemic hit Philadelphia in 1834, the Protestant nativists were quick to blame the Catholic immigrants.  But Hughes “worked tirelessly among the sick and dying” and acidly noted how many Protestant ministers had fled the city while he and the “Catholic Sisters of Charity... had cared for the cholera victims without regard for their own safety.”  In 1838, Hughes was made bishop in New York, a care of 60,000 Catholic souls in a city of 300,000.  He immediately set about improving educational opportunities for New York’s Catholics (Stern 1997).

In 1838, as now, the public schools were a political catspaw with which powerful interests tried to injure their political enemies.  The New York Public School Society, with the help of state funding, was a Protestant organization that taught Protestantism in the schools using the Protestant Bible.  “Hughes (with the support of New York’s 12,000 Jews) wanted an end to such sectarian education, and he wanted, above all, state aid for Catholic schools, just as the state had funded denominational schools before 1826 (with no one dreaming of calling such aid unconstitutional).  But the Protestants preferred a policy of no state aid for denominational schools rather than allow any money to go to Catholic schools, and passed “the Maclay Bill of 1842 [that] banned all religious instruction from public schools and provided no state money to denominational schools.” (Stern 1997)

After this defeat, Hughes threw himself into building up the Catholic schools without help from the state.  “‘We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward,’ he said” expressing a sentiment that has inspired the Catholic Church in the United States ever since.  By his death, the New York diocese boasted over 100 schools.  It needed them.  In 1845 the Irish potato crop failed, and between 1845 and 1860, over two million Irish crossed the Atlantic on the so-called “coffin ships,” suffering a mortality rate greater than African slaves endured on the Middle Passage. (Stern 1997)

Arriving in the United States, the Irish found that their problems had just begun.  Those who had means moved into the interior.  “On the other hand, the destitute, the disabled, the broken down, the very young, the very old [stayed in New York.  They were] the scattered debris of the Irish nation.”  The contemporary descriptions of the Irish in New York City are familiar to the modern ear.  Family life had disintegrated; alcoholism and drugs were epidemic.  Gangs roamed the streets, fighting one another and the nativists, but mostly preying on their fellow Irish, robbing houses and businesses in their neighborhoods.  In 1850, an estimated 50,000 Irish prostitutes, the “nymphs of the pave” worked the streets.  It was up to Hughes to do something about it.  He decided to use the “scattered debris” as brick to build the Catholic Church.  (Stern 1997)

Buying up abandoned Protestant churches in Irish wards, he taught the Irish a religion of personal responsibility, stressing confession to people who had often never received any religious education.  “Self-control and high personal standards were the key... Certain conduct was right, and other conduct was wrong.  People must not govern their lives according to momentary feelings or the desire for instant gratification: they had to live up to a code of behavior that had been developed over thousands of years.”  But this was not “a pinched and gloomy affair.”  Hughes taught that “if you keep the commandments, God will be your protector, healer, advisor, and perfect personal friend.” (Stern 1997)  It was the same message that Protestant revivalists had been communicating to unchurched Americans.

Hughes also had a message for women, with the cult of the Virgin Mary directed at Catholic women, who outnumbered men by up to 20 percent in mid-century.  “Mary was Queen of Peace, Queen of Prophets, and Queen of Heaven.”  Hughes inspired Catholic women to take control of their lives, inspire their families and become a force for good.  “By the 1850s, they began to be major forces for moral rectitude, stability, and progress in Irish neighborhoods of the city.”  And the nuns, “managing hospitals, schools, orphanages, and church societies” demonstrated what women could aspire to.  (Stern 1997)

By the 1890s, the Irish represented only 10 percent of arrests for violent crimes, down from 60 percent.  “Three-quarters of the police force was Irish.” And almost a third of the city’s teachers were Irish women. These lace-curtain Irish were often mocked by the press for their “puritanical” attitudes, but in the 1860s all this was in the future, so when he died shortly after the draft riots of 1863, Archbishop Hughes had felt he had been a failure.  (Stern 1997)

Why did the ranks of Methodists and Baptists and American Catholics increase so rapidly?  And why did the old Puritan churches—the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians—and the Anglican Church not grow?  Why did the proportion of churched Americans increase from 17 percent in 1776 to 35 percent in 1850 and to 45 percent in 1890?  The study of social institutions is the province of sociology, and among sociologists of religion nobody has produced more provocative work than Rodney Stark and his collaborators.  In a number of books he has developed a sociology of religion rather different than the secular assumptions of those in his profession that have expected the end of religion for most of the one hundred years since its founding by Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, and Max Weber.  

In Stark’s system, religious movements begin as a sect or cult.  A sect in his definition is a breakaway group, splitting away from an existing church, usually because its leader and its members find the church grown too secular and too comfortable with a sinful world.  Sects always keep a distance between themselves and the surrounding community, and the surrounding community usually returns the compliment.  Sects are in tension with the surrounding culture; they define themselves and preserve their community by sharpening this tension.  The disciplined life of the sect, the abstention from social diversion such as drinking and dancing, propels the members into modest prosperity.  Their tension with the surrounding society starts to ease; they begin the process of secularization that converts their high-tension movement into a church, a religious institution with low tension between its members and the society at large.

Methodism began as a sect, an attempt to purify the Church of England.  It began in the North American colonies in the Great Awakening with the revivalist campaign of George Whitefield.  But the Great Awakening was no spontaneous event.  It was planned.  Whitefield was “a master of advance publicity who sent out a constant stream of press releases, extolling the success of his revivals... to the cities he intended to visit.”  Benjamin Franklin published many of Whitefield’s sermons and derived a significant income from them. (Finke 1992 p88)  But Methodist revivalism did not die out with Whitefield.  It became a principal method of Methodist recruitment for the next century.  It was refined by Charles Grandison Finney and others so that the Methodists soon had a manual of revivalism that specified exactly how revivals were to be run, for how many days, how camp meetings should be set out, and how the preaching should be scheduled.  In 1866, C. C. Goss set out the Methodist recipe for success.  “A Methodist [preacher] addresses himself directly to the heart...  [He] comes directly from the people...  The sermons have been delivered in plain, simple language.”  (Finke 1992 p105)  The Methodists preachers were not settled, but itinerant, “circuit-riders” riding from one community to another.  “As they have no certain dwelling-place, they are rightfully called itinerants.”  Methodist preachers were paid much less that the educated, middle-class ministers of the better-established Puritan churches.  The new style of preaching spoke to the people.  According to revivalist Barton Stone,

when we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakening from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.” (Finke 1992 p99)

Faced with an ignorant, unchurched multitude in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Irish Catholics in the United States used the same tools of recruitment as the Protestants.  And their remarkable achievement was to church the nominally Catholic immigrants from all across Europe with an overwhelmingly Irish hierarchy.  Appealing to a broad spectrum of ethnic background in many cases they provided vernacular services to the newly arrived.  In 1916, for instance, a religious census found that about half of Catholics attended services where a language other than English was spoken in the sermon.  The Irish Catholics who ran the church were acutely sensitive to the need to present the church in a comforting way to the immigrants and meet their need for connection with their native culture.  And they also managed to persuade the European immigrants to support their churches with substantial tithes.  Max Weber was shocked to find German immigrant lumberjacks contributing $80 per year out of a $1,000 annual income to the church. (Finke 1992 p115)

Of course, the Catholics didn’t call their revivals “revivals,” and they didn’t call their evangelists “evangelists.”  Revivals were called “parish missions” and they were scheduled about as frequently as in the enthusiastic Protestant churches.  Parish missions were planned months in advance, used traveling preachers who specialized in revivals, and used the same emotional appeal as Protestants.  They used a good cop/bad cop routine.  The traveling preacher could say things that the local priest was too nice to say: that everyone would go to hell unless they went to confession and told the truth for a change. (Finke 1992 p122)  The noted Jesuit revivalist Francis X. Weniger traveled over 200,000 miles to preach at more than eight hundred Catholic parish missions.

One of those affected by the religious best practices of the Second Great Awakening was a young boy growing up in the village of Palmyra, New York, along the route of the Erie Canal, and right in the center of the Burned-over District, the region of New York State that responded again and again to the revivals of the era’s religious entrepreneurs.  The Smith family was "by all accounts, a close and loving family, greatly given to religious discussion and experimentation.” (Stark 2004 p100) Distressed by his sense of sinfulness and unworthiness, 14 year-old Joseph Smith experienced one day a vision while praying in a field.  He related his vision to his family, and they encouraged him.  The support of his family and subsequent visions led him to found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons—that, after intense episodes of persecution, found a permanent home in Utah.  The Mormons started off as a sect, in the sense defined by Rodney Stark.  They kept themselves separate from society and were persecuted for their difference.  In their beliefs, the Mormons followed the relaxation of the strict Calvinist doctrine of predestination that characterized the Second Great Awakening.  Believers were not just helpless before the divine and cast into hell if they weren’t picked as one of the elect; they could work out their salvation themselves.  The Latter-day Saints developed a three-tier doctrine of salvation.  Christian believers went to the highest celestial kingdom of Heaven.  But “people of good will who did not accept the gospel went to the ‘terrestrial kingdom,’” and even the wicked got to go to a low level “telestial” kingdom of heaven.  On top of that, using the doctrine of baptism for the dead, Mormons were able to redeem those who had died without accepting the gospel.  The church is organized hierarchically into wards and stakes, with 200 to 800 members per ward, and up to ten wards in a stake.  However each ward is run by an unpaid bishop appointed from the membership to a term of three to four years, and each stake is run by an unpaid president who serves a similar term.  Thus all members are expected to shoulder the burden of leadership in the church.  The church has no paid clergy; instead all the adult males belong to one of two priesthoods and are expected to lead worship, perform sacraments, and provide unpaid service to the church as requested throughout their lives.  The church structure and organization is similar to the fraternal mutual-aid organizations that grew and flourished in the nineteenth century.  This is not remarkable.  Joseph Smith’s father was a Mason, and the church leaders in its early years were almost all Masons.  They naturally used methods of governance that they understood and already knew how to use.

The growth of the Mormons has been rapid and steady.  Starting from Joseph Smith’s “holy family” of 23 in the 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints grew by the end of the nineteenth century to over 200,000 adherents, an average annual growth of 17 percent.  A century later, it had about ten million members.

Of course, all this was merely bagatelle.  More than the nineteenth century, it was the twentieth century was the great age of popular religion.  In 1906 a Christian sect was founded in Los Angeles, California, that grew to half a billion worldwide by the turn of the twenty-first century. 

In any century popular religion, its colorful leaders and its millions of adherents, is a world outside the interest of our modern elites.  The reason is not difficult to discover.  People engage with popular religion as part of a self-governed struggle to achieve a competence and respectability in the city, to negotiate the transition from country ways to city ways.  To the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century, its earnestness and its enthusiasm is slightly embarrassing and shameful, its reverence for the family and its dutiful roles is confining, and its experience of salvation from sin inexplicable.  But as this same religion flourishes in the favelas of Latin America, in the chaotic nations of southern Africa, and in the burgeoning giants of East Asia, the observer is bound to admit that there is something between enthusiastic Christianity and emerging capitalism that makes them eager partners.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at