Topic Framing Questions|
||How did American Christianity reflect the nation's ideals of democracy, individualism, and progress?|
||As the nation became more sectionalized, what role did religion play in defining individual and group identity?|
||How did religion inform the debate over slavery?|
||How did religious groups outside the mainstream of American Protestantism reflect American culture, even in the act of rejecting it?||
||William Cullen Bryant, "To a Waterfowl," 1817, and Philip Freneau, "On the Universality and Other Attributes of the God of Nature," 1815|
Because the study of religion in the early republic is so multi-faceted, it may help to begin by contrasting two short poems. Published two years apart, they address the manifestation of God in natureone as a romantic ode, the other as a rationalist treatise. Both express awe, gratitude, and the conviction that God is benevolent, but their descriptions of divine guidance differ:
One could paint Bryant's God, and diagram Freneau's god.
| ||Bryant: "There is a Power whose care / Teaches thy way along the pathless coast".|
| ||Freneau: "This power doth all powers transcend, / To all intelligence a friend."|
The men also reflect different chapters of the American experience. Philip Freneau, a voice of 18th-century rationalism and widely known as the "poet of the Revolution," was an aging 63 when he wrote "On the Universality." William Cullen Bryant, in contrast, was a young poet of 23 when he wrote "To a Waterfowl," one of the earliest American Romantic poems. Although these poems do not reflect the wide variety of American religious thought at the time, discussing them can evoke the mindset of the times. Could be used with students. 2 pages.
||John Mayfield, excerpt from "Toward the Millennium," ch. 8 in The New Nation: 1800-1845, 1982 (rev. ed.)|
While the political separation of church and state was a growing reality in the new nation, the separation did not extend to the mindset with which Euro-Americans dove into nation-building. Their definitions of democracy, progress, and civic virtue were inextricably linked with a religious worldview. As historian Mayfield sums up for us, Americans' evangelical fervor was the "religious equivalent of nationalism," and they propelled it with the "can do" attitude (already associated with Americans) to form revival circuits, reform movements, benevolent societies, perfectionist communities, and even new religions. As Mayfield reviews each of these, he underscores how each was definably "American" (unlike the European transplants of colonial times) and how each manifested the same energy and pragmatism apparent in the frenetic trailblazing and townbuilding of the time. (In this sense, this text can also be helpful in the "Common Man" and "Expansion" sections.) Could be used with students. 12 1/4 pages.
||Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835/1840, three sections from Vol. I, Ch. 17; read in this order:|
For ten months in the early 1830s, at the height of the Second Great Awakening, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville travelled throughout the United States (along the Atlantic coast, into Michigan and Canada, and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers). Several years later he compiled his reflections in two thick volumes. To this day their value as an enlightened outsider's analysis of American culture has been praised and panned, almost in predictable cycles. But they're never ignored. One oft-quoted line appears in this selection: "On my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things." Here we read de Tocqueville on religion in America, especially how deeply it mirrored and buttressed Americans' democratic spirit. Close to an essential text for this topic. Placed in context, any section could stimulate useful classroom discussion. 9 1/2 pages.
|Section 6: ||"Principal Causes which Render Religion Powerful in America"|
|Section 4: ||"Religion Considered as a Political Institution"|
|Section 5: ||"Indirect Influences of Religious Opinions upon Political Society"|
||Frederick Douglass, Appendix to Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, 1845|
A study of religion in antebellum America must include its role in the debate over slavery. In a nation that heralded itself as the bastion of liberty, the continued enslavement of millions of people was an enormous incongruity, producing tortuous rationalizations from southerners and fierce condemnations from abolitionist northerners, including former slave Frederick Douglass. In an appendix to his autobiography, Douglass indicts the "Christianity of this land"which he differentiates from true Christianityas the "grossest of all libels," and he catalogues its hypocrisies with unyielding contempt. He closes with a poem, written by an unnamed northern minister who provides another witness to his charges. Important to pair with the southern justifications of slavery from Fitzhugh and Jones. Also important to compare with Douglass's speech "What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?" delivered seven years later (included in the section "America in 1850"). With adequate introduction, can be used in the classroom. 5 1/2 pages.
||George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South; or, The Failure of Free Society, 1854|
Ch. 6: "Scriptural Authority for Slavery"
Ch. 8: "Religion"
George Fitzhugh was a southern lawyer and plantation owner (of minimal success in both endeavors) whose contempt for the North and its emerging capitalist society resulted in this volume. The key to its theme lies in the subtitle: The Failure of Free Society, i.e., of capitalism and its modern society based on liberty, individualism, and competition. In contrast he offers the "socialism" of the past (in a pre-Marxist sense), where a powered minority protects the poor and weak, as in the slaveholding South where "all is peace, quiet, plenty and contentment."
In these two selections Fitzhugh addresses the place of religion in the "socialism" of the South. In Chapter Six he lists biblical justifications for slavery, including historical precedents and scriptural citations. In Chapter Eight he applauds what he sees as the failure of religious freedom and church-state separation in America, which would have led to moral depravity and social chaos. Comparing Chapter Eight with de Tocqueville's praise of freedom of religion in America is almost imperative. Comparing Chapter Six with the Douglass and Jones pieces is strongly recommended. 6 1/4 pages.
||Charles Colcock Jones, The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States, 1842; Part III:|
In the aftermath of the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, many southern states banned slaves from learning to read or assembling for worship. Partly in response to this repressive trend, Charles Colcock Jones published the first version of this pamphlet, in which he pleads with his fellow plantation owners to provide religious instruction for their slaves. Jones, a Presbyterian minister educated at Princeton, painstakingly outlines how religious instruction will provide moral benefits for the slaves (and the masters), in addition to greater efficiency, security, and profit for the slaveowners. The pamphlet gained a wide audience and was published in numerous editions in eight languages (earning Jones renown as the "apostle to the negro slaves"). Consider this piece in the larger context of American Protestantism, increasingly fractionalized at this time over the issue of slavery (the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches broke into northern and southern sections in the years between 1838 and 1844). Brief excerpts would be useful in the classroom. 15 pages.
| Ch. 1: ||"The Obligations of the Church to Afford the Gospel to the Negroes"|
| Ch. 4: ||"Benefits"|
||Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854; second half of Ch. 2: "Where I Lived and What I Lived For"|
In American religious and literary history, Transcendentalism looms large. In part a rejection of organized religion and rationalism, in part an embrace of man's innate nature and capacity for insight, Transcendentalism flourished in the mid 1800s until the Civil War. One of its most famous expressions is Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods. For 2 1/2 years, from 1845 to 1847, Thoreau lived in a cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, determined to live a deliberate and simple life in nature. In this chapter, Thoreau lays out his philosophy and contrasts it with the numbing materialism of American life as he sees it: shallow and mindless, robbing man of his self. Here we have religion as the personal search for meaning, in which "God himself culminates in the present moment," and for which the "chief end of man" is not a heavenly reward for glorifying God. Compare Thoreau's deification of the individual with Emerson's in "Self-Reliance" (in the "Common Man" section). Useful in the classroom, of course, as Walden is required reading in many U.S. secondary schools. 7 pages (with annotations).
||Documents relating to the Mormon migration|
- Extermination order of the Missouri governor, 1838
- Verse in letter of Martha Haven, 1846
- Brigham Young et al., Second Great Epistle, 1849
The religious landscape of antebellum America is dotted with groups which left mainstream society to create their own worldsamong them the Shakers, Oneida Perfectionists, New Harmony Owenites, Brook Farm Transcendentalists, and the Mormons. Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 in New York, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints experienced years of strife, internal and external, before creating its final home in the Utah territory. Smith's early converts followed him from New York to Missouri, where violent conflicts with settlers led to the governor's "extermination order" of 1838. From there they fled to Nauvoo, Illinois, where they met similar resistance and violenceand where Smith was killed by a mob in 1844. Led by his successor, Brigham Young, the Mormons trekked west and founded their community, Deseret, by the Great Salt Lake, in 1847. In these readings, we see the fevered resistance they encountered and the religious zeal of their responseas much part of the American religious experience as a Congregational church in a New England town square. If you choose this text, we strongly recommend that you read the essay "Mormonism and the American Mainstream" from the National Humanities Center's webguide "Divining America: Religion in American History" on TeacherServe®. Can be used in the classroom. 4 pages.
Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
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