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NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 19th Century Essay:

Evangelicalism as a Social Movement
Donald Scott
Queens College / City University of New York
©National Humanities Center
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Evangelicalism needs to be understood not only as a religious movement, but also as a social movement. As such, it was an integral part of a broader organizational revolution that transformed nineteenth-century American society. For the most part, eighteenth-century Americans lived their lives within hierarchically ordered institutions. They were oriented primarily to place, and they valued order and stability in their families, work lives, and communities. Communities were composed of a recognizable set of "ranks and orders" in which the higher orders governed and the lower orders were expected to defer to the greater wisdom and virtue of their betters. Families were mini-hierarchies governed by male heads of household who sought suitable marriages for their daughters and tried to place their sons in appropriate occupations. By the early nineteenth century, however, Americans increasingly had become a people in motion, constantly moving across social and geographical space. Under the force of this fluidity, families, towns, and occupational structures lost much of their traditional capacity to regulate individual and social life. Instead, Americans devised a different kind of institutional order as they turned to an increasingly dense fabric of new organizations—religious sects and denominations, voluntary societies of various sorts, and political parties—to give needed structure and direction to their lives.

Historians have usually looked to political parties, reform societies like temperance organizations, or fraternal associations like the Masons for the origins of this new associational order. In fact, evangelicals were its earliest and most energetic inventors. Indeed, as historian Donald Mathews has pointed out, the Second Great Awakening was an innovative and highly effective organizing process. Religious recruitment was intensely local, a species of grass-roots organizing designed to draw people into local congregations. But recruitment into a local Baptist, Methodist, or Universalist church also inducted people into a national organization and affiliational network that they could participate in wherever they moved. Moreover, adherence to a particular evangelical denomination also inducted them into the broader evangelical campaign. Conversion thus not only brought communicants into a new relationship to God, it also brought them into a new and powerful institutional fabric that provided them with personal discipline, a sense of fellowship, and channeled their benevolent obligations in appropriate directions. Aggressively exploiting a wide variety of new print media, evangelicals launched their own newspapers and periodicals and distributed millions of devotional and reform tracts. (By 1835, the cross-denominational American Tract Society and the American Sunday School Union alone distributed more than 75 million pages of religious material and were capable of delivering a new tract each month to every household in New York City.) They deployed home missionaries, circuit-riding preachers, and agents from town to town preaching revivals, organizing new churches and religious reform societies, and distributing Bibles and other religious materials. By the l830s, these devices, in conjunction with the aggressive revivalism that was the hallmark of the new evangelicalism, had assembled a huge new evangelical public. Not for nothing did evangelicals and nonevangelicals alike dub this new religious phalanx the "Evangelical Empire."

Guiding Student Discussion

One way to help students understand the character and scope of this religious mobilization is to see it as analogous in form and comparable in scale to the new democratic politics associated with the Jacksonian era. Just as a new form of politics emerged in which the pursuit of power came to center on intense, organized competition for the allegiance of an expanding democratic electorate, so too did religion come to revolve around the intense competition of religious bodies old and new to win adherents of their particular belief. Sects and denominations thus can be seen as directly analogous to political parties. Similarly, just as the new-style politicians like Martin van Buren made their mark as much by their skill as organizers as by their oratory, so too did new-style evangelical clergymen like Methodist John Asbury, Congregational-Presbyterian Lyman Beecher, or Universalist Alexander Campbell. When viewed from this perspective, the religious practices associated most fully with evangelicalism represent what historian Nathan Hatch has referred to as "the democratization of American religion."

Just as the intense competition for their votes seemed to enshrine "the people" as the ultimate arbiter of politics, so too did the competition for religious adherents give communicants power. To succeed—to win elections—politicians had to fashion their message to the needs and interests of their constituents; similarly, if a clergyman wanted to win and hold adherents, he had to fit his preaching to the spiritual needs of his communicants. Individual communicants were great preacher shoppers, ever ready to abandon a "cold" and "formal" preacher for someone from a different denomination whose "edifying" preaching was more to their liking. Congregations readily dismissed clergymen whose preaching failed to move them or whose other ministrations fell short. But the tie between democracy and evangelicalism was even stronger. Not only had religion become more democratic, it was in itself a democratizing force. Evangelicalism reinforced the growing sense of the sovereign power of the individual: it made the individual's own religious experience—not the clergy's learning and authority, not formal creeds and doctrines—the ultimate spiritual arbiter. Moreover, for evangelical converts, self-esteem came not from secular social status but from spiritual standing, measured by intensity of feeling and dedication to evangelical disciplines. The respect of their brothers and sisters in the faith was more important to them than external social standing. They counted themselves in no way inferior to any person who possessed mere wealth and secular prominence.

Ideas about conversion, revival strategies, new modes of organizing—all these things were essential to the extraordinary growth of early nineteenth-century evangelicalism. But in the end they are not sufficient to account for its prosperity. It is the appeal of evangelicalism for so many Americans that needs to be explained. To get at this question we need to place evangelicalism in the context of what historian Gordon Wood has called a "social and cultural revolution as great as any in American history." No longer a relatively stable order in which people occupied a recognizable secure place, American society seemed to have become a chaotic jumble in which few things remained unchanged and few people remained in the same place, a scramble of aspiring individuals moving from place to place and situation to situation in what Abraham Lincoln called "the race of life." Americans embraced this new society as unprecedentedly democratic, a land of vast opportunity in which the individual (so long as he was male and white) was free to rise to whatever position his talent and effort took him. But if American society held out unprecedented opportunity for "rise," "betterment," and "improvement," it was also a site of uncertainty, isolation, frustration, and anxiety.

For many, evangelicalism provided a counterworld to the chaos and isolation of American life and an antidote to its insecurities and anxieties. Just as had Puritanism, evangelicalism held out a vision of order, direction, and discipline and provided its adherents with the sense of security that came with the salvational promise. As they enlisted themselves in God's plan for history, "the world" lost its hold over them. But whereas Puritanism had involved a kind of breaking of the penitents' will, the practical Arminianism of evangelicalism actually strengthened its communicants' sense of the power of their own will. Evangelical conversion did not break the will of sinners, but energized and redirected it, giving them a powerful sense of control in their lives. People came out of conversion not with a sense of the incapacity of the human will, but as Christian activists imbued with a strong sense of the power of their own individual will. In this sense, in fact, evangelical activism can be seen not simply as a response to the new individualism but as an expression of it. Indeed, though cast in a different idiom, the moral perfectionism within much of evangelicalism was not very far from the ethic of self-reliance preached by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Finally, evangelicalism inducted its communicants into an institutional setting that was in many ways the direct opposite of the chaotic, competitive, isolated, and lonely world of everyday life. Evangelical churches were essentially affectional communities, gatherings of the like-minded and like-feeling that were organized around ideas of mutual concern, love, and obligation. Church membership was not simply a matter of going to church on Sunday. It involved participation in prayer meetings, other worship sessions like the Methodist "class meetings" and "love feasts," and in various allied charitable societies, all of which reinforced a sense of fellowship and obligation. Devotional forms were often highly communal. Sunday worship services deployed various forms of collective participation including the increased singing of hymns. In addition, enlistment in an evangelical church involved accepting rules for behaving towards each other that were designed to counter the conflict of the outside world. For example, church members were forbidden from bringing lawsuits against each other, and many churches set up mechanisms for adjudicating conflicts between communicants. Church members, moreover, were charged to tend to the needs of the less fortunate among them and offer aid to other communicants who had suffered misfortune. People often sought employers or employees, business partners, and marriage partners from the ranks of their coreligionists. And when they moved on, often one of the first things they did when they entered a new town was to seek the fellowship of a comforting church.

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Donald Scott was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1985-86. He has taught at the University of Chicago, North Carolina State University, Brown University, the New School, and is currently Dean of Social Science and Professor of History at Queens College / City University of New York. He is the author of From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750-1850 (1978), America's Families: A Documentary History (1982, with Bernard Wishy), The Pursuit of Liberty (1996, with R. J. Wilson, et al.); and he is the co-editor of The Mythmaking Frame of Mind: Social Imagination and American Culture (1993). He is currently at work on a book entitled Theatres of the Mind: Knowledge and Democracy in 19th-Century America.

Address comments or questions to Professor Scott through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."

The Foreign Missionary Movement | American Jewish Experience through the 19th Century | Mormonism and the American Mainstream | Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening | Evangelicalism as a Social Movement | American Abolitionism and Religion
Religion in the Civil War: The Southern Perspective | Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Perspective
| African American Christianity, Pt. I | African American Christianity, Pt. II |
Roman Catholics and Immigration in 19th Century America |
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