The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America

The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America

The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America

The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America


Distinguished intellectual historian Paul Conkin offers the first comprehensive examination of mainline Protestantism in America, from its emergence in the colonial era to its rise to predominance in the early nineteenth century and the beginnings of its gradual decline in the years preceding the Civil War. He clarifies theological traditions and doctrinal arguments and includes substantive discussions of institutional development and of the order and content of worship.

Conkin defines Reformed Christianity broadly, to encompass Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Calvinist Baptists, and all other denominations originating in the work of reformers other than Luther. He portrays growing unease and conflict within this center of American Protestantism before the Civil War as a result of doctrinal disputes (especially regarding salvation), scholarly and scientific challenges to evangelical Christianity, differences in institutional practices, and sectional disagreements related to the issue of slavery. Conkin grounds his study in a broad history of Western Christianity, and he integrates the South into his discussion, thereby offering a truly national perspective on the history of the Reformed tradition in America.


For over thirty years I have devoted one-half of each semester in my fall intellectual history course to the evolution of Christianity in pre-Civil War America. This book is in large part a product of that teaching. For the last five years I have tried to add as much scholarly depth as possible to classroom lectures and to add the new material that seemed necessary to create a broad, synoptic history, one based on both primary and secondary sources. Given such a huge topic, I know many errors remain in the text, but I hope that the story is as truthful as long years of searching and reflection could make it and that the text is as clear and eloquent as the often complex subject matter allows.

I have not tried to tell the full story of religion in antebellum America. I chose what seemed clearly the most central and significant part of that story. What I have written is an account of Reformed Christianity in its glory years -- from colonial plantings to roughly the end of the Civil War. By "Reformed," I mean those branches of Christianity that traced their modern origins to the reforms not of Luther but of Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, and dozens of other architects of national churches on the European continent and in Britain. in the American colonies, and in the first century of national independence, these Reformed confessions made up, by far, the largest and most influential segment of Christianity in America. To use a spatial image, they occupied the center. To use a topographic image, they were the mainstream.

This Reformed center continually confronted religious competitors and in time suffered numerous internal schisms. By 1865 the churches in the Reformed tradition had steadily declined from near go percent of all Christians in 1776 to no more than 60 percent. With this came a diminution of relative influence on the larger culture, while internal factionalism further increased the unease felt by these confessions at the end of the sectional conflict. Yet, even as late as 1865 the Reformed denominations not only still enjoyed a numerical majority but also easily exceeded, in overall cultural and political and economic influence, all the other branches of Christianity combined.

In a worldwide perspective, the Reformed denominations in America made up only a small subclass of Protestantism. Protestant Christians were only one segment of the larger class of Christians, and of course Christians constituted only . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.