Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Religion, Reform, and Patriotism in Southern Illinois: A Case Study, 1852-1900

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Religion, Reform, and Patriotism in Southern Illinois: A Case Study, 1852-1900

Article excerpt

IN 1883 A SHORT ARTICLE APPEARED IN The Central Christian Advocate, asking if the Protestant faith had withered. The question held a certain poignancy near the end of a century when some perceived that the course of events had robbed Americans of any innocence they had, and led many to question the bases of their religious beliefs. Non-religious citizens, and especially the secular press, exploited the growing agnosticism to declare that the United States had entered a post-Christian age. "One can hardly take up a secular newspaper," the author began, "without finding an article affirming that the religious faith of the people is dying out. Some of these journals, bolder or more reckless than the others, have the habit of assuming that faith in Christianity is now dead; that religion means nothing more than common morality.1 In short, the religious situation of the Union looked bleak to some observers.

Yet there was a difference of opinion espoused by the author of this article. "Occasionally this condition of skepticism and disregard for the older forms of faith is outspoken of as a serious misfortune which ought to excite alarm," the author commented, "but offener it is stressed as the natural transition to a better condition of sociecy [society]." By identifying the goals the secular press possessed, the author demonstrated the binary nature of American society. Advocates of a pluralistic society celebrated religions waning influence. But the author held to an objective religious truth. Maintaining that there was a standard set of beliefs to which Americans should adhere, the author uncovered his opponents' agenda; "It is noticeable also that papers of this class prefer to publish as religious news whatever tends to the discredit of 'orthodoxy.'"2

The author engaged in a polemic that repudiated the secular press's argument. "It may be safely said," the author argued, "that in this country, notwithstanding all the discussions in theology and the large audiences which gather to hear Mr. Robt. Ingersoll, there has been no period for years in which the conscience of the people more readily responded to the plain truths of evangelical preaching." Lastly, the author pronounced an exuberant optimism of the time. "The Church itself is taking on a manifest increase of moral power, successfully attacking vices and social customs that have been safely entreated for ages. It is an age of faith not of unbelief that is before us."3

The author was not alone in his outlook. Contributing to The Central Christian Advocate, he addressed a midwestern audience who shared his optimism and conviction that the evangelicals' moral power was vital to the religious and political life of the nation. In southern Illinois, where the St. Louis-based Central circulated widely, Methodists read this article with unwavering affirmation that their cause was the righteous social agency that would preserve the Christian republic. These Methodists believed that once the public embraced the United States' position as the redeemer nation, the country would enjoy the full blessings of liberty and equality promised in the earliest New England communities. However, it was necessary that these evangelicals remain steadfast in their resolve. The period known as the Gilded Age would prove to be the most challenging period in American religious history. Yet these Methodists continued laboring to achieve their goals, with the conviction that they would succeed.

Historians such as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., Paul A. Carter, and Ferenc Morton Szasz have claimed that the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, the Gilded Age, was a time of moral deconstruction, one that precipitated the impotence of orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic society.4 Following the theme established by Schlesingers essay, "A Critical Period in American Religion, 1875-1900" (1930-32), historians have assumed that the Gilded Age was the setting for evangelicalism's decline, or in the very least the start of its hiding into the private sphere characterized by the home and the church. …

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

Oops!

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.