Revivalism, Religious Experience, and the Birth of Mental Healing
Popular images of nineteenth-century America generally recall the era as a pastoral interlude between the storms of revolution and the perils of modernity. Except for the Civil War, seen in popular nostalgia as a bloody, but principled, aberration from bucolic tranquillity, popular notions derived from poetry, fiction, and the graphic arts have celebrated a rural, pious, harmonious, and gentle-mannered people -- Puritans without the brimstone and intolerance. Emphasizing small-town social accord and the sway of a more moderate religious teaching, this Norman Rockwell-ish "village smithy" portraiture has almost fully obscured a very different reality -- that of a deeply unsettled, even chaotic America, a nation that, on one hand, was largely indifferent to religious matters and, on the other, searched desperately, in the aftermath of the Revolution, for political and religious certainty. In fact, as historians have recently begun to argue, America throughout the nineteenth century was a remarkably diverse, unpredictable, and often discordant patchwork of people, practices, ideas, and attitudes in just about every sphere of its life -- whether social, political, economic, religious, or medical.
Through most of the Atlantic colonies, religion seemed of little importance, and even in New England the founders' zeal seemed to deplete steadily. Historians still vigorously debate the cultural or religious significance of church membership, but the fact that by 1683 only seventeen percent of Boston's taxpayers claimed church membership suffices to give serious pause to widespread nostalgia for a pristine Christian America ( Butler60). Very often and much to the discomfort of Puritan clergy, belief in the supernatural was heavily flavored by ample quantities of magic and the occult. Whether the citizenry simply grew irreligious, became in the Revolution