Who Were the Evangelicals?: Conservative and Liberal Identity in the Unitarian Controversy in Boston, 1804-1833

By Cayton, Marie Kuplec | Journal of Social History, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Who Were the Evangelicals?: Conservative and Liberal Identity in the Unitarian Controversy in Boston, 1804-1833


Cayton, Marie Kuplec, Journal of Social History


The years between 1794 and 1832 saw thousands of women and men received into membership in churches across the United States, marking an end to a drought that had left much of the religious landscape desiccated during the Revolutionary years and after. Especially in the Northeast, then rapidly being drawn into a net of complex market relationships, those entering upon the responsibilities of adulthood but also many of other life stages, and members of an emerging entrepreneurial class but also those of other stations and callings, were caught up in intensified religious expression. They experienced conversions, joined organizations designed to promote a host of benevolent causes, and swelled church rolls. They were Congregationalists and Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists, and together they comprised a movement that historians in retrospect have called the Second Great Awakening.

Who were the evangelicals whose religious renewal took on such enormous political and social repercussions? A rich vein of scholarship has helped us know them better. In some places, we know that those who entered upon church membership were largely female and members of an expanding commercial society where traditional patriarchal family ties were eroding. In other locations, we can characterize them as rising entrepreneurs, whose close connection with country trade meant that relationships of personal reliability and responsibility remained important. Converted too were many of their salaried and waged employees, who adopted the religion of what became the middle class.(1) In New England in particular, the evangelicals have been described by scholars in general terms as "stressed rural Yankees [mobilized] for a profound and inescapable transformation of personality and behavior," individuals trying to negotiate the disruptions that the growth of the market brought to localist, land-oriented rural life. As corporatism eroded, more and more people found emotional sustenance and a satisfying symbolic model of the world within the evangelical fold.(2)

As Curtis Johnson warns us in his study of evangelicalism in rural upstate New York, however, we generalize across circumstance and region about those roused by the Awakening at our peril.(3) Although evangelicalism in the first third of the nineteenth century certainly shared some common characteristics, there were also differences worth attending to that can help us to be clearer on the diverse nature of the activist coalition that eventually became American evangelical religion. To the extent that we view the problem mainly through the lens of gender or of socioeconomic circumstance or of life stage psychology, we risk oversimplifying what was certainly a complex phenomenon, configured differently in different times and places. Whatever the Awakening was, it had more than one contributing cause and more than one type of social dynamic embedded within it.

In urban eastern Massachusetts, one result of the revival of religious fervor was a dispute between conservative (or orthodox) and liberal Congregationalists that has become known to us as the Unitarian Controversy. Discussed thoroughly in the historiography of American religion as a theological and ecclesiastical dispute among two factions of the ancient religion of New England, the rift eventually resulted in denominational separation and religious disestablishment in Massachusetts.(4) Less explored, in a literature that has focused on the controversy mainly as an example of the rise of denominationalism or of rational religion in America, have been the identity and the character of the dissidents against the prevailing Congregational liberalism, people who stood in the vanguard of evangelical expansion that scholars have seen as the Second Great Awakening. They were involved in activities that characterized the Awakening everywhere: they emphasized conversion and church purity; they involved themselves in benevolent voluntary organizations; and they linked individual behavior and conversion with the fate of the nation as a whole. …

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