Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

By James H. Hutson | Go to book overview

SEVEN RELIGION AND THE NEW REPUBLIC

The plain, cheap meeting houses that, in the early nineteenth century, dominated the landscape around James Madison's residence in central Virginia were built by Baptists and Methodists, converted during one of the many rounds of revivals that coursed, almost continuously, through the United States from 1800 to the Civil War. During this period, revivalism, through which evangelical religion now found its expression, was "the grand absorbing theme" of American life.1 Few Americans could escape the evangelical orbit and fewer still wanted to. During some years in the first half of the nineteenth century, revivals occurred so often that religious publications that specialized in tracking them lost count. In 1827, for example, one journal exalted that "revivals, we rejoice to say, are becoming too numerous in our country to admit of being generally mentioned in our Record."2 The same could be said for many other years between the inaugurations of Jefferson and Lincoln, years in which historians see "evangelicalism emerging as a kind of national church or national religion."3

What was the condition of the country's religion in the 1790s on the eve of the great wave of revivals? Predictably, the nation's clergy thought that it was deplorable. Like broken records, they intoned the old dirges about "declension." In May 1798, for example, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church beat its collective breast: "we perceive, with pain and fearful apprehension, a general dereliction of religious principle and practice among our fellow citizens . . . the profligacy and corruption of public morals have advanced with a progress proportional to our declension in religion."4 Young people, as usual, were viewed as barometers of the encroaching barbarism. Just as Jonathan Edwards, in the 1730s, brooded over the teenagers of Northampton, for "nightwalking" and assembling "in conventions of both sexes, for mirth and jollity," so Connecticut ministers, in the 1790s, complained that their youthful charges "spent too much time at

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