Protestantism (American History Through Literature)
In the summer of 1820, an impressive group of Protestant clergymen, educators, and business professionals gathered in western Massachusetts to lay the cornerstone for the first building of Amherst College. As a trustee of the fledgling institution, the grandfather of Emily Dickinson was among those in the group, but pride of place fell to the great maker of dictionaries, Noah Webster (1758843), whose task that day was to dedicate the college to the glory of God and the pursuit of a grand Protestant cultural enterprise.
In his oration, Webster tied the founding of the college to the hastening of the kingdom of God. In educating young men "for the gospel ministry," Amherst would be seconding "the efforts of the apostles themselves, in extending and establishing the Redeemer's empirehe empire of truth." It would raise "the human race from ignorance and debasement" and "teach them the way to happiness and glory." In the end, nothing short of the perfection of the kingdom of God was to be expected from Amherst College, the American republic, and the Protestant enterprise they together promoted. If the college did its work well, it would "convert swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks" and even "dispeople the state prison and the penitentiary!" (pp. 7, 11).
Within the brief compass of his speech, Webster outlined what the historian Mark A. Noll has identified as the unique synthesis of evangelical faith, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning that dominated American life from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the Civil War. The expansive power of evangelical Protestantism formed the central religious reality of America in that period, and, as Noll argues, no other era in the nation's history saw such a dramatic increase in religious affiliation or such a pervasive influence of religion on the national culture.
The Protestant vision grounded nineteenth-century American culture in its explicitly Christian past but at the same time opened up possibilities for the nation's secular future; it inspired many immigrants and settlers with an expansive vision of American possibilities while it consigned others, particularly Catholics, to second-class status; and it provided powerful underpinnings for the supporters of slavery even as it supplied slavery's opponents with telling arguments and stirring claims against the institution.
The story of Protestantism in nineteenth-century America begins with events that unfolded three centuries earlier. The first recorded use of the term "Protestant" in English dates to 1539, when it was applied specifically to those German princes and their subjects who protested the Roman Catholic Church's efforts to silence Martin Luther and bring an end to the Reformation.
Initially, the word "Protestant" applied only to Lutherans in Germany, whereas the Swiss and French followers of John Calvin called themselves "Reformed." By the early seventeenth century, however, the term had come to be applied to all Western Christians who repudiated papal authority and Catholic doctrine. For a complex set of reasons, it was to be Protestants who undertook the colonization of North America in earnest, as Dutch Calvinists settled along the Hudson River, Anglicans moved to the mid-Atlantic coast, and Puritans followed two decades later to Massachusetts Bay.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony would have an enduring significance out of all proportion to its initial size and stature. Many of the most dynamic Protestant influences in American life stemmed from the belief system and cultural practices of this group of several hundred settlers. Long after most Americans had let go of the bracing theology of the Puritans, they continued to embrace a form of the Puritan vision of American destiny.
The first governor of the Massachusetts colony, John Winthrop (1588649), famously outlined that vision in a sermon written before or during the 1630 voyage that brought his group to the New World. Winthrop titled his sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" and in it elaborated the covenantal understanding at the heart of Puritan theology. For these Calvinists, the covenant was a legal agreement between God and his chosen people: "We have entered into Covenant with Him for this Work, we have taken out a Commission, the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own Articles." If the Puritan colonists kept the terms of the covenant, God would make them "a praise and glory," and all other plantations in the New World would declare, "Make [us] like that of New England." This small band of emigrants at the edge of the known world would become "a City upon a Hill," with "the eyes of all people" upon them (p. 10). By settling in New England, these Protestants would not be pursuing their own destiny, but, as God's representatives, they would be carving out of the wilderness the kingdom of God.
Although it was only one among the many voices clamoring to be heard in the colonies, Puritanism would come to direct the cultural conversation of America in a number of surprising ways. Early on, for example, it developed an interpretive discipline that involved an exceptionally close reading of personal experience and natural phenomena, as these Protestants scoured their souls and searched their world for signs of God's coming kingdom. Even when Puritanism eventually fell out of favor, the interpretive habits it had inspired continued to thrive in new and different forms, whether in the prose of Henry David Thoreau (1817862) or the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830886) and Robert Frost, in the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864), Herman Melville (1819891), and William Faulkner, or in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century essays of Barry Lopez and Wendell Berry. Over several centuries, the Puritan practice of closely reading nature and experience consistently demonstrated a remarkable tenacity. Like other elements of the Puritan vision, it was compelling enough in its content and flexible enough in its form to adapt to changing cultural tastes.
Later scholars, however, intensely debated the nature and extent of that Puritan cultural influence. Some argued that the claims made on behalf of Puritanism by Perry Miller, Sacvan Bercovitch, and others obscured the vital contributions of other religious traditions to American literature and culture. At the same time, other observers questioned the very notion of American exceptionalism that lies behind the argument of Protestant influence. Spanish Catholics were here long before the English arrived, this line of reasoning goes, and native peoples lived on the land for thousands of years before the first European settlers set foot on North American soil. Since Roman Catholics and Anabaptists, freethinkers and tribal worshippers all played crucial roles in American religious history, on what grounds do we single out the efforts of a small band of Protestants from northwestern Europe?
In the end, such questions can be answered only by carefully charting influence in the many instances where it can be traced. As a case in point, seventeenth-century New England churches stressed individual experience in a manner that was to shape the larger culture profoundly. The Puritans conceived of the church as a gathering of freely consenting individuals. They made it a requirement that to become a member of the church, each man and woman had to undergo a harrowing conversion, which involved turning away from sin and breaking with the past. If you were a Puritan, in other words, you could not receive your faith from your parents but had to achieve it on your own. Whereas for centuries birth had determined membership in the Roman Catholic Church and many early Protestant denominations, in New England conversion and consent were required before a church could be called into being.
The Puritan practice of establishing "gathered churches" led to the creation of what the sociologist Robert Bellah, the philosopher Charles Taylor, and others have called an American cultural tradition of "leaving home." Like their Puritan ancestors struggling to establish their own distinct relationship with God, countless later Americans would take it as a given that they had to make their own way in the world, free of the determining influence of parents and past. Thus we find established in American culture a paradoxical tradition of leaving tradition behind, or, to put it another way, our social expectation is for individuals to grow and prosper without paying heed to social expectations. In America, Jews and Christians, Muslims and pagans all adopt this tradition of abandoning tradition, and had it not been for the seeds sown by the early Protestant settlers, it is hard to imagine that such a tradition would have taken root so deeply in the soil of American culture.
By the early decades of the nineteenth century, Puritanism had played itself out as an active force in American life, yet the Protestant cultural legacy remained a potent presence in the culture. That legacy adapted quickly to the vagaries of life in a religiously diverse republic and prospered following the removal of the last vestiges of state support, when Connecticut disestablished the Congregational Church in 1818 and Massachusetts followed suit in 1833. On the competitive field created by the constitutional freedom of religion, antebellum Protestantism consolidated its position as a dominant religious force, continuing to shape American culture, and with mixed results wrestling with growing religious diversity and the destructive reality of slavery.
Just months before Massachusetts brought an end to state-sanctioned religion, a drama of lasting importance in the history of Protestantism and American literature unfolded in a Boston church. The main player in this drama was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882), who was reluctantly voted out of office by the proprietors of the Second Church in late October 1832. They dismissed Emerson in response to a sermon he had preached several weeks earlier, in which he had explained why he would no longer administer the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
For his sermon on that sacrament, Emerson had preached from Romans 14:17: "For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." He took this injunction literally, as a command from Jesus to forgo any outward signs of faith or practice. The Catholic Church had celebrated seven sacraments while most Protestant denominations had reduced that number to two, baptism and communion. Emerson saw no need for any because the form of the sacrament throttled freedom of the spirit. "Freedom is the essence of Christianity," he told his parishioners. "Its institutions should be as flexible as the wants of men. The form out of which the life and suitableness have departed should be as worthless in its eyes as the dead leaves that are falling around us" (Essays, p. 1139).
In spurning both the authority of the scriptures and the sanction of the sacraments, Emerson was seeking to sustain the Protestant cultural project without the support of the theology that had given birth to it. In doing so, he was in turn appropriating for American culture an effort that had been under way for several decades in the Protestant cultures of Germany and England. There, a series of Romantic philosophers, poets, and critics had sought, in the words of M. H. Abrams, "to save traditional concepts, schemes, and values which had been based on the relation of the Creator to his creature and creation" by recasting them within a secular framework of "the human mind or consciousness and its transactions with nature" (p. 13).
In recasting the Protestant creeds within a secular framework, Emerson sought to adapt to his own purposes key elements of the Protestant vision, including the millennial fervor of his Puritan ancestors, as well as their emphasis on free consent and the virtue of "leaving home." In all the major writers who had roots in New England between 1820 and 1870, the tension between the Christian past and the secular Protestant present was palpable. It manifested itself in the powerful psychology of Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) and "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853); it pervaded the tortured examination of the human soul in many of Hawthorne's short stories and in The Scarlet Letter (1850); it provided the pith and substance of Dickinson's poetic explorations of belief, suffering, and the silence of God; and it animated Thoreau's vision of a spiritually vital individualism.
At the same time, this cultural Protestantism had darker consequences in the nineteenth century because it fueled a strong anti-Catholic nativism. From the beginning of the American experiment, genuine religion had meant the Protestant faith. Roman Catholicism could be tolerated at the edges of the culture, but few in the colonial era or in the early decades of the Republic considered it a dynamic system of belief destined to play an ever larger role in American life. In 1790 there were but sixty-five Catholic churches in the United States, out of a total of almost five thousand Christian churches, and Catholicism had little impact on cultural or political affairs.
In the following decades, the situation changed dramatically, as immigration swelled the ranks of the Catholic Church in America. Even as evangelical Protestantism consolidated its hold on antebellum culture, the number of Roman Catholic churches grew at a markedly faster rate than that of Protestant ones in those years. On the eve of the war, there were 2,550 Catholic churches in the United States, and Catholicism was becoming at last a player on the cultural stage.
As the influence of the Catholic Church grew, so did the Protestant animus against it. Prejudice against Catholicism was to be found at every level of the culture, as is evidenced by an exchange of letters between Emerson, the American educator Charles Eliot Norton (1827908), and the English poet Arthur Hugh Clough (1819861). They wrote to one another about the conversion to Catholicism in 1858 of Anna Barker Ward, the wife of one of Emerson's literary associates, Samuel Ward. These three fretted over the prospect of her "Babylonish Captivity" and "grieved" that she had allied herself with a faith that "makes such carnage of social relations." The problem with this "perversion," Clough wrote, was that it seemed "so irrevocable a change" (p. 556). For the disease of this dogmatic faith, Emerson prescribed the "electuary"he sweet, healing pastef "house, children, & husband" (Letters 5:169). He told Samuel Ward, who had not joined his wife in the move to the Catholic Church, that Anna would eventually be cured of her spiritual disease, construing her conversion, and the whole of the Catholic Church, as a lamentable sickness from which one could only hope to recover.
Emerson's use of the metaphor of illness is in keeping with many antebellum Romantic characterizations of Catholicism. Fueled by Protestant millennialism in general and by the New World covenantal vision of the Puritans in particular, the romantics saw Catholicism as a remnant of the precritical history of humanity. Like an embarrassing adolescence, it was something to be blushed at and outgrown. Thoreau neatly captured this Romantic perception of Catholic belief in his depiction of Alek Therien, a French Canadian neighbor at Walden Pond. The intellectual and spiritual elements in Therien "were slumbering as in an infant." He had been taught in that "innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines." When those priests train a student, "the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence, and a child is not made a man, but kept a child" (p. 439). To be Catholic was to be like natureumb and in desperate need of the poet's consciousness and speech. "Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome" (p. 498), Thoreau concluded in Walden (1854). That was also the case for Roman Catholicism according to many cultural Protestants in the nineteenth century.
The attitudes of Emerson, Thoreau, and others need to be set within the broader context of nineteenth-century cultural history. The literary historian Jenny Franchot has argued that the anti-Catholicism of Protestant liberals of that time can be traced to the Puritan narrative of providential history, in which two monumental events, the Reformation and the Puritan settling of America, had unfolded just centuries earlier. According to Franchot, for the writers of the ante-bellum era Protestant America was allied with divine history, and reform was a matter of destiny. In such a context, a Catholic resurgence could only represent a reversal of history, a return to bondage, and a loss of the freedom of Protestant individualism.
While the growth of Catholicism struck fear in the hearts of the cultural elites, it also generated powerful responses at the popular level. From 1830 to 1860, what had been a trickle of anti-Catholic literature swelled into a torrent, as diatribes came cascading down from Protestant pulpits and flowed from the pages of popular tracts and novels. Especially popular were the fictional "memoirs" of people who had escaped the clutches of Catholicism. Where the seventeenth-century Puritans had written accounts of their captivity at the hands of Native Americans, antebellum Protestant writers wrote racy stories about captive abuse within the walls of the Catholic Church.
The most famous of these narratives, Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery, appeared in 1836. This fiction parading as fact told of a prostitute who sought sanctuary in a convent, only to discover within its walls terror and sadism worse than anything she had known on the streets. The pages of Monk's "memoir" were filled with stories of brutal nuns and rapacious priests in the convent-turned-brothel, where ostensibly celibate men of God had their way with defenseless young nuns and murdered the children unfortunate enough to be born of the violent unions.
We can see the intensity of Protestant fear in the fact that Monk's narrative sold three hundred thousand copies in the twenty-five years between its publication and the outbreak of the Civil War. Aside from the Bible, it was outsold by only one book in that period, Harriet Beecher Stowe's fictional polemic against slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).
SCRIPTURE, SLAVERY, AND THE PROTESTANT SYNTHESIS
The fact that Monk's captivity narrative and Stowe's abolitionist novel were the two best-selling books in the mid-nineteenth century shows that the Protestant influence was as divided as it was dynamic. For as powerfully as Monk's book reinforced stereotypes meant to keep Roman Catholicism at the cultural margins, with even greater force did Uncle Tom's Cabin crystallize religious and moral opposition to slavery in the decade leading up to the war. When Abraham Lincoln (1809865) was grappling with the question of emancipation in 1862, he borrowed from the Library of Congress Stowe's A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), which documented the abuses she had exposed in her novel. When he greeted her later that year at the White House, Lincoln is reported to have said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war."
Through his use of hyperbole and humor, Lincoln was in fact making a serious point. It had taken a work of fiction to galvanize the nation to settle by force a conflict it had been unable to resolve through the play of ideas or the art of political compromise.
Leading up to the war, Protestant beliefs and practices played a crucial role on both sides of the battle over slavery. Many claimed scriptural support for slavery. They took encouragement from the Bible's ethical silence about the practice in the ancient world and strenuously defended it on the principle of obedience and submission to authority. Some sincerely believed in a biblical sanction for slavery, whereas others cynically employed the scriptures to support the practice even as they denied the Bible's authority over every other facet of their lives.
Although the Bible was often used to justify slavery, in many other cases a Protestant interpretation of the scriptures drove men and women to oppose it with action or to endure it with hope. With difficulty, many antebellum Protestants sought to combine their commitment to scriptural authority and their intuitive sense that slavery was either an injustice to be tempered or an abomination to be destroyed. Their struggle was complicated by the considerable skill with which the defenders of slavery linked a literal reading of the Biblehich acknowledged the scriptures' tacit acceptance of slaveryo the idea of biblical authority itself.
Other Protestants sought to avoid this impasse by stressing the difference between the letter of the Bible and its spirit. Even if the Old and the New Testaments had condoned the practice in their day, this line of reasoning held, the spiritual intentions of the scriptures were unmistakably opposed to its continuance. In the conclusion to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe gave powerful voice to this feeling-based interpretation of the spirit of the Bible. Nothing could be written or conceived, she said, "that equals the frightful reality of scenes daily and hourly acting on our shores, beneath the shadow of American law, and the shadow of the cross of Christ" (p. 514). The only important question for the Protestant believer is not interpretive consistency or theological rigor but one's own sympathies: "Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?" (p. 515). Only if their sympathies are aright and they act upon them boldly may the people of the North and South together forsake their "injustice and cruelty" and thus mercifully avoid "the wrath of Almighty God" (p. 519).
Others in the Protestant tradition went beyond Stowe's sympathetic evangelical piety and embraced more radical positions, both in their attitude toward the Christian tradition and in their willingness to use violence to bring slavery to an end. This group included such well-known figures as Thoreau, Emerson, and John Brown, as well as a number of largely forgotten individuals, such as James McCune Smith and Gerrit Smith. According to the literary historian John Stauffer, these Protestants had an understanding of God that could not be separated from their understanding of themselves as moral warriors, from the vision they shared of America's millennial future, or from their passionate desire to eliminate social and racial barriers. They did not necessarily need the Bible to validate what their God-given moral sense had already convinced them to believe and to do.
For these Protestants, moral consistency on the issue of slavery often overrode any concerns about theological orthodoxy or biblical fidelity. On the eve of the Civil War, Gerrit Smith (1797874) gave voice to this passion for ethical rigor, as he explained why the Congregational minister George Cheever, like many other evangelical Protestants, was mistaken in his efforts to prove that the Bible condemned slavery: "Dr. Cheever sees no hope for freedom, if the Bible shall be given to the side of slavery. But I see no hope for the Bible if it shall be proved to be for slavery." Human nature provides the charter for human rights, "and [man's] rights are the rights of his natureo more nor lessvery book to the contrary notwithstanding" (quoted in Noll, pp. 38788).
Fighting was to break out at Fort Sumter only months after this exchange between Cheever and Smith, and by the end of the war the era of Protestant hegemony had effectively come to a close. When Noah Webster dedicated the cornerstone at Amherst College in 1820, as a Protestant man, he stood in all his singularity as a representative of the larger nation and its ideals. By 1865 Webster would have become but one voice within a cacophonous conversation among Protestants of many different persuasions; and those Protestants in turn would now be jostling for space alongside newly emerging groups with decidedly different religious, intellectual, and political convictions. Although Protestantism would continue to exert a powerful influence on American culture, it has never since occupied the dominant position that belonged to it in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century.
See also The Bible; Calvinism; Catholics; Proslavery Writing; Puritanism; Religion; Religious Magazines; Uncle Tom's Cabin
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Monk, Maria. Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal. New York: Hoisington & Trow, 1836.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Three Novels: Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Minister's Wooing, Oldtown Folks. New York: Library of America, 1982.
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Miller, Perry. Nature's Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.
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Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.