Religious Magazines (American History Through Literature)
The period of renewed religious evangelical fervor known as the Second Great Awakening began in America during the 1820s, or roughly a century after the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards was at the forefront of a first Great Awakening, beginning in the 1730s, which had imposed on mesmerized audiences the need for repentance of sins to avoid religious damnation. Both movements were preceded by periods of impressive secular cultural advancement that contributed to a perceptible and widespread drift away from organized religion. While dozens of short-lived and specialized publications reached the press in the last decades of the eighteenth century, many periodicals in the early nineteenth century began to extend their longevity and increase readership by appealing to a broader range of issues germane to a specific audience. As a result, cosmopolitan Christian women would read Godey's Lady's Book or the Ladies' Repository and discover articles on fashion, cooking, keeping house, and short stories. One religious periodical, the Christian Parlor Magazine (1844849), took a hint from such secular publications by interlacing its didacticism with popular poetry by Lydia Sigourney, Anne C. Lynch, Richard Henry Stoddard, and others, as well as including pictorial "embellishments." Initial reception of the religiously focused Catholic Pilot in the 1830s was tepid, but editors soon focused on Irish American issues and by 1866 the paper had 100,000 subscribers.
Several significant causes help explain why religious publishing increased soon after the turn of the century. Both American academics and laypeople were forced to reassess their links with parent countries and more specifically, to consider how their new identities as Americans would change family and worship patterns. In a period the historian Nathan Hatch calls "the democratization of American Christianity," the lack of a single government-prescribed religion led to an explosion of Protestantism. Many small groups, often pulled together by a charismatic leader, frequently utilized publishing as an effective tool to promote their particular take on American Christianity and to bolster those already converted.
In the early nineteenth century the United States as a nation was also looking to form its own identity apart from British custom. Even more secular-leaning publications like the North American Review wrestled with the conflict between old and new as the editor struggled to reconcile a desire to feature American authors and literature in a period when English literature was superior. In its early years the Review used slightly more English literature but progressively focused more on American political, including religious, issues.
MANY VISIONS, MANY VOICES
Early religious publications like Elias Smith's (1764846) Herald of Gospel Liberty, which commenced printing in 1808, were created first and foremost to purvey their specific Christian vision. The Herald, like Barton W. Stone's (1772844) later Christian Messenger, represented a small group of people unassociated with a denomination who strove to reunite the greater Christian family through a New Testament, back-to-the-Bible, primitivist understanding. Like many publications of this period, these two periodicals essentially died with their charismatic editors. Other periodicals stopped publishing when their basic tenets were refuted, like the Midnight Cry and the Prophetic Times, which both predicted that the Second Advent of Christ would occur in the mid-1840s, in keeping with the teachings of the millenarian William Miller. Yet other small publications were more successful at establishing certain ideals for years to come, most notably Isaac Mayer Wise's American Israelite, which successfully amplified Wise's appeals for Reform Judaism beginning in 1854. Like the Irish Catholic Pilot, Wise's paper would regularly bolster and encourage readers in their struggles adjusting to life in America and especially in the case of the Pilot, such papers helped readers stay informed about the old world while simultaneously unraveling the new.
A second, more resilient type of religious publication was associated with established denominations. While some denominations were created and grew stronger through the influence of their periodicals throughout the period, like the American Israelite, many existing denominations created publications to encourage commitment within a denomination and reiterate beliefs. The Christian Advocate (Methodist), the Lutheran Observer, and the Christian Examiner (Unitarian) all complemented an existing denomination and typically featured a mix of general informative articles and more specific denominational writings.
One clear disadvantage for Christians during the Second Great Awakening was the fragmented nature of denominations; because no single group was endorsed by the government, denominations struggled to work together to exert their social and moral influence on society. Unified groups for abolition were not uncommon, but perhaps the most notable example of cross-denominational cooperation was the American Bible Society and its periodical, the American Bible Society Record, which aimed to distribute Bibles free of denominational commentary starting in 1818. Another example of interdenominational collaboration was the Evangelical Tract Society, which produced religious literature for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
SLAVERY AND THE CIVIL WAR
Many periodicals in the mid- to late nineteenth century strongly resisted open discussion of slavery, despite the obvious pertinence, because it was such a polarizing and divisive subject. Larger publishers and denominational periodicals were acutely aware that their reader-ship was split on slavery and that discussion of the issue would at best depress readership and at worst create additional divisions. Discussions of slavery and the Civil War were often detrimental even to smaller publications as both issues ultimately drew attention away from specific religious themes. The Guide to Holiness, the leading publication of the American Holiness movement, took a severe hit in circulation and profits during the war and never fully recovered.
The Christian Advocate, the popular Methodist paper, went from 120,000 subscribers in 1841 to 60,000 in 1845 after the church split over slavery fif-teen years before the Civil War. Godey's Lady's Book fully avoided any discussion of slavery or the Civil War save the occasional mention of suffering, in the belief that women's magazines should be kept distant from general public issues. The Methodist equivalent of Godey's, the Ladies' Repository, also largely ignored slavery and the war, even though the Methodist church was rent in half over the issue of slavery. The North American Review never addressed the issue directly, but a review of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin that appeared in the journal did reveal muted proslavery sentiment.
Some smaller publications with more local appeal were freer to speak out on slavery, such as the strongly proslavery Texas-based United Methodist Reporter. Many publications featured some regular commentary about the war. The Christian Advocate featured a weekly "Progress of the War" summary, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church's Christian Recorder offered a unique perspective during the Civil War by providing regular factual updates and commentary about the likelihood of emancipation. Stone's Christian Messenger took a bold stand for repatriation of slaves, despite its mostly mid-South readership. The Recorder applauded President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and encouraged readers to assist blacks after the war. While many periodicals shut down during the war some, like the Army and Navy Messenger, were created exclusively for partisan coverage. The Messenger was one of six religious publications written for Confederate troops that predominately focused on war news, health advice, blunt appeals to repentance, and reassurances of God's support for the Confederates.
While the war itself garnered little mention, the Episcopalian church made extensive efforts to assist newly freed slaves in the aftermath of the conflict. Spirit of Missions, a national Episcopal Church publication, encouraged and documented the building of schools and the influx of funds and Episcopalian workers in the Reconstruction South, as a means of supporting freed slaves economically and morally.
PARTICULAR CONCERNS: WESTWARD EXPANSION, WOMEN AND CHILDREN
Of particular import later in this period was a growing consideration of westward expansion by religious magazines. Periodicals like the Western Recorder, started in 1834 by Southern Baptists; the Western Christian Advocate of the same year by the Methodists; and the Pacific in 1851 were created specifically as Christianizing influences in the rapidly expanding West, which was commonly seen as wild and morally listless. The Western Christian Advocate and Pacific in particular were accompanied by concerted church-planting and missions efforts. The Episcopalian Spirit of Missions was launched in 1836 to demonstrate and promote a strong, domestically oriented Episcopalian mission effort.
One of the most interesting and acknowledged social considerations of this era is the changing role of women. Godey's Lady's Book and the Ladies' Repository were popular monthlies that provide primary insight into the mind of the nineteenth-century American woman. Godey's zesty editor Sarah Hale (1788879) believed that women were morally and spiritually superior to men and that they thus held the key to family life and childhood development. Hale stressed that women should be educated in this limited domestic sense; she believed that Godey's would help women hone their spirituality, taste, and virtue, which they could then pass on to their children. The Ladies' Repository championed a similar ideal for women, regularly featuring stories about morally supportive mothers or wives. Clearly women were gaining limited rights and respect but all under the authority of men who still created and owned the Ladies' Repository and Godey's. This understanding of women as moral leaders can also be seen as a response to the changing dynamic of the household, which was no longer the sole base for economic production. With the rise of industrialism men no longer worked closely with women in the house, and women's responsibilities were forced to change accordingly.
Following her understanding of women and their abilities, Hale made a concerted crusade to allow women to train as medical missionaries, and in 1869 her efforts helped send Clara Swain to India as the first trained female medical missionary. But ultimately the women's movement of the mid-nineteenth century was ambiguous: commenting on a cover image featuring several heroic women and an inside picture featuring a traditional domestic mother, Hale wrote in Godey's in January 1861, "We are constrained to say that these exceptional women are the exception, not the rule of life. In our second picture is embodied the real worth, the true sublimity of woman's destiny and duty" (p. 78).
During the nineteenth century, local newspapers were frequently published for religious motive and contained considerable material that today would be called religious news and comment. One notably short-lived but eminently important example was the Alton Observer, founded by the abolitionist Presbyterian minister Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802837) in free-soil Illinois across the Mississippi from St. Louis, from which he had fled as beleaguered editor of the Observer there. Lovejoy became the first American journalist killed on account of editorial policyn emphatically religious denial of the institution of slaveryn November 1837.
One additional noteworthy publication was the Child's Paper, a religious newspaper put out by the American Tract Society that aimed to teach children and their families about sinfulness through didactic stories. Most commonly distributed free of charge, the paper had a monthly circulation of 355,000 in 1854 and necessarily avoided controversial issues like slavery.
See also The Bible; Catholics; Evangelicals; Godey's Lady's Book; Literary Marketplace; Oratory; Periodicals; Proslavery Writing; Religion
Hale, Sarah. "Editors' Table." Godey's Lady's Book 62 (January 1861).
Fackler, P. Mark, and Charles H. Lippy, eds. Popular Religious Magazines of the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Hatch, Nathan. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.
Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. 5 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938968.
Schultze, Quentin J. Christianity and the Mass Media in America: Toward a Democratic Accomodation. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003.
Mark Fackler Eric Baker