Religion in the Early Republic
|Digital History ID 2993|
Evangelical revivalism was the dominant form of religious expression in early 19th century America. The word evangelical refers to a belief that all people must recognize their depravity and worthlessness, repent their sins, and undergo a conversion experience and a rebirth of religious feelings.
What explains the rapid rise of revivalism?
In part, revivals were a response to the growing separation of church and state that followed the Revolution. But revivals also reflected the hunger of tens of thousands of ordinary Americans for a more emotional religion. Even in the late 18th century, Americans were not as indifferent to religion as church membership statistics might suggest. Many Americans were put off by genteel clergy with aristocratic pretensions. They were also alienated by the older denominations' stress on decorum, formality, and unemotional sermons.
Revivals also meet a growing need for community and communal purpose. At a time when the country was becoming more mobile, commercial, and individualistic, revivals ensured that Americans would remain committed to higher values.
In the South, revivals largely attracted the dispossessed, including many slaves and free blacks. In the North, revivals appealed to upwardly mobile groups. Middle-class women were especially attracted to the revivals. The revivals provided many women with avenues of self-expression--through church societies and charitable and benevolent organizations.
The revivals left a lasting imprint on pre-Civil War America. The rituals of evangelical religion--the camp meeting, group prayer, and mass baptisms along rivers and creeks--were the truly distinctive American experience in the decades before the Civil War. The revivals contributed to a conception of the United States as a country with a special mission to lead the world to a golden age of freedom and equality. When Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural spoke about bloody sacrifice, rebirth, and national mission, his words echoed revivalist sermons.
A key concept for the revivalists was that each person had a duty to combat sin. For the revivalists, sin was not an abstraction. It was concrete. Dueling, profanity, and drinking hard liquor were sins. In the future, many northern evangelicals regarded slavery as the sum of all sins.