Americans were Bible-literate in great part,
until multiplying Catholics and secularists
weakened the grasp of the Old Testament.
It was a typical old custom for the head of family to read at table a
randomly chosen verse of the Bible and comment solemnly upon it.
Its lesson having been figured out, ordinary life might proceed. If
one family affected this process 3,000 times, and twenty million
families in all underwent the experience, for a total of 6 billion
readings, every verse would have been read numerous times,
certainly punctuating the country with a Bible-effect,
never to be shaken off.
Actually Americans were all along ignorant of religious history and
philosophy, although every sect in the world has come to be found
here, and several new sects are born every year. No country has had
so many of them, counting from the beginning. Going beyond
"religion" into the realm of cults of magic, voodoo, charismatic
leaders, religious diet, yoga, psychic health, and so on, again
America has led the world in their creation
going back to the earliest times.
Modeling itself after World War II on American law,
Japan soon was awash in sects and cults,
231,019 of them having been
registered by 1993; millions of Japanese were
claimed by two or more sects.
Probably the Americans numbered as many or more;
thousands went unregistered. Their particular
cult usually told and tells Americans to
ignore the others, and, if of no cult, they were
not informed of religion in the schools, nor by the
mass media. Society was and remained
irreligious and profane. At the same time, popular
churches and religions dominated American popular
culture in the Nineteenth Century and continued to do so in the
Twentieth Century. One may justifiably
demand clarification of the apparent contradiction.
Probably one explanation is that "Jacksonian democracy"
included widespread religious democracy,
near to anarchy very often.
But there are other reasons for the intermingling of the sacred and
the profane and major developments overtook religion in late
nineteenth century America. Definitions may be let to intrude:
Religiousness is the mind when it is contemplating what it deems to
be the sacred and is doing its bidding.
The American population could be fitted along the continuum of
religiousness from zero to nearly a total preoccupation. Religious
rites - or worship - are external practices labeled as religious, and
are usually activated to put one in a mood to contemplate and
conduct oneself religiously. Ritual may be
group-performed or personal
. American sects have varied ritually from the most simplistic to the
highly ritualistic. Each sect in turn has had a history of internal
fluctuation from its average, simplistic to ritualistic and vice versa;
thus, its pastors may don ordinary clothing or ceremonial gowns;
prayers may be elaborated, or cut back; confession of
sin may be public, then private.
A religion or sect or cult is a set and system of practices of a group
to accommodate the wish to be religious. America had hundreds of
these in the beginning, given the diversity of Indian nations and the
quick settlement of a dozen European sects on the continent. Despite
the extinction of most Indian nations, the sects increased into the
thousands; in the 1890's there were 143 denominations and 150
independent congregations of considerable size. But of the
congregations a hundred had less than 25,000 members.
And of minor cults, there were thousands.
So, too, today.
All are easily subsumed under several large and more significant
groupings in the creation of the total picture, never forgetting that to
the individual American significance lies in his or her special
religion, indeed in a personal religion. Strangely, in America, where
the crush for uniformity has been great and religion has like
everywhere in the world been an instrument pressing for
conformity, a great number of people have used the American
religious system to escape some measure of conformity by
setting up their own churches.
The word "denomination " is used for sect; that usage began in the
early 1700's and we find Benjamin Franklin speaking of "all sects and
denominations" interchangeably. Probably the word sect was acquiring
the onus of a fraction too small to be important and also outré, so that
denomination came to be the more respectable word, all the more as
sects multiplied and provided
embarrassments to the reputable clergy.
Also part of our petite lexicon, "fundamentalist" came to designate
those who believed every word of the Old and New Testaments of
the Bible and tried to live by them. Evangelists were those who went
forward to preach personal conversion to the multitude.
Millennialists and Adventists preached that the Second Coming of
Christ was to occur soon, and often accompanied their
prognostications with the dire forebodings of the Apocalypse,
according to which vision of St. John, the Second Coming would be
attended by all manner of disaster and an appropriate consignment
of people to Heaven or Hell. It was estimated in these years that
95% of Protestant church members were evangelicals.
When to fundamentalism and evangelism were added millennialism and
ecstaticism, one had the powerful brew of millions of Americans. Brew
it was, for there was a negative correlation always between possession
by these three states of belief and possession by alcohol. "Dry"
America emerged most forcibly from them. Americans originating
from Mediterranean or Asiatic cultures had less of both possessions.
There is a psychological state that can be called pseudo-religiousness
and pseudo-religion or secular religion. This occurs when a people
satisfy all of the definitions above, except that they deny that they are
being religious. Usually this occurs in two forms: with those who claim
to be scientific and non-religious, but do not follow the scientific
method, and instead worship at the altar of science; and with those
who deny religion, but are thoroughly superstitious, and even may be
dedicated to magic.
You may add to the scientoid those political systems and
political practices that are religious in all but name:
the worship of a dictator like Stalin or Hitler
replete with ideas and rituals, and
employing a religious litany and language,
even with a bible such as Hitler's Mein Kampf.
Marxist communism claimed to follow scientific
procedures in the determination of its principles,
but enforced such principles religiously and compulsively.
Both nazi and communist movements visited America.
But these do not exhaust our categories of the irreligious.
Additionally are those who are cynics and experimentalists,
dethroning all belief systems to the best of their ability, and we can
associate with this rather small and sophisticated group all the
disbelievers, backsliders, non-professing, unconcerned, inattentive
people. A fair example in literature would be the immensely
productive journalist of the early Twentieth Century,
Finally are all those who observe the external rites of a religion, but in
reality are using them largely to achieve other values.
Here to be placed are the people who in fact "worship Mammon;"
the wealth-accruing value dominates them, and they pretend to
religiousness in order to facilitate achievement of their true interest
among the adherents to the church.
Here, too, are all those who wittingly or unwittingly, hypocritically,
use the religious system to procure more of the goods of respect (for
being religious, etc.)
of knowledge (e.g., what is going on in the community, of who the
enemy is alleged to be, and of what religion is all about),
of affection (e.g., by displaying oneself in church, by meeting
people through the religion, by being officially forgiven - restoring
the love of the deity),
of well-being (by the soothing mental effects on neurosis that
performing ritual and gaining benevolent attention bring),
and of power (as in meeting prospective voters, obtaining collective
support of a congregation and denomination, arranging political
campaigns through the church connections, and demonstrating one's
devotion to God's work).
The changing membership of Protestant denominations during the
Gilded Age is part of the swelling up and out of social class
configurations, so that religious convictions following the professional
theologians (almost none existed to follow anyhow) were readily put
aside in favor of convenience and social climbing
as grounds for belonging to this or that church - the same family in
a larger town, for instance, joining in succession a Baptist,
Methodist, Congregational and Episcopal Church,
as one's wealth increased.
The Baptist church began as a community church in places such as
Providence, Rhode Island, but became a people's church, the poorer
people indeed, so that Baptists became on the average the poorest
people in the country, not excepting the originally penurious,
recently immigrant Catholics; adherence by great numbers of
Southern Whites and Blacks explains the paucity of affluent Baptists;
correspondingly, the ritual simplicity and bare surroundings of the
Baptist churches, with their isolated and independent congregations,
held great appeal to poorer people.
Only the Catholic Church in America was open and available to all
social strata, and, to a larger extent than in Europe, was ruled by
priests of humble social origins.
The theory of evolution as a result of natural selection and the total
dismissal of the divine from biological change - Darwinism it was
often called, from its sparking by Charles Darwin in 1860 -transported
a major proportion of the intelligentsia (as we may call those whose
lives are characterized by non-routine mental work) into agnosticism,
belief merely in an otiose god, and atheism.
Before Darwin there had come, of course, the Enlightenment,
Freemasonry, and Materialistic Socialism, the outbursting Social
Science of Auguste Compte(with a religion of Progress that he
invented to go with it), and St. Simon in France, and generally a
lowering of human eyes from the heavens, so Darwinism's
effects were all the more apparent.
There came, too, a tumult of findings in the sciences of chemistry,
biology, and geology. George Lyell, Darwin's friend and supporter,
routed the catastrophists in England, hence in the United States,
with his theory of incremental changes over long periods of time as
the explanation for the tallest mountains and
deepest seas and all in-between.
Can one dare to estimate the proportions of such persons in the late
nineteenth century, or, in fact, for any given period of American
history? One may do so, with little chance of success, for even to do
so with the people of today would entail a large random sample of
the population followed by personal interviews in depth and an
analysis by computer at the hands of a group of highly qualified
If we cannot get such a project off the boards in these days, we
cannot expect more than the poorest ore to be extracted with the
greatest cost for times gone by. Intimidated by this thought, we shall
leave it for the more pedestrian task of tracing the continuing
career of the various religious denominations of the nation.
In 1850 there had been a million Catholics, nearly three million
Methodists, over 1.5 million Baptists, and just under a million
Presbyterians. By 1870 the Methodists with 3.7 millions slightly
exceeded the Catholics; Baptists and Presbyterians had risen
modestly in numbers, with 2.1 and 1.2 millions. By 1890, Catholics
exceeded Methodists, (7.3 to 7.1 millions), but Baptists had risen to
5.9 millions, and the Presbyterians to 1.9. The trend to Catholicism
continued until about 17% of the total population and 30% of all
adherents to churches was reached by World War I.
Though we have yet to cap these figures, it may be said here that
generally Catholics came to number about a third of the population,
Protestants another third, and non-sectarians and secularists
another third after World War II.
Respecting intellectual and social issues, the secular one-third has
always leaned to the Protestant side, preferring it to the centralized,
coordinated, sometimes more conservative Catholic Church, with its
segregated elite of priests, friars and nuns, and its
cosmopolitan leadership in the Vatican and elsewhere.
The demographics often caused confusion; the concentration of
Protestants in small towns and country gave them to believe and
act often as if America was theirs. Their isolation also led them to
believe that other Protestants were like them. But the differences
among Protestant sects was profound. In this period particularly,
evangelistic Protestants came to be distinguished from the more
urbane and establishment groups, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians
and Episcopalians, and the very small but influential groups of Quakers
(who had forgotten how to quake),
Christian Scientists, and Unitarians.
Mary Baker Eddy of New Hampshire
founded the Church of Christ Scientist in 1879,
consecrated to the emulation
of Jesus's role as healer,
and substituted spiritual healing for
conventional medicine as far as possible.
A small group, widely scattered in
over a thousand churches
and societies around the world,
well integrated socially and intellectually.
Predecessors of Humanists and Ethical Culture affiliates were
getting ready to play an important role on the fringe of religion with
their attempts to derive systematic ethics from the
discoveries of science. Their time had not yet come.
A more extreme cult, practitioners of Scientology,
came forward under L. Ron Hubbard even later,
in 1954, professing beliefs in reincarnation over
millions of years and a form of psychotherapy that
sought to release one from the grip of
harmfully bad memories. It was opposed by
practically all other religious groups.
The racial separatism of American churches, existing little changed
to this day, conveys as much as anything else, perhaps as much as
job discrimination and civil rights abuses, the failure of the
American myths of equality and fraternity. Less than 15% of the
African-American church members belonged to the Roman Catholic
Church (8.4%) and bi-racial Protestant churches (5.1) in a
The mingling of races in America has been mostly in secular
settings. Inasmuch as the African churches provided services to their
members that arose out of their special social conditions, their
separatism permitted the expression of their own leadership and
techniques of consolation and redress.
Still, the White churches could have provided, as they did in a few
cases, more generous help and a more powerful lift on the way up in
society for individuals of another race, not to mention the many
White souls who would presumably enhance thereby their
momentum toward salvation.
Otherwise about 60% of African-Americans practice their rites in
their separate Baptist churches, in about 35, 000 Baptist
congregations. Some 6,000 churches belong to the African
Methodist Episcopal faith, another 6000 to the African Methodist
Episcopal Zion, 2,300 to the Christian Methodist Episcopal, 10,000
in the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, 550 in other Pentecostal
rites, and the rest belong to a number of religions.
If one can generalize about so disparate a set of churches, one would
say that African-American congregations in this period were
individualistic and personal, socially expressive, non-controversial,
non-racist, non-vindictive, but engaged in social gospel work to take
care of the minimal emergency needs of their own flocks.
Perhaps the most significant development in American Protestantism
began in a ramshackle church in Los Angeles in 1906 where a self-educated
African-American named William Joseph Seymour preached
to a few hearers that the Holy Spirit mentioned in the Acts of the
Apostles of Christ was willing to descend again upon the faithful and
would do so. Fascinated by his words, his hearers began to experience
an understanding of one another, despite differences in language, and
enjoyed sensations of healing,
both social and physical.
Christians, said Seymour, had heretofore built formal creeds and
hierarchies that set people apart from each other; God, beginning
with the destruction of the pretentious Tower of Babel, had
condemned mankind to confusion and misunderstanding. But now
the Great Day had come via the Holy Spirit; believers prayed,
danced in the aisles with shouts of joy; they felt salvation was theirs.
Racial divisions would be no more.
The Church of God in Christ expanded rapidly, taking in people of all
races and languages. The American Whites pulled out in the 1920's,
returned to the fold in the 1990's; an equality of races was agreed upon
for the counci,l overseeing what were now twenty-five different bodies.
But meanwhile other Pentecostal churches sprang up in America and
around the world, and soon constituted the largest non-Catholic
Christian denomination in the world. Its people include millions of the
poor, and a small representation of the more affluent classes, thus
representing the real proportions of the
world as only the giant confessions,
Roman Catholic and Islam, do.
Adverting to the membership of non-African congregations, we find
that in the late nineteenth century Methodist congregations were
claiming less members than their largest competitor, the Baptists, for
the Protestant lower income bulk. In 1850, Methodists held 117
adherents per 1000 Americans, Baptists 70; in 1890, Baptists closed in
with 94 to the Methodists' 114; by 1926, the churches reversed priorities,
the Baptists now holding 106 to the Methodists' 101.
This occurred despite the intellectualizing and seminarizing of
Methodism, indeed because of it. For the Baptists, especially in the
South, increased their part-time intensely motivated pastorate living
close to its folk. In the South, Baptists surpassed Methodists in
numbers already in 1890. About then, too, the Baptist-related
Disciples of Christ reached out to a million members. The Baptist
gains in the South came largely because they were the religion of the
continued Southern insurrection against the Union.
While the Methodists tended to accommodate to a new urban-industrial
civilization, and therefore waned in the face of Catholics
and secularism, the Baptists waxed precisely on the basis of their
resentments and ignominy - military, economic, political, and
social. One writer (J.W.Flynt) tells that " they created a version of
American civil religion, baptizing the 'lost cause' in the
blood of the lamb"
Speaking not in these hard terms but in the language of practical
theology with a strong functionalist or pragmatic bent, Edgar Young
Mullins defined the creedless faith of the Southern Baptists. He was
a defender of Evangelical Baptism, exponent of poet John Milton's
Inner Light, expounding a personal relationship of the true believer
with his God. His influence was enduring, overthrown finally in the
seventies of the twentieth century by the complete
anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalist right.
The Baptists became the American rural equivalent of a proletarian
movement, emotionally demonstrative in their rites, and politically
and racially aggressive. As we have noted before, Black and White
movements have mirrored each other; African Baptists were equally
numerous, but confined by the rules of the 100-year war of
reconstruction to the expressive and service aspects of Baptism.
Losses in market share did not affect the growing role of Methodism
as the heartland church of Protestantism. We recall that the church
originated already acclimated to industrialism in England. John
Wesley, whose teachings of salvation by faith alone deliberately
repudiated Calvinism in the 1740's, insisted upon method and order
in daily life and religion. His was an enormously persuasive
evangelical formula, complete with circuit-riding ministers who
brought the good word to the smallest hamlet. They crossed the
ocean in 1766 and quickly rounded up souls by the tens of
thousands. Within the span of a memorial generation, they had
recruited over a million members.
With the Baptists, they made up the Bible Belt, the region crossing
the United States from East Coast to the Rockies, and including much
of the South, not so much of the North, characterized by
fundamentalism, evangelism, ecstaticism, and millennialism in
religion, with conservative and paranoiac
attitudes in politics and mores.
One might wonder where the progenitor of all these religions would
be in this fluid period of religiosity in America: Judaism. As had
been the case for two thousand years, Judaism was no missionary
religion. It was a defensive religion, seeking to guarantee its
survival in the face of repeated attempts to destroy it.
In America it did somewhat more, but always within its Jewish
provenance: typically American, it split up into fundamentalists,
orthodox, and reform, then other sects as well, Re-constructionists,
even sliding off into Ethical Culture, Theosophists, and
Jews for Jesus.
Reform Judaism held most of the rich and even after Eastern
European Jews began to be numbered among the rich, the Reform
Temple over-represented German-Jews, Spanish-Portuguese Jews,
and other Jews of older American origins, and came to resemble
Congregationalism in manner and purposes. Elohim more than
Yahweh was their God.
The Orthodox and Fundamentalists shaded off from this in the
direction of the religion of the East European village; it was the
religion of the shtetl, the settlements of the Jewish Pale of
(enforced) Settlement under czarism, which extended from Warsaw
to Minsk and from Vilna to the Black Sea from the eighteenth
century to the First World War. This Orthodox Judaism became the
defensive uncomfortable immigrant religion, marching aggressively,
however, under American conditions, like the Roman centurions
who advanced with most of their hundred shields held overhead.
Losses to the secular elements of society were heavy. A typical
young American Jew of the late century (and his counterpart in
Western Europe behaved in the same way) shed the temple for the
marketplace or the agnostic intelligentsia as soon and as completely
as one could. Although they remained ethnically Jewish, a large
number of male Jews (socialist, agnostic, hating superstition)
discouraged the survival of Judaism in America; probably half the
male Jews of the second generation did the same. The Orthodox,
feeling embattled socially, like the Baptists, retained their fervor and
their communicants more successfully than did the Reform groups.
The thrust of religion in this period opposed women's rights.
Possibly the women activists were too rational, sober, and secular
for the great body of female and male Protestants to embrace. There
was no pulling themselves away from the Southern reconstructionist
rebellion. The Catholic Church found its greatest support from the
Irishwomen of the immigrant period, as we said earlier, but this
involved a partnership with the priesthood, a junior and willing
relationship, a highly productive one, but not the equal and
creative role that feminism would have.
The feminist movement found its leaders and activists among the
rather dissociated or loosely associated members of the old
established and unaggressive Protestant churches of the Northeast. It
began to find them, too, among young Jewish women of East
European origin and migrants from the West and South.
Susan B. Anthony was outstanding as writer, organizer, and agitator
for women's rights. She paid out of pocket to print her excellent
diatribes on the subject. In mid-career, 1872, she led a group of
women to the polls, who received ballots, marked them, and cast them
into the ballot box. She soon found herself indicted for illegal voting;
after several hours of hearing, the judge brusquely ordered the jury to
bring in a guilty verdict, then finally cut through a barrage of argument
and denunciation from Miss Anthony to fine
her, a fine that she refused to pay, but she was
not jailed in the end either.
At the end of her life at the age of 86, she said to a friend, "I have
been striving for over sixty years for a little bit of justice no bigger
than that [showing part of a finger] and yet I must die without
obtaining it. Oh, it seems so cruel."
Besides the Irishwomen who labored on behalf of the Church stood a
great many nuns of several nationalities. In 1820 there were
already 270 of them, more than priests, who counted 150. The ratio
of nuns to lay Catholics was 1.4 per thousand. By 1870 the number
was 11,424 as against 3,780 priests, a ratio of three to one, and 2.5
against the lay element. By 1900, the ratio of nuns to priests was
four to one, the ratio to laypersons was 4.1 per thousand, and there
were in all 49,620 of them. For every thousand Catholics there were
4.1 women-religious and one priest.
At the same time, there had grown up a network of friars of various
orders, ranging from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Canada to
Mexico; they lived in their communities, sometimes doing social
work or running schools, or taking care of their own souls, and
sometimes helping a parish priest. Protestant ministers were more
numerous, but many of them were serving part-time.
The most remarkable priest of the early Irish parishes of New York
City was Felix Varela, no Irishman at all but a Cuban who had fled
the authorities of the Island after leading its fight for independence
of Spain. The most powerful of Catholic religious leaders of the
times was John Hughes, Bishop of New York. His problems were
numerous and immense.
Though Irish, he could be tougher with his Irish priests and laymen
than with the Germans, French, and Italians who had some
considerable numbers in the district, especially then the Germans,
for Italians had yet to arrive in large numbers. The Germans, he
said, were "exceedingly prone to division and strife among
themselves." When Catholic refugees of the 1848 revolution arrived,
he found their interest in public school education and parishioners'
control of the churches obnoxious. The Germans wanted to bury
their dead apart from the Irish cemetery, whose custodians, they
contended, were insulting and mishandled the burials;
he would have none of this.
As for the Irish, too, at one point several of their priests so
exasperated him with talk of their rights that he threatened to teach
them County Monaghan canon law, and "send them back to the bogs
whence they came." Italians held one major parish and this he
disbanded, forcing the exile of the priest, who had tried to interpose
his will on the Bishop.
His successors pursued and maintained his tight controls over the
parishes. His "bossism" was in accord with the trend of the times at
the Vatican, and whether it was the church or the city government
that came first beneath the bosses, it was surely the Irish hierarchy
that at first, with its own bossed constituency in hand, dealt with the
Anglo-Dutch bosses of Tammany and later for a century
comfortably with the Irish bosses, a line spreading and ending with
Richard Daley of Chicago.
The American Catholic Church was in its beginnings French,
Spanish, and internationalist. When the great immigrations of Catholics
from Ireland and Germany occurred in the second quarter
of the nineteenth century, the Irish, equipped with the English
language and used to resisting British of all types, especially their
fellows of Ulster, took over the leading posts. They were less
educated and less culturally sophisticated than the Germans: the
Germans built finer churches, and established classical music in
their churches. Both groups were poverty-stricken manual
laborers to begin with.
The Germans moved into farming, smaller towns, skilled labor and
engineering management. The Irish went for the political jugular.
Their tastes and conduct were so different that they would usually
have to build separate churches even though living in close
proximity. Actually, the various ethnic strains of Catholicism
developed and supported their own churches.
In time Italics came to have a plurality of members, 22%, followed
by Irish, Germanics, French-Canadian and Poles, Hispanics,
Eastern European, English and Lithuanian.
The Italic strain is found in all regions at the 10% or higher level,
except for the West North Central States, and with its highest
representation in the strategic Middle Atlantic States. The Germanic
strain is found in the Church of the East and North Central States
most prominently, 22 and 44% of the Catholics respectively, but
rarely in New England. Irish Catholics are distributed around the
country. Hispanics are concentrated in the Middle Atlantic and
West, Polish Catholics in the East North Central region.
Between three and seven percent of the
Catholics in the nation are of British origin.
If ever proof were needed of the continued organizational genius of
the Roman Catholic Church it came here in this period in America
when the hierarchy held like the strongest spider net the incoming
and out-struggling groups. As with the Southern Baptists and other
churches under societal fire such as the Mormons, the Catholic church
to a considerable extent was compacted by the
external discrimination against it.
When the large Catholic immigration to New England was on, in 1835,
the famous preacher Lyman Beecher told his Congregational
flock that his Roman sources were warning of a Papal plot,with
which local Catholics were co-conspirators, that was being hatched
to seize control of the Mississippi Valley, a false rumor of course. (The
next evening, the Ursaline Convent school of Boston was
burned down by a mob.)
Later we shall note how, when Catholicism reached a high measure
of success and adaptation in America, it began to lose
members, clergy, and routine worshipers. Again the Celtic analogy
could apply. The Celtic Irish Catholics mirrored the Celtic Southern
Baptists. They were a defeated and poverty-stricken, largely
illiterate people. One stood for the Northern urban laboring classes,
the other for the Southern rural laboring classes. Each was
aggressive and political in its own sphere. Each would fight the
other for control of the national political parties for a century, the
Northern Irish being the quitters first because they prospered more
and could not so well champion the poor.
Both groups gave ground to satisfy their rank and file, reducing the
more complex cultures of their respective churches to more simple
formulas and devices. Both were tense religious groups, raising their
religion as a flag against all outsiders; both were evangelical
churches, although the Irish had mainly to keep their own people in
the faith against the hostile cultures and forces around them. Both
reproduced children at high rates.
By 1886 over half the Catholic bishops were Irish, by 1900 two-thirds.
This condition was to change, but the church was indelibly
marked by the Celtic occupation. The Church was
The often-reprinted catechism was put into every child's hands and
learned by rote. The Church zeroed in upon the parish, aiming
chiefly to preserve the faith. Parishioners were to be baptized,
confirmed, given communion and confession at least annually,
married, and buried in segregated cemeteries by their priest.
The Church organized a parallel set of auxiliaries so that Catholics
would not be drawn to Protestant-dominated organizations. The
Church set up fraternities and sororities, social services, recreation
programs for youth and adults, revival assemblies, summer camps,
orphanages, charities, and, of course, offered a pageantry,
processions, feasts, holidays, and the like, overall to dwarf
the stripped-down Protestantism characterizing most of America.
All of this activity and its Protestant equivalent has to be considered
repeatedly to understand why so many Americans resisted the
assumption of social functions by government. They would haply
believe that a full and proper volunteerism could take on all
collective obligations and perform them with a spirit
alien to politics and bureaucracy.
The social gospel did emerge strongly in these decades. German
influences were strong in defining and agitating for the concept.
Religion was no longer to be concentrated upon Heaven and its
occupants. Citing relevant passages of the gospels and Old
Testament (all religions are complete; they have a divine word for
every situation), it was to confront the social ills of mankind and
offer support to their treatment, whether by the church or by the
state or both together.
The movement was Protestant and rather highbrow. Its early
sponsors were Josiah Strong, who led the Evangelical Alliance and
sponsored conferences, and Graham Taylor who taught his theories
at Chicago Theological Seminary and practiced them at the Chicago
Commons settlement house. The movement blended well into the
agenda of the Federal Council of Churches after this was formed; it
affected Jewish philanthropic activities as well.
Few Jews are anti-semitic, yet a great many devotees of Christianity
are, whether lay or clergy. Generally speaking, the closer one gets
to the core of a Christian sect, ancient Israel and the Old Testament,
the more anti-semitic vibrations one senses. Thus it is a corollary
that the closer the relation to Judaism the more the
tendency to anti-semitism.
Another prevalent attitude complex is anti-foreignism, isolationism,
and anti-immigration. Here the situation again is the above: the closer
to the core, the farther from tolerance. The same is true of
tolerance of other American sects. Another strange correlation
relates to the popularity of a sect: the larger the numbers of a
Protestant sect the more likely its members to hold strong prejudices in
politics, race, religion and personal life.
The religiously devout were the most concerned about corruption in
American life and most likely to blame others for the problem. In
regard to science, the more devout were the most hostile, in all
denominations. The same is true with respect to women's rights, the
right to divorce, and the right to masturbate (for this last is a
personal right that American religious groups have expended
enormous stretches of time and energy to extirpate - by assuring
hell to small boys and girls, by inventing contra-diddling
contraptions as cruel as traps intended for wild animals, etc.)
Anti-radicalism and hyper-Americanism also proceed apace as one
nears the core membership of a sect. Prostitution, fornication,
contraception, abortion, and racial miscegenation make a can of
wormy issues that activate with the intensity of affiliation and
conviction. Teetotalism is definitely Protestant, lowbrow religion to all
drinkers, but the Catholics are exceptional as tipplers on all levels. All
denominations are pro-prayer in the schools, although the prayer that
emerges always is infantile prattle: "God is great, God is good, we
thank Him for our food, amen," or some such, said in
one breath mechanically and inattentively.
Even this would probably be deemed judicially to be
unconstitutional; still, throughout this period, prayer, Bible
teachings, and Sunday School exhortations flourished in the public
schools around the nation. The family was exalted, first in its
prolific and extended form, then, when that became hopeless as the
norm, in the form of the nuclear family of two parents forever
united raising two or three children. This concept failed miserably
within a century's time but continued to the end of the twentieth
century as the national ideal, preferably to be enforced by law, if
anyone could think of a way to enforce it.
As shall be shown, American religion in this period
exercised its appetite for imperialism.
It sent its minions abroad by the thousands.
The Mormons even decided that every Latter Day Saint
must go abroad to convert all nations. By Y2K,
half of all Mormons dwelled outside of the USA.
(Of course, some would say that the Mormons
were not even Christian, but in fact the Mormon
religion is peculiarly American.)
The Hawaiian Islands were literally conquered by
As a final trait of 90+% of all of American religious practitioners, I
perceive anti-intellectualism and hostility to cultural sophistication.
So much for church attitudes in America, carried, it must be said, often
by generous, hard-working, well-wishing souls. Even in the most
remote and small congregation of any religious group in
America you might find the needle in the haystack - persons who
were compatible emotionally, attitudinally, intellectually,
What I am saying about the norms of American sects is not intended
to and should not frighten any reader unduly. Still, to conclude, I
must repeat the quadrilogy of American religion, including even
some part of the Catholic church and of Judaism: fundamentalism,
millennialism, evangelism, ecstaticism. All of these are wrapped up
in a personalism, a one-to-one offer to God, who is implored to
accept less and less in return from the petitioner.
A typical American, whatever his obeisance to others, would like
to constitute a religion of one, as Jefferson declared of himself. He
is, if a good person, rather like the Ojibwa Indian who seeks a life
of longevity, health, and freedom from misfortunes, and is made to
dream as a young adolescent of a personal relation to a great spirit,
with whose immanent appearance - once one dreams well - one
will have a lifelong relationship and will do one a good turn when it
is needed; and all of this will permit the Ojibwa to fulfill his simple
wants, be generous to others, assume mutual obligations with one's
neighbors, and be unselfish.
There is an individualism and collective and divine relationship that
is most suggestive of the shape of American religiousness as a
whole. Invariably frustrated in the perfect solipsistic religion,
Americans would like next best to be part of a religion of all, of
unanimity, of extreme majoritarianism. This would not be likely
-- this authoritarianism of the majority.
We must leave the Americans uncomfortable with their religions.
At the one side stands Protestantism, with an authoritarian God and
a libertarian church. At the other side stands Catholicism, with a
libertarian God and an authoritarian church. Most Americans by far
circulated nervously in-between, then in the
Gilded Age, as now.