Evangelicals and the Building of an American Culture

Chapter 10 of America’s God discusses the cultural consequences of the rapid expansion of evangelicalism.  How, he asks, did evangelicalism come to play such an important role in the culture?

While crediting the interpretations of Gordon Wood, Robert Wiebe, and Nathan Hatch that stress the importance of the destruction of hierarchies by the American Revolution, he also believes that the evangelical churches helped to build the national culture in a way that has been underappreciated by historians.  He agrees with John Murrin’s statement that American society at the time of the adoption of the Constitution (1787) was “a roof without walls” (195).  In other words, it had a political framework without the national culture to support it.  Evangelicalism helped to supply this national culture.

This happened in two ways.  Evangelicals built social organizations, and not only denominational networks.  By the 1830s, voluntary agencies like Bible and Christian literature distribution societies contrasted with the local nature of most publishing.  Missionary societies that targeted the frontier and the world represented important means of connection to the frontier and non-European world.  Societies that aided the poor and promoted access to higher education took on roles that had not yet been taken on by any governments.  Noll compares the proliferation of Methodist churches and clergy with post offices and postal employees, finding similar patterns of expansion.  The post office was an important means of unifying the nation, but evangelicalism easily outdid the post office.

Secondly, evangelicals helped to supply an ideological base for the nation.  As Noll described earlier in the book, evangelical theology had come to terms with two pillars of the American Revolution, republican political theory and commonsense moral reasoning.  Noll writes that republican political theory held that freedom required virtue, and many of the founders believed that virtue needed to be upheld by religion.  This religion largely came to be evangelicalism, even though many of the most critical founders were publicly attached to it.  Churches did well in this new environment as they were not formally established but became a critical part of the cultural establishment.

This passage summed up Noll’s point well:

If for evangelicals during the Revolution “the cause of America” had become “the cause of Christ,” as the Pennsylvania Presbyterian Robert Smith put it in 1781, then the achievement of independence meant that, for many patriots, “the cause of Christ had become also “the cause of America.”  The belief that the United States was a land chosen and protected by God for special, if perhaps even millennial, purposes may not have been as widely spread during the War for Independence as is sometimes suggested.  But it did flourish in the decades after the war.  If networks of evangelical denominations and voluntary societies were building national walls under a constitutional roof, so also was the sense of elect nationhood, which was a peculiarly evangelical construction, making a significant contribution as well. (206)

This chapter was quite provocative, providing examples of how evangelicalism integrated itself into the national framework.  As Noll wrote, his explanation needs more than a few pages to be completely persuasive, but he seems to provide at least a plausible explanation for this process.

After this, I will be posting shorter entries on each chapter.



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