A Whirlwind Tour of Christianity in the 19th Century

by Providence Crowder

Inexplicable is the best term to describe how Christianity managed to survive the nineteenth century; an era marked by wars, political and cultural upheavals, skepticism, and a profound anti-Christian sentiment.  On the American and European continents, a whirlwind of controversy reshaped the continuously evolving Christian landscape and brought about new Christian movements, new religions, and innovations in Christian evangelism.  Aside from being challenged by contemporary theories in science and economics, Catholicism more so than Protestantism bore injury to their sovereignty by the increasing separation between the church and state.  Protestantism, in contrast, found within the political and economic liberalism that had seized their lands, an ally against the antiquated religious hierarchy of the past.[1]  Several nineteenth century social, political, and religious developments are celebrated as major victories for Christianity while others remain to be challenges of which Christians struggle to manage.

Major Social and Political Developments of the Nineteen Century

One major victory for Christianity during the nineteenth century was the end of worldwide slavery.  In Europe, at the dawn of the century, the British Parliament issued laws forbidding the slave trade.[2]  The British strengthened their anti-slavery position some years later by seeking treaties with other nations who agreed with them to end the slave trade.  By the year 1833, “Freedom was decreed for all slaves in the British Caribbean” and other colonies.  In North America, the issue of slavery divided not only the secular populace, but Christendom; some in the church declared slavery to be against the law of God while others preached it was an institution sanctioned by God.[3]  Nonetheless, slavery in America persisted until pro-slavery supporters lost the Civil War, thus bringing American slavery to an abrupt end.

Despite abolishing of slavery, all was not well on the American frontier.  Social and political dissentions surrounding the newly freed slaves gave rise to new Christian denominations.  Segregation laws and other discriminatory laws often time prevented blacks and whites from worshipping together; therefore, Black Baptists and Methodists began forming their own congregations. Among the new denominations were the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.  These institutions, along with others, played a vital role in securing racial equality and civil rights for blacks in America.[4]

In Europe, the Industrial Revolution ushered in a myriad of social concerns when the revolution overtook the continent.  Due to industry and increased trade, the effects of the revolution were disastrous for the poor as cities everywhere experienced explosive population growths.[5]  Resultantly, the impoverished found themselves living in overcrowded slums and working in substandard conditions.  These conditions set the stage for a concerted Christian response to relieve the poor of their misery.  The YMCA and the YWCA were among the Christian initiatives that sought to “serve the urban masses.”  The Salvation Army, founded by Methodist Preacher William Booth, also became known for its relief work among the poor. [6]

Industrialization was one among several factors that contributed to the mass immigration from Europe to the United States.  The Napoleonic Wars, the French Revolution, the Peasant Revolt and other wars and uprisings of the nineteenth century contributed to the wariness of people who were tired of war and desperate for political and social unity. [7]  Many of these people migrated west in hopes of land and new opportunities.

The mass migration of immigrants westward in search of a better life presented unique challenges for the Catholic Church in America, its largest Christian denomination, by causing power struggles and cultural clashes between the individuals of various nationalities. The English, French, German, Irish, Polish, and Hispanic parishioners each preferred to be governed by a hierarchy that would preserve its own culture and tradition. [8]   Eventually “Catholicism in the United States would be characterized by its cultural diversity and by the degree to which that diversity and the pressure of the surrounding culture have limited the traditional power of the hierarchy.”[9]

Religious Developments of the Nineteenth Century

Traditional Christianity was losing ground in Europe and in the Americas.  A new age of scientific reasoning, intellect, and human progress threatened to brand Christianity as an antiquated and barbaric superstition that hindered human progress.  The Enlightenment philosophes in particular brought about a “radical reassessment of biblical history.” During this era, “Everything was looked at with critical and skeptical eyes and rewritten with a rigor that attempted to exclude superstition, legend, myth, and propagandizing lies.  Previous to the Enlightenment, history was not written for its own sake, but was written to show God, Nation, or Morality.” [10] Protestant Christians were more open to employ the current thoughts in sociology, anthropology, and psychology, preferring to “interpret their ancient faith in terms of the new frame of mind” more so than their Catholic counterparts.  For that reason Protestant Christians, particularly Methodists and Baptists flourished amidst the challenges to Orthodox Christianity that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis of the human psyche, and Karl Marx’s socialist views and economic theories had posed.[11]

With the theological challenges that the “modern” ideas had presented for Christianity, new religious movements, many of which strayed from traditional Christianity, flourished.  For example, Unitarianism rejected the doctrine of the trinity and stressed human freedom and intellectual capabilities; Universalism believed that in the end all would be saved; [12] Protestant Liberalism attempted to mold Christianity with the modern ideas that had gained wide acceptance among the intellectual elite;[13] and Fundamentalism was an anti-liberal reaction which sought to characterize and reteach the fundamentals of the Christian faith.[14]  Some denominations had strayed so far away from traditional Christianity that they could almost be classified as new religions.  Among them are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Christian Science advocates. [15]

How Christianity survived the complex issues, new denominations, and false religions of the nineteenth century is miraculous.  Amidst the apparent chaos came “a Second Great Awakening which began in New England.”   This awakening was characterized by a sudden earnestness in Christian devotion and living.  The societies that were born as a result of this rekindling of the faith took on many social ills of the day.  The Awakening spread beyond the borders of Europe to the Americas as people migrated westward.  Revivals, or “camp meetings,” became an intricate part of the Protestant Christian’s social experience after the popularity of the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801.  Finney said of revivals, “God has found it necessary to take advantage of the excitability there is in mankind, to produce powerful excitements among them, before he can lead them to obey.”[16]  Even with a refreshing and revitalization of the faith, some Protestant denominations during this era became more emotional and less intellectual.

Methodists and Baptists instituted Sunday School to combat the spirit of anti-intellectualism and to educate the biblically illiterate since there were no educational facilities on the new American frontier.  As well, Methodists began using lay preachers; those men who “felt called by the Lord,” to supplement the lack of ordained clergy in America.  Subsequently, Methodists and Baptists became the largest Protestant denominations in America.[17]

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 (Peabody Mass: Prince Press, 1999), 273.

[2] Ibid., 272.

[3] Gonzalez, 251

[4] Ibid., 252.

[5] Ibid., 271.

[6] Ibid., 254.

[7] Gonzalez, 243-244.

[8] Ibid., 243.

[9] Ibid., 243.

[10] Eugene H. Peterson.  Working the Angles, The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1993), 32.

[11] Gonzalez, 284.

[12] Ibid, 240.

[13] Ibid, 256.

[14] Ibid, 257.

[15] Ibid, 258.

[16] Charles G. Finney.  “Lectures on Revivals of Religion.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/finney/revivals.iii.i.html (accessed on August 8, 2011).

[17] Gonzalez, 245.

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