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The Evangelicals

The Struggle to Shape America



About The Book

* Winner of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award
* National Book Award Finalist
* Time magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Book of the Year
* New York Times Notable Book
* Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2017

This “epic history” (The Boston Globe) from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Frances FitzGerald is the first to tell the powerful, dramatic story of the Evangelical movement in America—from the Puritan era to the 2016 election. “We have long needed a fair-minded overview of this vitally important religious sensibility, and FitzGerald has now provided it” (The New York Times Book Review).

The evangelical movement began in the revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, known in America as the Great Awakenings. A populist rebellion against the established churches, it became the dominant religious force in the country.

During the nineteenth century white evangelicals split apart, first North versus South, and then, modernist versus fundamentalist. After World War II, Billy Graham attracted enormous crowds and tried to gather all Protestants under his big tent, but the civil rights movement and the social revolution of the sixties drove them apart again. By the 1980s Jerry Falwell and other southern televangelists, such as Pat Robertson, had formed the Christian right. Protesting abortion and gay rights, they led the South into the Republican Party, and for thirty-five years they were the sole voice of evangelicals to be heard nationally. Eventually a younger generation proposed a broader agenda of issues, such as climate change, gender equality, and immigration reform.

Evangelicals now constitute twenty-five percent of the American population, but they are no longer monolithic in their politics. They range from Tea Party supporters to social reformers. Still, with the decline of religious faith generally, FitzGerald suggests that evangelical churches must embrace ethnic minorities if they are to survive. “A well-written, thought-provoking, and deeply researched history that is impressive for its scope and level of detail” (The Wall Street Journal). Her “brilliant book could not have been more timely, more well-researched, more well-written, or more necessary” (The American Scholar).


THE ORIGINS of evangelicalism as a distinct form of Protestantism lie in the revivals that swept back and forth across the English-speaking world and Northern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the American case, the revivals came in two waves. The earlier, known as the First Great Awakening, peaked in the 1740s but set off reverberations that continued to the time of the American Revolution. The later one, the Second Great Awakening, began just after the end of the War of Independence and continued intermittently in various parts of the country through the 1850s. Everywhere, the revivals involved a rebellion against the formalism of the established churches and an effort to recover an authentic spiritual experience: a religion of the heart, as opposed to the head. And everywhere, they introduced a new idea of conversion as a sudden, overwhelming experience of God’s grace. In Europe the established churches survived and incorporated the pietistic strain within their own traditions. But in America the revivals transformed Protestantism. They undermined the established churches, led to the separation of church and state, and created a marketplace of religious ideas in which new sects and denominations flourished. At the same time, they made evangelical Protestantism the dominant religious force in the country for most of the nineteenth century.

In America the periods were, not incidentally, ones of rapid demographic growth, and social, as well as political, change. The expansion of settlement and commerce opened space for initiative and innovation, and small, integrated communities dissolved into an expansive, mobile society. The itinerant revivalists themselves embodied this mobility and this reach. In offering individuals the possibility of a direct relationship with God they helped adjust the society to its new circumstances and to transform the hierarchical colonial order into the more egalitarian society of the nineteenth century. After the Revolution many of them explicitly preached individual freedom, the separation of church and state, voluntary association as a primary means of social organization, and republicanism as the best form of government. Awakenings, as the scholar William McLoughlin tells us, “are periods of cultural revitalization . . . that extend over a period of a generation or so, during which time a profound reorientation of beliefs and values takes place.”1

The two Great Awakenings are not just a matter of historical interest. Some of the attitudes formed at the time, such as the spirit of voluntarism, have become a part of our common heritage. Others have had a particular and lasting effect on American Protestantism. Indeed, to ask what is religiously or culturally distinctive about either mainline or evangelical Protestants today is to find that most explanatory roads lead back to their particular inheritance from the Great Awakenings. On the evangelical side, for example, the revivalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries pioneered mass evangelism and introduced new communications techniques that, with additions and modifications, have been used by evangelical preachers ever since. In their eagerness to save souls, the revivalists introduced vernacular preaching styles, de-emphasized religious instruction, and brought a populist, anti-intellectual strain into American Protestantism. Then, as most of them saw it, America was a Christian—read Protestant—nation.
The First Great Awakening
The First Great Awakening began among the Congregationalists, the direct heirs to the Puritans of New England, in the midst of what William McLoughlin and other historians have described as a crisis of religious authority. The Puritans had established close-knit communities, bound by covenant, where church and state cooperated in an effort to build a Holy Commonwealth. Calvinists, they believed that God, unreachable and unknowable, determined everything that went on in His creation and that human nature was totally corrupt (“utterly depraved”) and had been since Adam’s fall. Life, therefore, was a constant struggle with Satan. God, in their view, had reason to condemn all mankind to hell, but because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, He had arbitrarily decided to save an elect few “saints.” Through piety and soul-searching, men might come to hope they were among the elect and might experience an infusion of His grace. But whatever God willed, all men had a duty to help each other, to respect the clergy and the magistrates, and to obey the law. As reformers, the Puritans believed that God might work among them to create a New Jerusalem, “a city upon a hill,” if only men kept their covenant with God and submitted themselves to the will of the community. Ultimately, they believed, Christ would return, either to establish a millennial reign of peace on earth, or, as the emissary of a wrathful God, to destroy it.2

The Puritans were dissenters from the Church of England and from medieval aristocratic traditions, but their society, like most of those in Europe at the time, was stratified and patriarchal. In the preface to the covenant signed aboard the Arabella, John Winthrop wrote: “God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence hath so disposed of the conditions of mankind, as in all times some must be rich and some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection.” After the early days of the settlement, clergymen and the civil governors, who came from the propertied elite, assumed authority for regulating the affairs of the community in much the same way that Puritan fathers regulated the affairs of their households. These Puritan rulers valued order above all other social virtues and saw themselves as responsible only to God. Family discipline, as well as the theology preached from the pulpit, taught that man’s duty was submit to authority and to accept his station within the God-given hierarchy.3

By the eighteenth century, this Puritan order faced both social and ideological challenges. Congregationalism remained the established religion, its churches subsidized by taxpayers in all but one of the New England colonies. (Rhode Island, settled by Baptists, was the exception.) Yet the immigration of other Christians and nonbelievers had eroded the Puritan control of the polity. Then, too, the westward movement of the settlers and the growing wealth of landowners and merchants bred a new spirit of individualism. Economic controversies erupted, pitting settlers against the gentry who ran the colonial governments, and political factions emerged. At the same time, Enlightenment ideas about free will and the power of reason circulated among educated people, causing some to doubt fundamental Calvinist doctrines, such as predestination and human depravity. Congregationalist clergymen preached obedience to the God-given order, but many people could not fit their lives into the old patterns—though they were haunted by guilt for their apostasy. In the first two decades of the century, Increase Mather and other clergymen concluded from their reading of the biblical prophecies that human society was descending into such a state of sin and chaos that God would intervene cataclysmically and Christ would return to deliver His judgment on mankind. Such was their sense of crisis.4

The revivals in New England began in 1734 in a citadel of orthodox Calvinism: the church of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts. The son and grandson of Congregationalist ministers, Edwards had studied science, or natural philosophy, as it was then called, at Yale and had read the works of Isaac Newton and John Locke. In college, he had struggled with the idea of God’s total sovereignty, but one day, walking in his father’s pasture, he had a conversion experience. Looking up at the sky and the clouds, he had, he later wrote, a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, and as he looked around, this divinity appeared to him in everything, the trees, the grass, and the water. Later in his theological works, he used the methods of the Enlightenment thinkers to revitalize Calvinist theology and to defend it from the clergy swayed by Enlightenment humanism. In 1729, at the age of twenty-six, he assumed the pulpit of his grandfather’s church in Northampton. Finding that many in the parish, in particular the young, had fallen away from the moral standards of the church—there was “tippling,” “carousing,” and “chambering”—he went to work, holding meetings and prayer sessions around the parish. Five years later, while he was giving a series of sermons on justification by faith, an outbreak of religious fervor occurred in his parish. People laughed and wept, some saw visions, and many were filled with hope and joy. In the space of six months three hundred people were converted, bringing the total membership of his church to six hundred—nearly the whole adult population of the town. Visitors came to his church, and the revivals spread to towns up and down the Connecticut River and from thence to other parts of New England. In his account of these events, Edwards attributed the revival to a sudden, surprising descent of the Holy Spirit.5

Edwards was not a highly dramatic or emotional preacher—he read his sermons from a manuscript or detailed notes—but he nonetheless had a powerful effect on his listeners.

In his revivalist sermons, he began by telling people what they already believed: that as sinners they deserved everlasting punishment. In case they had forgotten what this meant—or had put it to the back of their minds—he used vivid language to describe God’s wrath. In his most quoted sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), he used particularly vivid rhetoric. “The God,” he said, “that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” Sinners, he said, could look forward to “Millions of Millions of Ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless Vengeance; and then when you have so done . . . you will know that all is but a Point to what remains.” In concluding, however, he delivered, as always, a message of hope: “And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the Kingdom of God.”6

Revivals had occurred before among the Puritans and their descendants, but the call of the preachers had been to covenant renewal—or obedience to the God-given order of ministers and magistrates. Edwards, however, was preaching the evangelical message that individuals could have a direct relationship with Christ—and that Christ would save not just the apparently worthy, but all those who would receive His grace. Previous revivals had been local and short-lived. This one, however, kept going on, and not just among the Congregationalists, but also among the Presbyterians, the descendants of the Scots-Irish Puritans who had settled in the Middle Colonies, and the Dutch Reformed of New York. With the arrival of the English evangelist George Whitefield in 1739, the revivals spread through all of the colonies.

Unlike Edwards, who was a theologian and pastor, Whitefield (1714–70) was an itinerant evangelist and by far the most popular preacher of his day. An Oxford graduate and an Anglican minister, he had a powerful voice, a dramatic preaching style, and an ability to simplify church doctrines for a mass audience. (He had studied acting and David Garrick, the greatest actor of the day, said that he could seize the attention of any crowd just by pronouncing the word “Mesopotamia.”) At Oxford, he had met John and Charles Wesley, the founders of a pietistic movement within the Anglican Church known as Methodism. A Calvinist, he had theological differences with the Wesleys, who had adopted Arminian, or free will, doctrines, but in college, he, like John, had a profound religious experience that banished all doubts he had about his salvation. This experience, which he called a “new birth,” became his criterion for conversion, and with the Wesleys he established it as a staple of revivalist preaching.

In 1738, Whitefield made the first of seven voyages to the American colonies, and two years later, at the age of twenty-six, he traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, preaching in the major cities and towns. His sermons had already caused a sensation in London, and in America he drew crowds of thousands to open-air meetings. Even the skeptical Benjamin Franklin was impressed by his voice and delivery. With the help of the media of the day—the newspaper reporters who heralded his meetings and the printers who published his sermons and journals—Whitefield became the first intercolonial celebrity and an inspiration to local revivalists across the country. By the end of his year in America, evangelicalism had turned into a countrywide movement with a radical wing fomenting religious rebellion.

Gilbert Tennent, a Presbyterian whom Whitefield met not long after his arrival in Philadelphia, was one of the leaders of the rebellion. The minister of a parish in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and a formidable preacher (Whitefield called him “a son of thunder”), he had come to America with his family from Ulster in 1718, during a period when many Scots-Irish were immigrating, and a year after the founding of the first Presbyterian Synod in the colonies. His father, William, a Presbyterian pastor, had established a small academy, known as the Log College, in rural Pennsylvania to train local ministers. Gilbert had gone to Yale, but he and his four brothers had grown up in the pietistic and intellectually informal atmosphere of the Log College. All had become converts to evangelicalism, and during the 1730s he, his brothers, and several of the Log College graduates had held revivals in Presbyterian churches in the region, preaching salvation through a sudden experience of God’s grace.7

These revivals filled the pews of many rural churches, but a number of the more orthodox Calvinist ministers of the Philadelphia Synod objected. Some questioned the spiritual validity of the “crisis conversions” and complained of the methods used to obtain them. (One Log College minister was accused of giving “whining and roaring harangues” that “terrified to distraction” some of the “deluded Creatures” who followed him.)8 Others suspected that the theological education of the Log College graduates did not meet Presbyterian standards, and many felt that the itinerant revivalists were intruding on settled parishes and attempting to turn people against their own pastors. In 1738 the Synod in Philadelphia created a New Brunswick Presbytery for Tennent and his colleagues, but voted that other presbyteries could refuse itinerant preachers and promised that the Synod would evaluate the credentials of all ministerial candidates who had not graduated from well-known universities.9

In 1740, Gilbert Tennent took the occasion of Whitefield’s arrival in Philadelphia to make the case for his evangelical convictions and to mount an incendiary attack against the anti-revivalist party. In “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” a sermon he gave to a congregation about to choose a new pastor, he held that no minister, no matter how learned, who had not undergone a conversion experience, or been called to preach by the Holy Spirit, had the power to save souls. He went on to call the “unconverted” anti-revivalists “hypocritical Varlets,” “dead dogs that can’t bark,” and “a swarm of locusts.” Comparing the “unconverted” to the Pharisees who opposed the itinerant ministry of Jesus, he accused them of being greedy for money and social status, and so conceited about their learning “they look’d upon others that differed from them, and the common People, with an Air of Disdain.” In conclusion, he urged the congregation to find another minister if the one sent to them did not preach the Gospel.10

A year later, the Philadelphia Synod, quite understandably, expelled the New Brunswick Presbytery, but Tennent and his colleagues persevered. In 1745, the Log College men, joined by other ministers, created a new synod with presbyteries in four states and founded the College of New Jersey (later, Princeton University). The “New Side” Presbyterians—as they were now called—sent itinerant evangelists into every hamlet that asked for them, and, following the Scots-Irish diaspora, carried the revivals into Virginia and North Carolina. Their success was such that when Presbyterians reunited in 1758, the New Side ministers outnumbered Old Side clergy by three to one.11

Whitefield also traveled through New England in 1740, gathering huge crowds, and the following year Gilbert Tennent, at his request, continued his work in the region. Encouraging evangelical preachers, converting others to the cause, and inspiring some to great heights of fervor, the two created a wave of revivals that, Jonathan Edwards wrote, were “vastly beyond any former outpouring of the Spirit that ever was known in New England.”12 By the end of two years, Edwards began to feel that something momentous might be happening. “It is not unlikely,” he told his parishioners in 1742, “that this work of God’s Spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or a least, a prelude of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture, which in the progress and issue of it shall renew the world of mankind . . . And there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.”13

Increase Mather had preached that Christ’s millennial reign would come only after cataclysm caused by the declension of human society, but Edwards rejected this premillennial eschatology for its opposite. He saw revivals as evidence of God’s favor and His determination to redeem mankind without an Armageddon or a personal Second Coming. This optimistic, postmillennial view echoed the Puritan view that God might begin His work in America. Edwards’s vision was not of a dramatic interference by God in the course of history but rather of human spiritual progress that would gradually bring a reign of peace and harmony into the souls of men.14

For all of Edwards’s optimism, the revivals inspired by Whitefield and Tennent created as much of a reaction in New England as they did in Pennsylvania. Until then, most of the Congregationalist clergy had seen the revivals as yet another season of renewed piety and welcomed the increased attendance in their churches. But the huge crowds Whitefield and Tennent drew, the revivalists’ appeal to individuals over the heads of the clergy, and Tennent’s denunciations of “unconverted” ministers seemed uncomfortable novelties. Further, the two itinerants encouraged less decorous revivalists, whose preaching caused extreme reactions like screaming, fainting, and convulsions. Even worse, some of these radicals, such as James Davenport, preached in settled parishes without permission, fired up lay exhorters, and urged the “saved” to separate themselves from the impure churches of their “unconverted” and “Christ-despising” ministers. To local clergymen, this new phase of the revivals seemed an attack not just on the established church but on the whole social order—which to an extent it was.15

Moderate revivalists, such as Edwards, distanced themselves from the radicals, and conceded that “errors” and “disorders” had occurred. But even the moderates were challenging the established authorities of church and state by denying them sanctifying power and relocating religious authority to an experience in the hearts of individuals. What was more, even they used vivid language to waken people from their lethargy, to make them feel their own sense of guilt so that they could rid themselves of it through the ecstatic experience of being born again in Christ.16 An anti-revivalist party therefore grew up, and while some of its members concerned themselves mainly with the encroachments on their parishes and the unseemly emotions evoked by the radicals, others attacked the revivalist New Lights on theological grounds.17

Between 1741 and 1743 Charles Chauncy of the First Church of Boston carried on a debate with Edwards via printed sermons and treatises that began with a dispute over the emotions raised in the revivals and ended with an argument about the nature of religion itself. A minister much influenced by Enlightenment thinking, Chauncy at first merely inveighed against what he saw as the excesses of the radical preachers, but from there he went on to question whether the anguish and joy the revivalists evoked were works of the Holy Spirit, or simply psychological disturbances. Edwards, who had spent much time pondering that very issue, replied that while not all emotional manifestations signified conversion, conversion had to begin with a lifting of “pious affections.” True religion, he argued toward the end of the exchange, was essentially emotional—a “sense of the heart” about the glory of God.

Chauncy for his part insisted that sinners required knowledge of the Gospels before they could achieve grace. It had not escaped him that the revivalists aggressively reasserted the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and human depravity, and he came to believe that revivals produced contempt for reason and for human ability. “An enlightened Mind, not raised Affections,” he wrote, “ought always to be the Guide of those who call themselves Men.”18

By 1743, debates over the revivals, many of them carried on in far less temperate language, rent convocations of Congregationalist ministers. These public conflicts shook the confidence of laymen in the ecclesiastical establishment. The irony was that the New Light revivalists had undermined the authority of the clergy by preaching the harshest version of traditional Calvinist doctrines, while some of their opponents defended the status quo by emphasizing themes more in tune with Enlightenment thought, such as the importance of reason, education, and good works. In any case, the public conflicts gave the radicals the opening they were looking for.19

Just a year after Whitefield’s visit to Boston, groups of people in Connecticut and other parts of New England began to withdraw from the Congregationalist churches to form prayer groups and churches of their own. Calling for a return to the purity of the early church, these Separates took laymen they believed graced by the Holy Spirit as ministers and attempted to strip away the accretions of history from their ecclesiastical practices. Those who rejected the practice of baptizing “unsaved” infants largely left the Congregationalist fold to become Separate Baptists. Inspired by the radical revivalists, these Separate groups proved as troublesome to the civil authorities as to the orthodox clergy. With liberty of conscience as their rallying cry, they struggled to attain exemption from the taxes that supported the established churches. When the request was turned down as “schismatic,” many refused to pay. Fined and sometimes jailed as tax dodgers, they practiced civil disobedience and published tracts denouncing the magistrates and clergy as a tyrannical upper class.20

Subsequently, they called for an end to all tax support for religion and for the right of religious dissent. Their petitions went largely unanswered, but after the Revolution, they became leaders in the movement for the disestablishment of the church from the state. In the meantime, many Separate Baptists set out for the Middle Colonies and then for North Carolina and Virginia.21

The South proved fertile ground for the evangelicals. The Anglican Church had been the established church in Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia since the settlement of the colonies, but it had neither independence nor power. The local landed gentry, who dominated the church vestries, opposed the creation of a diocese, preferring to keep the clergy and the ecclesiastical taxes under their own control. As a result, the church had no bishop, no ecclesiastical machinery, and little leverage with the Church of England. The task of an established church was to hold society together under the rule of religion, but because London sent few ordained priests, and the parishes were immense and sparsely populated, this could hardly be done. By the mid-eighteenth century, the expansion of settlements into the frontier districts left many in the South outside the sphere of organized religion. Those churches that flourished were essentially fiefdoms of local gentry and identified with a class system that sharply distinguished the aristocrats from common people and slaves. The wealthy sat in private pews, and from the pulpits came messages that the lower classes should be obedient and defer to their betters. Further, the scholastic theology taught by the ministers had driven many of the less educated out of the churches and some of the best educated, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, beyond Christianity into Deism.22

In 1744, evangelical missionaries began to move into the southern colonies to fill the institutional vacuum. The first to arrive were New Side Presbyterians, who at the request of a group of pious laymen came to minister to a congregation in Hanover County, Virginia. The governor of Virginia had no liking for dissenters, but Rev. Samuel Davies, a graduate of the Log College and a learned man, somehow convinced him that the New Sides were orthodox Presbyterians with as much a right to preach in Virginia as they had in England. In the 1750s Separate Baptists from Connecticut established churches in Sandy Creek, North Carolina, and gradually pushed on to the coast and into Virginia and South Carolina. They were not as politic as the Presbyterians. Fresh from their battles in New England, they maintained that civil authorities had no right to interfere with religion and refused to ask for licenses to preach or to abide by the laws against itinerancy. Many were fined or jailed for breaking the law, and others were attacked by mobs in midst of their enthusiastic meetings. Then, in the late 1760s, some of the first Wesleyan missionaries came to America and journeyed south. Methodism was still a movement within the Anglican Church, and the itinerants were welcomed by a few local ministers—until they began to entice their congregants into schism.23

The New Side Presbyterians, the Separate Baptists, and the Methodists had theological and other differences, but they were alike in preaching a radical break with a society dominated by the values of the landed aristocracy. As in the North, the evangelicals called for a dramatic conversion—a profound psychological change—that would separate the individual from a sinful past. In the South, they put equal stress on growing to grace within a religious community separate from “the world.” Southern aristocrats engaged in foxhunting, horse racing, dueling, and dancing; they dressed in fine clothes, gambled at cards, and cultivated witty conversation. But the evangelicals condemned all of these markers of social prestige as the trifling activities of the godless. (The Separate Baptists went so far as to call learning one of the frivolities of the unsaved.) They dressed plainly, lived abstemiously, and preached that the true worth of a man depended simply on his piety and moral discipline. As the historian Donald G. Mathews has shown, the converts to evangelicalism were not by and large the aristocrats or the very poor; rather they were hardworking farmers and tradesmen battling a class system and the lawless, socially chaotic world at its margins. To such people, the evangelical churches offered fellowship and help in achieving orderly, disciplined lives. Within the church, individuals would be separated from the unregenerate, instructed in Christian behavior, and held to it under the “watchful care” of the community. Then, too, the churches offered social status. As Mathews tells us, the word “respectable” lost its connotation of social rank and came to mean “pious” or “moral. This program clearly had great appeal, for by 1776 there were almost twice the number of evangelicals in the South as there were Anglicans.24

The revivals of the First Great Awakening continued through the 1760s and trailed off thereafter, though the evangelical sects continued to proselytize. By the time of the American Revolution, evangelicalism had penetrated all three sections of the country; it had created divisions in two of the major Protestant denominations, inspired an evangelical Baptist movement, and shaken the rule of the established churches.
The Second Great Awakening
The Second Great Awakening was even more explosive than the first. The revivals, which began not long after the War of Independence and continued intermittently until the Civil War, coursed through the whole country and through all the major Protestant denominations, sweeping away the stricter aspect of Calvinism and creating a simpler, more democratic faith that accorded with the spirit of the new country. With the passage of the First Amendment and the gradual disestablishment of the churches in the South and New England, the revivalists gained complete freedom of action. The revivals threw up new denominations and sects and made the country more religiously diverse while at the same time turning the vast majority of American Protestants into evangelicals.

Shortly after the War of Independence, revivalist preachers, most of them Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, set out to church the unchurched on the frontiers of the expanding country, moving west through Kentucky and Tennessee, then into the South and the Middle West. In 1790, according to the first U.S. government census, 94 percent of the American settlers lived in the original thirteen colonies. By 1850, more than half lived outside of them in the states and the territories to the west. Meanwhile, even without much immigration, the population grew at an astonishing rate, rising from two and a half million to twenty million in the seventy years following the Revolution. In this burgeoning country, the social and political arrangements left over from the colonial period, and the Federalist vision of a country ruled by an educated minority of merchants and landowners, soon became obsolete. As the historian Nathan O. Hatch has shown, the frontier revivalists participated in the social and political upheavals of the postrevolutionary period and in the struggle to create a more egalitarian society. To reach their audience in a world without churches, they created new methods of proselytism and a simplified form of evangelicalism: a folk religion characterized by disdain for authority and tradition.25

The Second Great Awakening broke out in camp meetings in Kentucky and Tennessee at the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1801, a meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, drew some twenty thousand people—a vast number in those sparsely populated territories—and it lasted almost a week. Multiple speakers preached from platforms around the encampment all day long, and emotions ran high. According to Barton Stone, a Presbyterian minister and the main organizer of the meeting, many people were affected by “bodily agitations,” some laughing uncontrollably, others dancing, singing, running, or falling down in a faint. Evangelicals had seen such phenomena before, but never on such a scale. When news of the meeting spread, revivals broke out around the region with crowds of thousands gathering to listen to preachers in the hopes of experiencing similar religious ecstasies. The Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians had resumed evangelizing in the South after the end of the Revolutionary War and had seen a modest rise in their church memberships, but the revivals produced a sudden surge of conversions on both sides of the Appalachians and laid the foundation for growth of a new order of magnitude in the succeeding years.26

During the Second Great Awakening, no denomination worked as hard, or made as many converts, as the Methodists. Previously a small group within the Anglican Church, the American Methodists established their own independent Episcopal church in 1784 and immediately prepared themselves for work on the frontiers. Under the leadership of Francis Asbury, an itinerant preacher who had come to America in 1771, they divided the country into districts and directed resources away from the settled areas and toward the peripheries. Asbury, who later took the title of bishop, made camp meetings a regular part of church activities and assembled a small army of circuit riders—some seven hundred of them by the time of his death in 1816—who traveled hundreds of miles a year on horseback to preach to the unconverted and to tend to their flocks in scattered settlements. Asbury, who himself rode an annual circuit of five thousand miles, established an orderly hierarchy under his command. Every district had an elder in charge, who reported to the bishop; the circuit riders had assigned routes; the congregations, or the “societies,” gathered by them were divided into cell groups, or “classes,” of twelve to fifteen people that enforced discipline and nurtured the religious life of their members. But the Methodists combined a central control with an egalitarian style and a democratic inclusiveness. Where there were no ordained clergymen, laymen were recruited to perform pastoral functions, and lay participation was always encouraged. The circuit riders, though full-time professionals, were characteristically young and poor. Many of them started out as lay leaders of “classes” on the frontier and, like the people they served, few had more than a grade-school education.27

The Baptists grew almost as rapidly, though their ecclesiastical structure was almost the opposite of the Methodists’. A group of independent churches, they banded together in regional and national associations, which—being voluntary and democratic—sometimes split apart over doctrinal issues and sometimes joined with others to create more powerful organizations. The large associations had missionary societies, and some assigned itinerants to preach the Gospel in areas where there were no Baptist churches. But most of their evangelists were independent preachers. John Leland, a prominent Baptist, best known for his support for Jefferson’s bill establishing religious freedom in Virginia, traveled, by his own account, the equivalent of three times around the globe between the Revolution and 1824, and preached eight thousand sermons. The typical Baptist evangelist, however, was a farmer licensed to preach by his church who moved into a new area and gathered a congregation. These farmer-preachers were self-supporting, and like the Methodist ministers, they rarely had any more education than their congregants.28

By 1800 the Presbyterians were well organized in the South with two synods and seven presbyteries, and in 1801, they established a Plan of Union with the Congregationalists to evangelize New York state and the territories to the west. But their gains were mainly in the settled areas, for their intellectually weighty Calvinism was not well suited to frontier evangelism. For one thing, it required a well-educated clergy, and that limited the number of ministers they could deploy. It also required sustained preaching and teaching—and therefore a more conservative approach to evangelism. Many Presbyterians were horrified by what they heard about the Cane Ridge meeting. Their General Assembly banned camp meetings and gradually withdrew from the practice of revivalism. Presbyterians on the frontiers, however, refused to abide by the Assembly’s restrictions. Some modified their message, while others rejected the doctrinal and educational requirements of the denomination. These defections led to schisms and the formation of new sects: the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and a “Christian” movement that thirty years later joined with a group formed by Alexander Campbell, another dissident Presbyterian, to create a new denomination, the Disciples of Christ.29

The frontier evangelists gained authority not from ecclesiastical credentials, but from their ability to appeal to audiences. Unlike the settled clergy, they preached without notes in colloquial language and used earthy humor and commonsense reasoning. Storytellers rather than didactic moralists, they dramatized biblical stories and vividly described the torments of hell. Of Lorenzo Dow, an independent Methodist and one of the most popular preachers in the first two decades of the revivals, a contemporary wrote:

His weapons against Beelzebub were providential interpositions, wondrous disasters, touching sentiments, miraculous escapes . . . a raging storm might be the forerunner of God’s immediate wrath; a change of element might betoken Paradise restored, or a new Jerusalem . . . He might be farcical or funereal. He had genius at all times to construct a catastrophe.30

In the early years of the century, learned Congregationalists and Presbyterians, such as Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards and the president of Yale, and his student Lyman Beecher, denounced these new methods as barbarous and opined that unlettered preachers could not arrest human depravity or stand as pillars of civilization and moral influence. These eminent men were not only Calvinists but Federalists, and the revivalists were more subversive than they initially understood. As Hatch has shown, many revivalists championed popular sovereignty and the cause of the backwoods people against the merchants and land speculators. Some of the most popular preachers were not just religious enthusiasts but radical Jeffersonians who spoke of the rights of man and of liberty of conscience. Lorenzo Dow, for one, condemned the distinction made between “gentlemen” and “peasants,” and called upon people to throw off the shackles of deference and to think for themselves. John Leland, a controversial figure among Baptists, not only promoted disestablishment, but opposed all forms of clerical organization, including mission societies in his own denomination. For Leland, religious freedom meant not just that the state should not interfere in religious affairs but that each individual had a right to liberty of conscience, and that nothing, neither churches nor families, should interfere with it. “Religion is a matter between God and individuals,” he wrote, “and the individual conscience should be free from human control.”31

In those parts of the country where the established denominations held sway, revivalists inveighed against the wealth and pretensions of the genteel clergy and called them oppressors of the poor. In particular, they attacked the orthodox Calvinists for their assumption of cultural authority, their efforts to legislate morality, and their preoccupation with arcane philosophical systems. The leaders of some of the evangelical sects—Francis Asbury, Alexander Campbell, and Barton Stone among them—went so far as to contend that the Protestant Reformation had not done its job well enough and that the entire Christian tradition had been a sordid history of corruption in which the priesthood had wielded theologies and rituals to enslave the minds of the people. Thus lumping Puritan Calvinism with Catholicism, they called for the restoration of the primitive church of the apostles. Sola scriptura—no creed but the Bible—had been a tenet of Protestantism since Luther, but some frontier revivalists took this to mean that there was literally no authority in matters of faith except for the Bible. Leland, for one, maintained that each individual had right to his own interpretation of the Scriptures; Campbell, whose anticlericalism was just as thoroughgoing, urged that the traditional distinction between the clergy and the laity be abolished—along with all prescriptive theology—so that people could read the “plain facts” of the Bible for themselves.32

To many orthodox clergymen, religious freedom seemed to be leading to a situation in which, as one wrote, “Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade, without passport or license, and sell his false ware at pleasure.”33 Heresies, the orthodox feared, would multiply, and dissident sects would turn the country into a religious anarchy. In upstate New York during the 1830s and 1840s, their fears appeared to be justified, for in counties between Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks, a region so often lit by the fires of revival it became known as “the burned-over district,” self-made evangelists preached original ideas, and new religious movements flourished. In 1831, William Miller, a farmer and a lay Baptist, declared that his study of the Bible showed that Christ would come again in 1844 to save believers from a doomed, sinful world. Licensed as a Baptist preacher, he delivered hundreds of lectures and sermons about the coming Advent and built a movement of preachers and layman. By 1844, some fifty thousand people were convinced that the Day was coming, and in the excitement some gave up their worldly occupations, sold their property, and went up to the tops of hills to await the Savior. When the day passed without event, not all were wholly disillusioned. Some thought Miller had merely made an error of reckoning, others that Christ had come but not in the flesh. Later, those whose faith survived were gathered into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Then, just a year before Miller announced his prophecy, Joseph Smith, the son of farming family that had settled near Palmyra, New York, published a book he said had been inscribed on ancient gold plates he unearthed near his village. His treasure, the Book of Mormon, revealed that Israelite tribes had come to the American continent long before the Indians, and that Christ had come to America after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. In the next decade he gathered disciples, made converts in England and across the northern United States, and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Meanwhile, spiritualism, Swedenborgianism, and other imported spiritual practices proliferated in upstate New York. In addition, numerous religious communes sprang up, among them the Oneida Community, an extraordinary social experiment led by a Yale-educated Presbyterian, John Humphrey Noyes, where property was shared and free love practiced in the name of absolute Christian fellowship.

Still, the religious inventiveness of upstate New Yorkers in those years was exceptional, and after the explosions that followed the Cane Ridge camp meeting, no new schisms or sects appeared in the South. Instead of anarchy, the revivals produced something more like uniformity in the newly settled areas and the South. The Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians dominated the preaching circuits, and while maintaining their denominational distinctions, they developed a common form of evangelicalism: a simplified religious system well adapted to frontier communities.

Calvinism formed the backdrop to this system, but key doctrines, such as irresistible grace, limited atonement, and unconditional election, played no part in it. Predestination, as Hatch points out, never had much appeal to those at the bottom of the social scale because of the implication that God had ordained, and took pleasure in, human suffering. The Methodists, who had worked among the poor in an industrializing England, had rejected this doctrine from the start, along with the doctrine that God would save only a small elect and condemn everyone else to hell. In a further breach with Calvinism, the Methodists also proposed that Christians could forfeit their salvation by sliding back into sin and, on the other hand, that they could seek a “second blessing” and achieve perfect holiness. The Baptists and Presbyterians tried to uphold Calvinist doctrines, but as Enlightenment thinking about human nature became a part of the American atmosphere, these doctrines seemed more and more to defy common sense. Further, they proved poor tools for evangelism in the egalitarian world of the frontier, and not long after 1800 the revivalists resolved these issues in favor of free will and salvation for all who chose it.34

Brought down to earth and stripped of theological complexity, the evangelical message was clear and urgent.

As the historian Samuel S. Hill writes, there was good news and bad news, all of a piece. The bad news was that all are sinners, lost without God and condemned to hell; the good news was that those who repented and opened their heart to His saving grace would live in a sweet, close relationship with God and would gain everlasting life. Other doctrines were taught, such as Jesus’ sacrifice for mankind on the cross, but all of them were simple and functional tenets undergirding this message. As Hill puts it, “Christianity thus interpreted is a problem-solution system.” At revival meetings, the emphasis was on the experience of a new birth, rather than on any exercise of reason or knowledge of doctrine. Afterward, it was on participation in a church community that taught moral discipline and preachers gave small attention to examining the theology on which it was based.35

This folk religion proved extraordinarily successful in the South. Between 1801 and 1807 the number of white Methodists in the South grew from 46,000 to 80,000, and the Baptists made similar gains. The pace of conversions continued at much the same enormous rate for the next several decades. With small competition from the Anglican Church, even after its reorganization into the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, and almost none from other denominations, Methodists and Baptists, followed by regular Presbyterians, evangelized the Atlantic states and the regions beyond the Appalachians. By 1850, they dominated the entire South from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas and Missouri.36

The evangelicals made huge strides in the rest of the country as well. By 1850, more than a third of all religious adherents in the country were Methodists, over 20 percent were Baptists, and 11.6 percent were Presbyterians.37 Even in New England, the Methodists became the second largest denomination. All the same, the New England Congregationalists with their strong intellectual tradition and their sense of public responsibility gave the Second Great Awakening a different character in the North than it had in the South.

When Francis Asbury and his circuit riders brought Methodism back from the frontiers to the rural parishes of New England after the turn of the nineteenth century, Calvinism was already under siege by dissident Congregationalists. More than a half a century before, Charles Chauncy and a few other Boston clergymen had, in addition to opposing the revivals, rejected the doctrine of total depravity, insisting that human beings had a spark of divinity that could be cultivated. Championing human ability and reason, they fostered a school of thought within Congregationalism that by 1815 created a breach within the denomination. The movement was called Unitarianism by the orthodox, but the name was in some ways misleading, for the liberal Congregationalists who established themselves at Harvard and in the Boston churches in early nineteenth century had nothing to do with the Deist English movement of the same name and no real interest in the scholastic debates about whether God was One or Three. Their object was to refashion a biblical Christianity free of external creeds, and what concerned them most deeply were the ethical implications of Calvinist doctrines.

In 1819, Rev. William Ellery Channing, the spiritual and intellectual leader of the movement in the 1820s and ’30s, gave a sermon, a manifesto for the movement, in which he decried, among other things, the doctrine of substitionary atonement. The idea that Christ was sacrificed to appease the wrath of God for the sin of Adam was horrible, he preached: it turned God into a monster and the mission of Christ on its head. Christ came not to change God’s mind but “to effect a moral or spiritual deliverance of mankind” by his example and teaching as well as by his death and resurrection. The way of Christ, he declared, was marked by “the spirit of love, charity, meekness, forgiveness, liberality and beneficence.”38 For Unitarians, God was not the capricious, wrathful figure of the Calvinists but a God of moral perfection. He was, Channing said, like a good father who cares for his children, takes joy in their progress, hands out punishments for their misdeeds, and readily accepts their penitence. “We look upon this world as a place of education,” he preached, in which God “is training men by prosperity and adversity, by aids and obstructions . . . by a various discipline suited to free and moral beings, for union with Himself, and for a sublime, ever-growing virtue in heaven.”39

To Timothy Dwight, these liberal Christians were no better than pagans and potentially even more disruptive of the Christian order than the backwoods preachers. Yet realizing that predestination and other church doctrines were proving obstacles even to Yale students, Dwight tried to make his Christianity sound reasonable. More important, he encouraged two of his former students, the theologian Nathaniel W. Taylor and the activist minister Lyman Beecher, to mount an intellectual defense of Calvinism and to renew the church through revivals.40

Between 1813 and 1823, Taylor revisited the issues that Jonathan Edwards had tackled and came up with conclusions more in keeping with Enlightenment humanism. In the first place, he denied the imputation of Adam’s sin to all mankind. Morality, he reasoned, implied a moral agency, which in turn implied the power of choice. So, while man was disposed to sin, he could choose otherwise with the help of the Holy Spirit. Edwards had believed that man had the freedom to act only in his own selfish interest, but Taylor, following the lead of the Edwardsian theologian Samuel Hopkins, proposed that man also had a disposition to benevolence, and could act for the common good. It followed that salvation would come to all who chose it. Christ, Taylor further maintained, did not die on the cross as atonement to God for the sin of Adam; rather He chose to sacrifice himself to bring men into harmony with God’s moral law and to allow them to receive salvation.41

Channing argued that the revision of Calvinism was incoherent and unsustainable, and he was right in the sense that it was supplanted within a couple of decades. Still, “Taylorism,” or New School theology, immediately caught on among New England Congregationalists and Presbyterians and permitted Lyman Beecher to reinvigorate the Congregationalist churches after disestablishment and to prepare them to compete with the Unitarians on one hand and the Methodists and Baptists on the other.42

Like his mentor, President Timothy Dwight, Beecher had no liking for the tendencies of Jeffersonian democracy, and he had fiercely resisted disestablishment. But, a pragmatist and a man of formidable energies, he adapted quickly when the Connecticut government severed its links with the churches in 1818. Taking up Taylor’s theology, and calling it, as Taylor did, true, orthodox Calvinism, he enlisted fellow preachers and mounted revivals of a restrained sort in Connecticut, and then in the rest of New England. In 1826, he took a pulpit in Boston and conducted revivals aimed at the Unitarians. As new converts were made, he and his allies organized them into voluntary associations for mission work and moral reform. Some of these groups led local crusades against dueling and for the enforcement of the Sabbath laws. Others, such as the Home and Foreign Mission Society, the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, and the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, developed into powerful organizations with chapters throughout the northern states. All were in theory interdenominational but in practice dominated by Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Beecher infused them with his evangelical zeal and with his growing interest in taming the barbarous West. His ambition, he sometimes suggested, was to make the nation over in the image of New England, where educated ministers played a leading role in shaping the society. The project was an essentially conservative one, and he succeeded in the sense that states adopted the blue laws and maintained the traditional patriarchal laws regulating family affairs. Still, the benevolent associations proliferated and grew socially progressive as they became infected by the millennialism and perfectionism of Charles Grandison Finney.43

Of all the revivalists of the period, Charles Finney was by far the most influential. His career was unusual, and his rise to stardom swift. In 1821, when he had a profound conversion experience, he was twenty-nine years old and a lawyer in a small town in upstate New York. Leaving his practice, he studied theology with his pastor and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister two and a half years later. With no interest in taking a settled ministry, he traveled the backwoods of the north country on horseback, making home visits and preaching for a female missionary society. In 1826 he moved south to Oneida County, and at the invitation of local ministers he preached revivals in Rome, Utica, and other burgeoning towns along the Erie Canal, attracting throngs and making some three thousand converts in Oneida County alone. From there, he took his revivals to the major cities of the East Coast, and by 1832 he had become the most sought-after preacher in the country and the best-known evangelist since George Whitefield.

A tall, handsome man with a clear voice and blazing eyes, Finney preached directly and dramatically in what he called “the language of common life.” Speaking extemporaneously, or from a bare outline, he looked at people in the audience straight in the eye and addressed them as “you.” His sentences were short and cogent, and his expressions colloquial. “When men are entirely earnest about a thing,” he wrote, “their language is direct, simple.”44 Instead of using literary allusions, as most Presbyterian ministers did, he illustrated his points with examples taken from the “common affairs of men.” He had learned much from the Methodists of the north country, and much from his former profession. Like a lawyer making a case to a jury, he made structured arguments, anticipated objections, and seemed to address each person directly. “It did not sound like preaching,” the journalist Henry B. Stanton wrote of one sermon. “The discourse was a chain of logic, brightened by felicity of illustration and enforced by urgent appeals from a voice of great compass and melody.”45

Like most Presbyterians in western New York, Finney preached Taylor’s New School theology, but, unfettered by academic training and New England orthodoxies, he preached free will and human ability in a much blunter fashion than did Taylor or Beecher. Original sin, he declared, is not a “constitutional depravity” but rather a deep-seated “selfishness” that people could overcome if they made themselves “a new heart.” “Sin and holiness,” he declared, “are voluntary acts of mind.” He was just as clear about the role of the preacher in bringing people to salvation. “A revival,” he wrote in 1835, “is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.” In his view, God had established no particular system for promoting revivals, and “new measures” were from time to time necessary. In the early days in Rome and Utica Finney cajoled and browbeat his audiences, addressed sinners by name, and encouraged women to pray and exhort with the men. His preaching produced powerful emotional reactions, even among merchants and lawyers who had attended church for years and sat unmoved through other revivals. People groaned, sobbed, and laughed, and one man fainted dead away.46

When rumors of his revivals reached Boston, Lyman Beecher wrote a colleague that Finney’s new measures were violations of “civilized decorum and Christian courtesy” and that their general adoption “would be the greatest calamity that could befall this young empire.” He conjured up the barbarianism that succeeded the fall of the Rome, the rule of mobs during the French Revolution, and, somewhat closer to home, the Cane Ridge revivals. We are, he declared, “on the confines of universal misrule and moral desolation [wherein] the mass shall be put in motion by fierce winds before which nothing can stand.” He went on to deplore Finney’s view that “all men, because sinners, are therefore to be treated alike by ministers of the Gospel without respect to age or station in society.” This, he warned, would lead to “a leveling of distinctions in society” that would be “the sure presage of anarchy and absolute destruction.” The Presbyterian ministers of Oneida County, however, defended their colleague, and Beecher had to make his peace with the upstart.47

Finney later modified his measures and found the voice that Stanton described, but the contrast between his vision and Beecher’s was as great as the New Englander supposed. Born in 1792 and brought up in a pioneering farm family in western New York, he was a nineteenth-century man, fully in tune with the spirit of Jacksonian democracy: its expansive individualism, its faith in progress, and its egalitarianism. In his preaching the emphasis was always on the ability of men—and women—to choose their own salvation, to work for the general welfare, and to build a new society. At the start of his career he, like most frontier preachers, concentrated on the need for conversion, but by 1830 he had broadened his focus to the responsibilities of Christians. Converts, he preached, did not escape life. Rather, they had a duty to begin new lives dedicated to “disinterested benevolence” and work for the attainment of God’s kingdom on earth. Finney was not talking about Armageddon, as William Miller was, but rather of the prophecy embraced by Jonathan Edwards: that increasing righteousness would usher in a thousand-year reign of true Christianity that would culminate with Christ’s return to earth. Finney’s version of this optimistic, postmillennial eschatology was, however, less pietistic and less supernaturalist than Edwards’s. Christians, he preached, might bring in the millennium if, with God’s grace, they could rid the world of its “great and sore evils.” In the revivalist excitement of the mid-1830s, he even preached that the millennium might come in just a few years if the churches did their duty.48

Finney published few sermons before 1835, and the accounts of his early revivals were based largely on rumor. But his Rochester revival of 1830–31, which attracted the religious press and clergymen from all over the region, was well enough documented to permit historians to reconstruct not just what he said and did but how he affected his audience. According to the historians Paul E. Johnson and Mary P. Ryan, he changed not just the spiritual life but also the politics and the social structure of the region.49

Built on the falls of the Genesee, just south of Lake Ontario, Rochester had until 1823 been no more than a small market town. But with the arrival of the Erie Canal linking the region with New York City, the Genesee Valley become almost overnight one of the greatest grain-growing regions in the world, and Rochester the first inland boomtown. Rochester milled and exported Genesee wheat and became a center of manufacturing, producing everything from guns to furniture.

The established merchants and manufacturers had run their shops as extensions of their own patriarchal households, but by 1830 their small businesses had become commercial operations with a workforce of unattached young men who lived in boardinghouses and drank, caroused, and brawled as they pleased. Alarmed by the disorder among their workers, the manufacturers pressed for temperance legislation, but with the extension of the franchise to men without property, the city fathers no longer controlled the town government. At the same time conflicts over issues such as whether Sabbath observance should extend to prohibiting the Sunday mail rent the churches, setting clergymen against each other and wealthy laymen against their own ministers. To many it seemed that that the town had become ungovernable.50

At the invitation of local ministers Finney arrived in September 1830, and for the next six months he preached at a Presbyterian church almost every night and three times on Sunday. On weekdays, he and other ministers held prayer meetings, while his wife, Lydia, and other evangelical women counseled families and prayed with women in their homes. According to Johnson, the revival began among church members and spread to their family members and friends. People of all denominations came to hear Finney, and soon the church services were so crowded that people prayed out in the snow. By the spring, the churches had gathered in hundreds of converts—six hundred for the three Presbyterian churches alone—and sympathetic revivals were breaking out across New York and New England. A temperance crusade led by Finney’s protégé, Theodore Weld, had merchants smashing their barrels of whiskey and letting thousands of gallons flow down the streets and into the Erie Canal. Sectarian divisions were forgotten, as were the old conflicts. Lawyers, merchants, manufacturers, master craftsmen, and their wives were welded into an evangelical community that subsequently converted most of the workingmen of the town. Then, as Ryan tells us, in the wake of such revivals, men and women formed voluntary associations to discourage vice, to care for the poor, and to help women bring up their children. Temperance was largely observed, and eighteenth-century patriarchal households turned into nineteenth-century middle-class homes.51

According to Johnson, the transformation owed much to Finney’s “new measures.” The revival was quieter than those in Rome and Utica, but as always with Finney, it involved emotional group prayer. In church services and daytime meetings, ministers prayed out loud, others joined in, and often people broke into tears, confessed their sins, and blessed the Lord. Instituting one new measure, Finney put those on the verge of conversion on an “anxious bench” in the front of the church, where the whole congregation could see them when they felt the spirit and stepped forward. Prayer and conversion thus became public, intensely social events, where men and women expressed their deepest feelings before a crowd. After people had humbly asked for mercy and watched many others do the same, they found a new sense of trust in one another. Family ties were strengthened, enemies made up, and strangers found a sense of community.52

It was Finney’s message that showed the direction of change. In the context of a society in which traditional patriarchal rule was disintegrating, his insistence that every person had “the power and liberty of choice” was doubly liberating. It pointed to a spiritual democracy in which all people—employers and workers—were equally capable of controlling their own lives. It also pointed to a spiritual equality between the sexes. Women of the period had no legal rights in a marriage, but Finney gave them the same moral authority as men. Then, too, his concept of original sin meant that children were not depraved beings whose will had to be broken, but innocents to be nurtured and educated. Further, Finney preached that everyone, not just the ministers and magistrates, bore responsibility for the society. Piety and personal morality were not enough: Christians had to prove “useful in the highest degree possible” in advancing God’s kingdom.53

By the time of the Rochester revival Finney had already begun to preach in the major cities of the East Coast. In the space of four years, 1828–32, he held protracted revivals in Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, Providence, and Boston, as well as in towns of western New York. In all those cities, his message of a democratic Christianity and the building of God’s kingdom resonated with laymen and the less conservative clergy, but in New York he found partners, men with the power to effect social reform at a national level. His hosts in the city were not clergymen but rather a group of businessmen who were prospering in the rapidly expanding economy. Transplanted New Englanders, ambivalent about their new wealth, these men contributed generously to the benevolent associations Beecher had helped establish, and under the leadership of two silk merchants, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, they were in the process of building a veritable empire of benevolence in New York. Finney urged them on to greater efforts of philanthropy. “The world is full of poverty, desolation, and death; hundreds of millions are perishing, body and soul,” he preached. “God calls on you to exert yourself as his steward, for their salvation; to use all the property in your possession, so as to promote the greatest possible amount of happiness among your fellow-creatures.”54 Inspired, the Tappans and their friends formally engaged to give away all their profits, putting aside only what they needed to support their families. In the early 1830s they took up a series of new causes, among them the establishment of manual labor colleges in the West, and the abolition of slavery.55

Finney had spoken out against slavery since he first arrived in New York. Northern evangelicals commonly regarded slaveholding as a sin, but by 1830 the importance of the cotton trade to the northern port cities made many established preachers reluctant to condemn it. In New York alone, some seven thousand southern merchants, most of them slave owners, had taken up residence, and were generally welcomed by northern merchants and bankers with growing markets in the South. But Finney preached against slavery in vivid terms, calling for an end to “this great national sin,” and refused to give communion to slaveholders. The Tappans, for their part, took up the cause with a passion. In 1833, just after the British Parliament outlawed slavery in the West Indies, they founded the New York Society for the Abolition of Slavery at the tabernacle they had built for Finney, while mobs gathered outside and threatened to burn the church down. Two months later the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed with Arthur Tappan as its president and its headquarters in New York.56

The national society included groups in other cities, notably William Lloyd Garrison’s New England Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, but the New York society contributed most of the funds and, almost on its own, created a mass base for abolitionism. Garrison, a crusading young journalist, published a newspaper, The Liberator, which stirred up the South with harsh denunciations of slaveholders and calls for immediate emancipation. But his influence in the North was limited. He never dealt with the problems “immediate emancipation” would create for black or white southerners, and, as time went on, he diluted his message—and infuriated the New England clergy—with an equally passionate advocacy of feminism, pacifism, and anarchism. The New Yorkers were more practical. They called for the immediate beginning of a gradual emancipation process, and they focused on swaying public opinion. They, too, distributed a newspaper, The Emancipator, and antislavery tracts, but they soon realized that working directly with church communities was far more effective, and through Finney they found a cadre of field-workers and a leader in Theodore Weld.57

A convert of Finney’s and a ministerial student, Weld had a keen intelligence and a gift for persuasive oratory. He had become a passionate opponent of slavery after traveling across the South. The Tappans had enlisted him to find a site for a seminary in the West, and in 1832 they chose Lane, a fledgling college in Cincinnati. Weld enrolled along with Henry Stanton and forty other students, most of them Finney converts from western New York. He soon persuaded his fellow students to form an antislavery society and to teach literacy to the impoverished freedmen of the city, but the Lane trustees, most of them local businessmen, refused to allow such activities. Weld and his classmates quit the seminary in protest, and he and Stanton signed on as traveling agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In the fall of 1835, he lectured on abolition at Oberlin, a struggling manual labor college, taken up by the Tappan brothers, where most of the Lane rebels had repaired. Some thirty students joined the cause and for two years constituted most of the field staff of the national society. Weld later recruited forty more agents, most of them ministers or ministerial students.58

In the next two years Weld campaigned for abolition across Ohio, Vermont, western Pennsylvania, and western New York, while Stanton labored in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Regarding abolition as a moral issue, Weld used Finney’s evangelical language and many of his revival measures. In the towns he visited, he stayed for weeks, lecturing for two to five hours each night and persuading local converts to visit their friends in the daytime. Often mobs greeted him with a barrage of eggs, snowballs, or stones, but generally after a couple of days the disturbances stopped and his audiences grew. At the last meeting, he would ask all those who had made a decision for abolition to stand up, and often the entire audience stood. As in the case of Finney’s revivals, the enthusiasm spread to neighboring towns. In 1837, Weld’s voice gave out, but that year the national antislavery society in New York counted a thousand local societies in the North, most of them in the regions where Weld and Stanton had worked. Abolitionism had become a self-propagating mass movement, one that every year sent wags of petitions to Congress.59

Finney, for his part, looked askance at the movement he had inspired. Slavery, he believed, was the national evil that cried out the loudest for reform, yet the abolitionists, he felt, were making a serious mistake by focusing exclusively on antislavery agitation. Slaveholding was, after all, a sin, and, like other sins, it should be addressed in a religious context. In Finney’s view, the churches were abetting slavery by their silence, but if Christians of all denominations came forward and “meekly but firmly” branded slavery evil, “a public sentiment would be formed that would carry all before it.” Otherwise, he predicted, the nation would be caught up in ideological strife. In July 1836, he wrote Weld asking if he did not fear that “we are in our present course going fast into a civil war.” Abolition, he argued, should be made “an appendage of a general revival of religion . . . just as we made temperance an appendage of the Rochester revival.” He feared, he wrote, “that no other form of carrying this question will save our country or the liberty or the soul of the slave.” But he could not convince Weld or the Tappan brothers.60

Finney was sorry to see Weld and his classmates quit their ministerial training, in particular because in 1835 he accepted a professorship at Oberlin. One of his ambitions was to train “a new race of ministers—” the college needed his help, and he needed a less taxing schedule. He had contracted cholera in New York during the epidemic of 1832 and had still not recovered from the effects of the cure. The arrangement was that he would also preach in New York for several months of the year, but his health was not up to the task. In later years, after he had regained his strength, he spent long periods away from the college preaching revivals in the East and in England and Scotland, but for the time being he settled in at Oberlin to teach theology, to write, and to pastor its church.61

Thanks to Finney’s celebrity, Oberlin grew apace, and under his influence it became a center of progressive evangelical Christianity. To ensure that the Lane disaster was not repeated, Finney had made two conditions for his employment: that the trustees should not interfere with the internal regulation of the school and that black students should be accepted on the same basis as whites. In practice, not many black students applied, but the school became a force in the Ohio antislavery movement and hub on the Underground Railroad. Then, too, in 1834, Oberlin had opened its doors to women and became the first coeducational college in the country. The school naturally attracted idealistic students and teachers. In its 1839 statement of principles, the faculty declared that its commitments included “a recognition of equal human rights as belonging to all . . . deep sympathy with the oppressed of every color,” and “a consecration of life to the well-being of suffering humanity.”62 Academic freedom was another commitment. Students and faculty debated all the public issues of the day, and in classes students were encouraged to think for themselves, to challenge received wisdom and defend their views in oral arguments. Finney believed the Socratic method of teaching valuable, and not just for students. He himself, he wrote, not infrequently got “useful instruction” from the “learning and sagacity and talent” of his students. But then to Finney theology was not a study of fixed ideas but a process of discovery.63

Oberlin was primarily a religious college, and almost every year waves of revival passed through it, during which the whole community observed days of fasting, prayer, and introspection about how to live a more Christian life. After a particularly intense revival in 1836, Oberlin’s president Asa Mahan, Finney, and a few other faculty members came to the view that the converted could attain a higher level of sanctification. Through complete faith in Christ, believers could receive a second blessing of the Holy Spirit and attain Christian perfection. The doctrine, known as perfectionism, had originated with John Wesley, but Finney thought Wesley too much concerned with sensibility, or states of feeling, and not enough with moral responsibility. To him, sanctification meant “a higher and more stable form of the Christian life” in which Christians lived in perfect obedience to God’s law and devoted themselves completely to loving God and their neighbors. His version of perfectionism had nothing to do with that of the antinomian John Humphrey Noyes, who had declared himself without sin. In Finney’s view all Christians, even sanctified ones, were subject to temptation, to backsliding, and even to losing their salvation. All he was really proposing was that Christians could grow in their faith and act more as Christ would have them. Still, the doctrine scandalized many Congregationalist and Presbyterian ministers, for Finney and his colleagues were taking yet another step away from Calvinist teachings on human depravity. Even some of Finney’s friends in New York state denounced sanctification as a dangerous error, and the Ohio Synod shunned the college.64

Yet, as always, Finney was speaking to the needs of many believers. During the revivals of the 1840s, perfectionism spread through many evangelical denominations and to New York, the Middle West, and eventually to England and Scotland. In their work on the frontiers, the Methodist circuit riders had largely neglected the doctrine, but now groups of Methodists in cities and towns preached the second blessing, along with Oberlin preachers. To some disciples, sanctification involved an intense inner struggle for an experience of union with God and a withdrawal from worldly affairs. But to many evangelicals, like those at Oberlin, it meant a call to further ethical seriousness and a belief in God’s immanence and His readiness to transform the present world through the Holy Spirit. According to Timothy L. Smith and other historians, the fervor for Christian perfection brought enthusiasm for social reform to a new height.65

From the 1830s until the Civil War, northern evangelical Protestants—Methodists and Baptists as well as Congregationalists and New School Presbyterians—undertook a large array of social reform efforts. They built asylums, schools for the deaf and dumb, hospitals for the tubercular; they reformed the penal system and the prisons. In the 1840s and ’50s city churches and interdenominational organizations turned their attentions from simple evangelism to serving the needs of new immigrants and the native poor. Chapters of the Home Missionary and Tract Societies built mission churches and Sunday schools, offered help with job placement, and distributed food, clothing, and money. In Philadelphia, five thousand volunteers from churches and charitable societies divided the city into sections for systematic visitation and the relief of every indigent home. In New York, a Methodist minister with help from low church, or more evangelical Episcopalians, built an early type of a settlement house with schoolrooms, shops, living quarters, and a chapel.66

Temperance was a major evangelical concern, and as the movement grew it branched out into dietary and other health reform movements. Early-nineteenth-century Americans drank prodigiously—perhaps four times as much as Americans do today—and those who could afford it ate vast quantities of meat, often five or six types of flesh in a sitting. City people rarely exercised, and the bathtub was not yet an American fixture. Many distinguished doctors recommended changes in personal habits, but it took evangelical preachers—among them, Dr. Sylvester Graham, the promoter of an unappetizing diet of unseasoned vegetables, cereals, and bread made out of unbolted whole wheat flour—to rouse general interest in a healthy eating, exercise, and bathing.67

Educational reform was another evangelical priority. In the 1830s, Finnyite ministers in upstate New York began a campaign to improve the common schools with better-trained teachers, better equipment, and a more extensive curriculum. They and others, principally Horace Mann and Lyman’s daughter, Catherine Beecher, called for the abandonment of rote learning and of corporal punishment to instill discipline. Later, Mann, a legislator and head of the Massachusetts Board of Education, brought European educational methods to the United States and designed what became the American public school system. The content of instruction quite naturally became evangelical Protestant.

At Oberlin, and in other quarters, millennial and perfectionist zeal extended to international affairs. In 1828, evangelicals formed the American Peace Society, a movement that included pacifists and those who believed that war could be justified only if the cause and the methods employed accorded with a higher moral law. During the 1840s, the American Society and its English counterpart convened international conferences on the Continent, attracting such eminent figures as Victor Hugo to discuss ways of reducing international tensions. These conferences were mostly talk—and war between the United States and Europe was not a threat at the time—but the Americans at least were entirely serious about state-sponsored violence. In 1838, Baptist missionaries and Finnyite evangelicals had protested the forcible expulsion of the Cherokee from Georgia. In 1846, the peace groups condemned the war with Mexico as an unjustifiable war of aggression.68

The women’s rights movement that came to life in the late 1840s was not an evangelical enterprise. Few ministers supported the movement, and even the Oberlin faculty did not advocate legal rights for women. Still, the feminist movement owed much to the evangelical revivals. Finney had, after all, insisted on the liberty and power of every individual. He and his fellow preachers had encouraged women to speak in public and to take an active role in their communities. In many of the benevolent societies that emerged from the revivals women outnumbered men. Then, too, abolitionism led logically to the idea of equal rights for women. Most of the leading feminists—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, the Grimké sisters, Lucy Stone, and Antoinette Brown Blackwell—started out as antislavery activists. Some, like Anthony and Mott, had worked with Garrison; others had close ties to Finney and his converts. Elizabeth Cady married Henry Stanton and Angelina Grimké married Theodore Weld; Stone and Blackwell were Oberlin graduates. As Robert Fletcher, a twentieth-century president of Oberlin, wrote of the antebellum faculty, “They seemed to have failed entirely to realize that education would open to women the way to all the other privileges hitherto the property of the male.”69

By 1840, the antislavery movement had grown to include Methodists, Baptists, and Unitarians, but it was divided. Under the influence of John Humphrey Noyes, Garrison called upon Christians to come out of churches that permitted the existence of slavery and to renounce their allegiance to the violent and coercive government of the United States. Evangelical ministers in the movement were united in their opposition to Garrison’s “come-outism,” and most of them thought it proper to engage in the political process. Still, they differed on tactics. Should they create an abolitionist party, or make common cause with politicians who simply opposed the extension of slavery to the West? Could violence be justified to free the slaves, and was the Union to be sacrificed for the cause of emancipation? The antislavery preachers did not agree on all issues, but together they provided a powerful force for emancipation as a moral imperative. In 1846 Finney spoke to the argument that slavery was a lesser evil than the division of the Union. “A nation,” he wrote, “who have drawn the sword and bathed it in blood in defence of the principle that all men have an inalienable right to liberty; that they are born free and equal. Such a nation . . . standing with its proud foot on the neck of three millions of crushed and prostrate slaves! O horrible! This less an evil to the world than emancipation or even than the dismemberment of our hypocritical union! O shame, where is thy blush!”70 Finney, needless to say, supported the war when it came.

About The Author

Photograph by Frances F. Denny

Frances FitzGerald is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Bancroft Prize, and a prize from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the author of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America; Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam; America Revised: History School Books in the Twentieth Century; Cities on a Hill: A Journey through Contemporary American Cultures; Way Out in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War; and Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth. She has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and Esquire.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 24, 2018)
  • Length: 752 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439131343

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Raves and Reviews



“A page turner: FitzGerald is a great writer capable of keeping a sprawling narrative on point . . . Anyone curious about the state of conservative American Protestantism will have a trusted guide in this Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize winner . . . We have long needed a fair-minded overview of this vitally important religious sensibility, and FitzGerald has now provided it.”

– The New York Times Book Review

“A well-written, thought-provoking and deeply researched history that is impressive for its scope and level of detail.”

– The Wall Street Journal

“The waves of conservative Protestant influence that have swept American life at various points in history have often seemed to come out of nowhere. The emergence of the Christian right's political influence in the 1970s, for example, just as experts said religion was losing its place in U.S. culture, was shocking. But in her new major work on the subject, The Evangelicals, historian Frances FitzGerald shows how the origins of these booms are discernible from afar. Her book makes the case so well, it leaves readers with the feeling that we should all be paying closer attention.”


“An epic history of white American evangelical Protestantism from Plymouth Rock to Trump Tower . . . Fitzgerald, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for “Fire in the Lake,’’ an account of the Vietnam War, gracefully swoops over the decades of populist evangelicalism with Barbara Tuchman-like grace. This is a comprehensive, heavily footnoted, yet readable study of how the evangelical tradition has become seared into the fabric of American life and the key figures who made it happen. . . . Fitzgerald, always judicious and unbiased, nobly succeeds in analyzing the nuanced differences between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, Calvinism and postmillennialism, charismatics and Pentecostals.”

– The Boston Globe

“[A] capacious history of Evangelical American Protestantism. This rich narrative ranges across the various Evangelical denominations while illuminating the doctrines—especially personal conversion as spiritual rebirth, and adherence to the Bible as ultimate truth—that unite them. . . . A complex and fascinating epic.”

– Booklist, starred review

“FitzGerald’s brilliant book could not have been more timely, more well-researched, more well-written, or more necessary.”

– The American Scholar

“Frances FitzGerald answers the recurrent question, “Where did these people [mainly right-wing zeal­ots] come from?” She says there is no mystery involved. They were always here. We were just not looking at them. What repeatedly makes us look again is what she is here to tell us.”

– The New York Review of Books

“An excellent work that is certain to be a standard text for understanding contemporary evangelicalism and the American impulse to reform its society.”

– Library Journal

"Timely and enlightening"

– The Economist

“Without a doubt the best book on the history and present status of American evangelicals. . . . ambitious, engaging, and nuanced.”

– Harvey G. Cox, Jr., Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus, Harvard Divinity School

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for. Now we have in one volume the richly textured, often puzzling, and always engaging story of American evangelicalism from colonial days to the present. To understand evangelicalism’s impact on our country, this is must reading.”

– Robert Wuthnow, Professor of Sociology and Director of Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion

“Another superb work by renowned but long-absent political journalist FitzGerald . . . this one centering on the roiling conflict among American brands of Christianity. . . . Overflowing with historical anecdote and contemporary reportage and essential to interpreting the current political and cultural landscape.”

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“FitzGerald has crafted nothing less than a spiritual history of the nation whose truest believers have for four centuries constituted themselves a moral majority. This is an American story, objectively told and written from the inside out”

– Richard Norton Smith, author of On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller

“A compelling narrative history of “the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents.” . . . [FitzGerald] skillfully introduces readers to the terminology, key debates, watershed events, and personalities that have populated the history of white American evangelical Protestant culture in the last half-century. She explains issues such as fundamentalism, biblical inerrancy, Christian nationalism, civil religion and anticommunism, the charismatic movement, and abortion, and introduces such diverse figures as Karl Barth, Jerry Falwell, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Pat Robertson . . . a timely and accessible contribution to the rapidly growing body of literature on Christianity in modern America.”

– Publishers Weekly

“This is an important book. FitzGerald has written a monumental history of how evangelicalism has shaped America. Few movements in our long story have had as significant an influence on American life and culture as conservative Christianity, and FitzGerald does full justice to the subject's scope and complexity.”

– Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Destiny and Power and Thomas Jefferson

“A rare and valuable book. It’s admirable that Frances FitzGerald is able to tell the story of the American evangelical movement without judgment or bias—but it’s absolutely astonishing that she’s able to tell it with such authority, clarity, and complete grasp of the historical context.”

– Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

“The Evangelicals is a comprehensive history of white evangelical movements in the United States, geared to provide a deeper understanding of present-day evangelicals and their influence. Journalist and historian Frances FitzGerald presents nearly 300 years of complex ideologies, schisms, social reforms and energetically creative theology in a well-organized, eye-opening narrative. . . . This book is not only for those with a particular interest in religious history; it is for anyone with a serious interest in American social movements, politics and culture. It is a history that strongly re-emphasizes the evolution of a nation, and those who hope to shape the future are wise to study the past.”

– Shelf Awareness

"The Evangelicals explodes any notion of evangelicalism as a monolithic movement. FitzGerald also deftly captures the 'exotic cast' of this pure product of America..."

– San Francisco Chronicle

"A masterful narrative."

– Gospel Coalition

"Essential reading on the conjoined nature of religion and politics today."

– Barnes & Noble (

“Massively learned and electrifying . . . the long, contradictory, and compelling history of American Evangelicals and the world they made. In the telling of this story, FitzGerald pulls off an admirable feat. She writes compassionately about generations of deeply held faith without seeming naive, even as she resists cynicism while noting the psychotics, charlatans, and con artists who have sometimes arisen to "deceive the very elect." The result is a quiet marvel of a book, well deserving of winning its author her second Pulitzer . . . magisterial . . . FitzGerald is adroit and gentle in noting how often America’s religious right wing seems to have been fighting rearguard actions.”

– The Christian Science Monitor

“This incisive history of white evangelical movements in America argues that their influence has been more pervasive and diverse than generally realized.”

– The New Yorker

"A formidable achievement that could become one of the definitive works on the subject."

– Vox

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