A New Eden is episode 2 from the six-part God In America series which originally aired on PBS in October 2010. These are notes I made while watching this episode.
“Who are we as Americans?”
“Who are we as Americans?”
1773 – Jeremiah Moore (Baptist from VA) was put in jail for “preaching without a license.” Virginian Baptists were “evangelical Christians” who believed that people must have a personal encounter with God/Jesus in order to be saved. You had to “testify persuasively that you have been converted” and be baptized as an adult.
The elite, ruling class in VA were Anglicans. Everyone paid taxes that went to maintaining their local Anglican parish. Baptists were receiving converts from disenfranchised Anglicans that felt under/misrepresented. Therefore, laws were enacted to limit when/where non-Anglicans could preach.
The more Baptist ministers were punished, the more popular their cause became.
The man who advocated for the Baptists in the court was Thomas Jefferson; just a few weeks on the heels drafting the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was “spiritual-but-not-religious” – he created his own version of the gospels by literally cutting out the sections he didn’t like (miracles, healings, etc.). Jefferson and the Baptists made strange bedfellows; disagreeing theologically but agreeing philosophically in the freedom of religion.
“Their idea, which is radical at the time, is you disestablish the church. You allow every religious sect and denomination to compete in the marketplace of ideas.” ~ Daniel Dreisbach
Jefferson wrote a bill, calling for the end of government-supported religious institutions and allowing for the freedom of religion. Many disagreed, including fellow revolutionary, Patrick Henry, who wrote a bill that would use state funds to keep all approved denominations in the black. Jefferson’s bill prevailed.
When the Constitution was presented in 1787, however, no mention of religious freedom was mentioned in any of the seven articles. Jefferson wrote a guarantee of individual rights, what we now know as the Bill of Rights.
“With no national church, religion would not be guaranteed a place at the center of public life. No other nation had ever taken such a step.”
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By the turn of the century, 200 wagons each day were setting out for the West. The great religious marketplace would unfold on the American frontier.
1801 - James Finley went to a “revival” in Cain Ridge, KY…skeptical of this kind of religious expression. Ministers feared a spiritual crisis in America – fewer people were going to church than before the Revolutionary War. The religious freedom experiment was failing. When he got to Cain Ridge, Finley saw 20,000+ people gathered in the wilderness; singing, shrieking, laughing, crying, and being slain by the Spirit. Finley has a conversion experience, despite his boasts that there would be no such transformation.
For the next 20 years, revivals / camp meetings exploded across the country.
By 1811, over 1 million Americans were attending at least one religious revival a year. New denominations (and leaders) sprung up in every community. Methodism grew faster and stronger than any other denomination – it’s a “religion of the heart”, which appealed to the sensibilities of early 19th century Americans.
James Finley became a Methodist minister and was influential in many socio-religious changes. His popularity rose form his work as a traveling preacher (itinerant) in the frontier. (Known as “Circuit Riders”) People liked these itinerants because they had an everyman quality.
The Circuit Riders didn’t just bring religion, they brought educational infrastructure.
By 1850, more Americans were going to church than ever before…and 2/3 of churchgoers were evangelical protestants. With this surge in these evangelical expressions of faith came the desire to “Christianize” American society…“make it look more like the kingdom of God”.
Evangelical Christianity was no longer about a personal experience, but about a pervasive Christian culture. Schools, hospitals, abolition, women’s rights, prisons, orphanages – all were started by evangelical Christians in the mid-1800s. Evangelical Protestants established the infrastructure that America needed.
As America grew, it drew hundreds of thousands of European immigrants to the new world. Most of the immigrants were Irish Catholics – the religion that American Protestants had been resisting for the last 300 years. Irish Catholicism became a threat to Protestant America.
“They are perceived as alien…as not us.”
By 1840, 25% of New Yorkers were Catholic. Hostility grew. Riots raged in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.
John Hughes (the most outspoken American Catholic Bishop) tried to make Americans “accept that their new Eden had to include Catholics.” He called the country to live up to the religious freedoms promised in the Constitution.
Hughes felt that the (NYPSS) New York Public School Society (founded by Quakers) were promoting anti-Catholic rhetoric…that they were, in essence, state-sponsored Protestant schools. (Sang Protestant hymns, most teachers were current or retired ministers, Protestant Bible study etc.) This became the major issue that inspired him.
“One of the main purposes of the public schools was to create moral citizens…and the only way to create a moral citizen was to give them religion…and the only legitimate religion was Christianity…and the only way to inculcate Christianity was the Bible.” ~ Stephen Prothero
Hughes petitioned the NY City Council, demanding that if public schools were teaching Protestantism, then Catholics should be given money to set up their own schools. He is making an American, religious liberty case for school funding; the same case that evangelical Protestants used to establish their own majority. In the end, John Hughes lost the vote 15-1. The Protestant establishment thought this was the end of the matter.. Hughes responded by raising tons of money to start parochial schools. Additionally, Hughes told Catholics how to vote in upcoming elections so he could, eventually, sway the political process in his favor.
The Protestant establishment got angry, but to no avail. All but 3 of Hughes’ candidates won. In April 1842, a bill was passed which ended religious instruction in public schools. Religious liberty prevailed.