Anna and Caleb Liebing
16 February 2011
Religion 319—Professor Westblade
Decade Project—The 1790s
Following the American Revolution, brief rejoicing in the victory quickly succumbed to the many uncertainties of a new nation. With a newly born State came all the questions of law, order, and government. How would the Unites States define itself internally and externally? Externally, pressures of war, tense foreign relations, revolutions in Europe, and new modern philosophies dominated the scene on which the new American nation had just arrived. Internally, government needed new structure and reform, and the religious realm was in constant flux with the increase of new people and ideas coming to the previously Puritan dominated colonies. The task of establishing itself as an individual, independent nation faced the United States in the 1790s, and all of the events and ideas surrounding this task would have inevitable implications for American Christianity as it entered a time of great change.
The 1790s was a decade in which the Old World began to slowly transition into a modern world as culture flourished on many fronts. Mozart’s music graced the halls of the western world with increasing popularity even after his death in 1791. Joseph Haydn was in the midst of his composing years and Beethoven’s name was just rising to prominence. Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (published in 1798) and Coleridge’s poems signaled the rise of the Romantic era of literature, which also included such authors as William Blake and Jane Austen. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin arrived on the scene in 1794, revolutionizing agricultural techniques. Philosophically, the Age of Reason, featuring such prominent thinkers as Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant, was exerting huge influence. In all, the seeds of modern thinking were beginning to revolutionize the world in all facets of life.
In Europe, the French Revolution dominated the scene throughout the 1790s and threatened to turn the entire continent on its head. The recently concluded American Revolution provided the first sparks for the fires of the French Revolution. Just as the Americans lived in unrest and strife with the ruling British government, so also the French lived with deep tensions between the common people and elite class, which was topped by the absolutist monarchy. The French people witnessed the struggles of the American people firsthand during their participation in the American War for Independence, and, encouraged by the success of the Revolution in the Americas, the French launched their own revolt. The results of this revolution, however, were far different than those of the American Revolution.
The revolt first broke out in 1789. Burdened by the increasing national debt, bankruptcy, and dissatisfaction of the populace, the weakened monarchy headed by King Louis XVI assembled the Estates-General for the first time since 1614. The third estate, composed of the representatives of the people, quickly took control of the assembly, and from this point forward, France began to steadily fall into disarray. The forming of the first National Assembly was followed soon after by the storming of the Bastille during the summer of 1789. Blood was shed on many occasions, yet the nation held somewhat together as the National Assembly sought to form a constitutional monarchy that would guarantee the rights stipulated in documents such as The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The hope was that this sharing of power between assembly and King would pacify the disquiet and tensions of all factions. This plan failed as the assembly simply plunged the nation into further debt and disorder, and the radical Jacobins stirred up the people to further revolt. At this point, order spiraled quickly out of control. From 1792-1797 France was torn externally by war and internally by revolution, terror, and bloodshed. A National Convention was called in 1792 and soon after executed Louis XVI, establishing the “Reign of Terror” under Robespierre. France was in chaos. Religion, traditional morals, the Church, and all authority structures disintegrated in a blood bath. Anarchy ruled and spread it terrorizing influence as far as its hand could grasp. Such a state in one of the major powers of Europe necessarily threw the rest of the continent into turmoil and other nations naturally responded in fear and defense lest the philosophies and enlightenment ideals that sparked the French meltdown take hold throughout Europe. Wars exploded as Austria and Prussia invaded France in order to keep the revolution from spilling into their own countries. Finally, in 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte took control of the French government, promising a degree a internal stability, but in fact throwing Europe as a whole into even greater fear as his armies began to march across Europe in wars of conquest. The conflicts and disarray resulting from the French Revolution, therefore, dominated Europe for the entire decade and beyond. (Bosher)
Meanwhile, in the new world, the fledgling nation known as the United States struggled to form some sort of identity and structure for itself. Just as in France, the United States was overwhelmed with a dissatisfied populace and a form of government in the Articles of Confederation that did not work well. Fortunately, the problems facing the Americans found solutions in law, order, religion, and community as America’s leaders formed a new government.
The fundamental shaping of the United States as a nation took place in 1789-1790 as the Constitution was formed and ratified. This gave the country immediate structure under law and laid the foundation for the nation to define itself as a part of the larger world. The 1790s were a decade in which the United States sought to sort out its relationships with other nations as well as the relationships of states and communities within the country itself. Under the new government of the Constitution, America struggled at times. Tensions ran high both with Britain and France as well as the Native American Indians on the western frontier. This can be seen in the diplomatic tensions with France and the nearly constant struggle to avoid more war with Britain. In 1795, the Jay Treaty was concluded with Britain, finally easing the tensions caused by insufficiencies in the Treaty of Paris that had ended the Revolution (Bolton 192). In the XYZ affair of 1797, France, exploiting America’s lack of united military strength or a navy, attempted to blackmail the United States into giving them money and a Quasi War with France resulted in which the United State was forced to strengthen its defenses (Bolton 194). In the west, where the United States was rapidly expanding its borders and settlements under the Northwest Ordinance, Indian tensions were on the rise. The Greenville Treaty of 1796, which followed the Battle of Fallen Timbers and gave America rights from the tribes to the Northwest Territories, eased some of these tensions (Bolton 192). Internally, the independently minded states struggled to accept their new roles under the Federal government. This struggle manifested itself in the Whisky Rebellion of 1791, when citizens of Pennsylvania revolted against federal excise tax on whisky, resulting in George Washington’s raising of a militia to quell the rebellion of his own citizens.
These types of events characterized the 1790s in the United States. Unrest prevailed, not as a result of upheaval of society, but rather of uncertainty of the future. The individual citizen often had a difficult time trusting the infant government in the face of wars with France, Britain, and the Indians. The new Constitution had yet to be proven in the face of adversity. Military strength was practically non-existent. All this provided at best a shaky stability, and at worst a chaotic insecurity for the citizen, from the common man to the highest official.
In such an onslaught of sweeping ideas and dramatic changes that had been taking place over the past couple of decades, Christianity in America was naturally also undergoing some serious turmoil and shifting during the 1790s. From a broad point of view, there seemed to be an overall decline in peoples’ interest in religion following the American Revolution, for with the creation of a new nation and all that that entailed taking center stage, the church seemed much less important. Individual congregations had been disrupted and weakened by the events of the war, and formal church membership sunk in the years following the Revolution, reaching an all time low in the 1790s—between 5 and 10 percent of the population (Noll 163). In addition, there were publicized and influential attacks on traditional Christianity, perhaps most notably by well-known deists like Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine. Paine’s popular and influential book, The Age of Reason, was published in 1794 and 1796 and sharply questioned traditional “supernaturalism”. Despite such difficulties, Christianity remained firmly rooted in America, but it underwent some significant transformations both internally and externally.
The major issues with which the church was dealing, naturally, flowed largely from the American Revolution and its consequences, for the principles of liberty and democracy swept through the churches as surely as they swept through the political and social ranks of America. A democratic spirit manifested itself in a decline of Calvinism and a growing number of pastors and preachers who placed an emphasis in their evangelism on man’s personal decision to accept God rather than on the Puritan (Edwardian) theology of total depravity and God’s sovereignty in regeneration. There was also a growing democratic belief that any man was eligible to interpret the Bible, and the 1790s and following years saw a burst of unordained, circuit-riding preachers who claimed authority to examine the Word and hold forth about what they found there. As these shifts in mindset came to fruition, they naturally had an effect on the various denominations of the country. Many traditional churches declined dramatically—the Episcopalians, for instance, lost a large number of parishes (Noll 144)—while, simultaneously, many independent and charismatic groups gained momentum. It was during these decades after the Revolution that many new religious groups (some more radical than others) began to flower, including Shakers, Universalists, and Free Will Baptists. Francis Asbury, the great preacher who brought Methodism to America before the revolution and was key in its institutional establishment and spread after the war, was one of the catalyst figures that would spark a wave of revivals and bring his denomination to the fore of American Christianity. Many of these groups would not fully bloom until the early 19th century during the Second Great Awakening proper, but the seeds of that great revival were being sown during the 1790s. Lyman Beecher and Lorenzo Dow were just reaching adulthood in the 1790s, and Charles Grandison, the Presbyterian revivalist preacher whose name is perhaps most often associated with the Second Great Awakening, was born in 1792. All of these current and pending religious revolutions were largely the result of the theological shifts that in turn flowed from the infusion of democratic sentiments into American life.
The other major influence on American Christianity in the 1790s—which was, in fact, intimately tied to the Revolutionary principles discussed above—was Enlightenment thinking. Immanuel Kant was nearing the end of his life in the 1790s, and other major figures like Voltaire and Hume were very recently deceased, so the Enlightenment ideas with their emphasis on the sufficiency of human reason for understanding the issues of life were still very much in ascendancy. Most Americans rejected the skeptical and radical forms of Enlightenment that discredited the idea of God and divine revelation, but a more conservative form of Enlightenment that came out of a school of Scottish thinkers was very influential. These thinkers, led by Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid, advocated what was called a “common-sense” philosophy, which retained a realism that acknowledged the great powers and usefulness of human reason while tempering it by pointing out that the common experience, or “common sense” of people the world over presupposed certain truths that pointed to the existence of a divine order. Many American religious leaders adopted some variety of this thinking, including Jonathan Edward’s grandson Timothy Dwight, president of Yale beginning in 1795, who held to the theology of the sovereignty of God but explained that God works through human reason, directing man’s minds to obedience. Enlightenment thinking, therefore, although of a conservative bent, still exerted a lasting influence on the development of American Christianity.
On a very practical and immediate level, the most immediate change facing the American church was the ratification and implementation of the Constitution (which did not go into effect until 1789), particularly as it pertained to the church’s relationship to the federal government. In light of the prevailing Revolutionary-era fear of tyranny and oppression, more and more Americans had come to believe that “religion was a matter of conscience between God and the individual and should be exempt from the meddling of government at any level” (Noll 144). Thus came the Fifth Amendment, which stipulated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Constitution of the United States of America), and the churches of America had to wrestle with exactly what that would mean. At the same time, however, that the founding fathers felt this distinction to be necessary, it continued to be true that the entire background of the new states was so overwhelmingly Protestant and Puritan that such a separation was difficult to imagine. There was much debate as to the precise meaning of this amendment, with some (like Thomas Jefferson) viewing it as erecting a wall between church and state, and others arguing that the promulgation of Christianity was vitally important to the maintenance of a virtuous republic and that the state was permitted to encourage religion as long as it did not violate personal conscience and freedom of worship. This hitherto little known segregation between sacred and secular was certainly a big issue for churches in the 1790s as they sought to practically sort out its full meaning and implications for everyday life.
Overall, the decade of the 1790s was one of unrest and change from Paris to London to New York, and this environment had an inevitable impact on the American church. In Europe, it was a time of great music and literature and philosophy, but also of political upheaval as the turmoil in France threatened to shake the entire continent to its foundations. In America, the ratification of the Constitution signaled a shifting identity that brought both new stability as well as the tensions and uncertainty resulting from the growing pains of a new country. All of these factors impacted the religious scene of the United States. Churches struggled to decipher what separation of church and state meant. The democratic ideals of the Revolution and the philosophical theories of the Enlightenment swept through the churches and led to a shift in theology and vocabulary that in turn began to lead to the emergence of new groups and the very beginnings of what would become the Second Great Awakening. All of these changes were both symptoms and causes of a continuing erosion of the staunch Puritanism to which Jonathan Edwards and his contemporaries had held less than a century before. Christianity in America was shifting and changing and would continue to do so even more dramatically over the century that was about to begin.
Bolton, Herbert E. History of the Americas. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1979. Print.
Bosher, J.F. The French Revolution. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988. Print.
Gaustad, Edwin S. The Religious History of America. San Francisco: Harper Books, 2022. Print.
Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992. Print.