The Christian Home in Victorian America examines the affect Victorian Christianity had on attitudes towards domesticity, or the private aspect of American culture. McDannell argues that for nineteenth-century Christians “the connection between religion and the home was natural and inseparable” (xiii). Christians, Protestants and Catholics, believed in the divine nature of the home and created an American domestic religion.
McDannell traces the development of American domestic religion and its dependence on notions of the family to Puritans who settled in America. Puritans, like later evangelical Protestants, structured domestic religion in similar ways. “They met in the morning and evening [in the home] to recite prayers, sing psalms, and read from the Bible” (5). Religion, and, in turn, domestic piety witnessed a decline in the mid- to late-1700s as colonial and early republic Americans focused more in “individualism, deism, rationalism, and concern for the new nation” (5). American domestic religion matured in the 1820s as the social world of the Victorians witnessed the advent of industrialization and advances in transportation, the textile industry, mass production, and the marketplace. By the 1840s, these developments supported a marketplace filled with affordable Christian goods. Middle-class Protestants decorated their parlors with these Christian goods. Women oversaw decoration as notions of “true womanhood” equated womanhood with motherhood purity, piety, and domesticity. This domestic, feminine Protestantism coalesced with consumerism to foster a culture that prized visual and material displays of religion in the home. By the 1870s, Protestants recognized homes as sanctuaries populated with sacred furnishings that formed and expressed their salvation. Irish Catholic domestic piety developed from the mid-century and was entrenched by the 1880s. Protestant and Catholic domestic piety supported a middle-class Christian culture. Domestic religion also supported fathers and mothers as leaders at the domestic altar. The attention to fathers waxed and waned throughout the nineteenth century.
The Christian Home in Victorian America is one of the first books to examine the material culture of American Christianity. McDannell shows us how religion was practiced in the home with things. This is a significant methodological move because it demonstrates that Victorians in America did not shut their homes off from the world and the marketplace. Rather, the marketplace and mass produced goods were essential to Protestant and Catholics’ practice of religion and notions of salvation. Things and the marketplace mattered for American Christianity. This is also important for nineteenth-century gender studies because it suggests that Americans did not understand the separation of the spheres. The marketplace as man’s sphere was not separated from the home as woman’s sphere. Christians displayed prized goods from the marketplace in their homes.
Despite showing how the home and marketplace worked together to maintain Christianity in America, McDannell recognizes the separation of the spheres. “The home was not only a private sphere unconnected to society but the starting point for shaping the public world” (xiv). For McDannell, the home was a private sphere that influenced the public sphere. This notion comes from McDannell’s use of Barbara Welter’s “the cult of true womanhood.” Welter argued that “true womanhood” in the nineteenth century defined womanhood as motherhood purity, piety, and domesticity. Domesticity, or the woman’s sphere, was central to “true womanhood.” Welter reasoned that religion and domesticity went in hand: “One reason religion was valued was that it did not take a woman away from her ‘proper sphere,” her home.” Thus, Welter separated religion and women from the public sphere and wider world. McDannell maintained this separation for a reason. She wanted to show the importance of the private sphere in light of recent work on the private sphere in civil religion and the feminization of American culture.
McDannell recognized her work as contributing to the debate about American civil religion. In 1968, Robert Bellah argues that American civil religion as a set of “public symbols that define what is sacred in this country” (150). Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann modified Bellah’s Durkheimian perspective. According to McDannell they suggested that “modern society forced individuals to retreat into the private sphere where they cultivated autonomy, self-expression, and self-reliance” (150). This retreat segregated religion within the private sphere. This move for Luckmann and Berger was “functional,” but upsetting since the public sphere (not families and individuals) was supposed to mold individuals. The private sphere took on the role of the public sphere, but this role was mediocre and unnatural.
Other scholars also lamented the role and function of the private sphere. In the Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas argued that ministers and women intentionally feminized religion in their support of the private sphere. Douglas interpreted this feminization as a detriment to American culture because it did not create a progressive women’s movement. This feminization was negative because it focused on domestic culture as sentimental and undesirable. Douglas pointed the finger at nineteenth-century American women who supported this familial, feminine, sentimental culture. She did not recognize these women as feminists. The private sphere was a burden to American progress. Other historians like, Barbara Welter and Nina Baym, argued that the private sphere supported the public sphere. They suggested that sentimental, feminine culture elevated women. They approved of domestic novels because they “were ‘vehicles of protest’ which commented on ‘temperance, women’s right, prolabor and antilabor, slavery and abolition.’”
According to McDannell, this work on civil religion and feminization minimized the importance of and influence of the private sphere. McDannell argued “only when the private sphere (dominated by women) attempted to control the public sphere (dominated by men) was the private sphere worth noting.” McDannell saw her work as opening the private sphere to show how men and women practiced religion in the home. The private sphere was important on its own right. It did not need the public sphere to be important. This became especially clear in light of civil religion.
McDannell argued that American domestic religion existed alongside of denominational religion and American civil religion. “By combining traditional religious symbols with a set of middle-class domestic values the Victorians rooted their home virtues in the eternal and allowed the more abstract traditional symbols to assume a real presence in everyday life. Domestic religion, in its uniquely religious and generally cultural forms, bound together what was truly meaningful in Victorian society….To understand Christianity of this period we must look not only at public symbols of civil religion, or particular theologies, but at the sacramental character of the home” (151). McDannell evaluates the private sphere to show how domestic religion functioned positively as its own set of private symbols in Victorian culture. To show the importance of the private sphere, McDannell reinforces the separation between the public and private spheres.
Despite McDannell’s reinforcement of the separation of the spheres, her work is important because it shows the opposite. Domestic religion fused the public and private spheres. Women and religion were not separated from the public sphere, they moved in and around the public sphere and brought it into their homes in the forms of goods and commodities. Likewise, women took religion into the public sphere and shaped it. The spheres were not separate. In fact, there seem to be no public and private spheres. McDannell’s works recognizes this in her discussion about fathers and mothers as leaders of the domestic altar in Protestant and Catholic models of domestic religion. Men also lead worship, prayer, and Bible reading in the home. The home and religion were not conceived of as completely the realms of women. The home was not woman’s sphere. Men also has an importance place in the home. This is an important insight which has been lost in the literature on spheres. Despite, McDannell’s evidence to the contrary, The Christian Home in Victorian America perpetuates the separation of the spheres as a metaphor and reality in order to promote domestic religion as a category unto itself. Historians must rethink the ideology of separate spheres in order to understand how parlor culture and religion were a part of the wider Victorian culture of men, women, and children.