31 Mar

William E. McLellin, Journal (July to November 1831)

William E. McLellin is known for his conversion to the Church of Christ in 1831. McLellin became an Elder in the Church and was an original member of Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Quorum was made of men who were considered apostles, or thought to have a special calling as evangelists. McLellin is also known for his excommunication from the Church by Joseph Smith in 1838. McLellin spoke out against the Church after his excommunication, but rejoined after Smith’s assassination in 1844.

McLellin was born in 1806 in Tennessee. He married Cynthia Ann in 1829. Cynthia Ann died before July 1831 when McLellin lived in Paris, Illinois and worked as a teacher. From July to November 1831 McLellin kept a journal of his interactions with the two travelling preachers, his baptism into the Church of Christ, and his early evangelism. McLellin’s journal is an important source for historians of American religion. It reminds scholars that in the nineteenth-century the Church of Christ appealed to many Americans. It was entertaining, a part of the evangelical print culture, and represented Christian truth. The movement looked like other Christian movements in the 1830s and emphasized similar ideas and theologies. It was also new and mysterious to many others. In any case, the new Christian movement attracted many Americans including McLellin.


McLellin first heard about the Church of Christ when he was teaching school in Paris, Illinois. Two men came to town and advertised an afternoon meeting in a local town where they would preach. The men said they were travelling to Zion ,”which they said was in upper Missouri.” They also had a book with them called the Book of Mormon, which they claimed was revelation from God. After school one day, McLellin set out “Anxious to see and hear those quear [sic] beings.” The two men preached outdoors in a sugartree grove. They talked about signs of the time, explained why they believed in the Book as a revelation, and “expanded the Gospel the plainest” McLellin “ever heard” in his life. One of the men described having “seen an Holy Angel who made known the record to him.” McLellin pondered “these strange things” in his heart and invited the men to preach in Paris. He also travelled with them to another town to listen to their testimonies and to talk to them more about their religion. McLellin “was induced to believe something about their mission.” The two men invited McLellin to travel with them to Jackson County, Missouri where he could meet other members, and Joseph Smith, a Prophet and the translator of the Book. McLellin accepted the invitation and travelled West.

McLellin’s journal catalogues his journey to Independence, Missouri. He stayed some nights and ate meals with his friends and family who he told about the travelling preachers and the Book of Mormon. Other days and nights he spent with the two men and attended meetings where they preached. One day he took them to the graves of his dead wife, Cynthia Ann, and their infant. Before departing with the two men again, McLellin bought the last Book of Mormon they carried with them. Other nights he stayed in towns. In all cases, he usually paid for his and his horse’s room and board. McLellin also bought a pocket Bible for 75 cents one day. At one of his stops he sold his copy of the Book of Mormon to a lady who boarded him. Two Elders had visited the town and preached, but they ran out of copies of their book to sell. The women convinced McLellin to sell his copy to her.

When McLellin arrived in Independence, he talked with the local people to see what they thought about the traveling preachers. The villagers called them “Mormonites.” They said the Mormonites were honest, but “much deluded by Smith and others.” McLellin met with the Mormonites and saw peace, love, harmony, and humility among them. They engaged in family prayer and talked about the Second Coming, and the rise and progress of their church. They gave testimonies about their conversion experiences. McLellin rose early the next day and prayed to God. He recorded in his journal, “I was bound as an honest man to acknowledge the truth and Validity of the book of Mormon and also that I had found the people of the Lord—The Living Church of Christ.” McLellin was baptized into the Church by immersion in a river and laying on of hands. Nevertheless, like many evangelicals, McLellin had doubts after his baptism. He attended a “sacrament meeting” where there was plain preaching and witnessing by men and women of the works of god. McLellin, however, was disappointed by the lack of shouting, screaming, jumping, and shaking of members at the meeting. Nevertheless, he felt happy and “saw more beauty in Christianity now than I ever had seen before.” A few days later, McLellin was ordained as an Elder in the Church of Christ and was called to preach the Gospel himself.

McLellin travelled with other Elders and preached at meetings. He had not been trained to preach, but God gave him an animated and burning heart. McLellin, like the other Elders, preached for hours on end. At two different meetings, Methodist ministers challenged McLellin and the other Elders. One Methodist accused them of teaching “a supernatural Religion.” Other Christian preachers accused them of being false prophets. McLellin continued to preach with the other Elders. They preached about the literal Second Coming of Jesus in Zion in Missouri, and encouraged people to prepare and gather in Zion. They also continued to sell the Book of Mormon. McLellin eventually returned home to Paris after his preaching circuit.

29 Mar

Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835)

Finney was a Presbyterian preacher during the Second Great Awakening in New York. He is famous for inducing conversion experiences with his sermons and revival techniques, called “New Measures,” in the 1820s and 1830s. Finney published Lectures on Revivals of Religion in 1835. These lectures had been delivered to his own congregation in previous years, and edited and published by the New York Evangelist. Finney was relatively unknown in evangelical circles until the publication of these lectures in book form. The lectures criticized New England Calvinism and lauded methods of evangelicals, particularly Methodists. The publication of Lectures on Revivals of Religion was meant to resuscitate revivalism amidst controversy, debates, and the decline of revivalism in churches. Two of Finney’s most famous published lectures were “Methods to Promote Revivals” and “Instruction to Young Converts.”

“Methods to Promote Revivals”

“Methods to Promote Revivals” argued that under the Gospel dispensation God had not established any particular measures, or no particular system, for promoting revivals of religion. Finney argued that if one looked to history, one could see that there had been a succession of New Measures. New Measures had changed with traditions and time. People usually had a hard time accepting New Measures because they believed the old ones had come from God. Eventually New Measures became old ones and the cycle continued. To see this truth, one only had to look to examples in church history. Finney reminded readers that: 1) pastors’ clothing had changed over time and that different articles of clothing marked pastors’ status; 2) the books, songs, and materials of worship changed over time; and 3) the participation of laymen had also change (in particular, Finney noted that at one time women’s prayer meetings were opposed in all churches).

Finney lauded the great revivalists in Christian history who had instituted such changes, including the apostles, Luther and the Reformers, Wesley and his coadjutors, and President Edwards. These men served as models for Finney’s promotion of his own New Measures. Finney’s New Measures included anxious meetings, protracted meetings, and the anxious bench. Anxious meetings allowed pastors to converse with individuals and groups about religion in order to “lead them immediately to Christ.” These meetings were not new. They were practiced in New England as means to induce conversions. Protracted meetings were camp meetings or revivals of religion that lasted multiple days. Again, these were not new. Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians hosted these meetings. But by the 1830s, Presbyterian ministers and laymen questioned the efficacy of revivals. People who converted at these meetings usually slid backwards shortly after their conversions to Christ. Moreover, many people complained that these meetings interfered with their business work. They grumbled about having to take time off to attend these meetings. This upset Finney. He argued they needed to realize they were doing God’s work at these meetings. Finney also suggested that these meetings should not be about spending money and entertaining travelling guests. Moreover, these meetings should avoid sectarianism and employ only 1 or 2 preachers. Finney also argued that people should stop think about these meetings as the only measure to promote the revivals of religion. Just as effective, Finney suggested, was the anxious seat. This seat put individuals in the spotlight at meetings and forced them to make a decision for Christ. Finney thought the individual and psychological nature of the anxious seat would only bring those who were truly ready for conversion before the congregation. The anxious seat provided some liability against mass conversions at protracted meetings.

Finney concluded by reminding readers that congregations needed new measures, particularly more entertaining ways of preaching (like the Methodists). Finney criticized Presbyterians for lauding education in ministers over their abilities to preach and draw crowds. “Many ministers are finding it out already, that a Methodist preacher, without the advantages of a liberal education, will draw a congregation around him which a Presbyterian minister, with perhaps ten times as much learning, cannot equal, because he has not the earnest manner of the other, and does not pour out fire upon his hearers when he preaches.” Finney argued for a shift away from older forms of Calvinism to New Measures that were more effective for the times. According to Finney, it was “the right and duty of ministers to adopt new measures for promoting revivals.” Holding on too tightly to the old measures “savors strongly of fanaticism.”

“Instruction to Young Converts” explains why and how ministers and churches should educate new converts. Educating new converts did not include teaching them doctrinal knowledge, or that religion is a substance that is part of the mind. Religion was not just about raptures and ecstasies, or “high flights of feelings.” Religion was “obedience to God, the voluntary submission of the soul to the will of God.” Religion did not consist of religious duties alone, like reading the Bible, praying, or going to meetings. These were part of religion, but not converts’ sole duties. Obedience to God included “A LIFE OF PIETY,” not just duties. Religion did not include “desires to do good.” This was “practical Atheism.” Religion consisted of choosing to do duties in everyday life. Religion required selfless, voluntary action undertaken to please God alone. Religion also consisted of self-denial and sanctification. Sanctification did not precede obedience and it was not a change in one’s nature or soul. Sanctification was obeying God “more and more perfectly.” Religion was perseverance, practicing piety in everything, and temperance in all things (particularly, temperance in overeating, and abstaining from tobacco and coffee and tea, which were not nutritious). Religion should pervade a young convert’s business life. Young converts should try to be just a holy as ministers. Young converts should aim at being perfect and to exhibit their light. Religion also consisted of winning souls for Christ. The church should allow young converts to be active in the church and the church should watch over them. The church should be tender in reproving them, but also point out their faults. It was important for the church to educate young converts and not leave them to their own devices after revivals and conversion experiences. The church should train young converts as soldiers of the churches for missions. The hope of the church was young converts. If they had truly converted, then young converts could be harnessed by the church and made energetic and thorough Christians.

29 Mar

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)

Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in June 1741 to his congregation in Northampton. Edwards delivered the sermon as the area revival in religion was building. The sermon became famous after Edwards delivered it at a meeting in Enfield, Massachusetts in July 1741. The sermon was meant to induce an awakening, or conversion experiences, among the community of Enfield. In the previous weeks, the itinerant preacher George Whitefield induced an awakening with his preaching in the neighboring town of Suffield. Area minsters were distressed that the same had not happened in Enfield. They set-up a preaching circuit among local pastors including Wheelock, Edwards, and Meacham to awaken Enfield and the other surrounding towns.

Edwards did not preach with dramatic gestures and theatrics like Whitefield. Nonetheless, Edwards’s sermon had a significant effect on the Enfield congregation. Before Edwards finished delivering the sermon, congregants moaned and cried out for their salvation. They feared going to hell and asked what they could do for Christ. At one point, Edwards asked the congregation for silence because its shrieks and cries filled the room. Edwards did not finish this sermon because he could not be heard over the audience’s shouting and crying.

Edwards delivered the sermon several times after the Enfield address as one of the standard sermons in his revival itineracy. In later versions of the sermon, Edwards appended six practical steps for seeking salvation. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of Edwards more infamous sermons. Its focus on hell to induce conversion leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many twenty-first-century Americans. Edwards’s focus on hell and death, however, were not unusual topics in the eighteenth-century. Edwards and other preachers found these topics effective for awakening souls to God. This sermon has been one of the most widely reproduced of Edwards’s sermons.  (See George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 219-224.)


“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” interpreted and applieed Deuteronomy 32:35, “Their foot shall slide in due time.” According to Edwards, “In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, that were God’s visible people.” The verse related to the punishment and destruction of the Israelites for their sins. Edwards explained that this verse meant the Israelites were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction. The immanence of that destruction was of their own doing. They had not been destroyed already because God had not allowed it to happen yet. Edwards concluded as doctrine: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” Edwards proved this doctrine by reminding his audience of the omnipotent power of God, that men deserve to be cast into hell, and that men are already sentenced to hell. God was angry and displeased with those on earth as with those in hell. The only thing that saved men from hell in every moment was God’s restraint. The devil stood ready to seize them when God permited. The living were to have no security in the fact that there were no “visible means of death at hand.” There was no security in life. Men continued to reject Christ in their attempts to evade death and hell. But, no one could escape hell. “God has laid himself under no obligation by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment.” Until men believed in Christ, God was under no obligation to save anyone from hell.

Edwards then applied this doctrine. He argued that “the use may be of awakening to unconverted persons in this congregation.” He urged people to recognize that “God 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…you hang by a slender thread.” Edwards called the congregation to realize that the wrath of God was fierce and infinite, that congregants were always expose to this misery, and that this misery was eternal. He called the congregants to awaken to Christ in the hope of being spared from God’s wrath. Edwards called on the old as well as young women, young men, and children to awaken. He urged “God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the bigger part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and it will be as it was on that great outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days, the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded.” Congregants were to make haste and seek Christ to “fly from the wrath to come.”

26 Mar

Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997)

Christine Leigh Heyrman examines how evangelicalism spread to the American South from the 1740s to 1830s. Southern Cross surveys the diaries of itinerant Baptist and Methodist preachers to recognize “why southern whites of all classes long kept their distance from evangelicals” (26). Heyrman argues that evangelicalism did not gain widespread support in the South among white Southerners until the 1830s. In its incipient years, evangelicalism challenged the social and familial roles of the Anglican South, particularly the patriarchy of white masters. Itinerant preachers “realized that the future of their churches in the South depended on more than yielding ground to gentlefolk and slaveholders. It would require winning humbler folk as well by altering, often drastically, many earlier evangelical teachings and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black, as well as their positions and relationships between the church and the family, and between Christianity and other forms of supernaturalism” (26). By the 1830s, “Southern whites came to speak the language of Canaan as evangelicals learned to speak with a southern accent” (26).


In the eighteenth century, the largest number of churchgoers in the South were “Anglicans, members of the colonial church of England who later came to be called Episcopalians” (7). The First Great Awakening (1730s to 1740s) did little to affect the religious atmosphere of the southern colonies. From the 1740s to 1760s, some evangelicals moved to the South to proselytize, and more settlers moved south and southwest bringing their pietistic traditions. Heyrman notes, “All of those migrants and missionaries carried into the South the conviction that spiritual rebirth was essential to salvation, and the most militant among them, Baptists and Methodists, aimed at nothing less than teaching all Southerners the language of Canaan” (11). To do this, evangelicals attacked the “popishness” of Anglicanism with its rituals and holidays, and sent young, itinerant preachers to the backcountry. Evangelicals gained some membership numbers and established churches. By 1776, however, evangelicals numbered less than 10% of the southern white population. After the American Revolution and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, evangelicals (Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) gained only a few more adherents. By the early 1800s, evangelicals comprised only 17% of the white population and 8% percent of the enslaved population. “Why,” asks Heryman, “was it that evangelicals, although now invested with every advantage, still struggled to claim the soul of the South?” (23). The answer: Evangelicals challenged the social hierarchies of Anglicanism and southern culture.

These challenges angered and frightened most white laypeople, particularly white masters. Evangelicals preached about the sinfulness of humans, the torments of hell, and Satan and demons’ ability to interact with and take visible form in the world. This supernaturalism frightened white people in at least three ways. 1) It equated Satan with “the black man,” who represented the powerfulness of enslaved people. 2) It appealed to enslaved men and women who regarded supernaturalism as an integral part of religious life. 3) It frightened whites who also believed in the power and literalness of Satan. Evangelicals also challenged social hierarchy by sending out young, single, itinerant preachers. These young men challenged southern culture’s emphasis on patriarchy. These men did not defer wisdom to age, they were unmarried in a society that preferred marriage, they were single men interacting with married women, and they demanded reverence and respect from all classes of southern men. Evangelicalism also upset traditional understandings of family. Ministers ridiculed marriage, rarely dated, and married late. They expected loyalty among evangelicals after conversion, not among family members. They also upset hierarchies by seeking the conversion of women first and being in close proximity with women alone. They allowed women to speak in public, give testimony, and receive revelations. Women’s newfound spirituality looked hyper-sexual to white, male southerners. The language of family and “God the Father” in evangelical circles also undermined the earthly family. The emphasis on an intimate relationship with the male Jesus upset notions of masculinity. Moreover, ministers denounced social interaction among families and communities by denouncing dancing, parties, and drinking. Poorer white males even detested evangelicals who seemed to disrupt their relationships with white masters. Evangelicals challenged all levels of southern culture and society. These challenges hindered the popularity of evangelicalism. By the early 1800s, evangelicals recognized these stumbling blocks and altered their messages.

Evangelicals tamed their emphasis on Satan and supernaturalism to appease whites. This also meant segregating churches and seeking approval from masters to preach to and baptize enslaved Africans. Taming supernaturalism meant curtailing African participation in evangelicalism. Evangelicals stopped women from preaching and specking in public. They associated female piety with the home and domesticity. Evangelicals married and had families. They deferred power and authority to white masters. “What had come to matter most to men of God was what had always mattered most to men of honor: vindicating their mastery within the public sphere” (252). Evangelicalism draped itself in southern culture and society in order to win the souls of the South. Evangelicals came to resemble white masters. After winning the white masters, evangelicals were able to win the unchurched, white, lower classes from the 1810 to 1830s.


Southern Cross examines the spread of evangelicalism contra Nathan Hatch’s notion of democratization. Unlike Hatch, Heyrman recognizes, firstly, that regionalism was important to the growth of evangelicalism. Hatch suggests that “The choice to study common developments springs from a conviction that certain underlying cultural dynamics of this period are not reducible to distinct regional characteristics…no section of the new nation was exempt from a democratic upsurge in religious matters” (12). Heyrman shows that regionalism impacted the spread of evangelicalism in the South. Evangelicalism challenged the establishment of the Anglian Church in the southern colonies and southern culture. Regionalism hindered and postponed the democratic upsurge in religious matters.

Heryman also challenges Hatch’s notion of democratization and popular religious movements. Evangelicalism was not a democratizing movement in the sense that it liberated people from social mores and promoted equality. To be sure, the movement attempted these things in its early years in the South. The moves toward liberation, however, were not successful. Evangelical ministers eventually re-inscribed the social order and gender roles of southern culture, and supported slavery. Evangelicalism did not liberate or embody the values of ordinary citizens. It actually did the opposite. Thus, Heyrman redefines the meaning of a popular religious movement: “This is the truest sense in which southern evangelicalism was a dynamic and popular movement: It was being reinvented during the very decades that it took root in that region, transformed by the demands of laymen and –women and the responses of clerical leaders” (27). A popular religious movement is the reinvention of religious values to meet the needs of particular laypeople, clergy, and culture.

Southern Cross is also important for what it says about the characteristics of evangelicalism. The dominance of evangelicalism in the South was not inevitable. Evangelicalism struggled for almost 100 years to take root in the South. Only when evangelical ministers conformed themselves and their messages to southern society and culture did it survive and thrive. Moreover, evangelicalism in the early nineteenth-century looked strange to many people. Its focus on supernaturalism and Satan frightened people. Evangelicals tamed supernaturalism to appeal to southerners. This is an important point. However, the degree to which evangelicals actually tamed supernaturalism may be debated. Recent studies show that belief in the supernatural grew throughout the nineteenth-century. In Heyrman’s story, supernaturalism all but disappears from evangelicalism. Nevertheless, the main point still stands. Evangelicalism of the early nineteenth-century was not the evangelicalism of the mid- or late-nineteenth century. Evangelicalism is not a static force or category that describes one particular theology and practice of Christianity.

26 Mar

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (1991)

The Divine Dramatist traces the biography of George Whitefield, “Anglo-America’s most popular eighteenth-century preacher” (xiii). Harry S. Stout recounts this life story through Whitefield’s published writings and diaries, letters, magazines, and newspapers from the eighteenth-century. This book examines Whitefield’s popularity in terms of social and cultural history. Stout argues that Whitefield “bequeathed a new, more modern sense to the term evangelical. His field preaching competed not only with the ‘velvet-mouthed’ preachers of his church, but also with the vendors, sportsmen, and entertainers of the marketplace” (65-66). According to Stout, “It was left to Whitefield to become Anglo-America’s first religious celebrity, the symbol for a dawning modern age” (xvi). Whitefield infused religion with modern forms of consumption and helped shift the meaning of “revival” by employing modern notions of epistemology to conversion. Stout concludes that Whitefield was an American icon, a Pauline evangelist, and an American patriot.


The young Whitefield enjoyed theatre, but scorned secular entertainment after an epiphany at Oxford. As a “boy preacher,” Whitefield harnessed the power of the press to debate Anglican Bishops and publish sermons. While in Georgia, Whitefield continued publishing in the Journal to maintain his religious audience. In the 1730s, Whitefield induced revivals in London, colonial America, and Scotland. He transformed the sermon into “a dramatic event capable of competing for public attention outside the arena of the church—in fact, the marketplace” (66). By 1750, America and Britain experienced the first seeds of a “consumer revolution” (xvii) that focused on the marketplace, manufacturing, capital, and leisure. The new language of consumption did not include religion and “threatened to overtake social discourse” (xviii). Whitefield integrated religious discourse into this language of consumption to show that “preaching could be both edifying and entertaining” (xvi). Whitefield attracted international attention, especially among women, as well as controversy. Samuel Foote satirized Whitefield as Dr. Squintum and criticized his use of theatrics to market religion.

In the 1740s, Whitefield worked to restore relationships with religious authorities and continued his revivalist mission. Stout argues that Whitefield “helped introduce a new concept of religious experience that grew throughout the nineteenth-century into a recognizably ‘evangelical movement’” (xx). This concept of religious experience was grounded in revivals, typified by Whitefield, that were based on personal conversion experiences. Whitefield’s revivals in the mid- eighteenth-century departed from Puritan revivals. This departure resulted from a shift in epistemology. Puritans “denied that conversion could be experienced by those who were ignorant of the theological terms on which it rested. This meant that the teaching function of the church had always received primary interest” (206). Whitefield reversed this emphasis so that “individual experience became the ground for a shared theology” of conversions and, therefore, revival. Stout traces this shift to Lockean epistemology, which focused on sensation and experience: “As sensation represented the only avenue for natural knowledge in Lockean epistemology, so the supernatural experience of New Birth became the sole authentic means to spiritual knowledge in the evangelical revivals” (205). Modern evangelicalism is marked by a shift in the ways Christians experienced conversion and revival. Conversion and revival transformed from “a mysterious, local, communal event to one that was predictable and highly subjective” (xxi). The conversions and revivals of Whitefield were based on individual, personal, and emotional experiences of the supernatural.


The Divine Dramatist is an important contribution to the study of American religion. Stout provides a much needed historical account of George Whitefield’s itinerancy. As Stout notes, “Studies of Whitefield have too often abstracted him from the age in which he lived” (xvi). Scholars often present hagiographies of Whitefield, not historical analyses. Stout does much to correct this. However, Stout’s biography may overstate the degree to which Whitefield embodied “American” values. Stout suggests that both Whitefield and Americans “chafed against authority and arbitrary powers” (91). This reading presupposes “the revolutionary spirit” of “Americans.” Many colonial Americans, especially males, supported the white, male hierarchy of the colonies. Women, slaves, and non-landowning males had little political, social, or economic authority and could not challenge established order. A stronger biography might fully situate Whitefield within this hegemonic, Anglo structure. Whitefield was an Anglo-American in the sense that he, like other Anglo-Americans, were British subjects.

Stout also presents Whitefield as the driving force behind the integration of religious discourse into the marketplace. Whitefield is presented as a phenomenon and innovator for his use of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology. Whitefield is a lone hero who transcended the public sphere and transformed religion: “Only Whitefield thought to transcend denominational lines entirely and, in effect, ply a religious trade in the open air of the marketplace” (xviii). In presenting Whitefield as a hero, Stout borders on elevating Whitefield’s biography to hagiography. To be sure, Whitefield was a popular itinerant preachers who achieved international celebrity. However, as Charles G. Finney remembered in “Measure to Promote Revivals,” Whitefield was not always so popular in British-America. According to Finney, “When Whitefield came to this country, what an astonishing opposition he raised! Often he well nigh lost his life, and barely escaped by skin of his teeth. Now, everybody looks upon him as the glory of the age in which he lived.” Many British-Americans did not recognize Whitefield as an American hero as Stout suggests.

Moreover, as other historians have shown, Whitefield’s tactics were not all that new. He did not initiate preaching outdoors, using the press for religious discourse, or calling for revivals based on personal experience. As David Hall argues in World of Wonder, Days of Judgment, print media were an integral part of popular religion in seventeenth-century New England. Moreover, Sarah Rivett challenges notions that Puritans were not modern. In The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, Rivett shows how sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritans employed Lockean epistemology to experience the supernatural for personal conversions. Whitefield was more of a product of his social and historical surroundings than Stout suggests. Nevertheless, Stout’s work remains significant for its recognition of the centrality of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology to eighteenth-century Anglo-American religion, particularly Whitefield’s evangelism.

25 Mar

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, Selection of her “Letters” (1805)

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821) converted to Catholicism in 1805. She founded the Sisters of American Charity and the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Elizabeth was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975 by the Roman Catholic Church.

Elizabeth grew-up in New York and joined the Trinity Episcopal Church. Elizabeth helped establish The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and served as its treasurer. In 1803, Seton travelled with her husband, William Seton, and children to Italy. Early on the trip, William died. Elizabeth and her children stayed with William’s business partners who introduced Elizabeth to Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth returned to New York. For two years, Elizabeth contemplated converting to Catholicism, and faced ridicule and alienation from family and friends. Elizabeth also suffered financial hardships after the death of her husband. In 1804, she started a boarding school to support herself and her family. However, local Protestants refused to send their daughters to this school on hearing of Elizabeth’s bent toward Catholicism. Elizabeth’s letters record these struggles and her desire to become a Catholic. These letters include her correspondences with Catholics and non-Catholics, and correspondences on her behalf. Below I’ll highlight some of these letters.

Writing to Anthony Filicchi in January 1805, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore expressed his concern for Elizabeth. Bishop Carroll hoped that “after being put to the severe and most distressing trials of interior darkness, doubts, and terrors of making a wrong step, our merciful Father in heaven will soon send her relief, and diffuse light and consolation in her heart.”[1] Bishop Carroll also offered reading suggestions for Filicchi to pass along to Elizabeth. These included Thomas à Kempis’s Of the Following of Christ, particularly the ninth chapter of the second book “Of the wants or absence of every comfort.” Bishop Carroll also advised that Elizabeth should focus on asking God to “revive in her heart the grace of her baptism.”[2] He also urged her to listen to the voice of God if this meant painful sacrifices. Bishop Carroll hoped that Elizabeth’s current trials would make her stronger for the trials that would come after her conversion to Catholicism.

Elizabeth wrote to Philip Filicchi in January 1805 and described her doubts, anxieties, and troubles. In the summer of 1804, Elizabeth had been left alone by her family and A. Filicchi, her spiritual advisor. She engaged in prayer and read Protestant authors about the Prophesies. The authors argued that Catholicism was a temptation by Satan. For months, she struggled and doubted which version of Christianity was true. Elizabeth visited the Protestant church in her town, but often wished she were at Mass. She started reading a volume by the French Jesuit Priest Lois Bourdaloue. It encouraged her to read again the other books she had on Catholicism. She tried to visit the only Catholic Priest in New York, Mr. O’Brien, but to no avail. Elizabeth could not come to a decision about her faith. She ended the letter requesting to see A. Filicchi, Philip’s brother, when he returned to town.

Elizabeth also wrote to Amabilia Filicchi in January 1805 and expressed similar doubts and concerns. She described how she read Bourdaloue and tried to visit Mr. O’Brien. Nevertheless, she had doubts about converting. She could not decide if the Catholic Church in New York was a bad as people had described. Elizabeth resolved that these rumors would not hurt her faith and that the ministry of the sacraments would be enough to satisfy her yearnings for the Church. She argued, “I seek but God and His church, and expect to find my peace in them, not the people.”[3] Elizabeth described going to a Protestant church, St. George’s. She felt the need to go to church, but after going felt indifference to Protestantism and decided not to return. She realized that she had no faith in the prayers of the Bishop at St. George’s. After reading a book from Mr. Hobart she also realized that Protestant churches claimed no apostolic history. They had no connection to the True church of Christ. Communion at St. George’s also made Elizabeth feel uncomfortable because it was not given as the real presence of Christ. The Catholic Church represented a church steeped in apostolic authority, and linked to Christian history and beginnings. Elizabeth resolved, “For if the chief church became Antichrist’s [the Catholic Church], and the second holds her rights from it [the Protestant Church], then I should be afraid both might be antichristian, and I be lost by following either.”[4] Elizabeth waffled in her decision on which church to join. She wanted to have faith and to be a good Christian. But, she did not know if either of these were the right choice. Doubt plagued Elizabeth.

Elizabeth wrote to Amabilia Filicchi again on March 14, 1805, and expressed her joyous conviction in choosing the Catholic Church. Elizabeth moved to Baltimore to be closer to a Catholic church. She expressed happiness in seeing the cross on top of the church instead of a weathercock. She also basked in the “great crucifixion” above the altar. Elizabeth also enjoyed the Irish priest’s talk of “death so familiarly that he delighted and revived me.”[5] Elizabeth made her profession of faith. She felt clearer in head than she had in months. Nevertheless, she begged “our Lord to bury deep my heart, in that wounded side so well depicted in the beautiful crucifixion, or lock it up in His little tabernacle where I shall rest forever.” Elizabeth gloried in talk of death, Christ’s suffering, and the material artifacts at this Catholic church. They evidenced a more real faith to her. Elizabeth notified Amabilia that she was preparing for her confession of faith and hoped that after it she would “begin a new life, a new existence itself.”[6] As Elizabeth continued in her preparation, she relayed feelings of satisfaction and freedom: “How awful those words of unloosing after a thirty years’ bondage!..How bright is the sun these morning walks to the church for preparation.” After years of struggling with her doubt, Elizabeth decided to become a Catholic.

[1] Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, “Letters” in R. Marie Griffith, ed., American Religions: A Documentary History, 1 edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 185.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 188.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 189.

[6] Ibid.

23 Mar

Orestes Brownson, “Become a Catholic” (1857)

Orestes Brownson was a nineteenth-century New England intellectual and well-known convert to Catholicism. In 1857, Brownson wrote The Convert: or, Leaves from My Experience. The book chronicled Brownson’s life-long religious experiences and his conversion from Transcendentalism to Catholicism in 1844. Chapter XVIII “Become a Catholic” described his conversion.

Brownson was born in Vermont in September 1803. He was brought up by an older couple as a Congregationalist. The couple taught Brownson to read. The family library included the Bible, Watt’s Psalms and Divine Songs, The Franklin Primer, and Edwards’s History of Redemption. Brownson attended Congregationalists meetings as well as those of the Methodists and Christians. He was also acquainted with “new sectaries,” universalists, deists, atheists, and “nothingarians.”[1] When Brownson was nineteen, he attended a Presbyterian meeting and was “much affected” by it. He began to question religious truth and doubt his Congregationalist faith. Brownson struggled to submit his reason to revelation, but did so in 1822 when he was baptized in a Presbyterian church in New York. Soon after, the Presbyterian Church passed resolutions that forbade Presbyterians from any kind of personal or business intercourse with non-Presbyterians, except for conversion attempts. By the late 1820s, Brownson realized he did not want to be constrained in this way. He felt that he was being watched by other church members for any infidelity with non-Presbyterians. He also began to regard predestination, eternal sin, and eternal punishment of the wicked (Reformed doctrines) as too harsh. Brownson also felt no loyalty to the Presbyterian Church.

Brownson searched for a religion that suited him by reading books about religion. He decided to become a Universalist minister. This form of liberal Christianity, however, did not stop Brownson from having doubts about religion and he continued to search for religious truth. Brownson edited the Universalist journal Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator and published essays about his doubt. Brownson also criticized organized religion, Divine inspiration of the scriptures, and the supernatural. He recognized Universalism as a more rational doctrine than evangelical Protestantism.

In 1832, Brownson joined the Transcendentalist movement that became popular among Boston Unitarians. Brownson lauded reason, social egalitarianism, and social and religious reform. Browson became “a believer in humanity, and put humanity in the place of God.”[2] Like other Transcendentalists, he recognized the divinity of humanity, not the divinity of Jesus. Neither did Brownson recognize miracles in the Bible nor the supernatural in nature. Brownson continued to read about religion and religious truth. He eventually came to believe again in the divinity and superiority of God over man. By 1843, Brownson considered converting to Catholicism.

Chapter XVIII “Become a Catholic” describes Brownson’s conversion to Catholicism. Brownson realized that his conversion to Catholicism was carried out by “divine grace.” Yet, this grace did not exclude reason. Brownson recognized conversion as a “rational process, though not always distinctly noted by the convert.”[3] Brownson realized that the Church did in fact promote the progress of society, but that this was not “the end she proposes, or what she directly aims to effect.” The real end “is not attainable in this world, and the heaven she points to is a reward to be received only after this life.”[4] Moreover, Brownson understood that punishment was personal. Individuals needed to take responsibility for their actions, go to church, and beg for forgiveness. Brownson accepted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church since it was “clearly the Church of History.”[5] There was less in-fighting and denominational splits among Catholics than Protestants because of scriptural, church, and clerical authority. In 1844, Brownson contacted the Right Reverend Benedict Joseph Fenwick, Bishop of Boston, and announced his wish to convert to Catholicism. The Right Reverend John Bernard Fitzpatrick served as Brownson’s spiritual advisor, council, theologian, and catechist for eleven years.

On October 20, 1844 Brownson was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. Brownson’s acquaintances deemed his conversion unreasonable and illogical. Even so, Brownson wrote “but I honestly believe, as I believed in 1844, that [Catholicism] does, better than any other philosophical doctrine, show the harmony between the natural and the supernatural, and remove these obstacles to the reception of the Church, and her doctrine on her authority, which all intelligent and thinking men brought up outside of the Church in our day do really encounter.”[6] The Catholic Church provided clear and reasonable answers for Brownson and the modern world about the natural and supernatural.

Brownson felt that the modern world had forsaken Christianity and promoted methods of skeptical reasoning: “the philosophy which prevails, and after which the modern mind is, in some sense, moulded [sic], is opposed to Christian revelation, and does not recognize as fundamental the principles or premises which warrant the conclusions drawn in favor of Christianity. The prevalent philosophy with very nearly the whole scientific culture of the age, is not only un-Christian, but anti-Christians, and if accepted, renders the Christian faith an impossibility for a logical mind.”[7] In fact, Brownson argued that this sort of reasoning had infiltrated Evangelicalism to the point that most believers doubted the faith they practiced. “There is always lurking in the mind a suspicion of the antecedent improbability of the whole Evangelical doctrine.”[8]

Catholicism presented a worldview that supported faith, authority, reason, and history over doubt. Catholicism ordered the natural and supernatural world in such a way that Brownson no longer felt doubt about religion. Catholicism was reasonable and logical in a modern. Catholicism reconciled faith and reason in ways that Evangelicalism, liberal Christianity, Transcendentalism, evolution, and science could not. For Brownson, Catholicism was a modern religion for modern people. It would resolve the questions of doubt that ran rampant through the United States. In fact, Brownson suggested that Catholicism should be practice in public schools as a means “to combat the unbelief of the age and country.”[9] The Catholic Church, not Transcendentalism, provided ways of thinking about the natural and supernatural in reasonable terms.

[1] Orestes Augustus Brownson, The Convert: Or, Leaves from My Experience (E. Dunigan & Brother, 1857), 13.

[2] Ibid., 148.

[3] Ibid., 368.

[4] Ibid., 370.

[5] Ibid., 371.

[6] Ibid., 384.

[7] Ibid., 388.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 396.

19 Mar

Jarena Lee, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee (1835)

Jarena Lee was the first woman ordained to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In 1835, Lee published her autobiography, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee. The book was published in 3 editions and distributed at camp meetings, Christian societies, and on the street. Lee’s autobiography describes her encounters with Christianity, and her emotional conversion experience and sanctification.

Lee was born free in New Jersey on February 11, 1783. Her parents did not introduce her to religion. Growing up Lee felt the spirit of God and realized she was a “wretched sinner.”[1] Nonetheless, Lee did not experience conversion as a child. Lee came to religion in her twenties. In 1804, she heard a Presbyterian missionary preach at a local school and read the Psalms. Over the next few months, Lee experienced an illness that she attributed to “fearful oppressions of a judgment to come.”[2] Lee moved to work for a Roman Catholic family outside of Philadelphia. She attended an English church in the city, but realized it was not the church for her. Lee began attending a Methodist church in Philadelphia where she experienced her conversion to evangelical Protestantism. Lee recorded the ecstasy she felt while listening to Reverend Richard Allen preach: “Great was the ecstasy of my mind, for I felt that not only the sin of malice was pardoned, but all other sins were swept away all together. That day was the first when my heart had believed, and my tongue had made confession unto salvation—the first words uttered…was glory to God.”[3] Despite these feelings, Lee wrestled with her faith and doubted that she could find happiness in this world. After contemplating suicide for a second time, Lee had a vision of hell and Satan. One night she wept and cried aloud. Lee became ill again and went to stay with a physician. Soon, she came to accept her conversion and was baptized in the Methodist church in 1807. After her baptism, Lee also experienced sanctification. She asked the Lord to sanctify her soul and “That very instant, as if lightening had darted through me, I sprang to my feet, and cried, ‘The Lord has sanctified my soul!’ There was none to hear this but the angels who stood around to witness my joy—and Satan, whose malice raged the more.”[4] Lee’s autobiography reminds scholars that for many nineteenth-century Americans conversion experiences were long and emotional processes filled with visions, words, songs, crying, doubt, the heart, and the supernatural.

Four or five years after her conversion and sanctification, Lee felt called by God to preach. During the Second Great Awakening, more than 100 women served as itinerant preachers. Women preachers were white and black. They preached in barns, schools, and at camp meetings, but rarely, if at all, in churches. Denominations that supported women’s preaching included the Quakers, Freewill Baptists, Christian Connection, northern Methodists, African Methodists, and Millerites. In 1811, Jarena married Mr. Joseph Lee, the “Pastor of a Colored Society at Snow Hill.”[5] Lee preached less while married, but by 1819 resumed her itineracy. Rev. Richard Allen heard Lee preach and recognized her abilities. Rev. Allen ordained Lee as the first woman preacher in the AME Church in 1819. Lee preached to black and white audiences, and often meet with hostility in the field. Lee recorded one incident in her autobiography. Once a white man told her that “he did not believe the coloured people had any souls.”[6] Thus, the man tried to undermine Lee’s profession as a black, female preacher. Lee’s calling was far from easy, but she continued to carve out space in black and white circles to preach. In fact, in one year Lee traveled 2,325 miles and preached 78 sermons.

Lee expanded her Christian calling in 1838 by joining American Antislavery Society. Like many other nineteenth-century women, Lee challenged the notions of “Republican Motherhood” and “True Womanhood.” Lee was a black, female preacher. She preached outside the home in the public sphere. She became a woman author. And, she joined Christian voluntary associations. Jarena Lee carved out a space for herself in American Protestantism.

[1] Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Pub. for the author, 1849), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Ibid., 19.

17 Mar

Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737)

Following the Northampton and Connecticut Valley revivals of 1734 and 1735, rumors spread that the conversions had been sensationalized. Opponents of Edwards suggested that the overzealousness of participants was actually the work of Satan. To set the record straight, Benjamin Coleman requested that Edwards write an account of the revival to be distributed throughout New England.[1] Edwards’s account of the revival, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, argued that there was nothing about “this great work of God” that was new or extraordinary except its universality. The awakening included men and women, young and old.[2] Edwards’s account particularly stressed the awakening of the young people. According to Edwards, “The young people also have been reforming more and more.”[3] Notably, “near thirty [youth] were savingly wrought upon [awakened] between ten and fourteen, and two between nine and ten, and one about four years old.”[4] God bestowed his grace on children just as easily as He bestowed it on adults. As evidence of the operation of God’s Spirit in the awakenings, Edwards included in this account the conversion narratives of Abigail Hutchinson, a woman who died young, and Phebe Bartlet, a four-year-old girl.[5] This review will only focus on Phebe’s narrative since it relates most closely to my other projects about children in religion.

Edwards relayed Phebe’s conversion narrative in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Phebe’s parents had not talked to her about religion because they thought she was too young and “not capable of understanding.” Nonetheless, Phebe’s eleven-year-old brother “seriously talked to her about the things of religion” and she was “greatly affected.” Five or six times a day Phebe secretly prayed in a closet. One day while observing Phebe in the closet, Mrs. Bartlet heard Phebe say, “Pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray, beg, pardon all my sins!” When Phebe came out of the closet, she sat by her mother and cried. Mrs. Bartlet tried to comfort her, but Phebe began “wreathing her body to and fro, like one in anguish of spirit.” When asked what was wrong, Phebe shouted, “I am afraid I shall go to hell!” She began crying, but suddenly stopped, smiled at her mother, and exclaimed, “Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me!” Phebe explained to her mother how three passages from her catechism had come to her mind and enlightened her thoughts.[6]

Phebe returned to her closet, prayed, and on exiting declared, “I can find God now!” Phebe told her mother that she loved God “better than anything,” even her father, mother, and sisters. She was not even afraid of going to hell now. Phebe’s mother asked her if she thought God had given her salvation. Phebe replied, “Yes…Today.” For the rest of the afternoon, Phebe appeared “exceeding [sic] cheerful and joyful.” That evening she witnessed to a male cousin that “heaven was better than earth.” The next day Phebe resumed crying and her spirits were low. She explained to her mother and a neighbor that “she cried because she was afraid they [her sisters] would go to hell.”[7] Phebe urged her sisters to turn their hearts to Jesus that afternoon.[8]

After speaking with “a certain minister” [Edwards] on the Sabbath, “there appeared a very remarkable change in the child.” Phebe longed for the Sabbath so she could visit God’s house and hear Mr. Edwards preach. She also attended private religious meetings, prayed at home, and never missed her catechism before bed. Once, when she unknowingly stole Plums from a neighbor, Phebe was so overcome with her sin that she cried for “a considerable time” and formed an aversion to the fruit. Phebe appeared “greatly affected, and delighted with texts of Scripture.” She also continued to witness to her sisters. She said to her mother, “I told ‘em they must pray, and prepare to die, that they had but a little while to live in this world, and they must be always ready.” Phebe even encouraged her mother to pray with her sisters. By and by, Phebe “discovered an uncommon degree of the spirit of charity.” When a poor neighbor’s cow was lost, Phebe urged her father to either give the neighbor a cow, or allow him and his family to live with the Bartlets. Phebe also “manifested a great love to her minister.”[9]

While Phebe was hopefully converted, she proved humble when asked about her salvation. Edwards wrote “She sometimes appears to be in doubt about the condition of her soul, and when asked whether she thinks that she is prepared for death, speaks something doubtfully about it. At other times [she] seems to have no doubt, but when asked replies ‘Yes’ without hesitation.”[10] For Edwards, Phebe was a model convert because she recognized her sinful nature, feared punishment in hell, prepared to die, and loved God, Jesus, and her minister.

Although Phebe’s conversion narrative embodied Edwards’s theology of childhood, A Faithful Narrative was not widely published in America until the Second Great Awakening.[11] The unpopularity A Faithful Narrative was likely related, not to its grim view of the destiny of unconverted children, but to its inclusion of Abigail Hutchinson and Phebe Bartlet’s conversion narratives. Two of the three 1738 American printings of A Faithful Narrative included the 1737 preface written by Isaac Watts and John Guyse. The preface endorsed the Northampton and Connecticut Valley awakenings, but it also included a harsh critique. Watts and Guyse deplored Edwards’s inclusion of the narratives of Hutchinson and Bartlet. They suggested that Edwards “might have chosen others perhaps, of more significancy in the eyes of the world, than the woman [Abigail] and the child [Phebe] whose experiences he relates at large.” Of Phebe’s narrative Watts and Guyse wrote, “those who were present, and saw and heard such a remarkable and lasting change on one so very young, must necessarily receive a stronger impression from it, and a more agreeable surprise than the mere narration of it can communicate to others at a distance. Children’s language always loses its striking beauties at second hand.”[12] Phebe’s preparations for death and hell, and her yearning for God and her minister did not impress Edwards’s eighteenth-century critics. Phebe was too young to experience a hopeful conversion. She had not reached the age of reason and could not properly relate her account to others. Eighteenth-century adults, generally, accepted the age of reason to be no less than seven-years-old. Phebe’s mutterings were the incomprehensible musings of an irrational child.[13] Moreover, like Abigail, Phebe was a female. It was inappropriate for Phebe to witness to others and gain recognition for her piety.[14] This honor was reserved for men. Watts and Guyse relegated the conversion narratives of Phebe and Abigail to the recesses of the eighteenth century Protestant imagination.

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 172-73, 201-202.

[2] Jonathan Edwards and C.C. Goen (ed.), “A Faithful Narrative,” in The Great Awakening (Works of Jonathan Edwards Online Vol. 4), 160.

[3] Unpublished letter of May 30, 1735 from Edwards to Coleman, WJE Online, http://edwards.yale.edu.

[4] Edwards and Goen (ed.), A Faithful Narrative, 158.

[5] Ibid., 199-205..

[6] Ibid., 199-200.

[7] Ibid., 200-202.

[8] Ibid., 202-205.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, & American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 45.

[12] Edwards and Goen (ed.), “Preface to the First Edition (London, 1737),” in The Great Awakening (WJE Online Vol. 4), 130-143.

[13] See Chamberlain, “Edwards and Social Issues,” 331.

[14] See Watts and Guyse’s critique of Edwards’s inclusion of Abigail Hutchinson’s conversion narrative in A Faithful Narrative in: Edwards and Goen (ed.), “Preface to the First Edition (London, 1737),” in The Great Awakening (WJE Online Vol. 4), 136.