General Remarks on the State of Theological Opinion in America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Experience proves, I think, very decidedly in America, that persons that occupy their minds with the subject of religion, even when they doubt the truth or embrace positive error, are more accessible to the faithful preaching of the Gospel, than others that are sunk in stupid indifference and infidelity.”

Summary Overview

During the early 1800s, Presbyterian clergyman and author Robert Baird penned a comprehensive history of religion in America. Dating as far back as 1607, Baird’s Religion in America linked the European origins of Puritanism to the various faiths that evolved in America. In chapter 10 of book 7 of this narrative, Baird describes how America’s regional, cultural, and religious diversity has created a multitude of different faiths that may be aggregated as “evangelical.” On the other hand, the alternative to these faiths, the “non-evangelical” faiths, warrant greater critical examination. This chapter takes a closer look at the impacts of both groups on American society.

Defining Moment

During the seventeenth century, most American colonies were formed under the strong influence of various Protestant sects such as the Puritans and Quakers. Churches served not only as institutions of faith but in many ways as government entities. The church was a moral compass as well as a cultural and political force. By the early eighteenth century, Americans were again influenced by what has been dubbed the “Great Awakening,” during which the more political controls exerted by the church were replaced by religious fervor and emotion through “revivals.”

The Great Awakening is widely credited with instilling in the American colonists a critical perspective with regard to their status as subjects of the British Crown. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the liberal philosophies introduced during the Great Awakening translated into the foundations of the American Revolution. The success of the Revolution fostered a new American culture of religious diversity and tolerance that enabled the establishment of a wide range of religious faiths in the United States.

At the start of the nineteenth century, Christianity remained relevant, but the church had lost some of its command over the hearts of Americans. Certainly, religion did not play as active a role in American society—faith was simply a matter of individual choice. Still, some new brands of evangelism (zealous preaching of the gospel) began to surface, first in the Northeast and eventually reaching the frontier states. This “Second Great Awakening” was marked by revivals, which promoted conversion as well as the reinvigoration of religious ideals, as well as the formation of religious organizations such as temperance societies, social service organizations, and Sunday Schools. It also saw a large infusion of evangelical Christians into public office and other positions of prominence.

During this period, prominent clergyman and author Robert Baird was touring Europe, promoting evangelism and studying the roots of European Protestantism and other religious faiths. In 1844, Baird authored a comprehensive historical study of religion in America. This work, Religion in America, or, an Account of the Origin, Relations to the State, and Present Condition of the Evangelical Churches in the United States, helped Americans gain a better understanding of their religious roots both in colonial America and in Europe. Baird also offered his assessment of the divide between evangelist movements and what he saw as “non-evangelical” sects, as well as the benefits and negative impacts both groups have on American society.

Author Biography

Robert W. Baird was born on October 6, 1798, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Baird’s father, Robert Baird Sr., was the son of Scotch immigrants and a veteran of the Revolutionary War. His mother, Elizabeth Reeves, was a Long Island, New York, native and the daughter of Welsh and English immigrants. Robert W. Baird Jr. was among his parents’ thirteen children (eight of whom survived childhood). His father was also a fervent evangelist, playing a major role in young Baird’s own spiritual development as well as the desire to spread the gospel to any audience.

Baird’s education was simple but fostered within him a passion for reading. Among his favorite subjects were religion and geography, giving him a strong understanding of the spiritual and moral ideals of people throughout the world. Baird, prompted by his parents, developed an interest in becoming a minister and, in 1813, decided not to work on his father’s farm and instead enter college. He enrolled at Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, where he further honed his career pursuits (including studying Latin). After his bachelor’s degree study, Baird moved to New Jersey, where he studied at the Princeton Theological Seminary. During his senior year at the Seminary, he began to tutor students at the College of New Jersey. After his graduation, he remained in the Princeton area, teaching at Princeton Academy.

In 1822, Baird was licensed by the Presbyterian Church of New Brunswick; six years later, that church would ordain him as a minister. Two years later, he married Fermine O. A. Du Buisson. After his ordination, he immediately embarked on a number of missions to New Jersey. For one such mission he spent seven years as the general agent of the New Jersey Missionary Society and spent an additional seven years as the general agent of the American Sunday School Society, traveling to poor regions throughout the country and establishing Sunday schools.

In 1835, Baird traveled to and throughout continental Europe (including Scandinavia and the cities of Berlin, Brussels, and Amsterdam), promoting his evangelical ideals, before he returned to the United States to conduct speaking engagements about his European experiences. Baird wrote six books, including his seminal Religion in America. He died in on March 15, 1863, in Yonkers, New York.

Document Analysis

This excerpt of Chapter 10 of Religion in America presents a number of Robert Baird’s observations with regard to the history and then-present state of religious practices in the United States. Having traveled throughout Europe and the United States, Baird states that for him to provide a comprehensive retrospective of religion in America (including both evangelical and nonevangelical faiths) would take a volume of text rather than a single chapter. Instead, Baird opts to provide analysis of several key points and trends of religious doctrines in the United States.

Baird first looks at the diversity of religious institutions in the United States and attempts to trace how this diversity came into being. He believes that two major contributing factors were origin and ancestry. The American colonies (and, later, the United States itself) were, he argues, never socially uniform in their origins. The Protestant sects of those who emigrated from Europe to America were myriad, with the colonists in New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York all distinctive in their respective faiths. The Puritans of New England, for example, demonstrated a sense of independence from the Church of England, establishing the Congregational Church concept (small, independent local churches that serviced one community). Presbyterians, on the other hand, worked in larger numbers and with the inspiration of the Church of Scotland guiding them. The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, was formed completely in line with the Church of England. Meanwhile, the Dutch Reformed Church (which was strong in New York) was closely aligned with the Heidelberg Catechism established in what is now Germany. Finally, he states, the Lutherans were also linked strongly to their own origins in Germany.

Each of these faiths, he says, has evolved along their own individual paths, some based in Europe, some (like the aforementioned Puritans) in spite of their European roots. Why, he asks, would one expect that each of these diverse faiths should be connected and “amalgamated” in the United States when the same could not be done to them in Europe?

Just as they could not exert any influence over the Europe-based Churches from which they were derived, Baird adds, each of the diverse Christian institutions in America could not exercise any influence on one another. Each Church had its own traditions, seminaries, literature and agents. Additionally, these faiths had their own ministers who, using the aforementioned specialized literature and institutions, moved ahead in their careers in line with this specialized training. The various sects of American Christianity, although part of a “brotherly love,” could not be amalgamated.

Baird further observes the fact that the United States encourages each citizen to have his or her own opinions. This fact means that not only would there be diversity between religious faiths—there would inevitably be debates and disagreements within each sect. Although each faith utilizes the same Bible as its “sole authoritative guide,” there is not a single ecclesiastical convention (conferences in which the denominations discuss church policy and traditions) in which two or more participants offer different and even conflicting ideas. These debates, he adds, are sometimes over even the most mundane matters and not of any major importance to the overall course of the sect. Given this fact, Baird says, there could be no reasonable expectation that the sects (or even the individual churches therein) could be expected to be fused together.

Contributing to the divergence between (and within) the Christian sects in America were the regional differences between Americans. For example, Baird says, a man from Connecticut and another man from the western part of the country may meet in the middle of the country, but because of their individual geographical (and therefore “provincial peculiarities”), they likely will not share the same views on theology. At the same time, those Americans living in the North and South demonstrate regional characteristics that are as distinctive from one another as people from various regions of Great Britain.

Baird’s point is that it is difficult to merge together the various evangelical sects of American Protestant faiths. However, he argues, it is not as challenging to divide the religious faiths in the United States into two distinct camps: the evangelical and the nonevangelical. Those sects Baird identifies in the latter category include both Christians and non-Christians alike, such as Roman Catholics, Jews, Unitarians, Quakers, Shakers, and Mormons. Baird finds much to criticize about these groups. He refers to the Catholics as a group that has “buried the truth amid a heap of corruptions of heathenish origin.” Regarding the Mormons, who were gaining national prominence at the same time Baird authored this book, he was far less complementary. The notion that Christ appeared in America, he says, is the most egregious of delusions that either the devil or humanity could bring into the world.

Baird continues to comment on the nonevangelical faiths of America, stating that, with the exception of the Catholics and the Unitarians, few nonevangelical sects contained much stability. The ministers of nonevangelical religious institutions, he adds, are not learned men but rather individuals whose intellects are focused on “perverting the Scriptures,” yielding to the desires of their audiences and speaking ill of those intellectuals who would challenge their beliefs using sound reason and the indubitable content of the Scriptures, he says.

Next to the Roman Catholics, Baird continues, the Unitarian Baptists have the greatest numbers of nonevangelical followers. However, the Baptists are scattered, contained in small congregations in New England’s larger cities. He suggests that these congregations may be wiped away when an evangelical revival takes place, replacing them with an institution based on the Gospel and “Truth.” Even the Catholics, he argues, are not immune from faltering in the face of evangelical revivals. While it is true that the Catholic Church may tell its members to refrain from attending such revivals, Baird says, even such warnings cannot prevent Catholics from remaining immune to the Truth presented by these events.

Baird next states that it is important to understand the number, variety and magnitude of different social groups found in the United States. This point, he says, is particularly true for European readers of this text, who may be quite surprised by the number of distinct and diverse groups living and operating in America. For example, he says, a larger proportion of America’s white citizens can read than white populations in Europe. In addition to their ability to read, he says, Americans are constantly pursuing knowledge, paying extra attention to new ideas and “novelty.” Furthermore, Americans were committed to the laws of God—Baird says that, with the possible exception of Scotland, he is unaware of any other country in which so few people work on Sundays. Religion, he adds, is a concept that Americans greatly enjoy discussing, especially on the Sabbath Day (Sunday).

Americans do not take the Sabbath Day to simply stay indoors, however. Baird says that Americans use their day off to attend public meetings or otherwise become active in intellectual pursuits. This fact is of benefit to evangelical ministers who were in constant search for an audience. Since Americans were given by their government the freedom to worship as they saw fit, they had a wide range of options available to them—they could join an evangelical movement or, lacking such a institution, start a congregation of their own.

Baird cautions, however, that the benefits of American religious interest could also present hindrances for evangelical ministers. If evangelists did not move quickly into areas unserved by stable church congregations, nonevangelical ministries could insert themselves. Because Americans were naturally curious and in constant pursuit of new knowledge, if there was no evangelical presence, Baird says, they could turn to a Universalist or even “an Infidel preacher” for this new spiritual guidance. The congregations Americans formed with nonevangelical faiths might last for years, although their long-term stability would likely erode as their members would leave in search of a greater truth.

To European observers, Americans who are members of nonevangelical sects might seem “stupidly indifferent” to religion, according to Baird. These individuals might work on Sundays or otherwise spend the day taking part in amusing activities that are secular (unrelated to religion). Some observers may argue that, in such cases, no religious commitment would be better than giving in to a false religion or “doctrines of devils.” In fact, he suggests, in some cases, this argument might seem valid. In most cases, however, people who give great thought to religion in a general sense—even if they allow themselves to fall into dubious faiths—may be better approached by true preachers of the Gospel than those who were indifferent.

Nonevangelical religions in America, Baird continues, may take advantage of the passing fancy of these people, but lack the stability to keep members over the long term. He says that there is no dogmatism or “permanent fascinations” that foster deep commitment to the precepts of these faiths. Meanwhile, he says, evangelical religions are based directly on the Gospel, which offers truth and lacks error. The only apparent exception to this argument, Baird acknowledges, is Roman Catholicism, which he says present a “mosaic” of truths and errors. This mixture entices people to Catholicism, enabling them to pick and choose their preferred ideals from Catholicism’s other truths and errors.

Next to Roman Catholicism, Baird states, the nonevangelical American religion that seems stable is Unitarianism. Described by some of its advocates as a “fashion” and not a religion, this faith has its roots in the widespread skepticism toward the traditional churches of Europe from the 1700s. Unitarianism, he says, is a form of “mystical pantheism” (the notion that God and the material world are one and that God is present in everything on Earth) that began in eastern Massachusetts but has been seen elsewhere in the United States. This spread, Baird says, is somewhat misleading, however—Unitarians inevitably moved away from Massachusetts and into the central, southern, and western states, giving the appearance that the religion is spreading when its members are simply splintering off of the Massachusetts population. In fact, the number of Unitarians in greater Boston, he says, is declining. Furthermore, the sect’s more prominent figures, enjoying the public attention for their innovative religious ideals, are losing their appeal. Over the thirty years in which Unitarianism took shape in America, Baird adds, there has been no noticeable increase in the number or influence of this sect in the United States. It is likely, he adds, that the lack of sustainable growth in Unitarians is leading to an inevitable decline.

Nonevangelical religions in America, Baird argues, generally create mischief in American society rather than any major social benefit (although he admits that some moral influence for good is promoted by some of these faiths). In terms of having a negative impact on society, Baird alleges, Unitarians are the least beneficial sect in America. His rationale is simple: Unitarians do not believe in an afterlife in which people are judged and punished for their sins. His implication is that people who are not concerned with eternal life or damnation for their actions on Earth are likely to demonstrate less morality.

Other nonevangelical faiths, Baird continues, can be given attention only in light of the fact that they prey on the worldly and spiritual fears of their members. Shakers and Mormons are among the sects that Baird places in this category. There are two types of principles that attract people to these nonevangelical institutions, he says. The first of these concepts is what Baird calls “the binding nature of human depravity”—the notion that humanity as a whole is faced with punishment for its sins. Such a fear can convince any person of the benefits of joining the sect that claims to be the exception to this rule. These people might even eschew the pursuit of the true knowledge of God when simply practicing a religion that “suits their fancies.”

The second principle offered by Shakers, Mormons and other similar nonevangelical religions in America is what Baird describes as a “temporal good.” This notion presents an advantage that attracts a person away from one faith and into the nonevangelical religion in question. He cites as an example the Shaker ideal of the sinfulness of marriage. Under reasonable circumstances, this principle would repel potential followers, as it undercuts not only loving relationships but families as well. However, for people who would like to end their marriages, becoming a Shaker offers the ability to “rid themselves of a burden.” Baird finds this type of incentive to be little more than “despicable and unmanly selfishness.”

Baird’s position is that nonevangelical faiths are not established in accordance with the true word of God. Rather, they are often devised based on delusion (as, he says, is the case with Mormons) or on the desires of the people. Nonevangelical religions, he says, play perfectly to the often whimsical tendencies of an American society that, since it arrived in America, is at its core fascinated with the overall notion of religion.

Essential Themes

Reverend Robert Baird’s Religion in America enabled Americans to better understand the European roots of their religious convictions. It also served as an important tool for Europeans to understand how Americans had evolved from their arrival in the 1600s through the 1800s. Baird, himself both a student and critic of the diverse sects of Judeo-Christianity, also gives an illustration of the different evangelical and nonevangelical groups at work in the United States.

Chapter 10, “General Remarks on the State of Theological Opinion in America,” acknowledges that a full description of the evangelical and nonevangelical sects found in the country would require volumes, not a single chapter. This chapter therefore takes a more focused approach, providing Baird’s assessment of how the two distinct groups of Christians influence society. It is impossible to create a single profile of American religion. After all, he says, it is impossible to amalgamate the various regions and subcultures that exist in the country—it is equally impossible to lump together the various Christian sects that are operating in the diverse states.

He begins by providing the readers (which includes Europeans as well as Americans) with brief sketch of Americans as they relate to religion. Americans are thoughtful, well-read people, he says, with a keen interest in religion. Some, however, are seemingly indifferent to the specific institution to which they commit. This characteristic makes them susceptible to what Baird argues are deceptive principles offered by many of the nonevangelical institutions. Some might turn, for example, to Shakers to provide them with the grounds for divorce. Others might look to Mormonism because of its apparent novelty. Even Catholicism, he says, provides some apparent truths (although those truths coexist with many errors).

The lack of commitment shown by Americans toward religion, particularly in underdeveloped parts of the country, also makes the American people the potential beneficiaries of the more dogmatic evangelical religious sects in the country. Baird is clearly an advocate for the evangelical movement, encouraging Americans to demonstrate more fervor for the truths espoused by evangelical Protestant churches.

Baird is also highly critical of nonevangelical sects, but says that these institutions—while attractive to many Americans—are unstable and unlikely to last over a long period. Nevertheless, both evangelical and nonevangelical religious sects play an important role (both positive and negative) in the diverse American society that gave them particularly renewed life in the early nineteenth century.

Bibliography
  • Baird, Henry Martyn. The Life of the Rev. Robert Baird. Cambridge: Randolph, 1866. Print.
  • Baird, Robert. Religion in America. New York: Harper, 1856. Print.
  • “Obituary: Sketch of Rev. Dr. Baird.” New York Times. New York Times, 17 Mar. 1863. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.
  • Scott, Donald. “Evangelicalism, Revivalism, the Second Great Awakening.” National Humanities Center. National Humanities Center, Oct. 2000. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
  • West, John G. “Evangelical Reform in Early Nineteenth Century America.” Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance. Ed. Don E. Eberly. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. 181–99. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Balmer, Randall. The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. Waco: Baylor UP, 2010. Print.
  • Conforti, Joseph. “The Invention of the Great Awakening 1795–1842.” Early American Literature 26.2 (1991): 99–119. Print.
  • Holifield, E. Brooks. Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. Print.
  • Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

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