Religious Expansion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As citizens of the new nation reshaped their physical and social environment, they also questioned traditional religious institutions and sought out spiritual experiences that would reflect the individual liberty and equality that were founding principles of American identity. For some, this meant a radical departure from mainstream society and a complete reevaluation of the meaning of work and the purpose of education. Transcendentalists sought unity with God through the natural world, and believed that mankind could achieve spiritual perfection through labor and education. They believed in the sacred nature of each individual, and thought that every person should be able to find what they were best suited to in life through inner reflection. Since this was difficult to achieve, some transcendentalists sought to create separate communities where believers could live in harmony and equality.

Some more moderate religious leaders stopped short of rejecting organized religion, but advocated for the ability of humankind to attain higher consciousness and shape its destiny through spiritual freedom. Others wished to transcend traditional church divisions and achieve a religious experience based on the return of all Christians to the Bible, without the need for different denominations and religious leaders.

For others, a new experience of God was brought about through an ecstatic, physical conversion experience. In the early decades of the new century, revival meetings attracted huge numbers of people to hear charismatic preachers. Weeping, shaking, and trance-like states were all interpreted as proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit. While these leaders sought to bring about an individual conversion, they also believed that it was possible to influence salvation, and provide an environment in which it would occur. This differed substantially from the widespread Calvinist belief that God had chosen who would be saved before they were born, and was very appealing to Americans who believed they could shape their own destiny. Along with this belief in the power of the individual came the belief that it was the duty of Christians to remedy social evils such as slavery. Religious leaders in the black community, such as Charles Bennett Ray, used the preeminence of their churches to argue that their members were “meritorious, and virtuous, and consistent,” and therefore worthy of brotherly treatment by other Christians.

Though individual freedom was highly valued in the national religious conversation of this time, certain religious groups were thought to subvert individual freedom and present a danger to the new nation. Roman Catholics faced particular scrutiny. Catholicism predominated in immigrant communities, so its followers were already outsiders and viewed with suspicion. Allegiance to the Pope and to Catholic traditions made them seem disloyal to the United States, and arguments were made to limit immigration from predominantly Catholic countries. Though this seems to go against the idea of religious freedom, some thought that if Catholicism gained political power, it would limit the freedom of other Christians to worship as they chose. Though anti-Catholic sentiment, evangelical Christianity, and transcendentalism vary greatly, they were all expressions of the American desire for religious freedom.

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