To American evangelicals, the new century seemed anything but hospitable. Many Americans had stopped going to church. Some openly doubted Christianity, preferring to place their hopes in reason alone rather than a God who intervenes in human affairs. The nation’s cities were turning into havens of crime, promiscuity, and alcoholism. Radical social reformers dotted the landscape, attracting enthusiastic interest, if not outright support. One of the more provocative of the radicals proposed a “Declaration of Mental Independence” that denounced private property, traditional religion, and marriage as “a TRINITY of the most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon [man’s] whole race.”
Even in politics, traditional religion and morality were flouted. Thomas Jefferson, one of the era’s most influential presidents, scoffed in private at the miracles of the Bible and historic Christian doctrines such as the Trinity. Another popular chief executive, Andrew Jackson, was the only president in American history who had killed another man in a duel. Yet voters didn’t seem to care.
In many ways, the culture wars of America in the early 1800s seem eerily like some of the cultural conflicts in America today. Yet most historians wouldn’t describe nineteenth-century America as especially secular or amoral. If anything, the period is often held up as the epitome of a Christian America—when Christianity, or at least the Protestant variety of Christianity—was the dominant religion of the state, and when Biblical ethics supplied the basis for social relations. Nor would criminologists describe the nineteenth century, at least the second half of it, as particularly awash in crime. In fact, lawlessness went down in the latter half of the nineteenth century—despite urbanization, industrialization, and other factors typically associated with increased crime rates.
What is going on here? Both depictions of nineteenth-century America can’t be true. Or can they?
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Originally published as the chapter on “Nineteenth Century America” in Don Eberly, editor, Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), pp. 181-199.