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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Nineteenth Century America as Described by Nineteenth Century Americans

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), historian David W. Blight concludes that Douglass “was a man of the nineteenth century[.]” According to Blight, Douglass typified his generation because he drew ideas like freedom and equality and natural rights from the Enlightenment.[1] He was also one of the most recognizable faces of the nineteenth century. As the most photographed person in America in the 1800s, Douglass utilized the latest mediums of his age to promote his message of black personhood. He was, as Blight has dubbed him, an "American Jeremiah," both prophet and pioneer. The nineteenth century itself was a very primeval, yet innovative, era. In what Henry David Thoreau called “this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century,” the nation was undergoing significant and irrevocable change.[2] The United States faced a transportation revolution, a market revolution, a Civil War, Reconstruction, urbanization, and industrialization, just to name a few. As a result, Christians in the 1800s frequently summarized the face-paced century in which they lived. So how did nineteenth century Americans describe nineteenth century America?

By the 1850s, the nation was on the brink of Civil War, and evangelical Christians admonished their fellow brothers and sisters for their lack of peacemaking. On November 1, 1860, just five days before the election of Abraham Lincoln, Robert Lewis Dabney, an adamantly pro-slavery Presbyterian, called for churches to avert war. “Christians of America — Brothers — Shall all this be?” he asked passionately. How could churches “permit our mother-country to be slain?” If the churches could preserve unity, the nation itself might be saved. Otherwise, generations would judge them for their hostility toward one another. Finally, Dabney shouted, “Shame on the boasted Christianity of America, and of the nineteenth century!” Dabney’s warnings were not enough. Eventually, the nation barreled into war, and Dabney served as chief of staff to Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.[3] Dabney was not right about the outcome of the war, but he was right about history. The "long" nineteenth century is perhaps most remembered for the Civil War.

However, the 19th century church had far more challenges than regional and racial prejudice. Like the 21st century, Christians in the 19th century apparently struggled with the temptation of conforming to popular culture. By the 1870s, in Chicago, evangelist Dwight L. Moody rebuked his fellow evangelicals for their faith in a fashionable Jesus. In a sermon on the prophet Daniel, his most beloved biblical character, Moody took aim at the men of the nineteenth century. With the thunder of an Old Testament prophet, he raged,

Men have not the moral courage to be seen praying. They lack moral courage. Ah! Thousands of men have been lost for lack of moral courage; have been lost because at some critical moment they shrank from going on their knees, and being seen and known as worshipers of God — as being on the Lord’s side. Ah, the fact is — we are a pack of cowards: that is what we are. Shame on the Christianity of the nineteenth century! It is a weak and sickly thing. Would to God that we had a host of men like Daniel living to-day!

Evidently, nineteenth-century Christians so desired to be accepted by their neighbors that they commonly fell into the temptation of worldliness. As the United States grew in wealth and opportunity, Christians enjoyed more comforts and experienced more prestige in their communities. According to Moody, this prosperity created a fear of man and not of God. The postbellum generation still needed boldness and courage. They needed faith.

Nineteenth century American Christians were some of the most educated people in the world, not unlike today. In a generation which saw the founding of dozens and dozens of new religious colleges, Christians spent a great deal of time reading about ancient people and ideas. But for those who loved studying their books, there was a danger that they would not be “useful” for the Lord in their everyday lives. For example, one classics professor in the Midwest told his class that they should focus on being good citizens and “not get so deeply immersed in Latin and Greek as to forget that you are a nineteenth-century American.”[4] In other words, don’t forget to live in the present and not in the past. One way or another, Christians were called to apply what they learned and be participating members of society. Christianity was much more than reading books and learning languages. The 19th century church was a backward-looking and a forward-looking church at the same time, deeply biblical and historical yet also immensely practical.

In his lectures at Yale University in the 1840s, liberal Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell had a similar lesson for his students. “We shall be men of the nineteenth century, not of the first — republicans, men of railroads and commerce, astronomers, chemists, geologists, and even rationalizers in the highest degree; that is, men who have reason enough to discover the insufficiency of reason, the necessity of faith, and the certainty that a soul must die into darkness when it is not in the life and light of God.” For this reason, Bushnell did not believe that modern Christians should expect God to work as he had in the past. “Let us not expect, then, that God will restore revivals just as we have seen them. It is a dull patient that expects always to be cured by the same medicine.”[5] The men and the women of the nineteenth century, at least according to Bushnell, should expect God to do new things.

Nineteenth century Americans faced many of the same challenges that they do now in the twenty-first. They also thought very similarly. As a result, their voices offer a trove of lessons for Americans today. Themes like peacemaking, courage, and practical education are still relevant to the prosperity and future of the nation. Perhaps the twenty-first century American mind is not much different than the nineteenth century mind.

[1] David W. Blight, Prophet of Freedom, 228–29. [2] Henry David Thoreau, Walden [3] James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood, 41.

[4] Jon K. Lauck, The Good Country, 74.

[5] Horace Bushnell, God in Christ, 295.

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