Religion in the Old West (and the East too)

early 19th c revivalLast week in my History Monday blog post I talked about theater in the Old West and beyond, because the heroine of my forthcoming novella, The Indomitable Eve, has lived the last couple of years of her life as an actress. It was a wild, often risky, and only marginally socially acceptable way for a woman to live.

The hero of that same book, the one who falls head-over-heels in love with her almost at first sight, is Cold Springs’s reverend, Mark Andrews. Yes, the reverend! On the one hand, you have a woman who would automatically be held in suspect (although admired), and on the other you have the most socially acceptable, morally stalwart person in town, the pastor. Of course, there are bound to be problems.

Religion was an important part of the life of frontier towns in the early days of the Old West and continued to be a vital factor in the social and moral lives of people throughout America as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. What kind of religion, you ask? Well, a lot of the most prominent faith systems prevalent in the 19th century were the result of one of the several Great Revivals of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

So what was a Revival (with a capital R) and how did they have such influence over the everyday lives of 19th century people? Religion has always been a part of life, even back to the Middle Ages and earlier, right? The effects of the Protestant Revolution are part of the reason that settlers came to America in the first place, looking for religious freedom. So how did a handful of resurgences of faith every couple of decades or so shape the character of both the West and the East?

First of all, there was a difference in Christianity in America and in the old world of Europe. In America, and Englishwoman, Mrs. Trollope, observed in the first half of the 19th century, there were as many denominations as there were Americans. From Unitarians to Shakers to Baptists to Rappites, there was a denomination for every temperament. One thing they all had in common, though was a deep belief that mankind needed to turn away from their sinful natures and go back to the basics of trust in and devotion to God.

And so, you had the Second Great Awakening, which picked up momentum from around 1800-1820. The First Great Awakening, incidentally, is linked to Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which I once heard one of my ministers reenact in high school to great effect! Charismatic ministers would hold camp meetings that would draw huge crowds. The mood was almost euphoric and membership in the big churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc., would soar after these meetings.

"Pay Attention", by Henry Bacon

“Pay Attention”, by Henry Bacon

In so many cases, these energetic revival meetings, filled with speeches and sermons, singing and praise, were the first exposure that a lot of frontiersmen had to religion. It was religion delivered in a much more accessible package than the old school religions in cities back east. The entire climate of religion as it spread west was more from the heart than from the head.

One of the things that I find so interesting is that so many of these bursts of religious revival and so much of the message that spread to the people was about the equality of all men and women in the eyes of God. It might not have been as politically revolutionary as that statement sounds, though. Everyone had their place, but in that place it was important to show genuine Christian charity to one another. What better message to give to people whose lives could hang by the thread of survival in a hostile and untamed frontier?

Yes, one of the biggest effects of 19th century religion was that it held people together. It gave them bonds that extended far beyond family. The message was one of helping each other and behaving within the bounds of morality, all very useful things when trying to forge a new civilization.

Another thing that really, really fascinates me about these religious movements is the fact that within religion, women could have power. The 19th century wasn’t exactly known for its fairness to women under the law (although that continued to change as the century wore on). Interestingly enough, religion was one way that women could have a say and exert influence over their husbands. In several of the sources I read, it is noted that women often encouraged their husbands and sons to get involved in religion. They could also admonish the men in their lives for their wrongdoings if they were doing it in the name of God. A husband may have been the head of his household, but God’s word trumped all.

Religious meetings and societies were also a way for women to socialize and effect change in their worlds. For so many in the West, religious meetings and activities were a woman’s social life. They got a woman out of her home and amongst other women in a way that their husbands couldn’t object to or complain about. No, women couldn’t usually be ministers at this time, but a lot of evidence suggests that they were an even more powerful force in the church than the man in the pulpit.

So whether the church a person sat in on Sunday was Methodist or Mormon or non-denominational, the connections that were formed between people due to the wave of revivals that swept America one after another like waves were as important if not more so than the doctrinal messages they carried. The point of it all was to create a tightly woven fabric of society.

Sometimes I wonder if religion in America today still accomplishes that purpose.