Mark Bushnell: Religious revival gripped Vermont in the early 1800s

A watercolor painted in 1839 depicts a revival of the New England tent. Wikimedia Commons

Vermont erupted in religious fervor in the early 19th century. Fall for the weather.

Historians link Vermonters’ rekindling of faith – in some cases, their newfound faith – in part to a series of truly horrific weather conditions.

The year 1816 brought the worst weather conditions in the state’s recorded history. Heat waves alternated with unusual cold snaps for the season. It snowed in June and frost hit twice in July. The crops have suffered a lot. There’s a reason people started calling the year “1800 and froze to death.”

The weather was almost biblical in its intensity. Some Vermonters attributed the drastic change in weather to the wrath of God. They believed that the Millennium, the return of Christ to Earth, was near.

Little did they know that climate change was triggered by tens of cubic kilometers of debris thrown into the atmosphere by a volcanic eruption halfway around the world in what is now Indonesia. For religious Vermonters, and for some until recently not so religious Vermonters, it was a sign they needed to get back in shape.

In truth, the religious revolution that was about to sweep Vermont could have happened anyway. The last war with England, the War of 1812, had just ended with a peace treaty. With the arrival of peace, the American people began to withdraw into themselves and consider matters nobler than politics.

Many Americans have decided, after reflection, that their countrymen have lost their moral sense. As a historian of Free Will Baptists wrote, “The war had so loosened the moral energies even of Christian men that blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, intemperance, and a general lewdness of life and manners became terribly widespread”.

Evangelical preachers set out to fan the dying embers of religious faith. Soon, the people of Vermont were on fire with conviction.

Efforts began locally, as clergymen in Vermont preached in their own towns and neighboring communities. In the 1830s, Vermonters hired charismatic evangelists from out of state to preach to large crowds.

In preparation for the arrival of a famous preacher, the communities organized special prayer meetings for two or three weeks. They were counting on the visiting preacher to seal the deal.

During revivals, preachers would often set aside the front pews to serve as an “anxious pew.” These seats were reserved for people who felt they might be on the verge of being “born again” by letting go of their evil ways and accepting Christ as their savior, but who couldn’t quite commit. As they prayed in the pew, the preacher, congregation members, family, and friends prayed for them by name and pleaded with them to convert.

An era of cooperation

The time had come to change. Religious conflicts had intensified in the country. Until recently, hardline Congregationalists had physically attacked Methodist preachers, and Universalists were widely condemned as atheists.

The revival has brought unprecedented cooperation among denominations. They were still competing for souls, but now it was friendly competition.

This book of hymns, published in 1832 in Woodstock, was intended to be carried at tent revivals and other religious gatherings. The book was paperback, measuring only 2 1/4 by 4 3/8 inches. Silver Special Collections Library, University of Vermont

“This church and the people have for a long time … created divisions between us which within a few months have vanished,” Hazen Merrill of Peacham reported in an 1831 letter to his brother Samuel, who had moved to Indiana. Religion was suddenly “the most captivating topic,” he reported. “…Most of the city had prolonged meetings for four or five days, conducted something after the manner of the camp meetings which were the beginning of mighty revivals of religion. We had a meeting of this discription (sic) the 2nd week of July which seemed to work wonders. … (S)so general is the work that there is hardly a person among us who does not feel (un)desired to share its profits – our former minister sees one day that he dared not hope.

Indeed, by the mid-1830s, the state was very different from what it had been only two decades earlier. Meanwhile, Vermont had gone from a state that some observers considered morally lax to one in which 80 percent of the population attended church regularly.

As one historian put it, the people of Vermont were “the most devout people in the Protestant world at the time.”

However, not all observant Vermonters were equal. To become a full member of an evangelical denomination—Baptists, Freewill Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—one had to declare oneself “born again” before the congregation. The non-evangelical religions – Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Unitarians and Universalists – simply required financial support of the church.

Church members in general and full members in particular enjoyed greater social status and economic success than others. Members of congregations tended to stick together, hire each other, and lend each other money. The system worked well for church members — and might have encouraged some calculating people to claim a faith they didn’t have — but it shut out other Vermonters, some of whom chose to leave the church. State accordingly.

While the growing prominence of religion in Vermont has left some feeling powerless, it has also empowered much of the previously neglected society. About 60% of Vermont worshipers were women. Although many churches maintained rules that allowed only men to vote on matters of church policy or select a new minister, some congregations granted women the right to vote.

Women increasingly played roles in major social movements of the time, including abolitionism and prison and education reform, which became extensions of religious revivalism. Perhaps their greatest success was in the fight against alcohol abuse. By encouraging temperance, women helped reduce the amount of alcohol Americans consumed by two-thirds during this period.

The revival has helped strengthen many marriages by encouraging men and women to regard their unions as a sacred bond. Reducing drunkenness didn’t hurt either. Men, and sometimes women, who drank less were less likely to physically or verbally abuse their spouses.

Some couldn’t measure up

At the same time, noted Randolph Roth, a social historian at Ohio State, this new emphasis on people’s perfectibility put pressure on those who couldn’t measure up. As the status of women increased, some men saw their status decline. And they cracked. During the 1830s and 1840s, northern New England suffered a 10-fold increase in murders of women, Roth found.

The revival of the early 1800s was ultimately a victim of its own success. Churches had started the century as small institutions, so their members saw themselves as part of a select group that believed in the fallibility of people. The moral transgressions that caught their attention were, according to Roth, “interpersonal sins: gossip, slander, and fraudulent transactions in economic relations.” Recognizing human frailty, church members humbly treated those they saw as sinners, offering them time to redeem themselves.

The religious revival of the following decades changed that. Increasingly, the sins church members attacked were drunkenness, Sabbath-breaking, and skipping church services. People began to show less pity towards moral backsliders. Church members spoke openly about sinners. As churches were no longer sparsely attended, congregations now felt free to expel members who committed transgressions.

Ultimately, the old elite who controlled the various denominations put an end to the revival, which they feared had become so noisy that it might impede their own salvation. These “respectable” people urged their clerics to quell the emotion and populism that had fueled the revival, and which had proved too successful for their liking.

Many community leaders objected to revival preacher Jedidiah Burchard, who visited Vermont in the 1830s. They argued that during his fiery services Burchard made theologically questionable statements and that because of his techniques of aggressive pressure, any religious converts he made probably had little depth of conviction for their beliefs. Burchard’s flamboyant style may have originated from his work as an itinerant actor and circus rider in the years before his own conversion. Vermont Historical Society

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