Apocalyptic, Restorationist Christianities and the United States in the 19th Century

This semester, I’m teaching my “Religion in the United States” class. In a couple of months, I’ll introduce four branches of Christianity that emerged in the United States in the 19th or very early 20th century: The Latter-day Saints (1830); the Adventists with the Millerite Movement (1840s); the Jehovah Witnesses’ (1870s); and the Pentecostals (1900s). I tend to emphasize the pre- and post-Civil War ethos as a rationale for these movements but that seems incomplete. This past week, the question has lodged in my head and keeps coming back to me: What was it about the United States in the 19th century that made it the place that birthed these expressions of Christianity?

I have the Kindle version of Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis but I need a physical copy because I can’t sustain reading in a digital format. Also, I see there are books like Anthony Avenue’s Apocalyptic Anxiety: Religion, Science, and America’s Obsession with the End of the World and the collection of essays that make up Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era but other than those two books, and histories of the origins of the aforementioned groups, I’m not sure where to start. Any American historians out there who would recommend a history of 19th century America that captures the country’s mood and movements? This is a topic I want to explore further.

(Side note: I’m aware that the origins of Pentecostalism can’t be limited to Los Angeles alone but I think it’s fair to say that what because global Pentecostalism was greatly influenced by American culture and events.)

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2 Replies to “Apocalyptic, Restorationist Christianities and the United States in the 19th Century”

  1. Great course subject and initial outline. I’m sure it’ll be broader than your 4 categories alone indicate, and I’d hope you will give significant attention to such 19th century key issues as abolition (especially its theological and “church” side), temperance, early (though “radical”) feminism, and also “liberal” theology more broadly. At least for me, educated for 9 college and post-grad years at Evangelical/dispensationalist Biola and Talbot, then 2 years FTE at Claremont, I knew some about theological developments of the 18th and 19th centuries, but very little of the actual history, or of the leaders, the social and political aspects and effects.

    I began to rectify that by getting/reading an excellent book I think you should read in preparation yourself, if you haven’t: The Making of American Liberal Theology, 1805 -1900, by Gary Dorrien, an accomplished historian/philosopher.

    It is very detailed, so I retained only a tiny percent, and was just fascinated again, by re-reading several pages in response to your request. This section, centered on Elizabeth Cady (later a Stanton by marriage)… how her Calvinisist family got her exposed to and “converted” at the “anxious bench” by Charles Finney, the deleterious effect on her of his preaching and the millieu, etc. Millerites, Quakers, etc. come up in this context, along with abolition in its early days, feminism, etc… all in mainly religious contexts, but some political as well. I was pulled along for several pages, unexpectedly, as I’d read it before but forgotten how much “story” Dorrien brings out, and all documented. Good luck!

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  2. Unfortunately, I have to be far too selective to cover all that ground in one semester. I focus a lot on the First Amendment, Supreme Court cases that have to do with religion, the role of the IRS, religion at the founding of the United States (colonies/Founding Fathers), Indigenous American religion, race and religion, the aforementioned 19th-century restorationists, apocalyptic Christianities, and then groups like American Satanism and Scientology. The goal is to get as wide a representation of what “religions” has meant in an American context.

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