Since we're seeing the religious right, at least the people who professionally oppose marriage equality, starting to unravel in the aftermath of this election, I thought I'd tell you a nineteenth century story about the Second Great Awakening and what historians call religious "enthusiasm." I'll try to make some connections to the present, but I'm not sure I'll be able to. By the way, you know who Isabella Van Wagenen is, just not by that name, and all will be revealed below the fold.
I'll actually be giving you a synopsis of the story told in this book. It's a great read, if this whets your interest, and I don't think telling you the ending will ruin it for you. These are two very good historians.
Sex and salvation indeed, although not necessarily in that order. First, some background about the Second Great Awakening.
Transformations in American economics, politics and intellectual culture found their parallel in a transformation of American religion in the decades following independence, as the United States underwent a widespread flowering of religious sentiment and unprecedented expansion of church membership known as the Second Great Awakening.Broadly speaking, this is when our religious right originated, although that wouldn't become clear for about 100 years after the fact, because it was pretty much mainstream American thought in the 1830s.
The Awakening lasted some 50 years, from the 1790s to the 1840s, and spanned the entire United States. The religious revitalization that the Awakening represented manifested itself in different ways according to the local population and church establishment, but was definitely a Protestant phenomenon. Methodist and Baptist denominations experienced a surge of membership, often at the expense of other denominations, prompting a move toward liberalization and competitiveness on the part of the Anglican, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. The numerical success of the Methodists and Baptists lay primarily in their reliance on itinerant preachers who actively brought the message of the church to the people, converting great numbers through emotionally charged revivals. These revivals occurred on a scale and with a frequency previously unseen in the United States, and usually struck more conservative clergymen as excessive emotionalism masquerading as religion. With the maturation of revivalism and the evolution of a distinct revivalist methodology aimed at converting people en masse, the age of evangelicalism had arrived, with the Protestants leading the charge.
This doesn't mean there weren't excesses. What's especially interesting is that this story takes place in New York City, which was a hotbed of evangelical activity, particularly the variety of it known as "perfectionism."
(I've taught this book, but not recently, so this is based on a review from the Journal of Social History by the historian Perry Bush, which I can't link to because I'm working from a proxy connection to the Los Angeles Public Library, and the link won't be useful. This is a paraphrase with some blockquotes, because he tells the story well, but with a bit more detail than you really need.)
We first meet Elijah Pierson, a follower of revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, before his religious dedication led him further into enthusiasm than he had planned. Brought up as a strict Calvinist in New Jersey, Pierson had become a prospering young New York City businessman.
By his thirties, Pierson was a leading crusader in the intensely spiritual, perfectionist circles of New York City's radical evangelical fringe, a position cemented by his marriage to one of the most pious, perfectionist women of them all. Her early death--partly due to her fasting and self-abandoning prayer--shattered Pierson.Pierson's public and failed attempt to raise her from the dead (you might see where this is going) further unhinged his precarious mental framework until it was reset, along different lines, by Robert Matthews. Matthews had grown up in a VERY devout Scottish Presbyterian community in upstate New York (think the people in Babette's Feast here, only even more dour).
Yet in contrast to Pierson's gentle demeanor, Matthews' angry, dissolute personality precluded his acceptance in such circles. Stung by his bitter personal attacks and by his reputation for spousal abuse, elders at a prominent Presbyterian church rejected Matthews' application for membership, while opening their arms to his suffering wife and children. For Matthews, this humiliation proved to be the final straw.
Playing with the same materials of religious patriarchy that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young would utilize more successfully, in 1832 Matthews arrived in New York City, announcing his new identity as Father Matthias, Prophet of God the Father. In contrast to the pretensions of the smug, evangelical entrepreneurs, the new messiah had come, he screamed, to build the one true church of God.Yes, the book actually BEGINS with Matthews in Kirtland, Ohio, where the Mormons built their first temple, but he's too much of a lunatic for Smith to take on as a project.
“I told him,” Smith wrote in his diary, “that my God told me that his God is the Devil.”So "Matthias" gained followers among the "frenzied periphery of metropolitan New York evangelicalism." People like
the wily Anne Folger, who would ultimately seduce both the prophet and his patriarchal vision; her cuckolded husband Benjamin, a wealthy evangelical entrepreneur; and perhaps most intriguing, a mystic ex-slave named Isabella Van Wagenen, whom many historians have come to know under a different name and guise.What was his appeal? It was twofold. First, like Joseph Smith, he wanted nothing to do with the new materialist and respectable brand of evangelism, favoring what's known as the "old -time" religion. Second, he opposed the "feminization" of the church, favoring the dictates of traditional manhood.
The sexual ethic dictated by the new prophet, however--who readily dissolved marriages and refashioned others--quickly proved itself beyond what conventional society was ready to tolerate. In it, and in the prophet's ruthless exploitation of his followers' personal wealth, lay the inexorable chain of events that would result in the Kingdom's destruction: hints of sex scandal, mob action by neighboring villagers, Pierson's death and Matthews' trial for murder.
Yes, a trial, with Isabella Van Wagenen as the key witness. Matthews was acquitted, but convicted on charges of assault and contempt of court for which he served a sentence of four months. And about Isabella. After the trial, she meditated and tried to make sense of what had been going on, and finally, she decided
that she must leave the city; it was no place for her; yea, she felt called in spirit to leave it, and to travel east and lecture.Yes indeedy. Isabella van Wagenen, the star witness of this murder trial (and these trials were the entertainment of the day, at least in New York) is the woman you know as Sojourner Truth.
Having made what preparations for leaving she deemed necessary,–which was, to put up a few articles of clothing in a pillow-case, all else being deemed an unnecessary incumbrance,–about an hour before she left, she informed Mrs. Whiting, the woman of the house where she was stopping, that her name was no longer Isabella, but SOJOURNER; and that she was going east. And to her inquiry, 'What are you going east for?' her answer was, 'The Spirit calls me there, and I must go.'
I don't buy her story. I think she understood she was too notorious to use her real name so she changed it. Of course, in the 1840s, a free black woman telling the antislavery story was notorious enough anyway, so I'm probably nitpicking.
But really. Religious "enthusiasm," believing you can raise someone from the dead through prayer, a cult based on hierarchical notions of masculinity and femininity, old-time fundamentalism --I wonder how at home some of our more fanatical right wing Christians would feel in the world of Matthias.
3:51 PM PT: Thank you, republishers! I guess forgetting to publish this from History for Kossacks (which I ALWAYS do with this series) is another piece of my grieving puzzle.