Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 11

Religion

I had often heard it observed before I visited America, that one of the great blessings of its constitution was the absence of a national religion, the country being thus exonerated from all obligation of supporting the clergy; those only contributing to do so whose principles led them to it. My residence in the country has shewn me that a religious tyranny may be exerted very effectually without the aid of the government, in a way much more oppressive than the paying of tithe, and without obtaining any of the salutary decorum, which I presume no one will deny is the result of an established mode of worship.

As it was impossible to remain many weeks in the country without being struck with the strange anomalies produced by its religious system, my early notes contain many observations on the subject; but as nearly the same scenes recurred in every part of the country, I state them here, not as belonging to the west alone, but to the whole Union, the same cause producing the same effect every where.

The whole people appear to be divided into an almost endless variety of religious factions, and I was told, that to be well received in society, it was necessary to declare yourself as belonging to some one of these. Let your acknowledged belief be what it may, you are said to be not a Christian, unless you attach yourself to a particular congregation. Besides the broad and well-known distinctions of Episcopalian, Catholic, Presbyterian, Calvinist, Baptist, Quaker, Sweden-borgian, Universalist, Dunker, &c. &c. &c.; there are innumerable others springing out of these, each of which assumes a church government of its own; of this, the most intriguing and factious individual is invariably the head; and in order, as it should seem, to shew a reason for this separation, each congregation invests itself with some queer variety of external observance that has the melancholy effect of exposing all religious ceremonies to contempt.

It is impossible, in witnessing all these unseemly vagaries, not to recognise the advantages of an established church as a sort of headquarters for quiet unpresuming Christians, who are contented to serve faithfully, without insisting upon having each a little separate banner, embroidered with a device of their own imagining.

The Catholics alone appear exempt from the fury of division and sub-division that has seized every other persuasion. Having the Pope for their common head, regulates, I presume, their movements, and prevents the outrageous display of individual whim which every other sect is permitted.

I had the pleasure of being introduced to the Catholic bishop of Cincinnati, and have never known in any country a priest of a character and bearing more truly apostolic. He was an American, but I should never have discovered it from his pronunciation or manner. He received his education partly in England, and partly in France. His manners were highly polished; his piety active and sincere, and infinitely more mild and tolerant than that of the factious Sectarians who form the great majority of the American priesthood.

I believe I am sufficiently tolerant; but this does not prevent my seeing that the object of all religious observances is better obtained, when the government of the church is confided to the wisdom and experience of the most venerated among the people, than when it is placed in the hands of every tinker and tailor who chooses to claim a share in it. Nor is this the only evil attending the want of a national religion, supported by the State. As there is no legal and fixed provision for the clergy, it is hardly surprising that their services are confined to those who can pay them. The vehement expressions of insane or hypocritical zeal, such as were exhibited during “the Revival,” can but ill atone for the want of village worship, any more than the eternal talk of the admirable and unequalled government, can atone for the continual contempt of social order. Church and State hobble along, side by side, notwithstanding their boasted independence. Almost every man you meet will tell you, that he is occupied in labours most abundant for the good of his country; and almost every woman will tell you, that besides those things that are within (her house) she has coming upon her daily the care of all the churches. Yet spite of this universal attention to the government, its laws are half asleep; and spite of the old women and their Dorcas societies, atheism is awake and thriving.

In the smaller cities and towns prayer-meetings take the place of almost all other amusements; but as the thinly scattered population of most villages can give no parties, and pay no priests, they contrive to marry, christen, and bury without them. A stranger taking up his residence in any city in America must think the natives the most religious people upon earth; but if chance lead him among her western villages, he will rarely find either churches or chapels, prayer or preacher; except, indeed, at that most terrific saturnalia, “a camp-meeting.” I was much struck with the answer of a poor woman, whom I saw ironing on a Sunday. “Do you make no difference in your occupations on a Sunday?” I said. “I beant a Christian, Ma’am; we have got no opportunity,” was the reply. It occurred to me, that in a country where “all men are equal,” the government would be guilty of no great crime, did it so far interfere as to give them all an opportunity of becoming Christians if they wished it. But should the federal government dare to propose building a church, and endowing it, in some village that has never heard “the bringing home of bell and burial,” it is perfectly certain that not only the sovereign state where such an abomination was proposed, would rush into the Congress to resent the odious interference, but that all the other states would join the clamour, and such an intermeddling administration would run great risk of impeachment and degradation.

Where there is a church-government so constituted as to deserve human respect, I believe it will always be found to receive it, even from those who may not assent to the dogma of its creed; and where such respect exists, it produces a decorum in manners and language often found wanting where it does not. Sectarians will not venture to rhapsodise, nor infidels to scoff, in the common intercourse of society. Both are injurious to the cause of rational religion, and to check both must be advantageous.

It is certainly possible that some of the fanciful variations upon the ancient creeds of the Christian Church, with which transatlantic religionists amuse themselves, might inspire morbid imaginations in Europe as well as in America; but before they can disturb the solemn harmony HERE they must prelude by a defiance, not only to common sense, but what is infinitely more appalling, to common usage. They must at once rank themselves with the low and the illiterate, for only such prefer the eloquence of the tub to that of the pulpit. The aristocracy must ever, as a body, belong to the established Church, and it is but a small proportion of the influential classes who would be willing to allow that they do not belong to the aristocracy. That such feelings influence the professions of men it were ignorance or hypocrisy to deny; and that nation is wise who knows how to turn even such feelings into a wholesome stream of popular influence.

As a specimen of the tone in which religion is mixed in the ordinary intercourse of society, I will transcribe the notes I took of a conversation, at which I was present, at Cincinnati; I wrote them immediately after the conversation took place.

Dr. A.

“I wish, Mrs. M., that you would explain to me what a revival is. I hear it talked of all over the city, and I know it means something about Jesus Christ and religion; but that is all I know, will you instruct me farther?”

Mrs. M.

“I expect, Dr. A., that you want to laugh at me. But that makes no difference. I am firm in my principles, and I fear no one’s laughter.”

Dr. A.

“Well, but what is a revival?”

Mrs. M.

“It is difficult, very difficult, to make those see who have no light; to make those understand whose souls are darkened. A revival means just an elegant kindling of the spirit; it is brought about to the Lord’s people by the hands of his saints, and it means salvation in the highest.”

Dr. A.

“But what is it the people mean by talking of feeling the revival? and waiting in spirit for the revival? and the extacy of the revival?”

Mrs. M.

“Oh Doctor! I am afraid that you are too far gone astray to understand all that. It is a glorious assurance, a whispering of the everlasting covenant, it is the bleating of the lamb, it is the welcome of the shepherd, it is the essence of love, it is the fullness of glory, it is being in Jesus, it is Jesus being in us, it is taking the Holy Ghost into our bosoms, it is sitting ourselves down by God, it is being called to the high places, it is eating, and drinking, and sleeping in the Lord, it is becoming a lion in the faith, it is being lowly and meek, and kissing the hand that smites, it is being mighty and powerful, and scorning reproof, it is — ”

Dr. A.

“Thank you, Mrs. M., I feel quite satisfied; and I think I understand a revival now almost as well as you do yourself.”

Mrs. A.

“My! Where can you have learnt all that stuff, Mrs. M.?”

Mrs. M.

“How benighted you are! From the holy book, from the Word of the Lord, from the Holy Ghost, and Jesus Christ themselves.”

Mrs. A.

“It does seem so droll to me, to hear you talk of “the Word of the Lord.” Why, I have been brought up to look upon the Bible as nothing better than an old newspaper.”

Mrs. O.

“Surely you only say this for the sake of hearing what Mrs. M. will say in return — you do not mean it?”

Mrs. A.

“La, yes! to be sure I do.”

Dr. A.

“I profess that I by no means wish my wife to read all she might find there. — What says the Colonel, Mrs. M.?”

Mrs. M.

“As to that, I never stop to ask him. I tell him every day that I believe in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and that it is his duty to believe in them too, and then my conscience is clear, and I don’t care what he believes. Really, I have no notion of one’s husband interfering in such matters.”

Dr. A.

“You are quite right. I am sure I give my wife leave to believe just what she likes; but she is a good woman, and does not abuse the liberty; for she believes nothing.”

It was not once, nor twice, nor thrice, but many many times, during my residence in America, that I was present when subjects which custom as well as principle had taught me to consider as fitter for the closet than the tea-table, were thus lightly discussed. I hardly know whether I was more startled at first hearing, in little dainty namby pamby tones, a profession of Atheism over a teacup, or at having my attention called from a Johnny cake, to a rhapsody on election and the second birth.

But, notwithstanding this revolting license, persecution exists to a degree unknown, I believe, in our well-ordered land since the days of Cromwell. I had the following anecdote from a gentleman perfectly well acquainted with the circumstances. A tailor sold a suit of clothes to a sailor a few moments before he sailed, which was on a Sunday morning. The corporation of New York prosecuted the tailor, and he was convicted, and sentenced to a fine greatly beyond his means to pay. Mr. F., a lawyer of New York, defended him with much eloquence, but in vain. His powerful speech, however, was not without effect, for it raised him such a host of Presbyterian enemies as sufficed to destroy his practice. Nor was this all: his nephew was at the time preparing for the bar, and soon after the above circumstance occurred his certificates were presented, and refused, with this declaration, “that no man of the name and family of F. should be admitted.” I have met this young man in society; he is a person of very considerable talent, and being thus cruelly robbed of his profession, has become the editor of a newspaper.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:50