The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High — the Sacred and the True.
• John L. O’Sullivan, 1839
God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against His righteous decree.”
• Horace Greeley, 1859
God is using the Anglo-Saxon to conquer the world for Christ by dispossessing feeble races, and assimilating and molding others.
• James H. King, Methodist minister (NY), 1887
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Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.
We are looking at material from three books, the first of which is Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God.
The 19th century has been called the “Christian century” in U.S. history. This was sparked by the Second Great Awakening (1790-1820), which had profound effects on the religious, social, and moral culture of the U.S., as described here by Richard Hughes:
Though the Second Great Awakening grew from relatively small beginnings at opposite ends of the country, it quickly cascaded into a national revival that lasted some thirty years. The revival did not rely upon preaching alone. Revivalists sought to ban the Sunday delivery of mails and restrict the consumption of liquor. They launched innumerable efforts to evangelize both the nation and the larger world. They created the American Bible Society to distribute Bibles, the American Tract Society to distribute Christian literature, and the American Education Society to promote Christian education at the outposts of the American frontier. Indeed, they established church-related colleges throughout the nation at such a rapid pace that, by 1860, the number of these colleges had reached 173, up from only 9 in 1780.
• p. 122
Though many have posited that the U.S. had Christian beginnings, in fact the period right after the Revolution marked the low point of religious belief and observance in the country’s history. And when it came to statements that shaped our form of government, the Founders took pains to keep specifically Christian doctrines out of the documents of origin. For example, the Declaration of Independence was written on the basis of truths that are “self-evident” and not dependent upon divine revelation in the Bible. The Constitution does not mention God, separates church from state, and prohibits any religious test for office-holders.
From the standpoint of religious leaders, the infant republic was in need of revival, and it came soon after the U.S. became a nation, lasting for three decades in its formative years.
In New England and the east, preachers like Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher promoted both evangelical fervor and social change. Educational institutions were born. Interdenominational mission societies were formed to evangelize those going west. The cause of abolition grew and spread, as did temperance movements and charitable efforts to serve the poor, the imprisoned, and the mentally ill. In the Appalachian regions, revivalists led camp meetings, and Methodist and Baptist churches, with their circuit riding preachers and emphasis on lay ministry were founded all across the Midwest and South. Off-shoot groups like the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists were also born during this time, and as the country moved west, so did they.
Though the Second Great Awakening might be characterized as a “Christian” revival, it was a specifically Protestant movement.
…we should note that the Second Great Awakening pursued one objective in addition to those already mentioned: The Great Awakening was in many respects an attempt to save the nation from the threat Protestants perceived in the rapid growth of Roman Catholicism on America’s shores. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Catholics had grown from some 20,000 during the colonial period to 40,000, and by 1850, that number had swelled to 1,606,000. Because Protestants felt that the Catholic Church was, in principle, inimical to the cause of liberty, the Second Great Awakening was not so much an effort to Christianize the nation as to Protestantize the nation.
• p. 123
In combination with the westward expansion of the nation, the Second Great Awakening contributed to a development in the U.S. understanding of its place as a nation specially chosen by God. The New England Puritans’ sense that they were a “new Israel,” called to be a “city on a hill,” now morphed into the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny.“
In 1845, an unsigned article in a popular American journal, a long standing Jacksonian publication, the Democratic Review, issued an unmistakable call for American expansionism. Focusing mainly on bringing the Republic of Texas into the union, it declared that expansion represented “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Thus a powerful American slogan was born. “Manifest Destiny” became first and foremost a call and justification for an American form of imperialism, and neatly summarized the goals of the Mexican War. It claimed that America had a destiny, manifest, i.e., self-evident, from God to occupy the North American continent south of Canada (it also claimed the right to the Oregon territory including the Canadian portion). “Manifest Destiny” was also clearly a racial doctrine of white supremacy that granted no native American or nonwhite claims to any permanent possession of the lands on the North American continent and justified white American expropriation of Indian lands. (“Manifest Destiny” was also a key slogan deployed in the United States’ imperial ventures in the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century that led to U.S. possession or control of Hawaii and the Philippine Islands.)
But Manifest Destiny was not simply a cloak for American imperialism and a justification for America’s territorial ambitions. It also was firmly anchored in a long standing and deep sense of a special and unique American Destiny, the belief that in the words of historian Conrad Cherry, “America is a nation called to a special destiny by God.” The notion that there was some providential purpose to the European discovery and eventual conquest of the land masses “discovered” by Christopher Columbus was present from the beginning. Both the Spanish and the French monarchs authorized and financed exploration of the “New World” because, among other things, they considered it their divinely appointed mission to spread Christianity to the New World by converting the natives to Christianity. Coming later to the venture, the British and especially the New England Puritans carried with them a demanding sense of Providential purpose.
• Donald M. Scott, The Religious Origins of Manifest Destiny
One of the doctrinal developments in many Christian groups that fed this sense of destiny was an increased emphasis upon millennialism and other forms of eschatological teaching. Some, like Finney and Beecher, claimed that America would be the site of the millennium, bringing it to pass by the triumph of American liberty and democracy. To them, the Awakening was a sure sign of the golden age’s soon arrival. Other groups, like the Mormons, developed elaborate eschatological schemes. Salt Lake City was envisioned as the Holy City in the wilderness from which all America would become “God’s Zion.”
Of course, Manifest Destiny was also a predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideal. In John Gast’s idealistic portrayal of “American Progress” at the top of the post, you can see that it is white men who are moving forward and westward, led by the angel of progress, while the Native Americans and buffaloes retreat.
It is important to remember that, as originally conceived, Manifest Destiny was an unabashedly prejudiced idea. It rested upon the sidelining or eradication (both real-world and fictional) of American Indian peoples; there was little place for African Americans (free or enslaved) within the trope; Asian and Hispanic immigrants did not figure in the ideal America it conjured. Catholics were generally ignored; women were deemed unimportant. The peoples who were meant to conquer the continent were white, Protestant, and overwhelmingly male, with an unquenchable thirst for free enterprise.
• Catherine Denial, Manifest Destiny: Creating an American Identity
Despite the influence of the Second Great Awakening inspiring religious fervor, moral reforms, and a somewhat expanded palette of participation that began to give hope for freedom to women and African-American slaves, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was advanced by white men primarily for white men.
In the “Christian” century, the unique experiences of Americans with regard to the frontier shaped our view of democracy, our sense of progress, and, for white American Protestant Christians, the way we think about the faith. Even today Manifest Destiny thinking continues to weave its threads through both our national identity and the “American religion.”
By the end of the 19th century, Frederick Turner would write his important work, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1894), in which he would assert, “This, at least, is clear: American democracy is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West.”
Despite the chastening of a devastating Civil War, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny reared its head once more as the 1800’s came to a close. Many Christians near the turn of the century, who had imbibed the syncretistic notion of Christianity mixed with Manifest Destiny, showed the effects of this potent potion when they approved the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, justifying the war in terms both religious and idealistic:
In 1885 Americans began to read the enormously popular book by Josiah Strong entitled Our Country. There Strong praised the Anglo-Saxon race— and by implication, the United States— as “the representative . . . of the purest Christianity.” Its Christian character coupled with its love for liberty, he believed, had uniquely equipped this nation “to impress its institutions upon mankind . . . [and] spread itself over the earth.” The Anglo-Saxon race, he argued, “is destined to dispossess many weaker races, assimilate others, and mold the remainder, until in a very true and important sense it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind.”
• p. 127