Religion in Barnum’s America

by Jonathan D. Sassi

This 800-word essay describes the range of predominantly Protestant religious denominations present in antebellum U.S. society, and their impact on social and political life. The American Museum contained a number of religious exhibits, including paintings and waxworks of famous christian scenes.


American religion during the early republic and antebellum era had a dynamic history and shared several aspects in common with the present. Diversity increasingly characterized the religious landscape, which was being reshaped by the forces of geographic expansion, urbanization, and immigration. Religious institutions formed key anchors of communal life, while religious beliefs provided a source of values and a goad to conscience. Moreover, religion served as a primary motivation for social engagement for an array of reformers.

The religious freedom of post-Revolutionary America facilitated the rise of Protestant evangelicalism to a place of cultural predominance. The evangelical denominations, the most important of which were the Methodists and Baptists, emphasized the authority of the Bible, the need for men and women to undergo a conversion experience and put their faith in Jesus Christ as savior, a strict code of personal conduct, and the evangelization of the world. They also believed in the Christian home as an indispensable source of morality and nurture. In their parlors, middle-class Victorian Protestants could display both their piety and refined tastes with a large family Bible on the table or a needlepoint sampler with Scripture verses on the wall. A family of more substantial means might also have an organ there to accompany hymn singing.

In New York City, the principal denominations of the colonial era, the Dutch Reformed and Episcopal churches, carried on into the nineteenth century, but the evangelicals grew more rapidly. One of the most renowned evangelicals was the Presbyterian revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, who arrived in New York City in 1829 at the invitation of some leading businessmen. His preaching touched off a revival and inspired a number of his followers to pursue further the causes of missions and reform even after his departure in 1837. During the years between 1796 and 1826, ten different African-American congregations also organized in the city, as their members came out from white-controlled churches where they had experienced discrimination.

Evangelical converts, the majority of whom were women, were eager to share their faith with others and pass it on to their children. New York City became a locus of activity for what was known as the “benevolent empire” of missionary and moral reform organizations. Both the American Bible Society, founded in 1816, and the American Tract Society, founded in 1825, made their headquarters there. The New York Sunday School Union, also founded in 1816, organized religious instruction for children, supplementing what they received at home. Evangelicals were in the vanguard of the temperance movement, which decried the consumption of liquor, the campaign for stricter observance of the Christian Sabbath, and the movement to abolish slavery. The American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833, was based in New York City, but split in 1840 over the propriety of having a woman serve in its leadership. Followers of Charles Finney in 1834 also organized the New York Female Moral Reform Society, which began by attacking prostitution and expanded its scope to the alleviation of the poverty that drove women into the sex trade. Similar goals of taking domesticity into the public realm inspired the Ladies’ Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to open the Five Points Mission in the following decade.

That mission was situated in the heart of an Irish neighborhood, and it must be said that evangelicalism could also feed into nativist movements that called for restrictions on immigration. The nativists ultimately proved to be politically ineffectual, and by the end of the Civil War, Roman Catholicism had become the single largest denomination in the country, thanks to vast numbers of immigrants from Ireland and Germany. In New York City, the 15,000 Catholics who made up two parishes in 1815 had grown in numbers to between 300,000 and 400,000 people in 32 parishes by 1865, or about half the city’s entire population. This church building boom, along with the construction of Catholic schools, hospitals, and orphanages, marked the church’s central place in the immigrant community. In their homes, Catholics were apt to display a wider variety of religious objects than Protestants, including statues, crucifixes, and lithographs of famous paintings or other religious scenes.

In the city’s much smaller Jewish community, immigrants organized synagogues, schools, and benevolent societies. Antebellum Jewish immigrants came mainly from the German states and elsewhere in Central Europe, and Reform Judaism was their predominant religious expression. They sought to adjust to the American environment while keeping up traditional practices such as the circumcision of infant males and the observance of major holidays.

Of course, the antebellum past and the present were not identical. One cannot ignore, for instance, the vast changes in theological understanding over the past 150 years. And while the religion of the early republic was indeed diverse, that diversity was largely confined to the Judeo-Christian traditions of the European settlers and their descendants. Most of the other world religions that one finds in the United States today had not yet arrived on the scene.

Also see these primary documents:

“Solitude in a Crowd,” Frank Harper; or, The Country-Boy in Town, 1847

“Measures to Promote Revivals,” 1835

“Dedication of the Five Points’ Mission House,” New-York Daily Times, June 18, 1853

Intersections: Scriptures, Prints, and Paintings in Antebellum America