Modern history


Pursuing the Millennium

Many people shared John Quincy Adams’s view of America as the country where God would bring His plans for humanity to fulfillment. But the blueprints for realizing this providential destiny could be far bolder and more presumptuous than Henry Clay’s American System. Some Americans actually hoped to cooperate in hastening the Second Coming of Christ, which would usher in the end of history. Almost all Americans regarded their country as an example and a harbinger of popular government to the rest of the world, and even non-church-members found millennial expectations an appropriate metaphor for this destiny. To appreciate the seriousness with which Americans of the early nineteenth century took the millennium, one must enter a world many readers will find alien and full of arcane lore. Millions of twenty-first-century Americans, however, still live in that world.

Traditional Judaism and Christianity both have much to say about the end of history. Chapters 20 and 21 of the New Testament book of Revelation speak of a thousand-year Kingdom of Christ on earth, after which all the dead will be resurrected, Satan defeated, a final judgment passed, and the world replaced by a new creation. The blessed thousand-year epoch has been named the millennium, and Christians identify it with the messianic age of peace and justice foretold by the Jewish prophets. Theologians have interpreted the prophecy in various ways, two of which— surprisingly enough—contributed to shaping events in the young American republic. One view of the millennium sees it as the climax and goal of human progress, with human effort contributing to the realization of God’s providential design. This is called postmillennialism, because the Second Coming of Christ occurs at the end of the millennium. The other view sees the millennium as requiring God’s supernatural intervention to initiate it. The Second Coming of Christ must occur before the millennium; hence this interpretation is called premillennialism. Where postmillennialists regard the millennium as part of history, premillennialists do not. While premillennialists (looking to divine intervention for deliverance) often feel alienated from their surrounding society and culture, American postmillennialists have typically celebrated theirs.

Both kinds of millennial expectations had flourished in America since the earliest European settlements. The colonial Puritans conceived their relationship to God on the model of ancient Israel’s covenant and their relationship to the nations of the world as that of “a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.”1 Some of them also believed that they were living near the end of history and that their efforts to restore the purity of New Testament Christianity hastened the millennium. The Puritan diarist Samuel Sewell, for example, persuaded himself that the New Jerusalem, the capital of Christ’s millennial kingdom, would be located in the New World. The Puritan polymath Cotton Mather tried to predict the year of the Second Coming; he chose by turns 1697, 1716, and 1736. The greatest of American Puritan intellectuals, Jonathan Edwards, observing in 1742 the awakening of religion that he and other revivalists fostered, interpreted it as evidence that the millennial age approached and might well begin in America.2 The series of eighteenth-century wars against Catholic France and, even more, the Revolution itself, preached as a crusade from many a patriot pulpit, nurtured American Protestant millennial nationalism. Of the minister Samuel Hopkins, who carried Edwardsean piety into the Revolutionary cause and the abolition of slavery, a contemporary wrote: “The millennium was more than a belief to him; it had the freshness of visible things. He was at home in it.”3

The Second Great Awakening of religion, more widespread and diverse than the First, inflamed renewed outbursts of chiliasm, that is, belief that the millennium will occur soon.4 Postmillennialism in particular flourished, for material improvements, political democratization, and moral reform all provided encouraging signs that history was moving in the right direction, as did the spread of Christianity to the four corners of the globe. Americans seemed a “chosen people” not only because they enjoyed a covenanted relationship with the God of Israel but also because they were destined to prepare the way for the return of His Messiah and Son. William Sprague, a prominent spokesman for New England’s neo-Puritan tradition, declared: “We know—for God has told us—that there is a period of universal moral renovation approaching, and there is much in the

1. Words from “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop’s famous address to the settlers aboard the Arbella in 1630. I have modernized his spelling. Winthrop was invoking Matthew 5:14.

2. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America (New Haven, 2003), 77, 123. See also Ruth Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756–1800 (Cambridge, Eng., 1985).

3. William Ellery Channing, Works (Boston, 1888), 427–28.

4. The word “chiliasm” is derived from the Greek word for thousand, as “millennium” is derived from the Latin one.

aspect of Providence, which seems to indicate that our country is to have a prominent—may I not say—a principal instrumentality in the introduction of that period.”5 The postmillennial role that Sprague envisioned for America was underscored by countless evangelists. “The stated policy of heaven is to raise the world from its degraded condition,” declared the revivalist-reformer Lyman Beecher. Beecher had political and material, as well as moral and spiritual, elevation in mind; he saw the United States as the example to uplift the rest of the nations. Postmillennial expectations extended well beyond the New England heirs of the Puritans; the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterians in the middle states and the South overwhelmingly endorsed them too.6 The tolerant and humane evangelist Alexander Campbell led his disparate Christian movement into faith in postmillennial progress through his journal, the Millennial Harbinger. Charles Finney, however, exceeded all others in the urgency of his rhetoric. Once, in a burst of enthusiasm, Finney told his congregation that if evangelicals applied themselves fully to the works of mission and reform they could bring about the millennium within three years.7

John Quincy Adams invoked postmillennial aspirations in support of his political program. “Progressive improvement in the condition of man is apparently the purpose of a superintending Providence,” he declared. Adams saw himself as working for the establishment of the messianic age foretold by the second Isaiah (“the sublimest of prophets”). His First Message to Congress called a system of internal improvements “a sacred duty” imposed by God to elevate America in the scale of civilization. He recommended U.S. conversion to the metric system of weights and measures on the ground that it implemented “the trembling hope of the Christian” for the unity of humanity, the binding of Satan in chains, and the promised thousand years of peace. The political policies of his rivals, Adams complained, “led us back to the savage state” and away from the millennium.8

Postmillennialism provided the capstone to an intellectual structure integrating political liberalism and economic development with Protestant Christianity. One of the most powerful statements of this worldview was

5. Sprague’s Fourth of July address in 1827 is quoted in Jonathan Sassi, A Republic of Righteousness (New York, 2001), 150.

6. Quotation from Lyman Beecher, A Plea for Colleges (Cincinnati, 1836), 11; Fred Hood, Reformed America: The Middle and Southern States (University, Ala., 1980), 68–87.

7. Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, ed. William McLoughlin (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), 306. On another occasion he supposedly said three months: Paul Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium (New York, 1978), 3–4.

8. Quotations from J. Q. Adams in Daniel Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), 59.

delivered in 1825 by Francis Wayland, Baptist clergyman, later president of Brown University and the country’s most widely read economist. Wayland began with the salient characteristic of his age, the increased awareness and self-confidence of the middle and lower classes throughout the Western world. The two engines driving this momentous transformation toward modernity, he explained, were Protestantism as a force for literacy and the mass production of cheap printed media enabling the common people to take advantage of their literacy. Improved transportation supplemented these effects by facilitating the flow of commerce and information across national boundaries and raising living standards. Without using those names, Wayland had described the transportation and communications revolutions.

Opposing these constructive developments, however, stood the autocratic regimes united in the Holy Alliance, together with the Roman Catholic Church, which had cast its lot with them in reliance upon intolerance and persecution for protection against modern ideas. If one looked at Europe alone, the division between the Catholic autocracies and the Protestant countries where political liberalism was on the rise seemed like a fine balance. Fortunately, the influence of the United States would tip that balance in favor of progress and Protestantism. The ideological conflict might even become a violent war, but if it did, Way-land predicted, the United States would end up leading a world coalition to save freedom and civilization.

To his prescient interpretation of the forces shaping his age, Wayland added a moral imperative. American citizens had the duty to promote the “means for elevating universally the intellectual and moral character of our people.” Of these means, the most obvious was education, but the most essential was knowledge of the Bible, for “man has never correctly understood nor successfully asserted his rights, until he has learned them from the Bible.” At the end, Wayland spelled out America’s postmillennial mission: “The dim shadows of unborn nations... implore this country to fulfill the destiny to which she has been summoned by an all-wise Providence, and save a sinking world from temporal misery and eternal death.” Millennial expectations by no means implied simply optimism. The scriptures foretold terrible suffering and catastrophes before God would finally bring good out of evil. Americans must work and pray hard to bring about the millennium. “Ye who love the Lord, keep not silence, and give him no rest, until he establish this his Jerusalem, and make her a praise in the whole earth.”9 A century later, the postmillennial liberalism

9. Francis Wayland, The Duties of an American Citizen (Boston, 1825), quotations from 19, 34, 44.

so effectively summarized by Wayland would influence Woodrow Wilson.

A minority position in earlier generations, postmillennialism became the most widely held viewpoint on eschatology (the study of last things) among Protestants in antebellum America. It synthesized the faith in progress characteristic of the Enlightenment with biblical Christianity. Postmillennialists, as their most acute historian, James Moorhead, has pointed out, planted one foot firmly in the world of steam engines and telegraph while keeping the other in the cosmos of biblical prophecy.10 Theirs was a happy compromise, typical of the middle-class mainstream intellectual life of that period. Postmillennialism celebrated reformers, inventors, and Christian missionaries. Faith in progress toward the millennium synthesized readily with revival-based religion, holding out the promise that revivals could be made perpetual, without periodic declines in fervor. Psychologically, postmillennialism replicated on a cosmic scale the individual believer’s struggle to free himself from sin and embrace the Lord’s coming into his heart. Finally, postmillennialism legitimated American civil religion, that durable fusion of patriotism, nondenominational Protestantism, and belief in America’s responsibility to conduct an experiment in free government. Though postmillennialism may seem naive to our own chastened century, it flourished in a time and place, as Alfred North Whitehead observed, where even “wise men hoped.”11


In September 1814, the British army had massed overwhelming strength to drive south from Canada in its most serious invasion of the War of 1812. But after a naval battle at Plattsburgh on nearby Lake Champlain, their commander suddenly ordered the army to withdraw. General George Prevost’s astonished and angry superiors summoned him back to Britain to face a court-martial. On the American side, Captain William Miller could only attribute his country’s amazing salvation to divine intervention. This evidence of providence in history persuaded the young officer to turn his back on fashionable deism and join a Baptist church. On his farm after the war, Miller helped runaway slaves escape to Canada and studied the Bible every chance he got. Undeterred by his lack of training in biblical studies and ignorance of Hebrew and Greek, he applied a mixture of ingenuity

10. James Moorhead, World Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things (Bloomington, 1999), 2.

11. Quoted in Sidney Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York, 1963), 90.

and common sense to the task, dignified in Protestant tradition, of individual interpretation of scripture. Daniel 8:14 gave him his key to predicting the future: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller read “days” to mean years and the cleansing of the sanctuary to mean the Second Coming of Christ to judge the world. His calculations convinced him that this Advent would occur sometime between March 1843 and April 1844.12 Although shy and lacking any natural charisma, Miller experienced a calling from God to share his breathtaking news with the world and began to preach it in 1831, when the pudgy farmer was almost fifty years old.

Miller’s message of premillennialism seemed to have nothing going for it save his naive earnestness, but it resonated with a powerful strand in Anglo-American culture. The popularity of postmillennialism proved quite compatible with consideration for premillennial proposals. Indeed, the respect accorded millennialism in general predisposed people to take premillennialism (also called millenarianism) seriously. Expectations of Christ’s imminent miraculous return by no means appealed solely to the unlettered. Prominent intellectuals like Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, and John Livingston, president of Rutgers, shared them. In 1827, a conference at Albury Park in England, attended by many leading clerics and respectable laymen, applied methods of calculation similar to Miller’s and concluded that the judgment day was close at hand.13

Miller reached a large audience once his publicity was taken over by Joshua Himes, a minister and social reformer who made use of the new means of communication to spread the millennial warning. Millions of pages of Millerite tracts were distributed; camp meetings in an enormous but portable tent attracted a total of half a million auditors in the three summers of 1842–44. Millerite preaching prominently featured laypeople; the movement especially encouraged women to speak in public. Many evangelical clergy gladly accorded Miller’s views a hearing because he shook people up and interested them in religion. The Millerites, like many other American millenarians, combined their “ideological archaism” with “organizational modernity.”14 When newspapers published elaborate refutations of Miller, as the New York Tribune did on March 2,

12. The Millerite calculations are contextualized and explained in Paul Conkin, American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity (Chapel Hill, 1997), 111–21.

13. Ernest Sandeen, Roots of Fundamentalism (Chicago, 1970), 18–20.

14. Catherine Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill, 1998), 318–29. Quotation from Michael Barkun, Crucible of the Millennium (Syracuse, N.Y., 1986), 128.

1843, it brought him still more attention. By then Miller and Himes had anywhere from twenty-five to fifty thousand Americans, mostly in New England and upstate New York, thoroughly convinced and a much larger number hedging their bets; Millerism also won converts in Britain. Sociological theory long held that persons attracted to millenarian causes would be the marginalized and despairing, looking for compensatory consolation. The historians who have studied William Miller’s Adventist movement, however, are unanimous in concluding that it was made up of average rural and small-town Americans, the solid middle class and respectable working class, a few blacks along with whites, generally coming from an evangelical background, usually Baptist or Methodist.15

When the target year expired on April 18, Miller publicly apologized for his evident mistake. But his followers were not all ready to give in. One of them, Samuel Snow, recalculated and decided that the correct day for Christ’s return would be the next Jewish Day of Atonement: October 22, 1844. (Snow used the ancient Jewish calendar of the Karaite sect, thinking it the one Daniel had used, not the calendar of modern mainstream Judaism.)16 Miller had never been willing to pinpoint a specific day, but eventually he went along with Snow’s prediction because it aroused so much renewed enthusiasm among his followers.

How would people behave if they were convinced the world was coming to an end on a known day only months away? In 1844, many paid their debts, quit their jobs, closed their businesses, left their crops unharvested in the fields. Some who felt guilty about past frauds and cheats turned over money to banks or the U.S. Treasury. Others simply gave away money, keeping no accounting of it. There was a rush to get baptized. On the appointed night, thousands gathered in many locations outdoors to watch the sky. But Jesus did not appear to them, and October 22 became known among Adventists as “the Great Disappointment.” The legend that Miller’s people had donned ascension robes for the occasion was one of many humiliations heaped on the Adventists over the next year by a laughing public that had not quite dared risk scorning them until after the fact.17

15. See David Rowe, “Millerites,” in The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism, ed. Ronald Numbers and Jonathan Butler (Bloomington, 1987), 1–15; Richard Rogers, “Millennialism and American Culture,” Comparative Social Research 13 (1991): 105–36. Estimating the number of Miller’s followers is very difficult because they did not yet belong to a separate denomination.

16. Conkin, American Originals, 121.

17. See Everett Dick, “The Millerite Movement,” in Adventism in America, ed. Gary Land (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986), 1–35.

William Miller had never formed a denomination while expecting Christ in 1843, for there would have been no point in any long-term planning. But after the Great Disappointment his followers, many of them expelled from their previous churches, kept their movement alive by differentiating themselves more sharply from mainline evangelicalism. The largest group organized as the Seventh-Day Adventists, under the new leadership of Joseph Bates, who declared Sunday observance an unwarranted innovation and restored the Jewish Sabbath, and Ellen Harmon White, an inspired visionary who instituted dietary reforms opposing tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and meat. The denomination reinterpreted Daniel’s prophecy and decided that Christ had entered a new “heavenly sanctuary” on October 22, 1844, in preparation for an early but unspecified return to earth. In the Civil War and subsequent conflicts its members have been conscientious objectors. Miller himself never got over his great embarrassment and retired quietly, but the Seventh-Day Adventists survive to this day.18


While the postmillennial mainstream of American Protestantism identified the whole country as God’s new Israel and a model for the other nations, a host of sectarian movements proclaimed their own little communities as examples to mankind. Scholars call these exemplary planned communities “utopias,” a term that does not necessarily have a derogatory connotation, although Marx and Engels used it disparagingly to distinguish “utopian” socialism from their own allegedly “scientific” socialism. In the early republic, many utopian communities flourished, religious and secular, imported and native, each struggling to demonstrate the millennium, literal or figurative, here and now. As one utopian participant put it in 1844: “Our ulterior aim is nothing less than Heaven on Earth.”19

We would err to dismiss these aspirations as a trivial, lunatic fringe. In a time of rapidly changing means of communication and systems of production, when everything from race relations to banking practices came under challenge, there was no sharp distinction between the mainstream and the marginal. The utopians simply carried even further the perfectionism that mainstream evangelists like Charles Finney preached. Typically, they did not so much reject American society as wish to elaborate

18. For their later history, see Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic (Knoxville, Tenn., 2001).

19. Charles Dana, quoted in Barkun, Crucible of the Millennium, 67.

upon it, to carry its innovative qualities to extremes. Their communities attracted attention out of all proportion to their size. Contemporaries took the communities seriously, whether they sympathized with them or not, as potential alternatives for religious, social, and economic life. Of particular interest are the ways the communities addressed gender issues before there was a women’s movement addressing them in the world at large. Collectively, the communities underscore the experimental nature of American life, its idealism and ambition, its independence from the givens of custom and tradition.

Once again, the story begins with cotton. Robert Owen, a self-made man from Wales, gained a fortune operating cotton textile mills in the mushrooming industrial city of Manchester, England. In 1800, he moved to Scotland and undertook to make a mill town called New Lanark an example of industrial efficiency. A thoroughgoing Enlightenment rationalist who took the technological progress of the age as his analogy, Owen felt confident he knew how to reshape social relations. Such optimism, of course, was not peculiar to freethinkers in that age but shared by many varieties of Christians.

On New Year’s Day 1816, Owen proposed a model community of no more than twenty-five hundred people that could serve as an example to Britain and the world. Each community would be self-governing and hold its property in common. Within its environment a new human nature could be created: healthy, rational, and tolerant. Owen propagated his ideas through a journal appropriately entitled The New Moral World. When his Christian wife, Ann Dale Owen, pointed out the analogy between his new moral world and that of the Christian millennium, Robert took to quoting scripture on behalf of his ideas and warning that the end of the existing commercial world was imminent. His own version of behavioral science he labeled “the Great Truth,” acceptance of which would constitute the coming of “the Messiah.”20

As if in imitation of the seventeenth-century Puritans, European visionaries continued to come to America to implement their millennial aspirations. One of these was Robert Owen. At first the American press accorded him a favorable reception. As a successful industrialist, Owen enjoyed credibility; his goal of reaping the advantages of the industrial revolution without its accompanying misery was generally shared. When Owen arrived in the United States in 1824, he met not only starry-eyed reformers but President Monroe, ex-presidents Jefferson and Madison,

20. J.F.C. Harrison, Quest for the New Moral World (New York, 1969), 84, 92–102.

DeWitt Clinton, Justice Joseph Story, New York and Philadelphia society, and the chiefs of the Chickasaw and Choctaw. In February 1825, he delivered, by special permission, two public lectures in the U.S. Capitol, both attended by president-elect Adams. After moving into the White House, Adams put on display there a six-foot-square architectural model of Owen’s ideal community—also displaying by implication his own sympathies for social engineering.21 Only after Owen publicly confessed his disbelief in the scriptures and denounced the institution of marriage did he put himself beyond the pale of acceptable American opinion.

Robert Owen’s community of New Harmony, Indiana, begun in 1825, lasted only two years. In it not only work but also recreation and meditation were communal and regimented. “I am come to this country,” Owen announced upon his arrival, “to introduce an entire new system of society; to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one and remove all causes for contest between individuals.”22 But Owen and his aides made no attempt to match the training of their prospective members with what a frontier community needed to make itself self-supporting; they ended up with many intellectuals and freeloaders but not enough skilled workers. Owen’s community never reconciled his paternalist control with its goals of rational self-determination, and its members never developed much sense of commitment. Owen collectivized cooking, child care, and other domestic work, all still assigned to the women; in practice, the women members experienced his program as an unwelcome imposition. The most viable aspect of New Harmony turned out to be its school, run by the geologist William Maclure, which continued to function and serve as a model into the 1840s. The workingmen’s library that Maclure founded still survives in New Harmony, Indiana.23

Robert Owen soon returned to Britain, there to attempt other communal utopias, none of which lasted long. In the United States, eighteen other utopian experiments drew in varying degrees upon Owenite principles; the last one, Modern Times, on Long Island, closed in 1863. Owen’s talented sons and daughters (the most famous being Robert Dale Owen) remained in the United States, became citizens, and continued into the next generation their father’s secular humanitarianism, active in such

21. Donald Pitzer, “The New Moral World of Robert Owen,” in America’s Communal Utopias, ed. Donald Pitzer (Chapel Hill, 1997), 96.

22. Quoted in Mark Holloway, Heavens on Earth (London, 1951), 104.

23. Carol Kolmerten, Women in Utopia (Bloomington, 1990), 90–101; Arthur Bestor, Backwoods Utopias (Philadelphia, 1970), 199–200.

fields as public education, women’s rights, and birth control. Owenism provided a welcome alternative ideology to religion for embattled American freethinkers like Abner Kneeland and the feminist Ernestine Rose. Invoking the paternalist side of Owenism, Jefferson Davis’s older brother Joseph applied the Welshman’s principles of scientific management to slaves on his plantation at Davis Bend, Mississippi, and succeeded admirably in maximizing production.24 In Britain, where Owen’s followers invented the term “socialism” in 1827, his movement became one of the precursors of the Labour Party.

In the 1840s, another form of utopian socialism attracted even more widespread interest in the United States: the Associationism of Albert Brisbane. Brisbane was an American disciple of the French social theorist Charles Fourier. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Fourier had become disillusioned with the inefficiencies and conflicting interests characteristic of competitive commerce. He believed he had found the solution in collectivism practiced on a small scale: planned communities called “phalanxes,” each of exactly 1,620 people, representing all occupations, living on six thousand acres of land. There, work would be fulfilling as well as socially useful. The Frenchman’s meticulous plan sought to match jobs with aptitudes—for example, since children like to play in dirt, he reasoned, they should be the trash collectors. A few such communities, once established, would set so compelling an example that they would gradually convert the rest of world. In this pre-Marxian vision, socialism would be achieved without revolution or violence.

Brisbane adapted Fourier’s scheme for an American audience, carefully avoiding Owen’s mistake of attacking religion and marriage. He presented the phalanx as an example of applied Christianity. It would not be necessary to ban private property; each member of the phalanx would own shares in it and participate in its profits. Brisbane was willing to experiment with phalanxes of only a few hundred people. His program was as much about town planning as about the redistribution of wealth. At present, Brisbane remarked, “there is no adaptation of architecture to our wants and requirements; our houses are as little suited to our physical welfare, as our social laws are to our attractions and passions.” To remedy this, Associationist architects planned to bring members of the phalanx together in central buildings, called “phalansteries,” with generous communal spaces.25

24. Janet Hermann, Pursuit of a Dream (New York, 1981), 3–34.

25. Quotation from Albert Brisbane, The Social Destiny of Man (Philadelphia, 1840), 78. See also Dolores Hayden, Seven American Utopias (Cambridge, Mass., 1981).

In all, some twenty-eight phalanxes were established in the antebellum United States. Unlike Owen’s New Harmony, they successfully recruited displaced artisans, though they did not get enough farmers. In 1843, Associationism became an even more widespread popular fad than Adventism, reflecting prevalent working-class discontent during economic hard times. Brisbane and other national publicists for the movement never controlled it; to their dismay phalanxes sprang up spontaneously. Associationism was mainly a northern phenomenon, although two Louisiana utopians conceived of gradual emancipation with the freedpeople living in Fourierist communities—plans of course never implemented. But grassroots enthusiasm proved no substitute for investment capital and careful planning. Like New Harmony, the phalanxes assembled too hastily. They over-promised quick material results, could not sustain a common identity, and suffered from internal schisms. None endured more than a dozen years. Their members, never very isolated from the American mainstream, readily reentered it as prosperity returned and the job market improved.26

The intellectual influence of Fourier and Brisbane outlasted the cooperative communities that invoked their name. Though now forgotten, Fourierism, like Owenism, exerted an effect upon American social thinkers throughout the nineteenth century. Horace Greeley, the political journalist and founder of the planned community of Greeley, Colorado, the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the city planner Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, and the utopian novelist Edward Bellamy illustrate the diversity of Associationism’s impact. The cooperative movement, initiated by Brisbane, remains another part of his legacy, one still visible.27

The interest aroused by communitarian social experiments in the United States on the eve of the industrial revolution revealed something about the mood and temper of the American public, its willingness to entertain a broad range of social and economic possibilities. The seeming boundlessness of America’s prospects and the open-mindedness of its people encouraged the formation of big plans of all kinds, whether for an integrated transportation network, African colonization, utopian communities, or the Second Coming of Christ. Yet the very illimitability and openness of the society that accorded such plans a hearing made it difficult in the last analysis to impose them—as Albert Gallatin, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay learned, as well as Robert Owen. “The tendency of American

26. See Carl Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, N.Y., 1991), esp. 176–77, 264.

27. Carl Guarneri, “Brook Farm and the Fourierist Phalanxes,” in Pitzer, America’s Communal Utopias, 174.

conditions, as well as the inclination of its people, was for diffusion rather than discipline, toward self-determination and away from supervision, however benign,” the historian Daniel Feller has observed.28

Utopian communities founded for religious motives tended to last longer than secular ones. Like the secular communities, they often addressed issues of particular concern to women. One movement followed a former Quaker named Ann Lee, a charismatic visionary who came to America from England in 1774. Mother Ann’s followers worshipped her as a second incarnation of Christ; as Jesus had been the Son of God, Ann was the Daughter. God the Father they reinterpreted as both Father and Mother. Members called themselves “the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing” but are better known as the Shakers, from a famous ritual dance they performed. In keeping with their theology of gender equality and androgyny, the Shakers adopted a kind of ascetic feminism and accorded leadership positions to women equally with men.29 Like many millennial sectarians, the Shakers rejected mainstream culture and isolated themselves from “the world.” They practiced celibacy to purge themselves from sin in preparation for the end of the world and relied on converts to propagate their sect. (They did, however, adopt orphans and rear them in their communities.)

The Shakers would attend camp meetings organized by more conventional evangelicals and seize the opportunity to spread their own gospel among rural Christians. Mother Ann had been illiterate, but by 1823 her followers and successors had embraced the written word with formal organization and theology, their lives governed by 125 “Millennial Laws.” In that year there were something over four thousand Believers scattered among nineteen villages stretching from Maine to western Kentucky.30 Although Shaker villages were not without their rivalries and strifes, overall their cohesion and commitment contrast markedly with the bickering and evanescence of the Owenite communes. More than twenty thousand Americans have been Shakers at one time or another, some of whom found a spiritual and material security that seemed a “heaven on earth.”31

While taking economic self-sufficiency as their goal, in practice the Shakers marketed seeds, crops, and handicrafts to buy things they could

28. Feller, Jacksonian Promise, 83.

29. See J.F.C. Harrison, The Second Coming (New Brunswick, N.J., 1979), 164–76; Suzanne Thurman, “O Sisters Ain’t You Happy?” Gender, Family and Community Among the Shakers (Syracuse, N.Y., 2002).

30. Stephen Stein, The Shaker Experience in America (New Haven, 1992), 87–89, 114.

31. Priscilla Brewer, Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives (Hanover, N.H., 1986), 203.

not produce themselves. Through hard work and simple living, Shaker villages accumulated considerable property, much as medieval monastic communities did. The Believers consistently welcomed new technology and employed it, for example, in their mills. The buildings and furniture they made have endured as masterpieces of American folk art.

Central to Shaker doctrine and life was the notion of “gift”—a divinely given talent or revelatory insight. The song “Simple Gifts,” probably composed by the Shaker Joseph Brackett in 1848 and sung in the quick tempo of Shaker dances, was borrowed by Aaron Copland in the twentieth century for his Appalachian Spring suite.

’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d

To turn, turn, will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.32

Few of the orphans adopted by the Shakers chose to remain in the community upon adulthood, and after the Civil War the society commenced a long, slow decline in numbers. The movement had always attracted more female than male members; by 1900, three-quarters of the surviving Shakers were women. At the beginning of the twenty-first century a handful of practicing Shakers still inhabited their one remaining village of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, their culture if not their theology revered by the American society that their predecessors sought to escape.

Similar to the Shakers in some ways were several pietistic religious communities that migrated from Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1804, George Rapp arrived in America with six hundred followers who had separated from the established Lutheran Church of Württemberg during the German counterpart to the Great Awakening in America. Peasants and artisans well suited to the pioneer life, thirty miles north of Pittsburgh they set up a community called Harmony. There they practiced celibacy, farmed their property in common, and enjoyed the music of their German band, while their premillennialist leader tried to calculate the date of the Second Coming of Christ with reference to biblical prophecies. He expected it soon. In 1814, Rapp led his people into Indiana, where, on the banks of the Wabash River, they built another community

32. Stein, Shaker Experience, 190–91.

also called Harmony. Rapp sold the land and improvements at this New Harmony to Robert Owen in 1824 and went back to Pennsylvania, where his faithful followers built still another village, this time named Economy. Rapp was much surprised to die in 1847 without having led his people into the millennial kingdom. The Rappites continued to prosper greatly in financial terms, making donations to other millennial communities, including the Shakers and Mormons, and pioneering the Pennsylvania petroleum industry. But, having ceased to recruit new members, their celibate community died out at the end of the nineteenth century.33

The experience of several other communitarian colonies of German pietists in America roughly paralleled that of the Rappites. One group that has survived to the present, however, is the Amana Society, or the Community of the True Inspiration. Drawn from much the same social base as other German pietists, the Inspirationists did not have a tradition of authoritarian leadership, although they accepted the teachings of Werkzeuge, who were men and women inspired by the Holy Spirit. Beginning in 1843, about seven hundred Inspirationists migrated from Hesse to western New York state, where they established a colony called Ebenezer. In the 1850s, as their numbers swelled with additional immigrants, they found more room by moving to southeastern Iowa. There they live to this day in seven villages known collectively as the Amana Colonies (the name Amana comes from the Song of Solomon). Not celibate as the Shakers and Rappites were, the Inspirationists obeyed until 1932 the law of “all things in common,” following the example of the primitive Christian church recorded in the New Testament (Acts 2:44 and 4:32). Today the Amanans continue the practice of their religion with very little change. Their temporal affairs prosper through a balanced combination of agriculture, tourism, and the manufacture of Amana refrigerators.34

Most of the many communities of German pietists who came to the young American republic practiced versions of Lutheranism and did not hold their property in common. They thus contributed to the enormous growth of Lutheranism in many varieties throughout the United States but especially in the Midwest. One group of six hundred, fleeing from Saxony to St. Louis in 1838, became the origin of what is now a large and separate denomination. Their migration occurred under the leadership of Martin Stephan of Dresden, a charismatic preacher and critic of the established

33. Karl Arndt, “George Rapp’s Harmony Society,” in Pitzer, America’s Communal Utopias, 57–87.

34. Jonathan Andelson, “The Community of True Inspiration from Germany to the Amana Colonies,” ibid., 181–203.

Lutheran Church in Saxony. Stephan had to be deposed shortly after arrival in America for misappropriations of both money and women; his dismayed community might well have returned to Germany if there had been any funds left to pay their way. Instead they found a new pastor, C.F.W. Walther, under whose forceful leadership the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod was organized in 1847. Religious services remained in German until the First World War. Walther’s durable dedication to vested authority, the historic creeds of Lutheranism, and the verbal inerrancy of the Bible gave Missouri Synod Lutheranism a distinctive character it has never lost.35

Catholic monasticism, the oldest form of religious communal life, also appeared in a still predominantly Protestant America. The parallels with other communitarian movements were considerable, including celibacy, self-discipline, and the rejection of worldly selfishness for alternative lifestyles. In Europe, the early nineteenth century marked a low point in Catholic monasticism, for the Henrician Reformation in England and the Napoleonic era on the Continent had suppressed hundreds of religious houses. Antebellum America represented an opportunity for the orders to begin a comeback. By 1830, eleven Roman Catholic communities functioned in the United States, with women’s orders more prominent than men’s. As they had in founding Protestant communes, German immigrants played a prominent role in American Catholic monasticism, particularly among the Benedictines. However, one order of nuns was founded by a noteworthy American-born woman, Elizabeth Seton, the first citizen of the republic to be canonized as a saint. Well educated, a widow with five children, and a convert from High Church Episcopalianism, Seton had honed her leadership skills in a Protestant benevolent association whose mission she understood at first hand, the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. Mother Seton won the approval of Archbishop John Carroll for the Sisters of Charity in 1812 and ran their convent in Emmitsburg, Maryland, until her death in 1821. Fund-raising, managing a legal corporation, running a school, and combining charity with remunerative work, the sisters nurtured Catholic female talents in somewhat the same way that voluntary associations did among Protestants. The life of Mother Seton’s male counterpart, Isaac Hecker, illustrated the parallel between utopian communities and Catholic religious orders. A former participant in the Brook Farm community during the period in 1843 when it was adopting Fourierist principles, Hecker converted to Catholicism in 1844, retained his concern with the nurture of community

35. See Mary Todd, Authority Vested: Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2000).

in American society, and founded in 1858 the Paulist Fathers, the first American-based order of priests.36

Both pre- and postmillennial Christians have typically been interested in the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land, since that is one of the events prophesied as heralding the Second Coming.37 One of the early Jewish Zionists, Mordecai Manuel Noah, took advantage of sympathy among American Christians in his call for Jews from all over the world to come establish a community in western New York state. He issued his “proclamation to the Jews” in September 1825 at a ceremony in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Buffalo. Noah hoped to create a Zionist haven named Ararat on Grand Island in the Niagara River, where Jews might study agriculture and plan the recovery of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. European Jewish opinion was not prepared to entertain his plan, however. Noah resumed his career as newspaper editor and playwright, but he never abandoned his faith in the restoration of the Chosen People to their promised land.38 Several Jewish agricultural colonies were actually established in the United States prior to the massive Jewish immigration from the tsarist lands in the 1880s. In 1846 Isaac Mayer Wise came from Bohemia to the United States, where he developed in the ensuing years not only the Reform Movement of Judaism but also a kind of Enlightenment millennialism, envisioning roles for both the Jews of the Diaspora and a democratic America in hastening a messianic age to benefit all humanity.

Meanwhile, a down-and-out former carpenter named Robert Matthews, impressed by Mordecai Noah’s Zionism, had decided that he himself must be Jewish too and adopted the role of Prophet Matthias, Spirit of Truth. In the 1830s, he attracted a band of followers (rich and poor, white and black, but all gentiles) with a message featuring millenarianism, female subordination, and professed affinity with the Jews. The commune disintegrated when its leader, after several sensational trials (he won acquittal on a murder charge), went to jail for beating his daughter. The prophet’s bizarre career may have inspired Herman Melville to write The Confidence-Man.39

36. On Seton, see Ann Boylan, The Origins of Women’s Activism (Chapel Hill, 2002), 101–9, 118–24; Kathleen D. McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society (Chicago, 2003), 68–74. For Hecker, see Hecker Studies, ed. John Farina (New York, 1983).

37. See Sandeen, Roots of Fundamentalism, 9–13.

38. “Ararat Proclamation and Speech” (1825); “Discourse on the Restoration of the Jews” (1844), “Address to Aid in the Erection of the Temple at Jerusalem” (1849), in Selected Writings of Mordecai Noah, ed. Michael Schuldiner and Daniel Kleinfeld (Westport, Conn., 1999), 105–59.

39. See Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias (New York, 1994).

One of the most radical and yet surprisingly successful of utopias in antebellum America was the “Perfectionist” community established by John Humphrey Noyes in the 1840s. Noyes’s career illustrates the smooth continuum between mainstream evangelical reform and utopianism. The son of a U.S. congressman, converted by Charles Finney in 1831, young Noyes felt called to the ministry and trained at Andover Theological Seminary and Yale. He elaborated Finney’s perfectionist doctrine and claimed a state of “perfection” for himself, provoking revocation of his preaching license in 1834. Now on his own theologically, Noyes developed a distinctive theory of eschatology. Christ’s Second Coming had occurred already, he decided, back in A.D. 70, during the lifetime of some of the original disciples. The overdue Kingdom of God could be established if only a few committed Christians with a “perfected” outlook would set the right example. Noyes studied the Owenites, the Associationists, and the Shakers to learn from their experiments. By 1841, he had collected a small group of his own followers in Putney, Vermont. When William Miller came preaching his own version of the millennium, Noyes denounced this rival more emphatically than did the mainstream clergy.40

Noyes’s Perfectionists shared everything: not only their property, which they held in common, but also their spouses. Noyes candidly explained it all in his book, Bible Communism (1848). According to their practice of “complex marriage,” all the men in the Perfectionist community considered themselves husbands to all the women, and each woman the wife of every man. After Noyes was indicted by the state of Vermont for adultery and fornication, he fled to Oneida, New York, followed by thirty-one adults and fourteen children. There for many years the authorities left them alone; antebellum New York tolerated diversity. Noyes’s community soon grew to more than two hundred adults, some of whom contributed substantial property. The Perfectionists required consent of their whole community before any couple engaged in sexual relations, and community consent had to be given again before the conception of children. Noyes insisted on “intelligent, voluntary control over the propagative function.”41 (His publications were among the first public discussions of methods of birth control; another was Moral Physiology [1832] by Robert Dale Owen, a son of Robert Owen.) Perfectionists employed as their method of contraception coitus reservatus, which Noyes called “male

40. Michael Barkun, “John Humphrey Noyes and the Rise of Millerism,” in Numbers and Butler, The Disappointed, 153–72.

41. Quoted in Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1981), 94.

continence.” Experienced older women initiated young men into the practice. As a means of birth control, it evidently worked. “During the community’s first twenty-one years,” writes a scholar who has studied Oneida thoroughly, “an average of only about one accidental pregnancy a year” occurred among its two hundred sexually active members.42 It was the ultimate application of the Victorian virtue of self-control.

Economically Oneida flourished, at first by manufacturing animal traps. The Perfectionists shared their labors and rotated the most unpleasant tasks. The women took to cutting their hair neck-length (short by the standards of the age) and wearing “bloomer garments” (loose trousers under skirts, invented by Amelia Bloomer to allow more freedom of movement than the current fashions). As one of the Perfectionist women expressed it, “We believed we were living under a system which the whole world would sooner or later adopt.”43 But in 1879, responding to both outside pressure and internal dissension, John Humphrey Noyes recommended an end to “complex marriage.” A year later the experiment in economic socialism ended too with the formation of Oneida Community, Ltd., a joint-stock company whose shares were parceled out among the former Bible communists. Oneida silverware remains a highly esteemed product.

Most antebellum utopian communities were not fleeing the industrial revolution. Some (like Owenites and Associationists) explicitly endorsed it, while others (like Shakers and Perfectionists) seized the chance to make whatever use of it they could. The only communities that really did reject industrialization were two German Mennonite sects: the Amish, who had settled in Pennsylvania during colonial times, and the Dakota Hutterites, who came in the 1870s.44 In the eyes of many Americans the mill town of Lowell constituted an industrial utopian community of sorts: a planned and supervised experiment, aspiring to a model role. Still, the most common and popular utopia of all was simply a family farm. There the average white American could enjoy the dignity of a freehold, exchange help with neighbors during stressful seasons, entertain the expectation of a good harvest, and hope to build a competence that would see a couple through old age with something to pass on to their children. By comparison with what was available in Europe, such a place indeed seemed God’s promised land. The openness of the American prospect allowed many groups to try

42. Spencer Klaw, Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community (New York, 1993), 177.

43. Pierrepont Noyes, My Father’s House (New York, 1937), 17.

44. The Amanans are sometimes confused with the Amish and the Hutterites.

their hand at building utopias. But the availability of land for individual cultivators, whether in fact or in popular imagination, undercut the appeal of the more collectivist social planners.


Contemporaries viewed not only utopian communities but all America as an experimental society, an example to the world of popular rule. The United States had the widest suffrage of any nation at that time, and the American expectation of social equality among white men made its example still more emphatically democratic. Even people who would never have accepted the idea that America was God’s favorite nation or destined to play a role in Christ’s Second Coming thought their country performed a special mission as exemplar of freedom. American “exceptionalism,” the term often applied to this role, constituted a secularized version of America’s millennial destiny. Both the religious and the secular versions of American exceptionalism seemed to imply that America was exempt from the kind of history that other nations experienced and had, like ancient Israel, a destiny all its own. “Exceptionalism” is an unfortunate term, however, since if America were thoroughly exceptional, its experience would be irrelevant to other countries. In fact, even during the nineteenth century, when the United States might seem most isolated from the rest of the world, she was part of a global community of peoples who observed each other closely. America showed them how popular sovereignty worked, as Britain showed how the industrial revolution worked.

Americans put on display their self-image as an example to the world when they hosted the sixty-seven-year-old Marquis de Lafayette on his triumphal visit to the United States in 1824-25. At the invitation of President Monroe, the Frenchman who had served as a major general in the Continental Army toured the country, feted everywhere amid mass expressions of national gratitude. A consistently courageous advocate of constitutionalism and human rights against tyrannies of both left and right, Lafayette had sent Washington the key to the Bastille to display at Mount Vernon. All contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic saw him as an emissary of liberal values between New and Old Worlds; Americans regarded him as an agent of their international mission. The president had invited Lafayette in order to affirm his Monroe Doctrine’s defiance of the Holy Alliance and to celebrate his Era of Good Feelings. The event succeeded beyond his dreams.

Eighty thousand people turned out to welcome Lafayette when his ship landed in New York City on August 16, 1824. Congress voted him $200,000 and twenty-three thousand acres of public land where now stands Tallahassee, Florida; Samuel F. B. Morse painted his portrait. When the visitor laid the cornerstone of Bunker Hill Monument in Boston before forty thousand onlookers, Daniel Webster gave one of his great orations. For thirteen months Lafayette traveled about the United States by stagecoach and steamboat, resolutely hewing to his schedule despite swollen rivers and typically poor roads; solicitous, however, of sabbatarian scruples among his hosts, the Frenchman did not travel on Sundays. His boat ran aground in the Ohio River and sank, carrying all his effects and six hundred unanswered letters to the muddy bottom.45

The occasion of Lafayette’s Second Coming evoked rhetoric usually reserved for that of Christ. It had been forty years since the Frenchman last set foot on American soil; now he seemed “like one arisen from the dead.” “Benefactor of the world” and “Redeemer of posterities,” he was termed; “he shed his blood for all mankind!” Speakers repeatedly declared that the real significance of Lafayette’s visit lay in what it showed Americans about themselves and in the opportunity it presented to demonstrate their national virtues to a European audience. “Might the Potentates of Europe but behold this Republican spectacle in America!” called out one welcomer.46 On the occasion of his address to a joint session of Congress, Lafayette offered this toast to the Union: “One day it will save the world.”47 Inspired by his example, a few Americans went off to join the Greeks in their revolution against the Ottoman Empire.

Americans were by no means alone in thinking of their country as an example from which others could learn. Foreign observers also often viewed the United States as an indicator of future developments in their own countries. The German philosopher Hegel called America “the land of the future” and predicted that “in the time to come, the center of world-historical importance will be revealed there.”48 Such an attitude characterized the most famous of all European commentators on America, Lafayette’s fellow countryman and fellow nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831 at the age of twenty-five with his young friend Gustave de Beaumont. The liberal French monarchy of Louis Philippe, interested in reform, had authorized the two to study

45. Anne Loveland, “Lafayette’s Farewell Tour,” in Stanley Idzerda et al., Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds (New York, 1989), 63–90.

46. Quotations from the account of Lafayette’s visit in Fred Somkin, Unquiet Eagle (Ithaca, N.Y., 1967), 131–74.

47. Quoted in Harlow Unger, Lafayette (New York, 2002), 357.

48. G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis, 1988), 90. Hegel died in 1831; this work was first published posthumously in 1840.

American prisons and report back on innovations in penology. Tocqueville secured useful letters of introduction from Lafayette, although the two men were not close and their temperaments differed significantly. Where Lafayette endorsed the American example with the enthusiasm of a partisan, Tocqueville regarded it with the detachment of a born social theorist. He spent less than ten months traveling about the United States and Canada with Beaumont before their government recalled them, yet he returned with a multitude of lessons for the French audience of his generation as well as impressions that have intrigued analysts of American society ever since. “In America I saw more than America,” Tocqueville explained; “I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we [in France] have to fear or to hope from its progress.”49 After he and Beaumont had written up their required report on American prison experiments, Tocqueville turned his attention to an examination of the general subject of democracy as America revealed it. The volumes entitled De la démocratie en Amérique appeared in Paris in 1835 and 1840, with translations published in the United States almost immediately.

What Tocqueville meant by “democracy” was not simply political (“one man, one vote”) but broadly social: “equality of condition.” He considered increasing equality—of dignity, influence, wealth, and political power— an irrepressible tendency in the modern world. In Tocqueville’s own moral system, the highest value was neither democracy nor equality but liberty. Just as aristocratic regimes had sometimes interfered with liberty, he worried that democracies might do so too, in their own ways. He called attention to the danger of “the tyranny of the majority,” by which he meant not only overt repression but also conformity of opinion. Accordingly, he took special interest in how liberty of thought and action could be preserved within a democratic order. He hoped American institutions of local government might provide one means of achieving this. A lawyer and magistrate who regarded respect for the law as a bulwark of liberty, he rejoiced in the unique power of the judiciary in the United States and called the legal profession “the American aristocracy.” The prevalence and freedom of the printed media impressed him; “there is scarcely a hamlet that has not its newspaper,” he marveled. He praised the post roads, which he saw kept the citizenry informed and helped consolidate the Union.50

49. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley, trans. Henry Reeve and Francis Bowen (New York, 1945), I, 14.

50. Ibid., 3, 258, 278, 186, 404–5.

Above all, Tocqueville recognized the crucial importance of America’s numerous and diverse voluntary associations. They mediated between the individual and mass society; they provided opportunities for self-improvement and civic involvement; they could influence public opinion and public policy. The most prominent voluntary associations, of course, were the churches. This struck Tocqueville forcibly, as it usually did foreign visitors, for it contrasted with the European tradition of church establishment. As a consequence European religions generally allied with conservatism and social privilege. By contrast, American churches manifested American freedom. “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds,” he noted, “that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.”51 As a Catholic liberal, Tocqueville welcomed the American religious situation and used it to argue that European liberals should not assume religion their adversary.

Tocqueville was very quick to generalize from his experiences, and for all his insight, his interpretations have their limitations. In praising America’s strong traditions of local self-government, he seemed not to notice how often local democracy tyrannized individuals. An aristocrat himself, he saw more of elite and middle-class life than of the working classes. His impression that wealth exerted minimal influence in American politics probably derived from uncritical acceptance of the complaints of wealthy informants. Though he never freed himself from his European perspective, Tocqueville shared the belief of most Americans that the growth of the Great Democracy was “a providential event,” in which he detected “the hand of God.”52 Unlike those of many other foreign commentators, his writings were well received in the United States—particularly by the critics of President Jackson, who could read with grim satisfaction Tocqueville’s characterization of him as “a man of violent temper and very moderate talents.”53

Tocqueville’s traveling companion Beaumont also wrote a book upon returning to France: a novel called Marie, a searing indictment of American racism, focused not on the South but on the North. Though it sold well in France, sadly the book had no impact in the United States, probably because it dealt with the sensitive subject of interracial marriage; it was not even translated into English until 1958.54

51. Ibid., 306.

52. Ibid., 398. Tocqueville admired the Puritan millennial historian Cotton Mather (ibid., II, 345–48).

53. Ibid., I, 289.

54. Gustave de Beaumont, Marie, trans. Barbara Chapman (Stanford, 1958); see also Louis Masur, 1831 (New York, 2001), 40–46.

Several of the most interesting and widely read foreign observers of the United States were women, a circumstance all the more remarkable in view of the fact that single women travelers were so unusual that few inns were set up to accommodate them. Harriet Martineau, an earnest, inquiring Englishwoman mocked for her intellectuality and the ear trumpet that mitigated her deafness, has been called “the first woman sociologist.” She spent almost two years in the United States in 1834–36, longer than Tocqueville, and saw more of the country and a greater variety of its people. Her social background in the provincial bourgeoisie was less alien to America than Tocqueville’s noble birth. “Miss Martineau,” as she was always called, had an eye for picturesque detail. Her three-volume work Society in America (1837), supplemented with the anecdotal Retrospect of Western Travel (1838), contains more empirical data than Tocqueville provided, along with no less interest in generalizations. She paid more attention than he did to such important topics as transportation and education, as well as to the groups she called “sufferers,” such as the insane, the handicapped, and the poor.55 Like Tocqueville, however, she wrote primarily for an audience in her home country and used America as an example instructive to them. A “radical” as that term was then used in England and one of the early feminists, Martineau strongly sympathized with America’s avowed principles of liberty and equality. Where democracy to Tocqueville was a practical inevitability, to her it was a moral imperative. She criticized the United States for not living up to its ideals, in particular in its oppression of black people and in the “political nonexistence” of women.56 She therefore rendered a mixed verdict in the end: Americans “have realized many things for which the rest of the world is still struggling,” yet “the civilization and the morals of the Americans fall far below their own principles.”57

Harriet Martineau typified a class of reformist foreign visitors who tried to help America improve, not only for its own sake but also because it could then provide a better model for their home countries. A more extreme example of the type was the Scotswoman Frances Wright. Tall, striking, and self-confident, Wright first visited the United States in 1818 at the age of twenty-three. Out of her travels came a book entitled Views of Society and Manners in America (1820), an idealized portrayal of the country as a radical’s utopia. The work brought her to the attention of

55. Harriet Martineau, Society in America (London, 1837), III, 179–205.

56. Ibid., I, 193–207.

57. Ibid., III, 299–300.

Lafayette, and in 1821 she journeyed to France to meet him. Young enough to be his granddaughter, Fanny quickly formed an emotionally intense relationship with the widowed elder statesman; rumor had her his mistress.58 When Lafayette left for America in 1824, Wright followed him. But when the marquis returned to France, she stayed in the United States with the intention of making it an even better model society. Wright had become involved in antislavery and in Robert Owen’s communal experimentation in Indiana. She hit upon a plan to start an Owenite commune in the South, staffing it with slaves. The profits it earned would pay off the masters, the freedpeople would be learning skills, and eventually they could go off to establish other Owenite communities. Lafayette broached the subject to Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson. Madison and Jackson warned that it all depended on southern “collaboration”; Jefferson declined to participate.59

In 1825, Wright published a pamphlet describing her Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South, hoping to elicit federal aid and private contributions. With her own money she purchased a few second-rate acres at Nashoba, Tennessee. Leaving nine adult slaves and some children there under the direction of an untrained overseer, she departed for Britain to fund-raise. In 1827, Wright returned to Nashoba, bringing not money but a friend named Frances Trollope. The wife of an ineffectual country gentleman, Trollope had fallen for Fanny Wright’s exaggerated promises of an idyllic plantation life. Upon arrival, “one glance sufficed to convince me that every idea I had formed of the place was as far as possible from the truth,” Trollope later wrote. “Desolation was the only feeling” inspired by Nashoba.60 Wright soon torpedoed whatever chance of success her undercapitalized experiment might have had by endorsing Owenite principles of free love, to which she added an interracial dimension. She left Tennessee for good in 1828; Nashoba’s slaves eventually obtained their freedom in Haiti.

Forgiving her friend Wright for having been blinded by idealism, Frances Trollope headed for Cincinnati to meet her husband. She had heard much of America’s foremost inland city, “its beauty, wealth, and unequaled prosperity,” but found “the flatness of reality” there in 1828 disappointing. She conceived an ambitious plan to make Cincinnati a more

58. For a sensitive analysis of their relationship, see Celia Eckhardt, Fanny Wright: Rebel in America (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 71–77.

59. Lloyd Kramer, Lafayette in Two Worlds (Chapel Hill, 1996), 160–63.

60. Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, ed. Donald Smalley (New York, 1949), 27.

lively, cosmopolitan city by constructing a building something like a modern shopping mall plus cultural center and ballroom, which she called a “Bazaar.” Like many another entrepreneur in America, Frances Trollope found difficulty raising enough capital to realize her grandiose ambition, and her enterprise ended in bankruptcy. But the resourceful Mrs. Trollope recovered her family’s fortunes by writing a successful account of her travels: Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Unlike Martineau and Wright, Trollope felt no sympathy for democracy or equality, and unlike Tocqueville, she wanted Europe to stay clear of them. Her vividly written story sold well in Britain, where it was cited by opponents of Parliamentary Reform, infuriated Americans, and launched the fifty-three-year-old mother of five into a career that included 113 other books—a torrent of print that would be continued by her still more famous novelist son Anthony.

It is easy to put down Frances Trollope as a Tory embittered by her American business failure. But her observations on American manners, confirmed by many other observers foreign and domestic, actually provide a sharply drawn picture of daily life in the young republic. Most observers at the time agreed with her in finding Americans obsessively preoccupied with earning a living and relatively uninterested in leisure activities. Not only Tories but reformers like Martineau and Charles Dickens angered their hosts by complaining of the overwhelmingly commercial tone of American life, the worship of the “almighty dollar.”61 Americans pursued success so avidly they seldom paused to smell the flowers. A kind of raw egotism, unsoftened by sociability, expressed itself in boastful men, demanding women, and loud children. The amiable arts of conversation and cooking were not well cultivated, foreigners complained; Tocqueville found American cuisine “the infancy of the art” and declared one New York dinner he attended “complete barbarism.”62 Despite their relatively broad distribution of prosperity, Americans seemed strangely restless; visitors interpreted the popularity of the rocking chair as one symptom of this restlessness. Another symptom, even more emphatically deplored, was the habit, widespread among males, of chewing tobacco and spitting on the floor. Women found their long dresses caught the spittle, which encouraged them to avoid male company at social events. Chewing tobacco thus reinforced the tendency toward social segregation

61. Dickens’s term: Charles Dickens, American Notes (1842; Boston, 1867), 211.

62. Tocqueville to Abbé Lesueur, May 28, 1831, quoted in George Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York, 1938), 90.

of the sexes, with each gender talking among themselves about their occupations: the men, business and politics; the women, homemaking and children.63

Hypersensitive to foreign opinion, the American public resented any criticism from outsiders, especially women. Even the sympathetic Harriet Martineau found enough faults to render her unpopular in the States. Years later, Mark Twain would declare that “candid Mrs. Trollope” deserved American gratitude for her forthrightness. “She knew her subject well, and she set it forth fairly and squarely.” But his observation, made in Life on the Mississippi, was suppressed.64

An Anglican, Frances Trollope criticized aspects of American religion as well as manners. She disliked the proliferation of religious sects and missed “the advantages of an established church as a sort of headquarters for quiet, unpresuming Christians, who are content to serve faithfully, without insisting upon having each a little separate banner.” After witnessing a religious revival in Cincinnati, she commented that “I think the coarsest comedy ever written would be a less detestable exhibition for the eyes of youth and innocence.”65

Mrs. Trollope concurred with most other foreign visitors, whatever their political or religious views, in deploring American slavery and the hypocrisy that sanctioned it in a land dedicated to freedom. One Englishwoman whose repugnance for slavery affected her life profoundly was the beautiful stage star Fanny Kemble. She married an American named Pierce Butler without realizing that the source of his fortune was a Georgia cotton and rice plantation. Upon her visit to his estate in 1838, what she found distressed her deeply. When she carried slaves’ complaints to their master, he assured her that it was “impossible to believe a single word any of these people said.” But she believed the women who told her they had been impregnated by a former overseer. (The overseer’s wife believed them too: She had them flogged.) Kemble’s revulsion against the slave system and her condemnation of Butler’s part in it led to the couple’s estrangement and eventual divorce, in which her husband, as was customary at the time, gained custody of their two daughters. Fanny Kemble’s frank, unsparing journals of plantation life, published in 1863 in an effort to

63. Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, ed. Daniel Feller (London, 2000), 24; Trollope, Domestic Manners, 16, 18, 58, 421–23.

64. Marcus Cunliffe, “Frances Trollope,” in Abroad in America, ed. Marc Pachter (Reading, Mass., 1976), 40.

65. Trollope, Domestic Manners, 108, 81.

influence British public opinion against the Confederacy, remain a valuable antidote to conventional accounts of planter paternalism.66

American opposition to slavery owed a good deal to encouragement from overseas. Lafayette on his grand tour sometimes used his American platforms to reproach his hosts for their oppression of blacks; in several southern cities the authorities accordingly forbade blacks to attend the rallies in his honor.67 Tocqueville treated the oppression of the nonwhite races as the worst example of the tyranny of the majority. Both he and Lafayette actively opposed slavery in the French overseas empire. The relationship between the British and American antislavery movements was even closer because of their common language, Protestantism, and (often) millennial hopes. The example of the Englishman William Wilberforce, the earnest evangelical Anglican who persuaded Parliament to make the Atlantic slave trade illegal and then went on to attack slavery itself, inspired reformers on both sides of the ocean. Harriet Martineau and her Boston friend Maria Weston Chapman fostered the development of a transatlantic network of antislavery women. British evangelicals like George Thompson visited the United States on antislavery speaking tours; American abolitionists like Frederick Douglass toured Britain raising money. When the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, and the Second French Republic followed suit in 1848, their actions served as encouraging examples to antislavery Americans. This was not the way American exceptionalism was supposed to work; Americans expected to set the example. But on the subject of slavery, white Americans needed foreigners to remind them of the full implications of their country’s millennial aspirations.


“They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me, and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them according to their ungodliness.” So spoke Jesus Christ, reported by a young man in the “burned-over district” of western New York state who claimed to have seen Him in a vision. Christ’s Second Coming, thus ominously proclaimed, would not be long delayed. “Behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father.”68 For Joseph Smith Jr., of Palmyra on the Erie Canal, this vision led

66. Fanny Kemble’s Journals, ed. Catherine Clinton (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), quotation from 111.

67. Somkin, Unquiet Eagle, 170–72.

68. The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean Jessee (Salt Lake City, 1989), I, 7. This record dates from 1832; the vision allegedly occurred in 1820, when Joseph was fifteen years old.

not merely to his personal conversion but to revelations prompting him to found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Jesus was returning “quickly,” then the people of the 1830s were already living in the “latter days” of history. Joseph Smith, like William Miller, felt called to preach an urgent premillennial warning. Smith’s prophecies, however, contained a far more elaborate and novel message than Miller’s calculations.69

Joseph Smith’s background was perfectly ordinary, even humble. He came from a close-knit farming family who had moved to western New York along with thousands of other Vermonters after the disastrously cold and snowy summer of 1816. To feed eight children and make mortgage payments, they pursued the typical strategy of mixing subsistence farming with selling products on the local market; notwithstanding all their hard work, however, the mortgage on their New York farm was foreclosed in 1825. Pressed for cash, Joseph and his father earned some money by advising farmers on the location of buried treasure. The region contains relics of the prehistoric Mound Builders, and local lore, nourishing local hope, encouraged belief that there would be gold among the artifacts. In his divinations, young Joseph employed a “seer-stone,” a form of folk magic that had been common among New Englanders for generations. Such peepstones also helped find lost belongings and identify places to dig wells.70

An angel named Moroni appeared to Joseph in a series of visions beginning in 1823. The angel delivered similar warnings of the Second Coming but also told the youth that at the Hill Cumorah, not far away, was buried a lost scripture inscribed on golden plates in an unknown language known as Reformed Egyptian. Joseph claimed to unearth the golden plates in 1827 and read them by looking through two seer-stones fastened into a breastplate and named Urim and Thummim, which miraculously translated the inscriptions into English. After a while Smith could use one of his own seer-stones instead of the Urim and Thummim to translate. (Meanwhile, across the sea, Jean-François Champollion was deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone, and the news appeared in the American press.)71 Over the next two years, Smith dictated the contents of the plates to a scribe while sitting behind a screen to shield the sacred records from profane eyes. When the translation was complete, the

69. See Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Urbana, Ill., 1993).

70. See John Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology (Cambridge, Eng., 1994), esp. 152–53.

71. Niles’ Register 33 (Dec. 1, 1827): 218.

angel took the golden plates along with the Urim and Thummim away to heaven. In 1830, a printer in Rochester, New York, published The Book of Mormon, with Joseph Smith, Jr. listed on the title page as author.72

The Book of Mormon purports to chronicle the history of an ancient people who once inhabited the American continent. The Nephites, a Hebrew kinship group, made their way to the New World on the eve of the Babylonian captivity. There one branch of the family, the Lamanites, rebelled. As the generations passed, the Nephites and the apostate Lamanites grew into rival nations and fought war after war. The Nephites represented the authentic faith of Israel, had prophets of their own, and were even visited by Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon is named for the prophet Mormon, who recorded much of it. Eventually the wicked Lamanites prevailed, and Nephite civilization, having lost touch with its religious roots, became extinct. The last of the Nephite prophets, a man named Moroni, buried the records of his people after their final battle with the Lamanites, which took place at the Hill Cumorah. Centuries later, this same Moroni, as a resurrected angel, revealed the plates to Joseph Smith. To the Latter-day Saint, this is scripture, a supplement to the Old and New Testaments. To the unbeliever, it is a fantastic tale invented by the imaginative Joseph Smith.

True or not, the Book of Mormon is a powerful epic written on a grand scale with a host of characters, a narrative of human struggle and conflict, of divine intervention, heroic good and atrocious evil, of prophecy, morality, and law. Its narrative structure is complex. The idiom is that of the King James Version, which most Americans assumed to be appropriate for a divine revelation. Although it contains elements that suggest the environment of New York in the 1820s (for example, episodes paralleling the Masonic/Antimasonic controversy), the dominant themes are biblical, prophetic, and patriarchal, not democratic or optimistic. It tells a tragic story, of a people who, though possessed of the true faith, fail in the end. Yet it does not convey a message of despair; God’s will cannot ultimately be frustrated. The Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature, but it has never been accorded the status it deserves, since Mormons deny Joseph Smith’s authorship, and non-Mormons, dismissing the work as a fraud, have been more likely to ridicule than read it.73

72. For Mormon accounts of this, see Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana, Ill., 1984), 43–114; Tyrrel Givens, By the Hand of Mormon (New York, 2002), 19–42. Urim and Thummim are mentioned in the Bible, e.g., Exodus 28:30.

73. The leading Mormon historian Richard Bushman, if I understand him correctly, credits the prophet’s literary skills as well as his divine inspiration; see his Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, 2005), 71–74, 291–92.

In a society where religious doctrine aroused so much interest as western New York in 1830, Smith’s purported revelation was of course subjected to elaborate examination, refutation, and satire. Alexander Campbell, leader of the Christian movement, made serious criticisms; no doubt he recognized Smith as a potential rival because both preached the restoration of authentic New Testament religion and the coming millennium.74 Despite such opposition, by the end of 1830, some two hundred people, including Joseph’s own large family, had been baptized Latter-day Saints, commonly nicknamed “Mormons” from their holy book. Their tall, magnetic young leader, styled “Joseph the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” as well as president of the church, ruled his little community firmly. He combined personal charisma with a talent for organizational innovation. He cast out devils and cured the sick. He continued to receive revelations from God (sometimes using a seer-stone) that amplified what was in the Book of Mormon and provided guidance to the faithful; these the LDS Church has codified as their Doctrine and Covenants.

Under the prophet’s guidance, in 1831 the Saints moved into the Western Reserve area of northeastern Ohio, to a town called Kirtland. There Sidney Rigdon, a Campbellite millenarian minister influenced by Robert Owen, had converted to Mormonism along with members of his local utopian socialist community. In Kirtland the Mormon church set up a communal experiment of its own under a Law of Consecration, holding property given to it by the members. (Joseph and his wife Emma had lived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, former hometown of the Rappite millennial community.) Converts swelled the ranks of the LDS Church; by 1835 they may have numbered four thousand, half of them in Kirtland.

Joseph Smith was winning followers in the same time and region as Charles Finney, but while Finney’s converts tended to be from the middle class, early Mormons usually came from among small farmers and the small-town working class. Although it is tempting to try to fit them into theories about premillennialism appealing to the disinherited of this world, the first generation of Mormons were actually defined more by their culture than by socioeconomic attributes. They tended to be people of New England birth or heritage, carrying the cultural baggage of folk Puritanism (as distinguished from Calvinist theology): communalism, chiliasm, identification with ancient Israel, and the practice of magic. Often they had been involved in other Christian restorationist movements, but

74. Alexander Campbell, Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon (Boston, 1832), with a preface by Joshua Himes, William Miller’s future promoter. Another influential early critique was Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [sic] (Painesville, Ohio, 1834).

no particular denominational background predominated. The prophet and his followers perpetuated traditions of a culture, Richard Bushman explains, “in which the sacred and the profane intermingled and the Saints enjoyed supernatural gifts and powers as the frequent blessing of an interested God.”75 Many people shared this culture, among them some jealous neighbors who tried to steal Smith’s golden plates. Seeking to build a new Zion, Mormon missionaries claimed to be “looking for the blood of Israel”: They assumed their converts would be descended from one of the tribes of Israel. They meant it literally, but one may also see “the blood of Israel” as a graphic, physical metaphor for the inherited biblical cosmology that predisposed converts to accept the Mormon gospel.

For all its affinities with Yankee folk culture, in years to come Mormonism proved able to reach out to even wider audiences. Like the prophet himself, many converts were young males who had moved repeatedly.76 Some, including the Smith family members, had been religious “seekers” unattached or only marginally attached to any organized congregation. To rootless people confronting a bewildering diversity of sects and movements on offer, or to those of any background who felt spiritually starved, Mormonism presented itself as an authoritative and authoritarian solution. Within a few years, Mormon missionaries took their gospel successfully across the Atlantic to the working classes of Britain and Scandinavia.

The Mormons did not passively await Christ’s millennial kingdom but worked to prepare for it. Their brand of premillennialism was as activist as any postmillennialism, and even more certain of a special millennial role for America. Prophet Joseph dispatched missionaries to western Missouri to convert the Indians as part of his plan to create a Mormon haven there, a New World counterpart to the Old World Jerusalem, where the Saints could gather and await the Second Coming in security. He called this American haven “Zion” and applied the biblical prophecies relating to Zion to it. The Mormons embraced a particularly extreme version of American exceptionalism.

Smith’s missionaries to the Indians received a warm welcome from the Delaware tribe, especially when they promised that restoration of Native lands formed part of God’s plan along with restoration of the Jews to Palestine. But soon the government’s Indian agent expelled the missionaries,

75. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 184; see also Brooke, Refiner’s Fire, and Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City, 1987).

76. See Marvin Hill, “The Rise of Mormonism in the Burned-Over District,” New York History 61 (1980): 411–30, esp. 426–27.

and the prophet decided to rely on white converts to build up Zion in Missouri.77 In the summer of 1831, he and Rigdon journeyed west and consecrated the site for a Zion temple at what is now Independence, Missouri, returning afterwards to Ohio. For the next several years there would be two centers of Mormon settlement, one in Ohio and one in Missouri.

The Book of Mormon never explicitly asserts that the Native Americans of modern times are descended from the Lamanites; however, readers of the book invariably drew that conclusion, and Joseph Smith himself evidently shared it.78 The speculation that American Indians constituted some of the Lost Tribes of Israel had been expressed by many writers over the years and was current in Smith’s milieu. Native Americans themselves sometimes endorsed the Lost Tribes theory of their origins.79 Early Mormons accordingly hoped to convert the Indians—or rather, reconvert them back to the authentic faith their ancestors had known in ancient times. When the Lamanites converted en masse, the Book of Mormon promised, they would once again become a “white and delightsome people” as their Hebrew ancestors had been.80

In February 1833, the prophet received his famous revelation, “the Word of Wisdom,” which came to him after his wife had complained about men smoking and spitting tobacco juice in their house. It enjoined abstinence from “wine or strong drink,” from tobacco, and from “hot drinks” (interpreted to mean tea and coffee). Meat and poultry should be eaten only “sparingly.” The advice was typical of contemporary dietary reform and temperance, but the revelation couched it in poetic biblical eloquence. Saints who followed the rule were promised “health in their navel and marrow in their bones.” They “shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.”81 Originally considered advisory, keeping the Word of

77. St. John Stott, “New Jerusalem Abandoned: The Failure to Carry Mormonism to the Delaware,” Journal of American Studies 21 (1987): 71–85.

78. “The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians,” he declared in a letter to N. C. Saxton, Jan. 4, 1833. Dean Jessee, ed., Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City, 2002), 297.

79. A Methodist Pequot espoused the theory in his 1829 autobiography rpt. as William Apess, On Our Own Ground, ed. Barry Connell (Amherst, Mass., 1992), 53, 74–94. Joseph Smith may have been familiar with Views of the Hebrews; or, The Ten Tribes of Israel in America (Poultney, Vt., 1823), by Ethan Smith (no relation).

80. 2 Nephi 30:6, to employ the Mormon method of citing their scriptures. In 1981, the LDS Church declared that the phrase “white and delightsome” should read “pure and delightsome,” and subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon show it thus.

81. Doctrine and Covenants, sect. 89, verses 18–21. Cf. Proverbs 3:8.

Wisdom became mandatory in the twentieth century for Latter-day Saints.

The Kirtland community eventually disintegrated as a result of external hostility and internal dissension. In 1834, the community decided to divide up its common property, although the Missouri Mormons continued to follow the Law of Consecration. The economic boom in Ohio during the years of Jackson’s presidency facilitated the construction of a fine Mormon temple, which still stands in Kirtland. Early in 1837, however, the unchartered bank set up by church leaders failed, taking with it some of the faithful’s savings, and other Mormon enterprises headed toward bankruptcy amid the general economic crash of that year. Pursued by lawsuits and a criminal prosecution for banking fraud, Smith lit out for the Mormon haven in Missouri, denounced by disillusioned dissidents but followed in due course by at least six hundred Saints who remained loyal.

The move from Ohio to Missouri proved a flight from the frying pan into the fire. The Mormon community in Missouri had already been subjected to a campaign of frontier terror including robberies, floggings, and burnings, going well beyond anything that had happened in the Western Reserve, whose gentiles (as the Mormons call non-Mormons) were at least fellow Yankees. In Missouri, the unpopularity of the Mormons’ religion was compounded by resentment of their Yankee ethnicity, their mutual economic cooperation, their suspicious overtures to the Indians, and the presence of a few free black Latter-day Saints in a slave state that wished to exclude free black settlers. Mormon preaching of the gathering of the Saints in Zion alarmed their neighbors, who feared being crowded out by these strange intruders. Western Missouri remained a frontier area where vigilantes made up their own law and then took it into their own hands. Organized, purposeful citizen bands, not just criminal gangs, attacked the Mormons. Driven out of the area around Independence, many of the Saints took refuge at a town called Far West. Yet persecution did nothing to stem the flow of converts; by this time there were more than ten thousand Mormons in Missouri.

Encouraged by the reinforcements from Kirtland, some of the Mormon men in Missouri organized a paramilitary group called the Danites for self-defense and reprisals. When a Mormon was denied the right to vote at a polling place in August 1838, a riot broke out. A series of violent encounters between Danites and gentiles ensued, collectively termed the Mormon War of 1838. Once it became clear that the Mormons had started to fight back, the alarm of the Missourians knew no bounds. Governor Lilburn Boggs, who had ignored years of recurrent violence so long as the victims were all Mormons, now called up state troops, not so much to restore law and order as to crush what he considered a Mormon rebellion. His notorious order to the militia of October 27, 1838, reads: “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.”82 Rather than face the might of the state, on November first the prophet ordered his people to lay down their arms. The brief “war” had cost the lives of one gentile and at least forty Mormons. Now, the Danites watched as the gentiles looted their homes and slaughtered their livestock. Mormons sold their farms for a fraction of their worth and departed; speculators resold them at great profit.83 The militia commander ordered Joseph Smith shot after a brief illegal court-martial, but the officer charged with the execution refused to carry it out. Turned over to the civil authorities, the prophet escaped custody five months later and joined his refugee people on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. There they immediately turned their faith and talents to building up another new community, larger and more beautiful, which they named Nauvoo.


Alone among major religious denominations in the antebellum United States, the Roman Catholic Church did not teach the doctrine of the millennium. The church followed St. Augustine of Hippo in interpreting the Book of Revelation as an allegory of the spiritual conflict between Christ and the powers of evil. The Second Coming and the Last Judgment, Catholic authorities taught, will occur supernaturally and not be accompanied by a literal earthly messianic age. Nevertheless, chiliastic movements, common in the early centuries of the Christian era, appeared sporadically in the Middle Ages despite the church’s teaching, and they flared up again after the Protestant Reformation, particularly in England during the 1640s and ’50s.84 The Puritan-pietistic religious tradition so powerful in America had perpetuated and disseminated millennialism in the United States. Catholic rejection of the doctrine of the millennium affected the attitude of the church in America in at least two ways. It meant that the church lacked the millennial sense of urgency, widespread

82. Quoted in Stephen LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia, Mo., 1987), 152. Several days later Governor Boggs reaffirmed the order, again using the word “exterminate” (ibid., 230).

83. Ibid., 238–39.

84. J. P. Kiersch, “Millennium and Millennialism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1907–1914), X, 307–10; R. Kuchner, “Millenarianism,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington, 2003), IX, 633–37.

among evangelical Protestants, to remake the world and fit it for Christ’s return; it also meant that Catholics did not share in the belief that the United States had a special role, analogous to that of ancient Israel, as an example of divine providence to the rest of the world. While Protestant churches synthesized Christianity with the Enlightenment’s science, individual rights, and faith in progress, the nineteenth-century Church of Rome did not. In an age when Americans’ belief in progress was typically associated with millennial hopes, Catholic doctrine accepted neither the idea of secular progress nor the millennium.85

Many American Protestants had an interpretation of their own for the Book of Revelation. The Antichrist whose downfall it seems to predict they identified with the Roman Catholic Church. The overthrow of the papacy would be one of the events heralding either a premillennial or a postmillennial Second Coming. This vision of the Last Things, coupled with the identification of Roman Catholicism with royal absolutism in Anglo-American historical tradition, and reinforced by the very real hostility manifested by the nineteenth-century papacy toward political liberalism and “modern” ideas of many kinds, combined to foster an ideological hostility toward Catholicism that went well beyond the interdenominational rivalry among Protestant sects. The growth of the Roman Catholic Church, deriving chiefly from immigration but also manifested in efforts to win converts, seemed to some Protestants to threaten American democratic institutions. In their minds, modern liberalism blended with millennial religion to reach a single conclusion: Catholicism could not be allowed to flourish in America if America were to fulfill her mission to the world.86

Antebellum Catholic evangelism by no means reached out only to immigrants or others of Catholic background. The religious orders in particular seized upon American freedom of religion to seek converts from Protestantism; means to this end included holding high-profile public theological debates and founding educational institutions. Some 57,400 American Protestants converted to Roman Catholicism between 1831 and 1860, among them the prominent lay theologian Orestes Brownson, as well as Isaac Hecker and Elizabeth Seton.87 Protestants reacted strongly

85. For more on the contrast between Catholicism and Protestantism in nineteenth-century America, see John McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom (New York, 2003).

86. Bernard McGinn, “Revelation,” The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 523–41; Bloch, Visionary Republic (cited in n. 2), esp. 5–10.

87. Brooks Holifield, “Oral Debate in American Religion,” Church History 67 (1998), 499–520; Jay Dolan, In Search of American Catholicism (Oxford, 2002), 61.

to such Catholic proselytizing. They attributed the Catholics’ success in part to the cultural appeal of their imagery and art. Accordingly, Protestants began to make use themselves of the symbol of the cross (though not the crucifix), of sacred music performed by organ and choir in church to supplement congregational singing, and of Gothic architecture. Protestants also redoubled their own evangelical and educational initiatives to compete with the Catholics. As Lyman Beecher put it, “The Catholics have a perfect right to proselyte the nation to their faith if they are able to do it. But I too have the right of preventing it if I am able.”88

When a politically conservative association in the Austrian Empire set about raising funds to proselytize for Catholicism in the United States, it set off alarm bells among certain American evangelicals. America was supposed to redeem monarchical Europe, not the other way around. Those most worried included the prominent painter Samuel F. B. Morse, son of the geographer and Indian demographer Jedidiah Morse. A fervent nationalist and Calvinist like his father, Morse the younger had begun to tinker with the idea of an electric telegraph. Starting in 1835, he led the Native American Democratic Association in New York, a city which already contained substantial Irish Catholic neighborhoods. (In those days, “Native American” meant whites born in the United States, not American Indians.) In letters to the Journal of Commerce that year, soon published in pamphlet form, Morse complained that Jesuit missionaries, emissaries of Europe’s reactionary Holy Alliance active among the immigrants, dangerously exploited American freedom on behalf of “superstition and ignorance.” In 1836 and 1841, he ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for mayor on a platform of limiting the political influence of immigrant Catholics.89 Morse’s strident warnings were among the earliest expressions of a movement known as nativism that would become more powerful after Catholic immigration increased during the late 1840s.

Sometimes opposition to Catholic evangelism betrayed the very democratic ideals that it professed to protect. The most dramatic responses to the expansion of Catholicism took violent form. On the night of August 11, 1834, a well-organized mob burned down the Ursuline Convent outside Charlestown, Massachusetts (the site is now in Somerville). The Order of

88. Lyman Beecher, “A Plea for the West” (1835), rpt. in The American Whigs, ed. Daniel Howe (New York, 1973), 144.

89. Benjamin Blied, Austrian Aid to American Catholics, 1830–1860 (Milwaukee, 1944); Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man (New York, 2003), 139–42; Samuel F. B. Morse, Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States Through Foreign Immigration (1835; New York, 1969), quotation from 23.

St. Ursula, founded in Italy, came to the United States from French Canada. Specialists in women’s education, the Ursuline nuns had been running a boarding school on Mount Benedict for girls aged six to eighteen. The mother superior and about half the sisters were converts from Protestantism. The students’ parents, mainly well-to-do Boston Unitarians, sought a good education for their girls and didn’t worry about exposing them to Catholicism. To the farmers and workers of Charlestown, however, it looked like young Protestants being corrupted by an un-American ideology. In January 1832, a nineteen-year-old local farmer’s daughter and convert to Catholicism left the convent, where she had spent several months as a “special student,” denounced the nuns’ practices, and then renounced her conversion. Rebecca Reed’s story, eventually published as Six Months in a Convent (1835), told of severe penances imposed on a sick novice by the mother superior and of nuns prostrating themselves before superiors, kissing their feet and licking the floor— monastic practices that shocked non-Catholic Americans. Then, in July 1832, a second woman left the convent: Sister St. John, assistant to the mother superior. Although she soon relented and returned, her action revived charges that the convent held people against their will. On August 11, Lyman Beecher spoke in Charlestown on the need for Protestant educational institutions in the West to counteract the influence of Catholic ones. By that time, however, conspirators had already plotted the destruction of the convent on Mount Benedict.

Men of Charlestown had recently celebrated the Boston Tea Party of 1775, and many of them concluded that it was time for another patriotic mob to take the law into their own hands. Fears of the incompatibility of Roman Catholicism with liberty, rooted in Anglo-American tradition since the days of Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada, lived on in the 1830s—despite, ironically, the British Parliament enacting Catholic Emancipation in 1829. In their own eyes, the conspirators acted as Americans rather than Protestants, protecting their country and its mission against alien subversive influence. As their most prominent apologist declared, the Patriots of 1775 “thought not that within sight of Bunker Hill, where the blood of heroes flowed, a Convent would be established, and their granddaughters become its inmates.”90 The bravado of the mother superior, who bravely declared that “twenty thousand Irishmen” would defend her community, did not deter the plotters. The burning of the convent had been thoroughly planned, and the volunteer fire companies

90. Charles Frothingham, The Convent’s Doom, quoted in Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome (Berkeley, 1994), 142.

summoned to the scene made no effort either to interfere with the perpetrators or to put out the flames. The ten nuns and forty students all escaped unharmed. A second night of rioting wrecked the nuns’ garden. One vandal, bent on sacrilege, found the consecrated communion wafers and put them in his pocket; uninterested in mere theft, he threw away the silver ciborium that contained them. Twenty-four hours later he committed suicide. The authorities had not defended the convent by force, but upon the insistence of the Boston mercantile community they did promptly investigate and indict twelve men. Local juries acquitted all but one defendant, whom the governor soon pardoned (at the request of prominent Catholics as a gesture of conciliation). A bill to pay state compensation to the religious order failed to pass the legislature. But the Ursulines eventually recovered their ciborium, which remains a precious possession.91


In the wee hours of Monday, August 22, 1831, a trusted family slave climbed through the window of his master’s house and unbarred the door for six companions armed with axes. The intruders proceeded to kill Joseph and Sally Travis, her twelve-year-old son, and an apprentice boy, also twelve, hacking them to death in their beds. After leaving the house, they remembered a baby in a cradle and came back to kill him too. So began the greatest slave rebellion in United States history.

The man who opened the door, and the leader of the uprising, was a mystic religious visionary named Nat Turner. By day a field hand, at night and on weekends Turner prophesied, baptized, and healed. Turner learned to read from his parents and had absorbed the Bible’s imagery and power. None of his owners tried to discourage his religious activities. As an exhorter revered by blacks and respected among whites, Turner moved about Southampton County in southeastern Virginia, a region of modest landholdings, diversified agriculture, and masters who worked in the fields alongside their bondsmen. The 1830 census of the county showed whites to be a minority and free blacks a significant element. The population of 16,074 was 41 percent white, 48 percent enslaved, and 11 percent free colored.92

91. See Nancy Schultz, Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent (New York, 2000); and three articles by Daniel Cohen: “The Respectability of Rebecca Reed,” JER 16 (1996), 419–62; “Alvah Kelley’s Cow,” New England Quarterly 74 (2001): 531–79; and “Passing the Torch,” JER 24 (2004): 527–86.

92. Census of 1830, United States Historical Census Data Browser (viewed May 11, 2007).

Nat Turner listened to “the Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days” and interpreted signs of divinity in the world around him. Like Isaiah, he heard the Spirit tell him to “proclaim liberty to the captives” and “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:1–2). Turner decided that “the great day of judgment was at hand,” when he would become God’s instrument. The Spirit instructed him to “fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”93 An eclipse of the sun in February 1831 signaled him to usher in the millennium with its great role reversal. The date first set for the new revolution was the Fourth of July, but when Turner fell ill, it had been postponed until August 21 (the fortieth anniversary of the Haitian Revolution). Starting from the Travis household, Turner and his band moved from one farm to another, killing all the whites they found on their march toward Jerusalem, as the Southampton county seat was portentously named.94 (Meanwhile, in western Missouri, Joseph Smith was planning another new Jerusalem, dedicating the site for a Mormon temple there.)

The leader of the uprising prepared himself for his destiny by prayer and fasting. Once the rebellion began, he showed no relish for leading a death squad. Turner killed only one person with his own hands, when she would otherwise have escaped and raised the alarm. After that experience he brought up the rear of his party, arriving at each farm after the killing was finished. At some households, slaves joined Turner’s cause, and eventually about sixty participated, along with several free blacks. But not all bondsmen jumped at the chance to participate in a bloody and hopeless enterprise; one, Aaron Harris, tried to talk Turner into abandoning his mission. Some helped their owners hide. Over the two days that the rebellion lasted, some fifty-seven whites were killed, forty-six of them women and children. According to African American tradition, Turner admonished his followers, “Remember that ours is not a war for robbery, nor to satisfy our passions; it is a struggle for freedom.” None of the victims was raped or tortured, though their bodies were usually decapitated. Outside of Turner’s presence, a few of his men looted and got drunk on captured brandy.95

93. Confessions of Nat Turner... fully and voluntarily made to Thos. C. Gray (1831; Petersburg, Va., 1881), 6, 10, 11.

94. See Herbert Aptheker, Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion (New York, 1966); and Stephen Oates, The Fires of Jubilee (New York, 1975).

95. Quotation from Vincent Harding, There Is a River (New York, 1981), 95. Estimates of the total number of white victims range from fifty-five to sixty-three.

The uprising was put down by a combination of vigilantes, state militia, and federal troops from the U.S. Navy base at Norfolk. In the final shootout at Simon Blunt’s plantation, six white civilians with sixty loyal slaves repulsed twenty attacking rebels. Fear and rage turned the white vigilantes into armed mobs, wreaking vengeance on luckless black people, whether Turner’s followers or not. “Some of these scenes are hardly inferior in barbarity to the atrocities of the insurgents,” confessed a Virginia journalist witness.96The vigilantes too beheaded those they killed, displaying the severed heads on poles. No one knows how many African Americans lost their lives as a consequence of Nat Turner’s Uprising. Twenty, including three free Negroes, were tried and legally executed; ten others, convicted and transported for sale. Fifteen defendants were judicially cleared. Perhaps a score were killed fighting in the uprising itself, and about a hundred massacred afterwards. Over twenty additional blacks were executed elsewhere in Virginia and North Carolina during the wave of hysteria that followed.97

Nat Turner himself eluded capture for six weeks, until October 30. The authorities took care to prevent his being lynched. He was tried on November 5 in Jerusalem and hanged six days later. In accordance with Virginia law, Turner was represented by counsel, and the commonwealth paid $375 to the estate of his late owner as compensation for executing him. His body, like that of most condemned criminals, was used for anatomical dissection. While in custody, Turner talked with a white man named Thomas Gray, who published his account of the interview as The Confessions of Nat Turner. Turner explained to Gray his moral and religious premises and eschatological vision. Marveling at the prisoner’s “calm, deliberate composure,” Gray asked him, “Do you not find yourself mistaken now?” But defeat and impending death did not shake Nat Turner’s faith. “Was not Christ crucified?” he responded.98

Turner’s Uprising provoked a huge debate among white Virginians over what lessons they should draw from it. Some warned of more rebellions and argued that the best way to forestall bloody racial strife would be a program of compensated emancipation coupled with colonization. Most of the support for this policy of gradual reform came from the western part of

96. John Hampden Pleasants, quoted in Eric Foner, Nat Turner (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1971), 16.

97. Casualties on both sides of this race war can only be estimated. Many of the sources relating to the uprising have disappeared from the archives. See Mary Kemp Davis, Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment (Baton Rouge, 1999), 55–61.

98. Confessions of Nat Turner, 11.

the commonwealth, where slaveholding was not of central importance. In opposition ranged the large plantation owners of the tidewater, to whom slavery seemed essential for their economy and way of life. Legislative apportionment favored the proslavery eastern part of the state, but even so, the two sides were about evenly balanced. Governor John Floyd, himself a westerner, occupied a pivotal position. A Calhoun Democrat, like his Carolina mentor he had long backed public funding for internal improvements. Floyd saw gradual emancipation as promoting Virginia’s economic development, and he planned to endorse it when the state legislature met. His surprising failure to do so is probably explained by a visit he received from Calhoun not long before the session began. No record of their conversation exists, but very likely the vice president persuaded Floyd that emancipation would play into the hands of Yankee politicians and agitators. A new Calhoun, devoted to slavery and state rights, had replaced the old one, and turned Governor Floyd around as well.99

Without the governor’s support, the emancipation-colonization program stalled in Virginia’s House of Delegates. Thirty-nine-year-old Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of the late president, gave it cautious endorsement. So did the editors of the state’s two leading newspapers, Thomas Ritchie of the Richmond Enquirer and John Hampden Pleasants of the Richmond Constitutional Whig. Both sides in the debate agreed that Virginia should be a white person’s country and that a substantial free colored population constituted a security risk. (Much was made of the fact that some free Negroes had joined Turner.) Conservatives conceded that the state would be better off with fewer slaves and a more industrial-commercial economy, but argued that the domestic slave trade would suffice to drain off surplus black laborers from Virginia to the trans-Appalachian Southwest, without legislative intervention. After prolonged debate, on January 25, 1832, the House voted 67 to 60 that “further action for the removal of slaves should await a more definite development of public opinion.” By this fateful procrastination, Virginian statesmanship abdicated responsibility for dealing with the state’s number one problem. When the Civil War came thirty years later, Virginians would still be divided; the great slavery debate of 1831 foreshadowed the bifurcation of the Old Dominion into Virginia and West Virginia.100 In the short term, reaction prevailed over reform. Instead of emancipation, Virginia’s

99. Oates, Fires of Jubilee, 136–38.

100. See Alison Freehling, Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831–32 (Baton Rouge, 1982); and W. Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 178–96.

lawmakers sought security through increased repression: tighter pass rules for slave travelers and more patrols to enforce them, further restraints on the free colored population, and, specifically to inhibit the emergence of more Nat Turners, restrictions on slave literacy and religious gatherings. A slave society could not afford to allow those in bondage to pursue a millennial vision in which the last would be first.

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