Secularism in Antebellum America

Secularism in Antebellum America

by John Lardas Modern

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Ghosts. Railroads. Sing Sing. Sex machines. These are just a few of the phenomena that appear in John Lardas Modern’s pioneering account of religion and society in nineteenth-century America. This book uncovers surprising connections between secular ideology and the rise of technologies that opened up new ways of being religious. Exploring the eruptions of


Ghosts. Railroads. Sing Sing. Sex machines. These are just a few of the phenomena that appear in John Lardas Modern’s pioneering account of religion and society in nineteenth-century America. This book uncovers surprising connections between secular ideology and the rise of technologies that opened up new ways of being religious. Exploring the eruptions of religion in New York’s penny presses, the budding fields of anthropology and phrenology, and Moby-Dick, Modern challenges the strict separation between the religious and the secular that remains integral to discussions about religion today.

Modern frames his study around the dread, wonder, paranoia, and manic confidence of being haunted, arguing that experiences and explanations of enchantment fueled secularism’s emergence. The awareness of spectral energies coincided with attempts to tame the unruly fruits of secularism—in the cultivation of a spiritual self among Unitarians, for instance, or in John Murray Spear’s erotic longings for a perpetual motion machine. Combining rigorous theoretical inquiry with beguiling historical arcana, Modern unsettles long-held views of religion and the methods of narrating its past.

Editorial Reviews

Reading Religion
Secularism in Antebellum America is a capacious intellectual achievement by one of the most original thinkers in religious studies today. It is a model for boldly conceptual and historically compelling scholarship. Its engagement with the field of American religious history, though not always gentle or loving, is best seen as an immanent critique, waged by a scholar trained in the field and eager to move forward its most important conversations.”
Winnifred Sullivan
“Modern has done something very important in this smart, generous, and beautifully written book. He has shown why and how evangelicals, liberals, and spiritualists, perennial actors on the American religious stage, actors who are often viewed as competitors, even enemies, inhabit the same secular space, now and in the past, and share responsibility for the peculiar and powerful formation that is American religion and politics. We learn how they have together created the taken-for-granted immediacy of ‘true religion’ out of Scottish common sense philosophy and faith in technology, systematicity, and progress, all through a bewildering amount of surveillance, self-culture, and media production. We both recognize and gasp at the strange but always energetic feats of our forbearers and the dangerous circularity of their never-ending networks and feedback loops.”

Tracy Fessenden
“Reading Secularism in Antebellum America brings pleasure on many levels, not least in the knowledge that in our age of sound bites, tweets, and branding there remain books this intellectually satisfying and meticulously made. Modern’s commanding, often inspired analyses of penitentiary reform, the primitivist strain in American anthropology, and the beginnings of our preoccupation with spirituality are deft and elegantly rendered. This subtle, substantial, venturesome book raises the stakes for all of us who read and write about American religion.”

John Corrigan
Secularism in Antebellum America transforms our understanding of evangelicalism in the nineteenth century through its meticulous documentation of ideas and lives as well as through its pointed critical commentary on the last thirty years of evangelical history. Imaginative and rewarding, this is an exemplary instance of interdisciplinary historical inquiry. A brilliant, groundbreaking book.”


“A creative challenge to standard religious histories of the period.”
Anthropology Review Database
“Fascinating and complex.”
“A luminous study of the discursive terrain and affective engagements of secularism in the first half of the nineteenth century. . . . Modern’s book expands critical methods for approaching style no less than it provides an enlightening and frankly engrossing articulation of the elusive but powerful force that is secularism in United States culture, past and present.”
Church History
 “The line between opaque and evocative is a fine one, and John Lardas Modern walks it with dark delight in these ruminations on modernity, circa 1851.”
Journal of American Culture
“Modern thoroughly executes the thesis laid out in the book’s introduction, offering a refreshing treatise on historiography of American religion through textual analysis and theoretical employment.”
Journal of American History
“Modern proffers a trenchant argument about the myriad contours of religiosity and secularism in nineteenth-century America. He provides a metanarrative for understanding the multivalence of antebellum religion and how the practices of Protestant Christianity were framed and informed by secularism. He not only expands our understanding of antebellum Protestantism but also thoroughly interrogates the prevailing historiography to present a startling and cogent statement about secularism and modernity in Victorian America. This short review cannot do justice to his sagacity. The systematic labyrinth delineated in this book encompasses several lines of inquiry for others to haunt and be haunted by.” 
American Literature
“Masterful. . . . [A] field-shifting book.” 
Journal of Church and State
"Modern combines ponderous research, fascinating vignettes, and depth of insight to create an argument that is equal parts exciting and challenging. His deft and critical handling of agency and consciousness offers a compelling model for history, religious or otherwise. Secularism in Antebellum America is thoughtfully crafted and subtly argued; historians of antebellum religion would do well to attend to its complexity."

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University of Chicago Press
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Religion and Postmodernism Series
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


By John Lardas Modern


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-53323-0

Chapter One


Steam has of course been noticed ever since the heating of water and boiling of victuals were practiced. The daily occurrence implied by the expression 'the pot boils over' was as common in antediluvian as in modern times.... From allusions in the most ancient writings, we may gather that the phenomena exhibited by steam were closely observed of old. Thus Job in describing Leviathan alludes to the puffs or volumes that issue from under the covers of boiling vessels.

THOMAS EWBANK, A Descriptive and Historical Account of Hydraulic and Other Machines for Raising Water, Ancient and Modern: with Observations on Various Subjects connected with the Mechanic Arts: including the Progressive Development of the Steam Engine, 12th ed. (1851)

1. America's God

Statistics point to a "surge" in evangelical publications as well as in the practices of evangelical piety in the first half of the nineteenth century. In order to explain these parallel trends, however, mere measurement falls short in adequately addressing the strange power evangelical media institutions assumed during this period. In 1825, for example, the American Tract Society announced its agenda of "systematic organization," a directive that applied equally, and simultaneously, to words on the page, to readers on the ground, and to the airy abstractions of the nation-state:

So long as public opinion maintains its existing supremacy, who does not feel the immense importance of moulding it by a moral and religious influence, and of securing and augmenting our civil and political liberties by the most unconfined diffusion of the lights of science and religion throughout a community whose political existence depends on the intelligence, and, more especially, on the integrity of the people.

In this chapter, I will approach the "immense" project of "moulding" public opinion by focusing on the combinatory effects of specific evangelical media practices. These practices included the representation of the population as an object of redemption and religious inquiry; the promotion of a subject-centered epistemology as prerequisite for being included in such a large-scale project of redemption; the differentiation of "true religion" from imperfect or corrupt forms of political behavior; the deployment of mass media to shape the meanings of democratic progress and social transparency; and finally, the sensuous cultivation of rational reading habits in light of these meanings.

Each of these media practices was double-edged, targeting "the local situation and habits of the people." And each revolved around the desire for systematicity—not in the sense of direct control but in "securing and systematizing the exertions of others." For example, both major evangelical media organizations, the American Tract Society and the American Bible Society, subscribed to a "practical system" of "doing good which is level to every capacity, and adapted to every condition." The conditions that "demand[ed] the employment of a system combining catholicity, itinerancy, directness, and permanence" were matters of demographic calculability. These conditions included "the vastness of our territory and the sparseness of the population; the enormous increase of foreign emigration; the inadequacy of ministerial instruction and other means of grace; the meager supply of religious reading; the prevalence of vicious books; the neglect of Christian duty in visiting the abodes of the destitute; [and] the existence of error in numberless forms." Such issues, however, could only be addressed "on a vast scale" by addressing individuals "at the fireside, through the eye and the ear."

In coordinating the production of information about "true religion" with information they had previously gathered about intimate, domestic details, evangelicals made their calculations in terms of "the masses [who] have their rights, as well as individuals." To be sure, the statistically driven efforts of evangelical media did not seek to eradicate the idiosyncrasies of everyday life (sin was, after all, originary). On the contrary, they sought to account for the private realm in such a way as to bring it into the orbit of a community that was in the process of being imagined. Such efforts were effective inasmuch as they made the imagination of the social the primary function of each and every individual. Evangelical publishers, in this scheme, were "a mighty throbbing heart gushing [their] thrilling thought-currents through all the swelling arteries of the world's life." Individual readers, in turn, were conduits of this "life blood" pouring into them "with accelerated force."

Despite evangelical claims to the contrary, "systematic organization" did not yield hard data. It was, however, tangible—in the same way a child's imagination of God's omniscience or the adult's imagination of his or her complicity in an invisible network of social vectors has affective and lasting results. Or as the children's tract The History of Jonah (1833) suggests, its own power of instruction was not coercive but ever a looming prospect. For to invite the reader to imagine how God knows "all things that all the people in the world, are now thinking, feeling, saying, and doing" was to "promote ... active piety" and "call into exercise the reflecting and reasoning powers."

According to contemporary testimony, the "moral power of the [evangelical] press" consisted of something more than the formal properties of Latin letters lying fl at. Rather, the power consisted of the active residue of signification that accompanied these letters: from the desire that suffused their composition to the gears and steam that produced them to the intricate strategies that marked their dissemination, delivery, and reception. Descriptions of "the machinery of this system" were pervaded by the language of indeterminacy, incandescence, and automation. As Henry Ward Beecher noted, the experiential form of the first convention of the American Bible Society anticipated its function. It was a "sublime spectacle," he wrote. Each attendee had "had his own mind prepared by an agency which he had scarcely recognized, and of whose ubiquitous influence he had no knowledge." In "bringing the Gospel into contact with those who absent themselves from the sanctuary," tract societies would "be the means of incalculable good." The "power of the press" was "resistless." Its "mechanical arrangements for multiplying" and the "magnitude" of its operation guaranteed its "indefinite expansion." Even critics could not help but be impressed by the organizational effects of evangelical media. As Unitarian William Ellery Channing wrote, "an electric communication [was] established" between the members of voluntary societies that enabled them to accomplish "wonders." But Channing also expressed concern over the "minute ramifications of these societies, penetrating everywhere," noting that "one of the most remarkable circumstances or features of our age is the energy with which the principle of combination or the action by joint forces, by associated numbers, is manifesting itself.... This principle of association is worthy the attention of the philosopher, who simply aims to understand society, and its most powerful springs."

In light of such testimony, this chapter will address, rather than quantify, the cumulative effect of evangelical media practices. As I will demonstrate, the "systematic organization" of media in the form of information as well as the bodies and imaginations that encountered such information was, indeed, "immense." Evangelical media practices, I argue, made possible particular conceptions of the self, the social, and the means to understand them both; manufactured somewhat narrow definitions of "true" religion and interpretive propriety; shaped characters who could readily adopt these conceptions, assume these means, and adapt themselves, in practice, to these definitions. Simply stated, the power of evangelical media must be approached in terms of the conceptual spaces they helped initiate and foreclose in antebellum America.

From this perspective, evangelical media practices structured both the meaning of "true religion" and the subsequent expectations of mundane life. Neither religious nor secular, the significance of evangelical media lies in the power they assumed in defining a particular symmetry among piety, epistemology, and politics. Like the Scottish Sunday School teacher in Catherine Warden; or, the Pious Scholar, evangelical media institutions "aim[ed] to make [students] understand what they committed to memory, not only as subjects of belief, but as incitements to action—subjects that directed them in their conduct towards God, towards their fellow-men, and in the manner in which they ought to attend to the eternal salvation of their own souls." Within the strange loops professed here—the back and forth between memory and action, reading and belief, piety and social ethics—evangelicalism was baptized in the spirit, rather than in the name, of secularism.

In conceptualizing the essence of religion and promoting this essence in terms of private reason and social ethics, evangelical media practices both contributed to and were informed by the discursive formation of secularism in antebellum America. Rather than being the antithesis to religiosity, evangelical secularism was constituted by those feelings, expectations, and practices that animated definitional categories about religion and was manifest in the deployment of those definitions at the level of the population. To frame evangelical media practices in terms of secularism—a "conceptual environment that presupposes certain ways of defining how religion, ethics, the nation, and politics relate to each other"—shifts the analytical emphasis from the meaning-making activities of evangelicals to the question of how evangelicals (and others) were made meaningful to themselves.

R. S. Cook, secretary of the American Tract Society, spoke to this process in 1849 when he described his encounter with the printing presses at the society's headquarters in New York City. "Twelve of these oracular machines pursue their endless task, without weariness or suffering; preaching more of Flavel's sermons in a week than he preached in a lifetime—dreaming Bunyan's Dream over a thousand times a day—reiterating Baxter's 'Call' until it would seem that the very atmosphere was vocal with, 'Turn ye, turn ye; for why will ye die?'" For Cook the biological presence of either Flavel or Baxter was no longer necessary for their words to be meaningful, that is, effective.

At mid-century, evangelical secularism was quite literally amorphous, haunting words, animating ethical sensibilities, motivating and coordinating practices without announcing itself as such. Consequently, evangelical secularism must be approached indirectly. A metaphysical solvent rather than a substantive ideology, evangelical secularism was a highly charged atmosphere in which epistemology continuously dissolved into politics, politics into epistemology. Because evangelical secularism cannot be reduced to any one thing and, for that matter, did not even exist at the level of empirical reality, this chapter will move across a number of interrelated sites, no single one of which captures the phenomenon in question: evangelical reviews of "infidel" fiction, evangelical histories of evangelicalism, evangelical representations of true and false religion, the logic, practices, and statistical presentations of evangelical media institutions, and finally, evangelical instructions on how to read, what to read, and why. Together, resonating, these sites added up to more of a medium than a message, more than the sum of individual actions, and more than the words on any page.

2. Reading Melville and the Question of Mediation

Given his firsthand encounter with both the missionary cause and evangelical media, Herman Melville's fiction may be as good a place as any to begin exploring what he once referred to as "evangelical pagan piety." Melville's first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life during a Four Months' Residence in the Valley of the Marquesas (1846), was about the specter of cannibalism. It was also condemned by evangelical, and in Melville's words, "senseless" reviewers who "go straight from their cradles to their graves & never dream of the queer things going on at the antipodes."


Excerpted from SECULARISM IN ANTEBELLUM AMERICA by John Lardas Modern Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Lardas Modern is associate professor and chair of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College. He is the author of The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.

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