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The Decline of Old-Time Religion

Published: September 1, 2012

A Traveling Preacher

The hard life of a circuit preacher in the 1860s.

Is America losing its faith? Recent polls show less than half of us belong to any organized religion. The percentage of Americans regularly attending church is even smaller (about 25 percent), and this figure continues to drop.

We seem to have come a long way from the early 1800s, when European visitors remarked how much religion influenced the conduct of Americans. The country seemed immersed in the Christian ethic back then. Its cities were crowded with churches; its art and literature filled with references to God, salvation, and the Bible.

Yet the religious influences in American society were probably not as great as they seem now. In many American communities, church membership never rose much higher than 50 percent. And though the national average reached 75 percent by the 1950s, it had been climbing slowly from the turn of the century. In those days, ministers and pastors had been alarmed at the poor church attendance which, they argued, had been caused by science, the modern novel, and Ford’s new Model T.

In those years, Rebecca Harding Davis regularly contributed articles to the Post about the changes she’d seen in her 73 years. In 1906, she wrote that nothing reflected the change in modern America like the decline of Christianity as her grandparents had practiced it. Recalling her youth in western Virginia in the 1830s, she wrote, “The dominant fact about a man at that time was his religion. … It was the important fact then about every man—as it is not today.”

A Camp Meeting

An open-air, gospel camp meeting of the 1840s.

Religion then possessed every man’s thoughts, partly because there was not much else to possess them. Living was simple and cheap. … Each individual worked his way alone upon his narrow path. There were no guilds or leagues or unions to absorb his thoughts. Hence his brain was busied with his own little life and the two agents at work in it—God and the devil. You felt them near you at every turn. You heard of them every moment of the day.

The God, of whom our forefathers talked … was no awful or unknown Creator. … Blacksmiths and ditch-diggers talked as familiarly of [God’s] acts and intentions, as if they had been in His cabinet of advisers when the world was made. They gave Him the human qualities that were most admirable in their own eyes—chief of all, an unreasoning will, and inexorable, merciless justice.

This grim Deity was a real fact to these people. Religion in their souls was not so much a glad, absolute trust in a loving Father, or a brotherly kindness for their neighbors, as a perpetual terror and fearful expectation of judgment.

Strange, horrible ideas grew up out of this ignorance and fear, and made their lives miserable. One of these was the unpardonable sin: an undefined, nameless crime that God never pardoned, even when the sinner had borne eternities of hell. In almost every village there were slow-witted men or starved, anemic girls who believed that they had been guilty of this mysterious crime.

To her grandfather, Christianity was a matter of dogma; to her peers it was a matter of deeds. The older generation believed it could avoid hell only by holding fast, without question, to certain doctrines. Its grandchildren were more likely to ignore creeds “and strive for a life of honesty, purity and brotherly love.”

But the religion of her grandfather was far from heartless and demanded more than belief alone. It directed him to take care of his family and neighbors.

Foreigners counted for nothing to him, but he was loyal to the death to his kin and to his neighbors.
These old forebears of ours built no hospitals, but should one of their neighbors fall ill with typhus they all took turns in nursing him, day and night, for weeks.

If he died and his children had no kinsfolk, they took them home and brought them up as their own. It was simply a matter of course then that these things should be done. There was scarcely a family in our village which had not its orphan child—’to bring a blessing on the house.’

What this faith lacked in flexibility, it made up for in durability—an essential quality in faith for people with hard lives, few comforts, and little security. And if these men didn’t always extend charity to strangers, at least they required integrity in themselves.

Davis

Rebecca Harding Davis, 1831-1910.

Our stern old grandfather was as merciless to his own sins as to those of his neighbor. He never had heard of graft. He wronged no man of a penny.

He might berate his old wife, but he was true to her. You heard of no divorces then. His life was narrow and hard, perhaps, but it was clean and true. He had an intense, jealous love for his own kin … but I confess he had not much for outsiders. None of his hard-earned money went to the help of unknown strangers.

He strove with God without ceasing all of his life for the salvation of his own family. It was a common custom for these old fathers and mothers to rise long before the day to wrestle alone in prayer for their boys and girls.

There was, too, more outward reverence shown then by children to parents than there is today. [A father] was apt to impress upon his boys several times a day his conviction of his divine right to rule them. There was seldom any intimacy between them, however deep the affection might be. [And] often, with the purest and highest motives, [these fathers] made home so bare of comfort or pleasure that their sons were driven outside to find it.

American religion had grown more compassionate, Ms. Davis believed, because less was demanded of it. Life had become easier. Americans now lived with prosperity and peace their grandparents had never known. Fewer tragedies and disasters forced them to seek explanation or solace from religion.

But when tragedy returns, as it did on September 11, 2001, so does the need for faith.

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  • Wm V Reynolds

    One reason for the decline of religion in 21st century America is the fact that many churches are stuck in a time warp. I.e., they seem to be living in and preaching to persons of the 19th century. Today’s congregations are more sophisticated that those of two centuries past, but poorly educated ministers and teachers ignore these facts. The church has very little to offer in the way of practical applications and advice. Furthermore the majority of church members are woefully ignorant of church history, their own as well as the church in general. Hence they do not understand that, historically,churches have sought to seperate themselves from governmental control. Many of today’s churches are attempting to take over the government passing laws that would dictate to those outside their congregation how they should worship. These people believe in ” freedom of religion” for themselves but not for everybody else.

  • Ima Ryma

    Rebecca Harding Davis wrote
    Of religion and politics,
    New freedoms of bible and vote,
    A stirred sainting and sinning mix.
    Life was dominated by man
    In West Virginia’s wild frontier,
    In the 1800’s time span.
    Women with ideas – men did fear.
    Rebecca spoke least, but wrote most.
    Her writings might be gone but for
    The Saturday Evening Post
    That archives perspectives of yore.

    So to the Post, Rebecca sent
    Time capsules for future reprint.

  • shirley harrington

    I agree with the article. In the 50’s and early 60’s, in my town, religon was our mainstay. Church worship and prayers is what got us through our days and helping our neighbors. Today, people don’t know their neighbors. They are too busy.

    Some of the decline in church attendance could possibley be aged congregation,not able to attend. I am a caregiver for my 101 year old mother-inlaw and 75 year old sister-inlaw. They need 24/7 care which means I have to miss church. There are probably several more who can’t attend for the same reason.

    Another reason, parents don’t insist on importance of church to their children.