From Nothingarians to Nones: The Fear of the Unchurched in the Early American Republic

Thomas S. Kidd
Black and white engraving of one wall of a ruined church surrounded by overgrown trees, with broken gravestones in the foreground.

Church Ruins at Jamestown, 1854. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most common news topics on American religion in recent years has been the rise of the “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated. News stories from the Pew Research Center and similar outlets constantly tout the growing numbers of Americans who tell pollsters that they have “no religion” in particular. The media, by definition, is more interested in change than continuity. Coverage of the nones generally assumes that the increase in the religiously unaffiliated is unprecedented in American history. But actually, it isn’t unprecedented.

People in America’s early republic worried about the religiously unaffiliated, too. They didn’t call them the “nones,” however. As I show in my JER article, commentators at the time had their own name for these people. They were “nothingarians.” Nearly forgotten today, the word nothingarian was a fixture of American religious rhetoric in the nineteenth century. Although nothingarians lived in a different spiritual and cultural milieu than the nones do, “nothingarian” carried many of the same connotations as the term none. Observers in the early 1800s also believed that nothingarians were on the rise.

Understanding fears about the nothingarians enhances our increasingly complex view of religion in the early republic. The literature on religion in that period used to be dominated by stories of the massive Christian growth during the “Second Great Awakening.” That narrative remains essential, but we now know that the early republic was also a time of burgeoning doubt and skepticism, even among the general reading public. Similarly, the incredible expansion of upstart Protestant denominations, especially the Methodists and Baptists, was undergirded by fears about the spiritual destitution of large sections of the country. The frontier, in particular, was allegedly deluged with the irreligion of nothingarians.

Fears about the decline of American religious commitment are as old as John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” address. But there were special reasons why the early republic was a time of special anxiety about Americans’ religious commitments, or lack thereof. One factor was controversy over skepticism, especially the controversy spawned by Thomas Paine’s popular The Age of Reason (1794). “Nothingarian” did not necessarily connote a person who doubted the veracity of traditional faith, however. Nothingarians, in the minds of devout observers, seemed simply not to care about religion.

Why else did the decades after independence prove so fertile for anxiety about nothingarians? British Protestantism had provided the overarching religious and imperial structure for the colonies before 1776, and it was not clear what would replace that cohesive structure in the new American nation. The New England states kept their established churches for decades into the nineteenth century. But New Englanders particularly worried about the disestablished status of religion outside their region. Within it, they looked with alarm at religiously libertarian Rhode Island. They also were concerned about the adoption of a new Constitution that prohibited the creation of a national church.

Congregationalist pastor and educator Jedidiah Morse, author of the popular American Geography (1789), did as much as anyone to popularize the term nothingarian. For Morse, Rhode Island was a particular haunt of nothingarians, since it never had an established church and always allowed its residents to decide whether to attend church or not. But it was not just Rhode Island that concerned Morse. Rural regions such as North Carolina, he wrote, abounded with those who “cannot be properly classed with any sect of Christians . . . and are literally, as to religion, NOTHINGARIANS.” White settlement (nothingarians were implicitly assumed to be white) was spreading rapidly into areas of uncultivated farmland, with little regard to the presence or absence of churches.

Again, the older literature on the Second Great Awakening tended to assume that the frontier fueled revivalism. But observers in the early 1800s were more likely to view new white settlements as centers of irreligion. Missionary societies and itinerant preachers constantly commented on the lack of religious adherence, and the general spiritual apathy, riddling the frontier settlements. Lutheran pastor Ezra Keller, laboring in Indiana, estimated in the 1830s that two-thirds of the state’s whites belonged to no congregation. These “Nothingarians” might believe in the basic tenets of Christianity, Keller wrote, but they “care nothing at all about its promotion, injunctions or requirements. They are perfect worldlings, spend all their strength in Mammon’s sinful empire.” Methodist bishop Francis Asbury, who knew the frontier’s spiritual scene as well as anyone, glumly noted that not one in a hundred people there came “to get religion, but rather to get plenty of good land.” Methodists and other preachers who swarmed the frontier did so as much to meet a spiritual crisis, as to exploit the demographic opportunity of teeming masses of settlers who did not have regular access to churches.

The fear of the unchurched hardly began with today’s “nones,” then. Even with the huge growth of Methodists and Baptists during the first half of the nineteenth century, many commentators still saw nothingarianism as one of the most intractable problems on America’s cultural landscape. As the Catholic convert and prominent writer Orestes Brownson noted in the 1860s, “there is with us a vast missionary field . . . among the so-called Nothingarians, who comprise the majority of the American people.” Ascertaining whether the nothingarians actually represented a majority of the American people in the 1800s would require much better data and definitions than are available. But there is no doubt that nothingarians represented a massive, haunting specter in the minds of many devout observers.

23 June 2023

About the Author

Thomas S. Kidd is research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.

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