The Sexual Politics of Antebellum Evangelicals; Sacred Violence and the Civil War

Christine Heyrman

“The Daughters of Massachusetts,” from Massachusetts Magazine, January 1791.

Years spent in the company of high-minded people have given me a taste for low gossip, and that’s how I came to write Doomed Romance: A Story of Broken Hearts, Lost Souls, and Sexual Politics in Nineteenth-Century America. Research for an earlier project had me reading the letters of missionaries throughout the Ottoman Empire, and into those earnest pages occasionally strayed news about a romantic triangle back in New England.  At its apex was a young teacher, Martha Parker; at its two other points were Thomas Tenney, who kept school while studying for the ministry, and Elnathan Gridley, who aspired to become a missionary. Both men hoped to marry Martha, and she, at different times, accepted proposals from each. My snooping turned up just enough to tantalize, but the possibility of finding out more about this story of romance and rivalry seemed slim to none.

That’s what makes two-hundred-year-old tales of heartbreak so intriguing: Private lives were much more private then. For centuries, stoicism served as the default mode for nearly everyone in the West, ordinary people especially. By the 1820s, when her suitors vied to win Martha Parker, some women and men had begun to give freer voice to their feelings, but most letters and diaries still withheld more than they revealed. That made missionaries’ gossip stick in my mind. There it stayed until several years later when I came across a reference to an archival collection titled, “The Case of Martha Parker and Elnathan Gridley.” Most likely, I guessed, it would amount to no more than a couple of letters. That expectation lasted until the moment an archivist approached my table at Houghton Library and set down a very large box.

Within lay hundreds of loose pages, along with a bound volume containing a transcription of the whole lot in a neat clerk’s hand. There were letters, firsthand accounts of events, and a long narrative summary, all setting forth the thoughts, feelings, and actions of Martha Parker, the men who courted her, and the wide circle of their friends and relatives. Here was an intimate view of the inner lives of young Americans who were, like most of their white contemporaries in the North, rural in their origins, middling in their means, and deeply religious. Perhaps most intriguing was the mix of desire and fear that this young woman aroused in many of her male admirers, a potent combination of feelings which, then as now, could portend explosive consequences. For anyone curious about the lost emotional worlds of the past, and their resonance in the present, this box was missing only a ribbon and a bow.

Closer inspection revealed that the box held more, much more, than revelations about what most people then kept private. It also recounted a revealing chapter in a great struggle that first took shape between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Martha Parker, it soon became clear, was the beneficiary of profound changes that were reshaping the lives of many American women and men, as well as a casualty of the resistance to those changes. All the new opportunities that made her a young woman of uncommon promise she owed to evangelical Protestants—the formal schooling, the books and newspapers, the benevolent and reform societies, and the foreign missions.  Evangelicals then strove to shape the nation as energetically as they do now, and under their auspices, significant numbers of white, middle-class women like Martha Parker for the first time gained a good education, intellectual fulfillment, and rewarding work outside the home. But even by the 1820s, some in their movement had come to feel threatened by the energies they had done so much to cultivate among female believers. They entered the vanguard of those Americans who discouraged women from stepping outside the home and exercising influence in the churches and society at large.  Theirs was a place in time when male privilege was coming under challenge. And when some began to suspect Martha Parker of being one of the challengers, her past became the stuff of scandal and controversy.

“Pictorial Illustration of Abolitionism. Its Rise, Progress and End.” Courtesy of Library of Congress.

That makes her story a telling episode in the history of both American evangelicalism and sexual politics, past and present. It sharpens our sensitivity to the sources that encourage women to strike out from shore as well as the riptides of resistance that threaten to drown their efforts. It deepens our understanding of the means by which supporters of male prerogative seek to exert control over those women in quest of a wider world, the surprising ways in which those bold spirits fight back, and the price they pay for their resistance.  It discloses the paradoxical role played by evangelicalism in what was formative era for both that religious culture and women’s rights by revealing its emergence as a hearth of opposition to the very changes this faith at first promoted. It raises the broader question of whether the resistance to vesting power and authority in women endures in United States in part because evangelical Protestant belief and observance has thrived far longer there than anywhere else in the West. Finally, it offers a usable past to those in the present seeking to strengthen evangelicalism’s commitment to equality and social justice. In the pages of Doomed Romance, they will find likeminded believers who provided women with avenues of liberation and even strategies to counter the backlash against those who follow paths newly opened to wherever they lead.

Martha Parker’s world is not ours. If women in the present-day United States look through a glass ceiling, she and her sisters lifted their eyes to a roof thickly plastered and stoutly raftered.  Yet in many ways their historical moment presages our own vexed sexual politics.  As ever larger numbers of women assume influential positions in every sphere of the nation’s life today, they find both allies and antagonists. Even as many cheer at the sound of glass shattering in the highest reaches of business, politics, and the professions, others resist entrusting women with power, equal opportunity, and control over their bodies, and evangelicals still figure prominently in their ranks. While some Americans welcome the new gender equality when it comes to power and pay, prestige and opportunity, others resent the competition and regret the loss of advantage—the presumption of superiority—that assisted earlier generations. That same sense of grievance, of suffering a kind of betrayal, finds its historical echo in Martha Parker’s experiences two hundred years ago. But what meets our ears, too, are the many cadences that resound, now clearer than ever, in the voices of feminists today.

With Doomed Romance now in press, my attention has turned to a new project with the working title, “Crisis in American Christendom and the Coming of the Civil War.” Because Protestantism dominated the spiritual lives of most white Americans before about 1830, many felt threatened by the advent of religious diversity—Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and the syncretism of African traditions with Christianity among enslaved people and free blacks. Did their mounting alarm bear some relationship to the coming of the Civil War? The scholarship of the last decade, with its emphasis on the economic interdependence of North and South, suggests the importance of probing antebellum culture more deeply to account for that conflict’s origins.

It’s important, then, that southern whites came to regard the North as swarming with free blacks who debased Protestantism, with immigrant Catholics who vilified Protestantism, and with spiritual one-worlders who reduced Protestantism to one among many religious options. Similarly, more and more northerners found southern slaveholders morally defective and spiritually suspect, deepening suspicions of the Slave Power’s ambition to annex regions with large Catholic populations. “Crisis in American Christendom” explores the ways in which those anxieties shaped attitudes toward slavery and militated against compromise. It is a tale for our own times as well, a reckoning with Americans in the past who lost their sense of sharing a common ground, each regarding the other as beyond reclamation for betraying fundamental beliefs.

21 January 2020

About the Author

Christine Heyrman is Robert W. and Shirley P. Grimble Professor of American History at the University of Delaware.

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