Religious Groups, Benevolent Organizations, and American Pluralism

Edward Kilsdonk / University of Virginia

I once attempted to count the benevolent organizations in the United States between 1800 and 1840. I stopped counting after I found dozens of national or regional organizations and many hundreds of local auxiliaries. By any measure, there were a lot of organizations created by religious people who were attempting to improve the lives of themselves, of their neighbors, and of people they had never met and never would meet. This paper is a brief look at the American Bible Society, the most significant of these organizations, and of some moments where benevolent organizations interacted with the Methodist, the Presbyterian and the Baptist churches in the United States.

"Benevolent organizations were also founded with the hope that by uniting all religious people in a common cause they could create a common Christianity."

The Benevolent Empire is a catch-all phrase used to identify the interlocking moral reform societies that were prevalent throughout Jacksonian America. The earliest of these societies were founded at the start of the nineteenth century following British models, and at first they shared the British crusade against the ideological perils of the French Revolution. The American versions soon moved in different directions; as the perceived need to combat infidelity faded after first few years of the nineteenth century the American societies turned to perfecting society, improving the morals of their fellows, and proselytizing the nation and the world. The first societies were local, serving a town or a region. Later societies were regional, especially in New England and Eastern Pennsylvania. In 1816 the American Bible Society, the first of many national reform societies, was founded in New-York City. These national reform societies were controlled by a small group of New-York based merchants and ministers, they were driven by the moderate Calvinism of the Hopkinsian wing of the Congregational church (a theology that soon spread to the Presbyterian church) and by the Evangelical wing of the Episcopalians, and their repeated emphasis on order, energy, and central direction made them look like a small empire. Following on the model of the American Bible Society, most early benevolent societies featured a board of managers and a large number of auxiliary societies spread across the nation. The auxiliaries both collected money to fund the society and distributed the works of the society while the national board created the contents and communicated directly with its far-flung auxiliaries. Most benevolent societies were headquartered in New-York, where they shared interlocking boards of directors, held their annual meetings in May in a month long extravaganza of emotion and fellowship, and shared assumptions about civic religion and civil society; the reformers made an identifiable block in the national consciousness. They saw themselves pursuing the common good of society, selflessly, and with the goal of bringing the nation to religion and morality. They saw this as a general movement towards religion, and were not self-consciously engaged in proselytizing the nation for their denominational beliefs.

Benevolent organizations were also founded with the hope that by uniting all religious people in a common cause they could create a common Christianity. Paradoxically their overall effect was to strengthen denominational identity and denominational ties. This is because denominational leaders saw benevolent organizations as a threat to the ideas and practices of church members. Denominations distanced themselves from benevolent organizations over issues of doctrine and control, and in doing so the denominations firmed up their distinctive doctrines and disciplines. The advocates and leaders of the benevolent associations called for a form of Christian union that, to outsiders, smelt of amalgamation and of a particular flavor of post-Calvinist revivalism, and this tendency towards amalgamation inspired other denominations to emphasize their peculiar tenets and practices. Some benevolent institutions survived, but they did so either because they concentrated on a single simple task or because they were explicitly linked to particular denominations without any pretense of a wider appeal.

The interdenominational benevolent organizations that sprung up after the War of 1812 have been studied by historians for years. Tocqueville argued that Americans were who they were because of the way that they gathered together in voluntary associations, and churches and benevolent organizations were classic examples of this social form. More recently there have been two common ways in which historians have tried to make sense of these organizations and the era in which they thrived. Starting in the early 1960s a group of social control historians emphasized the ways in which these people, especially the Calvinists who dominated the benevolent empire, were attempting to remake their society into stricter forms. 1 These historians emphasized temperance, slavery, and the sense of moral stewardship among the leaders of the benevolent movements. Other more recent variations on moral reform as social control have been influenced by readings of E. P. Thompson's classic work on traditional societies and capitalist organization. Historians such as Paul Johnson and Charles Sellers have argued that the benevolent empire was central to the transformation of American society and the American economy from pre-capitalist to capitalist forms.2

A second broad school has looked more at the religious outsiders, most especially Methodists, Baptists, and radical sectarians. Exemplified by Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity, these scholars have emphasized the extent to which religion in the Jacksonian era was organized around opposition to Calvinist claims of hierarchy, and was instead a way in which ordinary people could overturn established orders and make social space for themselves.3 For Hatch religion is revolutionary, not establishmentarian. Similarly, Laurence Moore argues that religious outsiders are, in many ways, the source of true American religion.4 This paper, by contrast, looks at the relationships between benevolent organizations and religious denominations.

The sculpture of benevolence was built on an armature of Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Although the leaders and publicists of the benevolent empire prided themselves on the non-sectarian nature of their organizations, in practice most of the members, energy, and funding came from Calvinists, with Hopkinsian revival-driven Calvinists at the forefront. Although its members thought of themselves as representatives of the whole of society, acting for the common weal of the whole in obvious and necessary ways, most of them were members of the growing commercial and clerical middle classes. They were located in the cities and towns and were integrally linked to the increased commercialization of production and exchange, the growing cash nexus known to historians as the market revolution. Although its members saw themselves trying to help the entire nation, their conception of what that nation ought to be was rooted in life experiences on Eastern farms and in the seaport cities; their conception of life along the Western, Northern, or rural frontiers was sketchy, as was their imagination of life in the poorer wards of the seaport cities themselves.

In the summer of 1816 a series of public announcements, proposed constitutions, and letter-writing campaigns announced the attempt to create a national American Bible Society modeled after the 1804 British and Foreign Bible Society. The British Society had been created by a coalition of Tories and evangelicals in the midst of Britain's long struggle against Napoleon's armies abroad and Revolutionary ideas at home, and it had given funding and support to America's regional Bible societies.5 Now Americans were seeking to create their own version of the British institution, organized on aggressively non-sectarian lines, in order to more efficiently spread religion across the Unites States and the world.6 In the process the founders of the American Bible Society managed to bring together on a national scale, in the new commercial capital New York, the organizational framework for what would be a widespread effort to remake the manners and morals of the new nation.7

"Episcopalian Bishop John Henry Hobart opposed the American Bible Society even though prominent Episcopalians such as the Jay family supported it."

The national scale of the organization and the ambition of the title, calling it an American Bible Society, made it stand out even more. The United States had just barely escaped from a difficult war with its national pride and territorial integrity intact. The nation was still very much a collection of regions, loosely bound together by the postal service and by the national hagiography of Washington and the Revolution. Any organization that claimed to be national, to speak for the whole, received attention. It received more if it was to engage in systematic correspondence with England and with Continental Europe. Claiming to be national in its title, it was assumed that it would represent the nation as a whole, that it would not put forward the interests of a class, region or party but would rather provide fairly for all Americans. The American Bible Society was able to fulfil these expectations, despite a strong political and sectarian bias in its founding. Other organizations would fail in this promise, and the disappointments created by failed national organizations would shape the terms on which religious organizations would interact for a generation afterwards.

Like the British Society, the American Bible Society avoided many of the difficulties which had threatened the various tract societies that had preceded it by insisting that the Bibles it distributed all be "the version in common circulation" (i.e., the King James Bible) and that it be distributed "without note or comment." The American Bible Society made a great deal of its constitutional provision to distribute the Bible without note or comment. This was the symbol of the non-denominational, non-doctrinal Christianity espoused by the society, and this made it possible for members of all the major denominations to join.

Episcopalian Bishop John Henry Hobart opposed the American Bible Society even though prominent Episcopalians such as the Jay family supported it. More precisely, Hobart felt that while the American Bible Society was a good thing, Episcopalians should not get involved with it, or with the Sunday School Union, or with any of the other inter-denominational benevolent organizations. He feared that his flock would be tempted away by the Calvinist evangelicals who provided the bulk of the energy and membership, that the various non-doctrinal benevolent societies were in fact espousing a de-facto set of doctrines, and that these doctrines were antithetical to the essential beliefs of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Instead he urged churchmen to join Episcopalian versions of these societies, giving Bibles and the Book of Common Prayer to those who needed it.8

Hobart's belief that only ordained Episcopal minsters should preach to Episcopalians, for others were fraudulent, and his belief that the forms of the Book of Common Prayer were superior to any extemporaneous offering of praise, led him to challenge the operations of the American Bible Society and the other benevolent institutions because they were de facto evangelical prayer meetings. Hobart pointed out that while the Bible Societies did not have sermons read to them, they did have long addresses made to them. While the American Bible Society claimed to be in the business of solely distributing the Bible "without note or comment" in practice it also distributed accounts of its anniversaries, the annual business meetings and oratorical festivals that were celebrated each May; the ABS also distributed fund-raising appeals, and it printed and reprinted the various speeches made at the anniversary meetings.9 All of these publications served to spread a set of theological notions and a set of assumptions about proper religious behavior.

The various critics of the benevolent empire worried that organized benevolence would favor particular religious forms in public life. In addition confessional religious leaders objected to the implication that the cherished and distinctive forms of their religious practice were, in the end, no more than matters of custom. Apostolic succession, Baptism of believers, perseverance of the saints: all doctrines at the heart of various Christian practices, all doctrines that gave meaning and organization to collections of believers -- all were declared to be trivial points by the broad ecumenical rhetoric of the American Bible Society. Even worse, people who felt an attachment to their doctrines, or who worried that perhaps the evangelizing efforts were not well directed, or who suggested that perhaps local organizations would be better than a national form, were likely to find themselves read out of the rhetorical mainstream and bundled together with infidels, outcasts, and the excesses of the French Revolution. This attitude led many to worry that benevolence was a new route to some sort of Calvinist establishment. Every call for unity was, to Hobart and to many others, actually a call for surrender.

An important part of the mission of the ABS was translating the Bible and distributing it, or at least the New Testament, to as many people as possible. Without this, it was impossible to convert the world, but with this, such was the faith in the self-explanatory power of the Word, conversion of the world would surely follow quickly. The translating process started soon after the ABS was founded, with Bibles translated to the Iroquois and distributed in upstate New York. Meanwhile the large and flourishing Baptist missionary community at Serampore was also engaged in translating the Bible into the various Indian languages, and received grants from the British and Foreign Bible Society and its Calcutta auxiliary as well as some assistance from the ABS.

In the early 1830s problems developed. The Baptists in India and Burma had been translating the Bible into the vernacular as best they could, using the local equivalents for the words and translating the plain sense of the words, as they understood them, as clearly as possible. As part of this they resisted taking words directly from the Greek or Hebrew except as absolutely necessary. In both of these principles they were conforming to the general pattern of Bible translation. The problem came when, in 1834, the Burma mission asked the Calcutta Bible Society for funds for their new translation. Calcutta refused, ostensibly because the Baptists were translating as "immerse" but, the Baptists charged, because the Independent missionaries in India were jealous of Baptist success and wanted to slow their efforts so that the Independents might catch up.

The Baptists then applied to the American Bible Society for support, explaining why they were asking for funds, and thus for the first time formally indicating to the ABS that all of the Baptist translations that they had been funding had taken the local word for "immerse" and used it in place of . This was exactly the doctrinal problem that the ABS had been finessing since before its foundation. The Bible Society spent two years moving the question into and out of committees before finally adopting a majority report urging that the word be taken into new translations and not converted. In this way missionaries of all denominations could explain the plain sense of the word as they saw fit, without being embarrassed because their practices were contradicted by the text. The lone Baptist member of these committees wrote minority reports, argued the case among the board of Managers and, when most Baptists finally resigned in disgust from the American Bible Society, became the first president of the Baptist's new organization: the American and Foreign Bible Society. 10

This schism challenged the notion of the impartiality of the American Bible Society and, implicitly, of the possibility of agreement among Christians without regard to the details of doctrinal belief. For some people, God was in the details. As Baptist apologist W. H. Wykoff put the question in 1842:

To transfer into a foreign tongue, is a virtual acknowledgment that it has not the fixed meaning, immerse. To insist upon such a transfer, is directly and openly to favour the Paedo-baptist side of the question. To patronize only such versions as make the transfer, is to patronize only Paedo-baptist versions. Unless, therefore, the Managers assume that the Paedo-baptists are so indisputably right, that to hold their views is not to be sectarian, they must acknowledge that they extend patronage to sectarian versions. If they do insist that Paedo-baptists only are right, and so indisputably right that their views are in no sense sectarian, then the American Bible Society becomes to all intents and purposes, Paedo-baptist.11

For Wykoff and the American and Foreign Bible Society, there was no middle ground available for compromise. The ABS was attempting to subvert individual's clear understanding of the purpose and meaning of the Holy Scriptures by offering financial rewards and organizational penalties. It was dictating conscience, and they would not go along with this. The split over Bible translation in foreign missions was a crucial moment in convincing many Baptists that, despite their general agreement with many of the national benevolent movements, they were better off developing their own institutions and infrastructure.

While controversies over foreign missions split the American Bible Society, the most significant denominational consequence of the domestic missionary movement was the schism in the Presbyterian church. The split into New School and Old School Presbyterian churches was driven in large part by concerns over the education and governance of the people carrying out domestic missions. Missions were not the only point of contention within the Presbyterian church, but Missionaries were tied to the arguments about religious doctrine, about slavery, and about the nature of a true church. The trouble between the two sides simmered through the late 1820s, and in the early 1830s the divisions were sharpened by an extended controversy over the proper nature of the relationship between inter-denominational domestic charities and the Presbyterian Church.

The American Education Society subsidized pious young men who were training for the ministry. It grew out of the missionary movement and was closely tied to the American Home Missionary Society. In time it expanded its operations from the New England congregations to the national Reformed churches, and in doing so it alarmed many Presbyterians.

Archibald Alexander was not noted for hysteria or controversy. Still, he worried about maintaining Presbyterian identity against the threat of benevolent organizations. He wrote:

"For Alexander the problem came when the benevolent societies began to expand their operation into realms previously regarded as denominational."

The question which now presses itself on the attention of every Presbyterian is, whether we had best give up this whole concern into the hands of the A.E.S.; or whether we should endeavor, as a church, and by our constitutional judicatories to retain some control over the education of the candidates for the ministry, within our limits. The Society, mentioned above, have recently given a new organization to the Presbyterian branch, & enlarged its powers, professedly with the design of operating in the Presbyterian church. ... A large portion of our church is already enlisted under the banners of this powerful Society; and soon it will exercise a control over our candidates which no ecclesiastical bodies will be able to resist. Whether this will tend to the real prosperity of our church is a question of grave consideration.12

For Alexander the problem came when the benevolent societies began to expand their operation into realms previously regarded as denominational. It was one thing for the AES to collect money for likely young men. It was another for it to steer these men towards the Presbyterian church, direct their education, and perhaps even try to ordain them. Now the societies were beginning to interfere with the ability of the existing church organizations to replicate themselves, and that was where the line was drawn. Even Alexander, who was a strong friend of foreign missions and active in local domestic missionary societies, could not countenance that level of interference. The Old School Presbyterians precipitated the schism in their church, not over theology or slavery, but because the New Schoolers were threatening to turn the rising generation over to the benevolent societies, and in effect were willing to give up future the Presbyterian church in order to more effectively work with other organizations for the moment.

Despite encouraging signs such as the American Bible Society and the coordinated movement to bring religion to seamen, the early press for a coordinated national union of inter-denominational cooperation did not work out in practice. While the several denominations could easily get together to give religion to those who did not yet have it, they were unable to agree on what those who had religion should do with it. It was easy enough to give Bibles to the Heathen, or to the settlers in Louisiana. It was easy enough to encourage wild uncouth sailors to come to church. It was even easy enough to gather, either in a common prayer meeting or in the separate churches, and pray that the nation become more godly. When it came time to define and enforce that godliness, however, fears of Calvinist popery resurfaced and in the process the common front of benevolence fell apart into sectarian bickering. And while the Hopkinsians and New Schoolers of New England were notorious for their attempts to create a normative national culture, these fights took place across the country.

The rise and splintering of the benevolent empire shows how the lingering commonwealth urge of the Revolution and early settlement was first expressed and then resisted by those who realized the implications of having one group, representative or not, speak as if they were the sole guardians of the common good. Many of the members of the benevolent empire were more than Whiggish in their sentiments, and while many of those who broke with them were also skeptical of Jacksonian democracy, they were also unwilling to give control of the public sphere to a group of Calvinists, no matter how attenuated or Hopkinsian their doctrines. Ironically the promise of Madison's Federalist 10 was fulfilled most unexpectedly and belatedly, not in the political realm as he imagined it but in the broader realm of American society, almost fifty years after Madison originally made his observations.


1. Charles I. Foster, An errand of mercy; the Evangelical united front, 1790-1837, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1960, Clifford S. Griffin Their Brothers' Keepers: Moral Stewardship in the United States, 1800-1865, Rutgers University Press, 1960

2. E.P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, New York, Vintage Books, 1966 (1963), Customs in Common, New York, The New Press, 1993. Paul Johnson, Shopkeepers' Millennium, New York, Hill and Wang, 197makes the most explicit use of Thompson, but similar insights can be found in Sean Wilentz' Chants Democratic New York, Oxford University Press, 1984 and in Sellers ambitious The Market Revolution, New York, Oxford University Press, 1991.

3. See Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1991. For a more nuanced presentation of the Methodist Church, see John Wigger's Taking Heaven by Storm, Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

4. R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

5. Charles Foster, An Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790-1837, Chapel Hill, 1960 gives a good view of the British antecedents to the American benevolent empire. For a different view of class antagonism and revolutionary ideology in Great Britain E. P. Thompson's classic The Making of the English Working Class is a good resource. Note that in Britain a national tract society preceded the Bible society while in America the other pattern prevailed. In part this pattern seems to stem from the different political imperatives of the two nations, and in part it comes from the greater denominational differentiation in the United States. Of course, given that for many European evangelicals the threat of the French Revolution was far more important than inter-denominational differences about the nature of Christianity, this is perhaps a distinction without a difference. The British and Foreign Bible Society was something of a johnny-come lately compared to the Church of England's Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but its energy, organization, and fund-raising acumen quickly left the older organization moribund and abandoned by all but high churchmen.

6. In fact a proposed Constitution for the ABS named it the American and Foreign Bible Society. Christian Herald, Vol I, (April 27, 1816) page 73.

7. There is an extensive historiography of the benevolent empire. The "social control" thesis has argued that the empire was a group of conservatives who started out by using religion to divert the threat of revolutionary disorder and who later ended up using religion to make the world safe for capitalism. Important works in this genre include:; Paul Johnson A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837, New York, 1978, and more recently Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, Oxford University Press, 1991. Others have emphasized the extent to which the members and organizations of the benevolent empire were first interested in coercing themselves, placing the enterprise in the context of middle-class formation in the nineteenth century. Important works here include Mary Page Ryan Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865, Cambridge University Press, 1981; Richard R. John "Taking Sabbatarianism Seriously: The Postal System, the Sabbath, and the Transformation of American Political Culture", JER Vol 10 No 4 (Winter 1990) p 517-567; and Katherine Kish Sklar Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity, New York, 1976. Others have used it differently, with Lori D. Ginzberg, for example, emphasizing the importance of class, institutional benevolence and the work of organizing to evolutions in gender roles during the nineteenth century in her Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States, Yale University Press, 1990.

8. For similar groups of activist laymen, see Beecher's efforts in Boston, Cross, Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, vol 2. See also Sean Wilentz' unsympathetic description of these social visitors in Chants Democratic.

9. Hobart's charges are found in "A Reply to a Letter to the Right Rev. Bishop Hobart, occasioned by the Strictures on Bible Societies, Contained in his Late Address to the Convention of New-York, by a Churchman of the Diocese of New-York, in A Letter to that Gentleman", By Corrector [Bishop John Henry Hobart], May, 1823. (New York, T&J Swords, 1823.) pages 68-70. See also Hobart's "An Address, delivered to the Annual Convention of the Protestant Episcopal church in the State of New-York: held in St. Paul's Church in the City of Troy, on Tuesday, October 15th, and Wednesday, October 16th, 1822." (New York, T.&J. Swords, 1823). For examples of the rhetoric of the ABS, accounts of the anniversaries and speeches are conveniently found in the Christian Herald for May and June of any year.

10. W. H. Wyckoff The American Bible Society and The Baptists, the question discussed, Shall the whole word of God be given to the Heathen? Second Edition, New York, John R. Bigelow. 1842. Pp 80-100

11. W. H. Wyckoff, The American Bible Society and the Baptists, New York, 1842. page 104.

12. Alexander to McDowell, July 6, 1831. Cited from Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol 2 (1910) 288-289.

homeReturn to the American Religious Experience Main Page