Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 320-321
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Piety in Providence:
Class Dimensions of Religious Experience in Antebellum Rhode Island
Piety in Providence: Class Dimensions of Religious Experience in Antebellum Rhode Island. By Mark S. Schantz (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2000) 280pp. $45.00
In this excellent monograph, Schantz describes and analyzes the "bifurcation" of Providence's original religious experience, which united rich and poor, into a stratified world of opposing bourgeois and "plebeian" cultures. He begins by analyzing the earlier picture of Providence at the turn of the nineteenth century. The town's four churches drew members from all walks of life and considered it their duty to provide material aid to the poor; ministers sermonized about the need to temper the pursuit of individual success with attention to the needs of larger society.
In the meantime, a plebeian religious culture arose in Rhode Island's rapidly growing mill villages (76). There, Freewill Baptists and Methodists practiced an emotional, anti-Calvinistic faith that relied heavily on the power of individual preachers, including women, and very little on church architecture. With the revival of 1819, the plebes gained a foothold in Providence. In addition to working-class Freewill Baptist and Methodist congregations, an all-African-American church soon formed, followed by a more middle-class Universalist Church, that, nevertheless, spouted radical-sounding democratic rhetoric. Schantz rightly shows awareness of the mutability of working-class religion, as once-radical-sounding sects, such as the Methodists, became respectable in Providence within less than a generation; replacing them in the 1830s and 1840s were the Mormons, Millerites, and Irish Catholics.
As the working classes formed their own congregations, the Calvinistic Baptist, Episcopal, Congregational, and Unitarian churches wholeheartedly embraced a "bourgeois religious culture" (119). Though espousing different theologies, the four different denominations were united by (1) the practice of selling ever more costly pews, (2) a preference for a religion of the head over the heart, and (3) an open embrace of the individual pursuit of wealth. They were divided only by gender; some of their women's groups criticized the evil effects of business practices on the city's impoverished.
Plebeian and bourgeois cultures came to clash during Rhode Island's Dorr War, which pitted popular forces seeking to eliminate the state's anachronistic suffrage requirements against a conservative Law and Order party. A Universalist and several Freewill Baptist preachers explicitly defended the Dorrites. Meanwhile, the bourgeois ministers condemned the rebels as anarchists and their church hierarchies expelled Dorrites as members. Interestingly, bourgeois women continued to provide a critique of their own class, organizing as "suffrage ladies" to provide aid to imprisoned rebels (206). But by the 1850s, the bourgeoisie had consolidated control over Providence's religious culture. Formerly plebeian churches had all become respectable; female reformers joined ranks with the men to establish quiescent shelters of moral uplift for the poor; and the Catholics were ignored by all. [End Page 320]
The author uses a wide variety of sources and methodologies to craft his tale: church membership records, city directories, and tax figures to calculate the relative wealth and social standing of churches; anthropological analyses of parades and street theater to analyze the gendering of religious experience; and traditional literary documentation to examine the thoughts of the area's ministers, missionaries, radicals, and ordinary laypersons. Schantz's work falters only in his chapters on plebeian culture and the Dorr Rebellion, when he relies on literary evidence almost exclusively. The analysis of plebeian religious culture is rich in thick description but thin on the social identity of the Millerites and Mormons, and their relationship to the Freewill Baptists and Methodists, who suddenly, and confusingly, disappear from view. Likewise, the Dorr War chapter leaves unstudied the exact identity of the mass of Dorrites (if impossible to ascertain, Schantz should say so). Nevertheless, this is a first-rate study that no historian of religion in North America will want to miss.
Daniel P. Jones
New Jersey State Archives