- “Making Men What They Should Be”:Male Same-Sex Intimacy and Evangelical Religion in Early Nineteenth-Century New England
Perhaps Hiram felt a warm breath on his cheek before realizing that he was awake. The sensation of lips touching his flesh started his heart pounding. It was a kiss. From what dream had he been so abruptly interrupted? A faint glimpse of moonlight offered the only illumination in the dark garret room. Hiram tried to remain perfectly still. A second kiss. The sensation of flesh touching flesh convinced him it was not a dream. He felt a warm hand moving across the surface of his body. Hiram turned, looked up with surprise, feigned sudden wakefulness, and pulled away. His voice was the first to break the silent spell of the accelerated breath of two men. Conversation immediately ensued, with both laughter and invective displacing the moment of silence, sensation, and uncertainty.
This not entirely imagined rendering of an encounter in the dark reconsiders a rare documented case of sexual contact between men in early America. Darkness usually shadows or completely obscures the sensory experiences, emotions, or conversations that historians might hope to discover in bedrooms shared by men in the past. Scandal and publicity have regularly exposed certain kinds of sexual encounters while bypassing others. By experimenting with prose that evokes lived experiences of bodies and feelings that are often silenced in the archives, scholars can engage [End Page 345] not in a fictionalizing of the past but rather in a kind of “thick imagining” of the historically possible.1
This essay explores a little-known, yet richly revealing, episode of a sex scandal involving an evangelical preacher during the era of religious revivals and early industrialization in the nineteenth-century United States. In the summer of 1835 Eleazer Sherman, a well-known revivalist preacher associated with a small denomination called the Christian Connection, was accused of improper sexual conduct with the men with whom he lodged during his travels as an itinerant preacher. In the early American republic (the era between the American Revolution and Civil War) there were hundreds of documented sex scandals involving revivalist preachers. Sherman’s case, however, is the only known instance of a clergyman having been accused and tried (in a religious tribunal) for same-sex sexual advances.2
Members of the growing number of evangelical sects during this period faced continual dilemmas when erotic spirituality crossed the line into erotic carnality, when clergymen and laypersons took metaphors too literally or slipped from religious passions into sexual passions. In this climate, sex scandals seem to have followed popular evangelical religion wherever it flourished.3 [End Page 346] Countless scandals involving clergymen ruptured the veneer of harmony and respectability in local churches and towns and exposed how competitive was the marketplace of religious sects during the age of revivals. These social dramas almost always involved a clergyman and a female parishioner, or they arose from the imagined promiscuities of women who dared to ascend to the pulpit.4 Eleazer Sherman’s scandal played out on a much smaller scale than more notorious incidents of clergy misconduct, such as the adultery accusations leveled at Henry Ward Beecher, the most popular preacher in the nineteenth-century United States. It is precisely the intimate scale of this episode that exposes the rich and complicated intersection of religion and sexuality within revivalist Christianity in the early American republic.
This essay joins a growing body of scholarship that explores not merely the obvious conflicts between religion and sexuality but also the ways in which sex and religion were both embodied in the past. Both religion and sexuality are crucial to webs of meaning associated with feeling, emotion, bodies, communication, and the constitution of the self; both have also been central to discourses about freedom, power, commerce, and the configuration of “the political” in the United States since the eighteenth century.5 Here I examine the relationship of religion and sexuality by investigating the ways in which early evangelical piety embodied desire and eroticism and the ways in which the scandalous can reveal quotidian expressions of love, intimacy, and desire in evangelicals’ conversations, writings, relationships, and communities...