A central question for historians of the nineteenth-century United States is how and why the evangelical consensus that dominated American life for most of the century fell apart by the century’s end. I address this question by looking at one denomination, the bulk of whose membership lived in the trans-Appalachian South and the lower Midwest. Focusing on one denomination averts the shortcomings of studying American evangelicalism as a homogenous whole when it was no such thing; moreover, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, because it was arguably the largest denomination not to divide along sectional lines during the Civil War era, allows us to find important continuities across time (before and after the war) and space (north and south of the Mason-Dixon line).
And what do I find? That the heart of the evangelical consensus was the project of the Christian nation, or the belief that America had a special mission to purify the church and evangelize the globe—and that this was fatally undermined by the very forces it was meant to address: namely, the religious marketplace and the institution of slavery.
Like many other denominations, Cumberland Presbyterians believed their church was uniquely destined to shape the future of the Christian nation. As evidence, they pointed to their republican form of church government, commonsense “medium theology” between Calvinism and Arminianism, origins and predominance in the trans-Appalachian West, Scotch-Irish heritage, and moderation on the great questions of slavery and Reconstruction. They spoke in this way to justify their continued existence as a separate denomination; after all, the church began somewhat in spite of itself, when a few Presbyterian preachers in Kentucky and Tennessee were suspended in 1805 for rejecting Calvinist predestination. But by 1906, when the Cumberland Presbyterians reunited with the northern Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., different understandings of the denomination’s destiny had emerged. Proponents of union saw it as proof that they had moderated Presbyterianism and ushered in a new era in God, while opponents of union saw it as a dangerous muddying of what remained important theological differences.
Meanwhile, the realities and legacies of slavery presented problems of their own. Was slavery an instrument of or a stain upon the Christian nation? Were black people destined to be co-agents of the Christian nation, or were they destined to leave America and evangelize Africa? Should slaveholders be barred from communion or, after the war, former slaveholders forced to repent? The church’s compromises on these questions bespoke both its material dependency on slave labor and its commitment to white supremacy. After all, though the church proudly claimed to have stayed united throughout the Civil War era, this claim ignored one-fifth of its membership—the formerly enslaved—who ultimately formed a separate church in 1874. And during the reunification process of the 1900s there was debate over whether the PCUSA would allow for racially segregated judicatories, and concern that the union was being hampered by lingering hostilities from the Civil War.