Religion In Indiana: 1830s

Author: David G. Vanderstel, Phd.

Religious practices and feelings are difficult to interpret. Because of the private nature of religious thought, one must rely upon hypotheses, developed from readings of personal letters and a comprehension of church doctrines of the time, about the importance of religion in the daily lives of past families. For the purpose of interpretation, some hypotheses which characterize the period in general and help distinguish the varieties of religious persuasions are provided.

In general, religion played a far more integrated role in the lives of people in the 1830s than we might recognize today. Religious doctrines and ideas were more readily included in everyone's interpretation of social, political, economic, and scientific affairs. Even scoffers had a difficult time ridding themselves of past religious influences. Most Jacksonian Americans admitted the existence of some supernatural power that guided (or could forcibly alter) the course of their lives; therefore, sin and virtue were accepted as hard fact.


The Age of Jackson was more religious but less churched than today. Church membership was a serious binding affair, not merely a social convenience. Most Protestant churches, even the Western evangelicals, required new members to adopt a confession of specific beliefs and to provide evidence of a conversion experience inspired by the Holy Spirit. In a society that took religious language seriously, this commitment was not easily made; a false account of conversion, after all, was a punishable sin. Church membership in the 1830s was surprisingly small; attendance was normally higher than membership.

The main theological issues of the 1830s focused on the nature of salvation and man's role in the process of being saved. A century's debate had not resolved the theoretical problems of election, grace, and good works. As the nineteenth century progressed and the evangelical revivals proved repeatedly successful, most Protestant denominations shifted their emphasis to salvation itself rather the process by which it occurred. Especially in the West, churches began to quantify their missionary results and record the progress of carrying out the Lord's work. Consequently, there was a greater interdenominational rivalry and competition for converts; this tended to obscure the real theological positions of the denominations and substitute more obvious differences in style or liturgical worship. Those churches with formally educated clergy, liturgical forms, and an intellectual style of sermonizing fared poorly in the West compared to the more enthusiastic denominations which were led by spirited laymen and called orators who preached more to the heart than to the head. Even though religious conversion was an intensely personal event, the growing emphasis on the event itself and the calculus of salvation led to mass conversions in revival and camp meeting sessions.

It is important to recognize that theological confusion and denominational competition resulted in contradictory positions for churches and individuals alike. Membership in a particular denomination often did not correspond with a full set of beliefs and individuals frequently mixed sentimental attitudes toward the Almighty with stern piety and austere religious practice. The confusion was undoubtedly a factor both in the high instability of religious affiliations and in the tendency of churches to divide into competing units. Perhaps because church membership was a serious commitment, individuals developed detailed attachments to their congregations, which were quickly broken or which divided their fellowship when theological and or liturgical differences arose.

Particular aspects of religion are perhaps best seen within a range of beliefs from which individuals selected doctrinal ideas. Some Protestant churches emphasized the depravity of man and his sinful state as an inevitable condition of being (Presbyterians and Congregationalists), while more evangelical groups stressed sins of transgression and urged personal piety and moral reform as instruments of salvation. At a time when the secular culture was being swept with optimism about the perfectibility of human society, churches were hard pressed not to incorporate that enthusiasm into their own ideas of salvation. Western revivalistic groups, tended to raise their hopes for the improvement of man's mortal soul, thereby seeking a life of perfectionism.

The character of God was similarly confused in the 1830s. The stern judge and patriarch of most eighteenth century images had been overlaid with sentimental portraits of sweet Jesus the Lamb. The contradiction inherent in a vengeful Father and a soft, loving Son bothered no one. Nowhere was the image more confused than in the emotional fervor of the camp meeting where fire and brimstone mixed freely with the blood of the Lamb and the love of the Savior until participants came face to face with both damnation and salvation.

Church organization was another point of contention about which Jacksonians might exercise their tempers. The age-old question of hierarchy divided American Protestants throughout our period. Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists possessed a full hierarchical structure of church polity. Presbyterians retained their modified structures while Congregationalists, Baptists, and most other denominations arranged loose conferences of independent congregations. Local control over confessional members was the heart of the structural issue, but the organizational stance of a particular denomination did not depend on its theological position. For example, Congregationalists, with far more conservative religious opinions, demanded a level of strict local independence that frontier Methodists would never consider. Of course, lurking behind the issue of hierarchy was the Roman Catholic Church, with its implications of human empire and totalitarian rule embodied within the personage of the pope. Jacksonian Americans, in a sense, resented too much hierarchy and tended to resist the accumulation of ecclesiastical power.

The separation of church and state notwithstanding, Americans in the 1830s were quick to see God's hand in public and national affairs. From its inception, the American Republic had carried a mantle of religion: America was a new Israel, an instrument for God's redemption of the world, an example of the Christian Commonwealth on earth. This political theology survived the romantic movement in the early 1800s and was strengthened by the popular celebration of America's westward movement and impending continental destiny. In an age of moral reform, the impetus to improve the race spilled across such virtues as temperance, thrift and cleanliness, family devotion, sexual piety, and spiritual salvation. Religion was credited as a civilizing force, and therefore, it was promoted in the West for the purpose of bringing order and propriety to the pioneers. In response to this missionary impulse, most western states prepared a congenial environment for young churches and encouraged their multiplication. The failure of many small villages, like ours, to have churches of their own did not indicate a public indifference to religion, but rather too much competition among denominations which were unwilling to work together in a common ecumenical effort. Nevertheless, America's westward movement was a distinctly Christian, Protestant phenomenon.

In the 1830s, most religious organizations in Indiana were imported units filled with new arrivals from somewhere else. Furthermore, probably more churches were founded by the influence of missionaries than grew up spontaneously from woodland cabins. For the year 1836, there were 319 congregations throughout an eighteen county area of Indiana. Most of these groups met in private homes, barns, schools, or outside; less than half had regular church buildings for worship. Of the 319 churches, 118 were Methodist groups which had evolved from a larger number of informal classes. Baptists had organized 75 congregations, the Disciples of Christ 42, Presbyterians 39, Friends 24, and United Brethren 11; there were 10 other miscellaneous groups. These early churches, no matter how irregular or formal their arrangements or doctrines, exercised significant influence on their communities and served as arbiters of social and moral conduct in the formative years of community building.

Major Denominations in Central Indiana

Despite the great diversity of American religious denominations in the 19th century, all of the major ones represented in central Indiana in the 1830s were rooted in the Reformed tradition (Protestant Reformation) of Calvin, Knox and Zwingli.

1) The Methodist Episcopal Church in America originated in the teaching of English clergyman John Wesley in his efforts to reform the Anglican Church, and was perpetuated by Wesley's disciple Francis Asbury. Asbury's success in America was due in part to his recognition of the different conditions of the American frontier and his actions in adapting Wesley's ideas and Methodist doctrine to this new region. American Methodism differed from English Methodism since it was flexible and responsive to change in the growing American society, which accounted for its phenomenal success in America and Indiana.

The Methodist Church was the largest and fastest growing denomination in Indiana in the 1830s with 118 congregations in central Indiana; Hamilton County had four Methodist societies with an annual increase in the Noblesville circuit of 103 members.

Methodist organization was an episcopacy, or a government by bishops or hierarchy. The General Superintendent was the national officer who presided over the General Conference which met every four years to set church policy. The Annual Conference actually administered the operation of the church, and the bishop presided over this meeting. Hamilton County was under the care of the Indiana Conference which approved and ordained ministers and assigned them to circuits and stations.

The District Quarterly Conference was supervised by a presiding elder who oversaw numerous local circuits. Hamilton County Methodists were in the Indianapolis District in 1836, under the care of Presiding Elder James Havens.

A Circuit consisted of several societies or local churches within a specified area which could be served by a single Circuit Rider within two or three weeks. The local Circuit was centered in Noblesville and was served by circuit rider Jesse C. Harbin; after October 1836, the minister was Hiram Griggs.

Societies were served by local preachers who could become local elders and deacons after a period of service. The local Society was broken up into neighborhood Class Meetings, which handled discipline and served as the basic unit of the Methodist Church. Local Societies met regularly for worship consisting of preaching, praying, and singing hymns. Class Meetings were also once a week, often at night, at which time the Class Leader questioned each member of the class about his or her adherence to the Methodist faith.

Camp meetings were a distinct and vital part of American Methodism, particularly the Protracted Meeting which lasted as long as four days. The annual meeting took place in late August or early September. While it provided an opportunity to socialize among fellow Methodists, the primary purpose was the conversion of attenders and the revival of religious feelings among members. Preaching, exhortations, fervent prayer, and Methodist hymns all contributed to the emotionally charged mood of the camp meeting.

Methodist theology was rooted in the Calvinist concept of the total depravity of man, but adapted the Arminian concept of free grace and salvation offered to all. Man had sufficient free will to accept "justification by faith," to repent of his sins, and to accept the regeneration of his soul; preferably, this was evidenced by a visible conversion experience. Emotional and ecstatic experiences were generally considered as explicit, though not absolute, evidence of salvation. The Lord's Supper was open only to members and was a symbolic remembrance of God's grace. Baptism symbolized the regeneration of the Spirit and the washing away of sins. Infant and adult baptism was practiced, generally by sprinkling though occasionally by immersion.

2) The Baptist Church originated in the left wing of the English Reformed movement. However, the Baptist Churches in Indiana stemmed from the 1740s when the religious emotionalism of the Great Awakening drew frontier church membership from the Presbyterian Church into the Baptist.

The basic unit of Baptist church government was the local congregation. Deacons and clerks were local officers elected annually by the church; the minister was licensed by the church. The "Association" was a loose organization of local congregations for mutual aid and fellowship. Hamilton County Baptist churches belonged to the Indianapolis Association, which favored missionary activities.

Baptists met weekly for worship which was led by local ministers. Services consisted of sermons, prayers, and possibly some music. In addition, there was a regular monthly meeting for "Renewal of Covenant where members met to review and examine each other's beliefs and behavior. Baptists were advocates of strong disciplinary programs to maintain proper faith and life style. Actions such as gambling, profanity, dancing, excessive indulgence in liquor, or sexual irregularities were grounds for discipline.

There were two ways to become a member of a Baptist church. Transferral of membership was common; a letter of dismissal from the former congregation was needed to prove that the person had followed proper doctrine and behavior. The other possibility came as a result of a conversion experience, after which the person had to submit to an examination by the congregation which heard and judged the soundness and sincerity of the conversion. A probationary period followed, after which total acceptance was signified through baptism by immersion.

Baptist theology can be characterized as modified Calvinism. Basic doctrine included: divinely inspired and infallible Scriptures; Triune God; sinfulness of man; salvation by grace through Christ; believer's baptism by immersion; the Bible as the only confession of faith; individuals responsibility to God with human effort playing a part in one's salvation.

The Baptists , with their local orientation and rigid creeds were very sectarian in nature. Their organization did not have the mechanisms to seek new members; thus, the rapid growth of Methodism in the 1830s probably drew off many of the Baptist's potential converts. While there was only one active Baptist church in Hamilton County, the church was the second largest denomination in central Indiana in 1836.

3) The Disciples of Christ (Campbellites) was the newest of the major denominations and ranked third among central Indiana churches in 1836. The significance of this is that the formal foundation of the church occurred primarily during the decade of the 1830s. The movement was carried on largely on a grass-roots level by local congregations. Writings of reformers like Alexander and Thomas Campbell, Barton Stone, and Walter Scott, were widely distributed; there were a few evangelized Disciples like Francis Emmons of Noblesville.

The Disciple shared a theology relatively more liberal than that expressed by any of the other churches. They promoted a more accessible salvation and a desire to end adherence to rigid creeds, which they saw as fomenting strife within the Christian faith. In a sense, the Disciples advocate a unity movement within Protestantism to overcome the divisiveness and growing denominationalism of the time.

The Disciples were moderately evangelical on a personal basis; there was, however, a formal opposition towards an organized missionary effort. Campbell and his followers were opposed to camp meetings on the grounds of being overly excessive and un-biblical. Official opposition to formal creedal statements was one of the primary tenets of the Disciples movement. Their basic theology was contained within the statement that the Scriptures, primarily the New Testament, contained the sufficient rule for faith and practice. In other words, faith is based on the evidence provided by the New Testament and the mental act of believing that Jesus is the Christ. Not only was salvation freely given, but man could know God directly from the evidence of the Scriptures.

Worship was weekly, consisting of sermons and prayer. Celebration of the Lord's Supper was an important part of the service. Baptism was by immersion for adults. Membership in the church did not require a regular doctrinal examination nor a conversion experience.


4) The Presbyterian Church was the oldest church of the major denominations in central Indiana. It was based on the teachings of John Calvin as interpreted by John Knox and taught in the Church of Scotland. The church had its start in Indiana as a result of the efforts of missionaries sent from the Transylvania (Kentucky) Presbytery. This was a representative assembly made up of elders and ministers from congregational assemblies within a specific area. Above the presbytery were synods and the specific area. Above the presbytery and synods was the General Assembly, which was the national organization.

Presbyterians were generally anti-revival. Weekly services consisted of prayer, prepared sermons given in a non-emotional manner, and hymn singing. Infant baptism was practiced by sprinkling. Communion was practiced once or twice a year, often in two-day services. The Presbyterian minister was a full-time professional, paid by the presbytery and ordained by synod; a college education was a requirement for all ministers.

On the frontier, Presbyterians did not seek to acquire new members, but attempted to deal with existing Presbyterians. New applicants for membership were subjected to questioning regarding proper doctrine and behavior and were urged to maintain an active disciplined life.

Presbyterians theology was based on the "Westminster Confession of Faith." One of the most distinctive concepts was that of predestination. This doctrine, first pronounced by John Calvin, stated that the original sin of Adam left his descendants in a state of total depravity, so lost in sin that all men were unable to comprehend God and his teachings. But, all men were not lost. In his omniscience and omnipresence, God had chosen from the beginning of time all those who would be predestined for salvation.

Calvinist theology also stressed the importance of spiritual behavior, study of Scripture, an ordained and trained clergy, and a presbyterial organization. It was the doctrine of limited salvation that was challenged the most on the frontier as Methodists and Disciples charged the Presbyterians with maintaining a narrow and elite religion. Because of the growing popularity of Arminian theology and the belief that man could assist in his own salvation, the Presbyterians began to experience the ground swell of an impending division. Since Methodists and others were very successful in reaching the western population, the rapidly growing "New School" wing of the Presbyterian Church adopted a modified Arminianism and a limited reliance on revival techniques.

Reform or Auxiliary Societies

Besides the regular work of the church, there were numerous auxiliary societies to handle different needs of the local population. The Indiana Sabbath School Union was founded in August 1826 to promote Bible study among children. The American Bible Society, founded in 1816, had six societies in Indiana by the mid 1820s, the mission being the distribution of Bibles throughout the state. The Indiana Temperance Society was organized in Indianapolis in June of 1834; and the Indiana Colonization Society was organized at Indianapolis in November 1829. These societies, along with others, attempted to create a good society by addressing the social evils of the age and by advocating the advancement of Christianity throughout the state and the nation.

Suggested Readings on Religion

Ahlstrom, Sydney E.; A Religious History of the American People, Yale University Press, 1972.

Boles, John R.; Religion in Antebellum Kentucky, University Press of Kentucky, 1976.

Bruce, Dickson D. Jr.; And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain Folk Camp-Meeting Religion, 1800-1845, University of Tennessee Press, 1974.

Garrison, Winfred E.; The Disciples of Christ: A History, Bethany Press, 1948.

Johnson, Charles A.; The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion's Harvest Time, Southern Methodist University Press, 1955.

McAvoy, Thomas T.; The Catholic Church in Indiana 1789-1834, Columbia University Press, 1940.

Miyakawa, T. Scott; Protestants and Pioneers: Individualism and Conformity on the American Frontier, University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Nottingham, Elizabeth K.; Methodism and the Frontier: Indiana Proving Ground, Columbia University Press, 1941.

Sweet, William Warren; Circuit Rider Days in Indiana, W.K. Stewart Co., 1916.

Sweet, W.W.; Religion in the development of American Culture, 1765-1840, Peter Smith, 1963.

Sweet, W.W.; Religion on the American Frontier: The Baptists, Cooper Square Publishers, 1964.

Sweet, W.W.; Religion on the American Frontier: The Congregationalists, Cooper Square Publishers, 1964.

Sweet, W.W.; Religion on the American Frontier: The Methodists, Cooper Square Publishers, 1964.

Sweet, W.W. Religion on the American Frontier: The Presbyterians, Cooper Square Publishers, 1964.

Wimberly, Ware William; "Missionary Reforms in Indiana, 1826-1860: Education, Temperance, Anti-Slavery" PhD dissertation, Indiana University, 1977.