Cincinnati: Crucible of Nineteenth-Century Religious Pluralism

This week in North Philly Notes, Matthew Smith, author of The Spires Still Point to Heaven: Cincinnati’s Religious Landscape, 1788-1873, writes about the Queen City as a hub for religious and cultural life in the nineteenth century.

This book is the first monograph on the religious landscape of pre-Civil War Cincinnati, which was in many ways the representative city of antebellum America. Mark Twain infamously hoped to find himself there when the world ended, it being “always twenty years behind the times.” In its heyday, however, the Queen City was a hotspot in the development of the nation, embracing the future rather than awaiting the apocalypse. Before St. Louis and Chicago eclipsed it as the leading city of the Midwest, Cincinnati was a vibrant metropolis attracting curious travelers and utopian idealists from across the world in the wake of booming trade and economic migration. Although Cincinnati was first and foremost a commercial hub on the Ohio River, itinerant preachers, domestic missionaries, and social reformers shaped the cultural life of the city as much as the pork merchants, steamboat manufacturers, and artisans who founded its economy. Just as twenty-first century urbanists emphasize the “liveability” of modern cities, so too nineteenth-century boosters obsessed over the character of their communities, and religion was a big part of that obsession. One writer boasted in 1841, “that within one hundred years … Cincinnati will be the greatest city in America; and by the year of our lord two thousand, the greatest city in the world.”

Cincinnati never quite realized the full ambitions of its boosters, but nor was it the Midwestern backwater Mark Twain so slyly deprecated. Situated in the heart of the Ohio Valley, the Queen City drew heavily from its rich agricultural hinterlands, as well as the booming infrastructure of the Market Revolution, connecting it by road and canal to the great cities of the east. Such connections also brought religious influences, beginning with evangelical Protestant connections during the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century. In consequence, Cincinnati flourished as the western hub of the so-called “Benevolent Empire.” This network of voluntary religious societies sought to reform society by marshalling the energies of lay worshipers—men and women—as well as the more traditional leadership of the ordained clergy. The Queen City was soon home to societies promoting both foreign and domestic missions, the distribution of Bibles and religious tracts, the founding of Sunday Schools, promotion of temperance, and, of course, the abolition of slavery. Perhaps the central figure in this movement was New England preacher Lyman Beecher, who came to Cincinnati in 1832. Remembered today as the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lyman Beecher was president of Lane Theological Seminary, a bastion for educating clergy to sow the gospel through the western frontier. The very prosperity that made Cincinnati a magnet for evangelical institutions, however, was also its Achilles’ heel. “We must educate! We must educate!” warned Beecher, “or we must perish by our own prosperity.”

The cultural dominance of Presbyterian evangelicals was ultimately short-lived. Cincinnati benefited tremendously from the arrival of Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, though immigration stirred the darkest fears of local nativists, steeped in generations of anti-Catholicism. Beecher’s notorious 1835 polemic, A Plea for the West, warned against “floods of pauper emigrants” arriving from Europe. Many Cincinnatians shared Beecher’s concerns, while bloody outbursts of violent nativism occurred during the Know-Nothing nadir of the 1850s. But the story of Cincinnati contains seeds of hope as well as moments of despair, and dialogue shaped sectarian relations as much as conflict. Much of this dialogue was pragmatic and institutional, but no less valuable in helping Cincinnatians figure out their way to religious pluralism. Protestant philanthropy helped endow the city’s first Catholic churches, for example, encouraging valuable economic migration in the process. Many of Cincinnati’s Catholic schools educated generations of Protestant children, despite fierce competition between the public and parochial schools systems. And Cincinnati was also home to other forms of cultural and religious expression besides Christianity, including Reform Judaism, a progressive tradition that reflected Cincinnati’s diverse religious landscape.

These themes are further explicated in The Spires Still Point to Heaven, showing how nineteenth-century Cincinnati tested the boundaries of nativism, toleration, and freedom.

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