One of the first things that de Tocqueville noticed on his arrival in America was the extraordinarily high level of religious activity. On interrogating American clergymen of various denominations about this phenomenon, he was surprised to find that “all attributed the peaceful domination that religion exercises in their country principally to the complete separation of church and state. I do not fear to affirm that during my stay in America I did not encounter a single man, priest or layman, who did not come to accord on this point.”
Frances Trollope was not in accord. In fact, she was appalled by the variety of religious denominations she encountered. “The whole people,” she wrote, “appear to be divided into an almost endless variety of religious factions….If a fire-worshiper, or an Indian Brahmin, were to come to the United States, prepared to preach and pray in English, he would not be long without a very respectable congregation.” And it was all due to the lack of a properly established church. The excessive religiosity of American society was a form of social “tyranny,” without “any of the salutary decorum, which I will presume, no one will deny is the result of an established mode of worship.”
Worse still was the acceptance of religion as a proper subject of conversation at tea parties. She hardly knew “whether [she] was more startled at first hearing…a profession of Atheism over a tea-cup, or at having my attention called from a Johnny-cake, to a rhapsody on election and the second birth.”
Although she bemoaned the enforced insignificance of women, Trollope was not in the least gratified to discover the one area in which they played a leading role. Apart from the preachers, religion was almost the exclusive province of women, who found a role and a voice in arranging both in-house prayer meetings and multi-day camp meetings. In both sorts of gatherings, it was mostly women, and overwhelmingly young women, who came forward with sobs and groans to confess their sins, and to be soothed and comforted by the preachers with the promise of salvation. Prayer meetings, in fact, were the only source of social amusement available to most women in small cities and towns.
At a camp meeting attended by over 2,000 people, Trollope observed “above a hundred persons, nearly all females, [who]came forward, uttering howlings and groans.” At the words ‘let us pray’ they all fell on their knees, and then on the ground, “in an indescribable confusion of heads and legs…[while] hysterical sobbings, convulsive groans, shrieks and screams the most appalling, burst forth on all sides.” Such a scene, she was convinced, could not have been enacted in the presence of Englishmen “without instant punishment being inflicted [presumably on the preachers]; not to mention the salutary discipline of the treadmill.” The next morning, however, she “saw the whole company as joyously and eagerly employed in preparing and devouring their most substantial breakfasts as if the night had been passed in dancing.”Share