The Role of Evangelicalism in American and British History: Analysis of Manifest Destiny

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Evangelicalism, an umbrella group of the Protestant movement, is a part of various Christian denominations and became a dominant religious practice for many Americans and British in the early to late 19th century. Solely focusing around the concept of being ‘born again’, Evangelicals had the opportunity to repent for sins, do good and focus on individual needs, essentially having a spiritual rebirth, or a regeneration of the human spirit (Miller, 2014). The majority of the 19th century, notably the first sixty years, Evangelicalism was a leading movement among Christians and was at its peak of being the most dominant religious division (Kyle, 2006). The assumption of America being the prime Christian nation, notably selected by God for a special mission, began to grow (Kyle, 2006). A large aspect of the Evangelical movement among the British, was missionary work, particularly seeing a rise with missions all around the American history through its influence on people’s day to day lives, its missionary work, and the efforts to fulfil the “manifest destiny,” up until its decline after the Civil War. The deeply rooted history of Evangelicalism and its secular influence is one that has significantly shaped America and Britain’s cultural foundation.

Evangelicalism undoubtedly had a substantial role to play in Britain. It was in this very country where Evangelicalism had begun to spread and cultivate (Barnhart, 2005). As a result, many aspects of people’s lives were surrounded by committing to and practicing this religion. Additionally, Evangelicalism had a significant positive social impact in Britain. For one, it affected the people of Britain to the point that other matters which were not related to faith were still affected by their religious mindsets, since this changed what was and was not appealing to them (Miller, 2011). For instance, drinking, gambling and debt seemed unappealing to Evangelicals since this lifestyle was ‘undisciplined’, and they valued good rewards from their prudent behaviour (Miller, 2011). Furthermore, it was also during this time that vegetarianism became popular amongst the British. Being heavily inspired from Evangelicalism, many high-class members of society were influenced to abstain from eating meat since it was deemed as a social evil and served as a striking symbol of a man’s fall from grace (Miller, 2011).

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Besides the social impact, Evangelicalism in Britain fuelled the idea of Evangelical propaganda and empire around the world (Barnhart, 2005). They held the belief that it was Britain’s ‘divine’ and ‘ordained’ mission to save the other Indigenous peoples of other lands by inviting them into Evangelicalism (Barnhart, 2005). Consequently, they trained and sent missionaries to various countries while being careful of trying not to upset religious leaders from places they had pre-existing relationships with, such as India (Barnhart, 2005). As the British Empire grew in size in the 17th century, the population increasingly began to include more non-whites and non-Christians (Barnhart, 2005). Therefore, social anxieties concerning the morality and spirituality of the non-whites and non-Christians rapidly increased (Barnhart, 2005). As such, Evangelicals from all denominations began to view themselves as the most qualified to oversee the moral health of Britain plus the whole empire, and they strived to reform people using the truthfulness of Evangelicalism (Barnhart, 2005). Their immense loyalty and love for their religion inspired them to the point that they would willingly reach out to others so that they could educate and share the beauty and truth of Evangelicalism. All in all, Evangelicalism was a vast religious movement in Britain which positively united society and attempted to share the abundance of good-will with other non-Evangelicals.

When Evangelicalism eventually eased its way into the West, America quickly became known as 'New Israel', and it had a simple yet dominant message; “Manifest Destiny” (Kyle, 2006). As the decades passed on, the ascendancy of the Evangelicals went on from politics to education. William Mcloughlin, historian at Brown University, described America and Evangelicalism to be so immersed into one another (Kyle, 2006). He described Evangelicalism to be so deeply rooted into the American culture, that separating them would be as difficult as “unscrambling a mixed omelette” (Kyle, 2006, p. 6). The Evangelicals goal with the “Manifest Destiny” was to spread it in the western world. Evangelicalism became “the single most influential strain of religious activity in the South” (Matthews, as cited in Kyle, 2006, p. 7). People of the South had begun to believe that in order to be a good American, you had to be a good Evangelical Christian, thus, resulting in women, men and children becoming increasingly devout (Matthews, as cited in Kyle, 2006). As a result, the image that America is a Christian state and had a calling of “Manifest Destiny” began to rapidly spread across the country. Evangelicals throughout the decades had an advantage in what was considered to be right and they made it clear that a person could become nearly flawless if they avoided evil deeds such as alcohol, slavery and prostitution (Kyle, 2006). Considering these facts, the Evangelical organizations had a say in all matters, especially in education. Many schools were built, hence, shaping the minds, cultural morals and values of the youth (Kyle, 2006). Students were to take theology classes, prayers in class and attend chapel services. However, it was at this time that American Evangelicals finally split on one matter; slavery. The magnitude of this dispute could not stop the state nor the Evangelical churches from intervening. As a consequence, slavery divided the state into North and South chapters, with both parties using their scripture to uphold their positions on this controversial matter (Kyle, 2006). Historically, countless problems have occured in the mission to spread Evangelicalism. But one of the biggest challenges for the Evangelicals that they had yet to face is how to truly prove the “Manifest Destiny” to a rapidly evolving society.

Although the Evangelicals were still prominent, the Civil War brought more doubts than reassurances (Kyle, 2006). The Evangelicals were starting to lose its grasp on many things, from social aspects to science, psychology and greater critique of the scripture (Kyle, 2006). The social aspects of massive migration, industrialism and urbanization led some Evangelicals from the North to become more open-minded to newer ideas and concepts, yet the majority of the South stayed true to their views and teachings (Kyle, 2006). Furthermore, after the Civil War, modern non-Evangelical Americans were causing a stir in the status quo, so much so, that it was making Evangelicals appear out of touch with the world (Kyle, 2006). This led to a whirlwind of shopping malls, dating services, rock music and nightclubs being introduced in this new American society. (Kyle, 2006).

Although it’s impact is not as apparent today, the impact Evangelicalism had on the 19th century society is clearly evident, causing major change in people’s lives, pushing missionary work and encouraging extreme efforts to be performed in order to fulfil the “Manifest Destiny”. This God-sent movement was enough to get all of society changing their way of life, leaving all bad habits for a re-birth, a spiritual cleanse that enabled people to remove sins from all walks of life. Through British missionaries, the word of Evangelicalism was able to spread world wide. Eventually landing in America and leading to the “Manifest Destiny,” it became a belief that America was chosen by God himself to revive religion in every aspect of life. However, with every rise, comes a fall and Evangelicalism saw that after the Civil War in which a sudden change with mass migration, urbanization and immigration led to new concepts and ideas being introduced to individuals who were not familiar with such a societal change. Although Evangelicalism no longer has an impact on people the way it once did, its deeply rooted history and the influence it had on society is a major player in shaping America and Britain’s bedrock.

Works Cited

  1. Barnhart, W, C. (2005). Evangelicalism, masculinity, and the making of imperial missionaries in late Georgian Britain, 1795–1820. Historian. 67(4), 712-732.
  2. Kyle, R. (2006). Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity (1st ed.). New York: Routledge.
  3. Miller, S. P. (2014). The Age of Evangelicalism. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199777952.003.0001
  4. Miller, I. (2011). Evangelicalism and the early vegetarian movement in Britain c.1847–1860. Journal of Religious History. 35(2), 199-210. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9809.2010.01032.x
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