National Museum of American Religion

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Anna Rosenkranz, Ph. D Candidate at the College of William and Mary shares an essay about identity in American Evangelicalism:

They will always, somehow, be your people”: The Changing Contours of Contemporary Protestant Evangelicalism

“You were born into a world within a world. Evangelicalism.”(1)
The quote above opens the first chapter of author, blogger, and 30-something Addie Zierman’s spiritual memoir. These few words are rich ones. They echo similar stories and sentiments recorded in a growing library of writings by Gen Xers and Millennials, coming-of-age tales that narrate the authors’ evolving relationships with the faith that shaped their youth. “You were born,” Zierman begins, addressing her infant self. We guess from this use of second person and past tense that the Addie narrating is not the same Addie who was born. And because this is a story, we expect a crisis, and we anticipate that that crisis will have something to do with “Evangelicalism.” Will she be leaving this world, we wonder, or will she find a way to stay?

What is this “world within a world. Evangelicalism”? Not a religious organization or denomination, it is instead a term that describes a wide variety of threads of Protestant Christianity united by devotion to the Protestant Bible and its story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. These threads are marked not just by reverence for this book but by the way in which that book’s stories are used to compel concern for the eternal fate of people’s souls, concern that has long motivated the activity – “evangelism” – that shares the root of these threads’ collective name. These, anyway, are historical evangelicalism’s theological markers.(2) The story of American evangelicalism over the past several decades, however, is about much more than theology. It is Addie Zierman’s story, and the story of others like her. It’s the story of the evolution and impact of a distinctively American evangelical project to create a better world, a project that has molded over time its own unique “world within a world.”

Since the late 1970s, American evangelicals – mostly those with conservative leanings (not all self-identified evangelicals have also labeled themselves “conservative”) – have poured their energy into protecting and sustaining what they have termed the “traditional family,” which both represents and is the means to perpetuating what they have understood to be “biblical values.” Evangelical parents have thus worked hard to instill in their children the values they believe will ensure their family’s spiritual health and success. This project has fueled the growth of a particularly evangelical American subculture, that “world within a world” of which Zierman speaks, and into which writings like hers give us a glimpse. It’s a world not just with its own public school and afterschool programs, but its own primary schools, secondary schools, home schools, colleges, universities and their accompanying curricula. A world with its own romance novels, children’s literature, pop stars, radio stations, music festivals, comedians, news magazines, television channels. A world with its own movies, clothing, jewelry, and home décor. Its own amusement parks and museums, international tours and pleasure cruises. Its own constellation of psychological, medical, financial, intellectual, and political experts. It’s a world whose degree of self-sufficiency increased in the 1980s and 1990s, and parents and evangelical leaders hoped it would guarantee the secure transmission of their deepest convictions to the next generation.

The results from this project are, of course, still coming in, and what those results mean is a question with a near infinitude of possible answers. Some have described the whole project as anathema to sound reason, compassionate humanity, true faith, or to all three, and have abandoned it entirely. Some have worried that, while the project was and is good, the “world” outside of their world has, despite their best efforts, claimed their children and peers for its own. Many more, like Addie Zierman, paint a more complex picture. Like her, they trace the roots of their personal crises (for Zierman, depression and alcoholism) to many of the impulses that drove the creation of that “world within a world.” Yet, like her, they have found relief and healing from within that same world. For these people, renouncing evangelicalism is not only unnecessary in order to recover from what they experienced and perceived as the project’s negative effects; rejecting evangelicalism in total, they suggest, wasn’t really possible for them. Too much of these people’s selves had been shaped by that world to abandon it entirely. Yet retaining the label “evangelical” after “coming of age” has, for those like Zierman, meant shifting their position in the community, changing the trajectory of “the project,” abandoning elements of its subculture, and making an effort to redefine the label “evangelical” itself.

The Addie at the end of the story is not the same as the Addie at the beginning. And yet, in many ways, she is. Will she be leaving this world, we wonder, or will she find a way to stay? Perhaps those are the wrong questions. Perhaps instead we should ask ourselves, as Zierman does, to what extent those who have populated the worlds, religious or otherwise, in which we were raised “will always, somehow, be your people.”(3)

1. Addie Zierman, Addie Zierman, When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over (New York: Convergent Books, 2013), 11.

2. I borrow here from historian David Bebbington classic description of the four emphases that have consistently set evangelicalism apart from other Christian traditions: “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and… crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.” David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 3.

3. Zierman, 221


In which Wilma Taylor shines new light onto an old phenomenon: Chapel Cars!


Celebrating crowds present at the driving of the “Last Spike,” Promontory, Utah, May 10, 1869, hoped that this meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads would revolutionize the settlement of the American West by bringing those states and territories profitably into the Union and making life easier, goods cheaper, and transportation swifter. Few probably considered that there might be a detrimental effect to such a venture of promise.

Some scholars reported a different view, that on the Union Pacific portion there were hell-on-wheels towns scattered along the routes—flimsy tents and dirt hovels populated by desperadoes of every kind. In many ways, that lifestyle continued on even after the Hell-on-Wheels towns were gone.(i)
Men and women of faith—circuit riders, preachers, padres—came to those towns, willing to suffer extreme hardships to bring the gospel and the sacraments. Still distances were too great, towns too rowdy, saloon powers too strong, and facilities for organizing congregations far too limited. The farther west preachers and padres rode, the less evidence of Christianity they found.(ii)

But God was not ticketless. From 1890, thirteen chapel cars—three Episcopal, seven Baptist, and three Catholic—were hauled across the tracks that first carried hell-on-wheels towns.

In April 1890, Episcopal Bishop William David Walker contracted the Pullman Car Company to build the Church of the Advent, the Cathedral Car of North Dakota, funded by philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt. Walker’s car was the first American chapel car put in service. Everywhere it stopped, railroad men filled the car. “As a rule, railroad men are not churchgoers, but the Cathedral Car could not have had greater success among them if it had been designed especially for them.” Two other Episcopal Chapel Cars served in Northern Michigan, where towns ravaged by forest fires needed substitute churches.(iii)

In 1895, the nation’s railroads employed 874,000 men, and the chapel car missionaries welcomed them by the thousands. Missionary Charles Rust related as he stood at the door of Baptist Chapel Car Good Will, “Look at this man who is reaching up now in some haste. He is the engineer of a stationary engine in the shop, and says in parting: ‘God alone knows what the chapel car has meant to me. I have not been in church for years, but you have brought the church to me.’”(iv)

During the early years, railroad management pulled the chapel cars without charge because of the positive climate the cars fostered in the railroad towns. E.G. Wheeler said, “Among the railroad fraternity, we have our strongest friends.”(v)

Construction at the Dayton, Ohio, Barney and Smith Shops on Evangel began after Minnesota missionary Boston Smith asked the Northern Pacific Railroad for a coach to use for worship in the winter months. Smith shared his successful experience with Reverend Wayland Hoyt and his brother Colgate Hoyt, vice-president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Hoyt formed a syndicate of businessmen headed by “the wealthiest man in the world—John D. Rockefeller,” and Evangel started service in April 1891. Emmanuel, Glad Tidings, Good Will, Messenger of Peace, Herald of Hope, and Grace, the first steel car, visited over four thousand towns in thirty-six states.

On a rail trip, Bishop Francis Kelley of the Catholic Church Extension Society saw few churches through the train windows. “Not one for every ten towns!” So when he saw the Baptist chapel car at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, he asked, “If the Baptists can do it, why not the Catholics?” Pullman’s Richmond Dean funded wooden St. Anthony, and Ohio Lumberman Peter K***z paid for steel St. Peter and St. Paul.(vi)

Father William D. O’Brien, related, “Volumes could be written on the life stories told by people who visited the cars, many of whom had not had the services of a priest for many years, not because they did not want to go to church, but because there were no churches for them in or near the places where they lived.”(vii)

Just as saloon owners tried to prevent the Baptist chapel cars from stopping in their towns, the Klan was a constant threat to the Catholic cars. Father Stephen Sweeney, C.P. on St. Paul, had a frightening experience in a North Carolina town in 1924.

We were told by a colored boy that all was arranged by the K.K.K. to drive us out of town. I dismissed my man, Mr. Stephen McLaughlin, insisting upon him leaving the car until the threat of the Klan would die a natural death. I was all alone in the car and in a neighborhood most hostile to the church . . . But I had the Blessed Sacrament in the car, and my unfailing refuge would not allow any harm to come, unless it would be for a greater good . . .(viii)

Most Americans would agree that the coming of the Transcontinental Railroads made goods and transportation quicker, cheaper, and more flexible from coast to coast. However, those monumental advances did not necessarily make America good, for that was not their intent. For the early churchless towns along the tracks, thirteen chapel cars brought the comfort and stability of the scriptures and the sacraments—for the “greater good.”


i. Richard O’Connor, Iron Wheels and Broken Men: The Railroad Barons and the Plunder of the West (New York: G. P. Putman Sons, 1973) 7.

ii. Norman Thomas Taylor and Wilma Rugh Taylor, This Train Is Bound For Glory: The Story of America’s Chapel Cars (Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA, 1999), 306.

iii. The Record, May, 1895-June, 1898, Roll 3204, State Historical Society of North Dakota.

iv. Sixty-Eighth Anniversary of the American Baptist Publication Society, 1892, 38.

v. Boston W. Smith, The Story of Our Chapel Car Work (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society) 39.
Pete Kelly, “Chapel Cars, Pioneers Blaze Trail for the Church in

vi. Oregon,” Extension, July 1996, 8.
Father William O’Brien, Memoirs of a Beggar, Catholic Church

vii. Extension Society, (Chicago, IL., nd) 58.
“Three Months on the Chapel Car,” Ex, Chapel cars, Pioneers

viii. Blaze Trail for the Church in Oregon,” Extension, July, 1996, 8.

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Breaking news in the the world of religion history:l
Emma Smith’s copy of the 1841 Book of Mormon found

Breaking news in the the world of religion history:

Lynn and Tanya Bascom, residents of Bountiful, Utah, and members of the Bountiful 3rd Ward were on vacation this past June in Boston, Massachusetts, area where they discovered Emma Smith's personal co


Today, we feature our first guest post: Nicholas P Wood, who gives us his thoughts on the connections between Christianity and antislavery efforts in early America:

The American Revolution, Divine Providence, and Antislavery

By Nicholas P. Wood

In a 1793 speech before the Providence (Rhode Island) Abolition Society, Reverend Samuel Hopkins argued that the American Revolution had established a covenant with God requiring the abolition of slavery. He did not focus, as we might expect, on the Declaration of Independence with its claim “that all men are created equal” and have “unalienable rights.” Instead Hopkins based his argument around the Articles of Association from October 1774. This less memorable document had established a trade embargo in response to Parliament’s “Intolerable Acts.” As part of the embargo, the Patriots promised to “wholly discontinue the slave trade.”[1] Many abolitionists subsequently imbued this provision with providential significance, crediting it in part for the Patriots’ victory. Hopkins explained to his postwar audience:

"[In 1774] all the people appeared to acquiesce in this resolution, as reasonable, important and necessary . . . for their own liberties, and to have any ground of hope in the protection and smiles of a righteous God, and success in the struggle into which we were entering. With this resolution we entered the combat; and God appeared to be on our side, and wrought wonders in our favor; disappointed those who rose up against us, and established us a free and independent nation."

In Hopkins’s view, the Articles of Association had initiated a sacred covenant between God and the American people. God granted them success in the War for Independence, but for Americans to continue in peace in prosperity, they needed to observe the Golden Rule: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.”[3] However, instead of following the abolition of the slave trade with the eradication of slavery itself, the process of state-based gradual emancipation had stalled and Americans had resumed importing slaves after the war. Hopkins warned these actions would provoke “the vengeance of heaven.”[4]

The centrality of discourses linking the American Revolution and divine providence to early national abolitionism has been obscured by the tendency to focus instead on secular ideas about natural rights.[5] But abolitionists from diverse religious sects – Quakers, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Episcopalians – subscribed to the view that the newly-independent United States owed an antislavery debt to God. In some cases this rhetoric began before the war itself. In 1773, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a devout Anglican who later signed the Declaration of Independence and served as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, suggested that the Stamp Act had been a form ofprovidential chastisement and warned that “national crimes require national punishments.” [6] After the war Rush celebrated the growth of antislavery sentiment as evidence that Americans had learned the lesson. Some northern legislators incorporated similar rhetoric into antislavery laws. For example, Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 expressed thankfulness for “the manifold blessings which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being from whom every good and perfect gift cometh,” and embraced the “duty…to extend a portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us.”[7] Such language implicitly invoked the Golden Rule and the idea of divine providence. These developments increased abolitionists’ hopes and they frequently invoked the idea of an antislavery covenant in their petitions to Congress and southern legislatures.[8]

Religious rhetoric may have been central to debates over slavery but it was not limited to one side. Slaveholders proved adept at enlisting Christianity and the belief in providential favor against abolitionism. Virginia slaveholders demonstrated their proslavery interpretation of the Revolution and divine providence in their response to a Methodist antislavery petition in 1785. The slaveholders’ counter petitions attributed the success of the War for Independence to the “favourable Interposition of Providence” but interpreted this divine aid as sanctifying their “Rights and Liberty and Property” – including their property in slaves. In addition they cited scriptural passages allegedly justifying slavery.[9]

Slaveholders also ridiculed antislavery invocations of divine retribution during congressional debates over antislavery petitions from Quakers in 1790. One of the petitioners, Warner Mifflin of Delaware, had apparently told some slaveholding congressmen how he had freed his own slaves in 1774, after interpreting a violent thunderstorm as a warning from “Providence” to end his involvement in the sin of slaveholding.[10] South Carolina’s William L. Smith told the House of Representatives that he was “under no terrors from the apprehension of a thunderstorm,” for although he lived in slaveholding state he did not remember “any instance of the divine vengeance having have descended upon them for their supposed crimes.”[11] Far from punishing South Carolina for its sins, Smith insisted that God had “made our country opulent, and shed the blessings of affluence and prosperity on our land, notwithstanding all its slaves.”[12] Congress declined to take legislative action on the petitions, but the themes of divine providence remained prominent in later debates on slavery, with abolitionists warning of divine retribution and slaveholders insisting that God had sanctioned their peculiar institution.

These ideas remained prominent through the Civil War. Today Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is best remembered for his promise to “bind up the nation’s wounds” with “malice toward none” when the war ended, but it also contained a thoughtful meditation on the providential meaning of the war. Both sides, he noted, “pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” But the “Almighty has His own purpose,” and Lincoln suggested the war was God’s will:

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”[13]

In Lincoln’s view, the Civil War was God’s means of both freeing the enslaved and inflicting retribution on a guilty nation. Many of the nation’s first abolitionists would have agreed.


[1] “The Articles of Association; October 20, 1774,” available online through Yale Law School’s Avalon Project: (accessed July 16, 2014). Parliament’s “Coercive Acts,” known to the Patriots as the “Intolerable Acts,” are available online at: (accessed July 16, 2014).

[2] Samuel Hopkins, A Discourse Upon the Slave-Trade, and the Slavery of the Africans. Delivered in the Baptist Meeting-House at Providence, before the Providence Society for Abolishing the Slave-Trade, &c. At their Annual Meeting, on May 17, 1793 (Providence, RI: J. Carter, 1793), 17.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Nicholas Guyatt identifies three broad ways in which Americans envisioned the relationship between Divine Providence and the nation. The abolitionists I discuss in the following paragraphs represent a combination of what he calls “judicial providentialism,” in which God rewards and punishes nations based on the virtue of their inhabitants, combined with an element of “historical providentialism,” the view that God had a special role for America, being the abolition of slavery in this case. Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876 (New York: Cambridge, 2007), 3-6, 106. The link between divine providence and antislavery was not limited to the United States, as discussed in : John Coffey, “‘‘Tremble, Britannia!’: Fear, Providence and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1758-1807,” English Historical Review CXXVII, no. 527 (August 2012),844-81.

[6] Benjamin Rush, An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, Upon Slave-Keeping (Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1773), 28.

[7] “Pennsylvania - An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780,” available online through Yale Law School’s Avalon Project: (accessed July 16, 2014).

[8] For examples, see a 1783 petition from Quakers to the Continental Congress and a 1785 antislavery petition from Virginia Methodists to their state assembly, reprinted in: John P. Kaminsky ed., A Necessary Evil?: Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution (Madison, WI: Madison House Publishers, Inc., 1995), 26-27 and 33-34.

[9] Petitions from Amelia, Meklenberg, and Pittsylvania Counties, dated November 8 and 10, 1785, in Fredrika Teute Schmidt and Barbara Ripel Wilhelm, “Early Proslavery Petitions in Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly 30, no. 1 (January, 1973), 139. See also the proslavery response to Benjamin Rush’s 1773 pamphlet: Richard Nesbit, Slavery Not Forbidden By Scripture, Or, a Defence of the West-India Planters (Philadelphia: John Sparhawk, 1773).

[10] Warner Mifflin, The Defence of Warner Mifflin: Against Aspersions Cast on Him on Account of his Endeavours to Promote Righteousness, Mercy, and Peace Among Mankind, (Philadelphia: Samuel Sansom, Jun., 1796), 6.

[11] Documentary History of the FirstFederal Congress, ed. Helen E. Veit, et al, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), vol. 12, 811-12 (22 March, 1790).

[12] Ibid., 814 (22 March 1790).

[13] “Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln,” available online through Yale Law School’s Avalon Project: (accessed July 16, 2014).

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A short tour through the past and present promise and perils of "Christian" film.
To Be Or Not To Be? That’s the Question for the Christian Movie Genre

A short tour through the past and present promise and perils of "Christian" film.

An elderly gentleman at my gym asks me this just about every month. It’s usually his second, right after “Watched any good movies lately?” (Super-nice guy, but not one to deviate from previous conversations, at least not while standing in his underwear.)

An intriguing religious take on the historical Superman. Thoughts?
Five Reasons Why Superman Isn’t Jesus

An intriguing religious take on the historical Superman. Thoughts?

The moment word broke of the new Superman film, Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, the comparisons between Superman and Jesus were bound to happen.

Today's installment of "American Blockbusters, American Faiths" contemplates how a film centered "A long time ago, in a ...
The Church of the Jedi

Today's installment of "American Blockbusters, American Faiths" contemplates how a film centered "A long time ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away," influenced American faith.

In the years after the first Star Wars trilogy, a group of dedicated followers built their own religion: Jediism. Facing persecution and ridicule, tens of thousands of faithful believe in the power of the Force and adhere to the Jedi Code, much as Obi-Wan and Yoda did. Away put your prejudi…

Benjamin Park takes a look at the historical roots of violence directed at Black churches as the nation mourns:"Just as ...
The Charleston Shooting and the Potent Symbol of the Black Church in America

Benjamin Park takes a look at the historical roots of violence directed at Black churches as the nation mourns:

"Just as the original Emanuel Church was torched in 1822 due to fears of racial unrest, its replacement has become yet another location for American racial warfare. History has demonstrated that a particular segment of white America has often responded to racial fears with violence, yet this particular plot of land in downtown Charleston has seen more than its fair share of that unfortunate tradition."

Last night, an unidentified white male entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, sat through an hour-long meeting, and then opened fire...

Historic find in the City of Brotherly Love.
Thousands of African-American Graves Found Beneath Philadelphia Playground

Historic find in the City of Brotherly Love.

Days after archaeologists on Maryland’s eastern shore uncovered what they believe to be the oldest settlement of African-Americans in the United States, another team in Philadelphia unearthed what may be the resting place of nearly 3,000 others under a playground in the city’s Weccecoe Park. Underne…

"How are you and your faith community responding to these recent events? What does your religion call you to do during t...
Local Religious Leaders Respond to Ferguson

"How are you and your faith community responding to these recent events? What does your religion call you to do during this time?"

Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, St. Louis County, on August 9, 2014, and especially since the November 24 announcement that the grand jury would not indict the police officer who shot him, the nation has been awash with anger and fear.


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Tomorrow at 1pm ET, Rabbi Rick Jacobs will be featured on this panel from National Museum of American Religion: "American Religion in Times of Crisis and Tragedy". Register now:
The National Museum of American Religion continues its "American Blockbusters, American Faiths" summer series by taking a look at science-fiction, religion, and the American faith, Jediism.

Eat your heart out J.J. Abrams.