The Garden and the Wilderness. The image is an eternal one, at least as old as Genesis. It denotes what is a partition between the enclosed and the perfect from the external and the damaged–the garden of Eden from the wilderness of fallen man. It’s an image that was famously used by Mark DeWolf Howe in his landmark book on church-state relations in America. And it is interestingly reconceived in a new book about the central place of Evangelicals in the antebellum period in bringing the church to the wilderness, putatively for the benefit and reinvigoration of the former. The book is Church in the Wild: Evangelicals in Antebellum America (HUP) by Brett Malcolm Grainger.
We have long credited Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists with revolutionizing religious life in America and introducing a new appreciation of nature. Breaking with Protestant orthodoxy, these New Englanders claimed that God could be found not in church but in forest, fields, and streams. Their spiritual nonconformity had thrilling implications but never traveled far beyond their circle. In this essential reconsideration of American faith in the years leading up to the Civil War, Brett Malcolm Grainger argues that it was not the Transcendentalists but the Evangelical revivalists who transformed the everyday religious life of Americans and spiritualized the natural environment.
Evangelical Christianity won believers from the rural South to the industrial North: this was the true popular religion of the antebellum years. Revivalists went to the woods not to free themselves from the constraints of Christianity but to renew their ties to God. Evangelical Christianity provided a sense of enchantment for those alienated by a rapidly industrializing world. In forested camp meetings and riverside baptisms, in private contemplation and public water cures, in electrotherapy and mesmerism, American Evangelicals communed with nature, God, and one another. A distinctive spirituality emerged that paired personal piety with a mystical relationship to nature.
As Church in the Wild reveals, the revivalist attitude toward nature and the material world, which echoed that of Catholicism, spread like wildfire among Christians of all backgrounds during the years leading up to the Civil War.