03 August 2009

Eliza Farnham's Millennial Vision

Two religious traditions are pervasive in American culture. The evangelical tradition is the spiritual; civil religion, the political. These two traditions interrelate in complex ways; sometimes in competition, they also draw power from and build one another. In Life in Prairie Land (1846) by Eliza W. Farnham these traditions interact to create a vision we might call evangelical nationalism.

Farnham ends Part I of her work with a narrative of spiritual renewal that provides a framework for understanding the millennial vision at the end of the book. She holds forth her sister as an exemplary moral character; to the extent that she follows this moral leadership, the book's structure conforms to the pattern of conversion narratives, albeit conversion as secular as it is religious.

The voice of Mary is presented as a sermon from her death bed; it is a testimonial of her life of faith. Mary reads her own life as a text:
Those were dark volumes to be opened by gay-hearted girls, that we learned to read during those seven years: gloomy commentaries on the world in which we were left to make our way to happiness or ruin.
Farnham, 148
In Mary's reading, the world is hostile, full of "tempters ... spreading their diabolical nets" (149). Her happiness results from having been blessed by God with a good mother, among other things. She testifies to the experience of God as a kind parent; it was her discovery that she could approach her "Maker as a tender father and friend" (150) who carried her through her trials. Mary characterizes her spiritual transformation as "newly awakened sentiment" (150), then turns to the climax of her sermon: evaluating Eliza Farnham's need for a similar experience.

The transition from her reading of her own experience to reading the experience of her sister employs the disarming pronoun "they".
Most young persons think their enjoyment of life will be diminished by an allegiance to the laws of christianity, but I think they are in error. Mine was infinitely increased! I wished everyone to feel as I did.
Farnham, 150
Turning then to a more personal evaluation of Farnham's need, she describes the views of her sister as those of an atheist, but in a manner that releases Farnham from full responsibility. Farnham is presented in her youth as having been changed passively by life in a "moral wilderness ... away from everything but the tyranny of a selfish, passionate woman ... [and] that woman an Atheist" (150). Having escaped this woman, however, Eliza began "to seek the education and mental culture which should have been the work of earlier years" (151).

The second half of the sermon is a defense of the American West as an Eden, with a landscape that is always feminine. But in this Eden life is hard because of unregenerate man:
I feel that the responsibility of my early death rests on human beings ... [whose] repeated transgressions of His law have placed it out of my reach to be happy and useful.
Farnham, 157
Following the death of sister Mary and her sermon was the death also of the Farnham child and attempts at consolation by the pastor. From books lent by the pastor, Farnham, "found nothing of the peace and resignation which I had often seen others manifest under similar afflictions" (167). Even so, she experienced an awakening of her spirit, "a new set of faculties was called into action" (167).

The consolation to which her sister testified was now hers. Mary's sermon forms part of the text of the conversion narrative of Eliza Farnham, and Mary's experience becomes descriptive of Farnham's experience. Farnham, however, occupies a marginal place within the evangelical tradition. Hers is not the testimony of repentance from sin and salvation in Christ.
But the comfort which I found was no miraculous shining forth of anything external to myself; it was no overflowing fountain which poured itself out, independent of my own state of mind; such as many seem to have found, but simply a more exalted action of some powers which I had always possessed, and a partial subduing of others. ... I found no power superior to my own mind.
Farnham, 168
Her consolation was not one of personal redemption; it was the feeling "that there were infinite love and infinite pity in the divine Mind" (168). Theologically, she is much more in tune with Ralph Waldo Emerson than with traditional evangelical piety; in contrast to Emerson, however, she emphasizes affections and feminine virtues.

Life in Prairie Land as a whole forms a larger conversion narrative theologically compatible with Emerson's "Nature" (1836). The entirety of Eliza Farnham's experience in the West culminates in a religious vision of nationalist expansion in the final chapter. In reading this experience, Eliza again follows the lead of her sister Mary.

Farnham surveys the history of settlement in the West, identifying five distinct groups of inhabitants, and assessing the moral relationship of each to the land. In her mind the pattern is one of moral progression culminating in a society "free from want, from oppression, from ignorance, from fear" (268)!

Originally inhabiting the prairie was a group that Farnham encountered only through traces: she describes Indians through burial grounds and legends. Within Edenic nature lived the noble savage who simply vanishes when the land comes under cultivation. Their successors, the first EuroAmerican settlers, had much in common with the Indians. Coming from Kentucky and Virginia, these settlers had lived with, fought with, and married Indians. White in color, they were primitive in nature, according to Farnham. They applied "only partial industry" (266) to cultivation of the land.

These first settlers were pushed out by a more industrious group. These built loftier cabins and added fences and barns. This group was characterized by constant industry and determination to reap the potential of the land. However, when the land began to become crowded, they moved on, settling other regions. They sold their lots to Yankees.

The fourth group of inhabitants becomes the "permanent population" (267). They replace the cabins with "stately houses" (267). From their stock emerge the fifth and final group: inhabitants of the future. These are not new immigrants; they are those whose cultivation of the land is reciprocated in the awakening of their moral faculties by the sublime features of the land.

These future inhabitants will learn to read the land, and their experience upon it, as Farnham outlines. In her view, the land itself contains
so much to stimulate the nobler faculties and gratify the senses; so much that is calculated to induce a high state of physical development and fine perceptions of the beautiful, the grand, and the true.
Farnham, 268
As Eliza Farnham bids farewell to the prairie, she echoes her sister in greeting the millennium. Nature in the West, according to Mary, is "in her loveliest and benignest aspect" (54). In contemplating the mystery of the irresistible charm of the land, she concludes:
It is the mystery of the mighty Future which lies before a country possessing resources like ours. To bear a part in developing this, seems to me equally calculated to stimulate and gratify our noblest powers.
Farnham, 55
Evangelical concern for the future enables Farnham to publish her narrative. Her writing, often accepted by historians as a primary source concerning the settlement of the West, is as much prescriptive as descriptive. The text is a document of the ideology of manifest destiny at the very moment when that term was coming into being.


fatedplace said...

I must confess that I don't find your assertion that there are two strains to American religious history (the evangelical and the civil) to be very accurate. For one this ignores the anachronism evident in calling anyone evangelical before the civil war. It's not a self designation that Christians used until the 20th century, and even then the term covers a wide swath of Christians who range from Pentecostals to non-denominational Christians. Scholars define it differently, but very few (outside of the evangelical persuasion) would contend that it represents the core of our spirituality. I guess we could quibble about what "pervasive" means, but I think it's a serious overstatement.

More importantly it overlooks much of the historical evidence about America's religious complexion, such as the fact that since the late 1840s (with the splits in Baptists conventions over slavery) the Catholic church has been our single largest religious group. Until the mid 20th century you wouldn't find any Catholics who would be called charismatic, nevermind evangelical. This also ignores that early Christians were fairly well split among a variety of religious groups, many of whom evangelicals like to claim are their predecessors, but more than a few of whom would be shocked to hear it. To suggest that the evangelicals powered the way also ignores the role of a) denominationalism and b) non-Christian religious practices ranging from spiritualism to theosophy to Judaism and Buddhism and the New Age. There are many branches to the tree of American religious history and while evangelicals are recognized by nearly all the historians (Sweet, Ahlstrom, Butler, Albanese, Corrigan, Hudson, and so on), civil religion is NOT recognized by ANY of the scholars as a major component of the American religious tradition. It may be one of its many manifestations, but reading nationalism as civil religion has serious hurdles to overcome in its genealogy. One might be able to mount a serious defense of this connection throughout our history, but not without many concessions and caveats. The very idea of a civil religion is deeply (and hotly) contested in religious studies. Bellah's work hasn't weathered the last few decades very successfully. This isn't to dismiss your contention, merely to argue that it needs to be supplemented by serious scholarly input from the major figures in the field.

On the other hand, I must praise you for your interesting profile of Eliza Farnham. I'm especially intrigued by her comments about the American West as a feminine Eden and the way her writing fits in with Emerson just as well as it does with narratives of manifest destiny. Great reasons to recommend Farnham to others working on American history. Thanks for your great insights.

James Stripes said...

Thanks for the constructive criticism. I suppose the first paragraph was more of a rhetorical flourish than a serious construction of a thesis. You are correct regarding my anachronistic use of evangelical. Even so, the sense of sacred mission runs deep in American writing at least back to the Puritans. In seeking to name a central theme in this broad and diverse impulse that was and is shared by groups that will disagree on numerous points of doctrine, I grabbed the closest word that seemed a credible description without due regard for its precise denotations.

Clearly I have more work to do putting forth my contentions concerning civil religion--I've never thought Bellah had much to say that was useful. The prominence of his definition was a factor in causing me to abandon my pursuit of civil religion as a focus of scholarship almost twenty years ago. Anyway, I might bring out some of that old work gathering dust mites in deep storage in the back of my closet to see if I can render any of it sensible. Knowing I might find one critical reader encourages the effort.

fatedplace said...

Rhetorical flourishes are always appreciated. Of course you are right that a sense of mission has been a major element in American religious beliefs, but again I think it's worth stressing that neither civil nor evangelical religion really capture that mission in all its diversity. Your response makes me wonder if I could supply a reasonable alternative that would be a more general fit, but I cannot think of one offhand.

I might contend that fighting over our nation's proper "mission" (religious or otherwise) is one of our nation's most central battles. I think my problem is the consensus approach to history, which flattens this battle into its success stories. The Puritans are winners, so were the Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals and others, all different moments.

Civil religion (the very idea of it and the fights over it in the academy) is a product of such debates. I tend to agree that Bellah is over-rated, but his influence on others is not. Lots of his heirs and opponents have modified his original work in ways that make this an entire sub-field of study (one that I've tried to avoid). However, I'd welcome any discussion of this in relation to earlier periods. I think its be far over-done about Post WWII religion, but those ideas certainly have power to explain the relationship of religion and the public sphere in the 19th c (even as we must also admit that there was no such thing as the "public sphere" in that era.) Great talking with you!

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