Reforming manners, redeeming souls : Sunday schools, childhood, and the formation of early nineteenth-century American religious culture.
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Merging religious history with childhood studies, this dissertation analyzes Sunday schools from 1790-1860 to show how concepts of childhood, and young people themselves, helped shape American religious culture. Recent scholarship by historians such as Steven Mintz and Amanda Porterfield have pushed interpretations of reform past the traditional binary focus on social control versus social uplift, resurrecting questions of why and how evangelicals created the Benevolent Empire. This study addresses these questions by contending that ideals and anxieties about childhood helped create volunteerism, which in turn reshaped the structure of American Protestantism. Religious disestablishment, republican concerns about virtue, and romanticized reconstructions of childhood prompted reformers to found child-centric religious institutions on mass scale in the early national period. The resulting dissemination of Sunday schools established physical and imagined communities of faith exclusively for young people, impacting the wider evangelical community in several significant ways. First, Sunday schools promoted an alternative religious agency for children that empowered young people to actively participate in their own conversion processes. Adolescents also served as Sunday school teachers, enabling youth to assume unprecedented levels of religious leadership. Second, because Sunday schools were distinct from both the home and the church, they functioned as a space in which unmarried or childless individuals could work to convert children in ways that were traditionally reserved for parents and pastors, leading evangelicals to rethink accepted sources of spiritual authority.
Taken together, my project reveals that concern over raising moral Christian citizens for a new republic in which the place of the church remained uncertain led to a new focus on children within the era’s Protestant reform movements. This focus in turn redistributed spiritual authority to more marginalized groups, including young people themselves, and challenged inherited patterns of social and cultural authority. In this way, Sunday schools permanently altered the American religious landscape while simultaneously contributing to the formation of a broader child-centric culture that persists in the modern day. Thus, the priorities, power structures, and growth strategies undergirding nineteenth-century religion and culture cannot be understood apart from childhood.