Church in the Wild

Evangelicals in Antebellum America

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Brett Malcolm Grainger
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , May
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brett Grainger’s Church in the Wild describes antebellum American evangelicalism through the lens of “nature theology.” Evangelical nature spirituality encouraged constant interaction with the natural landscape and allowed evangelicals to know themselves, the world, and God through observing nature. The book is full of camp meetings in the forest, baptisms in streams, prayer at hot springs, and long walks through the fields that lead to spiritual awakenings. Grainger’s depiction of antebellum religion thus challenges the common association of nature and transcendentalism, showing that the much more populous movement of evangelicalism was also replete with nature talk. The stakes of this argument have clear implications for contemporary politics: which spiritual traditions in the United States have taught us to value nature, both as a place of communion and an object to preserve? In Grainger’s work, contemporary Christians might find a resource for understanding themselves as nature worshipers, and thus also as potential stewards of that nature.

Beginning with the streams and fields that hosted Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian conversions, Grainger argues that these famous motifs were not mere backdrops to evangelical experience. When evangelicals attended camp revivals, they could not help but see the trees and hills around them as potentially divine things in themselves. Individuals also found themselves drawn to nature. William Glendinning, a Presbyterian who attended Methodist meetings around Baltimore in the 1780s, often walked through the fields in prayer and eventually became a full-time hermit so that he could continue his spiritual reverie in nature. Grainger argues that the baggage of Protestantism loaded these experiences with ambivalence and evangelicals always looked for a way to distinguish their awe in nature from the idolatry of heathens. But the Bible itself kept leading them back to the landscape. Even for urban evangelicals, conversion narratives tended to layer descriptions of the natural landscape with biblical images of nature. Particular natural features of the landscape, such as trees, seemed to be ready made for profound spiritual experience because of their role in biblical discourse.

Nature, however, was not all allegory and welcoming landscapes. Evangelicals who moved through rough terrain, either as missionaries or as they pursued solitary contemplation, experienced nature through bug bites, strenuous climbs, and freezing cold. The roughness of nature allowed evangelicals to test one’s faith through endurance. In focusing on evangelicals’ embrace of the natural world, Grainger points to an understudied aspect of evangelical piety: contemplation. By walking in the fields alone, by gazing at the world around them, evangelicals worked to jumpstart and sustain their faith. Even as these chapters evoke individual characters’ spiritual experiences, Grainger’s description is geographically ambiguous. Did some regions of the young United States feel rougher than others? It is unclear from Grainger’s method how rural and urban natural spaces compared as locations for the practice of piety. It is, for example, unclear how far one had to walk outside of a town in order to “retire in a field.”

In Grainger’s chapter on hot springs, “nature” as an object becomes more grounded in specific locales. The fashionable practice of “taking the waters” included evangelicals and became a way to explore the theological possibilities of vitalism. Vitalism, a theological concept with roots in Lutheran pietism (a tradition that made its way to America through Methodism), posited that the world was animated with a vibrant life force that, while atmospheric, had radical possibilities for action. Vitalist logic pervaded water cure in American culture, and Grainger shows that evangelicals in particular were able to draw on vitalism as an explanation of why hot springs were a particularly good place for piety and healing. Evangelicals saw spas and water cures as an exciting location for regeneration of both the earth and the body. By drinking, bathing, and praying at the beginning and end of days at the spa, evangelicals turned places such as Clifton Springs and White Sulphur Springs into Protestant sacred spaces. The chapter, however, highlights the under-theorization of nature throughout the book. Grainger goes back and forth between treating nature as the picturesque, the radical other of the wilderness, the immanent experience of bugs and bark, and in the hot springs chapter, a natural force domesticated through building and use.

Grainger’s final chapter on electricity highlights antebellum evangelicalism’s eclectic approach to theology. John Wesley and T. Gale both thought about the divine implications of electricity, but in the antebellum United States the pastor and scientist Edward Hitchcock created a theology of divine electricity. The most famous version of this idea comes from Charles Finney, who described the Holy Spirit as electricity, but Hitchcock assessed the emerging science-spirituality of mesmerism and saw more than analogy. Unlike evangelicals such as La Roy Sunderland who converted from evangelicalism to mesmerism, Hitchcock saw the celestial fire of electricity as a physical proof of an immanent divine force in the world. Hitchcock’s theology, however, feels disconnected from the world in which he existed. In illustrating evangelicals’ theological ideas, the book often jumps from decade to decade, region to region, rarely showing how an idea functioned within an individual’s larger biography. It is difficult to discern how nature as an idea functioned in particular communities or how the characters that Grainger presents thought about nature in relationship to other aspects of their lives.

The most exciting aspect of Grainger’s book is the subtle argument for contemporary evangelicals to see themselves through a different genealogy. Grainger argues that the roots of American evangelicalism are in pre- and post-Reformation mystics, Lutheran pietists, Puritan theologians, and engagement with early republican intellectuals such as Benjamin Franklin. By focusing on the idea of “vitalism,” Grainger differs strikingly from the American evangelical historiography of George Marsden and Mark Noll that asks contemporary evangelicals to see their origin story in the Calvinism of Johnathan Edwards. Through a focus on the nature motifs that pervaded evangelical piety, Grainger points to the fundamental eclecticism of American evangelical history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dana Wiggins Logan is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brett Malcolm Grainger is a scholar of American religion and an award-winning journalist. He is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.


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