In accord with much of Scripture itself, the churches of the Reformation have emphasized the ear over the eye: fides ex auditu. The conviction that faith comes less by seeing than by hearing (Romans 10:17) undergirded the Protestant renewal of the Church through the preached and sung Word. Luther famously urged his people to “stick your eyes in your ears” when listening to sermons, so that the evangelium might strike their consciences as visual images could not. The God who has fashioned His own image in Jesus Christ is a jealous God, Calvin insisted, who shall have no other images before Him. Thus the Protestant preeminence in music and literature—in Bach and Milton and Herbert, in Donne and Blake, in the great Victorian poets and novelists, in T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, perhaps even in Charles Ives and John Updike—finds no concomitant greatness in painting and sculpture, at least within the Anglophone world.
David Morgan’s excellent book does not claim any aesthetic eminence for the visual art produced by American Protestants. But he does demonstrate—in mountainous de tail, with abundant illustration, and by way of rigorous scholarly re search—that American Protestants were once driven by a powerful visual piety. As a historian who emphasizes material things no less than ideas and beliefs, Morgan seeks to show that our lives are formed chiefly not by the great monuments of art and culture but by prosaic objects and ordinary commodities. Mass–produced images, he convincingly argues, have been among the most powerful influences on American Protestant life.
By the early part of the nineteenth century, the ready availability of printed material had given rise to our first mass culture. It was made possible, Morgan shows, by a convergence of several forces: national aspiration, mass migration, and an economy based more on consumption than production. It was also prompted by varied new means of communication: “mail order, a reliable postal system, uniform currency, widespread literacy, and dependable transportation via an ever–expanding infrastructure of roads, railroads, canals, and steam–powered vessels.” The standard way of reading this revolution in mass culture is to see it as having an inexorably secularizing effect. Morgan argues, quite to the contrary, that Protestant evangelicals so decisively shaped the new print culture that they were able to set their stamp on the entire national ethos.
The chief forces driving this cultural and religious revolution were the illustrated texts produced by the American Tract Society (ATS) and the American Sunday School Union. The ATS was organized in 1825 on the premise that “the press is the grand medium of communication in all parts of the missionary world.” Against the complaint that the Word should be heard more than read, the ATS replied that the oral medium limits the spread of the gospel to mere local cultures while the miracle of the printing press enables the evangelizing of entire cultures. “The pen is an artificial tongue,” the ATS declared, but when its products are set into print, they have permanent effect, unlike the vanishing voice. The tract, in turn, could sharpen and simplify the gospel as the lengthy and often ponderous Bible could not.
Morgan is right to mark the founding of the ATS as a decisive moment in American religious history. It meant that the Protestant churches came to share the new national urgency about education and literacy. They believed that a reading citizenry is at once the most readily evangelized and also the most likely to uphold republican ideals. Just as print advertisements had proved immensely effective in commercial life, so could Christian tracts “sell” this joint republican–Christian message. (Even though revivals were not centered upon the printed and illustrated Word, they partook of this same commodifying ethos, as the saving decision for Christ became analogous to the consumer’s choice.)
Yet evangelism was no longer limited to garnering souls for heaven. The mission of the Church was also to be realized on earth. Far from being alien to the social gospel, evangelical tracts promoted moral re form, philanthropic giving, benevolent agencies, and especially the mother–tended home. The aim of this first mass propagation of the gospel was to make the postmillennial kingdom dawn first on these democratic shores and illumine the entire world. As the one nation that combined perfect religious and political liberty, the United States would serve as the flagship of western Protestant civilization.
This conflation of national and religious aims would have lasting consequences. At first the Protestant tract movement seemed radical in its ethical rigor. Its early advocates sought, for example, to end both slavery and war. But these drastic demands were soon subordinated to the more convenient and easily realized aims of the young Protestant republic. Native Americans were depicted not as noble savages but as barbarians who blighted our Christian civilization. Negro slaves were limned as happy Christian simpletons whose masters were guilty not so much because they sinfully shackled their fellow creatures but because their political demands threatened national unity. Roman Catholics were shown as drunken louts and superstitious heathens who needed amalgamating as well as converting. The impoverished working classes were displayed as intemperate and wayward souls whose improvidence proved a burden to taxpayers. The ideal American Protestant culture was envisioned, by contrast, as a tranquil rural affair presided over by mothers who instilled in their children the Christian virtues of thrift and honesty and abstinence from worldly vices.
During the latter half of the century, Morgan argues, American visual piety underwent a seismic if gradual shift. From having had primarily a didactic purpose—to illustrate the truth of God’s biblical Word—Protestant pictorial efforts sought increasingly to prompt personal piety, especially among children. If children could be reached for the gospel, so could their parents. Children, in turn, could best be influenced through sentimental images of pity and comfort on the one hand, fear and shame on the other. Hence the birth of the chalk talk, where pastors and others sought to overcome the limits of the catechism by sketching biblical stories on blackboards. Entertainment and amusement thus became essential tools in the marketing of evangelical faith, as American commerce and American Protestantism were ever more fully entwined.
For a nation and a religion in creasingly at ease with each other, there seemed but little need for the venerable Puritan and the more recent revivalist demand for radical conversion and conscious submission to the will of God. These extravagant practices among old–style evangelicals gradually gave way to a new–style liberalism built on the idea of Christian nurture. Horace Bushnell, that idea’s most famous advocate, held that the organic development of character can best be assured through wholesome images and unconscious influences rather than doctrinal inculcation. The most wholesome of all images is surely that of history’s most influential figure, Jesus himself. “It is the grandeur of his character,” wrote Bushnell, “which constitutes the chief power of his ministry, not his miracles or teachings apart from his character.”
Devotional images of a haloed and idealized Jesus, especially his face, thus came into immense vogue. Werner Sallman’s Head of Christ and Heinrich Hofmann’s Christ in Gethsemane were but the most popular among many hundreds of such sentimental images of the Savior. There also arose a concomitant interest in Jesus’ childhood. Just as the boy–Christ underwent his own development of faith, so did the new graded and illustrated Sunday School lessons seek to insure full spiritual consciousness at the end of adolescence.
Morgan concludes his magisterial survey of nineteenth and early twentieth century American visual piety by noting that the triumph of the suggestive image over illustrated text constitutes a decidedly modern and post–Enlightenment turn. It moves from the rational to the affectional, from clearly conveyed knowledge to nonrationally evoked feelings. The outcome was decisive. Whereas the didactic images of the early nineteenth century sought to create a culture of character that “endorsed moderation, self–re straint, even self–denial,” the devotional images that emerged in the latter half of the century helped produce a culture of personality. This new kind of visual piety avoided “effeminate” notions of a suffering and humiliated Christ in favor of a strong Personality who exuded energy and self–fulfillment, strength and self–expression, assertive masculinity and self–possession.
David Morgan resists the temptation to present his history as a tract for our times. He refuses to make easy judgmental links between past and present, as he might well have done. Morgan could have shown, for example, that the sleazy evangelical slogans and the trite praise songs of our own time have their origin in the visual piety of our Protestant forebears. It is indeed tempting to view the artistic and religious movement that Morgan charts as a huge mistake. Yet as Richard John Neuhaus once warned, most of us would not be Christians at all were it not for the popular piety of Christendom. It is also true, as Mark A. Noll has observed, that a new American nation could hardly have been built without the symbiosis of its Protestant religion and its republican politics.
Yet it is still necessary to ask why Catholicism has managed to remain a popular religion while engendering visual art that makes the Faith rigorous rather than flaccid (though Catholics, to be sure, have produced their own full share of religious kitsch). The answer does not lie merely in Protestant biblicism and iconoclasm. Might it be that our Protestant churches failed to incarnate a communal life of belief and worship sufficiently arresting to invigorate the artistic imagination? Dietrich Bonhoeffer made an argument along these lines after his first American tour in 1930–31. Bonhoeffer complained that this nation’s Christianity is based upon an unfree kind of freedom, “a Protestantism without Reformation.” American Christians, who once fled persecution, have created here a comfortable Protestant Establishment piety that is unfortunately susceptible to complacency and sentimentality. In seeking to tend to the business of the nation, Bonhoeffer explained, American Protestantism has largely surrendered its radical Christological critique both of itself and the nation. David Morgan’s illuminating book bears out Bonhoeffer’s foreboding contention in deeply instructive ways.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor at Baylor University.