Illinois During the Gilded Age

Religion and Culture in Gilded-Age Illinois

by Drew E. VandeCreek

In 1871 the Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody (pictured below) met the gospel singer Ira Sankey at a religious meeting in Ohio. Moody immediately recruited Sankey to his cause. Together the two found widespread popularity, touring Europe and the United States in search of converts to a new fundamentalist faith. Many critics found Moody sentimental and lacking in intellectual rigor, but he became one of the Gilded Age's leading religious figures.

Dwight L. Moody Moody's evangelism reflected a larger trend in the American Protestantism that had dominated the American North since the earliest days of the Republic. Rejecting Calvinist notions of original sin and pre-destination, Moody’s message emphasized individual salvation through what he called the “three R’s,” “Ruin by sin, Redemption by Christ, and Regeneration by the Holy Ghost.” Believing in a pre-millennial theology holding that the world will come to an end after a period of apocalyptic turmoil in which the unconverted are decimated by disasters and harships occurring before Christ’s Second Coming and the beginning of an earthly Millennium, Moody served as a predecessor of twentieth and twenty-first century Protestant fundamentalists.1

But other challenges rocked the world of mainstream Protestantism in the Gilded Age. The publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, coupled with the unremitting carnage of the Civil War, forced many to reconsider their faith in God's providence and individual and social progress. Darwin suggested that natural selection, or species' struggle to survive in a changing environment, informed natural history. The Civil War suggested that Americans, many of whom strove to see themselves as becoming more civilized and self-controlled, were capable of numbing violence. In both cases, many Protestants struggled to reconcile their belief in a God devoted to goodness and benevolence with the brutal workings of life on earth.2

In the antebellum North, Protestant reformers' belief in the onward march of moral progress informed abolitionist and other reform activities, as well as a considerable intolerance of others' supposedly uncivilized ways. But in the Gilded Age this belief often degenerated into the fastidious attention to propriety lampooned so effectively by humorists like Mark Twain. Many prosperous and middle-class Americans, believing themselves to be cultured, renounced drinking, swearing, and other vices while abandoning an earlier era's devotion, however checkered, to social reform.3

Many well-off Americans succumbed to the appeal of a new doctrine of Social Darwinism, which justified individuals' great wealth as "survival of the fittest" and deprecated charity as prolonging the life of the weak. The early sociologist William Graham Sumner explored "What Social Classes Owe to Each Other?" in a book by the same title, and concluded, in resounding terms, "nothing." The poor were so because they lacked ability, determination and foresight.4

Many American Protestants also recoiled in horror when confronted with a continuing influx of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe. In the 1850s native-born Protestants' distaste for immigration and Catholicism had turned to the American Party's (or Know-Nothings') nativism. In the Gilded Age native-born, Protestant Americans continued to struggle with Catholic immigrants, especially over matters of education.

In 1880 Illinois became the home of the first black priest in America when Augustine Tolton was ordained in Rome. The child of Missouri slaves, Tolton began his career by serving an all-black parish in Quincy, but faced powerful opposition from whites there and moved on to a Chicago parish.

By the 1880s a reply to self-satisfaction and Social Darwinism began in the Social Gospel movement. Rising largely in northern, urban churches, Social Gospel activists sought to apply Christ's teaching of love and charity to urban, industrial conditions. Instead of condemning the poor as unfit, Social Gospel reformers sought to provide them with an opportunity to ameliorate their condition.5

Chicago also helped give rise to a new school in American literature, called realism, in the 1890s. Hamlin Garland worked as a newspaper reporter in the city. In his novels, Garland explored the Midwest farm life he had left behind in rural Wisconsin. In contrast to Americans' idyllic image of farm life, Garland described an experience of unremitting labor and misfortune. In the mid-1890s Theodore Dreiser also worked as a Chicago journalist, making notes for his scandalous Sister Carrie, which described a young woman's rise and fall in Chicago.6

The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition celebrated Christopher Columbus' landing in America four hundred years earlier, and celebrated American society, business and culture as well. Over twenty-seven million visitors streamed into Chicago to take it all in. The fairgrounds themselves covered 633 acres, and featured fourteen major buildings. Together these buildings, all designed in the neo-classical style and constructed of similar materials, comprised a striking collection that many visitors came to call the White City.

At the fair's center, visitors found a large reflecting pool, a fountain, and a classical statue. Major halls featured exhibits praising machinery, manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, electricity, and the liberal arts. A separate Woman's Building exhibited women's work and accomplishments. Another building, the Palace of Fine Arts, contained over 8000 works of art. Smaller buildings contained materials from American states and territories and over twenty foreign countries.

World's Columbian Exposition: The White City

At the same time the exhibition offered fair goers an opportunity to visit its Midway, which included a swimming pool, a fun house, and the world’s first Ferris Wheel. Many fair goers took side trips to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which had set up just outside the fair grounds. The Exposition thus provided a first glimpse at the mass amusements and culture that would characterize life in twentieth-century America.

The Midway also included commercial exhibits providing depictions of life in supposedly primitive societies, including “the Streets of Cairo” and an “African village.” The latter was inhabited by residents of Dahomey brought to the grounds specifically for display, which led African-American leader Frederick Douglass to remark that its purpose was “to exhibit the Negro as a repulsive savage.” Douglass, Ida B. Wells and other African-Americans noted that the fair ignored their race’s notable accomplishments. Amidst their complaints, the fair’s organizers proclaimed a special day for African-Americans, which many of its intended beneficiaries took to be an empty gesture.

The historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his influential paper "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at the American Historical Association's annual meeting, held in conjunction with the exposition. Turner remarked that the 1890 census had shown that Americans faced a new dilemma: they had run out of available land on the frontier. He argued that the frontier had served as a catalyst for American democracy and character, and wondered what would happen in a future bereft of this important part of the American experience. Turner's important and controversial "frontier thesis" captured many Americans' gnawing unease about the very emergence of modern society celebrated so thoroughly in the exposition.7

The White City represented a considerable defeat for the innovative designs of Louis Sullivan, who complained that the buildings would set architecture back by fifty years. In the previous decades Sullivan had become the leader of the new Chicago School of Architects. The fire of 1871 had provided architects with unmatched opportunities to design new urban buildings, and the new generation had responded by inventing the skyscraper, a structure of unprecedented height built with a steel frame on concrete pilings.

Sullivan's career culminated with the design of two Chicago landmarks, the celebrated Auditorium Theater (completed 1889) and the Chicago Stock Exchange Building (completed 1893). In addition, Sullivan designed significant structures in St. Louis and Buffalo. Despite his dictum that "form follows function," Sullivan in fact integrated delicate ornamentation into his larger designs and inspired several generations of architects, including his protégé Frank Lloyd Wright.

Upon the conclusion of the World Columbian Exposition the University of Chicago built a new campus on the Midway Plaisance that had hosted the fair. Funded in large part by the Standard Oil millionaire John D. Rockefeller, the university recruited a legion of well-known eastern scholars to build its faculty. Among the new recruits was the philosopher John Dewey.

In Chicago Dewey drank deeply from the experience of urban life. He found Jane Addams' Hull House particularly instructive, and set out to develop a new approach to philosophy emphasizing how individuals should live their lives. Dewey's work set aside philosophers' familiar concern for transcendent or eternal Truth, and argued that individuals' beliefs and activities served as instruments for solving problems. Like other philosophers who contributed to the new pragmatism, Dewey embraced the scientific method, and encouraged individuals to experiment in order to make their practices more intelligent and effective.

In order to encourage these habits of mind, Dewey turned his energies to the field of education. He argued that children did not represent mere empty vessels, passively awaiting knowledge. Instead, children and all individuals learned how to negotiate their environment through experimentation and practice. Individuals shaped their environment even as it shaped them, and grew as they developed new intelligence, abilities and capacities. Dewey sought to provide children with an opportunity for such growth at the University of Chicago's Laboratory School, which quickly became a national center for this movement in educational reform.8

  • 1. George Marsden Fundamentalism in American Culture (New YOrk: Oxford University Press, 2006, 2nd ed.)
  • 2. Charles Darwin On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859) (
  • 3. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (Hartford: American Publishing Company 1873)
  • 4. William Graham Sumner What Social Classes Owe Each Other (New York: Harper, 1883)
  • 5. Richard Hofstadter Social Darwinism in American Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944)
  • 6. Theodore Dreiser Sister Carrie (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1900)
  • 7. Frederick Jackson Turner "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (
  • 8. Robert Westbrook John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991)