Religion and Culture

by Drew VandeCreek

Diverse religious and cultural traditions met in antebellum Illinois, not without controversy and conflict. The region's Native American inhabitants embraced a religion quite unlike the Christianity that white European settlers brought to North America. Indians organized their beliefs around no central creed or dogma. Rather, individual tribes developed rites and practices based upon a communitarian spiritual sense and reverence for nature. Among most tribes everyday acts assumed a spiritual significance and incorporated elements of ceremony.

In the seventeenth century French missionaries entered Illinois and brought with them their Catholic faith. These priests converted a significant number of Indians to their faith, but the French and Native Americans lived together in a freewheeling cultural milieu that historians have interpreted as a "middle ground" between Europeans' and Indians' own distinctive practices.1

British colonists began to move into Illinois, principally from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Most brought with them a Protestant faith. The Methodist evangelist (pictured below) traveled the State of Illinois in Lincoln's day, spreading the Word.

Methodist evangelist Peter Cartwright

These southerners tended to interpret Protestant Christianity in individualistic terms that resonated with their anti-authoritarian political beliefs. Many resisted the impulse to attach religion to any larger cultural values, and enjoyed the frontier's opportunity to mind their own business.

In the 1830s and 1840s large numbers of New Englanders began to arrive in central and northern Illinois. They brought with them their native region's intensely social, communitarian strand of Protestant religion. Yankee Congregationalists and Presbyterians turned their religious energies outward, toward the organization and reform of their communities. Many took up the cause of evangelism as representatives of the American Home Mission Society, which sent a legion of ministers and schoolteachers west in this period.

Immigrating New Englanders embraced education, and dramatically accelerated the development of Illinois' schools and colleges. In addition, they introduced institutions such as the lyceum, which presented speakers on cultural and intellectual subjects, to many small towns.

Industrious Yankee Protestants also embraced voluntary associations and clubs to take up the cause of personal and political reform movements for temperance, Sabbath observance, and the abolition of human slavery. Across Illinois these reformers' moral zeal and insistence that others conform to their utopian ideals led to repeated clashes.

At the heart of the Protestant New Englanders’ world view stood a notion of civilization. These settlers believed that they brought the seed of knowledge, morality and order to savage Indians, a wild frontier, and indolent southerners. In an era in which colonial forms of deference to crown and noblemen collapsed, many Americans worried that democratic society could only produce disorder. The Yankee sense of civilization introduced powerful norms of self-control and individual conscience as the cement holding society together.

While men tamed nature and established farms, shops, and workshops, reformers believed that women exercised large control over the spread of culture and civilization. This mission often conflicted with the realities of life on the frontier. In harsh conditions men and women often shared equally in house and field work. But reformers insisted that women remain within the home, their own "separate sphere" of domesticity that allowed them to tend to their families and ensure their allegiance to the ideals of Christian civilization.

In 1839 a bedraggled band called the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, arrived in Illinois. A religious sect organized around the teaching of the prophet Joseph Smith, the Mormons removed from Missouri, where they had faced intense persecution. An earlier settlement in Ohio had failed as well.

Mormons' unusual social practices, including polygamy, and unique interpretations of Christian doctrines, upset Yankee moralists. In addition, an insistence upon settling together as a group and a disregard for the American separation of church and state led Mormons to dominate community, economic, and political life wherever they landed, often to the consternation of their neighbors.

In Illinois the Mormons established a settlement at Nauvoo, near Quincy in extreme western Illinois. By 1842 Nauvoo had become a city of at least 12,000, the largest in Illinois. Thousands of other Latter-Day Saints lived nearby. The church erected a massive temple. Insisting upon controlling local institutions, the Latter Day Saints assembled the Nauvoo Legion, a well-trained Mormon army provided cannon by Springfield officials eager to court the bloc-voting sect.

The Mormons' exclusive social and economic organization and clumsy attempts to influence Illinois politics quickly led to controversy with other residents of the state. Still hoping for restitution for damages suffered in Missouri, Joseph Smith visited President Martin Van Buren inMormon Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois 1839. Disappointed, he announced that he was a candidate for President of the United States. Facing extradition requests from Missouri and a charge that he had used the Nauvoo Legion to destroy a local newspaper that had questioned the authority of his church, Smith won his freedom from Mormon courts in Nauvoo.

The situation had begun to deteriorate, and Governor Thomas Ford called out the militia. In June of 1844 Smith met with the governor in Carthage, Illinois to discuss his difficulties. That night an anti-Mormon mob rushed the jail and murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Despite the governor's ineffectual efforts to keep the peace, lawlessness persisted for two years in what has come to be known as the Mormon War. In 1846 the Mormons quit Illinois and began their trek to Deseret, the modern Salt Lake Valley of Utah.

While many leading citizens of Illinois, including Abraham Lincoln, embraced a new faith in progress and civilization, the Mormon War suggested that this vision remained incapable of recognizing rival faiths or beliefs. Despite Americans' confidence that a new humane ethos of civilization had met the threat of barbarism, violence broke out in the Mormon War. Fifteen years later Americans would prove themselves eager to resort to violence again in the Civil War.

  • 1. Richard White The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)