A full discussion of every sect and denomination of the 19th century would be beyond the scope of this
simple unit study. This section will focus on Christianity in general and some interesting differences in
doctrine. Feel free to use this time to talk to your children about your own belief system.
A. PLANNING AND ACTIVITIES
1) Be prepared to discuss your denomination's beliefs with your children. When did your denomination
begin? Where? What are some key beliefs that differentiate it from other Christian denominations?
2) Listen to shaped-note singing. This unusual-sounding singing was very common in the 19th century, and
was taught at singing schools.
Great Awakening Sabbath Sabbatarianism
charity poorhouse alms
Protestant shaped note brush arbor Catholic
nun sister circuit riding preacher
C1: Early Elementary Reading
Many of the earliest colonists of the United States were Christians. While not ALL Americans were Christian,
during its first 150 years many people agreed that the Bible and Christian morality were good things. Books,
magazines, and newspapers frequently featured sermons, religious poetry, and stories that mentioned God,
Jesus, prayer and church.
Today there are some people in our country that want to deny our Christian heritage. They want to pretend
that Christianity and the Bible did not shape America. This is not true. Religion has always played a major
role in America and in the lives of her people, even if Christians have not always agreed.
When you look around your town, you may see schools, churches, universities, hospitals and children's
homes that were originally built as Christian charities. Many people today forget that Christians have done a
great deal of good in this world.
C2) Intermediate to Adult Reading
If you do any reading in primary documents of the 19th century you may be surprised by the number of
Biblical allusion and references that you find. Authors at that time expected most people to at least be
Biblically literate, even if the person was not "Christian."
Today this is far from the truth. You can read whole newspapers, magazines and watch entire programs
without encountering a positive reference toward the Bible or God. While the culture of the 19th century did
not MAKE anyone Christian, it made it easier for some Christians to practice their religious beliefs.
The 19th Century was a great era for Christianity. The 2nd Great Awakening, a massive revival that occured
around the turn of the 19th century, brought many people to faith in Christ. Many of these converts were
sincere about leading a Christian life, and they brought Christian principals into their homes and businesses.
Here in the U.S. Christians founded schools so that children could learn to read the Bible. They founded
colleges and universities to provide godly training for ministers and other professionals. Christians build
hospitals to care for the sick, and orphanages to care for orphans.
Not only did Christians work here at home, but they sent many missionaries. Some missionaries went to
Native American tribes, while other missionaries went to the distant lands. These brave men and women
faced many dangers in order to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Although 19th century America was very Christian in culture, many people were not able to attend religious
services every week. There simply were not enough ministers to reach every frontier settlement. Christians
might meet at a "Union" meeting served by ministers of different denominations each week. Sometimes
Christians might meet in a brush arbor to hear a Presbyterian minister one week, a Baptist the next and a
Methodist Circuit rider the next. Sometimes they only had a meeting once a month, or even less. Marriages,
baptisms and other services had to be planned around the time when a minister might make his rounds.
In some areas, the yearly camp-meeting (revival) was an important event. Families gathered at a
convenient area, usually near a good source of water, and pitched tents. Apparently some camp-grounds
even had cabins. The camp-meeting itself lasted for several days, with preaching from ministers of different
denominations. Camp-meetings were important social events on the frontier, and they were one of the few
places that women, children and slaves could speak ("exhort") in public.
Singing was an important element in Protestant worship, but in many cases it was a type of singing that we
would not recognize today. Shaped-note singing, also called Sacred Harp singing or Fa-So-La Singing
was common in the 19th century. While sometimes you may still see hymnals with shaped note music, the
most famous shaped-note hymnal was called The Sacred Harp. (This hymnal is NOT harp music.) In this
book, the songs are listed by the names of the tune rather than by the names we know today.
You may be familiar with the "doe, a deer, a female deer," from the movie The Sound of Music. To
understand the difference in sound in some shaped-note singing, one really must hear a real example. http:
This is the seven-note shaped note scale. There is also a 4 note scale.
My favorite is "King of Peace." To some people, shaped note music is an acquired taste; to others it grates
like fingernails on a chalk board. Shaped-note music is meant to be participated in, rather than just being
One difference that you might immediately see between Christianity today and Christianity of the 19th
century was that the latter was much stricter in many areas. Many denominations forbade their members to
dance, play cards, or attend plays. A member caught doing any of these things might be put out of the
Some denominations also took Sunday very seriously. Sabbatarianism was a movement that held that
Sunday was the "Christian Sabbath," and should be observed with great reverence and solemnity. In
extreme cases, food was not cooked nor fires lit on Sunday and the family was expected to read only the
Bible or devotional materials. Children were not allowed to play on Sunday. As decades passed, these
restrictions relaxed somewhat to allow for normal cooking, lighting fires, riding in carriages, visiting and
children playing (although usually quietly.) Of course, in either case, most people were not to buy or sell,
except in emergencies, nor do unnecessary work.
Another difference between modern Christianity and that of the 19th century was the emphasis on
resignation. Life in the 19th century was difficult; families lost many of their children in infancy or early
childhood. Life was very uncertain. Locust plagues and severe weather destroyed crops. Epidemics killed
thousands. There were no antibiotics and few painkillers. Work was physically hard. Life often seemed
painful, and many people longed for the peace and happiness of heaven. Many parents early on taught their
children that this life was a pilgrimage; that emotions were to be strictly controlled, and that they should not
murmur at suffering. (Murmuring wouldn't have done much good, anyway.) They taught their children that
they should be grateful for any comforts or advantages, and not take things for granted.
There was of course no social security in the 19th Century; no Medicare or Medicaid, no retirement…..and
no income tax (apart from a time in the North during the Civil War). The poor depended on charity from
relatives, friends, the Church, and the local community. In fact, one of the duties of the middle-class lady
was sewing for the poor, and many "Dorcas Societies" were formed.
There are poor people in the United States today, but very few that reach the level of poverty of the 19th
Century. One factor in this is the abundance of cheap manufactured goods and inexpensive food today. In
early 19th Century, even socks and clothing were valuable and difficult to obtain because they took so long
to make. Mending old socks and giving them to the poor was a form of charity we know nothing about today!
Food was also valuable; in some homes it was locked up to prevent it from being stolen, and some families
simply could not provide (through poverty or ignorance) adequate nutrition for their children.
In England, those who could not pay their bills had long been sent to debtor's prisons, and the indigent
were sent to poor houses.
America had no debtor's prisons, but poor people might go to the poorhouse or workhouse -Helen Kellar’s
teacher Anne Sullivan was put in a poor house when she was a child. Here in Texas there were poor farms.
In some cases, poor farms were combined with prisons: making it seem that being poor was a criminal
People in the workhouse were often given the job of picking oakum. That means they would have to take
hemp ropes and take them apart…then the hemp was reused in shipbuilding. They might also break stones
or do other menial and difficult jobs.
People in the poor house were often oppressed and might not have sufficient food or clothing. The children
might not have an education.
Aside from a few instructions that were given them in hard labor, the poorhouse children were allowed to
grow up as a flock of poorly fed chickens or animals. They were given their rations, a place to sleep, and
that was about all.
The Poorhouse Waif: A True Story by Isabel Byrum
Today there are very few true orphans in the United States. The few children who are orphaned are usually
taken in by near relatives. In the 19th century, orphans were common, especially after major epidemics.
In Gilmer, there was an orphanage for African-American children in the early 20th Century.
Sometimes an orphan might be taken in by a near relative, or even by a friendly neighbor. Some orphans
were taken to a local poorhouse or orphanage. Orphans in the Northern cities were sometimes sent on
"orphan trains" to towns in the South and West, where the children hoped to find families.
LESSON XI: RELIGION, POVERTY AND CHARITY
Like servants, charity-children in
England were often dressed in
old-fashioned-looking uniforms. The
medal around the girls' necks indicates
the institution to which they belong. I
have never found such elaborate
clothing for charity-children in the U.S.,
but apparently Americans were familiar
with the custom.
Charlotte Bronte, probably based on
her experiences in a charity school,
describes a similar scene in Jane Eyre.
"[A]quaint assemblage they appeared,
all with plain locks combed from their
faces....in brown dresses, made high
and surrounded by a narrow tucker
about the throat, with little pockets of
holland....tied in front of their frocks,
and designed to serve the purpose of
a work-bag: all too wearing woollen
stockings and country-made shoes,
fastened with brass buckles...[I]t suited
them ill, and gave an air of oddity even
to the prettiest."
|In rural areas in the early 19th
Century, the "Little Brown
Church in the Wildwood" was
more likely a brush arbor (a
pole-shelter with branches on