Their Brothers’ Keepers

Moral Stewardship in the United States, 1800-1865

By Clifford S. Griffin



During the expansion to the West and the decline of Federalism, Slavocracy in the south and factories and unemployment in the North, many thought Protestant morality would restore to men and to society, stability and order, sobriety and safety.


The leaders were exemplars who claimed the right and duty to tell other men how to behave.  They were heirs of the stewardship tradition of the Calvinistic past..    Calvin’s disciples had stressed that the Elect of God should regulate their neighbors’ lives by moral suasion and political action.  This was doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

Pastors and wealthy men were the leaders.  They thought the nation would economically and politically decline otherwise.  It was a means of establishing secular order.[i]  Pay debts and not join trade unions.  Rioting mobs were evil and ungodly.  And if you wanted a kingdom in heaven you had to establish it on earth by voting for stewards.


They denounced Catholics as a threat to a virtuous nation. What would they had said about Muslims?   No liquor.  Economic wrongs and social violence came from this.  They were against slavery. 

At first they eschewed political action as there was a separation of church and state.  But by 1840 they added politics to moral persuasion. 


--------CHAPTER ONE – TRUSTEESHIP IN AMERICA-----------------------

Dr. Rush was sooooo against alcohol.  In fulfilling his Christian obligation he tried to stop others from drinking, supported Sunday schools and common schools to impart religion and morality. 


John Winthrop lectured Puritans on the ship Arbella that some were high and eminent in power and dignity.  Others were mean and in subjection.  Upon the first group rested the duty to rule the second and compel the mean men to obey God’s will.  (p5).

Before we pooh-pooh this remember Gertrude Himmelfarb.  And think that parents and conscience are real things.  Parents show total freedom is not a great thing and your conscience you know is often weak. 

Calvin made the state one arm of religion.  Massachusetts and Connecticut were theocracies in which lay and clerical leaders wrote laws to make men behave. 

Until 1665 in New Haven and until 1691 in Massachusetts, only Congregational Church members could vote for rulers of the theocracy.  The state upheld the church by taxing everyone for its support. 


Patriots, said Rev. Jedidiah Morse were men who cherished law and order, who were industrious, sober, and frugal, and who would enforce by “precept and example every moral and religious duty.”


Federalism was the political means through which the stewardss tried to rule others.  Jeffersonians were the voice of the independent frontiersman.  In 1801 the Jeffersonians swept the Federalists from office.  (p12)    In 1811 they got it so that taxes could go to any denomination of religion. 


They believed that every free state of antiquity lost its liberty in the corruption in the lower classes of its citizens.  Since politics were out reform societies were in.

Statistics alarmed them.  By 1807 Boston had forty distilleries.  They country produced 22,000,000 gallons of spirits.  They were afraid of the frontiersmen.  They also ranted against slavery. (19).    Benjamin Rush urged gradual emancipation with education so that they could prosper and not flounder.  William Lloyd Garrison was convinced it should be immediate.  



After 1815 when the war with England was settled the national work started.  In 1787 county associations of ministers began to send out itinerant evangelists. (23) By 1797 Connecticut had a statewide Missionary Society.  They sought to promote social stability and establish civil order and subordination and those principles and habits which are essential to the welfare of society.  They wanted to reproduce their civilization in the wilderness.  Just as assimilationists showed great concern for the morals of foreigners by offering them guidance, religious organizations have organized to help those on the frontiers maintain cultural continuity.[ii]

New York Bible Society became the American Bible Society and had the cream of society in it. 

They launched Sunday schools to teach poor children to read, write, and sing Christian psalms.  They paid teachers and also taught about religion and the sinfulness of unwashed faces, lying, stealing, cheating, drinking and swearing.  The Pennsylvania legislature pitched in and the Philadelphia Sunday and Adult School Union was started. 

There was also the American Sunday School Union.  They also started the American Education Society which trained ministers.  They got heavily into tract distribution.  This was an old popular action.  Lectures to those getting free food was also added. 

These men may not have stopped the demise of Federalism, but they probably made the Jeffersonians more responsible in an attempt to counteract the charges that they were degenerates.  When they lost they felt like the moral dam had burst. This meant they had to redouble their efforts. 

Out of these efforts came the vanguard of temperance. (38).  Rum and tobacco being part of the golden triangle, slavery became an enemy also.  All vice.


--------CHAPTER THREE---GOD AND MAMMON-------------------

The leaders of the benevolent societies knew two worlds: the American republic and the kingdom of God.  One was to reflect the other.  They felt that they were saved, better than others, blessed and given a moral obligation, therefore, to lead.  (45). 

Strangely enough, from 1825 to 1835, they received help from a man who though men could guarantee their own salvation: Reverend Charles Grandison Finney.  Because of him more people would contribute to the benevolent societies.  They found him ma church though they worried about his theology. 

They often explained the idea of stewardship in terms of stewardship of wealth.  This made the relation between religion and making money clear.  Businessmen must to more than be upright, honest, and pious, they must also pledge their time, their influence and their money to foster, “order, intelligence and religion.”  A bible society analysis found that many people were poor because of indolence, ignorance and “vicious indulgences.”  The poor forgot the moral virtues in a haste to to be rich, they then spent their money on worthless amusements, and many of them had an aversion to honest work.  (50)

They said that men should spend their time in self improvement and not seek raises through trade unions, but through bettering themselves. 

Looting and mobbism by gangs of roughnecks were also a problem.  The riots were sustained by youths from 16 to 20 years of age.  The cure was to send them to Sunday school.  This is not so unfamiliar and the same as the cries of the progressives years later.

In the booms of 1830s (before the crash of 1837) state governments spent too much.  Subsequently they were near defaulting on debts.  The societies warned of the sinfulness of not paying debts and harkened back to how the founders would be ashamed. 

Frelinghuysen went against Jackson due to his rabble of the West wanting to remove Senator Indians and cancel the Bank of the US.  He was the head of a tract society.  The rabble needed lessons.  The Western growth and character was shocking (58).  It was populated by under-classes of the East who had left civilization for rancorous enjoyments and would  outvote the Easterners.  Passions violent and barbaric, lynching and ruffians

 replaced law and order.


--------CHAPTER FOUR ---- OPERATING THE SOCIETIES ---------------

The benevolent societies had thousands of people involved in every state.  Membership meant they had to donate money.  Hundreds of seminarians were on the payroll.   These men would set up outposts and report every three months on their progress.  If worthy they would then get another stipend.  They also printed books including Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress bibles and tracts

An officers meeting in Philadelphia in May of 1833 brought 371 delegates from 21 states.  They passed resolutions against all alcohol (70).  But there was factionalism due to this.  The peace society branch also had factionalism.  But since the country was already at peace, their influence was small.  Would they fight a defensive war?  Each of the branches had full-time professional reformers on their staff. There was only one financial scandal.  But the repercussions were large. 


-------CHAPTER FIVE ---------- AUILARIES AND AGENTS--------------

In the 1840s and 1850s prosperity came back and efforts expanded again.  The small local groups had preceded the National ones.  They felt jealous.  So the National ones countered by being generous to the locals. Locals could buy bibles at cost.  To get this status they had to write an annual report and give three dollars a year.  The auxiliaries were sometimes called agencies. 

By 1837 there were 1,000 Antislavery auxiliaries, 900 bible societies and 3,000 tract societies.  The central Home Missionary was dinky.   Delegate authority was normal.  This system went on for almost 40 years.  (85).  Local auxiliaries bout $250,000 worth of bibles and contributed $150,000 more. 

They instituted the Oneida plan to have scholars do manual labor to pay for their education because physical weakness killed scholars.  Two dying had cost them $5,000. 

Weld was an ugly but energetic student and preacher who pushed the manual labor plan and became bit in anti-slavery.  By 1837 the anti-slavery auxiliaries numbered 1000 and had 100,000 members.  (88).  This created tension between the local and national.  The National often got no money. 

The depression of 1837 hurt the tract folks especially.  The nationals decided to switch to bible salesman of their own contracting.  After this and 1842 all was boom.  By 1850 they had 580 salesmen.  They earned enough to support single men, but not married men.

With the temperance organizations the auxiliaries were stronger.  The Sunday school organizations were more centrally controlled.

The Sunday School leaders had to be big men so that local authorities would respect them. The teachers could not be involved in tobacco or anything that “borders on the queer.” (96)   They, at first, used the memorization system.  Young scholars got books for memorization.  Then they veered away.  They would be asked questions.  What is meant by “faith”?  They the students would research answers and memorize the answers to be given back on Sunday.  

The Home Ministry oversaw the foreign and domestic missions in the objects of Education, Bible, Tract and Sabbath School Societies. 


---------------CHAPTER SIX -------- PERSUADING THE SINNERS ----

Moral suasion was bigger than political action.  They added a variety of secular inducements to the religious ones.  They claimed that being good would produce economic and social benefits.  Increase in profits and standing would come to poor men.  The wealthy would increase their wealth and insure economic stability.

“Rum – ruin and error go together” (101).  They said no alcohol distiller could be a Christian.  Demon rum kept folks from being benevolent.  Money from one donor was to go to churches that did not admit drinkers.  This caused a lot of dissent.  Slavery was held in the same low esteem.  Weld wrote “The bible against slavery” and it went through several editions.  They also wrote books about sin causing downfalls.  Abolitionists were the most enthusiastic purveyors of the horror story.  Weld wrote the most on this.  Slavery made owners give into brutal lusts.  Mangled flesh and bones were big in the horrors. 

Avoiding being a debtor would lead to good.  Otherwise you would not be able to look into shop windows for fear of seeing creditors.  The government was told that it would save tax money if people behaved themselves.  Absurd?  They told rich people that if they contributed people would be more likely to pay their debts. 

Each society claimed that its work was the most important.  Each claimed its vice was the worst.  In a decade the Tract Society’s statistics were great they published 35,000,000 tracts and books.  The Bible Society 2,196,000 bibles published.  By 1836 there may have been 120,000 children in Sunday school because of the national union.  But still people sinned, drank and riots.




            In 1854 there was a first prohibition law attempt that was tied with religion and defeated.  Reverend Bird of Illinois proposed it and had his house attacked by a mob. 

The trustees of the national organizations had never forgotten the old morality laws.  They denied it, but were organizing for it.  The earliest legislative battle was to get Congress to stop profaning the Sabbath by having main on Sunday.  In 1810 Congress said they should be open every day.  In 1828 they started the society to stop it.  They wanted to stop all Sunday activity.  Senator Johnson fought them saying that business would suffer if Sunday had no mail and what then of the Jewish Sabbath?  Senator Frelinghuysen said that a free people can only flourish under the control of moral causes.  And it is the Sabbath which gives vigor, and energy, and stability to these causes.”  Others feared he wanted to start a theocracy.  The sabbatarians did not carry the day.

            Peace proponents were losing at the same time.  Congress would not lessen its spending on armaments.  They would not establish a court for disputes between governments and lessen standing armies.  They tried to get a Congress of Nations passed in 1837.  People thought these were anti-Texas annexation measures in disguise.  By extension they thought they were abolitionist measures. 

            Garrison was defensive as he was accused of having promoted Nat Turner’s insurrection.  Still they pushed ahead with petitions as Adams took up their cause in order to piss off the Republicans who had attacked his Daddy for the alien and sedition acts.  

Licensing and restricting alcohol became an issue.  The national system wasn’t.  It was chaotic state by state stuff.   The tract society tried to get vendors to put up signs that said their shop was to create drunkards for respectable people to support.  They were there to excite men to riot and robbery.  They were there to create accidents and poor houses.  I’m sure that none went up.  In 1838 in Boston they had a success, but it was repealed.  They tried for and got some local licensing deals.




 Nothing discouraged the benevolent society leaders.    They had successes but needed politico’s support to do it.  They tried to get Sunday school material into public schools.  Restraint would either come from education and religion or bayonets cause people are in need of restraint for their passions. 

            These sales were necessary to keep the Sunday School Union from financial peril.  Horace Mann would not let sectarian literature in common schools.  They formed a multi-denominational committee to approve the books.  Mann still refused.  They then decided to try to work via resolution.  They said religion was the strongest foundation for a free government.   These arguments came when many American Protestants were worried about growing Catholic Immigrants to the U.S.  The Bible Society warned of the Catholic threat. 

            Much of the work was left to auxiliaries.  After 1837 all depended on demographics.  In 1855 the state legislature of Massachusetts, dominated by men who opposed immigrant and Catholic influence, passed a law requiring the use and reading of scriptures. 

            In NY they had a Public School Society that operated schools and were entirely Protestant and had Protestant prayers anti-Catholic propaganda and the King James being read daily in the schools.  Catholics protested and said they wanted funds for their own schools.  Whig governor William H. Seward went for the Catholic vote.  The Democratic majority passed the Maclay bill and  that promised Catholics control in wards where they were dominant.  Catholics thereby ended bible reading in thirty-one of the common schools.  Catholics migrating West made it impossible to get States to adopt their books for common schools elsewhere.

            Peace groups couldn’t stop war with Mexico.  Forty eight or fight led to peace because of businessmen, not peaceniks.    

Each society claimed that its work was the most important.  Each claimed its vice was the worst.  In a decade the Tract Society’s statistics were great they published 35,000,000 tracts and books.  The Bible Society 2,196,000 bibles published.  By 1836 there may have been 120,000 children in Sunday school because of the national union.  But still people sinned, drank and riots.[iii]  They got local governments to restrict the sale of alcohol and even prohibition in Maine in 1848.[iv]   This was said to be “consonant with the destruction of the implements of gambling and counterfeiting, of poisonous food, infectious hides, and weapons of war in the hands of an enemy.”[v]



The crusade expanded while the labors of organized abolitionists contracted, paradoxically, between the 1830s and 1852.

Garrison’s harshness made many enemies for the religious groups.  Garrison got more and more radical.  He attacked sabbatarianism and clerics. He was against all government and thought women should have equal rights.  The new liberty party became the Free Soil party which also took on other issues and Garrison assailed. 

The new Liberty party mixed anti-mason stuff with songs and chants to get a lot of votes.  They opposed the annexation of texas, James K. Polk, Democrat was for it and Henry Clay, Whig, tried to straddle both sides.  Polk won.  Perhaps liberty voters going against clay made the difference in the key state of NY.  Whigs were pissed at the third party Liberty.  Samuel Chase and the Whigs went more anti-slavery to take votes from the Whigs.  (p166). 

When they switched to Free Soil.  They got about 10% of the vote.  This gave chase power.  Taylor brought in California as anti-slave and thought the north would be happy, but had to put in the fugitive slave act and they would not be flunkies for the southerners.  Both Whigs and Democrats took in anti slavery principles and took the steam of the Free Soil party.  Free Soilers increased sectionalism and brought anti-slavery guys to Congress. 



Like the other societies, the anti-slavery folk wanted to make men behave.  The bible folk would provide Negroes with bibles.  Former slave owners would be brought into the congregations.  The leaders of the three societies were not elites of society and feared a bi-racial society.  Back to Africa.  They tried to get Southern support by saying after abolition the Negroes wouldn’t be around to cause trouble.  And they would spare the Negroes the anguish of living in a white society.  The leaders did not like anti-Southerners.  They needed Southern donations.

They thought getting the pamphleteers to send bibles to negroes would help enlist them in their cause.  It didn’t work.  Many missionaries though, would not relent.  They said bondage was worse than Catholicism. (184).  The home missionary society’s weak stance on slavery was hurting them.  Presbyterians were less anti-slavery, but the Congregationists had the money.  By 1857 the general assembly said church members who had slaves couldn’t be tolerated.  But it was a fissure.  Congregationists distributed Uncle Tom’s Cabin and turned to the American Missionary Association with their donation dollars. 

There was also a battle for the tract societies who had denounced every sin except slavery.  Even some of the tract folk (Adams) defended slavery as God’s will.  In September of 1857 they said they’d do the sins attending slavery and printed “the duties of the master”.  So abolitionists tried to seize control of the organization.  The abolitionists failed and the National Society split. 

Abolitionists divided the ranks of organized benevolence.  They filed to capture the Bible Society, split the Tract Society and won the Home Missionary society.  The abolitionists were stronger and more extreme in denouncing slavery as a sin because of the battle.



In the years between 1842 and 1857 the five religious societies had both their greatest prosperity and their greatest problems.  Immigrants and westerners were the folks they hoped to change and control.  1854-6 The depression over all the groups got their biggest cash and could expand their activities. 

Between 1850 and 1860 The tract Society sold and gave away between nine and ten million tracts a year.  In 1854 to 1856, the Bible Society printed over 900,000 bibles and testaments.  The Sunday School Union employed 324 missionaries and the Education Society was subsidizing some 500 students.  The Home missionary society assisted an annual average of 1000 ministers.  (200)

Reaching Westerners, the vast multitudes of in unevangelicized older territories and immigrants were their big problems.  Only the Tract Society really went West.  Willey and Douglas were the only agents sent due to the expense of going to and living in the West.  Once there, the Gold Rush happened.  Evil men outnumbered the good there. 

Saloons and Sabbath desecration were rampant.  They also had to compete with Mormons who got to the Great Lakes in 1847.  The Irish and other Catholics were also thought to be subverting Protestant English speaking America.  On April 21, 1854 alone 5,500 immigrants arrived at NY city.  The benevolence societies changed their tracts to convert them.  They said the Roman religion was wrong.  Fourteen million pamphlets went out and many in foreign languages.  By 1857 they were issuing over 45,000 bibles in foreign tongues.  104 of its 473 colporteurs were in immigrant communities. 

The Poll Power of immigrants was going up as the Democrats and Whigs were jousting.  Dems did better.  In the late 1830s and early 40s Nativism got going.  The whigs went after the anti-immigrant vote.  They started as Dems were lavishing licences and pork jobs on Irish.  The Nativist groups went under American Republicans and tried to join with Whigs.  But couldn’t deliver the votes and lost NY.  The Whigs bolted and the N.A.s kept trying to extend the years it took to get naturalized unsuccessfully. 

When this wave of political action receded, officers of the benevolent societies hastened to stir up the waters of hatred.  With this power they were able to start the Order of the Star Spangled Banner.  It was a secret fraternal lodge.  They didn’t want to say they belonged to the lodge and were therefore Know-Nothings.  Whigs took the hit hard and many slave owners, suspecting immigrants to be abolitionists, joined the Know-Nothings. 

With dishonorable conduct their victories became pyrrhic.



            Pollock was a Whig who had In God We Trust put on our money.  An abolitionist tee-totaler, he brought in Christian morality and (secretly) many Know-Nothings.  This was typical of the galaxy that created the Republican Party.  Free-soilers had to be carefully not to alienate the big drinking Germans.  The Fugitive act pissed people off at both major parties.  Democrats also died on prohibition.  The Republican party tried to get all issues.  They paid for supporting the Maine anti-alcohol measure.  In 1856 they dropped alcohol and started winning.  Whigs, having also tripped on the temperance issue, dropped it also and went into the Republican fold. 

            The benevolence societies paved the way for the Republicans.  They deserted their temperance and antiforeignism, but the anti-slavery thing was big.  Fremont was an early Republican winner and they officially started their party on G. Washington’s birthday. 

The fact that Germans were running music hall extravaganzas on Sunday led to a Sabbath committee.  It was half conversion half anti-immigrant.  They also wanted NY liquor license laws enforced.  Selling liquor on the Sabbath was illegal.  This effort was forcing the Republican’s hands when the Civil War broke out.  That schism forced many leaders of the benevolence societies into the hands of the Republicans.  After all, national strength and unity was what they were after.




            The benevolence folk threw their weight into the Civil War as a chance to remake society.  Soldiers signed temperance pledges, and the preachers and pamphlets whipped up a frenzy.  The war to save the union must be about Slavery as well.

            Christian love and forgiveness was to be the end.  They had a sacred cause for a free Christian nation.  The evils in the army camps were horrible.  But the vice was now concentrated.   They proselytized army units like mad. After 1862 they did over a million tracts a year for troops.  They had a martyr in Ellsworth and started a monthly with a circulation of 195,000 copies by 1864.  (247)

            The name of the Benevolence societies geared for war was the Christian Commission.  They were often resented.  The men liked their cards and bottles.  Their information emphasized the individual conversion.  They demanded prohibition for the military.  Lincoln answered for the Navy only.  In mid-1862 alcohol went only out under the doctors’ supervision.   But numerous officers (George B. McClellan for example) banned spirits.  This was attributed to their pre-war efforts.  General Butler did the same. 

            They went to Lincoln directly to get the Sabbath recognized and Lincoln made a vague proclamation that work should be limited.  They spent 5,000,000 comforting the wounded.  They gave away clothes, mosquito nets and crutches as they tried to keep liquor away from the soldiers.  The Sanitary commission was, giving out alcohol to boost morale at the same time. 

            John Fremont freed the slaves as an incompetent commander.  Lincoln quashed the order.  Lincoln was urged to replace McClellan with the very anti-slavery John Fremont.  Lincoln didn’t.  Much politics caused the Emancipation Proclamation which freed no one at the time. 

The benevolent societies were split over abolition.  They had been a bulwark of conservatism against fanaticism and infidelity.  They sent 218,000 bibles into the south.  They were for the country.  During the four years of the conflict the Tract leaders did not comment on slavery.  The officer’s took a slow stand against it.  They were for the Union.

The Bible society was anti-slavery. 

Post War, businessmen leaders of benevolence moved in to heal via business ventures.  A month later, the Home Missionary Society’s officers said they needed to tie Northern churches to Northern money.  Religion would bring order and make them make good on their debts.  There can be no pacification or reconstruction without the Bible at the foundation of our government and civilization.  Patriotism, philanthropy and Christianity.  Children and youth need Sunday school. 

The country went into the gilded age.  The religious societies continued their vital godly work.  A head of the Sunday School Union and railroad financier, Jay Cooke, gave money to start churches along the Northern Pacific line, for he was sure religion meant social stability and greater profit.    

[i] Pg. xii.

[ii] Griffin, Clifford.  Their Brothers’ Keepers: Moral Stewardship in the United States, 1800-1865. Rutgers University Press.  New Brunswick. 1960. p. 26.

[iii] Griffin, Clifford.  Their Brothers’ Keepers: Moral Stewardship in the United States, 1800-1865. Rutgers University Press.  New Brunswick. 1960. p. 114.

[iv] Griffin, Clifford.  Their Brothers’ Keepers: Moral Stewardship in the United States, 1800-1865. Rutgers University Press.  New Brunswick. 1960. p. 148.

[v] Griffin, Clifford.  Their Brothers’ Keepers: Moral Stewardship in the United States, 1800-1865. Rutgers University Press.  New Brunswick. 1960. p. 151.