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Biblical Scenes

Americans in the Victorian Age thought of themselves as religious people. A "deep concern for maintaining moral order in an urban-industrial society" (10)  triggered revivals, movements against various types of "sin" (such as gambling, fornication, and drinking), and intolerance for Catholics, black Christians, and Jews.

Despite the antagonism–sometimes violent–between Protestants and Catholics, in 1880 Catholics had 6,259,000 communicants and were the largest single religious group in the nation. (11) Prejudice stemmed not just for reasons of divinity. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Baltics brought with them a disagreeable and obvious ethnic heritage that emphasized the fluctuating demographics of the country.

Likewise, the 250,000 Jews (mostly from Germany) in America in 1880 brought with them distinctive customs. For the most part, however, this group strived to assimilate. Between 1880 and 1910, more than two million Jews entered the country; these were mostly working-class, and East European or Russian immigrants who maintained the traditions of Orthodox Judaism. The earlier Jewish immigrants at first disdained this new group, whose cultural differences began to provoke antisemitism. As issues such as immigration restriction arose, the two groups banded together. (12)

The Civil War had been a factor in splintering Protestants into numerous factions, pro- and anti-slavery. After the traumas of the war, Americans faced a country not only badly in need of political and emotional healing, but one undergoing rapid industrialization. Science, particularly Darwinism, further threatened the theological core. As Robert Crunden noted in A Brief History of American Culture:

Religious energies were channeled into economic activity and then into political faith. The 'American Way' was the result: the belief that Americans were a people of diverse origins who believed in capitalism and democracy as if they were the decrees of Divine Providence. To question either became something close to blasphemy, especially in time of depression or war (129).

Given that many religious groups also considered, as Congregational minister Washington Gladden stated in 1886, that "[t]he state of industrial society is a state of war" against religion, "war" was a constant state in America beginning around the late 1830s. (13) Thus, religious beliefs and historical mythmaking linked to one another in the minds of the people and through the illustrations of Currier and Ives.

American Studies Home Site Map Gallery of Prints Writing Across the Curriculum Currier & Ives Introduction Currier & Ives Opening

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