Title Reviewed:
A Measure of Success: Protestants and Public Culture in Antebellum Cleveland

Author Reviewed:
Michael J. McTighe

Vernon L. Volpe


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 91, Issue 2, pp 234-235

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Measure of Success: Protestants and Public Culture in Antebellum Cleveland. By Michael J. McTighe. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Pp. xii, 283. Illustration, tables, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $65.50.)

Sadly, Michael J. McTighe did not live to see this excellent piece of scholarship in print. Scholars of religion and of antebellum America will benefit, however, from his careful and searching look into the role Protestants played in shaping the public culture of the key commercial city of Cleveland. By focusing on the years 1836 to 1860, McTighe has given us a case study of the ways in which religious leaders and ideas helped to form culture in an area and a period that has long attracted special scholarly attention.

While neither providing dramatic new theories nor challenging old ones, this work serves a useful function by further refining ideas and assumptions common to studies of antebellum American society and religion. For example, the author maintains that with the possible exception of the temperance crusade, Protestants in Cleveland fell somewhat short of forming the stereotypical "evangelical united front." Neither did the Cleveland temperance movement follow the expected path of moving from moral suasion to legal coercion. (Instead, Protestants employed both methods at varying times with uneven results.) And while Protestants certainly formed Cleveland's social and economic elite, their "substantial presence" in the city's public culture did not amount to actual dominance (p. 11).

A "measure of success" then best expresses the author's assessment of Protestant efforts to guide Cleveland's moral development. Scholars thus may be somewhat surprised to learn that evangelical Protestants failed to dominate the life of a growing city in the heart of Ohio's Western Reserve. Yet, the author does stress that Protestants, enmeshed in the city's commercial development, "anointed" the new economy while making substantial concessions. And it may be true that Protestants successfully restricted the harsher aspects of commercial development by insisting on a doctrine of "service and stewardship" from society's more fortunate members. Still, the Protestant churches' willingness to accommodate the commercial economy cannot but remind readers of southern churches' willingness to "anoint" slavery. Selling of church pews to the powerful was common to both North and South.

Considering the recent scholarship on slavery's role in creating denominational disputes, however, discussion of the slavery issue is not a strength of this work. While providing several key insights, the author's brief overview of this topic may too quickly dismiss the role the slavery controversy played among Cleveland's Protestants. (Reference to antislavery activity being a "hindrance" or a "diversion" seems especially unfortunate.) No doubt antislavery sentiment ran more deeply in the Western Reserve's rural regions, but one might also argue that Protestants successfully promoted anti-slavery views even in Cleveland, providing still further evidence of their role in the region's public culture.

By 1860 Protestantism's substantial presence in Cleveland was eroding, a fact due as much to the imperatives of economic development as to the city's growing diversity. During the 1850s Protestants were not so prominent at the city's public rituals, while immigrant opposition had weakened efforts to enforce both temperance and the Sabbath. What had once been a relatively homogeneous Western Reserve community had evolved into a modern commercial city. Ironically, as McTighe's forthright study makes clear, Protestant willingness to embrace the new economy had helped to set the stage for their own growing impotence. Yet Protestant influence, while fading, had certainly placed its imprint on the city and its culture.

VERNON L. VOLPE is chairman of the Department of History, University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is the author of Forlorn Hope of Freedom: The Liberty Party in the Old Northwest, 1838-1848(1990)…

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.