A summary of C. C. Goen's Broken Churches, Broken Nation

Principal author:
John L. Clark

Religious institutions of the United States in the early and middle nineteenth century closely followed and contributed to the larger national efforts. Thus, as C. C. Goen describes in Broken Churches, Broken Nation, the schisms in the dominant Protestant denominations in the 1830s and the 1840s both foreshadowed and prepared for the more destructive civil crisis to come.

In order to spread across the country, the largest churches at the beginning of the nineteenth century adopted an evangelical strategy, which used revivals to emphasize the importance of personally identifying with Christianity through conversion. This matched and reinforced the popular individualist sentiment, and helped to provide a broad sense of shared national identity. Suppressed by the primary goal of maximizing their membership, however, were underlying moral inconsistencies such as the institution of slavery.

The ways in which slavery manifested itself in sectional power relationships within the denominations corresponded closely to the problems that slavery would later cause for the whole country. Many persons of the time, as well as later historians, felt strongly that the churches helped provide a sense of unity holding the country together; many church members and other contemporary observers explicitly warned that the denominational disunion portended ill for the nation. In addition, the way in which the churches split laid conceptual groundwork for many of the developments in the national crisis.

Early in the book, Goen boldly asserts that “[c]ritical interpretation is precisely what distinguishes a historian from a narrator or chronicler” [Goe1985, p16]. Indeed, throughout the book there are hints of his criticism, but he ends the book with a direct, powerful critique that takes both denominational sections to task for subordinating morality to their desire to grow, and then for vilifying the opposing section without providing a program for practical social change.


C. C. Goen. Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War. Mercer, 1985.

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