Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

Packer's Philosophy Part I: Religion

“Packer attached one cardinal condition to this project for educating youth: While gaining knowledge, they must not lose faith in God. Packer was profoundly religious. He took literally the scriptural passage, "What shall it profit a man, that he gain the whole world but lose his soul?"

Asa Packer was praised for his religious piety that was demonstrated through church attendance and donations to Saint Mark's Episcopal church. Asa's grandfather was a Baptist minister in Mystic Connecticut. However, when he moved to Pennsylvania he began to search for a new church. Reasons for his switch to Episcopalian remain unknown, but it a speculated that Packer did not feel comfortable in the Baptist Church or the Presbyterian Church. Packer’s religious preferences may be better understood by looking at the larger impact of religion on Victorian society.

The most influential religious revival to occur during the nineteenth century was the Second Great Awakening. Similar to the First Great Awakening in the early 18th century, the Second Great Awakening was a resurgence in religious fervor. It specifically focused on the power of the individual to connect with God, and valued the experience of the common man over the wealthy man. According to the popular preachings of this movement, personal spirituality took precedent over formal education of the Bible. Evangelical denominations became the fastest growing religions in the country. The largest denominations before the nineteenth century were the Congregationalist and the Anglicans. After the American Revolution, Anglicans were referred to Episcopalians in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the Church of England.

The Evangelical impulse peaked before 1850, but it had a lasting impact on religion in the United States. Its emphasis on the ability of individuals to become more spiritual, without the aid of ministers, bishops, or other religious hierarchy led to more social activism. It was a more inclusive structure, so It encouraged democracy and equality. From this movement sprung groups for social changes focusing on temperance, abolition, and universal suffrage.

Although Evangelicalism grew significantly during the Victorian Era, The Episcopalian church and the Presbyterian church remained two of largest churches in the United States, especially for those of the upper class. Although people of all classes attended churches of all denominations, there were a higher concentration of middle and upper class people in non-Evangelical churches. These denominations were more heavily influenced by British ritualism and consisted of bureaucracies and educated ministers. Unlike Evangelical teachings, these churches believed that formally educated preachers and a formal church setting were necessary.

As mentioned above, the causes of Packer’s religious preferences are unknown. However, we speculate that it was influenced by his social status. As a wealthy man, he may have felt more comfortable around people of the same class and style. It may have been expected of him to attend an Episcopalian church, and he may have conformed to solidify his growing status. According to some sources, Packer first visited a Presbyterian church, but was offended by the idea of pew rents. This was the practice of church members paying for certain pews for them and their families. This created hierarchy within the church, and was used to discriminate between the wealthy and the less fortunate. People who paid for reserved seats often loitered outside of the church, while others rushed in to find seats. After most people were seated, the wealthier people would make an entrance, effectively displaying their wealth to the rest of the church. This practice was not unique to the Presbyterian church, and it was not present in every Presbyterian church, but it is possible that Packer was offended by this ostentatious display, and found more like minded people in the Episcopalian church.

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