Religious and Political History of Tennessee
Progressive Era in Tennessee
After the Civil War, the South as inundated by moneymaking ventures from a variety of businesspersons. Government officials promised these individuals that the state governments would keep the business taxes low and they would not pass any restrictive labor laws. The aim of these promises was to spur business growth in the South. Most of the businesses in states such as Tennessee had been decimated by the Civil War. The laborers would also be forced to work for low wages in order to keep the business revenue high. In return, the businesses would have to make huge donations to the state politicians in order to keep the relationship going.
However, not all of Tennesseans were happy with the establishment of big businesses that were ultimately closely tied with the federal government. As a result, various progressive campaigns sprung up across the state of Tennessee and the rest of America.
The progressives were a group of Americans who were unhappy with the government’s inability to deal with most of the social problems they were facing. They were also unsettled by the fact that big businesses and other moneyed and well-connected special interest groups actually controlled the government. Completely outraged by the public’s inability to break this control, the progressives built a comprehensive platform that focused on political reforms. Examples of these reforms include secret ballots, direct election, and women’s suffrage.
The Progressives in Tennessee focused on reforms that improved the lives of the people. They improved the state by creating public services, protesting inequality, and addressing social problems. The most pressing social problem of the time was the increasing gap between the wealthy and the laborers. To fix this situation, the Tennesseans fought for increased wages for the laborers in the state. The inequality issues to be solved included promoting women’s rights and guaranteeing equal rights for the African Americans in the state.
The unprecedented industrial expansion in Tennessee resulted in the explosion for the demand for labor. The result was a sharp increase in labor abuse, predominantly child abuse. Children were forced to go into the factories and work to supplement their parents’ meager earnings. The progressive movement worked to eradicate child labor by pushing for the enactment of laws that prohibited factories from hiring children.
The progressives were successful in their struggle to raise the minimum wage and curtail child labor in the state of Tennessee. In 1881, the progressives successfully pushed for the law that prohibited children under twelve from working in factories and in mines. They were also successful in protecting the rights of injured laborers in the workplace. In 1919, the state passed its historic laborer’s compensation law. The enacted law stipulated that laborers should be paid when they get injured or ill as a result of the job. The progressive law passed ensured that every injured worker whose injuries were as a result of their work would receive$11 every week as they recuperated.
History of Religion in Tennessee
Religion has always been an integral part of the Tennessee way of life. However, religion in the late 19th century and early 20th century proved to have a profound impact on the social and moral structure of the state. Most Tennesseans abhorred the popular trends of the time in music, behaviors, and fashion. Being strictly religious prompted them to act out against the common trends of the time.
Sam Jones was one of the most prolific religious ministers of the time. He was a Methodist minister dismayed by the current trends. He became the leader of the revival movement across the state of Tennessee. He was famous for holding large revivals under tents where he would preach about the consequences of sins that included gambling, alcoholism, and prostitution. Most of his revival crusaded attracted more crowds than most churches in the state.
According to Jones, even attending the theatre was a grievous sin. He went down in history books for his three-week 1885 revival crusade in Nashville. During this time, thousands of people attended his crusades, gave their lives to Christ and denounced alcohol and other addictive habits including gambling. The number of people who attended his sermons during the three-week interval was the largest attendance to a religious event at the time (Mansfield & Grant, 1997).
Tom Ryman, a rich entrepreneur with several gambling boats, was touched by Jones’ message. He received a ‘spiritual awakening’ after listening to one of Sam Jones’ sermons (Mansfield & Grant, 1997). Soon after, he ended his gambling empire and tossed all the alcohol in his boats overboard. He went on to build the Union Gospel Tabernacle for $100,000 to enable the preachers of the Gospel to reach the rest of Nashville and Tennessee.
The revival preached by Sam Jones and others led to a reform in religious beliefs across the state. The revival ministers who belonged to different Christian denominations preached that it was not enough for Christians to go to church. They had to fight the ills that were plaguing the society. One of the major sins that they had to contend with was alcohol abuse. The premise was that alcohol indulgence led to poverty, loss of morals, and violence. As a result, many church members in Tennessee volunteered for Temperance Movements that were springing up in the state and across the country.
Some of the Christians in Tennessee also followed the social philosophy doctrine. Social philosophy mandated the believers to help people who were in need and to work towards the betterment of the entire society. A prolific follower of the doctrine was the Presbyterian pastor, Mark Matthews who founded a night school, a Humane Society, a hospital, and a library.
Other Christians in the state were more concerned about the religious trends that were coming up around them. To this end, the faithful pushed for the state to enact laws that preserved Sunday as the day of worship. They called for a ban on trains and other activities that were carried out during Sundays, because they felt that it was a day of rest and thanksgiving. The laws that these faction of Christians proposed were known as the Blue Laws.
The Blue Laws were never passed but the campaign for their enactment is probably the reason that Sundays were upheld as rest day in Tennessee (Conkin, 1995). The involvement of the churches in campaigning for prohibition and the Blue Laws opened the way for religious institutions to have a bigger say in state politics at the time. For instance, church ministers persuaded their members to vote against Al Smith for president in 1928 owing to his strong anti-prohibition actions.
Several evangelical churches also sprang up in Tennessee, creating new Christian denominations in their wake. The Church of the Nazarene was founded in Tennessee and so was The Church of God. Like all other denominations of the time, these emerging religious sects believed in and preached for abstinence from tobacco and alcohol.
Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee
World War II seemed to change the lives of Tennesseans drastically. People were more affluent than before the war owing to the technological changes of the time. However, the lives of African Americans remained the same despite their gallant participation in the war. People of color were not allowed to integrate with the rest of the society. Public facilities barred entry to black folk or gave them alternative sitting areas.
More and more African Americans began to participate in acts of civil disobedience. Some of these acts included marches, boycotts, sit-ins, and legal battles all in an effort to force the federal government to enforce laws that banned segregation in the state. These acts of civil disobedience were widely referred to as the Civil Rights Movements.
Tennessee was at the forefront of the movement as many acts of civil disobedience were perpetrated in the state. The first public school in American history to be integrated was in Clinton, Tennessee. Furthermore, African Americans from Haywood and Fayette counties camped in tents in an attempt to force the county officials to allow them to vote.
The Nashville Sit-Ins were perhaps the most audacious acts of civil disobedience by students in the country at the time. James Lawson, Kelly Miller Smith, among other prominent black folk was responsible for the beginning of the Nashville Sit-Ins under the umbrella of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council.
The Nashville African American students would go into a store and sit down at the counter. Whether they were denied service or out rightly told to leave, they would remain in the seats. The argument was that the business establishment would be forced to change its policies and serve the black children; otherwise, no one would be served as long as they occupied the seats in the establishment. If the protesters were arrested, others would take their place and sit. They also argued that overwhelming the prison system would cause the state to overhaul the segregationist policies.
The protesters were beaten and bruised by the white patrons. The Nashville police finally appeared and arrested the students for engaging in ‘disorderly conduct.’ When the jail was finally full, the police had to stop arresting more people. They set bail at $100 but the students refused to post their bail. The police lowered it to $5 per student but they still refused to pay. They were finally released into the custody of Fisk University (Houston, 2012).
The participants were found guilty and had two options. They could pay a $50 fine or spend 30 days in jail. The protesters opted for the last choice but were released early (Houston, 2012). By late March, African Americans began to boycott businesses that practiced segregation. The churches helped in the spread of the boycott by advocating their members not to buy from certain stores. Even white people did not buy from certain stores due to the fear of violence. Businesses in Nashville began to feel the pinch and it was the beginning of the long process of integrating black folk in all facets of the community.
Conkin, P.K. (1995). Evangelicals, Fugitives, and Hillbillies: Tennessee’s Impact on American National Culture. Tennessee Historical Quarterly 54(3): 246.
Houston, B. (2012). The Nashville Way: Racial Etiquette and the Struggle for Social Justice in a Southern City. Georgia, TN: University of Georgia.
Mansfield, S. & Grant, G. (1997). Faithful Volunteers: The History of Religion in Tennessee.