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Civil War Era Studies

Department 2



In 1873 George David Cummins, the assistant bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Kentucky, rocked the complacency of the Protestant Episcopal Church by resigning his Kentucky episcopate and founding an entirely new Episcopal denomination, the Reformed Episcopal Church. Schismatic movements in American religion are hardly a novelty. Still, Cummins and his movement occupy a peculiar position in both the history of American religion and the cultural history of the Gilded Age. Unlike the wave of church schisms before the Civil War, the Reformed Episcopal schism of 1873 had no clear relation to sectional issues. And unlike the fundamentalist schisms of the early 1900s, it had no real connection to the great debate in American religion between conservativism and modernism. Instead, the story of George David Cummins hangs upon a ferocious struggle within the Episcopal Church about ritual, "romanism," and Episcopal identity - or, in other words, about symbol and culture in the Gilded Age. And in 1873, that cultural struggle was closely bound up with the fearful and unresolved questions posed by America's full integration into the great networks of international, industrial, and finance capitalism. Cummins and the Reformed Episcopal schism was, in miniature, part of the persistent conflict between the old antebellum republican ideals of public virtue and restraint and the new capitalist ethic of consumption which restructured American public culture in the Gilded Age. [excerpt]

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