— Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were
“It is an age of nervousness… the growing malady of the day, the physiological feature of the age,” said a New York Tribune editorial. “Nowhere are the rush and hurry and overstrain of life more marked than in this much-achieving Nation… Inventions, discoveries, achievements of science all add to the sum of that which is to be learned, and widen the field in which there is work to be done. If knowledge has increased, we should take more time for acquiring it… For it would be a sorry ending of this splendid age of learning and of labor to be known as an age of unsettled brains and shattered nerves.” The article was written in 1895.
There is one thing that you can count on throughout history. People are nostalgic for an earlier age, one that was less busy, one in which young people took the time to read books, and when people still believed in that “old time religion.”
As for reading, that golden age in America, when every person had his nose in a book is as much a myth as the memory of an age when no one felt pressured and rushed.
“If you grew up in a rural area, you have seen how farmhouses come and go, but the dent left by cellars is permanent,” Paul Collins wrote in Sixpence House. “There is something unbreakable in that hand-dug foundational gouge into the earth. Books are the cellars of civilization: when cultures crumble away, their books remain out of sheer stupid solidity. We see their accumulated pages, and marvel - what readers they were! But were they? Back in the 1920s, booksellers assessed the core literary population of the United States, the people who could be relied on to buy books with a serious content, at about 200,000 people. This, in a country of 100 million: a ratio of about 500 to 1. It was this minuscule subset spread out over a three-thousand-mile swath, this group of people who could fit into a few football stadiums, that thousands of books released each year had to compete for. Perhaps the ratio has gone higher since then. You see, literary culture is perpetually dead and dying; and when some respected writer discovers and loudly proclaims the finality of this fact, it is a forensic marker of their own decomposition. It means that they have artistically expired within the last ten years, and that they will corporeally expire within the next twenty.”
Which brings us to that old time religion. I was reading on the blog Made in America today an article by Claude Fisher, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His article, Faith Endures, opens with a scene from 1907 when a group of ministers met with president Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the crisis of declining church attendance. Yet church attendance did not decline, and was booming in the 1950s. Fisher describes a complex history of Americans relationship to church-going from the nation’s founding- the good old days when most of the founding fathers were “unchurched” to the present day. The history is not a straight line (oh but we love to see history as linear!) Rather church attendance has waxed and waned.
"Since time immemorial, it seems, people have described – some have decried – the loss of that ‘old time religion.’” Fisher writes. "Modern scholars call it secularization. With the coming of science, industry, and urbanization, faith had to crumble, they argued. There must have been a time when everyone believed deeply and that time has presumably passed."
The article presents a graph that shows a surprisingly consistent level of church attendance throughout our history.
Importantly, we see this consistency in expressions of faith even though the early surveys include many respondents who had been born around the end of the 19th century and in the later surveys these elderly folks are replaced by respondents who had been born in the 1970s and ‘80s. Swapping the World War I generation for Gen X’ers hardly changed average levels of faith.
Faith among Americans endures, surprisingly so to many casual observers — even to professional observers…
Had the ministers who visited Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 known that a century later this would be the level of American faith, would they have been less alarmed? I suspect not. Except when the evidence is too overwhelming — for instance, during the Great Awakenings around 1800 or during the 1950s — people just assume that faith is one of those things we are always in the process of losing.
So the loss of those old time values and a simpler way of life have always been and will always be decried even as things remain, to quote that great thinker David Byrne “same as it ever was.”