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Religion In Nineteenth-Century America

Religion In Nineteenth-Century America

by Dr. Graham Warder, Keene State College

Beginning in the late 1790s on the western frontier, a new religious style was born. Itinerant preachers traversed the backcountry in search of converts by holding enthusiastic camp meetings. What came to be called the Second Great Awakening began as circuit riders, especially Methodists, stirred up emotional outpourings of Christian fervor. Among isolated migrants to places like Kentucky, the chance to socialize and release pent-up emotions at camp meetings had considerable appeal. Backcountry men and women also gained the spiritual comfort of hearing ministers assert that human beings had moral free agency, the innate ability to choose between good and evil. The doctrine represented a sharp departure from the gloomy tenets of Calvinism, the theological position that a person’s fate was already predetermined by a wrathful God. This emphasis on human will and a more loving God would have a great impact on the course of American history in the nineteenth century.

By the 1820s and 1830s, the revivals and their message of optimism and perfectionism stretched eastward. Converts to the new religious ways ardently strove to eliminate sin from themselves and from their society. The result was a faith that promoted social reforms of various kinds, among them abolitionism, temperance, health reform, and the asylum movement. Religious fervor had political implications that would overturn an inherited order based on hierarchy and coercion. Only free individuals, they believed, could freely choose God.

Emotional conversion by individuals was at the core of the evangelical Protestantism that dominated during the Second Great Awakening. As with the earlier Puritans, the experience of conversion was the shaping event in a person’s life. What separated the mainstream evangelical denominations of the 1800s from the Puritans, however, was a belief in the efficacy of human action in achieving both conversion and salvation. This combination of individual will and intense emotion marked the religion of the Second Great Awakening, and it also marked much of mainstream American culture by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Although conversion was an intensely personal experience, the revival was an intensely social event. Among the most famous revivals were those led by Charles Grandison Finney in Rochester, New York, during the winter of 1830-1831. Rochester, a boom town reeling from the market forces unleashed by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, was obsessed with religion for the six months Finney’s revival lasted. (Western New York was so frequently swept by the fires of evangelical fervor that it became known as the “burnt-over district.”)

Finney’s “new measures” were actually improvisations introduced by the backcountry preachers three decades earlier. Finney, an itinerant Presbyterian, “democratized” Christianity by preaching in an entertaining and approachable manner, avoiding the extended Biblical exegesis common among Puritan ministers. His revival was social theater, and, of course, audience participation was indispensable. Prominent members of the community were seated upon the “anxious bench” directly before the platform, and Finney spoke directly to them in a way designed to appeal to them personally. He held protracted meetings, gathering night after night to augment the communal excitement of the revival. Women, as at the backcountry meetings, played a prominent role as emotional participants. In building up excitement for Finney’s gatherings, women were especially important by encouraging other family members to attend.

Finney and other preachers of the Second Great Awakening rejected much of Calvinist theology. Instead, with his calls of “Do it!,” Finney asserted that individuals had the power to change their lives to assure their own salvation. When the emotional upheaval inherent in the revival simmered down, people were left with a sense of self-control. The message of the revivals ended up creating very effective behaviors in the new world of the Market Revolution, a world in which competitive capitalism gave life new opportunities as well as new insecurities. Sobriety, a work ethic, thrift, and delayed gratification, all defined as virtue, proved quite good rules for success for the men of the emerging middle class. Women who experienced revivals became agents for the moralization of their families and friends, empowered with a new found sense of moral authority.

Many of Finney’s listeners also became ardent supporters of various social reforms. Social ills, redefined as sin, stood in the way of the second coming of Christ. Society’s problems, in this cosmically optimistic ethos, should, could, and would be solved. The dynamism of American life in the nineteenth century was not just the result of economic and demographic forces. It also had religious roots.

Thus, the impact of the Second Great Awakening was substantial. The new religious style and practices were spread by an innovative religious publishing industry. Religion inculcated a belief in progress, in the abilities of social reforms to perfect society, in a special role for American women as the arbiters of morality, and in the rules of conduct that appealed to the Northern middle class, a class that increasingly set the tone for American life. Without the introduction and spread of what backcountry preachers tried in the 1790s, America would have been a profoundly different place.

Selected Bibiliography

Abzug, Robert H., Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Blumin, Stuart M., The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Hatch, Nathan O., The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

Johnson, Paul E., A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1979).

Source:  Graham Warder, “Religion in Nineteenth-Century America,” Disability History Museum, (January 29, 2014).

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