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For this new edition of American Reformers 1815-1860, Ronald G. Walters has amplified and updated his exploration of the fervent and diverse outburst of reform energy that shaped American history in the early years of the Republic. Capturing in style and substance the vigorous and often flamboyant men and women who crusaded for such causes as abolition, temperance, women's suffrage, and improved health care, Walters presents a brilliant analysis of how the reformers' radical belief that individuals could fix what ailed America both reflected major transformations in antebellum society and significantly affected American culture as a whole.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A most impressive work. Walters has clearly succeeded better than anyone else in explaining the complex subject of pre-Civil War reform movements."—James B. Stewart, Macalester College

"The most impressive feature of this fine book is the author's ability to synthesize a large, rich, and diverse literature about antebellum reform movements and to present a clear, readable, and persuasive account of their important impact on American society."—James M. McPherson, Princeton University

"Although lucid and witty, the author does not oversimplify the tangled history of reforms...Walters has met the task brilliantly, without a wasted word."—Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Case Western Reserve University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809015887
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 1/31/1997
  • Edition description: Second Edition, Revised Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 567,686
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Ronald G. Walters is Professor of History at The John Hopkins University. He is the author of The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism after 1830 and editor of Primers for Prudery: Sexual Advice to Victorian America and A Black Woman's Odyssey: The Narrative of Nancy Prince.

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Read an Excerpt

American Reformers 1815-1860


The Missionary Impulse

The report on a Kentucky girl in 1801 was dire: "She was struck down fell stiff her hand and arm also became as cold as Death heer fingers cramp'd recov'd heer speech in 2 hours and was haled home on a sled continues in a state of despare which has lasted 3 weekes." The girl was not ill. She had a religious experience. Hers was more extreme than most, although not unusual for Kentucky in 1801.

Between the late 1790s and the Civil War, countless Americans like the Kentucky girl were caught up in outbursts of intense religious excitement. Few people outside the West had her kind of physical reaction, but men and women, girls and boys became convinced of their own sinfulness, went through intense emotional turmoil, and emerged with a belief that they had been saved. Whether it came in special camp meetings or from the pulpit of the local church, the evangelical message was proclaimed across the land and the public responded with explosions of spiritual zeal. These bore a special relationship to antebellum reform.


Revivals in the early nineteenth century were so frequent and widespread that historians sometimes apply the phrase "Second Great Awakening" to the entire period from 1795 to 1837. (The first Great Awakening crested in the 1740s.) Within that long span of years therewere times and areas of greater and lesser enthusiasm. Between 1795 and 1810 much of the action was in Kentucky and Tennessee, in rowdy revivals presided over by Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. More sedate awakenings occurred in New York and among New England Congregationalists, but the vigor was in the West. From 1810 to 1825 the focus of revivalism shifted to the East, where influential clergy—Lyman Beecher most prominent among them—began preaching the gospel in revivalistic fashion while making important, often unacknowledged, modifications in New England theology. After 1825 evangelism reached a peak in the work of Charles G. Finney. His impact on reformers and reform, like Beecher's, would be great.

In 1821 the twenty-nine-year-old Finney went through a typically agonizing conversion, after which he gave up a promising law practice in rural New York to study for the Presbyterian ministry. Although he distanced himself from "ignorant" Methodist and Baptist evangelists, he had less patience with formal theology than did Beecher and the New Englanders. His forte was using common sense, everyday language, and theatricality to drive his hearers to seek salvation. In drawing on such techniques, he was part of a much larger antebellum process of dissociating religion from doctrinal complexity and fusing it and popular culture in powerful ways. Soon after ordination Finney presided over remarkable revivals in western New York and was well on his way to becoming a major force in evangelical Protestantism. In 1832 he came to New York City to assume the pastorate of the Second Free Presbyterian Church, situated in a former theater. His arrival symbolized a closing of the gap between Western and Eastern, and rural and urban, revivalism.

That is not to say Finney's triumph, or revivalism's, was complete. He and other evangelicals faced many critics, both from non-evangelical sects like the Unitarians and from within their own denominations. Finney eventually left the Presbyterians and Beecher, at first a Congregationalist, joined their ranks only to be put on trial by the Cincinnati Synod for heresy. He survived the ordeal, but the Presbyterian Church—the largest sect in the nation—split into pro- and anti-revival groups two years later, in 1837.

Evangelicals also battled one another. In 1827 things reached such a bad pass between Western revivalists led by Finney, and Easterners clustered around Lyman Beecher, that they held a nine-day peace conference. It failed. With his customary vigor, Beecher warned Finney not to enter Massachusetts. He recalled saying, "As the Lord liveth, I'll meet you at the State line, and call out all the artillerymen, and fight every inch of the way to Boston, and then I'll fight you there."

Despite hostility and dissension in its own ranks, revivalism was the core of antebellum Protestantism. It was the faith of people as far apart socially and geographically as rude Kentucky backwoodsmen and wealthy New York merchants. It flowed across denominational lines and appeared in all the major Protestant sects, muddling distinctions between them. In times of awakenings, Baptists, freewill Methodists, and predestinarian Presbyterians muted their disagreements and became brothers and sisters in spirit. Laypersons and clergy changed from one denomination to another, with little effort. What counted more to believers than creeds and doctrines was whether a church was for or against revivals. In some guise or another, evangelical Protestantism was the religion of most Americans.

Connections between revivalism and reform were obvious at the time and have been much emphasized by historians ever since. Evangelical clergy and laity engaged in moral crusades of their own and led secular ones, for example, temperance and antislavery. Revivalistic institutions such as Lane Seminary and Oberlin College were breeding grounds for reformers, many of whom had been inspired by Beecher and Finney. In regions like the Western Reserve of Ohio and the Burned-Over District of New York, reform movements followed close on the heels of hellfire preaching. Even voting statistics bear out the correlation, with, for instance, the abolitionist Liberty Party doing best in areas where religious enthusiasm had run high.

Still, it is possible to make too strong a link between revivals and reform. Of the hundreds of thousands of Americans converted between 1800 and 1860, only a minority felt compelled to engage in social action, and others were on the anti-reform side of all questions.Not only that: many reforms had strong support from such non-evangelical sects as the Quakers and Unitarians. Some crusades, notably communitarianism and spiritualism, were especially attractive to freethinkers and atheists. Deism, with its mechanistic God and skepticism about doctrine and clergy, had a following in labor reform, where an eighteenth-century tradition of artisan radicalism and rationalism remained vital.

Even among evangelical reformers, Christianity was not the only source of intellectual and emotional stimulation. Many looked to science, natural law, and American political traditions, as well as the Bible, for inspiration. All reformers buttressed their arguments with enlightenment humanitarianism, the republican rhetoric of the American Revolution, and the sentimental conventions of the day. Yet it was evangelical Protestantism that provided much of the ideological and organizational foundation for antebellum reform.


Beginning in the early twentieth century, popular critics of revivalism such as H. L. Mencken made it seem the simple-minded epitome of anti-intellectualism. This gulf between intellectuals and radicals on one side and revivalism on the other, however, made it easy to forget the complex and sophisticated role evangelical Protestantism played in the history of ideas. It grew out of—and produced—impressive theological debates and permeated much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social, moral, economic, political, and scientific thought. What mattered most for reform, nonetheless, was a handful of highly generalized beliefs, held in one form or another by all evangelicals. These were usually not formal doctrines (although they could be); more often, they were half-articulated assumptions about society, human beings, and the future.

The Second Great Awakening raised expectations that the Kingdom of God on earth was imminent. Similar notions appeared during the first Great Awakening and had surfaced throughout the centuries, but the quickening of religious fervor after 1800 seemed a sure sign to many Americans that the new day was dawning. One variety of these beliefs, called millenarianism (also known as premillennialism), heldthat there would be a literal return of Christ, and a Day of Judgment, prior to the thousand-year reign of God predicted in Revelation 20. In the antebellum period its most numerous exponents were followers of a New England Baptist preacher named William Miller, who set the year of Christ's arrival as 1843 (it was postponed to 1844, then indefinitely). Several prominent reformers became Millerites—one of their leaders was an ex-abolitionist—but millenarians generally had an anti-reform cast of mind. They usually maintained that times would inevitably become worse until the reappearance of Jesus and that godly people must withdraw from the sinful world and await the Judgment.

There was another way of thinking about the Kingdom of God, known variously as millennialism or, more clumsily and accurately, as postmillennialism. It was of much greater significance in antebellum reform than millenarianism. Postmillennialists disagreed over whether the reign of God was near or whether it would come gradually or swiftly, and whether it would begin with a cataclysm or quietly. But they agreed that it would be a real historical era occurring before the final Judgment—a thousand years of peace, prosperity, harmony, and Christian morality. That was a vision of the ideal society and an important one for reformers: the imperfections of their own day were stark by comparison with a time of God's justice. Postmillennialism assured them that a better world was possible (people have not always thought that to be the case) and gave them hope they might live to see it. Belief in the approaching Kingdom of God also had a darker side in its foreboding that the forces of light and dark would engage in a terrible final battle. But it broadcast the ultimate glad tidings: God would triumph. In these extremes of apprehensiveness and joy, postmillennialism gave reformers a language to express conflicting feelings about the direction in which the United States was heading. The troubled mood matched their fear of immorality, mobs, irreligion, political turmoil, sectional conflict, and similar signs of disorder and decay. The promise of a perfect future, on the other hand, embodied reformers' expectations that everything would turn out for the best.

Millennial optimism was particularly strong because it interacted with other common attitudes. It merged with a belief that the UnitedStates was chosen by God to fulfill a great mission, an old notion given new life in the antebellum period by territorial expansion and religious revivals (sure marks of divine favor). This idea of national destiny was simultaneously accepted and used by reformers. They claimed that America's special place in God's design (a version of what scholars call American exceptionalism) meant that its sins were more heinous than those of other countries and that their reforms were urgently needed. The divine plan—the millennium—depended upon reform. Whatever the merits of the argument, it joined religious and patriotic fervor to make a case.

In much the same fashion, postmillennialism converged with prevalent attitudes toward economic development. It was easy for reformers (and many other Americans) to feel that a new era was beginning in the antebellum years. Evidence of God's favor was not just in revivals or addition of territory to the Union: it was also apparent in a rising standard of living and in scientific and technological advances. At some points millennialism became almost indistinguishable from the secular idea of progress, the bourgeois Victorian faith that Civilization was marching onward and upward.

In spite of its ability to adapt and survive, millennialism would not have been so influential in the antebellum period if clergymen had not told humankind it could help God usher in His Kingdom. Very much in tune with the activist spirit of their age, millennialists argued that people need not sit idle in anticipation of the glorious new day. Good deeds and improved public morality were omens of its approach and might well hasten it along.

When nineteenth-century preachers made this claim that human effort could bring about the millennium, they were abandoning a line of theology stretching from John Calvin through early American Congregationalism and Presbyterianism. Calvin and Calvinists maintained that human beings were innately sinful and could, of their own free will, do nothing pleasing to God. Salvation came only as an arbitrary, predestined judgment from an omnipotent deity. By the end of the eighteenth century, Methodists and a few other sects in America had repudiated those propositions, preferring to think that people mightassist in their own salvation. As early as the seventeenth century, even Presbyterians and Congregationalists had been finding ways of mitigating the harshness of their theology without going over to the "free will" position later taken by Methodists. Beecher's generation softened Calvinism still further, and Finney, nominally a Presbyterian, overthrew it.

Among the means he used was the concept of "disinterested benevolence," which he saw as the sum of all "holiness or virtue." The phrase itself had an honorable history in American Protestantism, going back to Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century. Finney, however, took any trace of Calvinist hellfire out of it and turned it into an inspiration for reformers. Edwards had believed humans incapable of disinterested benevolence while in their natural, sinful state. Like any other good thing, it was one of God's gifts to regenerate individuals. Finney was more concerned with results than metaphysics. Where Edwards's universe revolved around God, Finney's centered on what the believer did; and he was certain people could act virtuously if they wished. In a practical manner he tried to persuade them of the "utility of benevolence." Often his reasoning was more reminiscent of Ben Franklin than of John Calvin (he declared that "if we desire the happiness of others, their happiness will increase our own"), but there was a moral earnestness to Finney. He insisted that men and women not only could but should "set out with a determination to aim at being useful in the highest degree." So much the better that being useful would make them happy and please God in the bargain—Finney's call for benevolent action was more effective for having a greater degree of self-interest than disinterest to it. His theology may have been muddled, but its message was firm. Of true Christians, Finney wrote: "To the universal reformation of the world they stand committed." It is little wonder that his preaching spawned converts to antislavery, temperance, and other crusades, as well as to the Gospel.

Finney (and most of his critics, for that matter) revised dramatically upward the old Calvinist estimate of human nature. The problem was deciding where to stop. Was it just that people could do good deeds of their own volition, even though remaining essentially sinful? Ormight human beings become completely free from sin while on earth? The Bible, after all, commanded: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." In that passage lurked a doctrine: perfectionism, or the notion that individuals could become sanctified while on earth. Finney himself arrived at a version of perfectionism in the 1830s and helped spread it among his peers. He and the great majority of evangelicals, however, accepted a moderate form of the doctrine while staunchly rejecting a dangerous implication in it—the possibility that sanctified persons could do no wrong. That would have freed believers from all worldly laws, a horrifying prospect to Calvinists and anyone else who recognized the villainy that pious men and women can perpetrate. A few perfectionists believed that whatever they did was not a sin (we will meet some of them later), but the great majority, including Finney, avoided that radical conclusion.

The significance of perfectionism here is not the forms it took—which were many and strange—but rather that it existed in all branches of evangelical Protestantism. Although it could lead to self-aggrandizement and heresy, it was also an energizing principle, inspiring people who wanted to impose absolute moral integrity upon their own lives and upon a changing world. Perfectionism helped create an "ultraist" mentality, common among antebellum crusaders, that insisted anything short of millennial standards should not be tolerated. It was manifested in such things as utopian efforts to construct a new social order, calls for slavery to end immediately, a belief that any alcohol was evil, and an unwillingness to compromise. Unlike their eighteenth-century or twentieth-century counterparts, antebellum reformers seldom wanted merely to improve conditions. They wanted to make things right.

People felt and acted upon the crucial doctrines of evangelical Protestantism, including perfectionism, rather than analyze carefully. Evangelicalism was a religion of the heart, not the head. It asserted that salvation was an internal conviction, an experience, not something arrived at through study and contemplation. Theodore Dwight Weld, abolitionist and onetime student at Lane Theological Seminary,phrased it well when sympathizing with a friend who was puzzling his way through "mere intellectual theories of religion." Weld's advice was for the man to give up, turn "to direct communion with God," and bring his "spirit simply and utterly in contact with infinite purity and love." Weld was not repudiating intellectual activity, in the manner of some twentieth-century revivalists, but he was calling for a religion of emotion rather than dogma.

That evangelical faith in the heart was extremely significant. Like Finney's disinterested benevolence and perfectionism, it belonged to the nineteenth-century rejection of Calvinism. In practical matters, it was a proclamation that everyone, not just professors of divinity, could understand what was important to know, a doctrine as egalitarian as anything put forth by Jacksonian politicians. In common with much of evangelicalism, it joined easily with secular currents, including a democratic faith in the individual conscience and a romantic trust in feeling and intuition. Of singular importance for reform was the anti-hierarchical extreme to which this could be taken: all authorities, even the clergy, might be judged and found wanting by the true believer.


Christian benevolent activity was not new in the nineteenth century. Cotton Mather, in 1710, published Bonifacius: An Essay upon the Good ... , reprinted off and on for decades. Mather influenced many people, including Benjamin Franklin, with his call for "REFORMING SOCIETIES," separate from, but allied with, the churches. These anticipated later voluntary organizations, but nothing in the eighteenth century came close to matching the size and range of benevolent groups that sprang up after 1800. It took westward expansion and loss of position in the Eastern states to push evangelicals into making their real contribution to the organizational, as well as intellectual, structure of antebellum reform.

Movement of population into upstate New York, Vermont, and the Ohio Valley meant that after the Revolution there were thousands of souls scattered along the frontier ripe for harvesting. The Methodists and Baptists, who had circuit-riding ministers and an evangelical tradition, were in a better position to provide religious services than werethe older New England denominations, with their settled clergy. Aware of the deficiency, Presbyterians and Congregationalists developed techniques to proselytize Westerners. Among the devices they came up with was the Connecticut Missionary Society, which, by the 1790s, was busy spreading the gospel according to New England. The society was run by a committee, on which laymen had equal representation with clergy. With impressive efficiency, it raised money, supported agents in the field, and produced propaganda. Its methods could—and would—be adapted to serve any number of religious and secular causes.

Heathenism in the West was not the only enemy. New England and New York Protestants also faced challenges on the home front. By the end of the Revolution few states still had a legally privileged, established church. In parts of New England, Congregationalism retained a special status under law until after the War of 1812; but even there the handwriting was on the wall much earlier. Baptists, Methodists, and—more disturbing—Unitarians (who denied the Trinity) and Universalists (who believed all would be saved) were growing in influence. It was only a matter of time before they overthrew the "standing order" in religion. No longer able to count on the government to preserve their dominance, Congregationalists and their Presbyterian allies launched a counterattack. Evangelism was a part of it, but so was reliance on voluntary organizations like the Connecticut Missionary Society. Some of the latter were reform societies; others were not. All of them, nonetheless, provided models and personnel for every other antebellum crusade, including secular ones.

Most of the earliest nineteenth-century Protestant voluntary organizations clustered in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. A few aimed at specific sins. The name of the Anti-Duelling Society, for instance, revealed its purpose. (It was begun in 1809, and Lyman Beecher was a strong supporter.) But many of the first organizations were general in scope, much as Cotton Mather suggested a century before. Although important for its anti-liquor stand, the aptly titled Connecticut Society for the Reformation of Morals (1813) sought to suppress a multitude of evils, among which its founders included theDemocratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson. The mandate of a similar organization—the Andover South Parish Society for the Reformation of Morals—was typically broad. Its members were "to discountenance immorality, particularly Sabbath-breaking, intemperance and profanity; and to promote industry, order, piety, and good morals." Such groups drew upon local clergy and pious laymen, and very likely served both useful religious and social functions. They released the Protestant energies of parishioners in a sustained fashion, in contrast to revivals, which were sudden and sporadic. Moreover, they acted as a kind of moral police, pointing out immorality and lawbreaking that elected officials might prefer to ignore.

Although such work was important to the people involved, the largest Protestant voluntary associations were dedicated to missionary activity rather than to harassing local wrongdoers. The first national one was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, begun by Congregationalists in 1810, with Lyman Beecher among the founders. It owed something to the example of the British, who had long been spreading the Gospel to remote and uncivilized lands, including North America.

Inspiring though that task was, evangelicals quickly recognized that there were threats enough to deal with in the United States: most especially Unitarianism, Universalism, Catholicism, and irreligion and vice on the frontier. To fight them, evangelicals developed formidable instruments of propaganda and made use of all the latest advances in print technology. The American Bible Society came into existence in 1816, with the goal of putting the Scriptures into the hands of every family in the nation. The American Sunday School Union (1824) aimed its efforts at children and printed books, pamphlets, and periodicals for them. Probably the most significant of all was the American Tract Society, formed in 1825; it had up-to-date presses at its disposal and no shortage of manuscripts. By 1830 it was producing approximately six million tracts each year, at a time when the American Bible Society was publishing more than a million Bibles a year. The message these religious organizations proclaimed was firmly evangelical and, less firmly, reformist. Temperance and other moral causes werepreached along with diatribes against heresy and lack of faith. The American Tract Society eventually went so far as to distribute anti-slavery material.

The missionary societies generally made a point of claiming to be national in scope. That was not entirely accurate: leadership and support concentrated in New York, Pennsylvania, and New England. Yet most of these organizations represented a consolidation of prior state and local efforts, sometimes after much resistance. (In Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, for instance, opponents tried to obstruct formation of the American Bible Society.) It was a considerable accomplishment to impose some central control over missionary enterprises (or over anything else in antebellum America). Being able to do so depended on several factors, the most obvious of which were improvements in transportation and in communication after 1815. Also playing a part was a rising sense of nationalism, fueled both by revivalism and by economic and political developments following the War of 1812. None of these large-scale missionary ventures would have been possible if evangelicals had not been able to look beyond the borders of their communities and regard a sin in one part of the Union as a matter of concern for all Americans.

In order to reach a far-flung audience, and to hold their organizations together, evangelicals developed institutions and tactics that were impressive by antebellum standards. Details varied, but the usual arrangement was for the national society to have local affiliates, sometimes a great many of them—the Tract Society claimed three thousand in 1837. These auxiliaries collected and spent funds, passed out propaganda, and engaged in work of their own. Connections between them and the parent society were often quite loose and disharmonious. ("Ideas of state-rights and state independence," an abolitionist noted, "determine the character of even our benevolent operations.") Annual conventions brought together members from throughout the Union, where they proposed resolutions, listened to inspiring oratory, elected officers, and quarreled. For the rest of the year most of the national society's affairs were left to a board of managers or an executive committee, which oversaw production and distributionof printed material, tried to meet expenses, and, in some instances, supervised paid agents who traveled about on the society's business. Almost all the devices necessary for any kind of agitation were refined by the Protestant ventures begun between 1810 and 1825 and were copied wholesale by later reform movements.

By 1830 Protestant voluntary associations constituted a loosely interconnected "benevolent empire." Although formally distinct from one another, evangelical organizations propagated the same worldview, tapped the same financial resources, and had many of the same men on their boards of directors. They often held their conventions at the same times, in the same cities. These linkages permitted a measure of coordinated action, as when, in 1829, the benevolent societies mounted an especially energetic campaign in the West. (Reports had been coming in of appalling moral and theological degeneracy there, and Eastern evangelicals feared for the safety of the nation.)

The agencies of the benevolent empire had other things in common besides ideology, members, and sources of revenue. Many of them were interdenominational in ways that went well beyond the usual cooperation between Presbyterians and Congregationalists, who engaged in joint ventures after agreeing to a Plan of Union in 1801. The managers of the Sunday School Union and the Bible Society, for example, included Presbyterians (the largest single group), Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Dutch Reformed, and even a stray Moravian and Quaker or two. (Unitarians were conspicuously absent.) The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was thoroughly Congregational, but its managers showed a sense of guilt about that—an 1860 publication they sponsored headed a section with the caption "The Board ceases to be Denominational." (It combined efforts with Presbyterians.) Cooperation across denominational lines sometimes broke down, but it was part of the evangelical spirit and it foreshadowed later secular reforms, such as antislavery and temperance, where there was a determined effort to keep the cause from becoming the property of any particular sect.

Another feature of the missionary organizations, likewise to reappear in antislavery and temperance, was the crucial role played by the laity.Clergy, of course, were never absent, yet the driving forces of the benevolent empire were people like Arthur and Lewis Tappan, wealthy New York merchants who were at the center of nearly every one of the greatest religious and secular reforms of the day, and the men and women who carried the message at the local level.

Most of the benevolent empire's work met with a fair measure of public approval, at least until leaders like Arthur Tappan committed themselves to such controversial causes as antislavery. Still, the managers and agents of the various benevolent societies had enemies, including reprobates, skeptics, Unitarians, and anti-mission elements within the revivalistic denominations themselves. Politicians—Jacksonian Democrats especially—railed against the repressive goals of evangelicals and warned darkly about an alliance of church and state, simultaneously playing upon traditional American political values and appealing to the fears of Catholic voters.

The most recent critics of the benevolent empire are historians who charge evangelicals with serving their own narrow interests rather than truly aiding humankind. Their real ambition, supposedly, was "social control"; to say this accuses them of imposing their authority and their standards upon poorer folk at the expense of diversity and freedom. The Protestant voluntary associations, in the words of one scholar, were little more than "means to make people obey their [the evangelicals'] will."

To an extent, that argument rests on presuming to know the motives of the people who founded the associations—and it is difficult to find out what went on in the hearts and minds of long-dead human beings. The evidence does not entirely absolve evangelicals of self-serving and bigotry, but it indicates that there was more to the benevolent empire than social control. The first antebellum efforts—the Connecticut Society for the Reformation of Morals, for instance—came closest to supporting the accusation. It had a truculent dislike of deviance from the strict New England way and a determination to make unruly elements behave properly. Yet there were less repressive aspects to evangelical benevolence, especially after the mid-1820s, when millennialism became more pronounced and Finney and perfectionismentered the picture. Mixed with rhetoric about moral decline and heathenism was a genuine belief that things could improve, that people could and should be helped, and that a better world would result. There was, moreover, a capacity for growth in many of the supporters of missionary activity. Some of them shed sectarian prejudices after working with godly men and women in other denominations. They also saw that their own successes were not enough: getting the Bible and the Word to the public did not make America a Christian nation. That recognition led a number of people, including Arthur and Lewis Tappan, into antislavery and temperance and out of the more restricted religious concerns of the benevolent empire.

Evangelicals were uneasy about change and committed to a traditional morality, but they were not necessarily reactionaries. Rather than simply endorsing or opposing change, humans can want to guide it in what they believe to be a constructive manner, which is what the benevolent empire intended to do. In a very loose use of the term, "social control" may be what that was. But it was not sinister, even in cases where it was shortsighted and intolerant. There were worse ambitions than hoping that antebellum Americans might behave better toward one another and lead more moral lives.


Evangelical Protestantism released people from some of the old Calvinist suspicions about human nature and gave them an outlet for emotional and reformist enthusiasm. But like any liberating ideology, it could be taken to extremes that appalled its first supporters. As early as the 1830s even Finney, once attacked for unorthodoxy, was disturbed by what people were making of revivalistic techniques and impulses. His own theatrical style was imitated to absurdity by unscrupulous evangelists. Others fell into theological unorthodoxy too bizarre for Finney and most of the Christian world to stomach. A few preached and, worse, practiced scandalous sexual doctrines. In 1844 Theodore Dwight Weld reported that "within the last four years not less than thirty ministers of evangelical denominations have been guilty of the most flagrant licentiousness."

Reform urges also began to take on a life of their own, separate fromevangelical Protestantism, and to grow in ways that caused problems for revivalists like Finney, who had done so much to stimulate social action. Finney endorsed temperance, health reform, abolition of slavery, and other worthy causes; but he insisted that revivalism came first. In common with most evangelists, he believed that excessive reform agitation alienated potential converts and diverted the enthusiasm of believers away from religion. He was not vocal about his own social views and he used his influence to discourage revivalistic publications and divinity students from taking controversial stands. That caution sometimes irritated influential laypersons who believed that reform was a sacred obligation (had not Finney said as much?) and that it should not be sacrificed to expediency.

As time went on, many reformers became disappointed, not just with Finney, but with revivalism generally. It appeared to have become mechanical, without real conviction behind it—Finney himself denied that revivals were miracles and gave instructions on how they might be produced (virtually a do-it-yourself manual for evangelists). There was mounting evidence that converts attracted by those methods did not engage in good works, as evangelical teachings said they would. Slaveholders saw the light, but kept their slaves; tipplers went through a change of heart, but continued to drink. To make the situation more puzzling, it was obvious that there were many decent, reform-minded people who were not evangelicals (some were Unitarians and Universalists). Perhaps the proper way for evangelicals to judge them was not by their theology but by their actions. On that scale they came out better than any number of revivalistic preachers.

Some evangelistic reformers kept their faith and preserved their sectarian prejudices. But even those men and women did not necessarily trust fellow evangelical Protestants to do the right thing. Arthur Tappan, for instance, virtually bribed Western churches into temperance by giving donations to non-drinking congregations. Many other reformers became less concerned about religious matters after years of crusading, and a few drifted into unorthodoxy. In some cases they did so in protest against the failure of churches to take stands on moral issues (generally slavery); in other cases they acted out of a feeling—itself aproduct of the revival—that a good heart and good deeds mattered more than religious formalities. For such people (and they included former clergymen) reform itself became a religion. Looking back on her career as an abolitionist, one woman wrote: "That is the only true church organization, where heads and hearts unite in working for the welfare of the human race." Her words echoed others spoken over the decades by men and women who transferred their zeal from religion to reform and from individual to social salvation. The irony is that when a cause such as antislavery or temperance became a church, it was many of the things evangelical Protestantism was at its best: passionate, interdenominational, and committed to improving the human situation.

All reformers, including non-evangelicals and ones who left their churches, owed much to revivalism. Their language was filled with its rhetoric of sin, damnation, and salvation. It gave them a way of viewing the world—even the most secular of reformers talked of "progress" and "civilization" in tones harking back to millennialism and perfectionism. Evangelical techniques and enterprises, finally, showed how crusaders could organize and propagandize on a national scale. Yet evangelical channels were too narrow to contain all reform energy. By the 1830s communitarianism, antislavery, temperance, and various social causes and pseudo-sciences were redirecting, as well as drawing upon, religious impulses.

Copyright © 1978, 1997 by Ronald G. Walters

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 18, 2015

    This excellent book is a cogent and concise examination of refor

    This excellent book is a cogent and concise examination of reform movements between the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of the Civil War. It is both rigorous and accessible, and it capably analyzes a wide array of reform movements active in the United States, including free love, dietary movements, women's equality, women's suffrage, temperance, prohibition, abolition, and antislavery. I have taught with this book for two years and find it excellent for use in class. I would urge customers not to heed the other reviews posted here, as they seem to have been written by people uncomfortable with reading history books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2007

    American Reformers

    American Reformers was a book about different reform movements and groups that tried to reshape America. Each chapter describes a different society or reform movement that contributed to changing America as we know it today. The book is actually very hard to read for me personally. The story line is hard to follow because every chapter has a new set of people (characters) and a new storyline or plot. For example: chapter one discusses different religious groups that tried to form revivals of their beliefs and recruit followers. Then chapter two completely changes topics and talks about different utopias formed. My personal favorite chapter would probably be four because it was the one subject I could relate to and I truly understood the issues. It talked about segregation and slavery. These two topics have always been interesting to me. Another topic that I could relate to was the chapter about women¿s rights. This chapter told of all the struggles women put themselves through just to have equal rights with men and the power to vote. This book for the most part was hard to comprehend and very difficult to sit and read. To me it wasn¿t very interesting. I would recommend this book to someone who likes to read about history and learn the movements it took to put many events and laws in place. This book also, showed the different reformers in each movement and how they contributed in making history. This book is just a collection of different writings of different reform movements. I personally, would not read another of this authors books just because of the style in which it was written. There were bi words and very wordy phrases that were hard to comprehend on the first read. The book took a long time to process to fully understand. Overall, if you like history you will enjoy reading this book.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2007

    Walters Strikes Out

    American Reformers is an interesting book, however came out to be disappointing in the end. All I can say is I was happy to finally reach the end. The discussion of utopias, perefctionism, religions, and jail was all in all to much for one to comprehend in one book. Honestly, I think it was a waste of paper to write such a book. Walters tried very hard to fit the most amount of knowledge possible into one novel. There are many names mentioned in the novel, making it hard to understand just who Walters is talking about at any given time. The idea of perfectionism is interesting and perheaps the only useful thing contained within this book. Personally, I wouldn't waste my time on reading this book.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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