Bearing Witness against Sin: The Evangelical Birth of the American Social Movement

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During the 1830s the United States experienced a wave of movements for social change over temperance, the abolition of slavery, anti-vice activism, and a host of other moral reforms. Michael Young argues for the first time in Bearing Witness against Sin that together they represented a distinctive new style of mobilization-one that prefigured contemporary forms of social protest by underscoring the role of national religious structures and cultural schemas. In this book, Young identifies a new strain of protest that challenged antebellum Americans to take personal responsibility for reforming social problems. In this period activists demanded that social problems like drinking and slaveholding be recognized as national sins unsurpassed in their evil and immorality. This newly awakened consciousness, undergirded by a confessional style of protest, seized the American imagination and galvanized thousands of people. Such a phenomenon, Young argues, helps explain the lives of charismatic reformers such as William Lloyd Garrison and the Grimke sisters, among others. Marshalling lively historical materials, including letters and life histories of reformers. Bearing Witness against Sin is a revelatory account of how religion lay at the heart of social reform.

About the Author:
Michael P. Young is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review
Young's analysis and storyline are helpful, coherent, and persuasive in many ways. The book enhances our understanding of religious, political, and social events in antebellum America.

— Charles Hambrick-Stowe

Sydney Tarrow
“Michael Young has done the unlikely: drawing new insights and rigorous comparisons from the well-trodden territory of movements for moral reform in the United States. Bearing Witness against Sin draws from abolitionism, temperance, and moral reform in the 1830s an enduring lesson about American social movements—about both their persistent religious foundations and the uneasy balance they need to maintain between interior moral reform and external political change. The mechanism for that conjunction in the 1830s was the public confession; but Young’s findings go well beyond these three movements to the contemporary movements he briefly surveys at the end of the book and to the moral/political crisis of America today.”—Sidney Tarrow, Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government and Professor of Sociology, Cornell University
American Historical Review - Charles Hambrick-Stowe
"Young's analysis and storyline are helpful, coherent, and persuasive in many ways. The book enhances our understanding of religious, political, and social events in antebellum America."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226960852
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2007
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael P. Young is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Read an Excerpt

Bearing Witness against Sin The Evangelical Birth of the American Social Movement
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-96085-2

Chapter One Modern Social Movements and Confessional Projections of the Self

How did the first national wave of social movements emerge in the United States? Historians of antebellum reform and sociologists of social movements have not directly addressed this puzzle. Historians have focused instead on explaining the coming of the Civil War, the origins of civil rights movements, or the class bases of moral reform movements. In spite of growing interest in the historical sociology of American movements, few sociologists have researched antebellum protests. Concerned with the intersection of movements, state expansion, and industrial capitalist growth, most studies have focused on movements after the Civil War. As a result, few scholars have explored how, or even if, the American protests that took hold in the early nineteenth century created a new and enduring form of social movement.

The works of Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow are something of an exception. Tilly's research of centuries of Western protest, or what he prefers to refer to as "contention," pinpoints processes central to the emergence of sustained and interregional social movements. Tilly's account of a nineteenth-century rupture in the Western repertoire of contention relies primarily on the systematic data he has gathered on centuries of French and British protest. His research demonstrates that sustained sequences of interregional contention first appeared as a repeating social phenomenon in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and it identifies features of the new forms of collective action that enabled the spatial and temporal extension of protest. Tarrow, drawing in part on research on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American protests, has modern social movements and confessional projections of the self 11 further specified the new forms of action that structured the earliest examples of sustained and interregional protests. Together, Tilly and Tarrow provide the best starting point for an account of the novel dimensions of antebellum reform movements. In this chapter, I build on this start and develop a cultural and social-psychological approach to explain the first U.S. national social movements.

A Historic Rupture in the Forms, Purposes, and Identities of Protest

Tilly's extensive and systematic catalogs of French and British protests establish a historic rupture in the very forms of popular collective action: a relative decline in particular, parochial, and patronized forms of contention-for example, rough music, grain seizures, the destruction of toll gates-and the emergence and recurrence of public meetings and demonstrations planned by autonomous, special-purpose associations. Tilly introduced the notion of "repertoires of contention" to account for this change. The term highlights the endurance of traditions of popular struggle and captures as a puzzle the dramatic transformation of Western patterns of protest occurring in the century after 1750. At any given point in history, protests follow a delimited repertoire: a set of means or routines of banding together that people learn and share. Changes in this cultural know-how generally occur "at the perimeter of the existing repertoire." Only rarely is a repertoire junked and replaced. But such a radical transformation did occur during the early nineteenth century with a new repertoire showing unmistakable signs of displacing the old throughout Western Europe and America. Before the late eighteenth century, the Western repertoire was made up of a rich variety of local traditions and semiauthorized public ceremonies. Starting in the late eighteenth century, the repertoire changed. Among other things, the new forms extended the spatial and temporal reach of protests.

Tarrow has joined Tilly in specifying the characteristics of the new repertoire of contention and the contours of this historic rupture. Reading across a range of Tilly's and Tarrow's work, three novel and interrelated characteristics appear central in extending the time horizon and geographical scope of protest. First, Tarrow argues that the collective action of protesters shifted from particular to "modular forms" of collective action, a concept borrowed from Benedict Anderson, and that this more than anything else distinguished the new repertoire from the old. Modular collective action transposes across different circumstances and locales and can be utilized by different actors and against an array of targets. The flexibility and inclusiveness of imitable and transposable models of action enabled protesters to break out of a militant parochialism that characterized the old repertoire and to contend for power across regional communities and changing events. Before the rupture in eighteenth-century patterns of popular struggle, inflexibility, direct action, and corporate-based organization combined in the most common types of protest. The old repertoire limited protests to local and particular forms of action that did not travel well. The problems of spatial scale and limited time horizons that have always dogged popular struggles were partially addressed by new modular forms of collective action.

Second, as the form of collective action shifted from the particular to the general, the claims making of protesters became more specialized. The new repertoire featured special purposes. It was not just an increased generality that was new to protest but also a sharp focus in stated goals or ends. This sharpness enabled protesters to establish common goals that cut through regional differences and changing events. These particularized goals not only bridged spatial divides but provided coherent lines for action across time. In the new repertoire, these first two characteristics, modular forms of action and specialized goals, regularly combine in the standard formation of special-purpose associations. Tilly's empirical research of France and Britain suggests that if one thing is characteristic of the new repertoire of contention it is the planned meetings of special-purpose associations.

Third, Tilly argues that this new form and purpose to Western protests constituted and was constituted by new actors with detached contentious identities. The old forms of contention-for example, the collective shaming rituals of rough music, donkeying, and tar and feathering-enacted embedded identities or identities established in local cultures and networks of social relations. The collective identities of the nineteenth-century men and women who followed the new repertoire of protest were not as deeply tied to local traditions of resistance or local networks of social exchange. The new forms and purposes of nineteenth-century protest involved increasingly cosmopolitan social activists. Detached protest identities emerged with associations and purposes that transcended local commitments and problems. With this new form, purpose, and collective identity, the protests of Westerners moved "from the alien world of the eighteenth century into our own era."

Explaining the Nineteenth-Century Rupture

According to Tilly and Tarrow, a gradual but extensive shift in social power explains the emergence of this new repertoire. Sweeping economic, demographic, and political processes worked to undermine the old forms of protest and shape the new. As interregional markets linked far-flung communities, the targets of protest were more often remote, demanding new ways of influencing nonlocal parties. As Tilly demonstrates, until the nineteenth century, protests were typically bifurcated in the way they sought to influence social conditions. They either reached directly out in local affairs to coerce or shame an offending party, or they pressed local patrons to bring their concerns to bear on more remote forces. Market forces rendered these parochial forms increasingly impractical. Offenders were no longer as likely to be in immediate reach, and the influence of local patrons who mediated more extensive affairs declined. New interregional markets not only placed the targets of protest at a distance, but they made long-distance mobilizations possible. The development of print capitalism, in particular, facilitated the spread of protest events across time and space by shaping modular forms of collective action, articulating specialized purposes, and publicizing distant protests and leading activists.

The demographic changes that accompanied these expanding markets also disrupted local traditions that comprised the old repertoire of protest. Take, for example, rough music or the charivari. Into the nineteenth century, variants of rough music were commonly practiced across Western Europe and North America. Rough music was in a weak sense modular in that across time and space Europeans engaged in a recognizably similar form of collective action for related purposes. Directed against a particular community offender, rough music involved subjecting the target to a public ritual of humiliation. This much was standard, but the practice and full meaning of a particular instance of rough music and of its publicity of disgrace varied from place to place and across time. The actual practice of rough music admitted to a great diversity or particularity of forms. An experienced "player" of katzenmusik in western Germany could not be expected to know how to "get up the lads" for a skimmington in Britain. A New Englander might know how to ride a teetotaler out of town on a rail but not be able to follow the rites of "Judge Lynch" in the South. The proper nominy, props, instruments of noise, and public stage were all subject to regional variation and posed cultural barriers to the interregional extension of these forms of collective action. Moreover, the rites of rough music belonged to cultures that started to decompose in the nineteenth century. As demographic forces disrupted local communities, the know-how to perform the acts and the significance of such acts were lost on many who were caught up in this social change.

According to Tilly and Tarrow, strategic interactions with centralizing political institutions provided a key mechanism to lift protesters out of their particular local routines of claims making, to establish new and extensive lines of action, and to articulate novel claims pitched at a new social register. As state building expanded and centralized authority, it penetrated local communities providing a centralized target for protest and causes that superseded local concerns. As challengers targeted centralized state agencies or sought to draw them into conflicts with other social actors as mediators, they adapted their forms of contention. Protests became modular and the objects of their claims national and specialized. In short, as a result of these economic, demographic, and political processes, the old repertoire, with its traditional routines and direct attacks, lost much of its place and purpose. The challenge to deliver claims to the new locations of power required adaptation, innovation, and the assembly of a new repertoire of contention.

According to Tilly's research, Great Britain took the lead in this innovation. In the mid-eighteenth century, mass mobilizations around national issues were quite literally inconceivable due to weak or nonexistent national institutions. By the 1830s, British public "campaigns had crystallized into social movements, with their meetings, marches, demonstrations, slogans, banners, colors, pamphlets, and special-interest associations orbiting around one major issue at a time." In the intervening years increasingly cosmopolitan political entrepreneurs learned to coordinate public campaigns with parliamentary deliberations over bills.

In 1833, the great themes of public meetings were elections, the behavior of the national government, treatment of the Irish, administration of local affairs, maintenance of trade, the abolition of slavery, and taxes-essentially the same issues Parliament was debating that very year.

Drawing on the work of Pauline Maier, Tarrow argues that American colonists in their resistance of British taxation utilized key elements of the new repertoire, giving rise to the first truly national social movement, the American Revolution. In the years leading up to the Revolution, local mobilizations and protests in different colonies led steadily to increased coordination across colonies and ultimately to a sustained and intercolonial movement. This novel movement was structured by modular forms of collective action like the boycott, special purposes like resisting the Stamp Act, and widespread identification with interregional associations like the Sons of Liberty.

The Problem with Explaining Antebellum Reform Movements

After the Revolution, American protest reverted to the older form. Through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, there were no prolonged, interregional social movements. Given Tilly's and Tarrow's explanations, this reversion makes good sense. The political processes structuring the interregional and sustained protests leading up to the American Revolution did not obtain after independence was secured. The Revolution, after all, was a rebellion against "the European-style notion of concentrated political sovereignty." If, as Tarrow and many historians argue, the taxation of a centralizing British state drew the regional protests of colonialists together into a national revolution, this center of political gravity disappeared with American victory.

It is an overstatement to claim that the early American republic was without a central state. Nonetheless, in comparative terms, the federal system of the United States succeeded in arresting the centralizing processes of sovereignty promoted extensively in Western Europe by the bureaucracies of absolute monarchs and national parliaments. In the 1830s, sustained and interregional protests dramatically reappeared in America but without the institutional target of a strong central state. At the same time the national social movement "crystallized" in Great Britain, a range of special-purpose associations with pledges, slogans, newspapers, agents, constitutions, and auxiliary societies flourished across the United States. Unlike Great Britain, the United States had not developed a state with "locality-penetrating" administrative capacities headed by a representative body capable of channeling protest into discrete national issues. The issues around which the most contentious and popular of these movements revolved-antislavery and temperance-were not addressed by the federal government and the national political parties and would not be for some time. To the extent that the American federal government held power over public affairs, that power was in decline when these movements burst on the scene. How then did these moral reforms manage to mobilize and sustain interregional protests?

Tilly and Tarrow's work still guides. The use of modular forms of collective action, the articulation of specialized purposes, and the construction of detached identities distinguish these movements as the first of their kind in U.S. history and help explain their national appeal. Demographic upheaval and market revolution opened the possibility and, for many, the need for sustained and interregional movements, but they also brought havoc to many of the institutions around which protest could be mobilized. The rapid expansion of markets uprooted individuals and groups embedded in local cultures, undermining traditional forms and purposes of collective action. In the face of these sweeping and decentralizing changes, state and political institutions provided little leverage for lifting collective action out of parochial forms. They were not central to the mechanisms that shaped modular forms of action, special purposes, and detached protest identities. Religion was the primary social force that shaped the form, purpose, and identity of the first national movements in the United States.

Religious forces of course mixed with political processes. Political processes remade American Christianity by making sure there would be no established religion, but religious dissent shaped these political forces of disestablishment. Market and religious forces were similarly intertwined. In the context of the social upheaval caused by rapid market expansion, evangelical Christianity proved exceptionally adaptable. Even as certain traditional religious beliefs and institutions faltered under rapid economic changes, popular concern for sin, repentance, and reformation grew. Affinities between this concern and the material interests of a rising middle class cannot be denied nor their impact ignored. But economic forces cannot take credit for why these religious schemas ran deep and wide through the social institutions of early nineteenth-century America. Evangelicals relied on the saliency of sin and the power of repentance to adjust their religious commitments to worldly affairs.


Excerpted from Bearing Witness against Sin by MICHAEL P. YOUNG Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     viii
Acknowledgments     x
Introduction     1
Modern Social Movements and Confessional Projections of the Self     10
Mammon, Church, and State in a Restless America     39
The Benevolent Empire and the Special Sins of the Nation     54
Rise Up and Repent     86
A National Wave of Confessional Protests, 1829-1839     118
"To Bear Witness to the Horrors of the Southern Prison House"     156
Conclusion: "For the Movement and for Myself"     198
Notes     209
Reference List     237
Index     251
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