Putting It Together: Religion and Reform

The period between 1820 and 1860 reflected a national mood of experimentation and rebellion. Americans experimented in new ways of thinking and believing, and rebelled against injustices to women and the enslaved. The mid-nineteenth century was also a time of change in religion. Older religious denominations were supplanted in many areas by new religious sects such as the Methodists and Baptists.

Others were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment and rational thinking. Convinced of the perfection of nature defined and popularized by scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these new theologians believed that this very perfection argued for the existence of a rational creator. They based their religious beliefs and practices on this rationalism, downplaying the miracles of scripture and concentrating instead on the morals it imparted and the historical events it recounted, arguing, “my rational nature is from God.” However, these rational religions had limited appeal for many Americans, who, in the mid-nineteenth century, were instead attracted to the preaching of the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival movement. Preachers like Peter Cartwright and Charles Grandison Finney created such excitement with their sermons that their audiences became “excessive and downright wild.”

The mid-nineteenth century also witnessed the appearance of a number of millennial sects advocating that the Second Coming of Jesus was at hand. The Mormons called themselves the “latter-day” saints and spoke continually of an approaching new dispensation; the official name of the Shakers was “the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.” Just as the millennial sects looked forward to a new and better life introduced by the Second Coming of Jesus, so also did a group of men and women who participated in one of the many utopian experiments of the mid-century. The Shakers created a religious community that bound their residents to each other and to God. Brook Farm was one of the best-known communities and included among its participants literary figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Closely linked to the emotional outpouring behind revivalism and the creation of new, often millennial, sects was the appearance of a movement known as Romanticism. Manifested in transcendentalism and in the literature of mid-eighteenth century, American Romanticism embodied a revolt against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, of Deism and Unitarianism, and emphasized the victory of heart over head.

The Cult of Domesticity provided a powerful ideology of gender roles for many Americans. While not all regions and classes were adherents to this ideology, it was a movement that profoundly influenced American culture. In the ideology of separate spheres, the home (and, by extension, the woman of the house) came to represent a place of morality, in sharp contrast to the corrupt public world.

Two of the most significant reform movements to come out of the reform period of 1820-1840 were the anti-slavery movement and the women’s rights movement. Each of these movements worked for freedom and emancipation and to grant a greater body of rights to two of the groups on the periphery of American society. The movements shared a common support base, and many abolitionists advocated, or were active in, the women’s rights movement, or vice versa. In many ways, the organized women’s rights movement grew out of abolitionist organizations and the movement of the early 1800s. Although neither group saw their cause’s ultimate goals achieved during the era of reform, each movement saw great advances.