Why It Matters: Religion and Reform

Why learn about the religious and reform movements of the mid-19th century?

The illustrated masthead of The Liberator is shown. On the left, a vignette shows an auctioneer selling slaves at auction. On the right, slaves rejoice in their emancipation. In a circle at the center, Jesus Christ stands, arm raised, between a kneeling slave and a fleeing slaveholder. The caption reads “I come to break the bonds of the oppressor.” Below the masthead are the words “Our country is the World, our Countrymen are all Mankind.”

Figure 1. The masthead of The Liberator, by Hammatt Billings in 1850, highlights the religious aspect of abolitionist crusades. The Liberator was a newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison, one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement in the United States.

The mid-nineteenth century was a period of immense economic, political, demographic, social, and territorial change in the United States which radically altered how Americans thought about themselves, their communities, and the rapidly expanding nation. It was a period of great optimism, with the possibilities of self-governance infusing everything from religion to politics. Yet it was also a period of great conflict, as the benefits of industrialization and democratization split along increasingly uneven lines of gender, race, and class. Westward expansion distanced urban dwellers from frontier settlers more than ever before, both physically and socially, even as the technological innovations of industrialization—like the telegraph and railroads—offered exciting new ways to maintain communication. The spread of democracy opened voting to nearly all White men, but urbanization and a dramatic influx of European immigration increased social tensions and class divides.

Americans looked at these changes with a mixture of enthusiasm and suspicion, wondering how the fabric of the new nation would hold up to emerging social challenges. Increasingly, many people turned to the increasingly popular spiritual revival and social reform movements to help understand and manage the various transformations. Reacting to the rational secularism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening reignited Protestant spirituality and developed a uniquely American brand of Christianity. The revivals incorporated worshippers into an expansive religious community that crisscrossed all regions of the United States and armed them with a potent evangelical mission. Many emerged from these religious revivals with a conviction that human society could be transformed into a more “heavenly” ideal. These revivalists connected their spiritual networks to rapidly developing social reform networks that sought to alleviate social ills and eradicate moral vice. Tackling numerous issues, including alcoholism, slavery, and the inequality of women, reformers worked tirelessly to remake the world around them. While not all these initiatives were successful, the zeal for reform and the spiritual rejuvenation that inspired it were key facets of antebellum life and society.