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The Reform Impulse
Biography of America logo
The Events of 1831 Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

Page 1234

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The Second Great Awakening

Religious revivalism fueled the moral and social reforms of the first half of the 19th Century. De Tocqueville and Beaumont appeared on the scene at the height of the second Great Awakening, the most extended religious revival in American history. In 1800, 1 in 15 belonged to a church. By 1850, it was 1 in 7.

[Picture of Charles Grandison Finney]

The leading evangelist of the age was Charles Grandison Finney, born in western New York, a region known as the "burned-over district" because it was immolated with the fires of evangelical enthusiasm. He had prepared to study law, but he had a conversion experience and decided instead to plead the cause of God. He mesmerized his audience, his clear, shrill voice penetrating the congregation, his blue eyes seemingly fixed on every sinner.

He often told the parable about Niagara Falls, the story of a man in a daydream drifting toward the precipice unaware of the danger. He is about to plunge when an observer cries out "Stop," and the shout awakens the man from his reverie and saves his life. Here was the answer to the question, "What must I do to be saved?" The sinner must respond immediately to the voice of the preacher. The sinner was free to choose salvation over damnation.

Here was the concept of individual free will, of free moral agency, one of the most important concepts of the age. Of course, Finney's liberal theology repudiated the Calvinists' ideas of innate depravity, predestination, and everlasting punishment, the ideas that had shaped the Puritan experience in America. Man was free to choose his eternal fate. Behavior in the temporal world predicted fate in the eternal.

The evangelical message fit with the individualistic ethos of the age, and so too did the techniques used to promote conversion, known as the New Measures. Ministers emphasized emotion over reason. They were themselves self-taught and itinerant, traveling around looking for sinners. They conducted camp meetings that often lasted several days. And they used the technique known as the "anxious bench," a seat in the front of the congregation for those most likely to succumb to the prayers of the minister.

The Second Great Awakening had a special impact on women, who comprised the vast majority of converts. "I made religion the principal business of my life," proclaimed one woman. Serving as moral guardian was not the same thing as playing a public role or winning political rights. But women used their position granted by evangelicalism as a platform from which to emerge from the home and challenge the moral evils of society.

[Picture of utopian community]

Evangelical Christianity was one manifestation of a general desire for a spiritual solution to social woes. A number of utopian communities were created at the time -- places such as Oneida in New York, New Harmony in Indiana, and Brook Farm in Massachusetts, all of which sought to offer an escape from the jarring demands of an individualistic, capitalist society.

If some sought salvation in creating cooperative communities, others sought a deeper embrace of individualism. Many feared for the fate of the nation, but none more so than Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had started as a Unitarian minister, but like so many others, he too rejected organized religion as "corpse cold." "The state of society," he lamented, "is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk. They strut about, so many walking monsters, a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man."

[Picture of Ralph Waldo Emerson]

Americans, he thought, must turn away from external triumphs, financial rewards, professional success as a measure of achievement. They needed to embrace nature and solitude. "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself," he said. "Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles." Emerson, calling himself a seeing eye, not a helping hand, chose to remain behind the scenes. But others came forward to fight for the triumph of principles.


The Slavery Debate Intensifies

[Picture of 'The Liberator']

On January 1, 1831, William Lloyd Garrison, a 26-year-old editor from Newburyport, Massachusetts, published the first issue of The Liberator. It was a newspaper that changed forever the terms of the anti-slavery debate. Prior to then, Americans who were opposed to slavery believed in gradualism. They believed in passing laws that would eliminate slavery at some future date, or in purchasing the slaves and relocating them to Africa. The American Colonization Society, formed in 1817 for precisely this purpose, was supported by leading statesmen from James Monroe and Henry Clay to John Marshall and Abraham Lincoln.

Garrison devoted his life to opposing slavery and the use of any gradual means to effect its abolition. "One would not gradually rescue a child from a fire or a wife from a ravisher," he exclaimed. Slavery was a raging inferno. It was a horrible violation and it had to be ended.

Garrison declared war upon the institution. "I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice," he warned. "Urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest. I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard."

Garrison's call for the immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery drew upon the evangelical injunction to renounce sin immediately. Slaveholders had choice, and slaveholding was a sin. Slaveholders must emancipate their slaves, not later, not tomorrow, but now, immediately. And to promote the cause of immediate and unconditional abolition, Garrison helped form the American Anti-Slavery Society.

By 1836, there were more than five hundred abolitionist organizations in the North. He also labored for the equal rights of free blacks and women as well. His oratory was as inflammatory as any minister's. Some Northern merchants, nervous that abolition would hurt their commercial interests, often rioted and threatened the abolitionist's life. Once he was dragged through the streets of Boston with a noose around his neck.

By the 1840s Garrison declared that the North should refuse to remain in a Union with the slaveholding South. "No Union with slaveholders," became the motto of the American Antislavery Society. He came to see the Constitution of the United States as a pro-slavery document, calling it a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell. At a July 4th celebration he put a match to the document.

The only way to destroy the slave power in America, he thought, was through dissolution of the existing American Union. One day before a large audience, Garrison displayed a map of the United States and with a scissors he cut out the slaveholding region. All watched in silence as the Southern portion of the Union fell to the ground.



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