Introduction: Religion and Christianity

The idea that the United States of America was founded as a “Christian” nation is largely inaccurate, but religion's usefulness during the 19th century as a motivating force, at least externally, cannot be negated. While there were certainly a few Americans that did not at least publicly claim Christianity, the vast majority of Americans did. Therefore, the words religion and Christianity are interchangeable in the context of 19th century America. One was not religious without being Christian. What kind of Christianity is a different matter. From Quakers to Baptists, the United States was home to a wide variety of Christian sects and denominations. The theology emphasized in the Second Great Awakening was certainly Calvinist in origin in that it was held that all men were sinful. It was Armenian theology that taught all men could be saved, a doctrine that encouraged the explosion of evangelical passion and social reform movements. This is not true in all circumstances, however, with Shakers and Mormons being obvious exceptions. For the purpose of this paper and continuity, I will speak mainly of Christianity in whatever form when discussing religion in 19th century America.

The Two Movements
In order to properly understand 19th century reform movements in America, particularly abolition and women's rights, one must understand the religious motivation behind them.

“The emphasis on self-discipline and individual effort at the core of free-labor ideal led Americans to believe that insufficient self-control caused the major social problems of the era.” (Roark et al., 424) Protestants believed that God's judgment was a natural consequence to personal sin, and America was rife with sin. In order that America might reach it's full potential (New Jerusalem, anyone?) and avoid catastrophic judgment, many men and women began reforming different American institutions.


Granted, not all were done out of religious motivation. But in abolitionism, the biggest reform movement of the first half of the 19th century, Christianity and this fear of God's judgment were definitely major players. How are these two movements connected? Christianity was used to both support and denounce slavery. This being said, it cannot be neglected as a motivating power behind abolitionism.

The Second Great Awakening
Abolitionism and women's rights, were in fact closely related. Both were impacted by the Second Great Awakening. Preachers such as Charles Finney used religious reform as a means of social control. “Motives which determined the use of that power derived from the revival, and they were frankly millenarian” (Hoffman, Gjerde 286). Finney held that through the efforts of Christian men following God's guidance, the world could be transformed into heaven on Earth. This concept was different than the second coming of Christ and his thousand-rule reign. Rather, it was intended to convert that majority of Americans and achieve a kind of Christian Utopia. “After 1831 the goal of revivals was the christianization of the world. With that at stake, membership in a Protestant church entailed new kinds of personal commitment... With the Finney revival, the ingrown piety of the 1820's turned outward and aggressive” (Hoffman, Gjerde 287). One of the tenants of Protestantism, or more specifically, Calvanism, was that man was inherently sinful. Revivalists of the Second Great Awakening interpreted this to mean that man must be controlled through “a system of moral regulations, founded upon the natural relations between moral beings, and having for its immediate end the happiness of the community” (Hoffman, Gjerde 287).

So social reform was a means of establishing heaven on Earth, and was the natural extension of


Calvanism theology and millenial thinking. Social reform encompasses all reform movements in the 19th century. People reformed everything from education to insane asylums. But two major movements were easily the largest and most polarizing. Oddly enough, they are interconnected, but not through Christianity or rather, millenial thinking. Both the black man and the white women were ignored when it came to voting rights, and the events that transpired in the 19th century laid the groundwork for the two movements' eventual triumph.

The Second Great Awakening also influenced the women's rights movement in much the same way that abolitionism did. The evangelical focus of the Second Great Awakening provided women an opportunity to take leadership in the church, which in turn made them recognize that the religious arena was not specifically a male-dominated one. Now that women understood that both religion and politics were not meant for men only, they realized that they should be able to speak in public, take an active role church leadership, and vote like men.

First, let's take a brief look at the abolition movement. “More radical still was the movement in the 1830's to abolish the sin of slavery” (Roark et al., 381). Centered predominantly in the North, abolitionists ignored the normal Southern religious rhetoric when it came to slavery and instead appealed to “Christian” values of fairness and equality. Major players in the movement included William Lloyd Garrions and the Grimké sisters. There is no way that a movement like abolitionism would have gained any momentum had it not been for the Christian terminology and theology used to promote it.


Christianity grew as a motivating forces among slaves themselves, but in a different way than it did for abolitionists. African American Christianity took on a flavor of its own, reflecting the influence of African society while incorporating standard Evangelical tenants. “Laws prohibited teaching slaves to read, but a few could read enough to struggle with the Bible. They interpreted the Christian message themselves. Rather than obedience, their faith emphasized justice.

“Slaves believed that God kept score and that the accounts of this world would be settled in the next” (Roark et al., 459).. African American Christianity was certainly it's own creature, crafted to meet the unique needs of those in slavery. Most slaves recognized that the only freedom they would ever experience was that of death, and therefore heaven was their eternal hope. It is doubtful that Christianity did much to “civilize” slaves or made them any more receptive to their current state. Slave rhetoric did not include the sweeping statements of Northern abolitionists, speaking of the terrors of slavery. Nor did it have anything in common with Southern, pro-slavery speech that used Christianity as an excuse to own slaves.

I find it interesting that these three different groups- the slaves, the abolitionists, and the slaveholders- could interpret the same text in three different ways. I see religion as more of an excuse or a tool that could be bent and used by any group to meet their own needs. But perhaps that isn't giving it as much credit as it deserves. Certainly there were people thrust into the reform movements for purely religious reasons.

First of all, abolitionists were not motivated by economic reasons. Even though the argument was frequently made that wage-labor was more profitable than slavery, the Northern economy was intricately intertwined with the Southern economy, and the Southern economy was built on the backs of 4

slave labor. Even a gradual emancipation of the slaves would be hard on the Southern economy, but the radical abolition of slavery as proposed by a few abolitionists would certainly badly damage the U.S. economy. Slavery was beneficial, strictly in an economic sense.

Abolitionists had no social motivation, either. While it was certainly normal to be a soft abolitionist, at least in the parlors of northern states, actually calling for the total emancipation of slaves was forward for the time. Many northerners looked upon slavery as a necessary evil, something that they wished didn't exist but didn't bother them enough to actually do anything about it. African Americans were still looked upon by most whites as inferior. Northerners feared that free blacks would travel north in huge numbers, take factory jobs and intermarry with the white population. Both of these concepts were so foreign and repugnant to the average Northerner, that abolitionists that called for total and immediate emancipation were considered radicals.

In the end, abolitionists that called for total emancipation had little motivation outside Christianity. The principals reiterated by the Second Great Awakening brought many Americans back to their Puritan world view that sin resulted in God's judgment. Since slavery was considered a sin, it could bring upon the United States God's judgment. This was more than enough motivation for religiousminded Northerners to take up the abolitionist cause. Little or no other reasons can be found anywhere else. Northern abolitionists might have liked the idea of being rescuers, or of sticking it to the Southerners, but I doubt that a Messiah-complex or anti-southern sentiment played a major role in the reform movements.

True, Northerners considered the wage/labor system superior to slavery in the economic sense, and they probably considered themselves more advanced, both socially and intellectually, than their 5

Southern brethren. But overall, Christianity was the major motivating force in the abolition movement.

Women's Rights
The women's rights movement grew out of the abolition movement, the Second Great Awakening, and the Industrial revolution. It's true that women's rights had long been an issue in America. But as women like the Grimké sisters proved that women could hold their own against men as intellectuals and political activists.

Undoubtedly as the women abolitionists considered the injustice of slavery, they considered their own situation. “Public speaking was a form of performance in nineteenth-century culture that was strongly associated with the explicitly masculine virtues of virility, forcefulness, and endurance” (Sklar 97.) In publicly speaking out against slavery, women abolitionists broke the American, Protestant stereotype of women being silent in public. American culture considered public speaking a purely masculine task, particularly when it came to religious subjects, but also in the social and moral arenas. The abolitionist movement gave women the opportunity to realize their potential as leaders in social change and they there weren't in fact incapable of assuming public responsibility.

The Industrial Revolution proved that women could work. Textile factories gave women the chance to provide for themselves, rather than be dependent upon their fathers or uncles for support. It also meant that women didn't have to marry right away in order to survive.

In 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention, women's rights activists issued a declaration of women's rights. The document, which borrows heavily in both tone and content from the Declaration of


Independence, gives us great insight into a 19th century women's opinion of her situation. The declaration can be summed up in a single line- all men and women are created equal. This was the basis of women's rights. The idea that all of mankind- not just white males, were equal, was a concept hailed by abolitionists and further defined by the women's suffrage movement.

While the women's rights movement was definitely a major movement, it lacked the polarizing power of the abolitionist movement. As women began shifting their attention from abolition to women's rights, some worried that this might compromise abolitionism. The civil war thrust abolition into the spotlight.

Other Reform Movements
Dorothea Dix was concerned about the mentally ill. At the time, towns hired men and women to take care of the poor mentally ill. Dix worked hard, documenting the horrors that many mentally ill faced and influencing legislation that created insane asylums.

The temperance movement fought to outlaw alcohol, and an education reform led by Horace Mann sought a national curriculum. Evangelicals also sought “moral reform” which condemned brothels and sexual predators. These movements were definitely affected by the two major movements and therefore by the Second Great Awakening, but they do not belong in the same league as abolitionism and womens rights. These movements were important, but lacked the passion and political implications of the major two movements.


Religion and reform movements were closely connected. Not all reform movements were the direct result of the Second Great Awakening, but it definitely provided the overarching motivating and unifying factor. It can easily be argued that men and women used the Second Great Awakening as a way to gain social, political, and religious power. We can't ever really know what the true intentions behind social reformers were.

I think that it is important to emphasize here that social reform in the early 19th century was not the same of social reform today. We can't praise 19th century abolitionists the same way we would 20th century civil rights activists. They did not have the same goal in mind.

The women's suffrage movement was not successful until the first half of the 20th century, roughly a full century after it began. Abolitionists succeeded in their endeavors, but only not through peaceful negotiations. Rather, it took a proclamation from the President during a time of war and specific laws and amendments by Congress to enforce emancipation. Even then, African Americans didn't truly achieve racial equality until the second half of the 20th century. So can we really assume that either movement was successful?

Eventually, both were successful. While racial problems still exist and it can be argued that women are still seeking to be seen as men's equals, politically the reform movements were as successful as they could be. The fact that men and women looked at the problems in their society and did what they could to fix them, no matter what their motivations, is a comforting thought. I can only hope that my generation can look at what plagues America to day and make a similar commitment to change.



Roark, James L.; Johnson, Michael P. The American Promise: A History of the United States. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009.

Hoffman, Elizabeth Cobbs; Gjerde, Jon. Major Problems in American History: Volume 1: To 1877. Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Women's Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement 1830-1870. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.


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