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13: Antebellum Revival and Reform

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  • learning outcomes

    After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

    • Evaluate the broad social implications of the Second Great Awakening.
    • Analyze the “perfectionist” tendencies of the movements of the 1820-1860 period.
    • Explain how the cultural movements of the nineteenth century (transcendentalism, Utopian communities, and the Cult of Domesticity) influenced American culture.
    • Explain how The Second Great Awakening influenced the anti-slavery movement and the women’s rights movement.

    The period between 1820 and 1860 was a time of great change in society, religion, and culture in the United States. The Second Great Awakening, a religious revival movement, saw evangelical Christianity supplant the established religious patterns of the colonial and Revolutionary eras: the Methodist and Baptist churches grew and spread. Others turned to “rational” religious denominations, such as Unitarianism. They based their religious beliefs and practices on 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.” The mid-nineteenth century also witnessed the appearance of a number of millennial sects such as the Mormons, Shakers, and Millerites, advocating that the Second Coming of Jesus was at hand. Socially, society was in a period of great upheaval because of the changes spurred by the market revolution: increasing urbanization and industrialization, the growth of immigration, and growing inequality between classes. As a result, the reform impulse and its subsequent movements, such as abolitionism and the movement to reform prisons and asylums, were strongest in the northern United States, the area most affected by the social upheaval of the market revolution as reformers sought to impose order on a changing society. Socially and culturally, the period was also a time of experimentation. More than 100 Utopian communities sprang up all over the country. Some of these, such as the Shakers, were religious communities. Others, like Brook Farm, considered themselves to be social experiments.

    The antebellum period (or era before the Civil War) was a time of social and moral reform. Moral reform groups promoted temperance, or abstinence from alcohol. Others worked to make basic education available to all or sought to improve conditions in prisons and asylums. Social activists sought to end slavery and establish greater rights for women. American intellectualism and literature flowered, in part under the transcendentalist movement. Each of these movements, religious, moral, and reform, stressed a belief in the basic goodness of human nature, and in its own way, each of the movements sought to perfect humankind and society.

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