Abstract. Many of the Progressive movements of the late Nineteenth Century and the early and middle Twentieth Century had their origins in the religious movement called the Second Great Awakening. There was a distinct shift from the spiritual expectations over what were decidedly thought to be moral issues to a demand for political power to address them as problems that were impeding the growth of America as “The Promised Land” and God’s kingdom on earth. The great political reformers had their inspiration and origin in the revivalists, the preachers, and movers and shakers of the great religious movement of the early Nineteenth Century.
“…what mattered most in life; and for evangelicals…that was the rebirth
of the fallen soul, the regeneration of the corrupt heart. Without that in-
ward change, one that divine grace alone could effect…would neither find
true comfort on earth nor enjoy eternal happiness in heaven.”
“In being a Christian, two things are implied; the reception of the Christian
system as our creed, and the conformity of our inward and outward life to
These two quotes show the difference in evangelical religion in America divided by a time period of approximately fifty years, between 1790 and 1842. Certainly, there was and is a majority of practitioners of evangelical religion that relied and still rely predominantly on supernatural effect and a relationship with a living, risen Savior but the latter quote from Tracy shows the clear direction that a significant number of evangelical Christians moved to personal and societal, moral improvement and away from a reliance on the divine. This phenomenon had profound effects on the political life of America.
Fired by evangelical fervor, the Second Great Awakening fundamentally transformed the Protestant Churches of America. The old Calvinism of established churches was almost overthrown for a doctrine that focused not only on the free will of mankind but in his ability, on his own, to create a “Godly” society, which was defined as a society that best reflected the admonitions and commands of Jesus Christ as presented in the four Gospels. This became at least a denial of the Total Depravity of man doctrine of the Calvinist Churches. Man was able to redeem himself, to lift himself up morally and to command a better world, a more fair world, and this movement was eventually destined to travel through the early Christian Progressive’s demand for equal and fair opportunity to the modern secular Progressive’s demand for equal outcome, from a belief that in a Christian country people should not be oppressed to the modern belief that people should not be denied. A God given right became not only the Constitutional right a government should protect one’s access to but became the Human Right, the Civil Right, that government must ensure by removing any obstacle, so much so that to not be able to afford to avail oneself of a right financially is the same as being denied it by private or public tyranny. The movement that resulted from this Second Great Awakening led Christians from exhortation on a personal level to political action, from the supernatural to the legislative, and from the power of prayer to the power of the vote. Some of the Progressive Movements, and there were more than one, were the offspring of this Pietist religious fervor of the early 1800’s and many the movers and shakers of legal reform in the way of anti-slavery, women’s rights, prohibition, child labor laws, civil rights for minorities, and labor reform can be linked to it. (A few examples will be presented in this paper.) The compulsion of men to receive the moral and spiritual commands of a supernatural savior moves to the compulsion of men to respond to a government that takes on the stature of a political savior. The subject of this paper is twofold; one to assert that much of the Progressive movement for social reform had its origins in the revivalists of the Second Great Awakening and two, that the focus of evangelical Christians on government as the cure for society’s ills had its end result as the secularization of the religious impulse involved in said reform.
With regard to the literature concerning the process to which I’m referring in American history, revivalist Charles Grandison Finney was the most powerful voice of the Second Great Awakening and Northern, Yankee women were its most powerful and enthusiastic foot-soldiers. Charles G. Finney: An Autobiography and his Lectures on Revivals of Religion are important founts of information directly from the mind of the revivalist. Smith-Rosenberg’s Disorderly Conduct: Vision’s of Gender in Victorian America is a vital source for a narrative of the religious and political activity of women and their influence in the revivalist movement. Works that document the change in focus from personal deliverance to society’s reform include Heyrman’s Southern Cross and Tracy’s The Great Awakening. Excellent works that chronicle the changes effected by the Second Great Awakening on religion and society in America include Wood’s Empire of Liberty and Howe’s What Hath God Wrought. Robert Crunden’s Ministers of Reform makes the Christian foundation of the great reform movements of the 1800’s very clear.
Many Christians from the early days of the formation of the United States looked to America, not an Israel that at the time only existed in the dreams and hopes of the Jewish Diaspora or the Christian religion itself, as being that fifth kingdom of the book of Daniel that would overcome the entire world. It was God’s special creation destined to lead, change, and overtake the entire earth. As an example of this thought there were two sermons preached before Congress in 1857 on Washington’s birthday, one entitled The United States of America Foretold in the Holy Scriptures and The Battle of Armageddon: or The World’s Last Conflict Between Civil and Religious Liberty on the One Side, and Political and Ecclesiastical Despotism on the Other, offered by the Reverend F.E. Pitts and naming America as “The Promised Land” of Scripture as well as the fifth kingdom of the book of Daniel. The Second Great Awakening, a religious upheaval that began at the turn of the 19th century in America after moving across Europe, led to an explosion of revivalism. Of the famous revivalists, Charles Grandison Finney was, perhaps, the most famous and energetic. At Charles G. Finney’s revivals where he preached, many people swooned and acted in strange ways but declared they had received the new birth spoken of in the Bible as Jesus had declared. “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” The apostle Peter also refers to conversion to Christianity in this manner, also. “ Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” In both cases, the water birth and being born of corruptible seed were understood as being the first natural birth and being born again referred to a spiritual rebirth into God’s Kingdom.
Charles Finney was not only interested in the salvation of souls but in societal reform, particularly anti-slavery efforts, as he understood the purpose behind the founding of Oberlin College, which he eventually assumed control over. His efforts included not only the pushing of an anti-slavery agenda but petitioning the government to stop delivering the mail on Sunday, which Christians like himself believed was the Christian Sabbath, these so called Sabbatarians holding to the impermissibility of either business or government or anyone for that matter doing any work on that day. Finney’s influence and authority over the religious faithful of the Northern U.S. made him an invaluable help in anti-slavery efforts .
The reform minded Christians were predominantly Northern as in the South the Second Great Awakening took a more inward route as the new Pietism had a different impact in the region dominated by slavery versus the non-slave owning North. Initially, women had played a big part in the establishing of evangelical religion in the South as in spite of a patriarchal society with a rigid social and family structure “preachers not only regarded women’s religious opinions as worthy of discussion but also endorsed their right to acquire skills that would enable them to make independent judgments based on firsthand knowledge of the Bible.” The lifting up of women eventually fell away as the evangelical churches sought more successfully to reach the Southern male and made accommodations to slavery.
However, in the North, women were able to overthrow existing social restrictions as they helped the great revivalists in the organization of their events. “Women's religious movements multiplied. Female revival converts formed Holy Bands to assist the evangelist his revival efforts. They gathered with him at dawn to help plan the day's revival strategies. They posted bills in public places urging attendance at revival meetings, pressured merchants to close their shops and hold prayer services, and buttonholed sinful men and prayed with them. Although "merely women," they led prayer vigils in their homes that extended far into the night. These women for the most part were married, respected members of respectable communities. Yet, transformed by millennial zeal, they disregarded virtually every restraint upon women's behavior. They self righteously commanded sacred space as their own. They boldly carried Christ's message to the streets, even into the new urban slums.”
Women’s religious groups grew to help prepare for the great revivals of the period. These women under the guise of spiritual necessity broke virtually every taboo placed on women and their operation in society. These women began as staunch prohibitionists and anti-slavery advocates and branched off into women’s rights and through organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union sought to get the government involved in regulating red light districts, pushing for an eight hour work day, government programs for disadvantaged children, and many other things that they felt helped move society forward, even without the right to vote. As Mark David Hall reports, “the political class of evangelical women was encouraged by its religious convictions to become involved in the public sphere in unprecedented ways. In the process of doing so, these women developed and promulgated social and political ideas that became influential in antebellum America.” The powerful influence of religion during the era of the Second Great Awakening instilled in the devout a demand for the Postmillennial concept of a “moral government”. Evangelistic fervor “creating a vast reservoir of moral anxiety and a boundless commitment to do good, evangelicalism inspired its adherents to strain every nerve in pursuit of new channels of benevolence. With traditional authority and institutions devalued, each person became directly accountable for the benefit of society; and a brave new world awaited his striving.”
The Postmillennial theory of the Bible and history had man instituting a golden age and then turning that perfected world over to a returning Christ, where the belief practiced for the first few centuries of Christian experience was Premillennial, that Christ would return and set up His kingdom on earth for 1,000 years, righting all wrongs and creating His own golden age. Many of the reformers were captivated by Postmillennial belief.
Additionally, the revivalism of the early 19th century had a great deal to do with creating the American self identity of the American Protestant, particularly in the North. Revivalism and the hunger to build society in a moral way “built a sociopolitical universe within which individuals participated in a national market and a national polity. It above all was concerned with ontology, defining the nature of the individual, nation, and action. Revivalism was rooted in the rational organization of everyday life and had important political implications, which were expressed in moral reform, the abolitionist movement, and then later in support of Republican nationalism.”
Postmillennial belief would eventually meet its demise, particularly as World War One drove the last coffin nail into the view that mankind was able to create even a Godly kingdom, much less the literal kingdom of God on earth. “In 1859 an influential theological quarterly asserted without fear of contradiction that postmillennialism was “the commonly received doctrine” among American Protestants; but by the early twentieth century, it had largely vanished, and Lewis Sperry Chafer, with only slight partisan exaggeration, could claim in 1936 that it was without “living voice.”
Using the government to eradicate sin, to establish the kingdom of God on earth, eventually led to secularization of the religious impulse. As one example in the limited space available, Richard T. Ely had come from a long line of Congregationalist preachers and, in fact, his father, Ezra, was a staunch Sabbatarian (holding to the sacredness of Sunday), hating tobacco and alcohol as well. Religious himself, Richard graduated from Columbia University and then went on to Germany for his PhD and became the first instructor of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins where he was a great influence on many future Progressives, particularly future President Woodrow Wilson. Ely believed fervently that God was “transforming the social sciences and enacting progressive policies.”
Ely believed in a twist on the divine right of kings, with kings as having authority directly from God. Ely had written;
“An obstacle [to the expansion of the State’s role] in economic activity has been found in the low view that men have too frequently taken of its [the State’s] nature. Calling it [the State] an atomistic collection of units, some have gone so far as to speak of the support for public schools as robbery of the propertied class. Now, it may rationally be maintained that, if there is anything divine on earth, it is the State, the product of the same God-given instincts which led to the establishment of the Church and of the Family. It was once held that kings ruled by right divine, and in any widely accepted belief, though it be afterwards discredited, there is generally found a kernel of truth. In this case it was the divine right of the state.”
In expressing a belief, however meant to be symbolic, in the divinity of the state, Ely had come a long way in the journey from trusting in the God of the Bible to trusting in the state as the righter of all wrongs and the arbiter of all disputes, from the internal manifestation of divinity in the converted, “born again” person to the external, political manifestation of divinity in the converted, “born again” state.
The Second Great Awakening had begun with a distinct spiritual and religious tone. “As American society became more democratic in the early nineteenth century, middling people rose to dominance and brought their religiosity with them. The Second Great Awakening, as the movement was later called, was a massive outpouring of evangelical religious enthusiasm, perhaps a more massive expression of Protestant Christianity than at any time since the seventeenth century or even the Reformation. By the early decades of the nineteenth century American society appeared to be much more religious than it had been in the final decades of the eighteenth century.” Revivalism was its outward manifestation, as large meetings called revivals drew thousands to hear sermons and to possibly be converted to faith in Christ.
It became, for a number of reasons, a movement that was defined by more than personal salvation. With Northern revivalists and their female cohorts trumpeting the cause of the abolition of slavery and many other hot button issues it grew more outward focused onto the political world. “Finally, the Christian religion remained an enduring element of imponderable magnitude in American life and thought, simultaneously progressive and conservative, a source of both social reform and divisive controversy.”
This particular religious impulse of progress, of reform, and social change moved into a theology of the state as being God’s instrument on earth, with the goal ahead and, in fact, in sight, after moving through distinct stages of growth and development, of “a Christian cooperative commonwealth”.
Now, make no mistake, there are many other important figures that were influenced by the Second Great Awakening’s powerful postmillennial religious impulse to create a Christian nation in fact out of one that was only Christian in promise. There were many influential preachers of the Second Great Awakening but I’ve focused on the most popular, Finney. There are many social reformers and scholars who were influenced by the religious impulses that originated in the Second Great Awakening such as John Dewey, the famed humanist and educator who began as an ardent preacher, not of atheism, but of postmillennial political thought and the assurance that the kingdom of God was about to be created in this country. “The next religious prophet who will have a permanent and real influence on men’s lives will be the man who succeeds in pointing out the religious meaning of democracy, the ultimate religious value to be found in the normal flux of life itself. It is the question of doing what Jesus did for his time.”
Dewey moved the focus of reform to the state through education and away from religion. “Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”
Returning for a moment to Richard T. Ely, he had enormous influence on President Wilson, the first president who began to push the doctrine of “moral government” to the world stage with his “making the world safe for democracy” and under whose administration child labor protections were enacted. Richard T. Ely also made the symbolic divinity of the state more clear. Dewey represents the eventual secularization and even atheism of the once Christian reform movement.
These men (and women although women were predominantly the foot-soldiers as the intellectual world was, at first, denied them) influenced virtually every Progressive effort from the Abolition of Slavery to Prohibition. In the beginning of this paper a point was deliberately made to mention the importance of women in the reform movements that sprang from the Second Great Awakening. Jane Addams was a key figure in the Christian reform movement with roots in the religious impulse of the Second Great Awakening and the most prominent of the Yankee women social progressives. Her father was a Pietist Quaker, one of the wealthiest men in Illinois, and served for many years as a Republican State Senator. After graduating from one of the pioneer all women colleges, the Rockford Female Seminary, Ms. Addams went on to found the famed settlement house, Hull House, in the slums of Chicago. Robert Crunden has this to say about her efforts. “Hull-house was able to play its catalytic role in the history of the social sciences because it managed to appeal to old and new tendencies in American social thought. On the one hand, Hull-house appealed to the tradition in American reform of aroused Christian conscience. Its founder came out of Lincoln Republicanism and Quaker abolitionism; outside of the settlement she continued this family emphasis most obviously with her active participation in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909). She was a living example of applied Christian reform thought.”
At this point it would seem well to point out that the people so far mentioned were essentially capitalist oriented and depended on the patronage of people of wealth and standing for their ability to carry on their work. It’s important to note that there is also a strain of Christian Socialism that runs out of the Antebellum period of the Second Great Awakening such as the minister who wrote The Pledge of Allegiance. It’s also important to note that there were Progressive movements that proceeded directly from people involved in the part of society being reformed. The labor movement is notable in that respect. Many of the most important characters did not come from the Protestant tradition of Christian reform. The point of this paper has, from the beginning, not been to say that all reform has been Christian centered or originated in the Second Great Awakening. Some reform efforts, particularly in the Twentieth Century arose merely from need, urgency, and the existence of impossible living and working conditions. But, the Second Great Awakening provided a base from which religious men and women could believe that it was consistent with their faith to petition government, particularly a government they viewed as their own rather than the petty property of some king or potentate, to fundamentally transform society. As the focus on government as a divine institution representing God’s will on earth evolved the secularization of that religious impulse took control. Today, the party considered to be liberal and progressive on social and economic issues, the Democratic Party, appears to have lost any connection to religion although some of its most influential components of leadership such as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are profoundly religious people. President Obama, himself, has lamented the inability of the Democratic Party to address the religious impulse of reform. In a controversial speech given before he became president, he lamented how Progressivism had divorced itself from religion;
“And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse……. what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
In conclusion, it has been shown that that much of the Progressive movement for social reform had its origins in the revivalists of the Second Great Awakening with the next generation of reformers attempting to make America an example of Christian belief and practice in the socio-political realm, and two, that the focus of evangelical Christians on government as the cure for society’s ills had its end result as the secularization of the religious impulse involved in said reform. This has been done by offering the quotes and careers of a small few of the principals involved in reform in America’s history as their thoughts and beliefs moved from extolling God to making the state and education divine institutions, and finally to a point where a modern, Progressive president laments the eventual secularization of the Progressive movement and its apparent inability to address the religious impulse in the people at large or even to acknowledge the faith of great reformers of the past.
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