Religion, Romance and Reform:  The American Renaissance

    In many respects, the United States was a child of the Enlightenment. The Declaration of Independence reflected enlightenment ideals of a government whose purpose was to serve and protect the people. It was, however, an infant in the international community, devoid of the rich culture and traditions which had developed in the Old World. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his preface to The Marble Faun wrote: 

    No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land

Rational Religion

    Although Americans were profoundly religious (still are, by European standards); old Calvinist ideas of predestination, original sin, etc. were eroded by Enlightenment thought. Calvinists had preached of the fallibility and corrupt nature of man; Enlightenment thinkers saw human beings as basically good. Religious thinking turned towards idea of reasonable interpretation of scripture; the old idea of "sinners in the hands of an angry God" just didn’t fly any more. People were gradually drawn towards a religion that was more consoling than condemning; comfortable, not strenuous. Many of the Congregational churches in New England went back to Episcopal type services and doctrines.

Enlightenment thought said that religion, like the Universe, should be rational. This led to the idea of Deism. Jefferson, Franklin, et. als. were Deists.

  • God had planned the universe, set it in motion, and left it alone.
  • Denied concept of original sin and the divinity of Christ.
  • Relied on reason rather than revelation; science rather than the Bible.

Thomas Paine described Deism in The Age of Innocence as "doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy." He still had to stir the pot a bit, though, and referred to existing churches as "human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit."

To many orthodox Christians, deism was nothing more than atheism dressed up. Lyman Beecher said that Yale University had become a "hotbed of infidelity" where students openly discussed French radicalism, deism, and things even worse. By end of 18th century, many people in New England drifted towards two new religious theories both of which were liberal and based on "rationalism."


"Oneness of God." -- no Trinity; Jesus was not divine.

Goodness of mankind

Reason and conscience more important than creeds and confessions, or religious doctrine – including the idea that the Bible was infallible.

One Unitarian leader, William Ellery Channing said: "I am surer that my rational nature is from God than that any book is an expression of his will."

The Unitarian movement was particularly popular in Massachusetts, especially in the Boston area. It appears to have been almost a backlash against the stringent nature of Puritan Calvinism. One old joke said that Unitarians believed in "the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston."

Unitarianism appealed more to the well to do than the working class, because it was something of an intellectual religion; not the old "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" business. Harvard College in particular was a hot bed of Unitarianism; as it encouraged liberal thought. Liberalism soon became a swear word in conservative churches.

Of course, Unitarian ideas were anathema to old line ministers and believers. Lyman Beecher thought they were the devils own church.

B. Universalism: tended to attract working class people.

Stressed salvation of all mankind; not just the predestined few.

God was too merciful to condemn anyone to eternal punishment

Although evil would suffer somewhat in proportion to their sins, eventually, all would be saved.

One Historian of Religion wrote that the Universalists and Unitarians were fundamentally in agreement: "the Universalists holding that God was too good to damn man, the Unitarians holding that man was too good to be damned."

Around 1800, the idea spread that secularism, liberal ideas, had gone to far in influencing religion. There was a "back to the basics" type movement, which became the Second Great Awakening.


The Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening was largely a reaction and backlash against universalism and Unitarianism. It began when Timothy Dwight was appointed president of Yale in 1795. He was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and was a fiery preacher like his granddad. Students at Yale called him "Pope Timothy." It was probably not a coincidence that the reform movement began at Yale whereas the liberal movement had taken route at Harvard.

Harvard, Yale, Rutgers and Brown were the first four established colleges in the U.S. Since there were four of them, they were designated by the Roman Numeral :IV: (I - V): Hence "Ivy League."

Result was a revival that swept college and the community as well.

One participant wrote that "Wheresoever students are found, the reigning impression was ‘surely God is in this place.’ "

The revivalist sentiment soon spread to other colleges; all again in reaction to developments at Harvard. One of strongest reactions, other than at Yale, was at Andover Seminary, founded in 1808 under Jedidiah Morse. It soon became known as "Brimstone Hill." He railed against the "insidious encroachments of innovation—that evil and beguiling spirit which is now stalking to and fro in the earth, seeking whom it may devour." (the latter from Peter’s Epistle in the New Testament).

For next fifty years, there was a revival of evangelical religion on college campuses around the country. It spread to the frontier by means of the

Camp Meeting: It was basically a traveling revival, sort of a "tent meeting." People on frontier had few occasions to get together, this gave them one. A traveling evangelist would be invited to hold services at a "camp" where people would camp out for several days, socialize, and have the gospel preached to them. There was lost of hell fire and damnation preaching; emotional conversion, singing, shouting, etc. It also promoted it’s own brand of democracy, social equality; the idea that all are equal in the eyes of God.

Several religious denominations benefited from this rebirth of religion.

Baptists: Theology founded on infallibility of Bible; man is basically depraved. But they differed from the Calvinists in that they didn’t accept predestination, that God had predetermined who would and would not be saved. Rather, they stressed the idea of universal redemption, all had the opportunity to be saved. Personal conversion was important.

The Baptists also emphasized adult baptism, and the equality of all people before God,

regardless of one’s social status. Their churches were based on democratic organiza-


Methodists: Stressed free will, just like Baptists. More centrally organized than others. Their most effective way of evangelizing was the Circuit Rider. Most famous of these was Francis Asbury. Traveled all over frontier preaching the gospel.

The Second Great Awakening had such intensity in New York and surrounding areas, as if burned by fire, that it became known in 1830 - 31 as the Burned Over District. Phrase shows up a lot on MC AP Questions.

Greatest preacher of Burned Over District was Charles Grandison Finney. He specialized in mass meetings, wholesale conversions, etc. He later became President of Oberlin College, which was first to admit Women and Blacks, and became a hotbed of the antislavery movement.

Mormonism: Was founded in the Burned Over District of New York. Founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Smith claimed to have seen a vision from God in 1820 that all existing religions were false. Later, he said the Angel Gabriel led him to a set of golden plates which contained the Book of Mormon.

Smith’s doctrine was that the Indians were in fact one of the lost tribes of Israel. Jesus had made an appearance to them.

Mormons gained a lot of converts, but upset many other religions; particularly due to their practice of polygamy. Smith moved to Ohio where he was tarred and feathered; later to Illinois, where he and his brother were arrested, but taken from the jail by a lynch mob and murdered.

New leader was Brigham Young. In 1847, he moved Mormons out West; settled in Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Initially a desert, but they irrigated it, and made it productive.

Planned to form their own state: Deseret. (Young said this meant "Land of the Honey Bee.)


Romanticism in America

Romantic movement was something of a reaction to the "cold light of reason" thinking of the Enlightenment. Romantic writers looked back to Middle Ages as a period of romantic fascination. America had no feudal history, but they soaked up the writings of English writers such as Sir Walter Scott.

Immanuel Kant, a German, wrote The Critique of Pure Reason, in which he suggested that beauty, conscience, were too important to be discounted; logic and reason alone were not enough to explain the Universe. There were still some things that Science could neither prove nor disprove, therefore people were justified in having faith.

This fits in nicely with Paul’s definition of Faith: "The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

This led to a movement in New England called Transcendentalism. It emphasized those things that "transcended" the limits of reason.

Said one writer: "Transcendentalism assumed certain fundamental truths not derived from experience, not susceptible of proof, which transcend human life and are perceived directly and intuitively by the human mind." Those who practiced it did not limit themselves to Christianity; in fact they made it a point to study Buddhism and other Eastern religions.

The transcendental movement had a number of roots: Kant obviously, but also Puritanism, which had strong moral principles, and also the Quakers, who believed in the "inner light."

1836 a Transcendental Club formed in Boston. Members included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott. But the "high priest of Transcendentalism" was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson preached individualism. His most famous essay was Self Reliance.

Another proponent (and friend of Emersons) was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau lived for a time at Walden Pond in order to devote his time to observation, reflection, and writing. He did not intend to become a hermit, but wanted to, in his own words, "live deliberately.

Thoreau opposed the Mexican War because he said it was an unjust war to advance the cause of slavery. Was arrested for failure to pay a poll tax. It was a trivial protest, but led to his essay, Civil Disobedience.

Said Thoreau: "If the law is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law." His thinking was an influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi.

Transcendentalists advanced idea that one should follow one’s own conscience. They had very little following in their own day, but inspired a number of reform movements in the future. They also were the catalyst that led to the first great age in American Literature. 

A number of writers were part of this period: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, William Gilmore Sims, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman in particular.

The press also became more popular with publication of the first "penny daily." The first successful penny daily was the New York Sun. Followed by the New York Herald. Both were gossip sheets that often ignored important news to print stories of scandals and sensationalism, even if it were not necessarily true.

Public grew tired of scandal sheets, were revolted by the trash news. First newspaper to benefit from the public’s revulsion was the New York Tribune. It’s Editor was Horace Greeley, the most famous journalist of his day.

It was Greeley who coined the phrase, "Go West, young man."

News Magazines were popular. The first was Niles Weekly Register; followed by Harper’s Magazine which is still published.

Harper’s later came out with another magazine, Harper’s Illustrated Weekly which provided a thorough pictorial record of the Civil War.

There was widespread literacy in Jacksonian America. By 1840, 78 per cent of entire population and 91 per cent of the white population can read and write. Since Colonial period, Americans had had highest literacy rate in the Western world.

Most school training was at home or at private schools. By 1830, no state had a public school system.

1830 -- Horace Mann was influential in creating a state board of Education in Massachusetts, and founded the first "normal school" to train teachers. He argued that an educated people would never be permanently poor, and said the school system was the way to social stability.

Said Mann: " Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machine.

1821 – first secondary school set up in Boston for children who did not plan to go on to college.

State supported educational systems were not the best. Teachers were poorly paid, supplies were short. Teachers were often ill prepared. Most were young men who did not intend to pursue teaching as a career; they did it for support while they prepared to read the law or study for the ministry. Later, as schools multiplied, women entered the field.

A number of "societies" were formed to educate the public at large on matters of science and industry. Many of these were set up by philanthropists. Some offered evening classes. The most popular was the Lyceum movement, attempted to diffuse knowledge through public lectures. Professional agencies provided speakers and performers in literature, science, music, etc.

Public libraries also developed about the time as the Lyceums. 1851, Boston opened the first free Public Library.

Higher Education: 1819: University of Virginia opened with curriculum based on Jefferson’s plan that education should be for pure knowledge. Earlier universities had been for religious training only.

Education was normally considered unnecessary for girls. Most people supported an elementary education, but higher education was considered unnecessary. Education was supposed to produce better wives and mothers.

Mount Holyoke prepared way for women’s colleges; in 1824; Wesleyan College in Georgia offered the first woman a degree in 1840. Vassar College considered first women’s college to give priority to academic affairs, not just social amenities, music, etc.

Nineteenth century Americans considered themselves to be on a mission of reform. They seemed to believe that humanity should work towards perfection. A great deal of this had been brought about by transcendentalism, and romantic ideals.

Reform covered all areas: observance of the Sabbath, dueling, crime and punishment, poverty, conditions of work, temperance, women’s rights, and abolition of slavery.

One group even pushed dietary reform. One, Sylvester Graham started out as a temperance speaker, and became a champion of a natural diet. He advocated abstinence from tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, etc. His legacy for today is the "Graham Cracker."

Temperance: This was most widespread of all reform efforts except maybe public school movement.

Americans were consuming a large amount of alcohol: in 1810 it was 3 gallons of whiskey per year per capita—not counting wine, beer, hard cider.

Temperance movements centered on religious concerns (they considered themselves "soldiers of the cross"), work problems, and the relationship between alcohol consumption and poverty.

1826, group of Boston Ministers formed the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance. Conducted lectures, essay contests, local societies.

The Society asked persons to take a pledge of total abstinence. They were to add a "T" to their signature for "total abstinence." From this comes the term: "teetotaler."

1833, Convention called, formed the American Temperance Union. The Union opposed "demon rum." Any number of songs opposed drinking and its evils, the most famous of which was "Come Home, Dear Father."

Several states passed laws restricting liquor sales. Most required purchases of large quantities, to eliminate the poor from the liquor traffic, as it was assumed they were the most likely to have a problem with it.

Between 1830 – 1860, American consumption of alcohol was dramatically reduced.

Prisons and Asylums: This also was affected by the idea of the ultimate goodness of mankind.

Prisons in colonial days had been places of brief confinement before punishment, which might consist of whipping, mutilation, branding, placed in stocks, etc. After Revolution, reformers asserted that certainty of punishment was more important than its severity.

The idea of the penitentiary developed as early as 1816. Prisoners were kept in separate cells, not allowed to talk, or face one another. The idea, an old Quaker idea, was that they should be forced to reflect on their misdeeds, and thereby become penitent; hence the name.

Treatment of the insane also improved. Previously, they had been kept at home, often chained up or locked in a closet. They were often beaten, mistreated, not cleaned, because of a belief that their senses were also dulled, and they had no idea that they were dirty, or even of pain.

Lead reformer was Dorothea Dix who visited a prison, and was shocked at the treatment of mentally ill persons. She began a two year campaign which resulted in more humane treatment of the mentally ill in 20 states.

Women’s Rights: Prevailing view had been that a woman’s place was in the home and young women should be trained in the "domestic arts." Catharine Beecher published a guide for prospective wives and mothers that covered everything from "Monday washing to Saturday baking", how to raise children, perform household chores, etc. Said Beecher "no statesman…had more frequent calls for wisdom, frankness, tact, discrimination, prudence and versatility of talent.

Women were unable to vote, and lost control of her property when she married. She could not make a will, sign a contract, or bring suit in court. Her legal status was similar to that of a slave, or a free black.

Reform began in 1840 when the American antislavery movement split over the role of women in the movement.

1848: Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton called a convention to discuss "the social, civil and religious condition and rights of women." The meeting was held at Seneca Falls, N.Y. It issued a Declaration which paraphrased the Declaration of Independence. "All men and women are created equal…" etc.

1850 to Civil War, women’s rights leaders held conventions, and organized. Among those active was Susan B. Anthony. She was not married and had more time to devote to the movement.

Improvement came slowly. Mississippi granted women control over their own property in 1839. By 1850’s, eleven other states did so.

Elizabeth Blackwell became first woman to finish medical school in 1849. She was admitted as a joke, but had the last laugh when she finished at the head of her class.

Utopian Communities: Movement to set up perfect communities, just like the "wilderness Zion" which the puritans had hoped to create.

1800 – 1900 over 100 Utopian communities set up. Most famous: United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Their leader was a woman named Ann Lee Stanley, although her followers called her "Mother Ann."

These people claimed that when filled with the spirit, they would tremble and shake, hence their common name: Shakers.

The Shakers had weird beliefs. They said that God had a dual personality: Christ was the Masculine side, and Mother Ann the feminine. She preached celibacy because she said they had to be perfect for the reward that awaited them.

Property was held in common in Shaker communities. The group peaked 1830 – 1860, but died out early in the 20th century. They became famous for their furniture, which was simple but sturdy, and for their hymn, "Simple Gifts."

John Humphrey Noyes: founded the Oneida Community in New York. He was the first advocate of "free love." He said that in his perfect society, every man was married to every woman, and they could conduct themselves accordingly.

1850, Community began making steel traps which became best in the country. When Noyes had to flee the country to avoid going to jail for adultery, the community formed a joint stock company, the Oneida Community, Ltd. Which still makes flatware.

Robert Owen: formed a community in New Harmony, Indiana. This on the banks of the Wabash River on the Illinois Border. (Gates has been there).

1825: 900 moved there. Was to be a factory town, model community. Only lasted a few years.

The greatest evil faced by the reformers was, of course, slavery, an issue which would divide the nation. Herman Melville described the conflict as "the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime."


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