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America's History in the Making

Antebellum Reform

Theme 2

The Second Great Awakening, a religious revival of the early 1800s, contributed to the reform impulse by emphasizing individual responsibility and perfection.

America’s growing prosperity and the social changes that accompanied it prompted many members of its growing middle class to become both more concerned over the rapid rate of social change and more optimistic about humans’ capacity to shape their environments. This blending of anxiety and optimism contributed to a religious revival that had broad social implications.

The religious awakening, which began in the backcountry, moved north and east in the 1820s, where revivalists paired the passion of tent-meeting revivals with the logic and efficiency of the emerging middle class. Their programs of conversion were hardly less detailed and precise than a diagram for manufacturing clocks or firearms. The converted Christian, moreover, was expected to become a productive, orderly, and moral member of the community.

The emphasis on humans’ ability to seize salvation put off traditionalists who stressed God’s sovereignty or distrusted “emotionalism.” But a faith in people’s capacity for grace and perfectibility rang true at a time when anything seemed possible.

Primary Sources