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America's History in the Making

Antebellum Reform

Theme 3

The evangelical revival spawned a number of reforms aimed at curbing a broad range of social ills.

Many middle-class Protestants joined Finney in believing that God expected Christians to make a heaven on earth—to eradicate sin from both their personal lives and their societies.

Many reforms were local, personal, or non-controversial. Converts commonly swore off drinking, for example, or a group of churchwomen might decide to open an orphan asylum.

But reform movements became more divergent and contentious as their numbers and causes swelled. Many proponents urged radical changes in diet, such as vegetarianism; or society, such as communal living, celibacy, and even the destruction of monogamy. Others focused on purging society, rather than the individual, from imperfection and sin. Radical political reformers called on government and society to end social injustices such as poverty, slavery, and women’s subjugation. Abolitionism was a particularly diverse and divisive movement, as its members disagreed over whether slavery would be ended through moral suasion, political pressure, or violent slave revolts.

These reformers shared a deeply felt obligation and determination to make the world better—though they often disagreed on what needed to be reformed and how.

Primary Sources