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Summary & Analysis

The Religious Revolution

On rooftops scattered across the northeast, "Millerites" don "ascension robes" and wait for the Second Coming of Christ. In small communities in New York and Ohio, Shakers live communally and celibately, also in anticipation of the end of the world. A young prophet named Joseph Smith builds a following preaching universal salvation and polygamy. Itinerant preachers travel America's roads and canal with a message emphasizing individual religious authority. And business owners and wage laborers join together in raucous revivals that declare individuals responsible for their own salvation.

The first decades of the nineteenth century were not just about profit seeking and economic growth; the period was also filled with religious enthusiasm and creativity. A series of revivals swept the country during these decades, boosting church membership and generating new denominations. Many contemporaries believed they were living through a spiritual awakening, a cosmic event signaling the final days of history. Others believed religious zealotry was running amuck. But some historians have argued that the Second Great Awakening should be explained in sociological rather than religious terms. They argue that the religious enthusiasm was both a consequence and a reaction to the market revolution; it relied on the distribution networks and methods of the emerging national marketplace while also offering alternatives to the centrifugal forces let loose by the market revolution.

Grassroots Revivalism

The most powerful and widespread expression of the period's religious energy was the wave of revivals that swept America after the turn of the century. Across the country, itinerant preachers, most without seminary training, built followings among common people anxious for a new and more vital religious message. In camp meetings and spontaneous gatherings, these evangelists preached that God's grace was freely available to man and could be achieved through human effort. Salvation was not "pre-determined," or set aside for a tiny few, nor was it wholly beyond man's ability to claim. Fervent prayer and a penitent heart would convince God to extend his saving mercy to any petitioner.

These revivals turned established denominations on their heads. Members bolted from the churches in which they had been raised and joined new churches. Often, when they grew tired or dissatisfied, they changed churches again. In other words, just as the market revolution freed people from traditional webs of exchange and obligation, the religious revolution unleashed by revivalism freed people from their traditional church affiliations and commitments.

Nor was this the only way that revivalism paralleled the market revolution. In both movements, the status of the individual was elevated; personal needs, ideas, and experience were declared legitimate and worthy of pursuit even at the expense of the community. Evangelical preachers argued that every man was his own religious authority; he did not need a preacher to interpret the Bible. In fact, seminary training was more likely a hindrance than an aid in the pursuit of truth. Individual analysis and individual religious experience were as authoritative as the conclusions drawn by overeducated and spiritually dry clergy.

Like the more independent and self-directing participants in the market revolution, followers of the revivals charted their own religious futures. They consumed new religious messages and built new networks of religious exchange. Religious vendors, moreover, utilized many of the same distribution methods employed by producers of commercial goods. They traveled the same roads and canals, and they discovered the range and influence of inexpensive print. The cylinder press and machine-made paper that made newspapers and advertising a critical tool in the dissemination of commercial information were also utilized by preachers and churches in marketing their particular religious goods. Established denominations, operating out of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were among the first to recognize the power of the press, but grassroots evangelicals quickly followed their lead. By 1830, more than half of all religious publications were produced west of the Alleghenies.22

Finneyite Revivalism

While grassroots evangelicals tore up the religious landscape, other religious leaders crafted messages that offered tools for the reconstruction of community. In New York, Charles Grandison Finney, a lawyer turned revivalist, repackaged the message and methods of camp revivalists into a formula for social cohesion.

Finney, the most influential figure in American religious history, was not trained for the ministry. In fact, he was religiously indifferent until a wrenching conversion experience convinced him that he was called to the ministry. While he was eventually ordained as a Presbyterian minister, he never attended a seminary. Instead, he learned his "new measures" from the revivalists that other ministers disparaged.

Finney assaulted his listeners with emotion-packed messages of sin and forgiveness. Before every revival, he plotted with supporters to identify a back-sliding but vulnerable and usually prominent member of the community to subject to his withering attack. Inviting the target to sit before the congregation on the "anxious bench," he belted the hapless sinner with the facts of his misbehavior until the now sobbing penitent begged for God's mercy.

Finney's message was raucous and emotional. Thus, his methods contrasted sharply with the sober explication of theology offered up by traditional clergy. But the results of his efforts were generally just as conservative—that is, they helped re-build ties of community unsettled by both the religious and the market revolutions. Paul Johnson's study of Rochester, New York, for example, suggests that a typical Finney revival passed through two phases. In the first, business leader and "merchant capitalists" joined churches and re-cemented their ties to the moral community. They were drawn, Johnson argues, by the message that they were not responsible for the moral or spiritual supervision of their employees. Every man was responsible for his own salvation, and every man could attain his own salvation through repentance and prayer. For business owners who had formerly accepted paternal responsibilities as part of their role, but had recently abandoned these responsibilities within the more impersonal labor structures of the market economy, Finney's message offered release and ease of mind.

But in the second wave of the revival, laborers and semi-skilled workers filled the pews and joined the churches. Johnson argues that these upwardly aspiring employees quickly learned that church membership was the ticket to occupational mobility. To an employer looking for a job foreman, or a banker trying to decide whether to extend a loan, church membership was a barometer of good character, and, consequently, workers that nursed ambitions went to church and prayed for their heavenly (and earthly) rewards.

Johnson suggests that revivalism was both an expression of and an answer to the centrifugal forces of the market revolution. While its individualistic theology and message of personal religious autonomy re-enforced the self-advancing ideologies of the new market, the re-construction of community around this message provided a new tool for social cohesion.

While revivalism was the most pervasive expression of American religious creativity during these years, several new churches and movements emerged along the fringes of these revivals. While more extreme in their messages and practices, they can be similarly explained in relation to the market revolution.

Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church

In western New York, truth seekers flocked to the message of Joseph Smith who claimed to have discovered new revelation from God in the woods outside his Palmyra home. Etched on golden tablets, and interpreted by Smith through the use of a "peek stone," this revelation included a message of universal salvation and millennial imminence. Within a decade, Smith had built a large following and established communities in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.

The attraction within Smith's theology should not be denied. He preached that all but a very few would find salvation and that life was a continual process of self-improvement that actually began with "pre-existence" and continued after our deaths. He further separated his message from the gloomy doctrines of Calvinism by teaching that God was a still-changing being—not perfect and static—and that Jesus was only his most intelligent child. This meant that man and God had a great deal in common. They were not separated by Calvin's virtually unbridgeable gap, nor were they dependent on God's undeserved mercy for salvation. Instead, man could rigorously shape his own character and reasonably aspire to be "God-like."

Yet Smith's message offered more than theological optimism. His Church of the Latter Day Saints offered a community of support and, therefore, a collective strategy for dealing with the challenges of the market economy. Mormon communities practiced a form of economic behavior that could be labeled church socialism—that is, church leaders directed the economic activity of the community. In some of the Mormon communities, these practices assumed an extreme form as private property was severely restricted and virtually all economic decisions were controlled by the church elders. But more commonly, the church provided only a general direction to the economic activities of the members. They set collective production goals, and they marketed their crops and goods as a group.

These strategies led to considerable economic success. The market clout Mormons attained by acting collectively brought prosperity. As importantly, church members were integrated within a new economic community. In fact, in a way, they were no longer individuals, struggling on their own and subject privately to the risks and unpredictabilities of the market place. Instead, they were part of a cohesive economic community, one more like the traditional community in which they had been raised, and as such, shielded from the market's uncertainties by the church's collective strategies.

Shakers

The Shakers similarly offered members an alternative to the risks of the dynamic but at times chaotic conditions of the market economy. They lived communally and practiced a more rigorous form of economic communism than the Mormons. Private property was limited to just a few possessions and the community's work was directed by elders. While they aimed at self-sufficiency, they engaged in simple trade with their non-Shaker neighbors. In fact, they became famous for their simple, well-crafted furniture.

These strategies proved effective in navigating the uncertain currents of the marketplace. People that may have found the market revolution unnerving were offered a comfortable and secure refuge within Shaker communities. But here again, the doctrinal appeals of the church were considerable. Therefore, we should avoid too narrow an explanation for the church's success.

For example, the church's American founder, Ann Lee, was designated the female incarnation of God. Having assumed human form first as a man, God now came to earth as a woman. Within the church, consequently, women enjoyed unusual power and influence. Women were included among the church elders, exercising political and economic power not accessible to them in the society outside. In addition, Shakers believed that the millennium—the thousand-year period of perfect peace on earth before the end of time—was imminent. Temporal distractions, such as marriage, were therefore rejected. Women in unhappy marriages, or women uninterested in the restrictions imposed by marriage on women, may have been drawn to the Shakers' celibate lifestyle.

William Miller

While the Mormons offered a collective strategy for dealing with the new market economy, and the Shakers offered a communal escape from it, William Miller offered the most extreme answer to the stresses of the new market economy—he predicted that it would soon all come to an end in a blaze of heavenly light. Other preachers had predicted the end of time, but few were as precise in their calculations. After combing the Bible for clues and prophecies, Miller identified a one year window in which earthly history would reach its climax. Between 21 March 1843 and 21 March 1844, Miller declared in 1831, Jesus would return.

Over the next decade, thousands embraced Miller's message. As the apocalyptic year approached, his followers abandoned their homes and farms and let personal affairs fall by the wayside. But when Miller's dates passed without the rapture, much of his support fell away. One of his followers held the movement together by suggesting that Miller's math had been slightly flawed. Perhaps forgetting to carry the one, Miller's predictions were just off by a few months. But when this revised date (22 October 1844) passed uneventfully, Miller faded into obscurity and most of his followers abandoned him.

But not all of them. A remnant persisted by re-interpreting a critical element within Miller's prediction. While he had read Daniel 8:14 as a reference to the Second Coming of Christ, these revisionists concluded that the passage referred to the entrance of Jesus into the "most holy place" of the heavenly sanctuary and the commencement of a long period of "investigative judgment." In other words, Miller had been right about the dates, but wrong about what they would initiate. Rather than marking the end of time, 1844 marked the beginning of a long process of investigation and judgment during which the merits of individual Christians were being assessed.

This doctrinal reinterpretation allowed Miller's movement to persist even though his central teaching proved flawed. The visions of Ellen Harmon White enabled Millerism to evolve into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Only seventeen in 1844, young Ellen quickly emerged as a leader among the Millerites struggling to rebuild their church after the "Great Disappointment"—the failure of Christ to return as predicted. For more than 70 years, White reigned as a prophet and teacher within the church. Her writings ranged from theology to education, and most importantly, health. Her advocacy of vegetarianism and abstention from alcohol and coffee were widely adopted, providing the church with a certain lifestyle identity. But her views were hardly unprecedented. In fact, her advice regarding diet and drink, as well as her warning against sexual excess and masturbation, were similar to those of other dietary reformers such as Sylvester Graham. And like them, at the heart of her health philosophy was a formula for self-regulation and control.

In other words, while Miller's appeal may have rested in part on his apocalyptic solution to the unnerving conditions of the market economy, the church he ultimately fathered offered a prescription for self-mastery within a stress-filled world. In this sense, White did for Miller what Finney did for the raucous grassroots evangelicals of the Second Great Awakening. She turned a more radical vision into a religious prescription that suited the needs of more moderate communities—she helped transform a message of apocalyptic withdrawal into a formula for social accommodation and even success.

Of course, White would have scoffed at the notion that she or her followers were influenced by temporal rather than spiritual concerns. Finney also would have denied that he was advancing social stability as much as advancing God's work on earth. And the motivations of believers are too complex to be reduced to one-dimensional analyses. Yet, within the various religious movements of the period, evidence of the market revolution can be found. Revivals, fresh revelation, and new churches may have spoken to people's spiritual needs, but they also reflected and addressed America's turbulent economy and society.

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