In addition to social and economic changes, the antebellum period was also marked by a flurry of religious revivalism that spread throughout every region of the United States. Beginning with the Second Great Awakening (a sudden evangelical movement that started around the turn of the nineteenth century), this renewed interest in religion arose primarily as a backlash against the Enlightenment and so-called “age of reason” that had inspired thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine.
Hundreds of roving preachers began to spread a variety of gospels on circuit routes, setting up revivalist camps in rural areas that attracted thousands of new converts. Reverend Charles G. Finney, one of the most popular revivalists of the time, spread his version of the Good Word to thousands of Americans over the course of fifty years. His converted were often so overcome with religion that they would roll, jerk, shake, shout, and even bark in a frenzy of salvation.
The epicenter of revivalism was the so-called Burned-Over District in western New York. Named for its overabundance of hellfire-and-damnation preaching, the region produced dozens of new denominations, communal societies, and reform movements. The abolitionist and temperance movements (see The Spirit of Reform , p. 57) also had some of their strongest roots in this region.
Although southern and western Baptists and Methodists were known for their hellfire-and-damnation zeal, other sects and denominations were regarded for their appeal to reason. Unitarians in New England, for example, attracted a huge following because of their belief in a loving God, free will, and denial of original sin. The Unitarian movement attracted many of the nation’s foremost intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other Transcendentalists.
Conservative revival preaching sometimes spawned radical new denominations such as the Millerites. William Miller’s movement, which flourished in the 1830s and early 1840s, attracted several hundred thousand Christians who believed that Jesus would return to Earth on October 22, 1844. Though many Millerites lost faith when Jesus failed to show up, the movement prevailed for several decades. Followers eventually reorganized themselves into the modern-day Seventh-Day Adventists.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, also emerged from western New York. Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, the Mormons believed that God had entrusted them with a new set of scriptures called the Book of Mormon. Because some Mormons practiced polygamy, they were forced to follow Smith westward across the continent to find safe haven from persecution.
When Smith was killed by a mob in Illinois in 1844, his disciple, Brigham Young, took charge of the church and led a mass migration to the desert around the Great Salt Lake (then still part of Mexico). Utah eventually became a U.S. territory after the Mexican War but was not admitted to the Union until 1896, when Mormons agreed to abandon the practice of polygamy.
Inspired by lofty ideals to improve mankind and end social discord, some people during this period attempted to create new utopian communities based on cooperation and communism. Roughly a thousand people, led by Robert Owen, founded the New Harmony community, one of the first utopian communities in the antebellum era. Although New Harmony failed in just a few short years, it spurred the creation of others.
Brook Farm was established in 1841 and came to be one of the most famous attempts at communal living. Closely affiliated with the Transcendentalist movement, these farmer-intellectuals tried to hew a modest living out of the wilderness. Like New Harmony, this community also collapsed within a few years.
John Noyes’ Oneida Community had some lasting success. The community believed in radical ideas such as communal marriage, birth control, and eugenics. The Shakers, too, had a sizeable following in the 1840s, but eventually died out because believers were forbidden to marry or have sex.
The new sects and denominations that sprung up during the revivalist movement attracted different social groups. Most of the new evangelical denominations attracted poor, uneducated followers in the West and South. Less frenzied denominations, such as the Unitarians, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, flourished in wealthier cities in the North. The rise of these different denominations thus widened already-growing sectional rifts in the United States.
However, despite the differences among their followers, all of the revivalist movements had the same goal: to refine humanity and make sense of the rapidly changing American social and economic fabric. Virtually all of the new denominations denounced alcohol, prostitution, gambling, and lotteries. Thus, the movements also had a huge impact on the reform movement.
Revivalism had a great impact on women as well. Shut out from politics and most facets of the new economy, women poured their energies into religion and reform. Many believed they could have a positive impact on society by converting their family, friends, and neighbors.