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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.
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