Religion and Reform
Thousands of men and women, inspired by the economic progress and democratic spirit of the age and the religious optimism of the second great awakening believed that they could improve not just their own lives, but society as a whole. Reform was complex and contradictory. The first wave of reformers, the benevolent religious improvers of the 1820s, advocated the extension o discipline to all the phases of life. The second wave of reformers, emerged during the 1830s and the 1840s, was more intent on liberating people from the archaic customs and encouraging them to devise new lifestyles. These new reforms were mostly middle-class northerns and Midwestern. Although their numbers were small, these reformers launched an intellectual and cultural debate that won the attention of the majority of America.
Rapid economic development and geographical expansion had weakened many traditional institutions and social rules, forcing individuals to fend for themselves. Emerson’s vision of individual freedom influenced thousands of ordinary Americans and a generation of important artists.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism
Emerson was the leading voice of transcendentalism- an intellectual movement rooted in the religious soil of New England. They wanted to capture the passionate aspects of the human spirit and so gain deeper insight into the mysteries of existence. Emerson argued that people were trapped by inherited customs and institutions. For Emerson an individual could be remade only by discovering his or her insight that would produce a mystical union. His essays and lectures suggested that all nature was saturated with the presence of God. The transcendentalism message of self-realization reached hundreds of thousands of people, primarily through Emerson’s writings and lectures. The great revivalist Charles Grandison Finney published an account of his religious conversion that underscored the influence of...