The Second Great Awakening spread across America in the early 1800s. Not only was the Gospel preached, bringing people to a saving faith in Christ, but believers were spurred to share their faith in action, bringing social change.
Revivalist Charles Finney preached:
“Every member must work or quit. No honorary members.”
Finney’s preaching inspired William Booth to found the Salvation Army, and George Williams to found the Y.M.C.A. (Young Men’s Christian Association).
Called “Practical Christianity,” believers formed a network of volunteer Christian organizations, the “Benevolent Empire,” to:
Lobby for prison reform;
Found and staff hospitals;
Care for handicapped and mentally ill;
Provide for immigrants;
Establish schools for the poor;
Go as missionaries around the world; and
Work to end slavery through the abolitionist movement.
Though these organizations were largely run by Christians, over time, some began to focus more on improving society and less on sharing the Gospel.
This highlighted the danger of there being a ditch on either side of the road, namely;
on one side is having correct beliefs but not doing anything good;
on the other side is doing lots of good but not having correct beliefs.
This was seen in the period from the French Revolution to the Civil War.
William Lloyd Garrison published the Boston anti-slavery paper Liberator and founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
He suffered hundreds of death threats for his politically incorrect stand on the value of human life.
Author John Jay Chapman wrote in the biography William Lloyd Garrison (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921):
“The source of Garrison’s power was the Bible. From his earliest days, he read the Bible constantly and prayed constantly. It was with this fire that he started his conflagration …
So also, a prejudice against all fixed forms of worship, against the authority of human government, against every binding of the spirit into conformity with human law, — all these things grew up in Garrison’s mind out of his Bible reading.”
William Lloyd Garrison wrote in his inaugural edition of The Liberator, (Boston), January 1, 1831:
“I desire to thank God, that he enables me to disregard ‘the fear of man which bringeth a snare,’ and to speak his truth in its simplicity and power.
And here I close with this fresh dedication (from Scottish poet Thomas Pringle’s ‘To Oppression,’ April 22, 1828) …
‘I swear, while life-blood warms my throbbing veins,
Still to oppose and thwart, with heart and hand,
Thy brutalizing sway — till Afric’s chains
Are burst, and Freedom rules the rescued land,
Trampling Oppression and his iron rod:
Such is the vow I take – SO HELP ME GOD!'”
In “W.P. and F.J.T. Garrison,” 1885-89, William Lloyd Garrison wrote:
“Wherever there is a human being, I see God-given rights inherent in that being, whatever may be the sex or complexion.”
Former slave Frederick Douglass wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855:
“After reaching New Bedford, there came a young man to me with a copy of the Liberator … edited by William Lloyd Garrison …
… His paper took its place with me next to the Bible …
… It detested slavery … and, with all the solemnity of God’s word, demanded the complete emancipation of my race …
His words were … holy fire … The Bible was his text book … Prejudice against color was rebellion against God.”
William Lloyd Garrison worked with another abolitionist, Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women (1868).
In 1843, Amos Bronson Alcott founded a utopian community called Fruitlands, but it failed seven months later, as Louisa wrote in Transcendental Wild Oats.
In 1830, Amos Bronson Alcott helped found the first Boston anti-slavery society organization, with William Lloyd Garrison.
The Alcott home in Concord, Massachusetts, called “The Hillside,” was a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves to rest on their way north to freedom.
During the Civil War, the Union Army sent out a call for battlefield nurses.
Louisa May Alcott enlisted and served. She wrote:
“My greatest pride is that I lived to know the brave men and women who did so much for the cause, and that I had a very small share in the war which put an end to a great wrong.”
She, along with her mother and sister, gave free lessons in reading and writing to African American women.
In 1879, Massachusetts allowed women vote on issues of schools, bonds, and taxes.
Alcott was the first woman to register to vote in Concord. She wrote on 1881 to Thomas Niles:
“I can remember when anti-slavery was in just the same state that suffrage is now, and take more pride in the very small help we Alcotts could give than I all the books I ever wrote.”
Some notable lines of Louisa May Alcott are:
“The door of opportunity opened just a crack.”
“Happy is the son whose faith in his mother remains unchallenged.”
“Watch and pray, dear, never get tired of trying, and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.”
“My child, the troubles and temptations of your life are beginning, and may be many; but you can overcome and outlive them all if you learn to feel the strength and tenderness of your Heavenly Father as you do that of your earthly one.
The more you love and trust Him, the nearer you will feel to Him, and the less you will depend on human power and wisdom.
His love and care never tire or change, can never be taken from you, but may become the source of lifelong peace, happiness, and strength.
Believe this heartily, and go to God with all your little cares, and hopes, and sins, and sorrows, as freely and confidingly as you come to your mother.”
In 1848, Louisa May Alcott convinced her family to move to Boston, where they attended Federal Street Church and heard the preaching of William Ellery Channing.
Amos Bronson Alcott said Channing: “Throws upon the principles of Christianity a light which dissipates the darkness in which it has been so long enclosed.”
The Alcott’s old home, “The Hillside” was purchased by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who renamed it “The Wayside.”
He hired Henry David Thoreau to survey it in 1852.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a romanticist author, famous for Twice-Told Tales (1837), The Scarlet Letter (1850), The Marble Faun (1850), The House of Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852).
“Christian faith is a grand cathedral, with divinely pictured windows. Standing without, you see no glory, nor can possibly imagine any; standing within, every ray of light reveals a harmony of unspeakable splendors.”
“Our Creator would never have made such lovely days, and have given us the deep hearts to enjoy them, above and beyond all thought, unless we were meant to be immortal.”
William Ellery Channing, who graduated from Harvard in 1798, described how the French Revolution had shaken the faith of the Harvard student body:
“College was never in a worse state than when I entered it. Society was passing through a most critical stage.
The French Revolution had diseased the imagination and unsettled the understanding of men everywhere.
The old foundations of social order, loyalty, tradition, habit, reverence for antiquity, were everywhere shaken, if not subverted. The authority of the past was gone.”
This era of shaken faith led to skepticism, similar to what was experienced in Europe following the Napoleonic Wars, and World Wars I and II.
Alberto M. Piedra wrote in “The Dechristianization of France during the French Revolution” (Institute of World Politics, Jan. 12, 2018):
“French governments between 1789 and the Concordat of 1801 … formed the basis of the gradual trend toward dechristianization, later transformed into a less radical laïcité (secularization.)
Most scholars would argue that the goal of the revolutionary government between 1793 and 1794 ranged from the public reclamation of the massive amount of land, power, and money held by the Church in France to the termination of religious practice and the extermination of religion itself …”
“La Constitution Civile du Clergé … July 12, 1790 … resulted in … religious practice … outlawed and replaced with the cult of the ‘supreme being,’ a deist state religion …
Dechristianization … increased in intensity with … the Law of Suspects (September 17, 1793) …
1) all priests and all persons protecting them are liable to death on the spot,
2) the destruction of all crosses, bells and other external signs of worship,
3) the destruction of statues, plaques, and iconography from places of worship …
In 1793, the Christian calendar was replaced with one reckoning from the date of the Revolution and the Festivals of ‘liberty, reason, and the supreme being’ were officially established …”
“During the two-year Reign of Terror, anti-clericalism became more violent than any other in history …
The Festival of Reason … November 10, 1793 in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris … loose living girls took occasion to celebrate at the main altar the cult to the Goddess Reason with Phrygian bonnets on their heads.
The wave of massacres started in 1789 … Rene Sedillot writes in his book Le Coût de la Révolution Française that in Paris 1,300 assassinations took place in four days.”
The French Revolution’s hatred of traditional Christianity crossed the ocean, and a watered-down version influenced various New England preachers, most notably, William Ellery Channing.
His preaching contributed to the birth to “Unitarian Christianity,” out of which a group of idealistic New England authors, philosophers, intellectuals and politicians formed the “Transcendental Club” — which enjoyed popularity prior to the Civil War.
They attempted to maintain Christian morality without acknowledging the divinity of Christ.
They held to Biblical concepts of the individual, freedom of conscience, self-control, and the existence of the being of God, but fell short of attributing the origin of these concepts to Judeo-Christian thought.
Transcendentalists were essentially religious libertarians who championed self-reliance, independence, seeing the divine experience in everyday life, and believed salvation was earned by doing good works.
Channing was initially a moderate abolitionist till the British successfully abolished slavery in the British West Indies in 1834.
When none of the predicted economic and social upheavals took place in the Caribbean, Channing changed and began doing good works to abolish slavery.
At first, transcendentalists maintained basic Christian doctrines, being called Unitarian Christians.
Channing wrote March 31, 1832, (Memoir of William Ellery Channing, vol. 2, p. 416):
“I have always inclined to the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ, though am not insensible to the weight of your objections.”
A similar attitude was expressed by Abigail Adams, who attended the First Parish Church in Quincy, and wrote May 5, 1816, that she still believed Jesus was divine:
“I acknowledge myself a unitarian – Believing that the Father alone, is the supreme God, and that Jesus Christ derived his Being, and all his powers and honors from the Father.”
Over time, unitarians and transcendentalists stopped believing in the atonement of Christ.
They cut themselves loose from the anchor of Biblical absolutes.
The resulting moral drift affected the pulpits of Congregational Churches in New England, as well as New England academia, most significantly, Harvard.
In 1805, transcendentalism forever changed Harvard.
Jedediah Morse, “Father of American Geography” was one of the overseers of Harvard. He tried to keep the college anchored to traditional Christianity but he was out-voted.
The other college overseers voted to break from the nearly two centuries of Calvinistic Protestantism by choosing a Unitarian, Henry Ware, to chair of the Harvard Divinity School.
Soon there began a purging of the past faith.
At Yale, there was a pushback to this liberalism, led by Timothy Dwight, the 8th President of the college.
Dwight listened patiently to that era’s version of woke students who were enamored with French infidelity, secularism, and the loosening of moral restraints.
Then Dwight systematically answered their questions and exposed the shallowness of their reasoning in a series of weekly lectures, giving “a well-reasoned defense of the Bible’s accuracy.”
Dwight’s son, Sereno Edwards Dwight, was a student at Yale during this time. Sereno, who later became U.S. Senate Chaplain, wrote:
“From that moment, infidelity was not only without a stronghold, but without a lurking place.”
Another Yale student wrote:
“It seemed for a time as if the whole mass of the students would press into the kingdom. It was the Lord’s doing, and marvelous in all eyes. Oh, what a blessed change! It was a glorious reformation.”
A Yale tutor wrote:
“Yale College is a little temple; prayer and praise seem to be the delight of the greater part of the students while those who are still unfeeling are awed with respectful silence.”
Through the efforts of Timothy Dwight, over a third of Yale’s student body experienced conversion, with many entering the ministry.
The secular push, though, continued in academia, especially among intellectual elites, fueled by German philosophers.
Over time, the anti-Christian ideas that began with French Revolution took root and became predominant on American college campuses.
Education became increasingly secular, and eventually hostile and intolerant of Biblical faith, and even God.
By the late 1800s, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called it hypocritical for those who have rejected Christianity and God to consider themselves “moral” (“Twilight of the Idols,” The Portable Nietzsche, ed., trans. Walter Kaufman, NY: Penguin Books, 1976, p. 515-6):
“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet … By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.
Christianity presupposes that man does not know … what is good for him … God … alone knows it. Christian morality … stands or falls with faith in God.”
One of the students of the liberal Harvard Divinity School was Theodore Parker, who graduated in 1836.
Parker identified as a transcendentalist and was ordained as the pastor of the Unitarian Church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve … by … sight, I can divine it by conscience.
And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Around this time, Millard Fillmore helped organized a Unitarian Church in 1821 near Buffalo, New York.
In July, 1850, Fillmore became the 13th U.S. President when Zachary Taylor died.
Fillmore articulated the Democrat position on slavery:
“God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.”
Parker criticized the Democrat Party’s pledge to continue slavery:
“See what the Convention says of the Democratic party: — ‘We understand the Democratic party to be pledged to decline any legislation upon the subject of slavery, with a view either to its prohibition or restriction in places where it does not exist, or to its abolition in any of the territories of the United States’ …”
“There are some very sad examples … A man of high standing in the New England churches … defends slavery …
Perhaps I ought not to say, ‘if’ Christianity supports slavery. We all know it does not, never did, and never can.” (Frances Power Cobbe, The Collected Works of Theodore Parker, 1863, Volume 5, p. 103-133).
When Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Law, which empowered the Federal Government to track down and arrest escaped slaves, Theodore Parker publicly rebuked him:
“There hangs in my study … the gun my grandfather fought with at the battle of Lexington… and also the musket he captured from a British soldier on that day.
If I would not peril my property, my liberty, nay my life to keep my parishioners out of slavery, then I should throw away these trophies, and should think I was the son of some coward and not a brave man’s child.”
Though evangelical Christianity and unitarian transcendentalism were separate from each other theologically, they were able to join together in patriotism and opposing slavery.
Parker’s religion of doing good works resulted in him becoming one of the many outspoken abolitionists.
His writing may have influenced Abraham Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address, November 1863:
“Our fathers brought forth … a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal …
That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Parker had previously stated in “The Effect of Slavery on the American People,” to the New England Anti-Slavery Convention, May 29, 1850:
“The American idea … seems to me to lie at the basis of all our … institutions …
The idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights …
This idea demands … a democracy,
that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.”
Parker himself may have gotten that idea from Daniel Webster, who told the U.S. Senate in 1830:
“It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s Government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.”
Earlier, British politician Benjamin Disraeli wrote in Vivian Grey (1826):
“All power is a trust; that we are accountable for its exercise; that from the people and for the people all springs, and all must exist.”
The line may have originally been from John Wycliffe in 1384, who was the first to translate the Bible into English so the common people could read it:
“This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.”
Theodore Parker wrote:
“Since the Revolution, there have been three instances of great national importance, in which freedom has overcome slavery …
1. In prohibiting slavery from the North-west territory, before the adoption of the Constitution;
2. In prohibiting the slave-trade in 1808. I mean, in prohibiting the African slave-trade; the American slave-trade is still carried on in the capital of the United States;
3. The prohibition of slavery in Oregon may be regarded as a third victory.”
A colleague of Channing and Parker was poet Henry David Thoreau.
“It’s only by forgetting yourself that you draw near to God.”
“If Nature is our mother, then God is our father.”
“When you knock, ask to see God — none of the servants.”
“As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavoring to conceal itself from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble thoughts, and hide its head from me who might, perhaps, be its benefactor, and impart to its race some cheering information, I am reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over me the human insect.”
In the spring of 1862, while he lay dying, Thoreau was asked by his aunt Louisa if he had made peace with God. Thoreau responded, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”
Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience, 1849:
“‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
Thoreau influenced Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.
“In this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.
Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.
No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau … The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement …
Peaceful protest(s) … are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.”
Another contemporary of Channing, Parker, and Thoreau was poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, born May 25, 1803.
An advocate of individualism and personal freedom, Emerson wrote
“This is the history of governments … a man who cannot be acquainted with me, taxes me; looking from afar at me, ordains that a part of my labor shall go to this or that whimsical end, not as I, but as he happens to fancy …
… Hence, the less government we have, the better …
The fewer laws … the less confided power.
The antidote to this abuse of formal Government, is, the influence of private character …
The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary …
He needs no army, fort, or navy, – he loves men too well; no bribe, or feast, or palace, to draw friends to him; no vantage ground, no favorable circumstance.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson composed some of the best loved poems in American literature, including The Concord Hymn, of which a stanza is inscribed on the base of Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man Statue:
“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
And fired the shot heard round the world.”
Emerson commented on John Quincy Adams:
“No man could read the Bible with such powerful effect, even with the cracked and winded voice of old age.”
In 1848, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Paris between the February Revolution and the bloody June Days.
When he saw that mobs had cut down trees near the Champ de Mars to form barricades across downtown city streets, he wrote in his journal:
“At the end of the year we shall … see if the Revolution was worth the trees.”
When abolitionist publisher and Presbyterian pastor Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by pro-slavery Democrats in 1838 and his printing press destroyed, Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“It is but the other day that the brave Lovejoy gave his breast to the bullets of a mob, for the rights of free speech and opinion.”
“I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.”
“It now appears that the negro race is, more than any other, susceptible of rapid civilization. The emancipation is observed, in the islands, to have wrought for the negro a benefit as sudden as when a thermometer is brought out of the shade into the sun. It has given him eyes and ears.”
Abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner attended Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston, and King’s Chapel, described as Unitarian Christian in theology, Anglican in worship, and Congregational in church government.
Sumner took Ralph Waldo Emerson to the White House to meet Republican President Abraham Lincoln.
Having voted for the Lincoln, Emerson stated of the Southern Democrat states in a lecture at the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.:
“The South calls slavery an institution … I call it destitution …
Emancipation is the demand of civilization.”
In 1865, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked at a memorial service for Abraham Lincoln:
“I doubt if any death has caused so much pain as this has caused.”
On September 12, 2001, the day after Islamic fundamentalists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, J.C. Watts, Jr., gave a speech quoting Emerson:
“Politics has taken the day off. Today Congress remembers and recognizes the afflicted and the sorrowing and those who come to the aid of their fellow man. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1842, captured what we are thinking as a nation today:
‘Sorrow makes us all children again,
destroys all differences of intellect.
The wisest knows nothing.'”
In The Conduct of Life (1860), Emerson wrote:
“Men are what their mothers made them.”
In May-Day and Other Pieces (1867), Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
Boston Hymn, st. 2-
“God said, I am tired of kings,
I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear the morning brings
The outrage of the poor.”
“Wilt thou seal up the avenues of ill?
Pay every debt as if God wrote the bill.”
Ode, st. 5 –
“United States! the ages plead, –
Present and Past in under-song, –
Go put your creed into your deed,
Nor speak with double tongue.”
“So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can.”
Regarding civilization, Emerson wrote:
“The true test of civilization is, not the census, nor the size of the cities, nor the crops – no, but the kind of man the country turns out.”
In Social Aims, Emerson wrote:
“Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy.”
In The American Scholar (1837), Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God?”
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“All I have seen has taught me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”
“America is another name for opportunity. Our whole history appears like a last effort of divine Providence in behalf of the human race.”
Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.