Brieview: Robert Abzug’s Cosmos Crumbling

For my research in cultural history, I read a lot of books about American history, particularly the turbulent period from the Revolution to the Civil War. Most of the books are reasonable and readable and give some flavor of the nature of American culture for this period. Abzug’s book (published 1994 by OUP) stands out as well-written, convincingly argued, and filled with compelling narratives. Abzug attempts to tell the stories of the reform movements which arose out of evangelical Protestantism in the first 3-4 decades of the nineteenth-century, in a sense the New England (and western New York) amplification of the Second Great Awakening. Abzug argues, as many have, that this period of religious foment responded to the dissolution of practical and institutional cosmologies with deestablishment, the disruption of social hierarchies, and the rise of the cult of the common man. Fortunately, he does not limit himself to this fairly standard argument but spends significant time working out the details of the reformers, their lives, and their visions.

Abzug tells the stories of temperance, sabbatarianism, and the manual labor movement (a fascinating sub-movement devoted to ensuring that ministers were no sickly Casaubon by requiring manual labor at seminaries, with an emphasis on the health of the body as well as mind). In that realm he visits the physiological reformers, including Graham (of cracker fame), the phrenologists, and several others. He extends thence into abolitionism and the women’s movement, particularly as exemplied by the Grimke sisters Angelina and Sarah. We meet along the way such fascinating characters as Finney, most of the Beecher family, the Welds, Garrison, Lydia “Maria” Child, the Fowler brothers, and many others.

At the same time the Mormons were fighting with angry hicks on the western frontier, attempting to found a new Kingdom of God, these activists were attempting to reform all of human society from their bases in New England. I have felt enriched by this fresh and engaging look at these prophetic visionaries. I was struck by how much many of us owe ideologically to their great and expansive faith in justice and their fervent idealism and by how much of what we are discussing now was being discussed by them. In a sense, it’s both eerie and sad to realize how little progress we’ve made in over 150 years.

By way of broader contextualization, I think I will start recommending this book for Mormons curious about the setting of the Restoration, not because I think the non-elite Mormons read much of Boston’s reformist elite, but because they were all trying to get at some of the same questions, grappling with society, injustice, institutional religion, social change, the specter of death and sickness, the nature of love and communal ties, and they were drawing on similar cultural heritages in this struggle.

Comments

  1. This is a good book, particularly because it departs from much of the scholarship of the social history movement in the preceding decades that sought to make religion epiphenomenal.

    You mean, Robert, that religious fervor had maybe as much to do with the Second Great Awakening as industrialization or class tension? What a thought.

  2. Thanks Sam, I’ll take that recommendation.

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    I took a class from Abzug. I have a vivid recollection of a slide (ack! just dated myself!) of a polygamous family and sinking just a smidge in my seat. . .

  4. “Fighting with angry hicks.” That pretty much sums up serving a mission in Louisiana, where people think they know their scriptures but really don’t.

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