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The Influence of the Second Great Awakening on Social and Religious Movements in the 19th Century, Essay Example

Pages: 3

Words: 885

Essay

From the earliest colonial period that would eventually serve as the foundation on which the United States was built, the new nation that arose in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries always had a complicated relationship with religion, both in theory and practice. Many early colonists were strict religious adherents who rejected the influence of the papacy in Europe; others were similarly religious, but were seeking lives free from the Church of England. It was common for the lives of colonists in the Northern region to develop around a community church, and pastors and ministers held important and powerful social positions. In the mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies religious institutions often held less sway over the lives of colonists, but the influence of religion was still felt to one degree or another throughout the emerging nation. Concurrently, however, it was the ideals of the Enlightenment and the embrace of humanism that largely informed the development of republicanism and democracy that would underpin the new constitutional government. It is no surprise, then, that the young United States would serve both as a crucible for new forms of religious expression and as a place where religious and secular traditions and belief often clashed. It was in this context that the Second Great Awakening blossomed, and this movement would spark the development of a number of significant religious and social movements in the early 19th century.

Despite the assertions of many contemporary practitioners of politics in the 20th and 21st centuries, the United States was not founded as a “Christian nation.” There is no question that many of the men who helped to develop the political and structural frameworks of the new nation in the 18th century were believers of one form or another, the expressions of such beliefs ran the gamut from fundamentalist-style Christians to deists who had little use for a hands-on God. The Constitution itself made it clear that religious freedom was to be the law of the land, and that the government would neither establish a state religion nor promote any particular religious institution. The ideals birthed by the Enlightenment in Europe and a similar ideological, political, and social movement in the colonies affirmed an outlook that de-emphasized the central role of religion in matters of state. It may have been a rebound effect of this movement that led to the period known as the Second Great Awakening, during which time a notable religious fervor spread throughout the nation and gave rise to a number of social and religious movements.

One of the most notable –and lasting-  of the religious movements that arose during this time was that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known simply as Mormonism. The founder of this religious movement, Joseph Smith, claimed to be the recipient of divine revelation, and proffered to his followers a connection between the new nation of the United States and the millennia-old religion of Christianity. Smith’s new religion was as much a social movement as it was a theological one; he offered new adherents a chance to “renounce the sinfulness and social disorder they saw all around them” (Schultz, 2012). Followers of Mormonism eschewed alcoholic beverages and other “sinful” practices, and Smith promoted a close-knit social order among his followers that embraced polygamy and rejected many of the trappings of the newly-forming American society. Mormons lived a strict, almost ascetic lifestyle, a choice that meant they were often viewed with suspicion by outsiders.

Although Smith first established his new religion in the Northeast, he and his followers migrated farther and farther westward over the next few years. As Smith began to amass larger and larger numbers of followers, concern among many who lived nearby Mormon enclaves began to mount. The issue of polygamy was especially irksome to a significant segment of American society, and Smith’s new religion came to be a sore spot for many. Smith was eventually arrested and charged with treason, and was later lynched by a mod that swarmed the jail in which he was held.

Unlike many of the religious movements that were spawned in this and in later eras, however, Mormonism proved to have staying power. While it may have seemed likely that the religion would not outlast the death of its founder, it would actually grow significantly under the auspices of its next leader, Brigham Young. Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has millions of adherents, including a recent presidential candidate for the Republican Party. While many religious and social movements have limited or short-lived appeal, the social and ideological views espoused by Mormonism have proven to be popular enough to have taken hold in a significant segment of American society. The issue of polygamy, which was so decisive in the early years of the religion, has largely become a conversational relic; the practice was officially outlawed in the 19th century, and few in the mainstream of Mormon society would claim to adhere to or believe in the practice. This change shows both that the structure of the United States can allow the freedom for religious movements to develop, while also offering strictures and guidelines that assure such religions largely adapt to and adhere to the larger social order.

Reference

Schultz, K. M. (2012). HIST2, Volume 1. Retrieved from The University of Phoenix eBook Collection.

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