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Expanding religious diversity

In 1850, three out of four Americans attended church, usually a Protestant one, every Sunday. The idea that one sect contained all the unique and chosen people and that everyone else was going to hell had loosened up as the United States learned to live with many different Protestant denominations. The Enlightenment-inspired founding fathers hadn't been all that big on religion, but they — and members of new American movements like the Unitarians and Transcendentalists — certainly did believe that spiritual and material life could be improved right here on Earth.

The Second Great Awakening (1830), a powerful nationwide spiritual movement put the emphasis on salvation through personal change (see Chapter 8 for information on the First Great Awakening). Both the spirit of the movement and the connections that people made at tent meetings helped found several middle-class movements, often led by women, including those for temperance, prison and asylum reform, abolition, and women's rights. Methodists, Baptists, Mormons, and members of other new religious denominations gained strength, and members of America's first religions, such as the Congregationalists and Anglicans (see Chapter 8), loosened up. The Second Great Awakening stressed perfectionism, the belief that free will can create a better life on Earth. Free will perfectionism encouraged reform movements and was directly opposed to the original Puritan belief in predestination. It was during the Second Great Awakening that women were first allowed to lead prayers in church.


Question: Why was the belief in perfectionism important in the Second Great Awakening?

Answer: Perfectionism supported social movements, presented the idea that free will could improve life, and marked a departure from the Puritan belief in predestination.


Question: What were the social movements that came out of the Second Great Awakening?

Answer: The women's rights, antislavery, temperance, and education movements were all supported by middle-class women coming out of the Second Great Awakening.

The notion of predestination (see Chapter 7) faded away in favor of emotional activism. Middle-class women were enthusiastic revivalists, charged up by spiritual services and the community of believers. Their awakened talents helped spur both religious and social causes. No social cause received more attention than abolition of slavery. By 1845, the issue of slavery split national denominations like the Methodist and Baptist churches into Northern and Southern branches. First the churches split, then the political parties, and finally the nation.

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