AP U.S. History Notes

Transcendentalism, Religion, and Utopian Movements


In his 1794 book The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine advanced a religious philosophy called Deism that struck at the tenets of organized religions, particularly Calvinism as it was practiced by the Puritans. Paine claimed that churches were “set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” These thoughts were shocking to Americans who were imbued with a strong religious tradition. At the same time, Paine’s ideas appealed to many Americans who were likewise steeped in the rationality of the Enlightenment period and who had difficulty aligning Calvinist doctrine with reason.

Calvinism held that the essential nature of infants was evil. This belief was called “infant damnation.” Calvinism also subscribed to a belief that there were only a certain few who were “elect” by God from the beginning to be saved. All others were doomed after death regardless of their beliefs or actions in life. Many people objected to the ideas of infant damnation and the powerlessness of the individual to achieve salvation.

Paine’s Deism, by contrast, claimed that human nature was essentially good and that salvation was within reach of every person through faith and good works. Deists believed in a “clockwork” universe. They felt that God had created the world and all the laws that governed it, and then He allowed events to play themselves out as they would without further divine intervention. Deists believed that the laws of the world are knowable to humanity by the application of logic and reason. This contrasted with the Calvinist idea that true knowledge is only obtained by divine revelation as expressed in the Bible. A number of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, became Deists.

A new Protestant sect, the Unitarians, formally expressed the philosophy of Deism. Unitarians believed in a single divine deity, the Supreme Being, as opposed to the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit worshipped by most Christians. They also believed in free will, salvation through good works, and the intrinsically moral nature of human beings, including infants and children. The Unitarian creed was rational, optimistic, and non-dogmatic. Unitarianism appealed to many intellectuals and free thinkers of the day.

Others who were unhappy with the Puritan religion chose to return to the Episcopal faith, which was associated with the Anglican Church of England. The Irish and Scots in the United States were already largely Presbyterian. A similar religious group, the Congregationalists, often merged with the Presbyterians in small communities since they differed little in creed. In these ways the religious landscape was changing in the early 1800s, especially among the established, educated people of New England. But the pace of change across the country was soon to quicken.

The Romantic Movement at the turn of the nineteenth century gave expression to a growing conviction throughout Europe and America that there was more to experiencing the world than could be inferred by logic and more to living than could be satisfied by the acquisition of material things. People felt a need to balance reason and calculation with emotion and spirit. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant first framed doubts over rationality as a cure-all for human problems and needs in his Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781. Sympathetic poets and authors transmuted his ideas into literary works that were meant to be as much apprehended by the soul as understood by the intellect. In England, writers such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson, to name a few, breathed life into Romanticism through their poetry. The Romantics revered nature and felt that contemplation of natural scenes would lead to realization of fundamental truths.

In America, Emerson and Thoreau helped formalize the Romantic Movement into Transcendentalism, a philosophy that reads almost like a faith. The Transcendentalists infused the Romantic impulse with mysticism, a belief in the possibility of direct communion with God and knowledge of ultimate reality through spiritual insight. In part, this was fueled by newly translated Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic texts, which contained elements of mysticism. A thread of the mystic also ran through American Puritanism and in the Quaker faith even more so. Quaker doctrine subscribed to a belief in an Inner Light, which was a gift of God’s grace. The Inner Light expressed itself as divine intuition or knowledge unaccountable by ordinary derivations of thought.

For Transcendentalists, truth is beyond, or transcends, what can be discovered using evidence acquired by the senses. Like the Quakers, Transcendentalists believed that every person possesses an Inner Light that can illuminate the highest truth and put a person in touch with God, whom they called the Oversoul. Since this sort of knowledge of truth is a personal matter, Transcendentalism was committed to development of the self and had little regard for dogma or authority.

Ralph Waldo Emerson took up the Transcendentalist banner after studying at Harvard to be a Unitarian minister. He left what he called the “cold and cheerless” Unitarian pulpit to travel in Europe and talk to Romantic writers and philosophers, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. Returning to America, he lived in Concord, Massachusetts, near Boston, where he composed poetry and wrote essays. He supported himself through annual lecture tours and was a very popular speaker.

In 1837 at Harvard, Emerson delivered his influential “American Scholar” lecture that exhorted Americans in the arts to stop turning to Europe for inspiration and instruction and begin developing an American literary and artistic tradition. Emerson preached the philosophy of the Oversoul and the organic, ever-changing nature of the universe, stressing self-reliance, individualism, optimism, and freedom. Though not inclined toward political activism, by the eve of the Civil War, Emerson became an ardent abolitionist.

Another Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, wrote essays that have had a profound effect on modern thought. His philosophy of individualism and conscious nonconformism is expressed in his book Walden: Or Life in the Woods (1854) where he describes living a full emotional and intellectual life for two years while residing in a tiny cabin he made himself and existing in every other way at a barely subsistence level. His other work of note is the essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau was against Texas joining the Union because it would be a slave state. He felt that the United States had involved itself in the Mexican War on behalf of Texas and, therefore, he refused to pay a tax that he felt would support the war effort. For this he was briefly jailed. Thoreau’s tactic of passive resistance was later emulated by Mahatma Gandhi in India in his resistance to British rule and by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his non-violent approach to gaining civil rights.

Romanticism encouraged writing literature of remarkable emotional effects. In the early nineteenth century, Washington Irving (Legend of Sleepy Hollow), James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans), and Edgar Allen Poe (The Pit and the Pendulum) made their marks as gifted authors. In the early 1850s, however, in addition to Thoreau’s Walden, American writers produced a dazzling set of classic works inaugurating a golden age in American literature. In this time frame, Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter and the House of the Seven Gables, Herman Melville produced Moby-Dick, and Walt Whitman composed Leaves of Grass. These were a new breed of distinctly American authors, writing on American subjects and from a uniquely American perspective steeped in native Transcendentalism. Until this time American literature was considered second rate if it was considered at all. In the wake of these contributions, Europe began to look to America for thought and inspiration of true quality.

The Second Great Awakening

At the turn of the nineteenth century, America was still a devotedly church-going nation. Most Americans felt a traditional religious faith to be the foundation of moral character, and many worried that over time the religious imperative would wane into token gestures and empty social structures. These concerns increased with news of the cruelties and excesses of the French Revolution done in the name of reason.

In 1795, Timothy Dwight became president of Yale College, described as a “hotbed of infidelity.” Determined to counter the secular trend in American thinking, Dwight sponsored a series of religious revivals that fired the collective soul of the Yale student body and spread across New England, igniting a religious movement called the Second Great Awakening. The sermons preached from the pulpits of this great revival did not attempt like the old-time Puritans to pressure a captive congregation with dire predictions of a vengeful God’s omniscient power and arbitrary judgments. Rather, they spoke of a benevolent Father whose most passionate desire was the salvation of every one of His children down to the most lost sinner.

At a religious assembly, a person could be saved by faith alone during a conversion experience. Unusual behaviors such as “speaking in tongues” or convulsive fits of religious ecstasy sometimes accompanied these experiences. The only absolute requisite to salvation, however, was an acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice as atonement for one’s sins. All people were free to accept this gift or not. But the fires of everlasting hell, described in lush and vivid imagery, awaited those who turned their backs.

The Second Great Awakening soon spread to the frontier. Beginning in the South and moving northward along the frontier to the Old Northwest, a new institution, the camp meeting, ignited a spiritual fervor that converted thousands and altered the religious landscape of America forever. Many traditional churches were swept away in this new awakening. Others reformed to counter the firestorm of the evangelical preacher.

Camp meetings were generally held in the fall after harvest but before the rigors of winter. For the participants who often traveled considerable distances, religious revivals probably combined the attractions of a retreat, a camp-out, and a much-earned vacation. As many as 25,000 people gathered at revival meetings to hear the gospel preached by charismatic orators who “rode the circuit” from camp to camp.

Besides the spiritual message, revival meetings offered entertainment in an age when other diversions for the average person were either of the homegrown variety or of a quiet, literary nature. A free-wheeling, fire-and-brimstone revival provided an acceptable emotional and social outlet for people of the frontier who were mostly engaged in farming and other rural, labor-intensive agricultural pursuits. Of particular importance, women could attend and participate in religious revivals at a time when many social outlets available to men, such as taverns and fraternal organizations, were neither considered appropriate nor allowed for women. This offered revival preachers a natural female constituency that contributed immeasurably to their success.

In the south, black slaves and freed men and women could also attend segregated, companion revivals. The emotional, spiritual, and social opportunity of such a gathering can scarcely be appreciated in the modern age for its intensity. These meetings gave rise to a rich and remarkable tradition of black preachers who provided not merely social and spiritual but political cohesion to much-beleaguered black communities in the difficult times to come.

Western New York hosted so many revival meetings patronized by the hellfire-and-brimstone variety of preacher that it came to be known as the “burned-over district.” With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, commerce and industry boomed, particularly around Utica in Oneida County. This attracted great numbers of people seeking a fresh start in life. Such seekers were prime subjects for conversion by revivalists because of the social nature of a revival. At a camp meeting, a person joined hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others on an essentially egalitarian basis. Though many were drawn to the meetings for the social aspect, they were easily caught up in the event and followed through with conversion.

The women of Utica were particularly concerned with the spiritual health of their community, and since women did not generally work outside the home they had the time to organize community activities. The Oneida County Female Missionary Society raised sufficient money to support the revival movement in the area for a number of years. The role of women in the Second Great Awakening can scarcely be over-emphasized. Women were converted in equal numbers with men, but once converted tended to be even more solid adherents to their church than their male counterparts. Viewed as the moral center of the family, a woman was responsible for her husband’s and children’s spiritual well being. Women took this responsibility seriously and sought to fulfill it through church participation and, later in the century, through organizing charitable and benevolent associations aimed at social reform.

Evangelists were aware that their power to make converts rested substantially in their influence with women. The new gospels emphasized the importance of the role of women in bringing their families to Christian life. They placed an equal value on the spiritual worth of men and women, in contrast to earlier religions that tended to minimize women’s importance in the spiritual as well as secular spheres. This gender egalitarianism in religious matters marked a break with the past and offered women the opportunity to acquire standing in the community without treading on the secular prerogatives of their husbands. Once this door was opened to them, women continued to play a crucial role in religious life and went on to become pioneers and crusaders in nineteenth century social reform.

Many prominent preachers frequented the pulpits of the burned-over-district. Among them, William Miller gained a following of around 100,000 with a Biblical interpretation of the Second Coming of Christ on October 22, 1844. Failure of the prophecy to materialize did not wholly quench the Millerite movement, which became known as Seventh Day Adventist.

Perhaps the greatest evangelist was the former lawyer Charles Grandison Finney, who conducted an intense, sustained revival in the burned-over-district from 1826 to 1831. Beginning in Utica, he made his way in stages to Rochester and New York City. Church membership grew by tens of thousands wherever he held revivals. A spellbinding orator, Finney preached a theology in pointed contrast to Puritan Calvinism. Salvation could be had by anyone through faith and good works, which he felt flowed from one another. People were the captains of their own fate, and since Judgment Day could come at any time, his hearers should take immediate action to ensure the redemption of themselves and their loved ones.

Finney was a master of showmanship and participatory psychology. His revival agenda included hymn singing and solicitation of personal testimonials from the congregation. He placed an “anxious bench” in the front of the assembly for those teetering on the brink of commitment to Christ. The moment of holy redemption for a bench-sitter became a dramatic event. Finney encouraged women to pray aloud and denounced alcohol and slavery from the pulpit. He felt that mass, public conversions were more effective than the old-style, solitary communion because they emphasized the fraternal nature of church membership. Finney later became president of Oberlin College in Ohio, the first U.S. college to admit women and blacks and a hotbed of abolitionism and evangelical zeal.

The crusading spirit of religious evangelism carried over into secular life and expressed itself in a number of reform movements. Temperance, suffrage, prison reform, and abolition all received an infusion of energy from evangelical vigor. In addition, the traveling preacher expanded the horizons of imagination beyond the local sphere and even beyond the borders of the nation. Supporting a mission in a foreign country or among Native Americans in the West became a binding cause for many churches. Reports from missionaries in such exotic places as Africa, India, or Hawaii were awaited with breathless expectation. As an enticement to listen to their religious message, missionaries often provided medical, technical, and educational benefits to the people in the locale of their mission. In these ways, the Second Great Awakening contributed to changing not just the nation, but the world.

Revivalism did not affect the wealthier, better-educated parts of society that gravitated to Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Unitarian churches as much as it did rural and frontier communities that tended to be Baptist or Methodist. The Baptist faith proved ideal for conditions on the frontier. Baptists believed in a literal reading of the Bible that required no authoritarian interpretation. They also subscribed to the concept of the possibility of any person obtaining salvation through his or her own free will. Above all, however, they believed that a church was its own highest authority and thus avoided the difficulties and delays of petitions to and approvals from a distant hierarchical organization.

A group of Baptists could form their own church on the spot and choose a preacher from among themselves. The Baptists were egalitarian in their creed, believing that all people were equal before God regardless of their economic, social, or educational standing. The simplest farmer in Kentucky was on par in native dignity with every other person in the Republic. These beliefs and the Baptists’ uncomplicated organization were highly appealing to small communities of self-sufficient, independent-minded people.

The Methodists, however, were most successful at reaping the benefits of religious revivalism of the early 1800s by establishing a system of itinerant preachers on horseback, or circuit riders. Francis Asbury began the practice when the frontier was scarcely west of the Appalachian Mountains. Hardy and fearless, Asbury rode the rugged backwoods trails and preached thousands of sermons to farmers, pioneers, and backwoodsmen and their families.

Peter Cartwright, the most famous of the Methodist frontier preachers, delivered his highly charged sermons for 50 years in the frontier region bordering the Ohio River. Uneducated himself, he along with other Methodist evangelists considered education a hindrance to converting souls since conversion is not a matter of the mind but of the spirit. Energy, sincerity, and a powerful message of faith and redemption were the necessary requisites for a Methodist circuit rider. Their approach seems justified since by 1850 the Methodist Church had more members than any other Protestant sect in the country.

Churches came to reflect deep divisions that paralleled sectional interests in the country far beyond issues of religious doctrine or socio-economic stratification. By 1845, both the Baptist and Methodist Churches split over slavery. Presbyterians suffered a similar schism in 1857. The Northern churches of these denominations believed in abolishing slavery while Southern congregations felt their economic well-being was bound to a slaveholding system. The conflict over human bondage thus broke first in the communities of religion, which served as heralds to the South’s secession from the Union and, ultimately, to the American Civil War.

Utopian Movements

A number of cooperative communities were launched in the 1800s as experiments in alternative social organizations and Christian living according to scriptural interpretations. This was not a new phenomenon in the New World. The Jamestown colonists, the Puritans, the Quakers, and others had all made the difficult and dangerous voyage across the sea in order to live by their own beliefs.

Reformers in the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening sought to get away from authoritarian power structures but still provide for all members of the group. Brook Farm, New Harmony, the Shaker and Amana communities, and Oneida Colony were typical trials of utopian communes. Generally socialistic, these communities failed to thrive in America’s capitalistic culture once the vision and dedication of the original founders was gone. Their histories as alternative patterns of living are valuable, however, for their insight into human relationships and social structures.

New Harmony, founded in 1825 in Indiana by wealthy Scottish textile manufacturer Robert Owen, ironically perished early from lack of harmony among its participants. The Amana communities in New York and Iowa were also short-lived, fading away by the end of the 1850s.

Brook Farm in Massachusetts, noted as a transcendental literary and intellectual haven, suffered from indebtedness, in part from a disastrous fire and in part from lack of incentive for the members to be productive, since the fruits of the labor of all were shared equally by all, regardless of contribution. Lasting only five years, the experiment in “plain living and high thinking” was forever memorialized as the basis for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance.

The Shaker communities, founded by an Englishwoman, Ann Lee, who came to America in 1774, practiced strict sexual abstinence since they believed the Christian millennium was imminent and therefore saw no reason to perpetuate the human race. Ann Lee died in 1784, but the sect continued to prosper on the strength of its fervent and joyful religious life. The Shakers admired simplicity and made an art of designing buildings and furniture of distinctive, harmonious beauty. By the 1830s, there were 20 Shaker communities, and by 1840 the Shakers had a membership of some six thousand. Shaker communities existed for another 100 years, though dwindling slowly. Their rule of celibacy and communal holding of property discouraged new converts. Because of their high ideals and lack of controversial practices, the Shaker communities lived in harmony with their neighbors.

By contrast, the Oneida colony practiced free love, birth control, and eugenic selection of parents. These life-style anomalies proved unpalatable to most Americans and caused ongoing problems with the surrounding community. Founded in 1847 in Vermont by John Humphrey Noyes, the colony soon had to relocate to more-tolerant New York. Noyes’s doctrine of “Bible Communism” insisted selfishness was the root of unhappiness. Owning property and maintaining exclusive relationships encouraged selfishness and destructive covetousness of what others have. Therefore, the keys to happiness were communal ownership of property and what Noyes termed “complex marriage” where every woman was married to every man in the group.

The Oneidans shared work equally and supported their enterprise by manufacturing such things as steel traps, silk thread, and silverplate tableware. Yielding to external pressure, the Oneida colony gave up complex marriage in 1879, and communal ownership of property soon followed. The group eventually transformed itself into a joint-stock company manufacturing stainless steel knives and tableware. Thus Noyes’s communistic utopia ended as a capitalist corporation.

In New York in the 1820s, Joseph Smith was visited with a vision and claimed to have received golden plates that detailed a new religion he called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonism. In 1831 Smith founded a small community in Ohio. The Mormon faith was cooperative in nature, which rankled the individualistic temper of the times. But the colony was efficient and successful, which attracted converts. Strife with the local inhabitants caused the colony to relocate to Missouri and then to Illinois, where in 1839 they founded the town of Nauvoo. Five years later Nauvoo was the largest town in the state. Rumors of polygamy and other social irregularities incensed the moral rectitude of neighboring non-Mormons. Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested, and while in jail they were attacked by a mob and killed.

Leadership of the Mormons was taken up by Brigham Young who led the sect to the site of what is now Salt Lake City. The Mormons were highly successful in Utah, but so staunchly independent that they raised the ire of the United States government, which sent troops against them in 1857. The issue of polygamy delayed statehood for Utah until 1896. Though no longer communal in nature, Mormonism remains a dynamic influence in the state of Utah, and the Mormon faith is recognized as a major religion in the United States.

Subordination of the individual to the group seems to be the one common thread among the utopian experimental communities. Beyond that, their doctrines, practices, and fates make each group uniquely individual. They reflected the idealistic, reform-minded spirit of their age, and remain as monuments to human courage to live differently on the basis of principle and religious conviction.

Reform might be labeled the touchstone of the nineteenth century. The movements begun then often did not bear fruit until the twentieth century, and some are still in the process of becoming fully realized. Reforms such as prison reform, corporate reform, sanitation, and child labor were mostly accomplished through court cases. Women’s rights, the universal right to vote, and temperance from alcohol relied on grass-roots movements, consciousness raising in the form of parades, petitions, and lectures, and ultimately, legislation. But the test of the nation came over reform from the practice of slavery, which sparked a terrible war. The first reforms of the era were of religion and philosophy. When the hearts and minds of the people changed, social and political reform became an unstoppable force.

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How to cite this note (MLA)

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Transcendentalism, Religion, and Utopian Movements" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Jun. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/transcendentalism-religion-and-utopian-movements/>.