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The Second Great Awakening

During the 1830’s internal dissension split the great reform movement spawned by the Second Great Awakening. Efforts to promote evangelical piety, improve personal and public morality, and shape character through familial or institutional discipline continued and even grew. But bolder spirits went beyond such goals and set their sights on the total liberation and perfection of the individual. Especially in New England and the upper North, a new kind of reformer was forming and attacked established institutions and rejected all compromise with what they viewed as a corrupt society.

Early nineteenth century reformers were, for the most part, committed to changing existing attitudes and practices gradually and in ways that would not invite conflict or disrupt the fabric of society. But by the mid 1830’s a new mood of impatience and perfectionism surfaced within the benevolent societies. The society split one proponents of violence and the others were not. The ones for peaceful resolution were led by Henry C. Wright and formed the New England Non Resistant Society to promote an absolute pacifism.

The career of Theodore Dwight Weld exemplified the connection between revivalism and abolitionism. Weld came from a long line of New England minister and eventually migrated to western New York. There he was influenced by Charles G. Finney and after a long struggle underwent a conversion experience in 1826. He then became a lecturer for various reform causes and by the early 1830’s became focused on the moral issues raised by the institution of slavery.

After an encounter with the colonization movement he was a converted abolitionist by 1932. Antislavery organizers tended to have their greatest successes in the small to medium sized towns of the upper North. The typical convert came from an upwardly mobile family that engaged in small business. Two key figures in the movement used their substantial wealth to finance antislavery activities. In 1835-1836 they supported a massive effort to print antislavery pamphlets and distribute them through the U. S. mail.

The debate of whether the abolitionist movement of the 1830’s and early 40’s was a success or a failure is something historians have debated for sometime. It obviously failed to convert a majority of Americans to its position that slavery was a sinful institution that should be abolished immediately. Since that position implied that blacks should be granted equality as American citizens it was facing the powerful conviction of white supremacy prevailing in all parts of the country. But in another sense the crusade was successful.

It brought the slavery issue to the forefront of public consciousness and convinced a substantial and growing segment of the northern population that the South’s peculiar institution was morally wrong and a potential danger to the American way of life. The politicians who later mobilized the North against the expansion of slavery into the territories drew strength form the reservoir of antislavery attitudes and sentiment created by the abolitionists.

Reference:

Aptheker, H. (1989) Abolitionism: a revolutionary movement. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

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