The motivation for, and the results of, the religious revival that swept the US in the early part of the 19th century has received divergent views from historians. While evidence abounds on the massive change that society underwent as a result of this revival, some historians have alluded to the positive impacts that are the direct result of the revival while others see it in a negative light. Historians Johnson and Hatch view the revival differently. For Hatch, the revival was a liberating force of unequalled character that empowered the average man and made the elite less influential in running the society. Johnson, however, has the divergent view that the revivals were mainly used for influence-peddling, with the middle class using it to advance their agenda at the expense of a hapless working class.
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The revival in America was embraced by a majority because it seemed to provide liberating influences that had not been experienced before. Through the revival, Americans, regardless of their social standing, were getting united in the service of Christ and the church. For the society then, the promise of cohesion was becoming an achievable reality. According to the leaders of the churches that grew immensely during the revival, the work being done had one objective – to prepare the church for the millennium (Johnson 291). All actions then were to be regulated by the knowledge that the whole society was working for a greater goal than merely daily profit-seeking. With such lofty ideals being pursued, it is easy to see why Americans embraced the spirit of the revival.
The revival led to massive changes in society. The number of churches grew immensely, as did the number of followers. This growth was revolutionary in a number of ways. First, the churches that were coming up were more liberal in their teachings than the established churches. Groups such as the Methodists, the Disciples of Christ and the Mormons experienced phenomenal growth (Hatch 300). The liberation that the new churches were preaching seemed to fit in perfectly with the ideas of the American Revolution. According to Hatch (301), the ideas of freedom and the people’s ability to think for themselves, which were the hallmarks of the Revolution, were now finding fertile ground for growth and advancement in the churches. By their very development, the new churches were breaking away from a long tradition in which the clergy was an elitist group that had strict dogma and manner of worship taught to the followers. Through the revival, the new churches were declaring their independence from such control and developing ways of worship that made sense to them. The society improved in certain ways as a result of the revival. The virtues of hard work and abstinence from consumption of alcohol got new impetus. The Bible became an important guide in everyday life.
Yet what the Revival seems to have done is to raise the profile of the middles class even higher. Using the wealth and connections that they already had, this class was able to determine the direction in which the lower classes of society moved. Johnson gives many examples to prove that the success that an individual enjoyed was determined by the individual’s association with the church. For this reason, the revival would appear to have been used to coercively force the workers to follow the dictation of the middle class. To prove that Christianity was simply being used as a guide for the control of the working classes, Johnson (295) says that what were seen as the strongest economic credentials during this period was conversion to Christianity and abstinence. Using the church, careers were established and those that tried to go against the spirit of the revival had their careers ruined.
Whatever may be said about the revival, it certainly presented a new form of expression for the common man. As Hatch explains, the ordinary man was empowered as the elitists were no longer in charge of matters of worship. However, Hatch (303), notes a paradox that developed as a result of the revival and the reason he thinks its influence waned after a while. Though the churches preached liberty, they failed to control the rise of demagogues. Examples are given of churches where the congregations were doing the bidding of a dictatorial leader. Even though Christianity was getting democratized, new forms of dictatorship were also emerging.