Religion and Social Reform - Roots of Reform

From 1801 for years a blessed revival of religion spread through almost the entire inhabited parts of the West....The Presbyterians and Methodists in a great measure united in this work, met together, prayed together, and preached together....

They would erect their camps with logs or frame them, and cover them with clapboards or shingles. They would also erect a shed, sufficiently large to protect five thousand people from wind and rain, and cover it with boards or shingles; build a large stand, seat the shed, and here they would collect together from forty to fifty miles around, sometimes further than that. Ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty ministers of different denominations would come together and preach night and day, four or five days together....

A new exercise broke out among us, called the jerks, which was overwhelming in its effects upon the bodies and minds of the people. No matter whether they were saints or sinners, they would be taken under a warm song or sermon, and seized with a convulsive jerking all over, which they could not by any possibility avoid, and the more they resisted the more they jerked....I have seen more than five hundred persons jerking at one time in my large congregations....The first jerk or so, you would see their fine bonnets, caps, and combs fly; and so sudden would be the jerking of the head that their long loose hair would crack almost as loud as a wagoner's whip.

Peter Cartwright

Questions to Think About

1. Why did the early 19th century witness the first secular efforts in history to improve society through social reform?

2. What were the sources of the reform impulse?

3. Describe the basic characteristics of revivalistic religion?

4. Why do you think church membership increased rapidly during the early 19th century?

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