Lesson Progress:

Reforms for the Body and the Soul

Lesson Content

Inquire: Societal Issues of the Mid-1800s


Through a religious Second Great Awakening, science, and abolition, Americans in the mid-1800s focused on things outside and beyond themselves. Americans especially looked at ways to change and improve their lives and the lives of others. During the Antebellum era, faith became more personal and demonstrative; science began to provide answers for improving both physical and emotional health; and the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe galvanized the Abolitionist Movement, as they and others worked to end the morally bankrupt plantation system in the South and free over one million human beings held in bondage.


Big Question

How were Americans trying to improve themselves and their society in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s?

Watch: Reforms for the Body and the Mind

Read: Reforms for the Soul: The Second Great Awakening


Protestantism shaped the views of the vast majority of Americans during the Antebellum years, with religion’s influence intensifying in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Religious camp meetings spread ideas that people could bring about their own salvation, which was a direct contradiction to the older, Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

The Second Great Awakening

Reverend Charles Grandison Finney, a minister born in western New York, shocked Americans when he spoke about salvation. Finney, who had studied to be a lawyer until he experienced a religious conversion and devoted himself to religious revivals, shared that humans could achieve their own salvation through their good works on earth. This message, an unconventional one for the time and religious climate, would go on to create a religious zeal across the country.

Previous religious doctrines stated that humans were depraved, predestined to salvation or damnation, and that God was angry and full of vengeance. These new assurances that life on earth had its own rewards and was not just a stop before heaven or hell, inspired many. Religion was not only being revived, but transformed.

From approximately 1795 to 1835, Reverend Finney, other American evangelists, and their followers began spreading these messages from New England to the West. The reform efforts of the Antebellum era that sprang from this Protestant revival became what historians refer to as the Second Great Awakening. (The First Great Awakening of Evangelical Protestantism took place in the 1730s and 1740s.)

DecorativeThe Second Great Awakening emphasized an emotional religious style in which sinners could be “born again,” by turning away from their sinful pasts and devoting themselves to living righteous, Christ-centered lives. This emphasis on personal salvation matched the Jacksonian era’s celebration of the individual. Messages about personal salvation were preached to hundreds of listeners at outdoor revival meetings.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, America experienced swift population growth, broad western expansion, and the rise of participatory democracy. These political and social changes made many across the country anxious. The more egalitarian, emotional, and individualistic religious practices of the Second Great Awakening afforded relief and reassurance to Americans who were uncomfortable with such rapid change. While the religious boom started in Kentucky and Tennessee among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, it soon spread east to Congregationalists and Presbyterians there as well. The movement swept up thousands who believed in the possibility of creating a much better world.

Many followers adopted millennialism, the fervent belief that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth and that God would reign on earth for a thousand years. Followers believed that millennialism would be characterized by harmony and Christian morality, as those drawn to the Second Great Awakening yearned for stability, decency, and goodness in the new and turbulent American republic.

The Second Great Awakening brought significant changes to American culture. Many Americans grew more religious; church membership doubled between 1800 and 1835. Several new groups also formed to promote and strengthen the message of religious revival. The American Bible Society, founded in 1816, distributed bibles to ensure that every family had access to the sacred text. The American Sunday School Union, established in 1824, focused on the religious education of children, publishing religious materials specifically for young readers. In 1825, the American Tract Society formed to disseminate the Protestant revival message through a flurry of publications.

DecorativeMissionaries and circuit riders — ministers without fixed congregations — spread the Awakening across the United States, including to enslaved people. Previously, many slaveholders feared that allowing slaves to convert would lead to uprisings against slavery, that slaves would invoke Christian principles to demand their freedom. There was also the issue that many believed Christians could not be enslaved. The revival spurred many slaveholders to encourage their slaves to become Christians. By the 1800s, Americans established a legal foundation for enslaving Christians who were black.

Additionally, slaveholders came to believe that if slaves learned the “right” forms of Christianity, then they would be more obedient and hardworking. Allowing slaves access to Christianity also served to ease the consciences of Christian slaveholders. They could justify slavery, using the conversions as proof of its morality.

Largely independent of these attempts to convert slaves to slaveholder-endorsed forms of Christianity, new houses of worship for African American congregations opened their doors. Formed in the 1790s by Richard Allen, the African Methodist Episcopal Church — the first independent black Protestant church in the United States — advanced African Americans’ efforts to express their faith apart from white Methodists.

In the Northeast, Reverend Finney cemented his status as one of the most important evangelicals in the movement. He led revival meetings in New York and Pennsylvania, but was most successful in Rochester, New York — a recent boomtown due to the Erie Canal’s creation. The new middle class — an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution — embraced Finney’s message. Personal salvation fit perfectly with their understanding of themselves as people who worked hard to shape their own destinies. Workers also latched onto personal salvation, believing that they could spiritually and perhaps financially control their lives. Western New York gained a reputation as the “burned over district,” a reference to the intense flames of religious fervor that swept the area — and much of the United States — during the Second Great Awakening.

Reflect: Which Reform?


In the Watch and Read sections, you learned how Antebellum Americans attempted to change their physical and spiritual lives through health reforms and a religious revival.

Which of these reform movements do you think had a larger and longer lasting impact on American society?

Expand: Reforms For Mankind

Abolition and the Abolitionists

Every movement needs a voice. Every movement needs a story. During the Antebellum years, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin filled these roles for the Abolitionist Movement. Through these influences, many transitioned from positions of empathetic concern about slavery to active advocacy against it.

William Lloyd Garrison

DecorativeOriginally a supporter of colonization, William Lloyd Garrison changed his position and became the leader of the emerging anti-slavery movement. His publication, The Liberator, reached thousands of individuals worldwide. Garrison’s position on slavery — informed by his ceaseless, uncompromising moral outrage — made him a highly divisive figure in America.

Garrison published the first edition of The Liberator in 1831, clarifying and expressing the uncompromising position of the new abolitionists. Garrison’s main argument against slavery was morality; he believed that if he could show people the immorality of slavery, they would join in the campaign to end it. Though Garrison garnered world-wide support, he owed much of his success to free African Americans, who made up 75 percent of his readers. In 1832, Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society and met with delegates from around the nation to form the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.

Garrison was seen as a radical figure by some and faced much opposition. In Boston, he was dragged through the streets and nearly killed, and he once had a $4,000 bounty placed on his head. In 1854, he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution because it permitted slavery, and he demanded the North secede from the Union to sever ties with the South.

Garrison lived to see the Civil War, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery forever. His lifetime of work finally came to fruition 34 years after he first published The Liberator.

Frederick Douglass

Many escaped slaves joined the abolitionist movement, including Frederick Douglass. Douglass was born in Maryland in 1818, escaping to New York in 1838. He later moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, with his wife. Douglass’s commanding presence and powerful speaking skills electrified his listeners when he began to provide public lectures on slavery. He came to the attention of Garrison and others, who encouraged him to publish his story. In 1845, Douglass published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself, in which he told about his life of slavery in Maryland. He identified by name the whites who had brutalized him, and for that reason, along with the mere act of publishing his story, Douglass had to flee the United States to avoid being murdered.

British abolitionist friends bought his freedom from his Maryland owner, and Douglass returned to the United States. He began to publish his own abolitionist newspaper, North Star, in Rochester, New York. During the 1840s and 1850s, Douglass labored to bring about the end of slavery by telling the story of his life and highlighting how slavery destroyed families, both black and white.

Sojourner Truth

Born into slavery in New York, Sojourner Truth was freed when the state outlawed the practice in 1827. She was born Isabella Baumfree, but changed her name because she believed God wanted her to travel about the country and spread the word. Truth was one of the best known abolitionists, renowned for her stirring oratory. Also concerned with women’s rights, she joined the campaign for female suffrage. When slavery was ended, she continued to fight for equality by protesting Segregation Laws.

Check Your Knowledge

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Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Books That Shaped America: 1850 to 1900

A list of books that influenced America, compiled by the Library of Congress, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin

19th Century Reforms: Crash Course US History #15

A Crash Course video discussing the Second Great Awakening and the Abolitionist Movement, including the impact of Garrison and Stowe

The Shape of Your Head and the Shape of Your Mind

An Atlantic article by Erika Janik discussing the history of phrenology in greater detail and its connections to the modern psychology and neuroscience fields

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • Abolitionist Movement
    movement focused on ending slavery
  • Antebellum era
    the years before the Civil War
  • circuit riders
    ministers without a fixed congregation during the Second Great Awakening
  • Fugitive Slave Law
    passed in 1850, this law required runaway slaves found in free states be returned to bondage in slave states
  • Grahamites
    followers of Sylvester Graham’s health reforms who established boarding houses where they followed his recommended diet and sexual regimens
  • hydropathy
    water cures for various ailments
  • millennialism
    belief that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth and that God would reign on earth for a thousand years
  • phrenology
    early scientific attempt to understand how the mind worked, in which phrenologists assigned parts of the cranium to specific human attributes
  • salvation
    belief in the saving of the soul from sin, that allows people to go to Heaven
  • Second Great Awakening
    reform efforts of the Antebellum era that sprang from fervor around the Protestant revival between 1795 and 1835
  • Temperance Movement
    a movement focused on banning alcohol and associated issues, like violence and unemployment due to drunkeness
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
    novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe which described the brutalities of slave life and was an influential factor in the era leading up to the Civil War

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: “Harriet Beecher Stowe — Uncle Tom’s Cabin”: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: “William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator”: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Reforms to Human Health – Reforms For The Body And The Mind: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: An Awakening of Religion and Individualism – The Second Great Awakening: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

Decorative1839-methJ. Maze BurbankWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeCamp-meetingH. BridportWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeWilliam Lloyd Garrison, engraving from 1879 newspaperUnknown Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeThe Circuit PreacherAlfred WaudWikimedia Commons Public Domain