Moral Societies

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MORAL SOCIETIES were formed in the United States to combat "vice and immorality," particularly during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Based on English and colonial precedent of seventeenth-century societies to reform manners, hundreds of moral societies were established, mostly in New York and New England. Linked to the established churches and the Federalist Party, they thrived during the War of 1812, when anxieties about the future of New England increased. Considering Puritan morality to be synonymous with republican virtue, they often supplemented or even replaced churches as guardians of what they deemed a moral society. Linking religious moral tradition and the reform movement of the early-nineteenth century, many moral societies concentrated on temperance and slavery, but they also regarded Sabbath-breaking, cockfights, gambling, profanity, and horseracing as dangerous. Society members tried to persuade citizens to lead a "moral" life and, if this was not successful, often acted as informers to the local authorities who would prosecute offenders. Opposition against moral societies increased after the end of the War of 1812. Forcing members of the community to lead a "moral" life was increasingly regarded as intolerant and as an abridgement of citizens' liberties. By the 1820s, moral societies had gone into sharp decline.


Bernard, Joel. "Between Religion and Reform: American Moral Societies, 1811–1821." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 105 (1993): 1–38.

Walters, Ronald G. American Reformers, 1815–1860. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.


See alsoFederalist Party .