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American Moral Reform Society

American Moral Reform Society


The American Moral Reform Society (AMRS) was organized in 1836 by a group of elite black leaders in Philadelphia to promote morality among both white and black Americans through the influence of temperance, education, economy, and universal liberty.

The AMRS grew directly out of the National Convention Movement (NCM), which first met in Philadelphia in 1830, and it embraced many of the movement's programs for reform. At the fifth annual NCM convention in 1835, the delegates adopted a proposal, devised by the black abolitionist attorney William Whipper, for the formation of the AMRS. Black Philadelphians dominated the proceedings and comprised the majority of the officers chosen to the society. Among those appointed were Bishop Morris Brown of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and James Forten Sr., who served as the first president of the AMRS. Although plans were made for an NCM convention to meet in New York the following year, it was never held, and the AMRS replaced the convention movement until the AMRS disbanded.

Even at the society's first convention on August 8, 1836, there was factionalism among the leaders from Philadelphia as well as an intercity rivalry between the delegates from that city and those from New York. Opponents of the AMRS accused its leaders of being too visionary and unrealistic. Two AMRS policies proved particularly divisive: the AMRS commitment to morally reforming the entire American population, regardless of race, and Whipper's insistence on banning the use of such terms as colored and African. The society's critics argued that terms of racial identification were not objectionable and asserted that the AMRS should limit its sphere of action to free blacks.

Following the first annual meeting of the AMRS in 1837, a clear split took place among northern black leaders over these issues, with Whipper, Forten, and Robert Purvis emerging as the primary supporters of the AMRS. Whipper, the chief promoter of the AMRS, redoubled his promotional efforts and helped the AMRS establish its own journal, the National Reformer, which failed after only one year. Opponents of the AMRS, meanwhile, became more unified and more insistent in their calls for the revival of the National Convention Movement.

In an attempt to broaden its base of support, the AMRS admitted its first female delegates to the 1839 convention, but its Garrisonian anticlericalism and the revival of the National Convention Movement worked against the AMRS. It ceased to be an effective organization after its sixth convention in 1841.

See also Abolition; Forten, James; Purvis, Robert; Whipper, William

Bibliography

Bell, Howard H. "The American Moral Reform Society." Journal of Negro Education 27 (Winter 1958): 3440.

Winch, Julie. Philadelphia's Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 17871848. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

louise p. maxwell (1996)

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