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Material and political changes transformed America at a dizzying pace in the 1820s and 1830s. The expansion of industrialization, the creation of roads and canals to connect manufacturers to new markets, westward migration, a prolonged period of economic depression following the panic of 1837, and the broadening of voting rights triggered vast social upheavals. Reform movements were often attempts to cope with the consequences of these changes. Some movements wanted reform of institutions like prisons, schools, and asylums. Others looked to individual regeneration to transform the whole society. Some reformers drew attention to a particular group's suffering: Richard Henry Dana's Two Years before the Mast (1840), for example, pressed for expanded legal rights for sailors. Others, like the founders of Brook Farm, sought "radical and universal reform."


A powerful source of reform emerged from the Second Great Awakening, the religious revivals sweeping the nation from the 1790s through the 1820s. Like the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, this series of revivals emphasized individual, often emotional religious experiences. Yet unlike the first period of revival, the Second Great Awakening had an even broader impact. The disestablishment of religion in the early national period and the deism associated with America's founding fathers (that is, their belief in the power of reason and the existence of a Supreme Creator and their skepticism about supernatural religious explanations) seemed to threaten the nation's Protestant moral foundation. Moreover, many Christians attributed certain social ills (drinking, dueling, disregard for the Sabbath, and the like) to Chris-tianity's decline. Ministers such as Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) and Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) responded with messages about wickedness, conversion, and the imminent return of Christ. Moving away from the Calvinist doctrines (such as predestination) associated with the initial Great Awakening, they preached individual moral agency and personal salvation, moral improvement and perfection, and a responsibility to hasten the coming of God's Kingdom.

These religious ideas contributed to the desire for reform and creation of voluntary benevolent societies such as the American Education Society (1815), American Bible Society (1816), and American Tract Society (1825). These organizations distributed religious literatures, but their members also led efforts to stem Sabbath-breaking, drinking, and other forms of vice. Various female moral reform societies focused on ending prostitution, sexual exploitation, and the sexual double standard. The ostensibly moral concern with sexual vice also helped justify the not-so-pious demand for reform literature featuring fallen and wronged women in texts like Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures (1836) and George Foster's New York by Gas-Light (1850).

Evangelical reformers also played important roles in other reform movements. Theodore Dwight Weld (1803–1895), a disciple of Finney, began his career distributing tracts and preaching against strong drink. In 1829 Weld shifted his efforts to the campaign against slavery and authored two antislavery classics, The Bible against Slavery (1837), which dismantled biblical pro-slavery arguments, and American Slavery As It Is (1839), the text that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) to write Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–1852).

Evangelical reform spread popular literature as tracts, sermons, Sunday school books, and temperance testimonies. The revivals also had an important influence on developments in literary style. Religious writings became more emotional and imaginative, formally less rigid, and theologically less rigorous. Antebellum religious texts began to rely on vivid narratives to illustrate, edify, and entertain. This "new religious style," as David S. Reynolds calls it in his study Beneath the American Renaissance (p. 15), reshaped not only evangelical writing but also the style of liberal reformers, popular writers, and transcendentalists.


Like evangelical reformers, transcendentalists emphasized moral perfectionism, individual moral agency, and the possibilities for a new social order. The transcendentalists, however, developed a radically individualistic form of perfectionism that looked with suspicion on institutions like churches and reform organizations that would impede self-culture. In his 1841 essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) urges the individual to "Trust thyself" (p. 260) and to see "Society . . . in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of it members" (p. 261). Faith in the personal nature of one's salvation and distrust in social institutions were not inconsistent with evangelical reform, but Emerson took these ideas in a fresh direction. Nonconformity becomes a requirement for selfhood: "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist" (p. 261). And conventional moral categories become subjective constructions: "Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this" (p. 262). Such reliance on oneself poses a danger to reform because it means opposition to collective action that might sway one from his or her individual path. Thus, Emerson distrusts the "foolish philanthropist" and those clothed in the "bountiful cause of Abolition" (p. 262). Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was an even harsher critic, diagnosing reformers as "sick" (p. 181) in "Reform and the Reformers" (1844) and calling philanthropy "greatly overrated" (p. 52) in Walden (1854). To many reformers, these transcendentalists were pretty poor activists. Their idealist thinking lent itself to social critique but not social action, and their affirmation of individual integrity looked like a pointless self-absorption. In "The Transcendentalist" (1842), Emerson acknowledges such criticism: "The philanthropists inquire whether Transcendentalism does not mean sloth" (p. 203).

Despite their ambivalence about reform, transcendentalists were among the most significant reformers in American history. At times, Emerson embraced reform without hesitation. In "Man the Reformer" (1841), reformers become transcendentalist heroes: "What is a man born for but to be a Reformer, a Remaker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good?" (p. 146). On certain humanitarian issues, Emerson joined the public fray. In a public letter to President Martin Van Buren (1838), he protests the government's removal of Cherokee Indians from their lands in Mississippi and Georgia. Native Americans were not the focus of a major antebellum reform movement, but the horrific history of white-Indian relations did provoke writers such as Emerson, Lydia Maria Child in Hobomok (1824), and Catharine Maria Sedgwick in Hope Leslie (1827) to draw attention to the unjust treatment of American Indians. Although he avoided public comments on slavery for several years, Emerson spoke in support of abolition in the 1840s and later threw himself into the increasingly fierce battles over slavery with addresses on the radical abolitionist John Brown (in 1859) and the Fugitive Slave Law (in 1854), the harsh federal law passed in 1850 requiring northern states to return runaway slaves.

Despite its sharp criticism of reformers, Walden has long been recognized as a reform classic because of its anti-authoritarian stands, its criticism of society's corrupting influence, and its insistence that reform begin with the individual. Instead of joining those who were "hacking at the branches of evil," Thoreau in Walden was "striking at the root" of social wrongs (p. 51). A committed abolitionist and ardent admirer of John Brown, Thoreau opposed the imperialistic Mexican-American War and refused to pay his poll tax in protest. This act of civil disobedience led to a night in jail and the most famous reform essay in American literature, "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849). In that work, Thoreau defends those who would disobey "unjust laws" (p. 233) and resist morally bankrupt governments. He seeks instead the development of democracy redefined in terms of "progress toward a true respect for the individual" (p. 245).

Other transcendentalists were typically less contrary about reform. In "The Laboring Classes" (1840), Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803–1876) examines the exploitation of the working classes and argues, "men are rewarded in an inverse ratio to the amount of actual service they perform" (p. 255). To correct problems created by class hierarchy, he advocates radical reform of the economy and state, one that includes the abolition of inherited wealth, by force if necessary. Although he would eventually abandon transcendentalism for Catholicism, Brownson's essay and his journal, the Boston Quarterly Review (which enthusiastically championed transcendentalism), defend the individual against the corrupting influences of a damaged civilization. Concern with workers, economics, and poverty inspired a number of nontranscendental authors as well. In The Quaker City (1844–1845), the reform-minded George Lippard (1822–1854) uses lurid images and sensationalistic plot lines to attack social injustice. The dramatist Dion Boucicault (1820 or 1822–1890) exposes the poverty of urban tenement life in his play The Poor of New York (1857), which takes place during the panics of 1837 and 1857.

Another radical transcendentalist of the 1840s, Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), championed the equality of the sexes. The editor of The Dial from 1840 to 1842, Fuller published her pioneering feminist essay "The Great Lawsuit" in 1843. A hopeful and learned tour de force, "The Great Lawsuit" provides an androgynous image of the soul: "There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman" (p. 418). Such a vision supports her contention that the social restriction of women because of their wrongly imagined difference from men should be removed: "We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man" (p. 394). In 1845 she expanded the essay into the feminist classic, Woman in the Nineteenth Century. In 1844 Fuller left parochial New England to work as a book review editor for Horace Greeley's New-York Daily Tribune. In 1846 she became a foreign correspondent and saw Europe on the brink of and in the thrall of the Revolutions of 1848. In a series of thirty-seven dispatches, she shared these experiences and her reflections on them. During three whirlwind years in Europe—in which she had a son, married an Italian aristocrat named Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, and participated in the Italian revolution of 1848–1849—Fuller developed a perspective on reform more expansive and radical than her transcendentalist friends had ever imagined. In 1850, as she was returning to the United States with her manuscript on the history of the revolution in Italy, her ship wrecked off Fire Island, New York, claiming the lives of Fuller, Ossoli, and their son, Angelino.


An important expression of reform fervor appeared in the utopian communities that flourished during the period. New communities had been established prior to the 1820s; the famously chaste Shakers, for example, founded their first settlement in 1787. After the war of 1812, many more groups created their own communities, perhaps more than a hundred before the Civil War. Many were religious, such as the Mormons, brought into existence by Joseph Smith (1805–1844) in 1830. Others were secular and socialist. Robert Owen (1771–1858), a Scottish industrialist and the author of A New View of Society (1813), started the egalitarian New Harmony settlement in rural Indiana in 1825. More than thirty communities across the United States were established using the elaborate and meticulously detailed ideas of the French utopian socialist thinker Charles Fourier (1772–1837). Other new communities blended unconventional religious ideas with worldly concerns. John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886), committed to evangelical perfectionism and to a "communism in love," founded a utopian community in 1837 and moved it to Oneida, New York, in 1848.

Two utopian communities, Brook Farm (1841–1847) and Fruitlands (1843), had transcendentalist origins. Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), with British disciples Charles Lane (1800–1870) and Henry Gardner Wright (b. 1814), established their community, Fruitlands, on a ninety-acre farm near Harvard, Massachusetts. Based on high principles and various forms of self-denial, Fruitlands lasted just eight months. According to "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873), Louisa May Alcott's (1832–1888) memoir of life at Fruitlands, the men who led this utopia "said many wise things and did many foolish ones," including a nobly reasoned abandonment of farm work: "the rule was to do what the spirit moved, so they left their crops to Providence" (p. 548). For Louisa May Alcott, Fruitlands is a symbol of utopian idealism's practical failure, although she sees such failure with irony and sympathy: "The world was not ready for Utopia yet, and those who attempted to found it only got laughed at for their pains" (p. 549).

Longer-lived than Fruitlands, Brook Farm became a remarkable part of American literary history by attracting the interest of thinkers and writers. Emerson thought carefully about moving there before deciding against it, while Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) did join. George Ripley (1802–1880) and his supporters established Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, about eight miles from Boston. Convinced that their community could be an example for the rest of society, the Brook Farmers embarked on a seven-year experiment that blended communal life with respect for individual freedom, manual labor with intellectual pursuits, and utopian idealism with practical existence.

Hawthorne's letters show that he was dismayed by the endless labor and lack of writing time. Leaving after seven months, he transformed his experiences into one of the most important American novels about reform, The Blithedale Romance (1852). The narrator is the ambivalent, reclusive, but voyeuristic Miles Coverdale. Despite his initial hopes about "the blessed state of brotherhood and sisterhood" (p. 46) at Blithedale, he soon develops grave doubts: "we stood in a position of new hostility, rather than new brotherhood" (p. 52). Hawthorne's picture of reform, particularly in its attention to Hollingsworth, reveals the ways philanthropic zeal can transform a reformer into a "monster" (p. 88) and "godlike benevolence" into an "all-devouring egotism" (p. 89). Hawthorne's attitude toward reform, filtered through the consciousness of his unreliable and hesitant narrator, seems pessimistic. The Blithedale Romance is not, however, simply an antiphilanthropic warning but rather a complex meditation on gender, programs for change, and the motivations of reformers.


Linked to evangelical, transcendentalist, and communitarian reform ideals were a multitude of attempts to improve minds, bodies, and souls through education and healthy living. Despite his failure at Fruitlands, Bronson Alcott was one of the preeminent educational theorists of the era. Seeing children as inherently good and education as the cultivation of their innate morality and inner selves, he insisted that "Instruction must be an Inspiration" (p. 18). In 1834, with teaching assistance from Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), the sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife, Sophia, Alcott opened a school in Boston's Masonic Temple and began to practice what he preached. In an era of rote memorization, his pedagogy emphasized conversation, art, storytelling, and journal writing in comfortable classrooms full of light and air. He criticized corporal punishment and advocated discipline in which students took an active role. He was also an advocate of active learning involving games, exercise, and hands-on lessons. Peabody's Record of a School (1835) and Alcott's Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836–1837) document their pedagogical innovations, but they also generated a public outcry that led to the school's demise in 1838.

Other educational reformers experienced more sustained success. Massachusetts's Horace Mann led the fight to create a nonsectarian and free public education. He helped establish the first teacher-training school, campaigned for public financing of schools, and championed compulsory school attendance laws. Through his nonfiction—his biweekly Common School Journal (founded in 1838) and advice book for young men, A Few Thoughts for a Young Man (1850)—Mann's influence became national. Free public education and compulsory attendance laws soon became confirmed parts of American society.

Many reformers, including those who drafted the "Constitution" for Brook Farm in 1844, approached their efforts with radical goals and high ideals. Convinced that their projects were grounded in "universal principles," not mere perspectives or opinions, they imagined themselves at the vanguard of human progress.

All persons who are not familiar with the purposes of Association, will understand from this document that we propose a radical and universal reform, rather than to redress any particular wrong or to remove the sufferings of any single class of human beings. We do this in the light of universal principles, in which all differences, whether of religion, or politics, or philosophy, are reconciled, and the dearest and most private hope of every man has the promise of fulfillment. Herein, let it be understood, we would remove nothing that is truly beautiful or venerable; we reverence the religious sentiment in all its forms, the family, and whatever else has its foundation either in human nature or the Divine Providence. The work we are engaged in is not destruction, but true conservation: it is not a mere revolution, but, as we are assured, a necessary step in the course of social progress which no one can be blind enough to think has yet reached its limit. We believe that humanity, trained by these long centuries of suffering and struggle, led onward by so many saints and heroes and sages, is at length prepared to enter into that universal order, toward which it has perpetually moved. Thus we recognize the worth of the whole Past and of every doctrine and institution it has bequeathed us; thus also we perceive that the Present has its own high mission, and we shall only say what is beginning to be seen by all sincere thinkers, when we declare that the imperative duty of this time and this country, nay more, that its only salvation, and the salvation of all civilized countries, lies in the Reorganization of Society, according to the unchanging laws of human nature and of universal harmony.

Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education, "Constitution of the Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education," in Myerson, ed., Transcendentalism: A Reader, p. 465.

Peabody, Alcott's colleague and Mann's sister-inlaw, was another important educational reformer. Influenced by Alcott and Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), the leader of the German kindergarten movement, she promoted American kindergartens and an organic approach to early childhood education that emphasized the distinctiveness of each child and cultivation of children's inner natures. In 1862 she published "Kindergarten—What Is it?" and followed up with the Moral Culture of Infancy and Kindergarten Guide (1863), coauthored with her sister Mary Tyler Peabody Mann (1806–1887).

At least one of the Brook Farmers, Nathaniel Hawthorne, abandoned such high ideals. Looking back at his own participation in utopian reforms in his semi-autobiographical novel, The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorne remembered the lack of agreement on universal principles, the comic appearance of the reformers, and the mind-numbing effects of physical labor (despite the reformers' attempts to see spiritual growth and hard work as one).

Our bond, it seems to me, was not affirmative, but negative. We had individually found one thing or another to quarrel with in our past life, and were pretty well agreed as to the inexpediency of lumbering along with the old system any further. As to what should be substituted, there was much less unanimity. We did not greatly care—at least, I never did—for the written constitution under which our millennium had commenced. . . . Arcadians though we were, our costume bore no resemblance to the beribboned doublets, silk breeches and stockings, and slippers fastened with artificial roses, that distinguish the pastoral people of poetry and the stage. In outward show, I humbly conceive, we looked rather like a gang of beggars, or banditti, than either a company of honest laboring-men, or a conclave of philosophers. Whatever might be our points of difference, we all of us seemed to have come to Blithedale with the one thrifty and laudable idea of wearing out our old clothes. Such garments as had an airing, whenever we strode afield! Coats with high collars, and with no collars, broad-skirted or swallow-tailed, and with the waist at every point between the hip and arm-pit; pantaloons of a dozen successive epochs, and greatly defaced at the knees by the humiliations of the wearer before his lady-love;—in short, we were a living epitome of defunct fashions, and the very raggedest presentment of men who had seen better days. It was gentility in tatters. . . .

While our enterprise lay all in theory, we had pleased ourselves with delectable visions of the spiritualization of labor. It was to be our form of prayer, and ceremonial of worship. Each stroke of the hoe was to uncover some aromatic root of wisdom, heretofore hidden from the sun. Pausing in the field, to let the wind exhale the moisture from our foreheads, we were to look upward, and catch glimpses into the far-off soul of truth. In this point of view, matters did not turn out quite so well as we anticipated. . . . The clods of earth, which we so constantly belabored and turned over and over, were never etherealized into thought. Our thoughts, on the contrary, were fast becoming cloddish. Our labor symbolized nothing, and left us mentally sluggish in the dusk of the evening.

Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, pp. 83, 85.

Like the progressive educators who promoted physical activity in schools, reformers also championed exercise, healthy living, and what historians have called "body reforms," linking them typically to moral and religious beliefs. Sylvester Graham (1794–1851)—most famous for the cracker named after him—promoted a system for clean living that included regular exercise, frequent bathing, sexual restraint, and a plain diet with no meat, spices, alcoholic beverages, or coffee. In his crusade against overstimulation, Graham delivered numerous lectures, including his anti-masturbation guide, A Lecture to Young Men, on Chastity (1834), and collected them in a two-volume Lectures on the Science of Human Life (1839). Water cures, or hydropathy—a method for curing physical and mental ills by cleansing the body, internally and externally, with generous amounts of pure water—became an important focus for health reformers in the mid-nineteenth century. In books such as Water-Cure for Ladies (1844), Marie Louise Shew (c. 1821 or 1822–1877) and Joel Shew (1816–1855) advocated Graham-like dieting and bathing practices. Mary Gove Nichols (1810–1884) also devoted herself to the campaign for hydropathy and later authored an autobiographical novel about her reform experiences, titled Mary Lyndon; or, Revelations of a Life (1855). William Andrus Alcott (1798–1859) urged not only cold baths and vegetarianism but also a host of other self-help practices from right reading and good manners to temperance and "purity" in a series of popular advice books.

Orson Squire Fowler (1809–1887) and Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811–1896) made their contribution to physiological reform in America by popularizing phrenology—the study of human skulls to determine character and health. With its lessons and drawings illustrating how physiognomy revealed personality, their Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology (1849) became a widely read self-help book. Phrenology drew the attention of writers including Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and Edgar Allan Poe. The very jargon of this pseudoscience made its way into Walt Whitman's (1819–1892) poems. With phrenological terms like "amativeness" (meaning sexual love between a husband and wife) and "adhesiveness" (friendship or sociability, but also, in Whitman's use, love between men), Whitman found a vocabulary to describe the kinds of love he celebrates in his Calamus and Children of Adam poems, first published in the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860).


Temperance was the leading nineteenth-century reform movement advocating healthy restraint. With origins in the eighteenth century, the temperance movement had gradually established thousands of antidrinking associations by the 1830s. As the movement grew, a large and varied popular literature opposed to heavy drinking emerged. Early temperance classics were often simple moral tales. In Lucius Manlius Sargent's My Mother's Gold Ring (1833), the ring of the protagonist's dead mother helps him conquer his desire for spirits. Lydia Sigourney encourages readers to "Drink deep, but only water" (p. 77) in her temperance poetry from Water-Drops (1848). Other temperance works conjure more sinister visions. George Barrell Cheever's notorious Deacon Giles' Distillery (1835) paints an imaginative image of cloven-hoofed demons producing liquor in a distillery owned by a Unitarian deacon. Author of An Autobiography (1845), John Bartholomew Gough, an alcoholic turned temperance lecturer, became known for his moving if gruesome stories of heavy drinking. Melodrama also played an important role. Temperance plays feature villains who tempt characters into drinking. The dramatic plots of these plays move from indulgence to disaster and despair to redemption. Sensationalistic scenes of alcoholism were often the highlight of such dramas. In William Henry Smith's The Drunkard (1844), for example, Edward, "On ground in delirium," struggles with imaginary snakes and cries, "how they coil round me" (p. 290).

The most famous temperance author was Timothy Shay Arthur (1809–1885), who began his career with a set of journalistic "Temperance Tales" titled Six Nights with the Washingtonians (1842). He published in 1854 the phenomenally successful Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, a novel that illustrates how drinking is both a domestic and social problem. Ten Nights narrates Cedarville's decline following the introduction of a tavern, but it is also a story of the Morgan family's tragedy and partial redemption. In one of her attempts to retrieve her father from the saloon, Mary Morgan is fatally struck by a flying glass tumbler. Before taking her final breath, however, she wins from her father his pledge, "Never to drink a drop of liquor as long as I live" (p. 75). William W. Pratt's 1858 adaptation of the novel became a stage hit.


Reformers often turned to provocative, sensational images to emphasize what they saw as the urgent need for social change. In Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1854), Timothy Shay Arthur depicts the startling, accidental killing of an innocent girl as his way of emphasizing how drinking had horrible consequences for all of society, not merely those who drank alcohol. When an angry and intoxicated Simon Slade tries to throw an empty glass at Joe Morgan, the tumbler misses its mark and strikes the young Mary Morgan, who has come to the tavern in an attempt to persuade her father to come home.

Antebellum temperance also left its mark on authors not so immediately identified with the movement. Hawthorne authored a temperance tale, "A Rill from the Town Pump" (1835), although it throws an ironically critical glance on temperance zealots. Franklin Evans (1842), Whitman's contribution to temperance, tells the story of an orphan whose drinking leads to a series of calamitous events. In stories such as "The Black Cat" (1843) and "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), Poe, a member of the Sons of Temperance, demonstrates his mastery of temperance themes and images but emphasizes the horror and despair of addiction over the possibility of recovery.


Like temperance, the antislavery movement had a major cultural influence on antebellum America. With the militant assault on slavery in David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) and the inaugural issue (1 January 1831) of William Lloyd Garrison's (1805–1879) incendiary newspaper The Liberator, abolitionism entered a new, more radical phase. In fiery speeches denouncing slavery and a corrupt American government, white orators like Garrison and the eloquent Wendell Phillips (1811–1884) demand unconditional emancipation. Despite widespread antebellum wariness about women who took an active role in public life, women contributed substantially to the antislavery movement and its literature. As daring and emotional as Garrison's orations, if not as harsh, Lydia Maria Child's (1802–1880) An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) uses a carefully reasoned argument and extensive research into slavery and its history in her call for emancipation. Angelina Emily Grimké's (1805–1879) Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836) argues that slavery is a sin and makes an evangelical appeal to southern women to support slavery's abolition as part of their Christian duty.

African American antislavery activists such as Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) were powerful critics not only of slavery but also of racism and the paternalism of white reformers. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Douglass directs his sharp, often sarcastic criticism at slaveholders, Christianity, and the racism of white northerners. In his orations, he takes on equally controversial topics, condemning the Constitution, the hypocrisy of the flag, and the Fourth of July, to make his antislavery point. In "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" (1852), Douglass reminds his audience that the Fugitive Slave Law has made the entire United States complicit with slavery and declares unequivocally, "There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States" (p. 127). A number of former slaves stirred the movement with written accounts of their lives in and flights from slavery. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs (c. 1813–1897) combines antislavery rhetoric with elements of sentimentalism to illustrate the insidious sexual exploitation of enslaved women, while Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860) tells the story of William and Ellen Craft's bold escape (Ellen disguises herself as a white man, while William plays her servant).

Fiction assumed an important place in the anti-slavery literature of the 1850s. Less radical than Douglass or Garrison, Stowe produced the most influential antislavery text, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), a sprawling and contradictory but deeply compelling novel that intertwines stories of slaves, escaped slaves, slaveholders, and abolitionists. Looking for a peaceful resolution of slavery, Stowe wants to show readers the humanity of African Americans (and slaveholders) and the wickedness of slavery. The novel's enormous popularity (the second-best-selling book of the century, behind only the Bible) only exacerbated tensions between the North and South, tensions that led to the bloody Civil War that did end slavery. Several antislavery novels followed Stowe's, including the first novel published by an African American author, William Wells Brown's (c. 1814–1884) Clotel (1853), a story about Thomas Jefferson, his African American mistress, and their two daughters.


Women's participation in abolitionism led to a heightened realization that gendered structures of power were also in need of transformation. When their anti-slavery activism made them public figures, Angelina Emily Grimké and Sarah Moore Grimké (1792–1873) exposed themselves to criticism that they were acting outside women's proper sphere. In Letters to Catherine E. Beecher (1838), Angelina responded with a powerful feminist argument emphasizing women's moral agency and the evil in distinguishing, morally, between male and female. Sarah followed up with Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1838), a theologically grounded defense of gender equality and women's agency. Although they are not the first feminist works in American literary history, the Grimkés's texts provided a rhetoric and an example that would prepare the way for the women's rights activists who organized the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and produced the landmark Declaration of Sentiments, which was authored primarily by the renowned Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902).

The increasing public awareness of women's oppression and the demand for change shaped ante-bellum American writing in direct and indirect ways. Writers like Stanton, Fuller, and the Grimkés were reformers engaged in the transformation of American society; they used their nonfiction to persuade hearts and convince minds. Conversely, Frances Sargent Osgood (1811–1850) was not politically progressive, but her poetry subverts conventional notions of femininity in ironic, amusing, and sensual ways. Like Osgood, Fanny Fern (Sarah Payson Willis Parton, 1811–1872) was not an organizer. Yet her writings—from her novels Ruth Hall (1855) and Rose Clark (1856) to her newspaper columns collected in a series of books from Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio (1853) to Caper-Sauce (1872)—use humor and sentiment to document the mistreatment of women and to satirize the social and legal conditions that reinforced this oppression. Despite the mainstream expectation that women devote themselves to domestic, not public, affairs, American women writers like Fern, Stowe, Susan Warner, Maria Susanna Cummins, and others experienced extraordinary success in the 1850s, selling huge numbers of books and opening the literary marketplace for women.

The women's rights movement saw its most significant success in 1920 when women were finally given the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Temperance too carried on throughout the nineteenth century and experienced its greatest triumph in the next century with the 1919 passage of Prohibition. Yet the reform impulse that inspired so many movements was clearly in decline in the years leading up to the Civil War. As utopian communities failed, slavery persisted, and moral perfectionism seemed increasingly remote, reformers gradually abandoned the hope of a glorious moral reformation of the American people. During the war itself, humanitarians turned to large, bureaucratic institutions, like the United States Sanitary Commission, to relieve suffering. As new ideals such as centralization and efficiency replaced faith in moral suasion, postbellum reformers looked increasingly to electoral politics, legislation, and institutions to accomplish their social aims.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; The Blithedale Romance;Declaration of Sentiments; Education; Evangelicals; Feminism; Health and Medicine; Letters on the Equality of the Sexes;Seneca Falls Convention; Sensational Fiction; Slave Narratives; Suffrage; Temperance; Transcendentalism; Uncle Tom's Cabin;Utopian Communities


Primary Works

Alcott, Amos Bronson. The Doctrine and Discipline ofHuman Culture. Boston: J. Munroe, 1836.

Alcott, Louisa May. "Transcendental Wild Oats." 1873. In The Portable Louisa May Alcott. Edited by Elizabeth Lennox Keyser. New York: Penguin, 2000. Pp. 538–552.

Arthur, Timothy Shay. Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, and WhatI Saw There. 1854. Edited by Jon Miller. Acton, Mass.: Copley, 2002.

Brownson, Orestes A. "The Labouring Classes." 1840. In Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists, edited by George Hochfield. New York: New American Public Library, 1966.

Douglass, Frederick. "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" 1852. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely, pp. 116–127. New York: Norton, 1997.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Poems. Edited by Joel Porte, Harold Bloom, and Paul Kane. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Fuller, Margaret. "The Great Lawsuit." 1843. In Transcendentalism: A Reader, edited by Joel Myerson, pp. 383–427. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. 1852. Edited by William E. Cain. Boston: Bedford Books, St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Myerson, Joel, ed. Transcendentalism: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sigourney, L. H. Water-Drops. New York: Robert Carter, 1848.

Smith, William Henry. The Drunkard. In Early AmericanDrama, edited by Jeffrey H. Richards, pp. 243–303. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Thoreau, Henry D. "Reform and the Refomers." 1844. In Reform Papers. Edited by Wendell Glick. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden and Resistance to CivilGovernment. Edited by William Rossi. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1992.

Secondary Works

Abzug, Robert H. Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Eiselein, Gregory. Literature and Humanitarian Reform in the Civil War Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Ginzberg, Lori D. Women and the Work of Benevolence:Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Griffin, Clifford Stephen. Their Brothers' Keepers: MoralStewardship in the United States, 1800–1865. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960.

Nye, Russel Blaine. William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955.

Packer, Barbara L. "The Transcendentalists." In TheCambridge History of American Literature, vol. 2, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, pp. 329–604. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: TheSubversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. 1988. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Ryan, Susan M. The Grammar of Good Intentions: Race and the Antebellum Culture of Benevolence. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Sanford, Charles L. "Classics of American Reform Literature." American Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1958): 295–311.

Thomas, John L. "Romantic Reform in America, 1815–1865." American Quarterly 17, no. 4 (1965): 656–681.

Tyler, Alice Felt. Freedom's Ferment: Phases of AmericanSocial History to 1860. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1944.

Walters, Ronald G. American Reformers, 1815–1860. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women and Sisters: The AntislaveryFeminists in American Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Gregory Eiselein


views updated May 21 2018


Throughout the fifty-year span from 1870 to 1920, American authors sought increasingly to link their writing to the mission of social reform. For many members of the literary generation that came of age during the 1860s, the carnage of civil war created a crisis in representation, in which forms of literature that were popular before the war now seemed increasingly evasive and banal. To better link writing more directly to emerging social realities, a coterie of younger authors embraced the techniques of literary realism developed by European authors in the first half of the nineteenth century. A literature of the real, they argued, would shake popular American writing out of its tendency toward escapism and would reorient the audiences that dominated the antebellum literary marketplace. One was the audience of women readers who frequently favored writing that the realists found melodramatic, sentimental, and out of touch. Another was the growing genteel middle-class readership that equated literature with a sense of refinement and decorum, seeking to isolate itself from the gritty realities of American life. Literary realism, this new generation argued, would embrace this grittiness—and by so doing alter the goals of American writing. By representing the realities of poverty (rural and urban), prejudice (racial and ethnic), and financial malfeasance (municipal and corporate), these writers sought to elevate their role within American society. Not only would they instruct, entertain, and sell through their writing, but they would also impel social action and political reform.


1870: John D. Rockefeller founds the Standard Oil Company

1873: Financial panic of 1873

1874: Tompkins Square Labor Riot in New York

1877: Federal and state troops crush nationwide railroad strike

1879: Henry George publishes Progress and Poverty

1882: Thirty thousand workers march in the first Labor Day parade in New York City

1884: William Dean Howells publishes The Rise of Silas Lapham

1886: In Chicago 350,000 workers demonstrate for the eight-hour workday

1887: Seven anarchists sentenced to death for the Haymarket bombing

1888: Edward Bellamy publishes Looking Backward

1889: Jane Addams opens Hull-House

1890: William Dean Howells publishes A Hazard of New Fortunes

Jacob Riis publishes How the Other Half Lives

1891: People's (Populist) Party formed Homestead, Pennsylvania, steel strike Hamlin Garland publishes Main-Travelled Roads

1893: Depression begins Stephen Crane publishes Maggie, A Girl of the Streets

1894: Coxey's Army of the unemployed marches on Washington, D.C.

Labor Day becomes an official U.S. holiday

1900: Theodore Dreiser publishes Sister Carrie Frank Norris publishes The Octopus

1902: Ida Tarbell publishes The History of the Standard Oil Company

Upton Sinclair publishes The Jungle

Lincoln Steffens publishes The Shame of the Cities

W. E. B. Du Bois publishes The Souls of Black Folk

1903: Department of Commerce and Labor created by Congress

1905: Industrial Workers of the World founded in Chicago

1906: Upton Sinclair publishes The Jungle

1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People founded

1910: Jane Addams publishes Twenty Years at Hull-House

1911: Fire kills 146 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City

1913: U.S. Department of Labor established

1915: Van Wyck Brooks publishes America's Comingof-Age

1916: Congress passes Federal Child Labor Law Eight-hour day becomes federal law

1917: United States enters World War I Abraham Cahan publishes The Rise of David Levinsky

1919: Postwar strikes sweep across the nation Communist Party of America founded


Edward Eggleston (1837–1902), one of the more popular American writers of the 1870s, articulated as well as any member of his generation the desire to use postwar writing as a vehicle for social change. Reflecting in 1892 on his forty-year career as an author, minister, and social activist, Eggleston wrote: "Two manner of men were born in me, and for the greater part of my life there has been an enduring struggle between the lover of literary art and the religionist, the reformer, the philanthropist, the man with a mission." The link Eggleston draws between religion and social reform is instructive. American literary realists were often people of deep faith who sought to reproduce in postwar America the altruistic "Christian capitalism" they associated with their antebellum youths. They often combined this desire with an urge to re-create the moral universe (a universe more often imagined than real) of prewar republican-ism—the idealized values of personal and local autonomy, civic participation, and moderation in economic and civic affairs. Not all realists shared this vision of reform, nor for that matter did they share the desire to reform society at all. Some, such as Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and Henry James, were indifferent, skeptical, or contemptuous of the reformist impulse. But others, such as William Dean Howells and Hamlin Garland, consistently claimed that writers had an ethical duty to confront social reality, particularly the turbulent forms of industrial capitalism emerging throughout the period. They felt their mission as writers was both aesthetic and social. On the one hand, they sought to elevate American writing to "art," and on the other, they desired to propel their readers toward active, participatory citizenship. "Realistic" accounts of American life, they argued, would revivify sentiments for the equitable system of economic and social relations they believed were passing from everyday American life. Once again, Eggleston said it as well as anyone: he insisted that this new American writing should represent "facts bearing on the subtle principles of social development" ("Social Science at the West," p. 4). Postwar writing, he continued, should chronicle the "very unformed and plastic state of society," so that "the principles of its development shall be understood [and] remedies for its evils shall be known and applied" ("Western Correspondence," p. 4).

Henry George (1839–1897) is a central figure for both American reform and American writing in the late nineteenth century. An occasional neighbor of Howells, and much admired by him and Garland, George shared with them a desire to maintain a system of values and virtues they saw corrupted by commercial capitalism's ability to amass and concentrate extraordinary wealth into the hands of the few. George's influence can be seen throughout the fiction of the period, but is perhaps most vividly invoked in Eggleston's Mystery of Metropolisville (1873). In its desire to unravel the mysterious economic processes at work in Gilded Age America, the novel functions as a companion piece to George's Progress and Poverty (1879), one of the most influential books of the period. Like George, Eggleston saw in the speculation and "concentration" of land major causes of the growing inequalities within American life. The story concerns corrupt land speculators in a small Minnesota town, which, as the title of the novel suggests, is being absorbed into the metropolitan system of commercial capitalism making inroads throughout the period into the hinterlands. After the Civil War, speculative financial panics, which were once localized and thus minimally disruptive, tended to intensify and cascade throughout the increasingly interconnected national economic matrix. These economic disruptions lead to the further consolidation of previously semiautonomous local economies as smaller localized producers were unable to maintain their market position against larger, more efficient, national firms.

In the aftermath of war, an economy of scale emerged that was literally unimaginable to most Americans ten years earlier. Through speculation and industrial consolidation, enormous personal fortunes and new economic entities—trusts, corporations, combinations—began to control the national economy. George was one of the most forceful and influential critics of the emerging order. He wrote in a vocabulary that resonated with the prewar memories through which many members of the postwar generation processed the extraordinary and often inexplicable changes reshaping American life in the 1870s. His solution for economic problems was a "single tax" on land used for speculation rather than homesteading. George surmised that a heavily progressive tax on speculative land purchases would restore order and a human scale to the economy. George's call for a single tax was unrealistic politically and economically (Karl Marx called him a "panacea monger"), yet as much as any literary realist, he articulated the aesthetic credo at the very heart of realistic reform. Consider, for example, this passage from George's "Our Land and Land Policy" an essay from 1872 that anticipated the main arguments of Progress and Poverty, published seven years later:

When the monopolization of land is not permitted, where a man can only take land which he wants to use, unused land can have no value, at least none above the price fixed by the state for the privilege of occupying it. But as land becomes occupied, most of it would acquire a value either from the possession of natural advantages superior to that still unoccupied, or from its more central position as respects the population. This we may call the necessary or real value of land, in contradistinction to the unnecessary or fictitious value of land which results from monopolization. (P. 35)

George's setting of real value against fictitious value captures an issue at the heart of realistic literary reform. The realists knew, of course, that they were writing fiction, but it was a fiction that alluded constantly, almost compulsively, to its grounding in the "real." It rarely interrogated the idea of the "real" as the product of a particular cultural point of view, a social construct, so to speak, that could possibly have different valences depending on the class, ethnicity, or gender of the observer. This considerable blind spot aside, George's sense of real value touches upon the tendency among literary reformers to condemn a set of postwar cultural values many of them considered false and misguided. The issue of land proved an effective means through which to discuss questions of cultural value, providing a vocabulary of sorts through which Americans of the 1870s and 1880s debated the future of their society.


In spite of the ascendancy of industrialization, Gilded Age America remained predominantly an agrarian nation. The promise of accessible land resonated deeply within the Jeffersonian-Lincolnian vision of a moral social economy comprised of small agrarian shareholders. But this was also an economy increasingly overwhelmed by the forces of rapacious overaccumulation, fueled particularly by railroads and the postwar settlement of the Far West, where monopolistic ownership of land provided greater economic efficiency than the more egalitarian settlement patterns of the older Midwest. Monopolistic land ownership, frequently by the railroads, allowed carriers to fix rates for shipping goods to market, usually to the detriment of the small farmer, and gave rise to one of the most powerful reform movements in American history—populism. Populism produced a number of literary works, the most noteworthy being Ignatius Donnelly's dystopian novel Caesar's Column (1890). The stranglehold railroads held over rural societies aroused populist—and popular—outrage throughout the Gilded Age, receiving its most in-depth literary treatment in Frank Norris's (1870–1902) California novel The Octopus (1901). Although not usually viewed as an example of local color writing, The Octopus draws upon a major impulse within regionalist writing that prevailed within American literature for four decades after the Civil War. Widely divergent in scope and intention, both local color and regionalist writing often focused on the symbolic force of land—and communities based on landed economies—as besieged vestiges of "authentic" cultural values. Though local color writing could be ineffectual nostalgia, at its most powerful it used accounts of rural space to critique the "fictitious" values of corporate consolidation and commercial capitalism emanating from the metropolis. This is certainly true of Eggleston's Mystery of Metropolisville but also of the work of Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Hamlin Garland—and at times even Mark Twain.


William Dean Howells, Twain's friend and champion, took some of the most thoughtful and courageous political positions assumed by mainstream writers throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Near the end of his career, Howells's reputation suffered at the hands of a new generation of writers and critics led by H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, who resented his generation-long hold upon American letters. Their critique of his work was haphazard, and tended to harp upon an essay he wrote in 1886 in which he observed that American novelists "concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American" ("Editor's Study," p. 642). Yet in his own novels and social practice, Howells was quick to confront many aspects of American life he found increasingly disturbing, although to many of his later critics he tended do so in a register that was overly tame. Nonetheless, few novelists of the era articulated as clearly and consistently as Howells the idea that the drive toward economic expansion and accumulation had led post–Civil War middle- and upper-class Americans to replace civic and religious responsibility with the pursuit of personal gain. The corruption of middle-class values was a central theme of Howells's most successful novels: The Minister's Charge (1887), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). It also informed his utopian tract, A Traveller from Altruria (1892). Howells also displayed extraordinary personal integrity and courage when he bucked popular middle-class and elite opinion by defending the group of immigrant anarchists falsely convicted of inciting the Haymarket labor riot in 1886, which left eight Chicago policemen dead.

Howells's public defense of the anarchists marked a quickening in the relationship between writers and reformist politics unknown in America since the days of abolitionism. By the late 1880s, tensions between labor and capital had reached unprecedented levels, with many Americans imagining a new civil war based on class rather than race and geopolitics. The tension over class and industrialization shaped Howells's most mature work and also explains the reception of the most popular novel of the postwar period, Edward Bellamy's utopian story Looking Backward (1888). Bellamy's novel of a future society that had solved the problems of the present provided comfort to a population increasingly haunted by strikes, labor violence, and the growth of urban poverty. Told from the imaginative vantage point of the late twentieth century, Looking Backward offered in prescient detail the promise of a future industrial utopia in which the "shocking social consequences" of "the modern industrial system" were solved through a combination of statist planning and spirituality (p. 93). Bellamy called this solution nationalism, a civic and emotional force fueled by an almost mystical sense of social comity he termed the "the religion of solidarity." Remarkable in its own right for its anticipation of many of the social and material technologies of modernist America (and, in some ways, fascism), Looking Backward was also remarkable for another reason: it was one of the few novels in American history to initiate a political movement.

Acting on the phenomenal success of the novel, Bellamy and his readers (who now became followers and converts) established the Nationalist magazine and nationalist clubs, which sprang up throughout the country. The magazine and the clubs championed a social vision that was to form the basis of the modernist liberal state: centralized planning and statist mechanisms for wealth redistribution, desires that fueled both the rise of progressivism in the early twentieth century and the New Deal of the 1930s. The nationalist clubs and magazine were, in fact, part of a larger cultural movement through which writers, cultural critics, and social reformers assumed active roles in political life. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, writers engaged in the Social Gospel movement, Christian socialism, populism, and the settlement house movements produced an array of fiction and nonfiction works that imagined a society based on principles of religious altruism, social equality, and shared wealth, most prominently Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910). Another major figure in this movement was the Boston-based socialist B. O. Flower (1858–1918), one of Hamlin Garland's earliest mentors. Flower's journal the Arena became one of the leading literary and political organs for reformist and at times radical politics. He understood the uses of literature in making his case for social reform, and he urged Garland to explore through his short stories the social contours of contemporary American life. Many of the chapters of Garland's Main-Travelled Roads (1891) first appeared in the Arena. Arena clubs also appeared around the country, fostering Flower's brand of socialist reform and like Bellamy's nationalist clubs paving the way for progressivism, which was less radical but deeply informed by the visions of Flower and Bellamy.

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000–1887 was the most popular American book of the second half of the nineteenth century. Bellamy's vision of a future industrial utopia clashed with the everyday realities of his contemporaries, who feared that industrialism was producing a social cataclysm, pitting rich against poor, capital against labor.

Living as we do in the closing year of the twentieth century, enjoying the blessings of a social order at once so simple and logical that it seems but the triumph of common sense, it is no doubt difficult for those whose studies have not been largely historical to realize that the present organization of society is, in its completeness, less than a century old. No historical fact is, however, better established than that till nearly the end of the nineteenth century it was the general belief that the ancient industrial system, with all its shocking social consequences, was destined to last, with possibly a little patching, to the end of time. How strange and wellnigh incredible does it seem that so prodigious a moral and material transformation as has taken place since then could have been accomplished in so brief an interval! The readiness with which men accustom themselves, as matters of course, to improvements in their condition, which, when anticipated, seemed to leave nothing more to be desired, could not be more strikingly illustrated. What reflection could be better calculated to moderate the enthusiasm of reformers who count for their reward on the lively gratitude of future ages!

Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000–1887.


By the 1890s the tradition of literary reform established after the Civil War—and intensified by the breakdown of labor-capital relations throughout the 1880s—experienced a "second wave," as a new generation of writers (novelists, journalists, social critics) began to emerge who would prove enormously influential in fueling progressive reform in the early twentieth century. From a purely literary standpoint, first and foremost among them was Stephen Crane, whose short novel Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) provided a "stylistic leap" that marked a major turning point in the history of American representation, popular taste, and political reform. Although far more interested in aesthetics than social change, Crane influenced a coterie of Progressive Era novelists whose interest in reform went far deeper than his own. Crane's work affected the writing of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), whose novel of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, provided one of the most explicit and politically influential exposés of the abusive labor practices of the period. Sinclair later ran unsuccessfully as a Socialist for governor of California. Crane also influenced the muckrakers, journalists such as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Jacob Riis, whose exposés of corporate corruption and urban mismanagement created the new field of investigative journalism, and in Riis's case, investigative photojournalism.

The shift in representation that occurred in the 1890s was part of a larger moment of change within the decade. The historian Paul Boyer has noted that in the 1890s a major transformation occurred in the way many Americans viewed reform. Previously, many citizens adhered to a strictly individualist religious model he calls "coercive reform." Coercive reform held people fully responsible for their problems and actions, denying the role that social forces might play in an individual's success or failure. Churches and missionary societies following this model sought to coerce "sinners" to change their lives by changing their behavior—by developing the "character" to reform themselves, which in the Christian vocabulary of coercive reform meant accepting Jesus into their lives. However, to some members of a younger generation of reform-minded writers, many of whom were raised in the church, this model seemed increasingly ineffective against mounting systemic urban social ills. In response, they developed a new model—environmental reform—which argued that in order to change behavior, society needed to change the circumstances in which people lived.

Churches would still play a role in reform activities, but duties previously assumed by the church would shift, following Bellamy's argument in Looking Backward, to a much larger, more effective instrument of social change: the national, secular state. Instead of concerning itself with individual moral degradation, the state (and a good deal of literary realism) would focus on the degraded environments inhabited by both the urban and rural poor. This attitude was a cornerstone of progressive political and literary reform, and although earlier intimations of it could be found in state-run charity boards that began to appear in the 1870s, it was only in the 1890s that this model came to dominate national reformist thinking. By the first decade of the twentieth century, environmental reform and statism began to take hold. During the Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson administrations, the federal government passed hundreds of laws regulating business and commerce. This transfer of cultural authority from the churches to the state was neither sudden nor absolute but rather part of a larger cultural shift that sought to combine in the spirit of Bellamy's Looking Backward a sense of national consensus built upon a secular "religion of solidarity." The Social Gospel movement of the 1890s and the rise of Christian socialism were complementary movements to progressivism. All three drew upon values derived from religious sentiments and sought to use government as a vehicle for applying these values to social reform. Influenced by the work of Tolstoy, Howells, for example, identified himself as a Christian socialist and understood his novels to be something more than literature: they were part of a larger political movement for social justice. At the same time, the Social Gospel movement around the turn of the century produced a spate of novels and tracts, the most influential among them Charles Sheldon's enormously popular work In His Steps (1896), which asked readers to consider contemporary social inequalities as spiritual and religious dilemmas. Sheldon's work presented familiar social problems to its readers and asked them to consider a question that for many of them was both compelling and timely: "What would Jesus do?"

A pairing of texts from the 1890s uncannily chronicles the tensions and transitions within literary reform (both secular and religious) during this period: Crane's Maggie and an obscure text published two years later, The Story about "Meg," a vignette concerning "Meg of the street" that appeared in Reverend T. De Witt Talmage's (1832–1902) book Evils of the Cities (1892). Similar in title and subject, the stories are radically different in presentation, and together they highlight the multifaceted nature of reform and representation in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Crane's short novel was influential and innovative, whereas Talmage's work was popular and prosaic, a literary dead end. Yet both stood at the crossroads of reformist sensibilities and demonstrate the transition between coercive and environmental reform Boyer has in mind. Like Crane's Maggie, Talmage's Meg becomes a "lost wanderer of the street" (p. 270), a young woman overwhelmed by the attractions of the urban world, easily seduced by the promise the city holds for her. Crane's Maggie dwells in a Darwinian social universe at once harshly cruel and indifferent to human longing; Talmage's Meg lives in a tragic world of individual suffering, yet one guided by spiritual transcendence and redemption. In Maggie, Crane creates another kind of world, pioneering the genre of literary naturalism, an offshoot of realism in which social forces dominate the action of the novel, becoming in effect the driving force of plot and character. Maggie's world is an urban world of grinding poverty, alcoholism, violence, degraded labor, lust, and unbridled desire, forces that consistently trump the individual's ability to triumph over misery and despair. It is a bleak world lacking in moral or spiritual transcendence. For Talmage, on the other hand, social forces seem to exist hardly at all; it is not as if they are entirely absent from the story of Meg, but they are presented with a startling lack of detail, all but reducing Meg to a stock figure in a timeworn morality play. There is nothing real or natural about her. In Meg's world, an ossified sense of moral certitude prevails; the reader gets no sense of her motivations or psychology, no sense of her relation to the social universe she inhabits. In this world, abstract selves simply choose to succeed or fail through wise or poor choices; it is a world in which death always has a higher meaning and a moral lesson attached to it. It is a worldview increasingly at odds with progressive reform and literary realism, but one that many reform-minded Americans still held to fastly and devoutly. Scorned by her family, Crane's Maggie dies a fallen woman, a prostitute who wanders off into the darkness of the New York Harbor to meet death without redemption. Talmage's Meg dies a saved woman, redeemed by her family and by "a pardoning Jesus" who takes "back one whom the world rejected" (p. 272).

Crane initiated a form of stark, detailed, militantly antisentimental literary representation that would prove useful, indeed necessary, for mainstream political writers and reformers. Yet arguably, at the century's turn the most significant relation between writing and reform occurred within subaltern populations: blacks, immigrants, and women, who often found themselves the objects of mainstream white male realist representation, but who had little political or cultural power to represent themselves outside of dominant literary conventions. For example, Pauline E. Hopkins's Contending Forces (1900), Frances Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), and Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition (1901) moved the African American literary tradition to new ground. Drawing upon the slave narrative tradition, they moved black writing beyond it, issuing powerful cultural critiques of race relations within black culture and between whites and blacks. Additionally, white women, many of whom pointedly felt their second class status even as members of the white cultural elite, used fiction to plot positions of feminist resistance to patriarchal power: for example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (1899) and Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899). And immigrant writers such as Anzia Yezierska, Mary Antin, and Abraham Cahan detailed the lives of ethnic minorities from a position far more politically informed—and politically charged—than Crane's rendering of Maggie, which is at once sympathetic and contemptuous.


Within this upsurge in turn-of-the-century subaltern writing, the most significant and far reaching work was W. E. B. Du Bois's magisterial The Souls of Black Folk (1902). Deeply embroiled in the politics of contemporary African American life, Du Bois (1868–1963) was the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard. A sociologist by training, Du Bois felt powerfully the burden of living and being between cultures. Central to this feeling is Du Bois's complex and slippery concept of double consciousness, one of the most significant rhetorical constructs of the twentieth century, with implications for psychology, anthropology, sociology, literary modernism, and later in the century, postcolonialism. "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness," Du Bois wrote in understated fashion:

This sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (P. 3)

Double consciousness, Du Bois argued, was both a gift and a curse. On the one hand, it internalized the racist gaze of the dominant white culture and required African Americans to see themselves as constant objects of racial scrutiny. On the other hand, it gave African Americans an ability to see white culture more clearly than did whites themselves; it gave them insights into the workings of white dominance to which whites were often indifferent or oblivious. It was simultaneously a form of painful self-scrutiny and powerful social critique. Indeed, Du Bois's writing was both deeply personal and deeply political and was meant first and foremost to serve as a vehicle for social transformation. In 1909 along with the black activist Ida Wells-Barnett, the white publisher of the Nation, Oswald Garrison Villard, and a group of other advocates for racial justice, Du Bois played a key role in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the more significant American reform organizations of the twentieth century.

Van Wyck Brooks's essay America's Coming-of-Age (1915) provides a useful end point for plotting the entanglement of literature and reform that marked the period between the Civil War and World War I. The period of war and Wilsonian internationalism that accompanied it marked a redirection of progressive energies that left many older writers and reformers fatigued, disillusioned, or at loose ends. Brooks (1886–1963) pioneers in this cultural manifesto a new social role that was soon to become a commonplace: the cultural critic who uses the American literary tradition as a means for waging debates about contemporary American life. Through his critiques of American life, Brooks sought what he called "a usable past," a sense of a shared cultural tradition that might enrich and direct social energies more productively and profoundly than social reform movements. "Movements of Reform," Brooks argued, are "external" and "superficial." "The impetus of reform," he added "is evidently derived from the hope that a sufficient number of reformers can be trained and brought into the field to match the forces of business—the one group canceling the other group. The ideal of reform, in short, is the attainment of zero" (p. 30). Redirecting the energies of the public reform movements that began with Reconstruction and later fueled progressivism, Brooks argued that the only serious approach to society is the personal approach, and that more than economic justice or social equality, what "the majority of Americans" need is "an object of living," a shared sense of individual and national purpose (p. 34).

In a retreat from two decades of activist social reform, Brooks claims that "the center of gravity in American affairs has shifted wholly from the plane of politics to the plane of psychology and morals." "So long as we fail to realize this," he adds, "politics can only continue to the old endless unfruitful seesaw of corruption and reform" (p. 168). Like Ralph Waldo Emerson almost one hundred years earlier, Brooks chose self-help over social action. In terms of literature, the search for self-fulfillment that Brooks championed led many of the best American authors of the 1920s to leave America—and led them to produce in a short span of time the finest collection of American writing since the 1850s. Yet this writing had little consequence for American political life. And when Americans did produce a politically powerful literature, Brooks seemed unable to see it. He missed entirely the work toward racial justice—"an object for living" if ever there was one—that produced the Harlem Renaissance. For most of the citizens and writers he had in mind, the decade-long depression that began in 1929 redirected energies away from a counterfeit form of self-fulfillment—Jazz Age hedonism—and toward the "catchpenny realities" of economic deprivation (p. 7). The Great Depression led many writers back to politics and reform and in many cases took them even further into political radicalism. Indeed, the momentary breakdown of global capitalism led many writers during the depression toward socialism, communism, and anti-fascism. In charting new political territory, these writers tended to disavow the generation of mainstream literary reformers who came before them—and on whose books they were raised. Yet it was these generations—the generations from 1870 to 1920—that, in fact, created part of the "usable past" for which Brooks longed. It was a guiding tradition for the ways in which literary reformers and the literature of reform might begin the work of creating a new kind of reader-citizen, one who would equate the personal with the political and come to see that self-realization and social justice are inseparable goals.

See alsoThe Jungle; Jurisprudence; Muckrakers and Yellow Journalism; Poverty; Presidential Elections; The Souls of Black Folk; Temperance; Women's Suffrage


Primary Works

Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull-House, with Autobiographical Notes. New York: Macmillan, 1910.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward, 2000–1887. 1888. Edited by John L. Thomas. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

Bellamy, Edward. The Religion of Solidarity. Edited by Arthur E. Morgan. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Bookplate, 1940.

Brooks, Van Wyck. America's Coming of Age. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1915.

Chesnutt, Charles Waddell. The Marrow of Tradition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Chicago: H. S. Stone, 1899.

Crane, Stephen. Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. New York: Appleton, 1896.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903.

Eggleston, Edward. The Mystery of Metropolisville. New York: O. Judd, 1873.

Eggleston, Edward. "Social Science at the West." Independent, 7 May 1868, p. 4.

Eggleston, Edward. "Western Correspondence." Independent, 25 December 1968, p. 4.

Garland, Hamlin. Main-Travelled Roads: Six Mississippi Valley Stories. Boston: Arena, 1891.

George, Henry. Our Land and Land Policy. San Francisco: White and Bauer, 1871.

George, Henry. Progress and Poverty: An Enquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions, and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth—the Remedy. San Francisco: H. George, 1879.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-Paper. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1899.

Hopkins, Pauline E. Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South. Boston: Colored Cooperative Publishing Company, 1900.

Howells, William Dean. "Editor's Study: Dostoyevsky and the More Smiling Aspects of Life." Harper's Weekly 73 (1886): 642.

Howells, William Dean. A Hazard of New Fortunes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. New York: Scribners, 1890.

Steffens, Lincoln. The Shame of the Cities. New York: Peter Smith, 1901.

Talmage, T. De Witt. Evils of the Cities. Chicago: Rhodes and McClure, 1891.

Tarbell, Ida. The History of the Standard Oil Company. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1904.

Secondary Works

Boyer, Paul. Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820–1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Dombroski, James. The Early Days of Christian Socialism in America. New York: Octagon Books, 1977.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

May, Henry F. Protestant Churches and Industrial America. New York: Harper, 1949.

Pizer, Donald, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: From Howells to London. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Thomas, John L. Alternative America: Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Henry Demerest Lloyd, and the Adversary Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983.

Wiebe, Robert. The Search for Order, 1877–1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.

Bruce Levy


views updated May 08 2018


REFORM . In everyday usage, the term reform generally connotes advance, progress, modernization. In discussions within religious groups, the use of this word is not so limited. It occurs in the most varied contexts, with reference to a wide range of individual and social questions, as well as with regard to specifically religious matters. Proposals for reform may be directed at the actions, or even the attitudes, of a relatively few persons within a particular faith-community. In this case, unless the change that is advocated would entail either a conflict with the law of the entire community or a violation of public decencyas might, for example, a restoration of animal sacrificesthe change at issue should be of no concern to those persons outside the particular group involved. On the other hand, the reform that is urged may pertain to the entire society. In many modern situations, however, the larger society encompasses members of other religious groups and persons of no religious attachment for whom the proposed reform may seem totally undesirable and unwarranted. If this is the case, and if the reform would affect the lives of persons other than those who propose it, as would, for example, the recriminalization of abortion in the United States, then the proposed reform should become a matter of public concern, properly to be decided by public procedures.

The examples just touched on may seem to suggest that, as applied to religion, the term reform is always used to refer to a return to older, more traditional ways of acting. In some cases, this is so, but far more often the reform that is advocated is seen as a step forward. Its acceptance would further progress toward the realization of an ideal future; rather than signal a return to the past, it would usher in ways that never were, in actual time and place. Every world religion has called often for the moral reform of individuals, both among its own followers and among those others too unregenerate to heed its saving message. The content of the morality thus imagined has deepened with the complications of human culture and will, no doubt, change even further as the social order changes. Often, too, the political and economic conditions of a particular time and place affect the customary morality and evoke a religiously grounded demand for reform. Less often, perhaps, but with reasonable frequency, a call from within has demanded that the religion set its own house in order.

Religious Concern for Moral Reform

Religious sanctions designed to enforce the morality of a particular tribe or other small group almost certainly preceded the religious proclamation of a universal morality. But once the idea of universal morality had been broached, some time during the first millennium before the common era (the "axial age"), it was inevitable that the sovereignty claimed for a moral ideal would become as universal as the ideal itself. Just as tribal cults had maintained their own tribal moralities as sacrosanct, so the universal religions all proclaimed the sacred, and often the revealed, character of their own versions of universal morality. The Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity enshrine one version of such a religiously sanctioned universal moral code. Other forms, some even older, are to be found in China, in India, in Iran, in Mesopotamia, and in Egypt. These codes differ in detail but are alike in their claim to universality.

The most important issue is not which of these codes came first, nor even whether the codes had their origin in religious belief or were merely adopted by the various religious groups. The point is that, once they were accepted as partial statements of the religiously sanctioned rules of behavior, one aspect of the proper function of religion was to try to assure that these rules of moral behavior were observed, and to call attention to any failure to observe them. In this way universal morality added an important accent to the universality of religious ideas, while the emphasis on morality tended to become, increasingly, the raison d'être of religious life. This transformation of tribal religion into universal moral religion had what might be termed its apotheosis in the Zoroastrian tradition of Iran. There, the divine forces of good in the universe, led by the god Ahura Mazdā (Pahl., Ōhrmazd), are in eternal conflict with the comparably divine forces of evil in the universe, under the rule of Angra Mainyu (Pahl., Ahriman). The moral life of each person, if good, helps the cause of Ahura Mazdā; if evil, it aids Angra Mainyu and his cohorts. Thus individual reform has not only a moral but also a metaphysical or transcendental part to play in the age-old struggle between good and evil. In the end, during the final era of the universe, Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazdā will triumph. Thus, although Zoroastrianism has dualistic strains, it is not formally a theological dualism. Through its offshoot, the religion of the solar deity Mithra, Zoroastrianism's theology of moral strife reached the Occident and, through the adherents of Mithraism in the Roman legions, had some influence on both Judaism and Christianity.

In some religions, as in the tradition of Confucianism in China, the moral emphasis has been so dominant as to virtually eliminate concern for the theistic aspects of religious life. This is true also of the classical (Theravāda, or Hīnayāna) schools of Buddhism, which, although they arose in India, have remained especially vital in Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka and Myanmar). A like emphasis on the moral and social aspects of Christianity appears from time to time; it has given rise to such predominantly sectarian groups as the Society of Friends (Quakers) and to "religious humanist" offshoots such as Unitarian Universalism. In some aspects of liberal Judaism (Reform Judaism) a similar moral emphasis has been manifest. In their major developments, however, both Christianity and Judaism have remained too theocentric to permit moral concern to become the autonomous core of religious belief and practice. Relations among people, the central theme of the moral life, have in Western religious thought been considered for the most part as relations mediated through the presence of divinity.

Consequently, the reform of the moral lives of individuals has been treated in Western religions as a means toward entering into a right relation with God, rather than as an end in itself or as a matter of right relations with one's fellow humans. This indirectness of moral consciousness does not imply greater or lesser morality in the Western world than in the Eastern. It indicates only that moral reform has been preached in Western religions on ulterior grounds. As the prophet Micah insisted, God demands of his human creations that they act justly, love mercy, and walk in ways of humility, not before priests, kings, or presidents, but only with their God (Mi. 6:8). Micah, like his predecessor Amos, his contemporary Isaiah, and many of his successors among the prophets, including Jesus, affirmed the centrality of moral reform among religious values over against the priestly emphasis on cultic ritual. Prophetic reform called for the moral regeneration of relations among people as the sovereign road to a revivified relation with God.

In more recent times, as a consequence especially of development in the social sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, religious leaders in many faiths have come to realize that an absolute, universal moral code is by itself not enough to ensure higher levels of morality. Principles like the Golden Rule, whether in its negative ("Do not do unto others ") or affirmative ("Do unto others ") version; codified sets of rules, like the Ten Commandments; even the Kantian categorical imperative ("Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law") all are far too general to give guidance for the majority of specific moral problems. In addition, their very form of expression as rules or laws is foreign to the moral context in which they are proposed as guides.

The reform of individual morality that is sought in current advanced religious thought is one grounded not in a formal rule but in a concern for one's fellows that takes into account all the individual and cultural factors that arise in each moral situation. General rules and laws are the business not of morality but of legislatures and courts of law. In ethical discourse, "right" and "wrong" must yield place to "good" and "bad." As Henry Thoreau wrote, in the mid-nineteenth century: "Absolutely speaking, Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you is by no means a golden rule, but the best of current silver. An honest man would have but little occasion for it. It is golden not to have any rule at all in such a case" ("Sunday," in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers ). To be good is to be "good for" somebody or something other than oneself.

Thus the reform of morality is not to be achieved by the passage of more laws, by the criminalization of more acts. Making more laws only makes more lawbreakers. Criminalizing more acts only makes more criminals. A truly religious understanding of morality would recognize that the causes of immorality are rooted in the home and family, in the educational experiences of the streets as well as the schools, in the popular entertainments, in the world of work and of play, indeed in all the social world that is the matrix within which a child grows to an adult. As these roots differ from child to child, so the development of child into adult will differ. If healthy shoots are to develop, if society is to harvest healthy fruits, then society must care for the roots. This recognition is the reason for religious reform's more recent tendency to place greatest emphasis on social change, so that the soil may be prepared for the growth of a better humanity in the future.

Religious Concern for Social Reform

When the universal religions are in complete accord with the social orders in which they are embedded, they are clearly not serving their proper function within society. They are then functioning as tribal, not as universal, religions. An important part of the obligation and of the value of any religion to society is its ability to make critical judgments of the social order from a larger and more transcendent perspective than the society can adopt in judging itself. The religious view of society and its institutions should properly be sub specie aeternitatis (from the point of view of eternity). In immediate, local, and temporal terms, any social order may seem to be doing very well; viewed, however, from the perspective of the larger religious demand, the demand for righteousness, it may be in very bad condition. It has been noted many times that some of the kings of ancient Israel who had the longest and, from the secular point of view, the most successful reigns are dismissed in the biblical books of Kings with the terse judgment that they "did evil in the sight of the Lord." Religion does not exist to glorify the current social order but as a spur to its reform.

In many periods of history, in many parts of the world, those who spoke for the religion of the place and time have been keenly aware of their obligation to criticize the social status quo and to promote its reform. The modes in which they have carried out this obligation have varied greatly. Some, especially in the Buddhist and the medieval Christian world, have done so by setting up communities of monastics whose "discipline" exemplified an approximation to the envisaged ideal form of social life. It is a measure of the humanness of human beings that these ideal communities themselves frequently needed to be reformed.

Even within these monastic communities there were differences in the degree of separation from the evils of the surrounding social world. Some monasteries were a base from which the monks made sorties into the secular world to teach, to preach, and, most importantly, to exemplify, as nearly as possible, the ideal they represented. Other monastic communities were content with complete withdrawal; this type of community served as a retreat from the evils of the social world, a passive exemplar rather than an active witness. A beautiful example of this type is described by Philo Judaeus of Alexandria in his treatise On the Contemplative Life. In the Buddhist tradition, in its early form, the ideal of the arhat, or saint, although available to anyone was thought most readily achievable by those who pursued the monastic life, that is, by those who exemplified a reformed society rather than those who preached it. On the other hand, among Protestant Christians, the impulse to social reform has tended to be expressed in many different forms of worldly intervention; the most usual, other than charitable relief, has been the formation of special bodies established for the promotion of specific reforms of great urgency, as, for example, antislavery groups in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, temperance groups in the nineteenth and twentieth, and "honest government" groups in every time and place.

The methods pursued by dedicated religious adherents of social-reform causes have ranged from prayer services dedicated to enlisting divine aid to the most militant forms of civil disobedience. Men and women of all religious groups have not hesitated to risk imprisonment, even execution, in their struggle to achieve social reforms that they conceived as sanctioned by their religious commitments. It must be noted, of course, that such social reforms are not always "liberal." Highly conservative and even reactionary positions are frequently defended ardently on religious grounds. Examples of such retrograde "reforms" are commonplace: the retention of the caste system in India; the persistent maintenance of an all-male priesthood in Roman Catholicism; the agitation, in many parts of the United States, for so-called voluntary prayer in public schools. Because it is of the essence of a religious position that it be a strong commitment, religiously motivated advocates of a social reform tend to become, for better or for worse, dominated by a single issue.

If religiously motivated social reform is to have a significant impact upon society in the late twentieth century, it cannot concentrate on a limited range of such matters. In the process of bearing witness to the changes that are necessary in the complexly woven fabric of modern life, many of the older simplicities must be abandoned, however reluctantly. For example, just one twentieth-century development, that of air travel, has wrought great change, bringing all the parts of the earth into relatively close proximity. Long-distance travel and its resultant interactions have become commonplace, not only between residents of one country or one continent, but between people of very different backgrounds and customs from all over the globe. The number of cross-cultural contacts has increased phenomenally within less than half a century. The more mobile of American men and women, as well as a great many American youths, have the opportunity to experience life and to meet people in countries where prevailing customs are different from those in the United States. Similar groups from other countries can now visit the United States and get to know some of its people.

It is inevitable that these multitudes of travelers will soon begin to make critical comparisons of their countries' social orders and institutions with those of countries they have visited. They will not at first be considering larger theoretical questions of politics or economics. They will look at the actual day-to-day lives of people. Their consciousness in such matters will rapidly become a world consciousness. Religious reformists must be prepared to adapt their visions of directions and goals to the concerns of this new kind of "international" public mind. Even as individual churches have had to expand the horizons of their awareness to include the concerns of a denomination, so denominations must broaden their thought to the interlocked concerns of the human world.

Religious Concern for Religious Reform

Religions are not only faiths; they are also churches. That is, they not only express a deep feeling for the mutual interrelation of humankind and the universe but are also organized groups of people who come together on specified occasions for specific purposes, groups of people who relate to the transcendent, to each other, to outsiders, to animals, and to nature in traditional, ritualized ways. In addition to those members who come together periodically for celebratory or ceremonial purposes, most of these organized groups have a professional corps of leaders with specialized educational (sometimes merely vocational) preparation and qualifications. These leadership corps go under various names (priests, ministers, rabbis, etc.). In some cases, they constitute a separate class within the larger society, such as the brahman caste in Hinduism, and they may have still, though in a reduced form in modern times, certain privileges or prerogatives, sometimes called "benefit of clergy."

While some internal reforms in religious life have been inaugurated by members of the nonprofessional group, the "laity," in most cases both the need for reform and the program for putting the reform into practice have been first recognized and then expressed by members of the professional class, the "clergy." It is scarcely to be wondered at that this should be sothat those whose lives and careers are centered in the institution, the "church," and who are, as a general rule, more fully trained for the understanding of matters of religion, should be those who see that old words, old ways, or old rules no longer serve the faith as they presumably did at an earlier time. What does surprise is that so many of the clergy, seeing this, have called loudly for reform of their institution, placing its future and its purposes above their own convenience and comfort. On the one hand, the clergy as a body is composed of those who have most to gain from not troubling the waters, from not disturbing institutional stability; on the other hand, most of the prophetic calls have come from members of the clergy and have pointed emphatically to the need for reform, for change, and, by implication, for instability.

Because there are these two internal strains in each major religious tradition, and perhaps also in the thinking of many individual members of the clergy, religions do changealthough, as a rule, slowly and very cautiously. The heretic of one age is gradually transformed into the saint of a later time; the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas was forbidden reading to Franciscans for many years after his death, and some of his ideas were officially regarded as dubious even at the end of his life. But within a century he was proclaimed a saint, and his philosophy became the dominant intellectual system within the Roman Catholic church. Similarly, the roundness of the earth was acknowledged in practice long before it was accepted in religious cosmology. Step by cautious and hesitant step, reluctant at every move, religious bodies ultimately accept new moral and social ideas and are even led, in the end, to novellae (new theological formulations) and to revised religious practices derived from the new ideas. Characteristically, however, these novelties, on first proposal, are greeted with dismay, even with horror. The earliest formulators of the novelties may be silenced, denounced, unfrocked and expelled from their orders, even excommunicated, as were the founders of many of the more extreme Christian sects of the Middle Ages and as was so well-known a figure as Martin Luther in the early modern period. During the Protestant Reformation itself John Calvin's Geneva burned Michael Servetus at the stake for his antitrinitarian views.

Both Christianity and Judaism, in earlier times, tended to be more akin to tribal religions than to universal religions, and therefore harsher in their treatment of dissenters. In the modern Western world, most religious leaders are more ready to recognize that silencing the thinker does not silence the thought. Toleration of religious reform and religious reformers has come to be the norm in the Western world in the past two centuries. Intolerance, however, has again begun to flourish in the Middle East, in the form of religio-political strife. The resurgence of such conflicts raises doubts whether the message of religious toleration has roots as deep as they seem to be, whether in fact mutual toleration has become as widespread as was once believed. It is surely evident that there is a need for the reform of interreligious relations, as well as for maintaining within each religion a climate hospitable to the idea of reform.

Religious Reform and Traditional Practice

There is no aspect of religion that is more important to the members of any religious group than the traditional practices to which they adhere. Truly, religious practice is the context in which the child that is latent in every adult comes closest to self-revelation. Psychologists maintain that what people learn in early life persists longest in their memories, and the traditional practices associated with every religion are a large part of what holds the attention of young children. Some traditional practices are peculiar to a particular family and remain in use within that family for many generations. Others are traditions of a national group and are carried with the members of that group wherever they may migrate. The most persistent practices are those handed down from the founders of a religious movement or from its great leaders. Some may even be held over from the religious tradition that preceded the one by whose members it is now practiced, as some pre-Buddhist traditions have persisted in the Tibetan form of Buddhism, or as earlier Arab pagan practices were preserved in Islam. Even today, despite its explicit prohibition by the hierarchy of the Orthodox Greek church, a pre-Christian fertility rite (now called Pyrovasia), in which young men jump through a fire as a magical way to ensure good crops, is still performed in Thrace, usually with the connivance of local priests. A very similar practice is associated with the Holi, a spring festival in popular Hinduism. This festival, too, is thought to antedate the Hindu religion, which would explain why it is found only in popular Hinduism and not in the formal religion. Thus rituals and other religious practices precede, in many cases, the religions in which they are preserved; theology comes to people later in their lives and is accepted with little questioning because it comes wrapped in the haze of familiar, traditional rites and practices.

Because these rituals are so deeply embedded in people's consciousness at the most impressionable period of their lives, it would be most desirable if the advocates of religious reform could consistently retain the ancient ritual traditions. In some instances it is possible to do so without being false to the reforms advocated. There is no great virtue in withholding the experience of Christmas celebration from a Christian child on the grounds of the historical falsity of the date, or because snow in the vicinity of Bethlehem is impossible, or because there is no astronomical report of so bright a star as that in the Christmas story. Christmas is itself often reinterpreted today as the Christmas version of a far more ancient festival of the winter solstice, developed by Roman Christians as an alternative to the Mithraic Birthday of the Invincible Sun (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti), celebrated on the day in the Roman calendar equivalent to December 25. To the Roman Christian rites of celebration there were added, as Christianity spread into northern Europe, a variety of elements more suitable to the climate of that region. Easter, too, must be recognized as a christianized and spiritualized version of the widespread festivals celebrating the arrival of spring. To acknowledge the earlier ancestry of these Christian festivals adds a universal dimension to their significance; it does not diminish their Christian poetic and symbolic value. Similarly, it is possible to take many of the festivals of other religions and, while retaining all or most of their attractive ceremonial, to refine their traditional basis. Reforming religion does not necessarily imply destroying its poetry or its myth; it requires only recognizing the difference between myth and actuality, between poetry and history.

There are other instances, however, in which ancient traditions have already had to yield to later and higher ideals, and still others in which the advocates of reform must continue the struggle to change traditional practice. The age-old Hindu practice of satī, immolating widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, was forbidden by British rulers as early as 1829 in those parts of India that they controlled. In the "native states," enclaves ruled by native princes, the traditional satī was maintained for a time but was gradually eliminated. The theological rationale (perhaps originally an economic rationale) could not be maintained against the higher sense of women's personhood that has developed in modern Indian society. Hindu scholar-priests found no difficulty in reinterpreting the Vedic texts by which the old practice had been justified. Similarly, the Bible, the basic text of Judaism and Christianity, still presents animal sacrifice as a ritual practice divinely commanded and to be routinely carried out by the priests. Both religions have long since given up the practice literally commanded and have replaced actual sacrifice with the symbolic sacrifice of almsgiving. Other biblical injunctions, too, such as the "levirate" obligation, in which the brother of a man who died childless married the widow of his deceased brother in order to sire a son to perpetuate the dead brother's name (Dt. 25:5-10), have been either totally abandoned or replaced by a merely symbolic substitute.

Reform is a process that is never finished. Those who carried forward the reforms that have been mentioned, and others like them, may have thought that they had made all the changes that were necessary. But because human knowledge is always increasing, there is no point at which people can say that there is nothing left for them to learn and that all their beliefs are final. It is a continuing part of the religious reformers' obligation to carry on in their own time the unending struggle to renew tradition by bringing features of the religious systems into line with the most advanced knowledge and the most modern sensibilities of their time. There is no reason, for example, why the struggle to achieve parity for women should not, in the present age, be pursued in every religion, even though the achievement of this goal would require the overthrow of certain traditional practices and beliefs. In any area of life in which traditional religious practice comes into conflict with modern sensibility there is a frontier for religious reform. It might well be extremely difficult to eliminate the exclusively masculine language that has become traditional in speaking of God in the monotheistic faiths. But as the role of women in the formal services of these religions is increased, and as certain ritual formulas, such as " who hast not made me a woman," are forced out of the prayer books by insistent and repetitive agitation, the development of a gender-neutral language for religious practice should be possible.

These examples suggest that there are two directions to follow in achieving reform of traditional religious practice. The easier of the two, for all concerned, is to reinterpret, in the light of modern understanding, the theoretical doctrine or historical principle upon which a practice is based, and thus to modify the meaning that the practice has for people today without forcing them to give up the practice itself. Wherever it is possible to do so, the goal of religious reform should be to change meaning without eliminating well-loved practice. Where this is impossible, however, where the practice itself involves a kind of behavior unacceptable in the modern world, reform must be total; the practice and the principle on which it rests must be uprooted, not merely reinterpreted. To be modern, religions must not require either practices that fail to conform to the present-day moral ideas of their environing cultures or beliefs that contradict the best knowledge available. If religions fail in either of these respects, they require reform.

See Also

Morality and Religion; Revival and Renewal; Tradition.


Most general discussions of religion concentrate on antiquity rather than modernity, on tradition rather than reform. An exception worthy of mention is a collection of essays, Religious Movements in Contemporary America, edited by Irving I. Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone (Princeton, 1974). Although limited in geographic scope, these articles present interesting theoretical material on marginal sectarian groups, chiefly among minorities. For our purposes, it is more useful to look at works that view particular major religious traditions in their modern development.


In addition to the useful collection of essays by Hindu scholars, The Religion of the Hindus, edited by Kenneth W. Morgan (New York, 1953), Philip H. Ashby's perceptive discussion in Modern Trends in Hinduism (New York, 1974) looks at recent trends with a discriminating eye. More recent, and more of a textbook, is Hinduism: A Cultural Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1982) by David R. Kinsley, an excellent resource for the reader with little previous knowledge of Hindu religion.


Buddhism, in its many forms, has received a great deal of attention; perhaps the most useful starting point is a collection of essays, Buddhism in the Modern World, edited by Heinrich Dumoulin and John C. Marald (New York, 1976). The Buddhist Religion, 3d ed. (Belmont, Calif., 1982), by Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson, is an extremely informative work, valuable for its broad perspective. Buddhism: The Light of Asia (Woodbury, N.Y., 1968) by Kenneth Chen is especially valuable for its material on Buddhism in China. Similarly valuable for Southeast Asia is Kenneth Perry Landon's Southeast Asia: Crossroads of Religion (Chicago, 1969). Buddhism and other religions in China are the subject matter of Wingtsit Chan's Religious Trends in Modern China (New York, 1969). Comparable concerns in relation to the religions of Japan are presented by Joseph M. Kitagawa in Religion in Japanese History (New York, 1966).


Wilfred Cantwell Smith's Islam in Modern History (1957; Princeton, N. J., 1966) presents a sensitive and sympathetic study by a Western scholar. Unfortunately, it was published too early to take into account contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, which must still find its historian. Smith's Modern Islam in India (London, 1946) is a useful supplement to the work mentioned above. For those who know little of Islam, an older work by Henri Lammens, Islam: Beliefs and Institutions (London, 1968), provides good background material; so, too, does Islam: A Concise Introduction (San Francisco, 1982) by Dennis S. Roberts.


My own work, Modern Varieties of Judaism (New York, 1966), deals briefly with both the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements in Judaism, as does American Judaism: Adventure in Modernity (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1972) by Jacob Neusner. The best studies of the Reform movement, however, are The Rise of Reform Judaism (New York, 1963) and The Growth of Reform Judaism (New York, 1965), both edited by W. Gunther Plaut. For Reconstructionism, consult two works by the founder of the movement, Mordecai M. Kaplan: The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence (Philadelphia, 1964) and Judaism without Supernaturalism (New York, 1958).


The literature of reform movements in Christianity is far too extensive to be listed here. For the period of the Reformation, a convenient summary with a good bibliography is provided by Roland H. Bainton in The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston, 1952). For the modern period in America, as good a brief exposition as one can hope for is found in the last three sections of Sydney E. Ahlstrom's magisterial A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn., 1972).

New Sources

Akbarzadeh, Shahram, and Abdullah Saeed. Islam and Political Legitimacy. London and New York, 2003.

Browers, Michaelle. An Islamic Reformation? Lanham, Md., 2004.

Copley, A. R. H. Gurus and Their Followers: New Religious Reform Movements in Colonial India. Delhi, 2000.

Esposito, John L. Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism, or Reform? Boulder, Colo., 1997.

Mor, Menahem. Jewish Assimilation, Acculturation, and Accommodation: Past Traditions, Current Issues, and Future Prospects. Lanham, Md., 1992.

Phongphit, Seri. Religion in a Changing Society: Buddhism, Reform and the Role of Monks in Community Development in Thailand. Hong Kong, 1988.

Robinson, Catherine A. Tradition and Liberation: The Hindu Tradition in the Indian Women's Movement. New York, 1999.

Sen, Amiya. Social and Religious Reform: The Hindus of British India. Delhi, 2003.

Joseph L. Blau (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 23 2018

re·form / riˈfôrm/ • v. [tr.] 1. make changes in (something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it: an opportunity to reform and restructure an antiquated schooling model. ∎  bring about a change in (someone) so that they no longer behave in an immoral, criminal, or self-destructive manner: the state has a duty to reform criminals | [as adj.] (reformed) a reformed gambler. ∎  [intr.] (of a person) change oneself in such a way: it was only when his drunken behavior led to blows that he started to reform.2. Chem. subject (hydrocarbons) to a catalytic process in which straight-chain molecules are converted to branched forms for use in gasoline.• n. the action or process of reforming an institution or practice: the reform of the divorce laws | economic reforms. • adj. (Reform) of, denoting, or pertaining to Reform Judaism: a Reform rabbi.DERIVATIVES: re·form·a·ble·form·a·tive / -mətiv/·form·er n.


views updated May 29 2018

reform Reform Act an act framed to amend the system of parliamentary representation, especially those introduced in Britain during the 19th century.

The first Reform Act (1832) disenfranchised various rotten boroughs and lowered the property qualification, widening the electorate by about 50 per cent to include most of the male members of the upper middle class. The second (1867) doubled the electorate to about 2 million men by again lowering the property qualification, and the third (1884) increased it to about 5 million.
Reform Judaism a form of Judaism, initiated in Germany by the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), which has reformed or abandoned aspects of Orthodox Jewish worship and ritual in an attempt to adapt to modern changes in social, political, and cultural life.


views updated May 29 2018

A. form again XIV;

B. †restore; convert into another and a better form XIV; change for the better XV. — OF. reformer (mod. réformer) or L. reformāre; see RE-, FORM vb. In sense A, a new formation since XVI, and now usu. sp. re-form.
Hence (or — F. réforme) sb. XVIII. So reformation improvement, radical change for the better XV; (hist.) spec., with R. XVI. — (O)F. or L. Hence reformatory adj. XVI; sb. institute for the reformation of juvenile offenders XIX.


views updated May 29 2018



Sohail H. Hashmi


Hossein Kamaly


Allen J. Frank


Ahrar Ahmad


Mark R. Woodward


views updated May 18 2018


This entry includes two subentries:

Europe and the United States
Islamic Reform

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