Tuesday, April 2, 2013
49: Bob Abzug's Cosmos Crumbling
According to Abzug, the early 19th century was particularly conducive to this combination of spirituality and reform for three reasons. First, the new republic heartily endorsed religious pluralism; second, the public sphere was full of heated debates about how America could or should define itself religiously; and third, the economy was already beginning to shift into a more modern industrial-capitalist configuration, which caused no end of social problems and social anxiety to go with them. And this relatively unstable environment inspired religious reformers to set their sights on not just repairing their "crumbling cosmos" of social and religious norms but elevating it to the new Jerusalem. Reformers fuse their religious zeal with practical concerns so that these new reform movements become a kind of secular religion bent on changing the world to fit God's plan. Abzug traces an underlying religiosity among reformers, beginning with Benjamin Rush's critique of religion via environmentalism, moving through temperance, sabbatarianism, and manual labor movements designed to 'resacralize' the everyday, and finishing in the 1830s with "body reform" movements like vegetarianism, phrenology, abolitionism and women's rights. This last set of reforms sees the evangelical impulse crumbling under personal antagonisms and conflicting religious views; religion, no longer able to unite reformers, passes back into the private, and abolition and women's rights pass into the realm of the political.
Abzug does only focus on reform movements inspired by Protestant Christianity, and he presents these movements through spiritual personal biographies rather than social or institutional histories; both choices somewhat limit the scope of his conclusions regarding America's wider reform culture. However, he does show that the combination of social reform and religious zeal created a kind of secular religiosity that opened up a space for broader cultural critique.