Academic journal article International Social Science Review

"Fitted to Receive the Word of God": Emotions and Scientific Naturalism in the Religious Revivals of the 1830s

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

"Fitted to Receive the Word of God": Emotions and Scientific Naturalism in the Religious Revivals of the 1830s

Article excerpt

Charles Grandison Finney opened his series of weekly Lectures on Revivals of Religion that he delivered in New York in 1835 by asserting that, employing the "laws of nature," a religious revival could be induced among a group of people with the same certainty as one might cultivate a crop of grain. As the foremost figure in a wave of early nineteenth-century religious revivals commonly referred to as the Second Great Awakening, Finney played a key role in formalizing both the theology and the tactics of the movement. Like many other social reformers and religious revivalists of the day, Finney employed the language of "science" to support his views. Likewise, many opponents of this new revival style, particularly Hosea Faxon Ballou, utilized this language of scientific naturalism to support their views. Both Finney and Ballou provide a means of gaining greater insight into what role emotions played in the broad shift in American culture toward viewing human beings as part of the natural world, and thus explain their behavior according to its laws. Accordingly, this article situates the study of conceptual frameworks within the context of specific people, institutions, and events, examining the particular ways in which different groups appropriated the notion that natural laws dictated moral norms and social practices. Such a method of inquiry allows one to avoid the extremes of sweeping abstractions about revivals, per se, on the one hand, and antiquarian specificity, on the other.

By studying specific appropriations of scientific naturalism one can arrive at two valuable conclusions. First, building on the historical scholarship that has demonstrated that antebellum Americans did not consider science and religion to be in opposition, one can demonstrate that emotions formed a key component of both spiritual and scientific thinking. This claim calls into question many of the oppositions between rational and affective faculties, between "head" and "heart," that have guided much of the social scientific analysis of the dynamic between science and religion. Secondly, the dynamics of nineteenth-century debates on the interplay of emotions and scientific naturalism can shed some light on the present-day renaissance of interest among social scientists in a variety of fields in the role of emotions. Then, as now, the variety of positions regarding the role of emotions is due to the various appropriations of the language of affect and of naturalism, and not due to any fundamental opposition between them.

More than twenty years of fine scholarship has established that in the half century before the Civil War, learned Americans tended to view scientific inquiry and scriptural doctrine as mutually reinforcing--they were two aspects of the same universal truth. (1) To date, however, the principal subjects of studies of antebellum science and religion have usually been theologians, scientists, philosophers, and others who were typically based in colleges and seminaries, and who carried out their discussions in relatively highbrow periodicals and publications. By expanding our vision of both science and religion beyond learned debates, we can uncover some of the ways in which these more far-ranging cultural dialogues provided many of the conceptual lineaments for scholarly arguments. Chief among these is the displacement of intellect by the affections as the central component of human nature, a shift typically coupled with the extension of "scientific" methodology to managing human affairs that shifted the means of self-government from the will to an environmental fashioning of emotions.

Charles Finney and the Revivalist Employment of Naturalism

Although Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) was born in Connecticut, in 1794 his large farming family joined in the westward migration that followed the American Revolution. As a consequence, he spent most of his youth in New York's Oneida County. …

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