The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening

By Kathryn Teresa Long | Go to book overview

SIX
"Where is the evidence of your revival of religion?"

Critiques of the Revival's Social Impact

AS SUGGESTED IN THE introduction to chapter 5, the most important sustained critique of the newly "spiritualized" public theology associated with the 1857-58 Revival came from two groups of disaffected New Englanders: non- evangelical abolitionists and evangelical antislavery radicals. 1 Abolitionists had long condemned as unchristian the timid attitude of many northern Protestants toward slavery, and the prohibition of prayers concerning slavery from the union meetings under the "no controversy" policy did nothing to change their opinion. The radical evangelicals were less willing to reject the revival outright, but they opposed its abdication of moral responsibility. In particular, they viewed the retrenchment of the American Tract Society after bitter debates throughout the spring of 1858 as proof that revival piety did little to transform "worldly prudence." The arguments of each group of critics, articulated most effectively by Unitarian Theodore Parker and Congregationalist George B. Cheever, reflected the moral absolutism of the New England tradition and a continuing allegiance to the goal of community moral reform.

Neither Parker's nor Cheever's critiques sparked a full-blown controversy; in the interest of harmony, revival apologists largely ignored them. Nor have historians paid much attention to such voices of dissent. 2 True, the two men represented relatively small, though vocal, constituencies in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who flocked to prayer meetings. Even so, their analyses and the incidents surrounding them illuminate the tensions that continued to trouble northern Protestants despite their consensus vision of a devotionalistic revival.

Theodore Parker attacked the revival head-on in two sermons from his lectern in Boston's Music Hall, one on Easter Sunday, April 4, 1858, the other a week later. Published as "A False and True Revival of Religion" and "The Revival of Religion Which We Need," Parker's sermons negated the positive picture that adherents of the consensus view of the revival wished to convey. Whereas adher-

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