The Religious Roots of the Abolitionist Movement

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  • 0:00 Abolitionism
  • 0:59 The Great Second Awakening
  • 2:14 Religion and Abolition
  • 3:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Leading up to the Civil War, American reformers latched onto the goal of getting rid of slavery. In this lesson, we'll explore how this movement was connected to the religious ideals of the 19th century.


When people think about protestors waving signs and marching against the government, they may think about the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, or maybe the hippies of the 1960s. However, radical protests are nothing new. Some of the greatest protests in American history occurred during the Antebellum period, which was the time between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, when American society was redefined by massive reforms that swept the country. As the nation slowly began dividing and moving towards the Civil War, the predominant issue on everybody's mind was slavery, and that too was part of the reform-minded protests of the time.

The abolitionists advocated for the immediate and total end of slavery, which back then was a radical notion. However, abolition was not something that simply appeared on its own. It was part of a greater period of change that would redefine the nation and shake American values to their core.

The Second Great Awakening

So, what exactly was going on in the early 19th century? Reformers started focusing on a variety of issues, from prisons to temperance to women's rights, but the basis for all of this was religion. In a period called the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense religious revival, Protestant Christian fervor swept across the United States. This was the era of hellfire and brimstone evangelical preachers giving fiery sermons to massive crowds of cheering, praying and singing worshippers. This period, which lasted from roughly 1800 through the 1840s, redefined American culture along some very specific moral ideas.

For one, the Second Great Awakening pushed the idea that every single person had an individual, moral responsibility to improve the world around them. If you saw something immoral, you had to take direct action and fix it. This also meant that the moral reformers of this movement could not compromise. The word of God was absolute, and since every person had this moral responsibility, there was no middle ground. If something was immoral, or against the word of God, then it had to go. It was as simple as that. This mentality set the stage not just for simple reform, but for immediate, radical change.

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