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The reforms of the 19th century


James Polk
James Polk

The great belief of Northern middle–class evangelicalism—a belief behind most middle–class reform—was that human nature was not irreparably damaged by original sin. In the 17th and 18th centuries Protestants had been certain that nearly all of mankind was damned. Only a few would be saved, they believed, and those only by the arbitrary grace of God, not by their own efforts. These Protestants also thought that most human beings were incapable of correct moral behavior unless they were coerced.

In the first half of the 19th century, most Americans—including nearly all Southern whites—continued to believe that people were morally defective. Coercive institutions, such as the patriarchal family and slavery, were necessary to impose order on naturally disorderly people. Northern middle-class evangelicalism promoted the belief that human beings could change. Evangelists preached that women and men were moral free agents who could give themselves to God and thus escape a life of sin.

In this view of human nature, institutions that hindered individual freedom were unnecessary. Such institutions prevented men and women from assuming responsibility for themselves, thus making it impossible for them to freely give themselves to God and to a life of Christian love and moral improvement. The implications of this view were individualistic and anti–institutional. Some rejected all human government. A few who believed in no government joined utopian communities such as one at Oneida, New York, which practiced a form of free love to remove elements of power from relations between men and women. Others, including many utopians, became radical feminists and abolitionists. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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