The term antebellum, “before the war,” is often used by historians to refer to the decades before the Civil War in the United States. “Antebellum” creates an image of a time when slavery was not only legal but an integral part of life in the South, when the first spurt of industrialization occurred in the United States, and when Americans explored and settled the trans‐Mississippi West. The antebellum decades were also a period during which another religious revival swept the country, reformers sought to address many of the social questions that the politicians would not or could not, and American culture, defined through its literature and art, came into its own.
Beginning in the 1790s and continuing into the 1840s, evangelical Christianity once again became an important factor in American life. Revivalism began in earnest at the edge of the frontier with circuit riders, or itinerant preachers, bringing their message to isolated farms and small settlements. Open‐air camp meetings, which could last as long as four days and attract more than ten thousand people from the surrounding countryside, were often characterized by emotional outbursts—wild gestures and speaking in tongues—from the participants. The number of women who converted at these meetings was much larger than the number of men, an indication of women's increasing role as defenders of the spiritual values in the home. The Methodist denomination, which was the driving force behind this so‐called Second Great Awakening, grew from seventy thousand members in 1800 to more than one million in 1844, making it the largest Protestant group in the country.
The “Burned‐Over District.” After its first sweep along the frontier, revivalism moved back east. So many fiery revivals were held in western New York during the 1820s that the region became known as the “ Burned‐Over District.” Foremost among the New York preachers was Charles G. Finney, who found a receptive audience in the rapidly growing and changing communities along the Erie Canal. Finney rejected such formal doctrines as predestination and original sin and emphasized that every person is free to choose between good and evil. Conversion to him was not just an individual decision to avoid drunkenness, fornication, and other sins; if enough people found salvation, Finney believed, society as a whole would be reformed.
Despite its gains for the church rolls, the Second Great Awakening was not without its critics. The Unitarians, who included the well‐educated and wealthy elite of New England among their members, declared the revivals far too emotional and questioned the sincerity of the conversion experience. While the Methodists emphasized the “heart” over the “head,” Unitarianism stressed reason, free will, and individual moral responsibility.
The Mormons. A new religious group also came out of the Burned‐Over District: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‐day Saints, whose supporters were called Mormons. Its founder was Joseph Smith, who claimed that he was led by the angel Moroni to decipher the Book of Mormon, which told of the migration of ancient Hebrews to America and the founding of the true church. Smith and his followers faced persecution wherever they went because of their radical teachings, particularly their endorsement of polygamy. The Mormons settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1839, but Smith and his brother were killed by an angry mob in 1844. Leadership of the church passed to Brigham Young.
In 1847, Young led about fifteen thousand Mormons to the valley of Great Salt Lake and began to develop what he called the state of Deseret, which was organized as the Utah Territory by Congress in 1850. Young became the territorial governor, and although he was removed from the position during his second term because of an ongoing dispute between the Mormons and the federal government over polygamy, he remained the political as well as religious leader of the Mormons until his death.
The Shaker community. Founded in England in the 1770s by Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers opposed materialism and believed in an imminent Second Coming. They found converts in the Burned‐Over District and, during their heyday from the 1820s to the 1840s, established communities from Massachusetts to Ohio. The Shakers did not believe in marriage or the family, and the ultimate decline of the group was due to their practicing celibacy. The Shakers are remembered for their spiritual values and their craftsmanship, particularly in their simple furniture designs, but their otherworldliness set them apart from the Protestant sects that accepted material success as compatible with religion.