In Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination, Bob Abzug explicitly links antebellum reform movements and religion. Using a series of “spiritual biographies” that includes Benjamin Rush, Lyman Beecher, William Lloyd Garrison, the Grimke sisters, and Lydia Maria Child, he argues that reformers in this era – from vegetarians to abolitionists – were inspired by a religious ideal of the way things ought to be. He doesn’t mean that evangelicalism inspired reform – what he means is that reform expressed a religious conception of the universe that many found lacking in more traditional religious arenas. This view of antebellum reform challenges previous histories which tend to focus either on a rational narrative of Progress or a materialist reading of history by shifting the focus to religious thoughts, feelings, beliefs and aspirations. The result is a kind of genealogy of reform “cosmology.”
According to Abzug, the early 19th century was particularly conducive to this combination of spirituality and reform for three reasons. First, the new republic heartily endorsed religious pluralism; second, the public sphere was full of heated debates about how America could or should define itself religiously; and third, the economy was already beginning to shift into a more modern industrial-capitalist configuration, which caused no end of social problems and social anxiety to go with them. And this relatively unstable environment inspired religious reformers to set their sights on not just repairing their “crumbling cosmos” of social and religious norms but elevating it to the new Jerusalem. Reformers fuse their religious zeal with practical concerns so that these new reform movements become a kind of secular religion bent on changing the world to fit God’s plan. Abzug traces an underlying religiosity among reformers, beginning with Benjamin Rush’s critique of religion via environmentalism, moving through temperance, sabbatarianism, and manual labor movements designed to ‘resacralize’ the everyday, and finishing in the 1830s with “body reform” movements like vegetarianism, phrenology, abolitionism and women’s rights. This last set of reforms sees the evangelical impulse crumbling under personal antagonisms and conflicting religious views; religion, no longer able to unite reformers, passes back into the private, and abolition and women’s rights pass into the realm of the political.
Abzug does only focus on reform movements inspired by Protestant Christianity, and he presents these movements through spiritual personal biographies rather than social or institutional histories; both choices somewhat limit the scope of his conclusions regarding America’s wider reform culture. However, he does show that the combination of social reform and religious zeal created a kind of secular religiosity that opened up a space for broader cultural critique.