Social Reform Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A wave of religious and philanthropic movements, collectively known as the social reform movement, worked for humanitarian and democratic reforms that included abolition, temperance, woman suffrage, and wider access to education.

Summary of Event

In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo declared, “In the history of the world the doctrine of Reform had never such scope as at the present hour.” The wave of reform that swept over much of the United States from the 1820’s to the 1850’s seemed to prove Emerson’s theory that the human being is “born . . . to be a Reformer, a Remaker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all, and which sleeps no moment on an old past, but every hour repairs herself.” In those decades, people enlisted in a variety of causes and crusades, some of which were of a conservative nature, while others challenged basic institutions and beliefs. Social reform movement [kw]Social Reform Movement (1820’s-1850’s) [kw]Reform Movement, Social (1820’s-1850’s) [kw]Movement, Social Reform (1820’s-1850’s) Social reform movement [g]United States;1820’s-1850’s: Social Reform Movement[1060] [c]Social issues and reform;1820’s-1850’s: Social Reform Movement[1060] [c]Organizations and institutions;1820’s-1850’s: Social Reform Movement[1060] [c]Education;1820’s-1850’s: Social Reform Movement[1060] Beecher, Lyman Burritt, Elihu Dix, Dorothea Fourier, Charles Gallaudet, Thomas Hopkins Howe, Samuel Gridley Mann, Horace Weld, Theodore Dwight

The antebellum reform movement was partly a response to economic, social, and political changes following the War of 1812. Such changes provoked feelings of anxiety in the United States, generating anti-Mason, anti-Roman Catholic, and anti-Mormon crusades. However, change also generated a feeling of optimism and confirmed the almost universal faith in progress that characterized early nineteenth century Americans. Reformers came from two groups: religious reformers and the wealthy who felt obligated to help the less fortunate.

Samuel Gridley Howe.

(Library of Congress)

Evangelical Christianity;evangelism religion played an important role in the origins of the reform movement. The shift from the Calvinistic Calvinism;and social reform movement[Social reform movement] doctrine of predestination to more democratic teachings that emphasized humankind’s efforts in achieving salvation nourished ideas of perfectionism and millenarianism. Not only could individuals achieve “perfect holiness” but the world itself, as evidenced by the movements of reform, was improving and moving toward the long-awaited thousand-year reign of the Kingdom of God on Earth.

In addition to evangelicalism, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution American Revolution (1775-1783);and social reform movement[Social reform movement] —the natural rights philosophy and the faith in humanity’s ability to shape society in accordance with the laws of God and nature—was a stimulus to reform. So was the nineteenth century’s romantic conception of the individual. “The power which is at once spring and regulator in all efforts of reform,” Emerson wrote, “is the conviction that there is an infinite worthiness in man, which will appear at the call of worth, and that all particular reforms are the removing of some impediment.”

Antebellum reformers attacked a variety of evils. Dorothea Dix Dix, Dorothea urged humane treatment for the mentally ill; Thomas Gallaudet Gallaudet, Thomas Hopkins and Samuel Gridley Howe Howe, Samuel Gridley founded schools for the hearing impaired and the blind. Prison reform engaged the efforts of some, and a campaign to abolish imprisonment for debt made slow but sure progress in the pre-Civil War period. Horace Mann Mann, Horace championed common schools, and free public schooling gradually spread from New England to other parts of the United States. Elihu Burritt, Burritt, Elihu the “learned blacksmith,” urged the abolition of war and related evils. Communitarians Communitarian movement , inspired by religious or secular principles, withdrew from society to found utopian experiments such as Oneida, Amana, Hopedale, Ephrata Cloister, and New Harmony New Harmony . The communitarian teachings of French social theorist Charles Fourier Fourier, Charles inspired such experiments as Brook Farm, the North American Phalanx of Red Bank, New Jersey, and the Sylvani Phalanx of northeastern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania;communitarian movement Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and others championed higher education, the suffrage, and legal and property rights for women.

Temperance Temperance movement;in United States[United States] and abolition were the two most prominent secular crusades of the period. Both of them passed through several phases, moving from gradualism to immediatism and from persuasion to legal coercion. The temperance movement began with an appeal for moderation in the consumption of alcoholic beverages and shifted by the late 1820’s to a demand for total abstinence. The Reverend Lyman Beecher’s Beecher, Lyman Six Sermons, published in 1826, were instrumental in effecting this shift to total abstinence; the “teetotal” position was further popularized during the 1840’s by the Washington Temperance Society of reformed “drunkards” (alcoholics) and the children’s Cold Water Army.

Similar to the temperance movement, the abolition, Abolitionism;and social reform movement[Social reform movement] or antislavery, movement moved from a position favoring gradual emancipation and colonization during the 1820’s, to a demand for immediate abolition of the sin of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison’s Garrison, William Lloyd [p]Garrison, William Lloyd;and The Liberator[Liberator] Liberator and Theodore Dwight Weld’s Weld, Theodore Dwight “Seventy” preached the immediatist doctrine, and it was adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society, which had been founded in 1833. During the 1840’s, some temperance and antislavery reformers, disillusioned by the lack of results from education and moral suasion, turned to politics as a means of achieving their goals. Some abolitionists supported the Liberty Liberty Party;and abolitionism[Abolitionism] and Free-Soil Parties, and later the Republicans, and sought legislation preventing the extension of slavery into the territories. Temperance advocates succeeded in getting statewide prohibition and local option laws passed in a number of states during the early 1850’s.

In most cases, the vehicle of reform was the voluntary association. Virtually every movement had a national organization, with state and local auxiliaries, which sponsored speakers, published pamphlets, and generally coordinated efforts in behalf of its cause. Although such societies were often rent by factionalism, they proved remarkably effective in arousing the popular conscience on the moral issues of the day. By 1850, for example, there were almost two thousand antislavery societies with a membership close to 200,000, compared to about five hundred such societies in 1826.


Although most of the reform movements had their largest following in the northeastern and western parts of the United States, their impact was not confined to those sections. Southerners, although hostile to abolitionism and other radical causes, were receptive to pleas for educational and prison reform and for better treatment of the insane and the blind. The temperance crusade made considerable headway in the South. Thus, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the particular cause, the antebellum social reform movement was a truly national phenomenon.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, Lawrence. Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991. An intriguing study of religion, sexuality, and women’s roles in utopian living.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffin, Clifford S. Their Brothers’ Keepers: Moral Stewardship in the United States, 1800-1865. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960. Views the antebellum reform movement as an essentially conservative effort by wealthy reformers attempting to preserve social stability, sobriety, and order.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guarneri, Carl J. The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Evaluates the influence of Charles Fourier’s communitarianism on the growth of utopian living in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880. 2d rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1966. Discusses the general characteristics of utopian communities and describes several important examples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mandelker, Ira L. Religion, Society, and Utopia in Nineteenth-Century America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. Discusses both the social tensions that caused a need for utopian communities and the internal tensions that caused most of them to fail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nye, Russel B. William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955. Explains Garrison’s role in the greater humanitarian reform movement, as well as his involvement with abolition groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tyler, Alice Felt. Freedom’s Ferment: Phases of American Social History to 1860. 1944. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. Surveys major reform efforts in the context of political, economic, and social conditions in the United States. The conclusions have been challenged by later works, but this remains a valuable, comprehensive study of reform.

Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves

Communitarian Experiments at New Harmony

Unitarian Church Is Founded

Free Public School Movement

Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments

American Anti-Slavery Society Is Founded

Seneca Falls Convention

National Council of Colored People Is Founded

Civil Rights Act of 1866

Addams Opens Chicago’s Hull-House

Women’s Rights Associations Unite

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Bronson Alcott; Dorothea Dix; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Charles Fourier; William Lloyd Garrison; Octavia Hill; Samuel Gridley Howe; Horace Mann; Lucretia Mott; Robert Owen. Social reform movement

Categories: History