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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 15: The Ferment of Reform and Culture, 1790 - 1860


Charles G. Finney (1792 - 1875)

Finney was the most influential revivalist of the Second Great Awakening and a president of Oberlin College, a center of abolitionism and reform.

Although he was a successful attorney before turning to preaching, Finney never attended college or law school. Despite his dislike of conventional churches, he underwent a total conversion to religion after reading the Bible on his own. He then abandoned his law practice entirely, saying that he had a retainer from the Lord to plead His cause.

Finney was ordained by the Presbyterians but was often at odds with them and conducted revivals completely on his own. Besides the anxious bench, some of his other new methods included praying by name for the conversion of sinners in the community, holding extended nightly meetings for a week or more, and encouraging women to pray and speak publicly. He also used theatrical gestures, movement, and emotional rhetoric to rouse his listeners.

Quote: A revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means. (Lectures on Revivalism, 1835)

REFERENCE: William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (1959).


Joseph Smith (1805 - 1844)

Smith was the founder and original prophet of the Mormon church.

The poor New York frontier family in which he grew up frequently moved during his childhood. He experienced his first vision of the angel Moroni in 1820, followed by subsequent encounters that led to the discovery of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon recounts the coming of Old Testament people to America and the battles of the good Nephites with the evil Lamanites (American Indians).

The Mormon church was organized very hierarchically, with Smith as Seer, Translator, Prophet, Apostle of Jesus Christ, and Elder of the Church. He gave numerous new revelations before his martyrdom in Carthage, Illinois. The most famous was that allowing polygamy; Smith himself had twenty-seven wives at the time of his death. He had also announced his plan to run for president of the United States in 1844.

A magnetic personality, Smith was down-to-earth, clever, physically vigorous, and virile.

Quote: We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion will be built upon this continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisaical glory. (statement of faith, 1843)

REFERENCE: Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (1984).


Catharine Beecher (1800 - 1878)

Beecher was a prominent womens educator and writer and a member of the famous Evangelical family.

Catharine, the oldest of four Beecher daughters, was very close to her father, and when her mother died, sixteen-year-old Catharine took over much of the responsibility for managing the household and the younger children.

Her plans to marry an unchurched man in 1822 came to naught when he died four months after their engagement, and she took the death as a divine judgment on her. The following year she opened the first of her female seminaries.

Beecher insisted that the young ladies in her schools take up physical exercise and attacked the confining clothing and social norms that restricted women. But she opposed higher education for women and attacked womens involvement in abolitionism and other social reforms. Her popular Treatise on Domestic Economy, written with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, contained practical tips on child-rearing, cooking, family health, and other matters that would enable women to run their homes effectively.

Quote: Any activity that throws woman into the attitude of a combatant, either for herself or others, lies outside her appropriate sphere. (An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, 1837)

REFERENCE: Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (1973).


Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815 - 1902)

Stanton, the cofounder (with Lucretia Mott) of the Seneca Falls Convention, was the most influential nineteenth-century American feminist.

Her father was a lawyer, and she took great interest in his work. When he said to her, Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy, she set out to show him that girls were as good as boys.

She wrote the Declaration of Sentiments for the Seneca Falls Convention and pushed through the demand for woman suffrage. For a few years she wore Amelia Bloomerstyle pants outfits in protest against womens confining clothing.

After 1851 she worked in close collaboration with Susan B. Anthony. Anthony was the traveler and organizer who focused almost exclusively on suffrage, while Stanton was the writer and theorist who advocated a broader feminism and many other radical causes. She was lively, humorous, well read, and a very popular speaker.

Quote: I should feel exceedingly diffident to appear before you at this time, having never before spoken in public, were I not nerved by a sense of sacred right and duty [and]did I not believe that woman herself must do this work; for woman alone can understand the height, the depth, the length and the breadth of her degradation. (Speech to the Seneca Falls Convention, 1848)

REFERENCE: Alma Lutz, Created Equal: A Biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1973).


Mary Lyon (1797 - 1849)

Lyon was a pioneering womens educator and the founder of Mt. Holyoke Seminary (later Mt. Holyoke College).

One of her male schoolteachers told her that the general belief in womens mental inferiority was wrong and the girls could absorb as much advanced learning as they had an opportunity to obtain. She opened her first girls school in 1824 but spent much time pursuing knowledge on her own by attending lectures at all-male Amherst College.

She raised the first thousand dollars for Mt. Holyoke on her own and took no salary until the venture was under way. The original name for the school was to be Pangynaskean (Greek for whole-woman-making), but this was dropped after press ridicule. Mt. Holyoke was unique among female seminaries because the young ladies were taught the same academic subjects as men and because the students managed their own cooking, housekeeping, and laundry.

A very religious woman, Lyon often encouraged campus revivals. She was hardworking, friendly, and very popular with students and faculty. So indifferent was she to dress that her students bought her stylish hats to replace the unfashionable ones she usually wore.

Quote: During the past year my heart has so yearned over the female youththat it has sometimes seemed as if there was a fire shut up in my bones. (1834)

REFERENCE: Anne Rose, Voices of the Marketplace: American Thought and Culture (1995).


Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

Thoreau was the writer and friend of Emerson whose works on nature and civil disobedience have had a continuing influence on American culture.

He was born in Concord, Massachusetts. The death of his older brother John at a young age deeply affected Henry and contributed to the lonely and tragic side of his character.

After resigning from schoolteaching after a few weeks because he refused to discipline the children, he later organized a progressive school, where classes were held outdoors and children were encouraged to develop their own interests.

Emerson agreed to allow Thoreau to build his cabin on Emersons property at Walden Pond if Thoreau would clear the land and put in a garden. Thoreau moved there on the Fourth of July, 1845, and stayed two years and two months. During that time he wrote his two masterpieces, Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

Quote: On his deathbed Thoreau was asked if he had made his peace with God. He replied, I did not know that we had ever quarreled.

REFERENCE: Robert D. Richardson, Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986).


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

Emerson was the most famous American writer and philosopher of the early nineteenth century, whose transcendentalist theories shaped the golden age of New England literature.

He came from a long line of New England clergymen but eventually abandoned both the pulpit and conventional religion. His speech to the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, which questioned the value of historical Christianity, aroused ministerial opposition and prevented his returning to Harvard until 1865.

Emerson was popular in the local community of Concord, where he was once elected Hogreeve (the town official in charge of rounding up stray pigs). After his American Scholar lecture, he was in great demand as a speaker and traveled thousands of miles to deliver his addresseswhich he repeated many times. His booming platform voice belied his generally quiet and mild-mannered demeanor.

Quote: Books are for the scholars idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other mens transcripts of their readings. (American Scholar address, 1837)

REFERENCES: Joel Porte, Representative Man: Emerson in His Time (1979); Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995).



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