A Voluntary Army for Social Reform

[Part 2 in the Revival and Reform series]

“It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The odium thrown upon the ministry was inconceivable. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable.”

So wrote Pastor Lyman Beecher of Connecticut’s decision in 1818 to sever ties with the Congregation Church as its official, state-sponsored church. Almost all of the colonies had been officially connected either to the Church of England or the Congregational Church. Many required publicly elected officials to take an oath affirming their belief in the Trinity and the inspiration of the Scriptures.

Now that relationship between state and church–in place in some colonies for more than 200 years–was coming to an end. Beecher’s words captured the corporate dread of what lay ahead for the church in America. How would this radical shift affect Christ’s work in this land?

Beecher’s autobiography continued, “For several days I suffered what no tongue can tell for the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God. They say ministers have lost their influence; the fact is, they have gained. By voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever they could.”

This turnabout in perspective gave rise to the “voluntary principle” among American evangelicals. No longer funded or otherwise supported by the state, the church in the early 19th century was on their own. Any engagement with social ills and public morality would have to begin voluntarily in the church.

That is exactly what happened. Between 1815 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, God’s work of revival in America–the Second Great Awakening–produced voluntary societies that engaged in a broad range of social reform. Lyman Beecher was instrumental in creating many of these organizations. Chief among them was the temperance movement, which sought to address the domestic violence, loss of work and wages, and early deaths caused by rampant heavy drinking. Likewise, the abolitionist movement grew as the horrors of slavery became more publicly known by former slaves like Frederick Douglass and through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Beecher’s daughter. As women became increasingly involved in these issues, their desire to vote, own and manage property, and receive education gave rise to the suffrage movement.

Beyond these, the “voluntary principle” in the church birthed organizations that addressed gambling, dueling, children’s education, care for the mentally ill, prison reform, bankruptcy laws, workers’ rights, rescue for prostitutes, care for orphans, and free medical treatment. Opportunities were offered to children in the slums. Education was opened to the deaf, blind, and mute. This panoply of social reform became known as “The Benevolent Empire”–the church’s passion to sacrificially bring justice and mercy to every corner of society.

Considering that the American church was withering and ineffective in the late 1700’s, this shift in influence–even as the government was cutting official ties–was nothing short of miraculous. What were the spiritual impulses behind this flood of charity? What was it about the revivals of the 1800s that birthed such concern and tenacity among God’s people? We will explore that next week.

Pastor Chris

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