Religion as the Cause of Temperance and Abstinence:

How the Second Great Awakening took the Fun out of Nineteenth Century America

By: Savannah L. Williamson

(Submitted to Dr. Jeff Bremer, Professor of History at Stephen F. Austin State University,

for partial fulfillment for the requirements of 19th Century American Social History)


Pre-marital sex and the consumption of alcohol are perennial elements in American life. While many may think this statement would most accurately describe a modern day college campus, it is actually an accurate portrayal of the whole United States throughout the nineteenth century. These trends continued until one reform movement resulted in a sudden decrease in pre-marital sexual activity and in the incidence of constant intoxication. This reform came in the shape of religion. The Second Great Awakening brought about several changes in society that altered the way Americans lived their lives. After the mid-nineteenth century, the use of sex and alcohol would never be the same. Ultimately, the Second Great Awakening, through the reformation of consumption of alcohol and sexuality, shook America to its core and altered the everyday lives of a nation forever.

Religion before the Second Great Awakening was simple: God no longer played an important role in everyday life. God was not interested in a person’s church attendance or tithes. Rather, God would determine a person’s eternal destination, whether a person was saved or damned, based on how life was lived. People became more interested in making money than in going to church on Sundays. This led to a decline in religious fervor, and church attendance. As a result, Americans did not necessarily portray a shining example of good behavior. So, through the pre-revival religious views, it is easy to see why behavior was so unfettered and extreme.

America is a nation with alcohol at its core. Since the Mayflower’s stop in Plymouth for the purpose of finding water to make beer, the nation has always had strong spirits at the center of its society. Since the seventeenth century in America, it was taught to all classes that alcohol was nutritious. Alcohol, in all of its forms, was used as a food supplement so that the daily diet of Americans would not seems so dull. Most importantly, it was safe. In a time when the water could be filled with any variety of potentially deadly diseases, alcohol killed bacteria. Alcohol was safe. So, while people who drank the water became very ill and could possibly even die, those who consumed alcohol did not. This fact also helped people to believe that alcohol was a sort of medication that would cure and/or prevent illnesses. It was used to cure colds, fevers, depression, and it even could provide strength.

All together, it is estimated that Americans drank 72 million gallons of liquor each year. The average American over the age of fifteen consumed an estimated average of seven gallons of spirits each year. To be drunk was a part of life, and liquor had its place in every meal. Anyone who preached against alcohol at the time was ostracized from society. Drinking was even encouraged by public officials, who would distribute whiskey at rallies in order to obtain votes. Unfortunately, along with alcohol come its consequences: people were often drunk, and became a liability to their employees and their households. Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography, even noted the harmful effect that alcohol had in the workplace. Franklin lectured workers that strong drink made them less industrious and he often complained of a decreased productivity in the printing business where he worked. Additionally, it was believed that drunkenness led to poverty, a decline in intelligence, and an increase in inappropriate social visits from the opposite sex. Drinking was part of everyday life, but that would soon change with the coming of religion.

Another area in which Americans were rambunctious was sex. While most people may not believe that premarital sex was very common in nineteenth century America, promiscuity did hold its place within its own facet of society. Family stability in New England communities made it easier for parents to enforce and control sexuality in their young children as they came of age. However, in the Chesapeake, a large number of single immigrants and high mortality rates created a large number of orphans, whose sexual activity was more difficult to monitor. Additionally, single women in the South were in such a high demand early on during settlement, so this possibly made the young women less concerned about guarding their virginity than in New England, or than in a stricter Puritan system.

There was also a great deal of temptation that existed for women in the Chesapeake area, because they were able to remarry if something were to happen to their husband, or if they were to divorce. Knowing this, they may have been easily swayed by the advances of men. Also, with such a high number of single men in the south, southern women had more opportunities to come into contact with the advances of these men.

Within the colonies, there was also a difference between the North and the South in the punishments for pre-marital relations. In the North, as in New England, the church and the courts both prosecuted fornicators with a punishment of fines or whipping. Conversely, with New England being such a racially and socially homogeneous population, with common religious values and a close sense of community, Puritans believed themselves responsible for the sexual wellbeing and safety of all within their society. In these instances, sexuality was charged as a capital crime, the same as treason, murder, or witchcraft. On the other hand, the less tightly knit communities, such as in the South, had a less vigorous enforcement or punishment for violations of such laws. Within dispersed plantation communities or in backcountry areas, where clergy were in short supply to enforce religious adherence to chastity, people simply accepted consensual sex, with or without marriage, and did not condemn the births of illegitimate children. The courts seemed to even tolerate sexual offenses.
The differing labor systems of the North and the South also influenced the extent of the sexual system in America. In the South, any indentured servants made up a large group of young people who could not marry, making them more vulnerable to advances by other men or women. Also, because of living conditions, children were exposed early on to sexual activity. Reproduction and production of goods went hand in hand: the more labor needed, the more reproductive efforts. With the small size of houses in America, children saw and heard sexual activity among adults at a young age. While curtains may have isolated the parental bed, all members of a family would commonly share a room, especially during the cold winters when a single fireplace was used to keep the family warm.

The concept of engagement during nineteenth century America is a gray area when it comes to sex. While officially, pre-marital sex was discouraged, there is evidence suggesting that engagement might have included the right to sexual intercourse. While the church and courts condemned sex outside of marriage, as long as the couple eventually married, they could both remain everyday citizens within the community. So, while pre-marital sex was preached against, if it occurred it was not as critical as long as marriage followed. Consequentially, the incidence of prenuptial pregnancy and conception varied region to region. In the Chesapeake, by the end of the eighteenth century, an estimated thirty percent of all brides were already pregnant; in the middle colonies, twenty-five percent; in the South, between thirty and fifty percent. This was partially attributed to the ideas of the Enlightenment that were published and spread throughout the United States in the eighteenth century. In these writings, sexuality was elevated to a level of being good and desirable, as an emphasis on personal happiness was encouraged. This inspired a shift in the family lifestyle. More focus was placed on sexual pleasure, rather than purely on reproduction, leading to a breakdown of traditional restraints during courtship. Also, as survival rates of children rose, less emphasis was placed on conception, so there was much more sexual gratification and individual choice before marriage when it came to sex. Physical courtship became much more common in American society. Thus, premarital pregnancies became much higher by the end of the eighteenth century, with far fewer punishments from within the society and more tolerance from within the family, who were less likely to charge any member with fornication.

So, before the Second Great Awakening, pre-marital sex and conception were a common part of everyday life. This does not mean that all young men and women were having sex; merely that sexual license became more widespread as the religious and cultural restrictions were loosened. As sexual desires were emphasized more, and family size became less of an issue, promiscuity became more acceptable or more tolerated within communities.

Soon, however, things changed. Religion swept across the United States like wildfire, burning strong in the hearts and lives of Americans. The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival that occurred in the United States between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century. Usually preached at camp meetings or big tent revivals, adherence to the word of God was spread swiftly across the country. This revival emphasized a renewed dependence on God. The most influential of the revivalists was Charles G. Finney. Finney began to spread his ideas in upstate New York in the 1820s. Finney emphasized a return to God, a land where Americans would devote themselves to living a Godly life. Church attendance and membership suddenly spiked, and Americans suddenly wanted to change themselves, as well as their neighbors throughout the rest of the country. The Second Great Awakening can be considered a way for the church to put fear into the minds of the congregations. It is also possible that it was a method for the ministers to maintain their traditional roles in the church and in society, with dominance over the masses. The church emphasized order, discipline, and self-restraint to the frontier.
Many reform groups sprang from the Second Great Awakening, including the Connecticut Society for the Reformation of Morals. The main goal of such societies was to suppress evils and sins in everyday lives of Americans. The Connecticut Society, particularly, was charged with the duty of ridding the country of immorality, including Sabbath-breaking, intemperance ,and profanity, and with encouraging order, piety, and good morals.

However, it is now widely considered among historians that the evangelicals of the Second Great Awakening were merely serving their own interests, and not truly aiding mankind. Their real goal, it seems, was social control, imposing their own standards and authority upon the lower class, poor Americans. The cost of this endeavor was a loss of diversity and individualism among American society. Thus, the Second Great Awakening was merely a device for the few to control the will of the many.

While the movement may have had pure intentions in the beginning, it began with a common dislike of the deviance that was spreading across the country. Any shift away from the New England and Puritan way of life was seen as unruly. Evangelism and its benevolence spread in the 1820s, thanks greatly to the work of one man: Charles G. Finney.. Finney preached a perfectionist way of life, free of sins. Finney ‘s rhetoric attacked the moral decline that was taking place in this country, as well as heathenism that was seemingly becoming more common than churchgoing. Most importantly, Finney preached on individual improvements: people can be helped, should be helped, and that the world would be a better place as a result of this transformation. Finney preached these ideas mostly from a revival tent in New York, where people would come to listen to his speeches and take in everything that he was saying about individuals changing their ways.

Ultimately, these revivals were extremely successful for religion, and for the Second Great Awakening. Church and religion became the latest and greatest thing to be involved in if one was to be seen as a good Christian in the United States. The idea was that the individual had not only to go to church and read the Bible; the individual had to approach God and choose whether or not to be saved. So, the individual now appears to have control over his or her own salvation. However, it is not enough to merely do this. Salvation was determined by an emotional, life-changing experience. In order to maintain salvation, one would have to maintain religious devotion through continued experiences with visible impact, both outward and inward, continuous inward piety, and right moral behavior. In the words of Charles Finney, “Conversion or regeneration is the work of the man”. So, while the individual person had control over his or her salvation, one still had to conform to how evangelists defined true salvation experiences and the subsequent moral lifestyle that should accompany it.

The impact of the Second Great Awakening was almost instantly visible within everyday society in nineteenth century America. Thanks to the preaching of Finney and evangelists like him, consumption of alcohol, hard liquor in particular, declined dramatically after 1830. Soon, the average consumption dropped to 1.8 gallons per year per person over the age of fifteen. This was a drastic change from the earlier average of seven gallons. Additionally, the evangelists were helping this number to decline by setting up voluntary societies for the promotion of self control and moderation. The American Temperance Society, founded in 1826, became the example that would be followed by other organizations in order to influence public opinion.

Additionally, the spreading of a moral life style throughout the United States was highly valued in religious circles. Intemperance was seen as something of a social stigma, and groups such as the Connecticut Society for the Reformation of Morals attempted to convert the heathens and draw them away from alcohol, closer to God. Lyman Beecher, a reformer and Puritan minister, began to speak out against liquor. Beecher professed that alcohol would “bring the community intemperance, and poverty, and shame”. Soon, religious organizations and churches, such as the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, had officially gone on record against drunkenness, even appointing a committee to determine enforcement of sobriety and punishment for its violation. Beecher eventually gave a total of six temperance speeches that were soon published and sent outwards from New England in order to spread the temperance movement to the rest of the country. Beecher would have built an empire of societies promoting temperance, pressuring and persuading the rest of America to join them. These societies destroyed all middle ground, saying that any consumption of liquor, no matter how small, was intolerable in the eyes of God. Oddly enough, many decided to find a loophole in the wording of their pledge against liquor. By implication, the word liquor excluded wine and beer, because liquor is something that is distilled. However, many believed that they could still get drunk off beer or wine, despite the message of abstinence from alcohol in all of its forms that was sent through the new religious revival. On the other end of the spectrum, some people went to the extremes and even gave up communion wine in order to adhere strictly to their new rules. By the end of 1840, hundreds of thousands of men in the Northern United States, alone, pledged temperance within three years, and temperance groups began to form outside of religious groups, appealing to men and women of all religions and cultures within the United States.

There were also political effects on society as a result of temperance. While many politicians used to pass whiskey around in order to sway votes, Americans began voting against the ones who drank or promoted drinking or passed around the drink. Party loyalties were broken, and people looked for more sober, and thus more Christian, candidates. Not only did it change campaigning, but it changed how politicians thought of their election strategies. Furthermore, the temperance leaders, whether religious or political, were extremely powerful in the lives of the everyday working American. As a result, there was even more pressure put on citizens to play follow the leader and listen to the lectures that were taught to them, with the key lesson being temperance. Persuasion, not force, was used to convert the masses to the standard which was set by those in power, politicians and church authorities. Those with persuasion over the population set an example through abstinence from drinking. Members of society learned that it would be best for them not to drink it, sell it, produce it, or provide it to others, and advised their friends to do the same. The ultimate goal, similar to many other goals of religion, was shame; a goal that was successful in nineteenth century America.

Just as alcohol took a new direction, coital relations were also interrupted, metaphorically and literally. The reverends and ministers of the evangelical movement began to focus on the individual vices of young people in nineteenth century America. Men like Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst demanded reform after seeing the brothels of New York and all of its virtues, or lack there of. In an attempt to end the “social evil”, he spread the word of the Second Great Awakening to bring social purity to America. Parkhurst involved not only the religious community, but the medical community, preaching chastity and the exclusion of pre-marital sex. Parkhurst even went so far as to link poverty to sexual promiscuity out of wedlock, in an attempt to scare the youth of America into keeping their pants on and doing less reproductive things in their free time.

Others would also preach on abstinence. A Presbyterian minister, Sylvester Graham, wrote lectures on Chastity, denouncing all forms of sexual deviance, such as masturbation, any sexual excesses, and compelling a no tolerance policy on premarital sex or conception. “Venereal indulgences”, as he called them, were not to be yielded to, or there would be terrible side effects. The possible side effects included insanity, debility, and death. The need for sex, or giving in to sexual desires, was considered a spiritual weakness that would be unacceptable in such a time of religious revival. Not only was sex thought to be bad for one’s health, it was bad for the soul, as well. Pre-marital, irresponsible sex was seen as something that would tear the church apart. Pleasing the urges and desires of the flesh involved a neglect of one’s duty to God. Evangelical Christians, in an attempt to preach self control, determined that sexual desire and carnal urges were not physical, but mental. Sex no longer existed within the four humors of the body, but was in the mind, originating from messages between nerves in the brain. Thus, the voice of restraint could be used to overpower these messages and send a new message of self control, with virginity being the religious ideal for all of those who were not married.

With this increase in the practice of control, sexuality was changed within the public arena. Premarital sex became seen as profane and un-Christian by the rest of religious society, and these sinning natures were in need of control. It was no longer as acceptable to have sex before marriage, and young people began to pay more attention to the sermons of their preachers on the subject of abstinence. Women, being drawn in by the Second Great Awakening in the largest numbers, began to save themselves for marriage and had fewer encounters with the opposite sex, in an attempt to retain sexual purity. Sexual expression was, therefore, repressed until marriage.

Soon, decade by decade, the percentage of women who conceived before marriage declined. In New England, the number dropped from nearly one third of all brides being pregnant, to one fifth or sixth by 1840 at the end of the Second Great Awakening, cutting the numbers in half. In some areas, the number of prenuptial pregnancies declined to a mere five percent. This drastic change shows the dramatic changes in sexual behavior. There was a much greater enthusiasm for the idea of self control for the individual, and new boundaries were formed in the ways of courtships between young men and women. Sex became something that was preserved until after marriage, and intercourse before marriage was abandoned by most Americans. Chastity continued to be expected of young men and women by the rest of society, if one was to practice self control and piety in the Christian way. These ideas of communal celibacy, promoted by Sylvester Graham, gave the most dramatic testimony to change in Americas’ sexual ideals and practices. Women renounced their sexuality, and the number of unwed pregnant women continued to decline. It was soon evident that self control over the urge to practice procreation had become instilled in everyday life of nineteenth century America.

The nineteenth century was a time of great change in America. The Second Great Awakening and the revival of religion in the United States is one of the movements that made a resoundingly powerful impact on everyday society in America. This is not to say that religion is the only source of changes within the American lifestyle. However, with the decrease in alcoholism and a an emphasis on self-control over indulgences of the flesh, American society was better able to focus more on individualism and a stronger relationship with God that would ultimately show to benefit productivity throughout the country. With less drunkenness and smaller, older families, America could focus on hard work and the practice of the everyday social values that came to be prized in the nineteenth century. Ultimately, religion and evangelism throughout the Second Great Awakening changed American society by decreasing promiscuity, making it a more admirable if a far less interesting place to live.


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