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Gura, “Man’s Better Angels”

This week our Scholarship Roundup contains books on the sociology and social history of religion in America. We begin today with a recent book from the Harvard University Press on American reform movements. A zeal for reforming society has long characterized American life, ever since the New England Puritans undertook their errand into the wilderness in the seventeenth century. Over time, though, the Calvinist Christian associations disappeared, to be replaced by other, non-sectarian forms of social progress. This past spring, Harvard published a history of some important antebellum reform movements, Man’s Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War, by University of North Carolina historian Philip F. Gura. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

9780674659544-lgBanks failed, credit contracted, inequality grew, and people everywhere were out of work while political paralysis and slavery threatened to rend the nation in two. As financial crises always have, the Panic of 1837 drew forth a plethora of reformers who promised to restore America to greatness. Animated by an ethic of individualism and self-reliance, they became prophets of a new moral order: if only their fellow countrymen would call on each individual’s God-given better instincts, the most intractable problems could be resolved.

Inspired by this reformist fervor, Americans took to strict dieting, water cures, phrenology readings, mesmerism, utopian communities, free love, mutual banking, and a host of other elaborate self-improvement schemes. Vocal activists were certain that solutions to the country’s ills started with the reformation of individuals, and through them communities, and through communities the nation. This set of assumptions ignored the hard political and economic realities at the core of the country’s malaise, however, and did nothing to prevent another financial panic twenty years later, followed by secession and civil war.

Focusing on seven individuals—George Ripley, Horace Greeley, William B. Greene, Orson Squire Fowler, Mary Gove Nichols, Henry David Thoreau, and John Brown—Philip Gura explores their efforts, from the comical to the homicidal, to beat a new path to prosperity. A narrative of people and ideas, Man’s Better Angels captures an intellectual moment in American history that has been overshadowed by the Civil War and the pragmatism that arose in its wake.