Shopkeeper’s Millennium Essay, Research Paper

The Second Great Awakening profoundly altered the American society. In his book, A Shopkeeper s Millennium, Paul Johnson, traces the social origins of revival religion by researching Rochester, New York, illustrates the development of classes as the society moves toward industrialization, and analyzes the role of religion in this transformation. The author compares and contrasts the middle class and working class cultures of the city through the analysis of economic, social, political, and religious changes.

The streets of Rochester were filled with merchants, farmers, and urban workingmen. It was a mill town and its main product was wheat, which was sent on to New York City. The people were suspicious of outsiders and tried to share the enterprise either with relatives or good friends whom they could trust. The country trade brought great profits and reinforced the family loyalties. It was a federation of wealthy families and their friends. (p. 27) Elite families maintained control over Rochester economy. People were moving not only from place to place, but also between social worlds, as it was possible even for the poorest men to gain fortune and to be accepted into the elite social world. When the Awakening started, most of the followers were millers, merchants, craftsmen, and lawyers, and most made their living by country trade. The revival reaffirmed the moral unity shared by farmers and the more prosperous members of the Rochester business community.

Until the coming of merchant capitalism, most Rochester wage earners lived with their employers and shared in their private lives. This was a way to control the workers and to keep them out of trouble. But in 1827 the work relations changed from family-centered to pure wage labor, and it became difficult to provide employees with food, residence, behavioral models, and domestic discipline. The neighborhoods changed also. As the workingmen moved out of their employer s houses, they created residential areas of their own. The masters separated their families from their work and their economic from domestic time as well. Business-owing families were in retreat from the world of work, and from the increasingly distinct world of workingmen. (p.52) By 1834 the social geography of Rochester became class-specific: master and wage earner no longer lived in the same households or on the same blocks. Workmen experienced new kinds of harassment on the job, but at home they were among their own people, and were free to do whatever they wanted. Masters tried to devise new standards of work discipline, and the two classes fought constantly, particularly over alcohol, which soon became a middle-class obsession . As the result, workingmen built an independent social life, and heavy drinking continued to remain part of it. The alcohol question was a main cause of conflict between the culturally autonomous working class and the entrepreneurs, who considered themselves the rightful protectors of the city.

Now the workers lived outside the families, churches, and social networks that proprietors controlled, and were considered troublemakers. Since the elections were voice-vote, and the participation was limited to the more stable population, rich men continued to win the elections. Village government tried to regulate the people, but it only led to the increasingly offensive behavior and public disorder society was coming apart. Rochester urgently needed a new government. Soon, the Antimasonic hysteria divided and destroyed the office holding elite, and drove them out of politics. Party politicians took their places. Voters made it clear that they did not want to be reformed by force. As a result, candidates stayed away from the questions of temperance and social disorder. The factions were formed, and they split the elite along religious and cultural lines. Then the parties formed: Antimasonic and Democratic. Due to the secret ballot elections, voting was transformed from a public to a private and individual act. Politicians tried not to mention the questions of Sabbatarianism and temperance. The sober and moral part of the population no longer determined what happened in Rochester. For the masters, temperance propaganda meant social peace, a disciplined and obedient labor force, and an opportunity to claim moral authority over their workers.

Johnson argues that religion meant two different things for the middle class and the working class. The Rochester revival served the needs not of society but of entrepreneurs who employed wage labor. Evangelism helped the middle-class to find solution to the problems of class and order. It united back the elite and turned businessmen and masters into active and united missionary army. At first, the revival enthusiasm struck among masters and manufacturers, then it spread through them into ranks of labor. The workmen adopted the religion of the middle class, therefore accepting the beliefs and modes of behavior that suited the needs of their employers.

If I had to go back in time to the 1820 s and 1830 s, and if I had a choice of which class I wanted to belong to, I would embrace the middle class. Even though they were struggling with their workmen and lost political power, they were more stable than the working class, they were not being oppressed, and soon the religious revival helped them to gain control of their workers back. In A Shopkeeper s Millennium, Paul Johnson analyzes the two classes, and illustrates that they were very different. The working class was rebelling against their masters, but the Second Great Awakening pacified them and they embraced the middle-class viewpoints.


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