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Religion as an Influence on Society


While religion can be quite comfortable with society, there are times when it stands in tension to society. In such cases, religion’s influence is to shape and reform the values of society rather than to uphold and enforce society’s values. In his influential work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber makes a compelling case that the religious values of Protestantism were a crucial factor in the emergence of capitalism in America.  John Calvin, one of the Protestant reformers, had emphasized the importance of serving God in one’s secular vocation.  Consequently, hard work, frugality, and the wise use of resources became virtues in Protestant thought.  It was this influence of Protestantism that seemed to explain how the capitalistic spirit in the new world of North America surpassed that of the capitalistic centers of Europe such as Florence.

Another example of how religion can shape society may be found in a 19th century series of “revivals” that came to be known as the Second Great Awakening. These revivals took the form of protracted outdoor “camp meetings” in the new American frontier.  They were attended by extremely large numbers of people, called for individual conversion and were usually highly emotional. So many of these revivals were going on in so many different places that it was impossible to keep track of them.  They were also conducted on a scale that is remarkable: it is estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 people gathered at the Cane Ridge camp meeting in Kentucky. At the time, the largest town in Kentucky (Lexington) had a population of less that 1,800! 19th Century Camp Meeting

The results of the Second Great Awakening are many and far-reaching. Among the ways that the Second Great Awakening influenced society are:

  •  The emergence of a “Disinterested Benevolence.” In other words, a new emphasis on helping others began to emerge. Sin was equated with selfishness and conversion signaled a shifting from selfishness to a concern for others.  Faith had to be expressed in action, especially action that reformed society and shaped it according to what was perceived to be God’s will.  Consequently, the American Bible Society, the American Colonization Society, temperance societies and the American Anti-Slavery society all came into being in the wake of the Second Great Awakening.   In addition, the Second Great Awakening led to the founding of many educational institutions (such as Furman University) and overseas missions are launched. “The goal is to purify American society and make it ready for the coming Kingdom.”

  •  The Second Awakening helped redefine the role of women in society.  Many of the organizations that grew out of the movement were the first institutions where women could make a contribution take on leadership roles.
  • An anti-slavery movement emerged from the Second Great Awakening. Part of the mission to purify the nation included the abolition of slavery. Interestingly, the anti-slavery movement first emerged in the South. By 1826, there were 45 anti-slavery societies in the South, and the region also led the nation in the number of anti-slavery newspapers. Eventually, of course, this situation changed and religion in the South served to preserve slavery with theological arguments. As this happened, the abolitionist movement emerged more strongly in the North.  Around 1830 two evangelical preachers, Charles G. Finney and Theodore Weld, began organizing church-based abolitionist societies that called for an immediate end to slavery. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, leaders of the abolition movement continued to arise from the ranks of the evangelical Christians influenced by the Second Great Awakening. 

 The effects and influence of the Second Great awakening are still felt in modern American society. Although Second Great Awakening profoundly influenced American Society of the 19th century in many ways, these three examples demonstrate that religion can and does influence society in profound and long-lasting ways.