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Whether or not we are willing to admit it, we are all reformers in some way. Most of us spend a great deal of time and energy fixing problems and attempting to make our lives better in some way. Many also seek to broaden this impetus for reform to include communities, regions, and even whole societies. Christianity certainly lends itself to reform with its emphasis on sanctification and continually working to become more like Christ. My own Christian tradition literally calls itself ‘Reformed’ and emphasizes this continual sense of sin, grace, repentance, and change. Reform is at the core of social justice. But the key underlying issue in reform and social justice is the role of the state. What is the best way to change behavior? Is it to change an individual’s mind or habits? Or is it to regulate behavior through laws that punish or encourage certain behaviors? Historically, American reforms took the form of social control and other times reform grew from a genuine desire to make society better, a reflection of heaven on earth.

Colonial Americans worked to reform the English system to work better to their advantage, but they also worked to reform the native peoples to reflect English and Christian ideas of civilization. In many respects, reforms stemmed from personal and ultimately selfish interests. However, many of the colonial era Quakers understood their faith called them to reject much of the government’s role and focus on the ways to live in peace and harmony with their brothers and sisters. A Quaker by the name of John Woolman came to believe that slavery was morally objectionable and worked tirelessly to free slaves and to talk about abolition to other slave owners.  Woolman  even talked with those who did not own slaves but benefited from their exploited labors. Though the push for abolition did not become a more national conversation for another almost 100 years, people like Woolman demonstrate that not all reformers worked for personal gain.

In the 1800s, Americans worked to reform their society and optimism dominated. The Second Great Awakening, spearheaded by Charles Finney and his sensational frontier tent revivals encouraged Americans to view sin as a choice.

Religious Camp Meeting. Watercolor by J. Maze Burbank, c. 1839. Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts. Gift of William F. Havemeyer (187)

If sin was a choice, than the idea of perfection was possible, for an individual and even for society. The Second Great Awakening spawned hundreds of reform societies, many of them dominated by women, that saw their Christian faith as the impetus for reforming American society to make it perfect and ready for Christ’s second coming. Abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, missionary societies, Bible tract societies, prison reform, and temperance were some of the most popular reform societies in America’s early republic. Some worked to change individual minds and others worked to change legislation. In the temperance movement, for example, some attempted to pass laws that banned alcohol sales or production and even consumption. Others spent their time at taverns, encouraging the patrons to sign individual pledges to resist alcohol consumption and commit their lives to God.

The Populist and Progressive movements of the late 19th century and early 20th century reflected deep concerns about American society. The industrial revolution, mass urbanization and massive influxes of immigrants fundamentally altered the United States and pushed Americans to think about American society in new ways. According to Richard Hofstadter, author of the influential book, The Age of Reform, the Populists were the displaced elite of the idealized and virtuous farmers that used morality to appeal to agrarian myth in order to reform the system by getting the government to preserve the agrarian economic system instead of an urban, immigrant industrialized vision of the United States. While there is not one lone narrative of the Progressive Era, the key ideas included government intervention and the end of a laissez faire economic system by instituting government regulation of the marketplace and the economy, a critical change with direct continuity to the New Deal era and push for civil rights in the later 20th century. The Progressive Era also saw the rise of a professional ‘expert bureaucracy’ and enormous growth of administrative government, the increasingly public role of women in promoting public sentiments of social reform, and key changes in the relationship between Americans and their government.  Americans, regardless of their political affiliations, lobbied, formed interest groups, and demonstrated their concerns about society and expected the government to fix society.

While reform and the push for the government to enact those reforms remained central, social justice continued its quiet but persistent voice. People like Ida B. Wells-Barnett sued railroad companies in 1884 for segregated seating and petitioned the people and government to end the practices of lynching African Americans. Many Christians saw their reforms of child labor laws or safe working conditions as an outgrowth of their faith tradition, but they now focused their attention on getting governmental laws and regulations to uphold their reforms.

To what degree is enacting social reform through governmental channels a form of social control?

A version of this essay appeared in the blog In All Things, November 15, 2018

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • mstair says:

    Provocative article. Led me to think of “the social justice gospel” as preached in many pulpits these days. It is embedded in Christ’s teaching though, albeit more preferably accepted in the 21st. century than sin/repentance/ forgiveness/sanctification.

    “When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s part of keeping the second table of the Decalogue. It’s part of doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in. (Eph. 2:10).” [KEVIN DEYOUNG | SEPTEMBER 11, 2018]

  • Rebecca, thank you for this wonderful perspective. As a student of history I always appreciate you wonderful grasp of history. I always love reading your work.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Well written, Rebecca! It gives an impetus to evaluate the motivation behind social reform: personal responsibility or social responsibility or both?

  • Rev. Peggy Byland says:

    I recently visited the Mexican border south of Tucson, AZ with friends from the Methodist-initiated organization JFON, Justice For Our Neighbors. We witnessed humanitarian efforts to aid immigrants crossing the desert and spoke with border patrol agents. We assisted at shelters providing essential services for people processed for visas and talked with a medical examiner who locates family members of immigrants found dead in the desert. We returned to northern Michigan with a desire to effect immigrant reform (Michigan is a border state with checkpoints and detention centers also).
    We know it takes many people to change government legislation and the efforts of a few soon tire and lose impetus. With prayer, discernment and group support we are looking for a way forward.
    It is insightful to read of historical movements for justice.

  • John vanStaalduinen says:

    To what degree? 100%.

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