Awakening

Rochester

Paul E. Johnson
A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837
1978

The culmination of the Second Great Awakening was Charles G. Finney’s November 1830 revival in Rochester New York. Johnson says this is because Rochester was the fastest-growing city in the US at this time, one of the most industrialized (especially per capita), and the one in which, for various political reasons, “proto-industrialists” decided that “their most favored means of combatting drunkenness, spontaneous holidays, and inattention to work were the temperance society, the Sunday school, and the revival.” (6) This is especially interesting to me, because I tend to want to look past the purely theological reasons for religious revivals and enthusiasm in general (I wonder how future -- or even present -- non-christian cultures will view the millions of hours and thousands of pages American historians‘ have devoted to the intricate particulars of denominational controversy? Even someone as supposedly mainstream as Sellars, with his antinomian heretics...but I digress.), to wonder what motivates -- and
who benefits. So Johnson’s claim that “free labor could generate a well-regulated, orderly, just, and happy society,” as long as it was supported by revivalist moralism and the social controls it encouraged. “The revival was not a capitalist plot,” Johnson concludes. “But it was a crucial step in the legitimation of free labor.” (141)

This is a short book, but Johnson covers a lot of ground in it. I’m not entirely convinced by his description of “America in 1830,” as a “society in which normative and institutional restraints of every kind had fallen apart,” but I’m willing to believe that a particular group of people saw things this way and then found themselves in a position to do something about it. (9) Johnson says most historians of religion give some credence to the idea that revivals are “attempts of bypassed elites to reestablish their dominance,” but he buys into the idea popularized by Tocqueville that kin networks were disrupted, authority had collapsed at every level, and “restraints of every kind were swept away by the market, by migration and personal ambition, and by the universal acceptance of democratic ideas.”

Regardless of whether we call this change barbarism or liberty, Rochester was a place where it flourished. The “first of the inland cities created after 1815,” Rochester had been “unbroken wilderness” at the beginning of the War of 1812. “By 1830 the forest had given way to a city of 10,000.” (13) Because it was an inland city, connecting farmers with remote markets via the Erie Canal, “the wealthiest men in Rochester were merchants, millers, and manufacturers engaged directly in an agricultural economy.” (16) This setting is the part of the story that interests me, more than the details of church membership and revival participation. Rochester “exported 26,000 barrels [of Genesee flour] in 1818, a good pre-canal year. Ten years later the figure stood at 200,000, and by the close of the 1830s...a half-million barrels of flour annually.” (18) Because they dealt extensively with suppliers and customers in the countryside, Rochester entrepreneurs “kept substantial investments in the villages [and] relied on rural relatives and friends for capital and business information.” (20) Kin networks and long-term friendships determined the ways investment funds and marketable products flowed in this system. “Individual fortunes were meshed with social networks...and entrepreneurial behavior was typified by caution and cooperation, and not by ungoverned individual ambition. The result,” Johnson says, “was a remarkably orderly and closed community of entrepreneurs.” (22)

Rochester’s “pattern of family partnerships and family ties extending into the hinterland” lasted beyond its early days. As the city grew, “participation in the boom-town business world” led to “not a collapse of kinship but the strengthening of old family loyalties and the invention of new ones.” (25) Because most of the residents were new arrivals, “agreements between brothers-in-law” outnumbered father-son or uncle-nephew partnerships. This “Rochester pattern reflected the need to increase blocks of capital rather than preserve them.” (26) The result, Johnson says, was “the invention of new loyalties between distant kin and to a broadening of the concept of family.” (27)

In contrast to this tightly-knit world of extended, kinship-based business connections, in which “ungoverned ambition was a fatal liability,” Johnson describes a rapidly growing “unstable urban population.” (35, 37) In 1827, he says, only 21% of adult males “were independent proprietors. The others worked for them.” By 1826, “an editor estimated that 120 persons left Rochester every day, while 130 more arrived to take their places.” (37) If this number is anywhere near correct, the number of people coming and going dwarfed the city’s official population of 10-15,000. The social instability caused by population movement and new employment relations was exacerbated by elite family jealousies that led to political battles. The story of the Anti-Masonic party and Thurlow Weed is a dramatic suggestion that mainstream national politics can spring from bizarre and extremely local events. I’m not sure that it supports Johnson’s argument that the Rochester revival is a model of broader social change, but there’s always tension between the contingent and the representative in histories like this. For my purposes,
A Shopkeeper’s Millennium was very useful. But I wonder whether others interested in the social and economic conditions that form the story’s setting pass this book by, because they don’t want to read another religious history.