Johnson, Paul E. A Shopkeeper's Millenium; Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

What are the social sources of the 1831-32 revival in Rochester? Johnson sketches considerable change in social and work relationship, change that caused instability and disorder. Johnson chose to study Rochester because "the sequence of rapid urbanization, religious revival and political and social reorganization struck that community with uncommon force." (13) Using church records, newspapers, genealogies, tax lists, city directories and other primary sources, Johnson fixes the meaning and impact of the revival in domestic life, work, community relations and politics.

When Charles G. Finney, evangelist, visited Rochester, he preached in sermons that as free moral agents, men and women could change themselves and their world, becoming useful citizens of a Christian republic. Johnson fixes on the importance of "free moral agents," because Rochester, like other towns, was undergoing profound social dislocations.

"The businessmen and masters in Charles Finney's audience had been born into New England villages in which the roles of husband, father and employer were intertwined, and they had reconstructed that village order on the banks of the Genesse. In early years, disorder and insubordination were held in check, for the master and wage earner worked together and slept under the same roof….When workers lived with proprietors or within sight of them, serious breaches of the peace or of accepted standards of labor discipline were uncommon." (139) But this growing manufacturing town could not recreate the past. "Resistance in the workshops, the failure of the temperance crusade, and the results of the elections in the 1820s dramatized what had become an everyday fact of life: workmen no longer listened when proprietors spoke. The authority of Rochester's ruling groups fell away, leaving them with new economic imperatives, old moral responsibilities, and no familiar and legitimate way of carrying them out.…It was the moral dilemma of free labor and the political impasse that it created that prepared the ground for Charles Finney." (140)

Finney's sermons, says Johnson, gave the framework for a new social order. "Revivals provided entrepreneurs with a means of imposing new standards of work discipline and personal comportment upon themselves and the men who worked for them, and thus they functioned as powerful social controls. The belief that every man was spiritually free and self-governing human enabled masters to present a relationship that denied human interdependence as the realization of Christian ideals. Here we arrive at the means by which revivals served the needs of 'society." For we have begun to define the role of religious sanctions in the process whereby a particular historical form of domination could assume legitimacy, and thus could indeed come to be perceived as "society." A significant minority of workingmen participated willingly in that process. And that, of course, is the most total and effective social control of all." (138)

What were the results of these revivals? "In 1825 a northern businessman dominated his wife and children, worked irregular hours, consumed enormous amounts of alcohol, and seldom voted or went to church. Ten years later the same man went to church twice a week, treated his family with gentleness and love, drank nothing but water, worked steady hours and forced his employees to do the same, campaigned for the Whig Party, and spent his spare time convincing others that if they organized their lives in similar ways, the world would be perfect. To put it simply, the middle class became resolutely bourgeoisie between 1825 and 1835. And at every step, that transformation bore the stamp of evangelical Protestantism." (8)

I have a question and a doubt. First, did Finney really preach spiritual freedom as the exclusion of Christian interdependence? He preached a different kind of interdependence, possibly, than what had gone before, and certainly social order. But it would be a gross distortion of the New Testament to suggest that a Christian community should be indifferent to one another's needs - so it seems that his sermons might require closer attention. Finney is online ( Second, religion - in the form or revival - is first and foremost repentance. It may turn to social control and peer pressure, but that is not what drives it to start. I think Johnson perhaps overlooks the question of why people felt a need to repent.