In our quest to figure out what went terribly wrong in the Northern states, which is to say, why are Yankees so unusually attracted to utopian social reform movements like abolitionism, feminism, environmentalism, vegetarianism, gay rights, and anti-racism, we have identified what appears to be the root of the problem in the Christian heresies that emerged in North during the Second Great Awakening.
This is a topic we will expand upon in considerable detail in Yankee Month in December:
“It was through these early influences that Garrison beheld and tried to make sense of the major trends of his day – the concomitant rise, in the North, of economic modernization and of religious revivalism. Everywhere that the hallmarks of modernization were to be found – in proliferating cities and towns, with their “new”middle class of urban professionals and capitalists; in stunningly efficient factories, staffed by working-class wage earners, churning out goods such as textiles; along the networks of canals and railroads that transported such mass-produced goods to distant markets – so too did one find eager audiences for a new kind of evangelicalism. Popularized by itinerants like the charismatic Charles Finney, this religion was calculated to comfort and guide Northerners caught in a whirlwind of change.
Finney’s message was “perfectionism”: Individuals could and should seek to be as perfect as God, and thus seize control of their own destinies and fortunes. Perfectionism found expression in a wide array of charitable (or “benevolent”) causes embraced by antebellum Northerners, including campaigns to eradicate drunkenness and prostitution, to extend aid to impoverished orphans and widows, and to distribute religious tracts to the poor. Garrison and his circle of immediatists he gathered around him were caught up in this spirit of reform and drew out its most radical and egalitarian implications. They sought “moral revolution” not “moral renovation,” James Brewer Stewart explains, and “shattered religious orthodoxies time and again by improvising still more expansive ways of enacting God’s will in everyday life.” If they new “free labor” economy produced such wealth and opportunity, they asked, why shouldn’t its benefits extend to blacks and to the South itself? If reformers could promote moral perfection, why shouldn’t they seek to eradicate America’s worst sin, that of slaveholding? These questions formed the backdrop for the Liberator.
“Perfectionism” is the heretical core of the entire leftwing enterprise known as “progressivism.”