- Reforming the World
Few historians familiar with the subject would argue with Thomas Haskell’s assertion that humanitarian reformers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries “were consummate interpreters of a new moral universe.” They have differed greatly, however, over what compelled them to become reformers—class interest, the market, guilt? Yet despite the breadth of scholarly interest in the sources of humanitarianism as a factor in early American reform movements, Robert Abzug’s study, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination, stands alone in its effort to examine the cosmology of early American reformers. Many aspects of what he defines as their cosmology have been studied to one degree or another, but not as a whole; not, that is, as an intense, all-encompassing, even desperate, attempt by a very passionate group of young reformers to make “religious sense of society, economy, race, politics, gender, and physiology” (4).
One reason for this neglect, Abzug points out in his finely crafted “Preface,” is the tendency by a fairly substantial body of scholars to assume that religion exists “as a conscious or unconscious cover for [End Page 724] something else: status anxiety, the quest for control of one class by another, personal or collective environments, or some other psychological or material concern.” Nonetheless, as Abzug goes on to explain, most studies of American reform movements have acknowledged the importance of religion and have paid attention to the “religious” tone or substance of reform.
Cosmos Crumbling, according to its author, goes beyond those previous efforts in several ways: first, by exploring the religious dimension of American reform as it was reflected in the cosmological thinking of a small but influential group of reformers; next, by the emphasis it has placed on the religious aspects of reform ritual; and, lastly, by the attention the study has devoted to “the relation between sacred and profane elements in reform, treating religious dimensions of social and personal life as equal in importance to those of the so-called secular realm” (viii). 1
Abzug has clearly identified an important and neglected area in which to situate his research, and Cosmos Crumbling both fills and illuminates the vacancy. In terms of its primary thesis, however, it is best understood as extending and expanding a previously developed theme in the literature on antislavery in America: the idea of reform as a sacralization of a secular dilemma and domain. 2 Cosmos Crumbling not only demonstrates the broader application of that argument, but by focusing on the cosmological dimension of reform thought, it opens a new window on the meaning of reform to the reformer and the nature of its acceptance within the larger society. Abzug’s penetrating and often revelatory gaze through that window is the source of his study’s special contribution to its field.
The study begins, appropriately, with a prologue that reminds us of the “especially ambiguous place” reformers have held “in our national consciousness.” On the one hand, Abzug notes, we have been, in varying degrees, annoyed and irritated by their apparent self-righteousness, viewing them as “gadflies on the periphery of society,” while on the other hand, “Americans have been deeply moved by the reformer’s dedication,” finding in their “steadfast will . . . the very essence of heroism” (3). In the case of the small cadre of antebellum reformers who serve as the focus of Cosmos Crumbling, Abzug contends that their religious concerns exacerbated the ambivalence with which they were perceived. They inspired ambivalence not only because the causes they championed—the abolition of slavery, temperance, women’s rights, vegetarianism, and phrenology—were controversial and often divisive, but because of their “tendency to apply [End Page 725] religious imagination and passion to issues that most Americans considered worldly” (3).
Borrowing from Max Weber, Abzug has identified such reformers as a distinctive social type Weber called “religious virtuosos”—Protestant equivalents of the holy men, monks, and mystics Weber had in mind. Without a conception of this sort, Abzug argues, “Such characters defy much of what passes for scientific...