A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society And Revivals In Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 Book Review Example

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Book Review - A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837
In A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837, Paul E. Johnson explores the Rochester revival of 1830 and 1831, noting the social institution of religion as it played into society and culture in 19th century American, particularly in western New York State. The height of the Second Great Awakening and the Great Revival of 1831 are explored in depth, as Johnson creates vivid connections between the industrial capitalistic endeavors that were cropping up that that time and the rise of religion and the revival as an institution. Johnson's thesis in the work is that the institution of religion, especially the institution of the revival, were used to address problems inherent to 19th century capitalist expansion; this need to deal with these new factors to American life contributed to the significance and impact of the Second Great Awakening. The result is a well-written and innovative work which explores the religious history of America in the Jacksonian Era, though it is not without some problems in its attempts at historical synthesis.
Johnson studies Rochester in detail, as one of the biggest "boom towns" of antebellum America, using church records, census records, city directories and local tax data to put together a picture of the town during the early 1800s and its concept of community life. While Johnson does not study the actual cultural or intellectual aspects of Charles Grandison Finney and his evangelism in depth, his focus is on social and economic environmental factors that contributed to Finney's success in the town of Rochester.
Despite the many successes of Johnson's book, there are still a few limitations that were not fully overcome. The work starts with an overview of life in Rochester before 1830; according to the author, Rochester during this period of time was a community that was led by many entrepreneurs who had familial connections, hailing from the "country trade" in the Genesee region (Johnson 1978, p. 20). Johnson characterizes these entrepreneurs as young men, eager to spend and expand instead of hoarding what capital they had. In essence, these men and their economic efforts are what eventually lead to the Great Revival, for reasons Johnson explicates. Johnson understands that these individuals are not the entirety of the economic and social constructs of Rochester; to that end, he describes the class relations of the "blue collar city" of Rochester in great detail, noting the importance of mercantilism and merchant capitalism in the separation of business owners and wage earners (Johnson 1978, p. 38).
As for the Temperance crusade in Rochester during this time, Johnson recognizes this new wave of moral panic as a way to express the relationships between workers and employers and how that had changed the Rochester community. Because the household economy had collapsed by 1828, and the need to create further boundaries and social separations between workers and employers, employers no longer behaved quite so warmly around workers, no longer sharing drink like they did in the days before capitalism. Employers started to redefine their relationships with their employees, and started to equate working class behavior with immorality; it is at this time that the upper-class gain the image of the "drink-crazed proletariat" (Johnson 1978, p. 55). To that end, the Temperance craze continued until the Great Revival of 1831, in which more solid moral boundaries were set to create a "moral community" within Rochester (Johnson 1978, p. 101).
According to Johnson, the Great Revival was responsible for the creation of the Christian moral consensus, which fostered the cultural hierarchy of the middle class. Though he cautions that he does not believe that "the revival wasa capitalist plot," he does maintain that business interests were not averse to the Rochester revival in any way (Johnson 1978, p. 141). Because the employers were Christians, they spent a good deal of time imposing cultural values on Rochester to make sure that non-churchgoing workers were not employed. This created a unique correlation between employment and membership within the church, as people who joined the church suddenly found themselves with work and more economic opportunities. Johnson uses this correlation to paint the Great Revival of 1831 as the means by which Christian business owners controlled society and culture in Rochester. Based on these relationships, these converts created a moral hegemony which forces church membership to ensure economic stability: "The Rochester revival served the needs not of society but of entrepreneurs who employed wage labor" (Johnson 1978, p. 137).
Johnson's book is not without problems, however; despite its ambition, the rhetoric of the book casts the findings firmly in "social control" theory, with the effect of obscuring the many ways the evangelical movement actually contributed to positive social change. What's more, by ignoring the cultural motives in favor of the economic, the author comes dangerously close to mischaracterizing the Great Revival as a wholly cynical move designed to keep people under control. By doing this, he ignores the agency of the middle-class and their own capacity for self-awareness, as well as instances and places where revival was rampant without the need for economic incentive. The role of women, whether middle or working-class, in the Rochester revival is also largely ignored, which is inexcusable in modern scholarship of American history.
Johnson's work contributes significantly to the historiography of the Jacksonian era. This book continues the work of Whitney Cross' work The Burned-Over District, in which the Second Great Awakening was indicative of a general trend of New Yorkers giving themselves over to social institutions and "isms", twenty-five years after the fact. In fact, Johnson uses many of the same methods to achieve his goals, imitating Cross' adherence and fealty to local and regional history by taking demographics, commercial records and individual eyewitness accounts to gain an accurate picture of the area at the time. Johnson's overall thesis supports Cross' work as well, both authors correlating this rise in religion in the area to the capitalist-centric social environment that was being erected during this era. These two works, in conjunction with each other, establish the combination of economic and cultural changes toward merchant capitalism and Christian revival that were taking place during the Jacksonian Era, particularly in western New York State.
In conclusion, Johnson's book provides an enlightening, if one-sided, view of the rise of religion in western New York State in the 1830s. According to his work, a number of social and economic factors allowed a number of Christian entrepreneurs to take advantage of the moral panic coming from the rise of merchant capitalism to effectively blackmail working-class Americans to join the church to find employment. Johnson uses a great deal of local information to substantiate his claims and paint a detailed picture of economic life in Rochester, though his view of the church and the revival is wholly cynical and ignores the possibility of earnest religion independent of economic interests. The result is a flawed but informative account of the conflux between religion and economics in the eastern part of America during the Jacksonian Era.
Cross, W.R. (1950). The Burned-over District: the social and intellectual history of enthusiastic religion in western New York, 1800-1850. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Johnson, P.E. (1978). A shopkeeper's millennium: society and revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1937. New York: Hill and Wang.

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