Cosmos Crumbling, by Robert H. Abzug

In Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination, Robert Abzug looks at evangelical reform efforts, particularly Temperance, Sabbatarianism, and the incorporation of manual labor into seminary education, as well as “radical” reform causes of abolition, “body reforms” or various health and healing movements, and women’s rights and suffrage. In all of these he focuses on how reform fit into the cosmological beliefs of the reformers, with much of the effort focusing on bringing about the necessary purity to usher in the coming millennium.

Some of the key aspects Abzug identifies of the “cosmos” that shaped much of the reform impulse was the anticipation of the millennium strengthened by the “Great Awakening” of the 18th century, the vision of American liberty/Republicanism as integral to ushering in the millennium, the rise or strengthening of “Manichean” interpretations of world events, and the extension of the Puritan sense of being a chosen people to the new nation as a whole.

Argument: the reformers were motivated and guided by a vision of the young United States as part of the cosmic story of God’s work of redemption, and the eradication of social ills as an integral part of bringing about the end of that grand narrative. Bringing about the millennium involved both the conversion of individuals and the creation of a “godly” society. The vision of the ideal society, however, differed between evangelical reformers and radical reformers, with the former focused primarily on issues of temperance (and its associated ills of abuse and poverty) and Sunday observance while radical reformers challenged some of the basic ideas about race, gender, and religious practice.

One general concern is that the religious cosmos of religious reformers is less developed in Abzug’s analysis than the evangelical reformers, though likely because of the variety of religious beliefs among radical reformers. His main focus here switches to the more political surrounding slavery and women’s rights.

This text reinforced my interest in “ultra-ist” groups, groups that attempted to live according to an all-encompassing understanding of the religious life, groups that removed themselves from the general flow of life and tried to create insular and self-contained societies.