Document Type


Date of Award



Social reformers, Rochester (N.Y.), 19th century, History

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Walter Hugins

Second Advisor

Bernard Mason

Third Advisor

Mary Ryan




In the decades following 1820, a variety of social reform crusades swept western New York. Although none of these crusades was peculiar to New York, this region somehow seemed more receptive to them than any other section of the country. The region's responsiveness to reform movements and religious enthusiasm earned it both the unique title of “Burned-over District" and a prominent place in historians’ accounts of antebellum reform. While some scholars have remained content to describe the activities and ideas of the reformers, others have probed the social foundations of the movements in an attempt to discover what motivated people to become reformers and why the movements were stronger in the Burned-over District than elsewhere in the country. Unfortunately, such social histories have tended to raise as many questions as they have answered.


While status-related theories of antebellum reform have been thoroughly discredited in the case of abolitionism, and raise serious questions when applied to other movements, it should be clear that no other social explanation of reform has achieved anything approaching a consensus among historians. Disagreement persists concerning the importance and precise roles of both religious revivalism and the New England heritage in antebellum reform. A new approach thus seems to be needed if historians ever are to fully understand these social reform movements.

This dissertation attempts to provide such a new approach by examining the various social reform movements in one city, Rochester, New York. Located in the middle of the Burned-over District, Rochester was the scene of three Finney revivals and was a leading regional center for a number of social reform crusades. Besides its importance in religious and reform movements, other factors also make Rochester a convenient site for such a case study. In the three decades preceding the Civil War, Rochester developed from a small, homogeneous village into a large, complex, industrial city. By focusing on Rochester, it is thus possible to examine the social movements in both a rural setting of the sort described by Cross and an urban environment not too unlike the eastern cities that other historians have found to be foci of revivalism and reform. In addition, Rochester's growth during the period typified the development of the entire Burned-over District; while it might be stretching the point to call Rochester a microcosm of the region, its growth certainly was not atypical. A final consideration that makes Rochester such a good site is that its history already has been ably reconstructed by Blake McKelvey. Although McKelvey's concerns and methodology are much different from those of this study, his work is immensely valuable because it clarifies the basic institutional and political context and provides an accurate guide to the available source materials.

Building on the work done by McKelvey, this dissertation examines in considerable depth revivalism, religious movements such as Bible and tract distribution, temperance, abolition, moral reform, utopian socialism, and women's rights. Other than revivalism, these movements were chosen—and others such as the campaign against imprisonment for debt and the movement for educational reform excluded—because of their apparent importance in Rochester and because of the availability of adequate source materials. Revivalism, which was not itself a reform movement, receives extensive treatment because of the importance that many previous scholars have attributed to evangelical Protestantism.