By Julie Roy Jeffrey, Ph.D.
In the three decades before the Civil War, Americans joined numerous and varied organizations in a burst of voluntary activity to perfect the moral and religious character of American society. So significant was this campaign to transform American life that historian Stuart Blumin has suggested that the period represents "an era of voluntary innovation without parallel in American history."
The voluntary associations date back to the 1790s, perhaps even earlier. The first societies, some exclusively male and others female, addressed the needs of "the poor and distressed" both within their own communities and beyond. While some of these conditions were economic and could be met with gifts of food, clothing or even money, others were not. Agreeing with clergy who emphasized the danger of religious indifference and ignorance or perhaps inspired by revivalism, many voluntary associations tried to meet spiritual needs. Some sought to provide families with Bibles or religious tracts while others raised funds for missionary efforts on the frontier or in foreign lands.
Often initiated by a minister or members of a congregation, many voluntary organizations had a denominational affiliation. But as time passed, nondenominational societies with a broader membership also became common. Although some retained a local focus, perhaps the support of a local orphan asylum or a society for the relief of widows, societies began to form links with similar societies elsewhere through active correspondence (each society had a corresponding secretary). Broadening their perspective even further, many became auxiliaries to national organizations in New York. The opportunity for members of auxiliaries to attend national conventions usually held annually provided a broadening and unifying experience for people who shared similar goals but came from different places.
Among the earliest of the national benevolent societies were the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810) and the American Home Missionary Society. Sponsored by the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, they raised funds, recruited and supported missionaries in scattered locations around the world and in the American South and West. Other interdenominational organizations included the American Tract Society (1825) that produced and circulated thousands of religious tracts in the antebellum period; the American Sunday School Union (1824), that created Sunday School materials and encouraged the growth of Sunday schools, especially through recruiting children not already enrolled; and the American Bible Society (1816) with the goal of providing every American family with a Bible. The ambitious agenda and importance of these national groups and the thousands of voluntary societies affiliated with them and their work make the description of them collectively as a "benevolent empire" apt.
Male and female voluntaries were similar in many respects. They undertook the same sorts of projects, did the same sort of work, and adopted businesslike and efficient principles in running their organizations. Members tended to come from the middle class, with those from more affluent, established families prominent in charitable and missionary societies. More radical organizations, like antislavery societies, had a wider social base and included those less firmly entrenched in the middle class. Often voluntary work was shared family interest. It was not uncommon for the men of a family to be members of a particular voluntary group while the women of the family were in its female counterpart. Members of voluntary associations shared similar attitudes and perspectives also. They believed that their clients should share or learn the values of self discipline, responsibility, hard work, piety, and sobriety. The distinction made between the worthy poor, who demonstrated commitment to these values, and the unworthy poor, determined who received assistance. Those who appeared to be lazy and disinterested in working, who had bad habits, or who drank were much less likely to get relief than the poor who acted in ways the voluntary association approved. The interest many voluntary associations showed in widows, the aged, and orphans not only stemmed from their more desperate economic and social circumstances but because it was difficult to view them as responsible for their predicament.
For men voluntary activity was only one of many commitments in the public world and usually not the most important. For many women, voluntary work provided a central purpose at the same time that it integrated them into the larger society. It was through activities in voluntary associations that women had the opportunity to take part in shaping the world outside of their household. Because they often regularly visited those who needed assistance, they learned firsthand about all sorts of problems and social conditions and devised solutions for them. Through correspondence and attendance at national conventions, they were introduced to national and world affairs. In voluntary societies women also learned the basic skills of citizenship. Whether it was through the writing of a constitution, voting for officers, debating the choice of projects, speaking in groups, or learning to offer resolutions, women developed political abilities that men picked up easily in the public world. Some women even petitioned and lobbied state legislatures for funds. And in raising funds and managing money, women acquired management and financial competence.
The significance of voluntary work for women was partially concealed by the rhetoric that justified their activities. Drawing on the notion that women were innately moral and virtuous, more so than men, and that they relied more on sympathy and intuition than intellect, a rationale emerged that insisted that women were naturally suited for voluntary work. The female ability to sympathize with the world's unfortunates and her voice as society's moral conscience meant that a woman was attuned to benevolence. One Rhode Island newspaper suggested in the 1830s that the future itself rested on benevolent women's shoulders. "Whether this country shall be wrecked by the flood of iniquity and death . . . or whether it shall arise and come forth in the beauty of holiness" depended on "Christian females."
While scholars have often suggested that voluntary associations were more characteristic of northern society than southern, recent work shows that Southerners also supported moderate benevolent activism. In the state capital of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, had an affiliate of the American Tract Society, and the Alabama Bible Society held its meetings in the city. A temperance society and efforts to curb dancing and gambling suggest that some of the residents valued self discipline, restraint, and pious behavior. While there may well have been more opposition to benevolent associations in the South and more emphasis on the part of evangelical clergy on the inner spiritual life rather than the ills of society, the contrast between North and South should not be overdrawn.
For many members of voluntary associations, affiliation was one means of demonstrating middle class credentials. But not all members of voluntary associations belonged to the comfortable middle class. Free black women living in the urban North also formed organizations that were focused on helping the black community. Although they had a dues structure and membership requirements that precluded the very poor from joining, these women were far more economically fragile and more likely to be employed than their white counterparts.
No matter what the purpose of voluntary activities, members of organizations also enjoyed the sociability and bonds that came along with the work. Indeed, there were some organizations like Literary and lyceum societies, young men's associations, and mercantile library associations that had no moral or benevolent goal but were devoted to sociability, self improvement, and social networking.
Foster, Charles I. An Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790-1837 (1960).
Ginzberg, Lori D. Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth Century (1990).
Scott, Anne Firor. Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History (1991).
©Copyright 2000 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project