Poverty Encounters: Unitarians, the Poor, and Poor Relief in Antebellum Boston and Philadelphia

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2007-04-23

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"Poverty Encounters: Unitarians, the Poor, and Poor Relief in Antebellum Boston and Philadelphia," examines Unitarian poor relief programs in Boston and Philadelphia between 1820 and 1860 and the role of encounters with the poor in shaping such programs. The dissertation argues that Unitarian theopolitical beliefs struck a balance between individual self-culture and the common good, and that Unitarian poor relief programs reflected attempts to achieve this equilibrium. Nevertheless, internal dissent among Unitarians over theology, shifting economic conditions, and the actions of the poor and working classes upset the Unitarian social vision and led to the decline of Unitarianism as it had existed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Using diaries of poor relief workers, organizational reports, correspondence from poor relief recipients, and fictional literature, the dissertation explores the influence of poor relief encounters on the Boston Unitarian ministry-at-large, Philadelphia lay Unitarians' poor relief efforts, the Boston Asylum and Farm School for Indigent Boys, the Boston Benevolent Fraternity of Churches, and Transcendentalist experiments in economic reform. "Poverty Encounters" explains not only how poor relief programs were shaped by interactions between elites and the poor, but also how such encounters led to changes in social, political, and theological ideologies. It challenges traditional understandings of the antebellum United States as bifurcated into a liberal individualist North and a communal, "organic" South, arguing that elements of organic thought played an important role in Northerners' ideas about poverty in the antebellum period. Paying particular attention to the language and discourse of politics and theology, "Poverty Encounters" is what Mark Noll has called a "social history of ideas." It clarifies the elements that came to hold together the age's burgeoning democracy and capitalism. and reveals the role of religion in shifting political ideologies and the relationship of both to changing ideas about poverty.

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