Cities on a Hill

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures is basically a description of four different types of communities in contemporary America and an attempt by the author to link them conceptually. Frances FitzGerald focuses on the Castro, the gay community of San Francisco; the congregation of Jerry Falwell and the Thomas Road Baptist Church of Lynchburg, Virginia; the retirement community of Sun City, near Tampa, Florida; and the community of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Oregon. Although FitzGerald’s descriptions of the activities of the communities are often in minute detail, they often lack adequate analysis. Nevertheless, FitzGerald has selected four interesting communities, and her account provides valuable information on their inner workings.

The primary question that FitzGerald addresses is what these four communities say about American society in the 1980’s. To answer this question, she leads her readers through a thoughtful reflection on the nature of early nineteenth century American society and reform communities. Her analysis, which summarizes much of the scholarship on the topic, is the best part of her book and well worth its price. Early nineteenth century American society is FitzGerald’s paradigm for comprehending and explaining the nature and characteristics of contemporary society.

The major change sweeping American society in the early nineteenth century was the gradual development of industrialism. While the growth of technology and the factory system was slow, industrialism was well under way in New England and upstate New York by the 1830’s and 1840’s. The factories brought to Rochester, New York, and other communities large numbers of young, frequently unmarried laborers. These transients, usually living alone, lacked discipline and spent their leisure hours drinking, fighting, and intimidating the people of the community. They also lacked good work habits. Most of all, these young people, alone and without families, lacked manners, social standards, and moral values. In the face of their rowdyism and hooliganism, the citizens of Rochester seemed helpless—until they called upon Charles Grandison Finney to save their community (as he would similarly save others in upstate New York, New England, and Ohio).

Finney was the foremost revivalist of the time. During his six-month stay in Rochester, he led daily revival meetings, terrified the sinners and brought them to God, trained a cadre of evangelists who would continue his tactics, and rescued Rochester from the clutches of Satan. Finney’s frenzied young people turned upstate New York into “the Burned-Over District” and ended rowdiness. For Paul E. Johnson, in A Shopkeeper’s Millennium (1978), Finney represented the successful effort on the part of “Gentlemen of Property and Standing” to control urban laborers. The change wrought by Finney, however, was much broader than the establishment of social controls, as may be seen in the works of such writers as Mary P. Ryan (Cradle of the Middle Class, 1981).

Finney unleashed a revivalistic storm that spread to all segments of society and contributed to the disintegration of that society. A new nuclear family structure emerged from Finney’s brand of revivalism. Given the dog-eat-dog nature of the developing industrial world, the family became a “Haven in a Heartless World,” a sanctuary. In the haven of the home, middle-class values of gentility developed primarily through the efforts of women. The role of nurturing such values became gender-linked. The males of the family would be expected to develop initiative, self-reliance, toughness, ruthlessness, industry, thrift, and competitive resourcefulness to cope with the working world, while at home they and their families would be bound together by affection, kindness, and gentility. Women played an especially important role in bringing religion to the family and to society. Thus two different value systems developed together in nineteenth century America, and Finney played an important part in their emergence.

This extraordinary change in nineteenth century American society was the result of what anthropologist A. F. C. Wallace spoke of as a “revitalization movement.” The intense religious emotionalism of Finney’s revival eventuated in the destruction of the reigning image of society and of the individual throughout “the burned-over district” and the establishment of a new vision. This new vision, in fact, became the basis of many different views of the good society and the responsibilities of the individual. Finney was a so-called perfectionist who believed that the individual could be perfected, that society could be redeemed through individual efforts and that Christ would return to such a redeemed society. The revitalization that he inspired contributed to the rise of many reform and utopian movements, both religious and secular. Mormonism, the Oneida Community, Seventh Day Adventists, Fourieristic Phalanxes, the feminist movement, Swedenborgianism, abolitionism, temperance, Sabbatarianism, and other movements all shared in this revitalization of the vision of society and belief in human perfectibility.

In the twentieth century, the central vision of American society has also been disintegrating, according to FitzGerald. While the major change that spawned nineteenth century revivalism was the coming of industrialism, the major change transforming twentieth century America is the coming of postindustrial society. Not only is the nature of work and industry being radically transformed, but also traditional American society is being transformed. As FitzGerald states, American society is “changing its costumes, its sexual mores, its family arrangements, and its religious patterns.” This process of change has brought in its wake a “revitalization movement.” FitzGerald argues that the gay community, Falwell’s fundamentalist community, the Sun Citians, and Rajneeshpuram are...

(The entire section is 2446 words.)