Benevolent Empire

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The Benevolent Empire was part of a 19th-century religious movement in the United States. Various protestant denominations developed missionary organizations in order to Christianize citizens of the United States and the world, and to create a Christian nation. The movement included a commitment to social reform by wealthy and middle-class urbanites.[1]


1839 Methodist camp meeting, watercolor from the Second Great Awakening.

Early years[edit]

The Benevolent Empire movement began in the early 19th century. Growing out of Revivalism, the movement consisted of missionaries and organizations devoted to Christianizing America and the world, and wealthy Americans who felt that their duty was to do good deeds for the less fortunate. Revivalism in America stimulated church growth and created two influential concepts: "Disinterested benevolence" and "Perfectionism". The main idea of the Benevolent Empire was to "Reform the world by example, you act generously and wisely".[2] Participants in benevolent societies believed in spreading the word of Christianity for the greater good of the world. They were not working to convert every person they preached to; they simply wished to share the benefits of Christianity and the good word and fortune the religion could bring.[3]


Protests beginning in the 19th century were formed around a cause with a sole purpose and collective action. The movements for abolition of slavery and temperance were common in the 19th century. The protests were non-violent and they all had purpose, which was shown by everyone who joined. With a helpful push from religion movements these two reforms took off and many organizations were formed to contest them. Americans pledged their partnership with reform societies and religious organizations. They expected religious efforts to repent Americans abuse of alcohol and use of slavery. The reform movements opposed sin and wanted to be reformed as a nation in whole, they believed if they were not repent and reformed their sins would bring celestial revenge.

Americans were concerned with the way their lives were assumed to go if slavery and alcohol abuse continued to grow. Anti-war movements were formed during the Mexican–American War, because people feared that southern Democrats were fighting for the expansion of slavery for their growing need of land. These social reforms were not addressed by the state or national levels they were simply protested by the citizens who believed they could live in a more harmonious and peaceful place. Eight organizations in the "nineteenth century was concerned with moral commitments, community and identity." Eight women began to take on a large role in these institutions. The movements were a collective effort of the people to create an impact nationally on temperance and anti-slavery.

Disinterested benevolence[edit]

The idea of Disinterest benevolence was formed by Samuel Hopkins during the 18th century. The first meaning of comes from the idea that leads us to do good for another person. Disinterested benevolence meaning states that "a man [will have] a benevolent regard for a whole community or kingdom, and is equally a friend to every part and each person of that community, and equally exerts himself for the welfare of each, so far they come under his notice."[4] Disinterested benevolence is the fundamental nature of moral righteousness and sense. In order to accomplish disinterested benevolence you must give up self-love, because self-love is sin. Adopting a love for others over love for you shows virtue. Christians adopted this concept and made it a large part of their orthodoxy. A large point to this concept is not only does man find pleasure in helping others but also he does not knowingly reduce his own happiness.

Samuel Hopkins made disinterested benevolence the centerpiece of his salvation theology to replace Jonathan Edwards' "religious affections" as a primary evidence of regeneration. Religious affections as evidence of regeneration had come under great criticism from Old Light Calvinists, Unitarians and Deists since the First Great Awakening. The modern Christian equivalent for disinterested benevolence is "agape love". Orthodox Christian theology recognized that because of original sin, unregenerate man is incapable of agape love and so only the regenerate, only those who are "born again", have agape love. According to orthodox Christian theology, when God regenerates, the Christian becomes a new creature in Christ and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Agape love is then the natural state of the "new man" made by God.

Self-sacrifice is a main idea of disinterested benevolence. When following a religion you become aware that your own self-happiness is not as prominent as the happiness of others as a whole. People pursue disinterested benevolence because they pursue the idea of moral goodness. Moral goodness is defined differently then the idea of natural good, the difference between these is important in the concept of disinterested benevolence. Our own pleasures are different from the pleasure we assume from the goodness of helping others.

Natural good is concerned only with the self, with no relation to having a witness (a person in which you are helping). Therefore natural good does not fit the definition of disinterested benevolence, but moral goodness does. Moral goodness is defined as having an onlooker who may participate in the emotions of the perpetrator. To encompass moral goodness you are calling upon "approbation and love." Both external rightness and inner goodness are applied in disinterested benevolence.[citation needed]


There are five main parts of perfectionism stated by Thomas Hurka. “Perfectionism is morally concerned with good in human life; human good consists of realization, of human excellences, human excellences come from human nature, the Aristotelian ethics is the best explanation of human nature, and the best perfectionism should be consequentialist.” By human nature we develop these tasks by default, by developing perfectionism we become more real. Human nature in relation to perfectionism contains accounts only of humans and properties which are crucial to humans. Hurka believes that there are two main values in perfectionism, which are unity and complexity. Perfecting human excellence was an important concept in the Benevolent Empire because people wanted to maintain the goal of helping others and creating a well rounded Christianity based society, where people served for the well-being of others emotionally and physically rather than the well-being of themselves.


The objective of the Benevolent Empire was to spread Christianity to anyone and everyone these organizations could reach. Missionaries and organizations were formed all around the United States. These missionaries traveled both abroad and locally spreading the good word of Christianity and the ideas of disinterested benevolence and perfectionism. Almost every denomination formed missionary structures, including Baptist, Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed Churches. Denominations joined together to form larger missionary societies. Clergymen, educators, students and church-goers all took part in the spreading of Christianity throughout the world.

Not only did the Benevolent Empire help relay the word of Christianity to people all around the world, the Benevolent Empire pushed for many social reforms. Among these changes were for the peace movement and the large amount of alcohol abuse in America. In 1836 the American Temperance Society was created to help curb the use of alcohol in the United States. Reform efforts were created by missionary societies to help inform the world of good morals and to show citizens the right path to follow.


One important missionary organization that traveled abroad to spread the word of Christianity was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), which created more than six hundred organizations to travel abroad and locally. In Africa the ABCFM missionaries developed western style outposts with chapels, dormitories, schools, gardens, water-supply systems and utility buildings. These stations were known as refuges for the missionaries and indicative that their work had been of some assistance and importance to the people in Africa. Missionaries like those from ABCFM, provided areas of rural Africa and its peoples opportunities to learn and participate in more modern and foreign ways of life.

The spread of evangelism to the Northwest Territory was another large part in the spread of Christianity in the 19th century. The idea of Evangelical Womanhood was formed by historians who have tried to establish the roles of women in the 19th century.[5] These Evangelical organizations not only helped the movement of Christianity but it also gave women a resource for them to develop new talents and put good use to their time, and satisfy their need to do rather than be seen they could be heard. Women in the 19th century helped form Sunday schools which are still recognized today. The use of Sunday schools helped broaden the field of people who were exposed to the views of Christianity. Benevolent Missionary Organizations set up areas like Sunday schools, hospitals and dormitories.[citation needed] Missionaries also were used to spread the word of Christianity through means of trade companies and politicians.

There were a large number of organizations that developed in the 19th century for many different reasons, but they all included the basis of dispersing Christianity throughout the world. Organizations like the American Temperance Society had a large number of people contributing to their success. They were run by staff and volunteers, and with the help of local and national newspapers they were able to get their word out.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "PreColumbian to the New Millennium, 22d. Institutionalizing Religious Belief: The Benevolent Empire", US History, retrieved February 5, 2011.
  2. ^ Bentham, Jeremy. The works. p. 416.
  3. ^ Pierard 2006, pp. 16–21.
  4. ^ Hopkins, S. (1773). "An inquiry into the nature of true holiness." Newport, RI: Samuel Southwick, p. 21.
  5. ^ Woman’s Missionary Union


  • Boylan, Anne M. 1978. Evangelical womanhood in the nineteenth century: The role of women in Sunday schools. Feminist Studies 4 (3) (Oct.): 62–80.
  • Friedmann, Paul. 1878. The genesis of disinterested benevolence. Mind 3 (11) (Jul.): 404–10.
  • Johnson, Hildegard Binder. 1967. The location of Christian missions in Africa. Geographical Review 57 (2) (Apr.): 168–202.
  • Mulgan, Tim. 1994. Review: [untitled]. Mind 103 (412) (Oct.): 550–3.
  • Pierard, Richard (2006), "The man who gave the bible to the Burmese", Christian History & Biography, 90: 16–21.
  • Swabey, William Curtis. 1943. Benevolence and virtue. The Philosophical Review 52 (5) (Sep.): 452–67.
  • Young, Michael P. 2002. Confessional protest: The religious birth of US national social movements. American Sociological Review 67, (5) (Oct.): 660-88.

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