Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Foster, Stephen, 1942-

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of History


New York (N.Y.)--Social aspects--18th century; New York (N.Y.)--Social aspects--19th century; New York (N.Y.)--Religion--18th century; New York (N.Y.)--Religion--19th century; New York (N.Y.)--Religion--Economic aspects--18th century; New York (N.Y.)--Religion--Economic aspects--19th century; Charity--18th century; Charity--19th century


During the Early National Period, the United States witnessed the rise of reform organizations, or benevolent societies, dedicated to eliminating perceived social ills in the new republic. This project focuses on organizations in New York City that attempted to reduce the effects of poverty in the city by distributing material relief, promoting moral reform, and evangelizing the poor. I argue that a combination of Calvinist doctrine and nationalist sentiment motivated the founders of New York’s benevolent movement. Calvinist attitudes toward poverty, particularly the beliefs that the poor bore some responsibility for their situation and that vice produced poverty, shaped the societies’ relief policies. At the same time, nationalist concerns about the republic’s economic, political and social stability spurred the creation of benevolent societies. The founders hoped that their efforts at poor relief would play a role in creating a city, and perhaps a nation, more prosperous and morally superior to its European counterparts. Previous studies have examined the rise of organized benevolence, but this project is unique in its emphasis on religious doctrine and nationalism. Earlier works adhered to the “social control” model, which argued that the predominantly middleclass members of benevolent organizations hoped that their style of poor relief and moral reform would impose order upon the potentially volatile lower classes. This argument is true to a point, but it does not provide a complete explanation of the members’ motives. Eighteenth-century Protestant definitions of poverty combined with nineteenth-century secular notions of nationalism also brought about New York’s benevolent movement and created a new form of charity. This dissertation utilizes a combination of archival and published primary sources in addition to secondary literature. Archival sources such as minutes of the various societies’ meetings, letters, private papers and municipal records provide a great deal of information about the daily workings of the benevolent organizations. Published sources including the societies’ annual reports and sermons shed light on the founders’ motivations for organizing their societies as well as their attitudes toward the poor men, women and children they assisted.


Includes bibliographical references (pages [183]-193).


xix, 196 pages




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