Struggling with moral authority: Religion, reform, and everyday life in nineteenth-century Smithfield, New York

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Social reform, Abolition, Historical archaeology, Gerrit Smith, Nineteenth century, Moral authority

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Archaeological Anthropology | Arts and Humanities | Religion | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation explores the everyday practice of religion and reform in nineteenth-century Smithfield, New York, a small, agricultural town that became a nationally recognized social reform center. Through a study incorporating documentary and archaeological resources, I highlight the ways that Smithfield's most famous social reformer Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) and other community residents lived their religious and reform ideals as they encountered the demands of daily life. Most historians have avoided this research focus, preferring instead to write biographies of singular participants or to develop regional studies that profile typical participants and isolate the causes for reform's appeal. Instead, this work explores the challenges that abolitionists, temperance reformers, and others faced as they sought to change their own behavior and the behavior of others. Most specifically, the dissertation describes the Christian lifestyle that reformers like Smith sought to live, the reform methods that they employed, and more generally, the reform process. Showing the influence of a dialectical approach, my focus remains on lived experience and the social relations structuring reform at the household and community levels.

Thousands of documents associated with the Smiths and Smithfield have survived, and they do not present a unified picture on how reform was lived--either in the Smith household or in the community. The material evidence is similarly complicated; the analysis of some artifacts recovered from five Smithfield sites suggests a commitment to particular reform ideals, while the analysis of others does not. Despite this ambiguity, what remains clear is that later writers chose not to include these complexities in their narratives relating to reform--which depict the Smiths as moral exemplars and the community as unified in their support for reform. As a result, the public memory surrounding nineteenth-century religion and reform often remains struggle-free. This work, then, prompts a reconsideration of the taken-for-granted historical narratives surrounding Gerrit Smith, Smithfield, and reform in general, while pushing historical archaeologists to develop more nuanced readings of their material and documentary evidence. In doing so, the work offers an acknowledgment of the complexity of consumption, identity, and the process of archaeological interpretation.


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