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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Perfect Child, Perfect Faith: Raising Children in Nineteenth-Century Religious Communities

  • Author(s): Gudgeirsson, Meg Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): Westerkamp, Marilyn
  • et al.
Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License

“Perfect Child, Perfect Faith” studies how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the abolitionist and integrationist community of Berea, Kentucky, the Oneida Perfectionists, and the United Society of Believers (better known as Shakers) raised their children in the nineteenth century. Each of these communities incorporated a specific interpretation of Christianity and rejected “traditional” culture and society in favor of their “perfected” alternative. For each of these groups, children acted as a space to write their own identity. Children embodied hope, patriotism, faith, obedience, and goodness. Exploring childhood and children's experience in history can be difficult as retrieving the voices of children can be a daunting task. They produced less sources and materials than their adult contemporaries. And even fewer of these sources have been preserved. This means that much of their experiences, as they happened, are lost to historians. However, many of these children grew up to write memoirs, diaries, and brief histories of their people, which have provided access to children’s experiences. In addition to relying on memoirs, the dissertation uses handbooks and guides on childrearing and practices produced by each of the communities. Finally, it considers non-textual sources, especially photography of families and children, as well as illustrations in literature and periodicals. To understand how the communities raised their child and why these children did not continue their original communal goals, the dissertation is organized into four categories: the symbolic meaning of the child, the definition and role of the family, educational practices, and the connections between work and play. Each section considers both the community’s view of the child and the child’s actual experience. Often a child’s reality differed dramatically from the ideals and expectations of his/her community. The dissertation argues that Mormons, Bereans, Oneida Perfectionists, and Shakers failed to raise their children in radically different ways and instead raised them similar to nineteenth-century bourgeois America: as innocents with the possibility of perfecting the future.

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