The Second Great Awakening was a Protestant revival movement during the early 19th century in the United States. The movement began around 1790, gained momentum by 1800, and after 1820 membership rose rapidly among Baptist and Methodist congregations whose preachers led the movement. It was past its peak by the 1840s. It has been described as a reaction against skepticism, deism, and rational Christianity, although why those forces became pressing enough at the time to spark revivals is not fully understood.
It enrolled millions of new members in existing evangelical denominations and led to the formation of new denominations. Many converts believed that the Awakening heralded a new millennial age. The Second Great Awakening stimulated the establishment of many reform movements designed to remedy the evils of society before the anticipated Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
People at the time talked about the Awakening; historians named the Second Great Awakening in the context of the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s and of the Third Great Awakening of the late 1850s to early 1900s.
During the Second Great Awakening, the number of local churches rose sharply.
Spread of revivals
The second Great Awakening occurred in several episodes and over different denominations, however the revivals were very similar. As the most effective form of evangelizing during this period revival meetings cut across geographical boundaries, and the movement quickly spread throughout Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Ohio. Each denomination had assets that allowed it to thrive on the frontier. The Methodists had an efficient organization that depended on itinerant ministers, known as circuit riders, who sought out people in remote frontier locations. The circuit riders came from among the common people, which helped them establish rapport with the frontier families they hoped to convert.
The underlying theology, which dominated American Protestantism in the first half of the 19th century was Postmillennialism. It is the belief that Christ will return to earth after the millennium ( either a literal 1000 years or a figurative “long period” of peace and happiness). It is the duty of the Christian to purify society in preparation for that return. Randall et al. argue, “The belief that a religious revival and the resulting improvement in human faith and morals would eventually usher in a thousand years of peace and justice antecedent to the Second Coming of Christ was an impetus to the promotion of Progressive reforms, as historians have frequently pointed out.”  During the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s, some divines expected the millennium to arrive in a few years. By the 1840s, however, the great day had receded to the distant future, and post-millennialism became the religious dimension of the broader American middle-class ideology of steady moral and material progress.
In the early nineteenth century, upstate New York was called the “burned-over district” because of the numerous revivals that crisscrossed the region. Charles Finney, a leading revivalist active in the area, coined the term.
West and Tidewater South
On the American Frontier, evangelical denominations sent missionary preachers and exhorters out to the people in the backcountry, which supported the growth of membership among Methodists and Baptists. Revivalists’ techniques were based on the camp meeting, with its Scottish Presbyterian roots. Most of the Scots-Irish immigrants before the American Revolutionary War settled in the backcountry of Pennsylvania and down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.
These denominations were based on an interpretation of man’s spiritual equality before God, which led them to recruit members and preachers from a wide range of classes and all races. Baptists and Methodist revivals were successful in some parts of the Tidewater in the South, where an increasing number of common planters, plain folk, and slaves were converted.
In the newly settled frontier regions, the revival was implemented through camp meetings. These often provided the first encounter for some settlers with organized religion, and they were important as social venues. The camp meeting was a religious service of several days’ length with multiple preachers. Settlers in thinly populated areas gathered at the camp meeting for fellowship as well as worship. The sheer exhilaration of participating in a religious revival with crowds of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people inspired the dancing, shouting, and singing associated with these events. The revivals followed an arc of great emotional power, with an emphasis of the individual’s sins and need to turn to Christ, restored by a sense of personal salvation. Upon their return home, most converts joined or created small local churches, which grew rapidly.
One of the early camp meetings took place in July 1800 at Gasper River Church in southwestern Kentucky. A much larger gathering was held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, attracting perhaps as many as 20,000 people. Numerous Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist ministers participated in the services. Thanks to such leaders as Barton W. Stone (1772–1844) and Alexander Campbell (1788–1866), the camp meeting revival became a major mode of church expansion for the Methodists and Baptists.
The Cumberland Presbyterian Church emerged in Kentucky. Cane Ridge was also instrumental in fostering what became known as the Restoration Movement. This was made up of non-denominational churches committed to what they saw as the original, fundamental Christianity of the New Testament. They were committed to individuals’ achieving a personal relationship with Christ. Churches with roots in this movement include the Churches of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Evangelical Christian Church in Canada and the Christian churches and churches of Christ.
Church membership soars
1839 Methodist camp meeting
The Methodist circuit riders and local Baptist preachers made enormous gains; to a lesser extent the Presbyterians gained members, particularly with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in sparsely settled areas. As a result, the numerical strength of the Baptists and Methodists rose relative to that of the denominations dominant in the colonial period—the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists. Among the new denominations that grew from the religious ferment of the Second Great Awakening are the Churches of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed the Mormons), the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Evangelical Christian Church in Canada. The converts during the Second Great Awakening were predominantly female. A 1932 source estimated at least three female converts to every two male converts between 1798 to 1826. Young people (those under 25) also converted in greater numbers, and were the first to convert.
The Advent Movement emerged in the 1830s and 1840s in North America, and was preached by ministers such as William Miller, whose followers became known as Millerites. The name refers to belief in the soon Second Advent of Jesus (popularly known as the Second coming) and resulted in several major religious denominations, including Seventh-day Adventists and Advent Christians.
Further information: Restorationism (Christian primitivism)
The idea of restoring a “primitive” form of Christianity grew in popularity in the U.S. after the American Revolution.:89–94 This desire to restore a purer form of Christianity without an elaborate hierarchy contributed to the development of many groups during the Second Great Awakening, including the Mormons, Baptists and Shakers.:89 Several factors made the restoration sentiment particularly appealing during this time period::90–94
- To immigrants in the early 19th century, the land in the United States seemed pristine, edenic and undefiled – “the perfect place to recover pure, uncorrupted and original Christianity” – and the tradition-bound European churches seemed out of place in this new setting.:90
- A primitive faith based on the Bible alone promised a way to sidestep the competing claims of the many denominations available and for congregations to find assurance of being right without the security of an established national church.:93
The Restoration Movement began during, and was greatly influenced by, the Second Great Awakening.:368 While the leaders of one of the two primary groups making up this movement, Thomas Campbell and Alexander Campbell, resisted what they saw as the spiritual manipulation of the camp meetings, the revivals contributed to the development of the other major branch, led by Barton W. Stone.:368 The Southern phase of the Awakening “was an important matrix of Barton Stone’s reform movement” and shaped the evangelistic techniques used by both Stone and the Campbells.:368
Culture and society
Efforts to apply Christian teaching to the resolution of social problems presaged the Social Gospel of the late 19th century. Converts were taught that to achieve salvation they needed not just to repent personal sin but also work for the moral perfection of society, which meant eradicating sin in all its forms. Thus, evangelical converts were leading figures in a variety of 19th century reform movements.
Congregationalists set up missionary societies to evangelize the western territory of the northern tier. Members of these groups acted as apostles for the faith, and also as educators and exponents of northeastern urban culture. The Second Great Awakening served as an “organizing process” that created “a religious and educational infrastructure” across the western frontier that encompassed social networks, a religious journalism that provided mass communication, and church-related colleges.:368 Publication and education societies promoted Christian education; most notable among them was the American Bible Society, founded in 1816. Women made up a large part of these voluntary societies. The Female Missionary Society and the Maternal Association, both active in Utica, NY, were highly organized and financially sophisticated women’s organizations responsible for many of the evangelical converts of the New York frontier.
There were also societies that broadened their focus from traditional religious concerns to larger societal ones. These organizations were primarily sponsored by affluent women. They did not stem entirely from the Second Great Awakening, but the revivalist doctrine and the expectation that one’s conversion would lead to personal action accelerated the role of women’s social benevolence work. Social activism influenced abolition groups and supporters of the Temperance movement. They began efforts to reform prisons and care for the handicapped and mentally ill. They believed in the perfectibility of people and were highly moralistic in their endeavors.
Slaves and free blacks
Baptists and Methodists in the South preached to slaveholders and slaves alike. Conversions and congregations started with the First Great Awakening, resulting in Baptist and Methodist preachers being authorized among slaves and free blacks more than a decade before 1800. Free blacks in Philadelphia left a Methodist church because of its discrimination. By the late eighteenth century, they founded the first African Episcopal Church and first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches in Philadelphia. In 1816, several AME congregations joined in association to establish the AME denomination, the first independent black denomination in the United States. Soon after that, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion) was founded as another denomination in New York City.
Early Baptist congregations were formed by slaves and free blacks in South Carolina and Virginia. Especially in the Baptist Church, blacks were welcomed as members and as preachers. By the early 19th century, independent black congregations numbered in the several hundred in some cities of the South, such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. With the growth in congregations and churches, Baptist associations formed in Virginia, for instance, as well as Kentucky and other states.
The revival also inspired slaves to demand freedom. In 1800, out of black revival meetings in Virginia, a plan for slave rebellion was devised by Gabriel Prosser, although the rebellion was discovered and crushed before it started. Despite white attempts to control independent black congregations, especially after the Nat Turner Uprising of 1831, a number of black congregations managed to maintain their separation as independent congregations in Baptist associations. State legislatures passed laws requiring them always to have a white man present at their worship meetings.
Women made up the majority of the converts during the Awakening, and therefore played a crucial role in its development and focus. It is not clear why women converted in larger numbers than men. A number of scholarly theories attribute it in part to an assumption of greater religiosity in women, a way to shape identities and form community in a time of economic and personal insecurity, a reaction to the perceived sinfulness of youthful frivolity, or a way to assert oneself even in the face of male disapproval. Some women, especially in the South, encountered opposition to their conversion from their husbands, and had to choose between submission to God or the head of the household. While there is no single reason for women joining the revival movement, the revival provided many women with shared experiences. Church membership and religious activity gave women peer support and place for meaningful activity outside the home.
While they constituted the majority of converts and participants, women were not formally indoctrinated and didn’t hold leading ministerial positions. They did occasionally take on public roles during revivals. They preached or prayed aloud on rare occasions but were more likely to give testimonials to their conversion experience or work through the conversion process directly with sinners (who could be male or female). Women’s prayer was seen by leaders such as Charles Finney as a crucial aspect in preparing a community for revival, and improving their efficacy.
Despite a lack of formal leadership roles, informally through family structure and through their maternal roles, women became very important in conversion and religious upbringing of their children. Religion during the period of the revivals was often passed to children through the teaching and influence of mothers who were seen as the moral and spiritual foundation of the family at this time.
Despite the influential part they played in the Second Great Awakening, these women were still largely acting within their status-quo roles as mothers and wives. The change in women’s roles came largely from their participation in increasingly formalized missionary and reform societies. Women’s prayer groups were an early and socially acceptable form of women’s organization. Through their positions in these organizations, women played a part outside of the domestic sphere.
The rising number of women congregants influenced the doctrine ministers preached as well. In an effort to give sermons that would resonate with the congregation, Christ was gradually “feminized” in this period to stress his humility and forgiveness.
- Richard Allen, founder, African Methodist Episcopal Church
- Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Congregationalist, later Unitarian, first ordained female minister in the United States
- Henry Ward Beecher, Presbyterian (son of Lyman)
- Lyman Beecher, Presbyterian
- Alexander Campbell, Presbyterian, and early leader of the Restoration Movement
- Thomas Campbell Presbyterian, then early leader of the Restoration Movement
- Peter Cartwright, Methodist
- Lorenzo Dow, Methodist
- Timothy Dwight IV, Congregationalist
- Charles Finney, Presbyterian, but anti-Calvinist
- Jarena Lee, traveling Methodist Episcopal preacher, African American
- Robert Matthews, cult following as Matthias the Prophet
- William Miller, Millerism, forerunner of Adventism
- Asahel Nettleton, Reformed
- Joseph Smith, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
- Barton Stone, Presbyterian non-Calvinist, then early leader of the Restoration Movement
- Nathaniel William Taylor, heterodox Calvinist
- Ellen G. White, Seventh-day Adventist Church
- Francis Asbury, Methodist
- Harry Hoosier, Methodist (with Francis Asbury)
Revivals and perfectionist hopes off improving individuals and society continued to increase from 1840 to 1865 across all major denominations, especially in urban areas. Evangelists often directly addressed issues such as slavery, greed, and poverty, laying the groundwork for later reform movements. The influence of the Awakening continued in the form of more secular movements. In the midst of shifts in theology and church polity, American Christians began progressive movements to reform society during this period. Known commonly as antebellum reform, this phenomenon included reforms in temperance, women’s rights, abolitionism, and a multitude of other questions faced by society.
The religious enthusiasm of the Second Great Awakening was echoed by the new political enthusiasm of the Second Party System. More active participation in politics by more segments of the population brought religious and moral issues into the political sphere. The spirit of evangelical humanitarian reforms was carried on in the antebellum Whig party.
Historians stress the understanding common among participants of reform as being a part of God’s plan. As a result, local churches saw their roles in society in purifying the world through the individuals to whom they could bring salvation, and through changes in the law and the creation of institutions. Interest in transforming the world was applied to mainstream political action, as temperance activists, antislavery advocates, and proponents of other variations of reform sought to implement their beliefs into national politics. While Protestant religion had previously played an important role on the American political scene, the Second Great Awakening strengthened the role it would play.
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