"To Remake Society in God's Name": The Second Great Awakening and Its Effect on America
Today, one of the great “wedge issues” in the culture wars is religion and its place in American society and our government. On one extreme, many argue for a complete separation of Church and State, with no mention or recognition of God or religion allowed. On the extreme, proponents argue that America was founded on Christian principles and as a Christian nation, and that she should integrate Christian morals and rules into her laws. In reality, historians estimate that only about 30–40% of Americans were members of churches or regularly attended church in the late-eighteenth century around the time of the founding of our nation. By 1850, however, that number was closer to 75–80%. That increase is largely attributed to the effects of a late 18th and early 19th century religious revival movement known as the Second Great Awakening.
What Was the Second Great Awakening?
In the early 1700s, a European philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, was making its way across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colonies. Enlightenment thinkers emphasized a scientific and logical view of the world, while downplaying religion.
In America, the 13 Colonies were religiously diverse. In New England, the Congregational churches were the established religion, while in the religiously tolerant Middle Colonies, the Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Congregational, and Baptist churches all competed on equal terms. In the Southern colonies, the Anglican church was the established church, although there were significant numbers of Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians in the backcountry. At the same time, church membership was low, and the influence of Enlightenment rationalism was leading many people to turn to atheism, Deism, Unitarianism and Universalism.
The American Revolution was largely a secular affair. The Founding Fathers clearly showed their opposition to the intermingling of politics and religion by setting up the separation of church and state in the first amendment to the Constitution. For these reasons, by the end of the 18th century, many Americans no longer professed traditional Christian beliefs.
In reaction to the secularism of the age, a Protestant religious revival, called the Second Great awakening, spread through the new United States and westward beginning around 1790, and continuing into the early nineteenth century. At the start of the American Revolution, the largest protestant denominations were Congregationalists (the 18th-century descendants of Puritan churches), Anglicans (known after the Revolution as Episcopalians), Presbyterians, and Quakers. But by 1800, Evangelical Methodism and Baptists, had become the fastest-growing religions in the nation and whose preachers led the movement. It enrolled millions of new members into churches and led to the formation of new denominations, religious societies, and reform movements.
The Second Great Awakening featured a belief that each new believer experienced an identifiable conversion moment based on a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The evangelists of this era moved away from the doctrine of predestination that was a central tenet of Old School Calvinists to a theology based on the free will of man. While still asserting the sinfulness of man, they taught that each person could choose between salvation and damnation. Extending that line of thought further, it is obvious that if people may choose to accept or reject salvation, there is a role for Christians in guiding other human beings to that decision. This theology became known as New School Calvinism.
The Second Great Awakening began just before the turn of the century in the churches of New England, especially among Baptists and Methodists. The heart of the movement was Yale University where Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Johnathan Edwards, was President and gave lectures on theology, faith, and church history. Just after the turn of the 19th Century, he noticed that his preaching was bearing noticeable fruit with students becoming impassioned by his words. While Dwight’s preaching began the movement, it was his student Nathaniel William Taylor who brought it to fruition.
Taylor embraced the movement of the Holy Spirit in the awakening of the churches and interpreted the theology of the past while considering the present work of God. As one historian of the American church wrote, he “propounded a plausibly rationalistic ‘revival theology’ for mid-nineteenth century America.” Taylor’s theology, like so many before, was based on a confession of faith in Jesus Christ that came from a person exercising free will. He argued that mankind is not predestined to sin but may choose faith and to walk away from sin. This theology placed the responsibility for faith on human beings; the choice was theirs. This “new” theology fit perfectly with the early 19th century vision of America, this land of opportunity where a man could make what he would of himself, where a man had choices, where little was predetermined.
Prominent Leaders of the Movement
One of the important leaders of this religious revival movement was Lyman Beecher. Beginning as minister of a small church in Connecticut, his sermons passionately proclaiming the saving grace of Jesus Christ; and the availability of His salvation to all people regardless of race, gender, or class, energized the people of Connecticut. Beecher took his message to Boston, and then later to Cincinnati, bringing people into the Church wherever he went. In time, he expanded the purpose of his mission from the saving of souls to the transformation of American culture. He wrote, “The great aim of the Christian church. . . is not only to renew the individual man, but also to reform human society.” This effort led Beecher to create several reform societies, which we will discuss later.
Perhaps the greatest American evangelists of the 19th century was Charles Grandison Finney. Originally a lawyer, at the age of twenty-nine, Finney experienced a dramatic conversion and set out to preach the gospel. Finney, however, differed from Edwards, and Beecher over how revival took place. Unlike those of the First Great Revival such as Edwards, Finney, in response to an increasingly scientific and mechanized world, claimed that could organize, plan, and hold revivals using basic logical principles – Men could invoke revival through their own efforts. While many people criticized his methods, they copied them widely. An even more controversial approach that he adopted was the use of women in his revivals. For example, the women of the Utica, New York area helped organize Finney’s meetings and even spoke and prayed in public. Finney, like Beecher, concerned himself with the moral atmosphere – or lack thereof – in America and involved himself in several reform movements.
Finney eventually went west to Oberlin College in Ohio, a center of western anti-slavery agitation, where he accepted a professorship in theology. He taught there the rest of his life while working in trips for well-planned revivals. Oberlin equipped both men and women – it was the first coeducational college in the world – to preach the gospel, and rail against the evils of slavery. And, of course, its own example helped prepare America for the radical idea that women should be treated as the equals of men. All considered, Finney’s impact on America was profound and lasting. Esteemed historian Daniel Walker Howe remarked, “For widespread influence, personal integrity, social conscience, and spiritual power, few American evangelists of a later age could equal Charles G. Finney.”
Revivals, Camp Meetings, and Circuit Riders
Historians argue that, because the Constitution separated religion from the control of political leaders, a series of religious revivals swept the United States from the 1790s and into the 1830s that transformed the religious landscape of the country. During the post-Revolutionary War period, there was bitter conflict between political factions with both sides claiming the other was corrupt. Not only our politics but our culture seemed debased. Per capita alcohol use was three to four times current levels and public spaces were often slimy with tobacco spit. Popular pastimes included dogfights, cockfights, rats-versus-dog battles, and bullbaiting; the market revolution, western expansion, and European immigration all challenged traditional bonds of authority. Disgust with dirty politics and a debased society did not discourage upright citizens but instead, drew them to evangelicalism, which promised equal measures of excitement and order. Religious revivals spread like wildfire throughout the United States, swelling church membership.
The phrase "religious revival" originated in the eighteenth century to describe a phenomenon in which churches experienced an unexpected "awakening" of spiritual concern, which led to unprecedented numbers of intense and "surprising conversions." In the early nineteenth century however, as "the revival" became a central instrument for provoking conversions, it became as much a human as a divine event. According to Charles G. Finney, a revival was a deliberately orchestrated event that used a variety of spiritual practices to bring about conversions, especially among the unconverted "youth" (men and women between 15 and 30) in the community. This revival crusade quickly spread from western New York throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio, with the Methodists and the Baptists its prime beneficiaries.
Each denomination had assets that allowed it to thrive on the frontier. The Methodists had a very efficient organization that depended on ministers – known as circuit riders – revivalist preachers who traveled on horseback throughout the backcountry, sharing the message of spiritual and moral renewal with as many frontier residents as possible. The circuit riders came from among the common people and so, had a rapport with the frontier families they hoped to convert. The Baptists, who had no formal church organization, found their converts differently. Their farmer-preachers were people who received "the call" from God, studied the Bible, and founded a church, which then ordained them. These churches produced more candidates for the ministry who set up a presence farther into the wilderness. Using such methods, the Baptists became dominant throughout the border states and most of the South.
A third method of evangelizing, Camp meetings, captured the democratizing spirit of the American Revolution, while also provided a unifying moral order and new sense of spiritual community for Americans struggling with the momentous changes of the day. One of the earliest and largest revivals of the Second Great Awakening occurred in Cane Ridge, Kentucky from August 6 to August 12 or 13, 1801. Described as the "largest and most famous camp meeting of the Second Great Awakening," the Cane Ridge Revival drew between 10,000 and 20,000 people during its one week run: reaching as many as one of every ten residents of Kentucky. The Presbyterian church at Cane Ridge hosted the meeting however, the church decided to invite other local Presbyterian and Methodist churches to take part in its annual Communion service.
Ministers from Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist backgrounds took part. Altogether, eighteen Presbyterian ministers spoke, as well as many Methodists and Baptists. The meeting began on a Friday evening with preaching continuing through Saturday. During the meeting multiple ministers would preach at the same time in various locations within the camp area, some using stumps, wagons and fallen trees as makeshift platforms. On Sunday, they began to serve communion, with many ministers officiating, an action sermon, tables, a tent, and successive celebrations of communion, all part of the evangelical Presbyterian tradition. An estimated 800 to 1,100 people received communion that day. As a result of these efforts, residents of urban centers, rural farmlands, and frontier territories alike flocked to religious revivals and camp meetings, where intense physical and emotional enthusiasm went with evangelical conversion.
Another effect of this “Awakening" was the formation or strengthening of several non-mainstream religious sects. Some of these had major impacts on American society and continue to do so today.
AME Church (AMEC)
Richard Allen was another of the important American church leaders of the nineteenth century. Allen was a slave who amazingly converted his master and bought his freedom. Despite the ideal of brotherly love, the name Philadelphia declares, there was discord between the city’s white and black Methodists. The AMEC grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other free blacks set up in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) pulled blacks off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans.
They left St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church although Allen and Jones were both accepted there as preachers; but the Church limited them to ministering to only black congregations. In addition, the blacks had to sit in a separate gallery built in the church when their part of the congregation increased. These former members of St. George's made plans to transform their mutual aid society (the FAS) into an African congregation. Although the group was originally non-denominational, eventually members wanted to affiliate with existing denominations. Although most wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, Allen led a small group who resolved to remain Methodists. In 1794 Bethel AME was dedicated with Allen as pastor.
Facing continuing interference from white Methodists, Allen successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution. Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities also met with racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia in 1816 to form a new Wesleyan denomination. Sixteen representatives, from Bethel African Church in Philadelphia and African churches in Baltimore, MD, Wilmington, DE, Attleboro, PA, and Salem, NJ, met to form a church organization or connection under the title of the "African Methodist Episcopal Church" (AME Church). On April 10, 1816, the other ministers chose Allen as their first bishop.
Allen focused on organizing a denomination in which free Black people could worship without racial oppression and enslaved people could find a measure of dignity. He worked to upgrade the social status of the Black community, organizing Sabbath schools to teach literacy, and promoting national organizations to develop political strategies. The social themes of Bishop Allen's preaching were abolition, colonization, education, and temperance. His preaching style was said to never be expository or written to be read, but instead, the subject was delivered in an evangelical and extemporized manner that demanded action, rather than meditation. His tone was persuasive, not moralizing.
Black churchmen like Allen became leaders of the black community at large and remain an important part of the leadership of that subset of Americans to this day. A branch of the AME church in Baltimore was instrumental in the Christian conversion of Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest leaders of the abolitionist crusade in America.
Shakers (United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing
Originally known as "Shaking Quakers" because of their ecstatic behavior during worship services, they provide an example of a community set up with a religious mission. The Shakers started in England as an outgrowth of the Quaker religion in the middle of the eighteenth century. Ann Lee, a leader of the group in England, emigrated to New York in the 1770s after experiencing a profound religious awakening. She taught that God was both male and female; Jesus embodied the male side, while Mother Ann—as she came to be known by her followers—stood for the female side. To Shakers in both England and the United States, Mother Ann represented the completion of divine revelation and the beginning of the millennium (in this context, millennium refers to the 1000-year period of heaven on Earth following the return of Jesus Christ, as prophesied in the Christian Bible).
In practice, Shaker communities held that men and women were equals—a radical departure at the time—and women often outnumbered men. Equality extended to the possession of material goods as well; no person could hold private property. Shaker communities aimed for self-sufficiency, raising food, and making all that was necessary—including furniture that emphasized excellent workmanship—as a substitute for worldly pleasure. The defining features of the Shakers were their spiritual mysticism and their prohibition of sexual intercourse, which they viewed as a symptom of a lesser spiritual life and a source of conflict between women and men. This was accomplished by celibate communities of men and women living together in separate dormitory-style houses and holding all things in common. Rapturous Shaker dances, for which the group gained notoriety, allowed for emotional release.
The first Shaker community, set up at New Lebanon, New York, in 1787, retained leadership of the movement as it spread through New England and westward into Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. By 1826, 18 Shaker villages had been set up in eight states. The high point of the Shaker movement came in the 1830s, when about 6,000 members populated communities in New England, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.
Although often persecuted for pacifism or for bizarre beliefs falsely attributed to them, the Shakers won admiration for their model farms, orderly and prosperous communities, and fair dealing with outsiders. Their industry and ingenuity produced many (usually unpatented) inventions, including, among other things, the screw propeller, babbitt metal, a rotary harrow, an automatic spring, a turbine waterwheel, a threshing machine, the circular saw, and the common clothespin. They were the first to package and market seeds and were once the largest producers of medicinal herbs in the United States.
Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
The most successful religious utopian community to arise from the Second Great Awakening was begun by Joseph Smith. In 1823, Smith claimed to have been visited by the angel Moroni, who told him the location of a trove of golden plates or tablets, which he found and translated. In 1830, he published his finding as The Book of Mormon. That same year, he organized the Church of Christ, the progenitor of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly known as the Mormons).
Smith presented himself as a prophet and aimed to recapture what he viewed as the purity of the primitive Christian church; purity lost over the centuries. To Smith, this meant restoring male leadership. Smith emphasized the importance of families ruled by fathers. His vision of a reinvigorated patriarchy resonated with men and women who had not thrived during the market revolution, and his claims attracted those who hoped for a better future. Smith’s new church placed great stress on work and discipline. He aimed to create a "New Jerusalem" where the church exercised oversight of its members.
Anti-Mormon sentiment in New York led Smith and his followers to move to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831. By 1838, they were facing financial collapse after a series of efforts in banking and money-making ended in disaster. They moved to Missouri, but trouble soon developed there as well as citizens reacted against the Mormons’ beliefs. Actual fighting broke out in 1838, and roughly 10,000 Mormons left for Nauvoo, Illinois, where they founded a new center of Mormonism.
Although Unitarianism had existed since the 16th century, it was during the Second Great Awakening that it rose to prominence in America. Unitarianism embodied the liberal development of New England Congregationalism growing out of the Enlightenment and the First Great Awakening. While more traditional theologians and ministers such as Jonathan Edwards continued to hew to strict Calvinist beliefs in innate depravity and election, the more liberal wing of Congregationalism tended to move away from the emphasis on man’s inability to affect their own spiritual change due to their sinfulness and to remain skeptical of what they saw as emotional excess. With the formal rejection of the trinity (instead of viewing Jesus as a part of God seeing him as a great spiritual leader), Unitarianism split from Congregationalism in the late-eighteenth century, exemplifying a new type of Enlightenment Christianity that emphasized reason, progress, learning, stability, and harmony. While more traditional Congregationalists still saw Unitarianism as heretical, it had come to be the established church in parts of New England by the 1820s, especially in the Boston area.
Unitarians believe that mainline Christianity does not adhere to strict monotheism, but that Unitarians do by claiming that Jesus was a great man and a prophet of God, perhaps even a supernatural being, but not God himself. They have liberal views of God, Jesus, the world, and the purpose of life, as revealed through reason, scholarship, science, philosophy, scripture and other prophets and religions. They believe that reason and belief are complementary, and that religion and science can co-exist and guide them in their understanding of nature and God. They also do not enforce belief in creeds or dogmatic formulas. Although there is flexibility in the nuances of belief or basic truths for the individual Unitarian, general principles of faith have been created to bind the group in some commonality. Four presidents of the United States were Unitarians: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft.
Prior to the Civil War, social reform came primarily from this new devotion to religion. The religious “awakening” occurring throughout the country led to efforts to apply Christian teaching to the resolution of social problems. Many of these “converts” came to believe 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.
In the northeast, churches set up missionary societies to evangelize the frontier areas of the old Northwest Territory. Members of these groups acted as apostles for the faith, and as educators and exponents of northeastern urban culture. Women made up a large part of these voluntary societies. There were also societies that broadened their focus from traditional religious concerns to larger societal ones. Reforms took the shape of social movements for temperance, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery 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 by creating “asylums” to separate them from criminals. They believed in the perfectibility of people and were highly moralistic in their endeavors. Interest in transforming the world was applied to political action, as temperance activists, antislavery advocates, and proponents of other variations of reform looked to implement their beliefs into national politics.
Although churches introduced an abstinence pledge as early as 1800, the earliest temperance organizations seem to have been those founded at Saratoga, New York, in 1808 and in Massachusetts in 1813. The movement spread rapidly under the influence of the churches and by 1833 there were 6,000 local societies in several U.S. states.
The abolition movement first took root in Northern states, beginning in 1780 with Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, passed legislation abolishing slavery. These acts, however, did not usually lead to the emancipation of enslaved African Americans living in the north, as their intention was primarily to outlaw the slave trade rather than the institution itself. Massachusetts, when ratifying their constitution in 1780, included a clause which declared all men equal. Based upon that clause, enslaved African Americans living in Massachusetts filed several freedom suits which eventually led to the abolition of the institution in the state. In the state of New York, the enslaved population became indentured servants before being granted full emancipation in 1827. In other states, abolitionist legislation only offered freedom for the children of the enslaved. In the American South, the courts rejected similar freedom suits, issuing statements which said, in effect, that the rights in the state constitution did not apply to African Americans.
All U.S. states abolished the transatlantic slave trade by 1790 however, South Carolina, which had abolished the slave trade in 1787, reversed that decision in 1803. During the ensuing decades, the abolitionist movement grew in Northern states, and Congress, as they admitted new states to the Union, regulated the expansion of slavery. The federal government abolished the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, prohibited slavery in the District of Columbia in 1850, and made slavery unconstitutional altogether in 1865.
Almost as soon as the movement to abolish slavery began, the question of what to do with free black people surfaced. Many people in that period felt that the country could not be the home for free blacks and enslaved blacks at the same time? They also questioned, if slavery ended, should freed men and women remain in the country or go elsewhere? Many white people at this time thought the answer to that last question was to send free black Americans to Africa through “colonization.” Starting in 1816, the American Colonization Society—which counted future presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson among its members—sought to create a colony in Africa for this purpose.
The society spent its first few years trying to secure land in West Africa. In 1821, it made a deal with local West African leaders to establish a colony at Cape Mesurado which would eventually become the nation of Liberia. The strip of land was only 36 miles long and three miles wide (today, Liberia stretches over 38,250 square miles) The next year, the society began sending free people—often groups of families—to the colony. Over the next 40 years, upwards of 12,000 freeborn and formerly enslaved black Americans immigrated to Liberia.
Though some free black Americans may have supported the society’s mission, there were also plenty who criticized it. They argued that their sweat and blood, their family who were once enslaved, built this country; so therefore, they had just as much right to be here and be citizens. In addition, many argued “this is a slaveholders’ scheme to rid the nation of free blacks in an effort to make slavery more secure.”
As the abolitionist movement grew in the early 1830s, abolitionists’ criticism of the society began to erode its support. Unlike the white people in the American Colonization Society who believed that slavery should gradually end, abolitionists of the 1830s and after called for an immediate end to slavery. In addition, many abolitionists considered it cruel to deport black Americans to Liberia, where they struggled to survive in a new environment with new diseases.
As you can see, the ideas and energy of the Second Great Awakening supplied an impetus for changes to American society, the effects of which continue to reverberate in our politics and daily life even today. Because of this movement, reforms improving public society and “religion” became a moving force in American life for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. One has to wonder if maybe it isn’t time for America to experience a “Third Great Awakening”, whatever that might be?
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Burin, Eric. Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2005.
Irish, Kerry. The Second Great Awakening and the Making of Modern America. Faculty Publications - Department of History, Politics, and International Studies. Newburg, OR: George Fox University, 2018.
Kruczek-Aaron, Hadley. Everyday Religion: An Archaeology of Protestant Belief and Practice in the Nineteenth Century. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2015.
Stone, Geoffrey R. "The Second Great Awakening: A Christian Nation?" Georgia State Law Review May 2012: 1305-1333. 24 March 2021. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/234555024.pdf
ushistory.org. Religious Transformation and the Second Great Awakening. 2018. 24 March 2021. https://www.ushistory.org/us/22c.asp.