Second Great Awakening

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.

The Second Great Awakening (1800–1830s) was the second great religious revival in American history and consisted of renewed personal salvation experienced in revival meetings. Major leaders included Charles Grandison Finney, Lyman Beecher, Barton Stone, Peter Cartwright and James B. Finley.

New England

In New England, the renewed interest in religion inspired a wave of social activism centered in the colleges where religion had previously been disregarded. President Timothy Dwight of Yale College took the lead in chapel sermons and classroom discussions which motivated the students and prepared the way for a renewed religious interest. A revival began in 1802 that resulted in the conversion of a third of the Yale student body. The Awakening spread to other colleges and soon a stream of young college graduates was entering every form of religious work, particularly the Christian ministry and education and home and foreign mission enterprises.

In western New York, the spirit of revival encouraged the emergence of new Restorationist and other denominations, especially the Mormons and the Holiness movement. In the west especially—at Cane Ridge, Kentucky and in Tennessee—the revival strengthened the Methodists and the Baptists and introduced into America a new form of religious expression—the Scottish camp meeting.[1]

Guelzo (1997) places theologian Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) by placing him in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards's Calvinism. While many consider Finney a rebel against the New England theology, he was actually an heir to this tradition and resistant to popular notions of free will that challenged the New England culture. Such a reevaluation questions the view that the Second Great Awakening fits into a "declension" model in American religious history and forces a new understanding of the connection between this movement and American commercial markets.


The Congregationalists set up missionary societies, to evangelize the West. Their most successful missions were in Hawaii, where they converted most of the natives. Missionaries were preachers and educators, as well as exponents of Yankee culture. Publication and education societies promoted Christian education; most notable among them was the American Bible Society, founded in 1816. Social activism inspired by the revival gave rise to abolition groups as well as the Society for the Promotion of Temperance, and 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.

The Methodists and Baptists made enormous gains; to a lesser extent the Presbyterians gained members. Among the new denominations that were formed, and which in the 21st century still proclaim their roots in the Second Great Awakening are the Churches of Christ / International Churches of Christ, the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Latter Day Saint movement, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.


In the Appalachian region, the revival used and promoted the camp meeting, and took on characteristics similar to the First Great Awakening of the previous century. The camp meeting was a religious service of several days' length with multiple preachers. Settlers in thinly populated areas looked to the camp meeting as a refuge from the lonely life on the frontier. The sheer exhilaration of participating in a religious revival with hundreds and perhaps thousands of people inspired the dancing, shouting, and singing associated with these events. More important than the social life was the profound impact on the individual's self esteem — shattered by a sense of guilt, then restored by a sense of personal salvation. Most of the converts joined small local churches, which thereby grew rapidly.

One of the early camp meetings took place in July 1800 at Creedance Clearwater 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. This event helped stamp the revival as a major mode of church expansion for denominations such as the Methodists and Baptists. Cane Ridge was also instrumental in the birth of the churches of the Restoration Movement, particularly the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, The Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and the Church of Christ.

Long (2002) notes that since the 1980s, scholars have connected American religious camp meetings, formerly thought to have their roots only in the American frontier experience, to Scottish holy fairs of the 17th-18th centuries. Long (2002) examines the sacramental theology in the communion sermons of James McGready given in Kentucky during the first decade of the 19th century. McGready's sermons demonstrate adherence to reformed theology, a Calvinist understanding of salvation, and a sacramental emphasis. A central theme of McGready's sermons stressed the believer meeting Christ at the communion table.

Prominent figures

The great revival 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 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 a rapport with the frontier families they hoped to convert.

Impact on denominations

The Second Great Awakening exercised a profound impact on American religious history. The numerical strength of the Baptists and Methodists rose relative to that of the denominations dominant in the colonial period—the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Reformed. Efforts to apply Christian teaching to the resolution of social problems presaged the Social Gospel of the late 19th century. The United States was becoming a more culturally diverse nation in the early to mid-19th century, and the growing differences within American Protestantism reflected and contributed to this diversity. The Awakening influenced numerous reform movements, especially abolitionists.

Impact on individuals

The adolescence of poet Emily Dickinson was marked by the intense religious revivals that made Amherst College and her family's church, The First Congregational Church of Amherst, a major locus of influence in 1845-46 and in 1850, during the second phase of what is now called the Second Great Awakening. Schmidt (2005) traces the impact of these revivals on Dickinson, who was the only member of her family and close circle of friends who did not convert to Christianity and join her family's church by public profession of faith. Through close readings of poems, her early letters and certain letters by Dickinson family members, Dickinson's work appears as a rebellion against the religious orthodoxy of mid-nineteenth-century Western Massachusetts and presents Dickinson as caught between two counter forces: the Calvinist tradition of examining one's inner life in preparation for religious conversion and the current pressure at revivals to stand up in front of a crowd and deliver a formulaic statement of faith. Her poems read show how Dickinson appropriated the meters and imagery of the hymns she sang at church and the diction of public professions of faith in order to write her own idiosyncratic spiritual autobiography--in the form of lyric poems--that explores her hesitations, doubts and her refusal to join, what she calls in poem F659/J539, "The Province of the Saved."[2]


Reeves (2005) examines the historical context, spiritual development, and theological arguments of four Protestant critics of Second Great Awakening revivalism who published critiques from the mid-1830s to the late-1840s: Calvin Colton, John Henry Hopkins, John Williamson Nevin, and Horace Bushnell. Historians have begun to give increased attention to the role played by critics of revivalism in the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, but inadequate attention has been devoted to critics of revivalism in the Second Great Awakening. Several competitors vied for the right to define revivalism in the Second Great Awakening. New Divinity revivalists legitimated their revivals by the construction of an Edwardsean tradition of sober revivalism, but their definition of genuine revival was contested not only by Frontier, New Haven, and New Measures revivalists, but also by critics who questioned the underlying theological assumptions of revivalism.

The counter-revivalists were not merely reactive; they sought to counter revivalism by formulating alternative understandings of Christian theology and spirituality. High Church Episcopalians Calvin Colton and John Henry Hopkins argued for the superiority of the Episcopal Church; Colton praised his church's refusal to meddle in political affairs in the manner of revivalistic reformers, and Hopkins appealed to his church's faithfulness to the pattern established by the "Primitive Church" of the first four centuries against the "novelties" of revivalism. John Williamson Nevin criticized revivalism's subjectivism, countering with a churchly piety, grounded on the objective presence of Christ in the sacraments. Nevin envisioned an alliance between the German Reformed and German Lutheran Churches as a bulwark against Americanized evangelicalism. Horace Bushnell criticized revivalism for its supernaturalistic dualism; as an alternative, Bushnell offered a Romantic revision of the means of grace, in which parents could shape the Christian character of their children through the power of organic connections. The counter-revivalists in this study offered counter-narratives set against prevailing revivalistic norms to offer an alternative understanding of American religious culture and to open up new directions for the future of Christian piety and theology.[3]

Political Implications

In the midst of shifts in theology and church polity, American Christians took it upon themselves to reform society during this period. Known commonly as antebellum reform, this phenomenon includes reforms in temperance, women's rights, abolitionism, and a multitude of other questions and problems faced by society.

Historian Robert H. Abzug (1994) stresses the understanding common among participants of reform as being a part of God's plan. As a result, individual Christians contemplated their roles in society in purifying the world through the individuals to whom they could bring salvation.

Primary Sources

  • Lyman Beecher, The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, ed. by Barbara M. Cross, 2 vols. (1961).
  • Sweet, W. W., ed. Religion on the American Frontier. Vol. I,
  • Sweet, W. W., ed. Religion on the American Frontier, Vol. II, The Presbyterians: 1783-1840, A Collection of Source Materials (1936)
  • Sweet, W. W., ed. Religion on the American Frontier. Vol. III,
  • Sweet, W. W., ed. Religion on the American Frontier. Vol. IV, 1783-1840: The Methodists, A Collection of Source Materials (1964) online review

See also

  1. On Scottish influences see Long (2002) and Elizabeth Semancik, "Backcountry Religious Ways" at [1]
  2. Schmidt, (2005)
  3. Reeves (2005)