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The Second Great Awakening  (1790–1840s) was a period of great religious revival that extended into the antebellum period of the United States, with widespread Christian evangelism and conversions. It was named for the Great Awakening, a similar period which had transpired about half a century beforehand. It generated excitement in church congregations throughout New Englandmarker, the mid-Atlantic, Northwest and the South. Individual preachers such as Charles Grandison Finney, Lyman Beecher, Barton Stone, Peter Cartwright, and Asahel Nettleton became very well known as a result. Evangelical participation in social causes was fostered that changed American life in areas such as prison reform, abolitionism, and temperance.

Spread of revivals

In New Yorkmarker, the spirit of revival encouraged the emergence of Restorationism and other new religious movements, especially the Mormons and the Holiness movement. In the South's western regions, especially at Cane Ridge, Kentuckymarker and in Tennesseemarker — the revival supported growth of the Methodists and Baptists. Baptists and Methodists were also successful in some parts of the Tidewater, where an increasing number of common planters and slaves joined their congregations. Backcountry traditions along the Appalachian spine included the camp meeting, with Scottish and Presbyterian roots.

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. 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. 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.

1839 Methodist camp meeting
The Methodists and Baptists, who also sent preachers to the South, 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 Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, Christian Church , The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. . This cultural phenomenon also contributed to growth in non-denominational churches, such as the Churches of Christ, which insisted on congregational governance and insisted on "return" to earliest Biblical practice. Many people sought a return to what they believed were fundamental concepts of New Testament Christianity in preference to the later doctrines and practices developed through centuries of European and English Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and various Protestant traditions.

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. Early congregations were formed among slaves and free blacks in South Carolina and Virginia. Especially in the Baptist Church, blacks were welcomed in multiple roles. By the early 1800s, there were independent black congregations numbering in the several hundred in some cities of the South, such as Charleston, South Carolinamarker; and Richmond and Petersburg, Virginiamarker. With the growth in congregations and churches, Baptist associations formed in Virginia, for instance, as well as Kentucky and other states. 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, even when laws passed requiring them always to have a white man present at their worship meetings.


In the Appalachianmarker region, the revival used and promoted camp meetings. It 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 gathering at the camp meeting as a refuge from the lonely life on the frontier. 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 Rivermarker Church in southwestern Kentucky. A much larger gathering was held at Cane Ridge, Kentuckymarker, 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 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 Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, the Churches of Christ, Christian Church and the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

The Restoration Movement began during, and was greatly influenced by, the Second Great Awakening. 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, it was an important factor in the development of the other other major branch, led by Barton W. Stone. 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.

The Second Great Awakening served as an "organizing process" that created "a religious and educational infrastructure" across the trans-Appalachian frontier that encompassed social networks, a religious journalism that provided mass communication, and church related colleges.

In a reappraisal of American exceptionalism, Long (2002) notes that since the 1980s, scholars have connected American religious camp meetings to Scottish holy fairs of the 17th-18th centuries. Formerly they were thought to have originated in the unique conditions of the American frontier experience. The great wave of Scots-Irish immigrants to the colonies before the American Revolution brought such traditions with them.

Long examines the sacramental theology in communion sermons given by James McGready in Kentucky during the first decade of the 19th century. McGready's sermons demonstrated adherence to reformed theology, a Calvinist understanding of salvation, and a sacramental emphasis. A central theme of McGready's sermons was that of believers' meeting Christ at the communion table.

Appeal of Christian restoration

The ideal of restoring a "primitive" form of Christianity grew in popularity in the U.S. after the American Revolution. This desire to restore a purer form of Christianity played a role in the development of many groups during the Second Great Awakening, including the Mormons, Baptists and Shakers. Several factors made the restoration sentiment particularly appealing during this time period.
  • To immigrants in the early 19th century, the land in America 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.
  • The new American democracy seemed equally fresh and pure, a restoration of the kind of just government that God intended.
  • Many believed that the new nation usher in a new millenial age.
  • Independence from the traditional churches of Europe was appealing to many Americans who were enjoying a new political independence.
  • A primitive faith based on the Bible alone promised a way sidestep the competing claims of all the many denominations available and find assurance of being right without the security of an established national church.

Prominent figures

The great revival quickly spread throughout Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Ohiomarker. 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 rapport with the frontier families they hoped to convert.

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.

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 included reforms in temperance, women's rights, abolitionism, and a multitude of other questions faced by society.

Historians stress 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. 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 religion had previously played an important role on the American political scene, the Second Great Awakening highlighted the important role which individual beliefs would play.The Association movement was a larger phenomena and understanding the presence or absence of religion in that movement will help the more neutral reader to understand The Great Awakening. Clearly, the United States presented to many Europeans a place to experiment with social order and social theory, specifically communal living which is a part of some of these religious expressions. The number of these social experiments is at least as great, if not greater, than the number of purely religious ones.

To portray the revivals as purely and solely focused on religion is very misleading. In addition to the Association movement, the matter of marriage and conception was as or more important than a godly aspect. The Mormons, the Oneida Community, and the early eugenics experiments in Vermont are but a few of these related communal attempts during this period.

See also


  1. Presbyterian historian Matzko notes that "Oliver Cowdery claimed that Smith had been 'awakened' during a sermon by the Methodist minister George Lane."
  2. On Scottish influences see Long (2002) and Elizabeth Semancik, "Backcountry Religious Ways" at [1]
  3. Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 137, accessed 27 Dec 2008
  4. Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 27 Dec 2008
  5. Douglas Allen Foster and Anthony L. Dunnavant, The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, Churches of Christ, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0802838987, 9780802838988, 854 pages, entry on Great Awakenings
  6. C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes, "Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of the Churches of Christ," Abilene Christian University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-89112-006-8

Further reading

  • Abzug, Robert H. Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (1994) (ISBN 0-195-04568-8)
  • Ahlstrom, Sydney. A Religious History of the American People (1972) (ISBN 0-385-11164-9)
  • Birdsall Richard D. "The Second Great Awakening and the New England Social Order", Church History 39 (1970): 345-64.
  • Bratt, James D. "Religious Anti-revivalism in Antebellum America", Journal of the Early Republic (2004) 24(1): 65-106. ISSN 0275–1275 Fulltext: in Ebsco.
  • Brown, Kenneth O. Holy Ground; a Study on the American Camp Meeting. Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992.
  • Brown, Kenneth O. Holy Ground, Too, the Camp Meeting Family Tree. Hazleton: Holiness Archives, 1997.
  • Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain Folk Camp-Meeting Religion, 1800–1845, University of Tennessee Press, 1974.
  • Butler Jon. "Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction", Journal of American History 69 (1982): 305-25. online in JSTOR
  • Butler Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. 1990.
  • Carwardine, Richard J. Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America. Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Carwardine, Richard J. "The Second Great Awakening in the Urban Centers: An Examination of Methodism and the 'New Measures'", Journal of American History 59 (1972): 327-340. online in JSTOR
  • Joseph A. Conforti; Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition and American Culture, University of North Carolina Press. 1995.
  • Cross, Whitney, R. The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850, 1950.
  • Foster, Charles I. An Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790–1837, University of North Carolina Press, 1960.
  • Clifford S. Griffin. "Religious Benevolence as Social Control, 1815-1860", The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 3. (Dec., 1957), pp. 423-444. in JSTOR
  • Hambrick-Stowe, Charles. Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism. Wm B. Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Hankins, Barry. The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists. Greenwood, 2004.
  • Hatch Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity, 1989.
  • Charles A. Johnson, "The Frontier Camp Meeting: Contemporary and Historical Appraisals, 1805-1840", The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 37, No. 1. (Jun., 1950), pp. 91-110. in JSTOR
  • Long, Kimberly Bracken. "The Communion Sermons of James Mcgready: Sacramental Theology and Scots-Irish Piety on the Kentucky Frontier", Journal of Presbyterian History, 2002 80(1): 3-16. Issn: 0022-3883
  • Loveland Anne C. Southern Evangelicals and the Social Order, 1800-1860, 1980
  • Marsden George M. The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America, 1970.
  • Matzko, John A. "The Encounter of the Young Joseph Smith with Presbyterianism," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40/3, 2007.
  • McLoughlin William G. Modern Revivalism, 1959.
  • McLoughlin William G. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977, 1978.
  • Noll; Mark A. ed. God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Walter Brownlow Posey, The Baptist Church in the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1776-1845, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957
  • Raboteau, Albert. Slave Religion: The "invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, reprint 2004
  • Roth Randolph A. The Democratic Dilemma: Religion, Reform, and the Social Order in the Connecticut River Valley of Vermont, 1791-1850, 1987
  • Shiels Richard D. "The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut: Critique of the Traditional Interpretation", Church History 49 (1980): 401-15.
  • Smith, Timothy L. Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War, 1957

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