Religion has been intertwined in American history since its founding. There have been several religious revivals aimed at increasing church membership and devotion to God.
The Second Great Awakening was one of the largest and most consequential religious movements in American history. It was during this movement that revivalism and social activism became part of the religious experience.
Join me as I dive into what the Second Great Awakening was and just how it impacted the country.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Second Great Awakening." Encyclopedia Britannica, May 8, 2019. (LINK)
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Cartwritght, Peter. The Backwoods Preacher. N.p.: Applewood Books, 2009.
Fairchild, Mary. "Calvinism Vs. Arminianism." Learn Religions. Accessed January 9, 2022. (LINK)
Finney, Charles Grandison. “What A Revival of Religion Is.” 1835. (LINK)
History.com Editors. “Women’s Suffrage.” History. February 23, 2021. (LINK)
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “The First Great Awakening.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. Accessed January 2, 2022. (LINK)
Religion & Slavery. Africans in America. PBS. (LINK)
Scott, Donald. “Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening.” National Humanities Center. October, 2000. Accessed January 9, 2022. (LINK)
“The Second Great Awakening and Reform In the 19th Century.” Bill of Rights in Action 32:2. Winter, 2017. Constitutional Rights Foundation. (LINK)
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“Religion is the work of man. It is something for man to do. It consists in obeying God. It is man’s duty. It is true, God induces him to do it. He influences him by his Spirit, because of his great wickedness and reluctance to obey.” Charles Grandison Finney, 1835.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, America saw a wave of religious revival and recommitment to faith, known as the Second Great Awakening.
This religious movement spanned nearly forty years and was marked by things like camp meetings, passionate preachers and emotional declarations of faith. The awakening, as it was dubbed, also led to an increase in American activism on several social movements such as temperance, abolition and women’s rights.
So just what was the Second Great Awakening? Who was involved? And what did it have to do with increases in activism?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
First before we can get into the Second Great Awakening, let’s talk about the first shall we? The first great awakening was a religious movement between the 1730s and 1770s and much like the second iteration a few years later, was focused on rededicating oneself to God. The first quote unquote awakening is different in that unlike the second, the first great awakening was part of a larger international movement, whereas the second great awakening was primarily limited to the United States and permanently altered the religious landscape of the new country.
Many historians point to George Whitefield (whitfield) as the leader of the American strand of the first movement. Whitefield, a British minister with actor training, traveled throughout the colonies preaching his message and worked at increasing membership in the church. It was his emotional and dramatic sermons that compelled people to attend his meetings and convert their faith. His was a persona so engaging and magnetic that some point to Whitefield as the originator of the evangelical movement.
Getting the word of God out to the masses was a strong part of both religious revivals and during the first great awakening, a focus was placed on creating locations where one could learn to preach and speak about faith. It was during the first great awakening that Princeton University was established; initially founded as a college to train ministers, it was not rebranded as Princeton until 1896. The first great awakening also saw the emergence of the Methodist sect of prod est tant ism protestantism under the Christian faith.
Once the American Revolution was won and the constitution ratified, secularism again dominated much of the country. However, this wouldn’t last long as America soon found itself in the middle of renewed religious zeal, known today as the Second Great Awakening. Most historians peg this second wave as occurring between 1795 and 1830 and break it into three separate and distinct phases. The first phase, which occurred from 1795 to 1810 was dominated by the words of James McGready, Barton W. Stone and John McGee and saw the emergence of camp meetings.
Camp meetings were what they sound like. Families would come from across the region to set up for several days of a religious experience. They would attend outdoor church services with preachers giving their sermons from makeshift stages made up of available materials. James McGready is considered the originator of the camp meeting as he held the first known meetings between 1799 and 1801 in Logan County, Kentucky. One of the most well known camp meetings occurred in 1801 in Kentucky and is known as the Cane Ridge meeting. What makes the Cane Ridge camp distinct is the number of attendees. Estimated at between ten and twenty thousand, the meeting holds the record as one of, if not the most, attended meeting with nearly 10% of Kentucky’s population partaking in the experience.
In his autobiography published in 1854, Methodist missionary Peter Cartwright described the scene at cane ridge writing quote: “It was not unusual for one, two, three, and four to seven preachers to be addressing the listening thousands at the same time from the different stands erected for the purpose. The heavenly fire spread in almost every direction. It was said, by truthful witnesses, that at times more than one thousand persons broke into loud shouting all at once, and that the shouts could be heard for miles around” end quote.
Camp meetings originated along the American frontier, filling the gap of an expanding country, where fewer Americans were able to gather in a singular place of worship. Traveling preachers would move throughout the country and used word of mouth to let those around the area know a religious meeting was in the works. Because these meetings were often not close to home, families typically set up for several days as they witnessed various sermons, sometimes from varying denominations.
The meetings had one intended goal: conversion. Preachers, often speaking plainly and evoking emotion in order to convince those in attendance to join the faith, would speak about God and work towards converting as many as possible. In an article on the emergence of camp meetings during the second great awakening, historian David Scott wrote quote: “it was a deliberately orchestrated event that deployed a variety of spiritual practices to provoke conversions” end quote.
As conversion was the end goal, camp meetings were filled with a number of religious experiences all aimed at securing new converts. This included activities such as singing hymns, public confession and collective prayer, all overseen by a homespun preacher who would lead the congregation in an overwhelmingly emotional experience. The emotions ran so high that eventually some sects such as presbyterian and baptist preachers began to disavow them. The methodists, however, decided to lean in and promote the forceful religious experience.
The second phase of the second great awakening occurred from 1810 and 1825 and was dominated by the preachings of Timothy Dwight, Nathaniel Taylor and Lyman Beecher, amongst others. This period was considered more conservative than the first and third phases and was limited primarily to the official pews of the church.
The third and final phase, which occurred between 1825 and 1835 roughly, was dominated by a man by the name of Charles Grandison Finney. Finney focused on revivalism, which aimed at resparking or reinvigorating an individual’s commitment to god and like camp meetings, to increase membership.
Finney converted at the age of 29 in 1821 and was ordained just three years later by a female missionary society. Finney broke with the tradition of the day in engaging with and relying on the participation of women to increase conversion. Allowing them to participate in the meetings through spoken prayer gave women a chance to engage in society in a way they hadn’t been exposed to. While women were not given leadership roles, they still proactively participated in the meetings and outnumbered men in overall converts. While initially a controversial move for Finney, allowing women to participate soon became the norm by the end of the movement.
One major change in this movement was the idea of activism. Finney preached the need for one to be actively involved in their faith through action and spoke about the need for men and women to participate in social advocacy.
Finney was also different in his approach to gaining attendees at his meetings. Unlike other preachers who would rely on word of mouth, Finney was the first to actively market attendance to his meetings. His revivals, like other camp meetings before him, pushed the need for those in attendance to convert in order to save their souls. The beliefs touted during these meetings were a marked departure from Calvinism, which held that God had predetermined who would be saved and there was nothing anyone could do to change their place. Instead, the concept of Arminianism, or the idea that nothing was predestined and individuals could exercise their own choices to ensure their salvation, provided attendees the opportunity to achieve God’s grace if they chose to do so. But converting wasn’t for the weak.
The individual seeking conversion had to go through several steps - often public - in their quest to redeem their soul including a full accounting of their sins, repenting those sins and surrendering fully to God for salvation. Only once this was done was one considered converted and saved from damnation.
One of the major trends of this second emergence of religious faith was the rise of evangelicalism. Made up of four guiding principles: conversion, activism, biblicism or the belief that the words of the bible are complete and perfect and crucicentrism, or an emphasis on the sacrifice of jesus christ for our sins, evangelicalism took on a new life and worked diligently at increasing the congregation size. As Scott argued, quote: “the core of nineteenth century evangelicalism was the experience of conversion” end quote.
And it seems as though they were successful in their mission. In Jill Lepore’s overview of American history, she reports the number of Americans who were a member of a church congregation before the religious movement was one in ten. By the end of the second great awakening, that number jumped to eight in ten. This new view of religion was attractive in that it’s believers felt they were in control of their redemption and were on the verge of eliminating sin from the world in preparation for Christ’s return; they were assisting in that effort by converting their friends and neighbors and taking tangible action to further God’s will.
As the call for activism increased, the support of various social movements also increased. Causes such as temperance, women’s political rights and the abolition of slavery all got a wave of support as more individuals converted and took on their cause. Again from Lepore, quote: “by emphasizing spiritual equality, it strengthened protests against slavery and against the political inequality of women” end quote.
With the rising belief in free will and this call to activism, many of those who converted began setting up organizations aimed at achieving social reform. From temperance societies to abolitionist organizations, evangelicals worked hard at turning their activism into tangible achievements. As Scott wrote quote: “by the 1820’s, evangelicalism had become one of the most dynamic and important cultural forces in American life” end quote.
The religious revival and the spread of evangelicalism also played a part in the black community. Since the preachers of this new movement were focused on conversion, they preached - and attempted to reach - everyone. Women, slaves, children - everyone was fair game. This sense of an egalitarian God, combined with the abolitionist activism, drew many black Americans into the fold. While they couldn’t participate freely in the political process, these religious revivals welcomed them openly, giving them an opportunity to feel included in the world around them.
And though they sat through sermons peppered with language about equality, black americans often failed to feel the results of this gospel in their fellow parishioners actions, leading them to break off and develop their own church, the most famous of which is the African Methodist Episcopal, or AME, church.
Many prominent black Americans found their inspiration in the religious movement including last week’s episode topic, David Walker. Walker, who was a member of the AME church, was inspired by the sermons he heard and invoked the idea of God and his retribution against those who actively participated in slavery. Throughout his appeal, Walker made the case for immediate abolition, and claimed God would take his vengeance on those who failed to take the just course of action. Nat Turner, another famous leader, known for his revolt, was also a revivalist preacher.
However, the second great awakening, and the rise of evangelicals, is where the origin story of the country begins to get conflated between the divine and the mortal. Throughout this movement, evangelicals began reframing America as one built with devotion to God in mind. The constitution, famed preacher Lyman Beecher said quote: “is of heavenly origin” end quote. Maria (Mariah) Stewart, another staunch supporter of abolition, was heavily influenced by the great awakening and believed in the origins of America being divine in nature, writing quote: “Upon what was America founded? Upon religion and pure principles” end quote.
So what impact did this second religious revival have on the country and its citizens? Well, thanks to a renewed interest in faith, thousands of Americans now affiliated themselves with some denomination, be it methodist, baptist or presbyterian. The push for good deeds through activism helped spur and bolster several initiatives such as the abolition of slavery, temperance and securing the rights for women. And while many point to the middle of the 1830’s as the official end of the awakening, the impact of these meetings and the lessons learned during their religious experiences carried on for years after.
Its legacy far outlasted the acts of conversion with progressive social societies and a renewed interest in activism that was felt well into the next century. Many of the livelier pieces of the awakening, such as revival meetings, still mark the religious landscape throughout the country.
Many who were involved in revivalist camp meetings went on to advocate strongly for the abolition of slavery, and the temperance movement was successful in eventually getting a constitutional amendment ratified outlawing the manufacturing and sale of liquor. And let us not forget, voting rights for women, which was aided, in part, by those who were converted during the great second awakening and organized various societies aimed at securing their right to the franchise.
Before I sign off today I wanted to let you I had the opportunity to chat about two women in history on the podcast Broadly Underestimated. Kristyn and I dove into the lives of Abigail Adams and Jane Franklin and explored their experiences - and women’s experiences in general - during this time in American history. It was such a fun conversation and I would highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already. And go give Kristyn a follow; her episodes on women’s stories are so fascinating and intriguing.
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Thanks peeps, I’ll see you next week.
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