Second Great Awakening An Overview

Compiled by Lewis Loflin

The Broad Picture

For many people, the God of the rationalists did not prove to be very appealing. He was a cold, indifferent being who had set the world in motion, and then had then gone off leaving us to fend for ourselves. The pendulum--having swung from Orthodoxy to Revival to Rationalism--began to swing again. This time it swung away from a religion of the intellect, and toward a religion of the heart.

The Scottish revivalist Thomas Chalmers had put it this way: "moonlight preaching ripens no harvest." Religion had become so tepid in the hands of rationalists like Chauncy and Deists like Jefferson, that it had almost no power to change the individual. Just enough of the old faith remained to inoculate people from catching the real thing. It was into this environment that the Second Great Awakening took root.

It was part and parcel of a larger phenomenon. In England, this movement became known as the Methodist revival. On the European continent, the pietist movement appeared. In North America there were the two Great Awakenings.

All of these movements were in part a reaction against the arid intellectualism and lax moral standards of the Enlightenment, and the rigid conservatism and ritualism of orthodox Protestantism. In some quarters, Revivalism (or pietism) developed a strain of anti-intellectualism, but primarily the various movements that comprised it represented an effort to reach back to the earlier roots of an experiential religion.

Now this is not to suggest that these various movements represented a total rejection of the prevailing intellectual milieu. Far from it. The emphasis on an experience of conversion, betrayed the influence of John Locke and Empiricism. Most pietists were alienated by acrimonious religious controversies, and by an emphasis on proper dogma to the neglect of religious experience. Echoing Locke, they believed a true knowledge of God could not be deduced by reason. One could only come to know God inductively, by experiencing his living presence in one's life.

The Impact of the Frontier in Shaping the Second Great Awakening

Up until the Revolutionary War, significant westward expansion had been halted at the Appalachian Mountains. In 1775, Daniel Boone blazed the Cumberland Trail, and in 1783 the Treaty of Paris gave the newly formed United States all lands west to the Mississippi River. With the end of the war, American interest in the West reached a new level of intensity.

The Congress that formed under the Articles of the Confederation passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. The provisions that were included in this Act for land grants gave an impetus to settlement which is reflected in the rapid admission of new states beyond the Appalachians. Entering the Union in short order were: Kentucky-1792, Tennessee-1796, Ohio-1803, Louisiana-1812, Indiana-1816, Alabama-1817, Illinois-1818, Mississippi-1819, Missouri-1821.

People were pouring into the West, and they tended to follow two principle routes: the Cumberland Gap and the Mississippi River. A particular attraction was the black soils of the lower Southwest which attracted many seeking to meet the expanding demand for Cotton.

This second great migration had significant impact on American society. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner put forward his famous thesis that America's history, culture, and its social institutions can only be understood with reference to this shift in population. He insisted that: "the existence of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development." In recent years this thesis has come under attack, but it is clear that this westward movement was a major factor in the nation's subsequent development. And that was certainly the case where American Christianity was concerned.

In the wake of the Revolution, churches faced three major tasks: (1) organization (2) reviving vital religion and (3) following the population westward. The future of the Church was contingent on dealing with all three problems.

Churches soon recognized that in such a large area, the old parish system--which assumed a town--would not work. This led some to adopt an itinerant system. Concerns that the West would lapse into barbarism or worse that the Catholic missionaries would reach these people first, created a crisis atmosphere in some quarters. French Catholics had long been active in the Northwest and along the Mississippi. In fact, the first Catholic diocese was at Bardstown, Kentucky.

People on the frontier, however, were resistant to any efforts to convert them. Strongly independent, they took religion into own hands. These were people who "preferred their whiskey straight, and their politics and religion red hot." They were attracted to those who preached a more emotional faith, and dismissed of the more sophisticated rational faith of the Eastern seaboard. Churches that proved flexible in seeking these people out and giving them what they wanted became the dominant denominations (Baptists and Methodists). An example is the Methodist Church and it's circuit-riding clergy.

It was said there were more Methodist circuit riders than crows. One of these preachers was a man named Peter Cartwright. Often, when he would arrive in a new area, he would have to prove himself physically before was accepted. Since many local sinners did not wish to be preached too, he often had to beat up those who threatened him before he was free to share with them the message of grace.

Peter Cartwright discovered that people on the frontier were not interested in theological discourse or speculation. But they did respond to sermons on Hell. And so he resorted to a tried and true evangelistic style of preaching. And in the course of doing so, he helped foster a series of revivals that eclipsed the Great Awakening. This wave of revivals would sweep back and forth for two generations.

The Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening was ignited by the preaching of James McGready, a Presbyterian, in the area of Logan County, Kentucky, a community that Peter Cartwright deemed "Rogue's Harbor." Describing the area, Cartwright wrote: "There was not a newspaper printed south of the Green River, no mill short of forty miles, and no schools worth the name. We killed our meat out of the woods, wild; and beat our meal...As for coffee, I am not sure that I ever smelled it for ten years."

The preaching of McGready and others touched a nerve, however, and at a Camp Meeting at Red River the ground was "covered by the slain." "Their screams for mercy pierced the heavens...[and] the most notorious profane swearers and Sabbath-breakers [were] pricked to the heart."

This outbreak of revival ignited others at Gasper River, and at Cane Ridge. The Cane Ridge Revival became the most famous, and was led by Barton Stone who latter founded the Christian Church. This meeting was a vast gathering (10-25,000). In order to appreciate how big this gathering must have seemed, one need only note that the largest town in the state--Lexington--numbered 1,795 persons.

These large gatherings gave neighbors an opportunity to speak and share one another's company. The represented a break from the isolation of frontier life. And it is said that as many souls were born as were saved as a result of some of these gatherings.

Because they were dealing with a moving, floating population, the preachers at these Camp Meetings--as they came to be called--had to press for an immediate decision. This led them to emphasize and play to the emotions: compressing what Winthrop Hudson refers too as the cycle of guilt, despair, hope, and assurance into a few days or hours. The resulting conversion would occur in an outburst of shouting, weeping, falling, running, jumping, jerking, and barking.

These emotional aspects of the Second Awakening disturbed Presbyterians as it had earlier in the First Great Awakening. A God of order would not countenance such confusion they argued. A split ensued that led Barton Stone to leave the denomination and found his own non-denominational denomination. Methodists and Baptists on the other hand took advantage of the converts produced by the revivals. Methodists and Baptists grew exponentially, gaining 10,000 converts each in Kentucky in a three year period while Presbyterians declined in numbers because of the splits brought about by the revival.

The Impact of the Awakening

The impact of the Second Great Awakening was not limited to a realignment among the denominations. Among its other consequences were:

Some Further Observations about The Second Great Awakening

All of this created real dissonance for the South. The vast majority of Southerners did not own slaves, and those who did owned on average between 1 and 11. It also coincided with a major technological innovation that would have profound repercussions. Eli Whitney was staying at General Nathaniel Greene's plantation on Cumberland Island, Georgia. He noticed a Tom Cat trying to get at the chickens in a coop. Each time the cat reached in he pulled out a claw full of feathers.

It was this observation that gave him the insight to build the Cotton Gin. Before the development of the gin in 1790, the South produced 4000 bales of cotton. In 1860 it produced 4,500,000. With the growth of cotton agriculture, came an increase in demand for labor and for slavery. Where many had expected slavery's eventual demise for economic reasons (slavery had become marginal in economic terms in many areas), now there was a strong economic incentive to retain the "peculiar institution," and see it grow.

And so it was, that as anti-slavery sentiment was growing within evangelical circles, so too, one was also seeing the emergence of a pro-slavery argument.

This argument had three dimensions. The first was economic. Thomas Dew was the principle advocate for this position. He defended slavery by arguing that slaves represented the capital of the South. How would such labor ever be replaced? Greece and Rome were great cultures, and their advances in science, art, architecture, etc. would have been impossible without the slaves who handled the mundane aspects of life, and allowed the Greeks and Romans the freedom to pursue their intellectual and artistic visions. It is no accident that many communities in the South are named: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Rome, or that Greek style columns were used in many Plantations. Southerners fancied themselves the heirs to classical culture.

The second argument was political. John C. Calhoun was the chief proponent of this line of attack. He recognized that slave holders were in an ever increasing minority even within their own region, and so he developed a philosophy of minority rights over against a majority.

The final line debate was religious. Put forward by James Henley Thornwell and Richard Furman, this line of argument insisted that slavery is in accord with the Bible. To make this argument work, they were forced to also view and defend Scripture as being the Inerrant Word of God. If there are laws in Scripture pertaining to slavery, then it must be in accord with God's will. Clearly, if one accepts Scriptural inerrancy, and claims the Scripture must be taken literally, then support for slavery follows almost as a matter of course.

(8) The combined influence of the frontier and renewed revivalism helped to give Southern Christianity a distinctive character in another way. It helped frame the notion of the minister as essentially a preacher. His task was to give sinners the opportunity to be converted. Often, they were not around to do such pastoral work as counseling, visitation of sick, or the sacraments (once a quarter communion).

(9) Finally, the Second Awakening helped advance the liberation of women. The new birth offered entry into a new kind of life for women. The various societies to purify society became the first institution where women could make a contribution, and begin to take on leadership roles.


See part 1 1st Great Awakening and Thomas Jefferson

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