Second Great Awakening An Overview

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:

  • 1) An incipient ecumenicity. At the camp meetings 8-10 ministers of different denominations would position themselves around the grounds. Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist preachers would be present and preach at the same time at the same camp meeting. But what became noteworthy was the fact that whatever the preacher's denomination, there was a common response to the preaching whatever its stripe. The falling, jerking, rolling, barking, and laughing were not the province of any one denomination.

    In addition, the revival meetings would last all day and night, and would be accompanied by an ecumenical service at end in which there would be communion. In such situations, there was no way to police the table to insure proper church order, or to enforce denominational restrictions on who could and could not commune.

    The authorization to come to the table was not given by the clergy or the denomination, but by the inner heart of the individual. Just as survival on the frontier was largely result of the individual's own efforts, so too people came to see salvation in the same light. This attitude would serve to place severe limits on the authority of the clergy in subsequent years.
  • 2) The Circuit Rider came into its own as an institution of the American frontier. These men rarely lived to reach middle age. Francis Asbury was the exception. Most died very young and were encouraged not to marry. While the personal price was high, this strategy of intinerating ministers allowed Methodists to direct resources to where settlements were occurring.

    This afforded a rapid response to population changes, permitting the Methodists to gather persons into a church, and move on. When the circuit rider would revisit--which he did with regularity--he would preach, as well as conduct weddings (couples who wished to marry would often set up housekeeping together and wait for the circuit rider before solemnizing their union.)

    A parallel development among Baptists was the ease with which a group of people could gather and call an articulate brother to serve as pastor. This person would farm during week, and preach on weekends. What these men lacked in education, they made up in sincerity and earnestness, and closeness to his flock.

  • 3) Music and hymns came to be way congregation learned theology. In an environment where there were no opportunities for education, few books, and most did not know how to read, songs could be easily memorized. This was done through "lining" in which someone who could read would line out the song for the other congregants, who would then repeat it.

    Hymnody gave people a sense of theology in which Divine Providence looks after and cares for human kind. They also reflected the rising anthropology of the frontier. Where people once sang "Devote your sacred head for such a worm as I," the lyrics evolved to "Devote your sacred head for a wretch such as I," to "Devote your sacred head for one such as I." With each change, man's status gets better.
  • 4) Theology becomes indistinguishable from ethics. Simply put, a saved person was expected to behave in certain ways.
  • 5) The idea of Disinterested Benevolence begins to take root. Sin comes to be equated with selfishness. With conversion, one shifts from focusing on one's self to a disinterested benevolence towards others. Faith is to be expressed in action, and a growing stress on perfectionism comes to mark the preaching of the Second Great Awakening. Again, the Revival is seen in terms of the end of time. God is remaking society in anticipation of the coming Kingdom. As a result, voluntary organizations form to bring about the necessary reform, among them being the American Bible Society, the American Colonization Society, and the American Anti-Slavery society. This is a period when countless numbers of educational institutions are established (including Wake Forest) and overseas missions are launched. The goal is to purify American society and make it ready for the coming Kingdom.

Some Further Observations about The Second Great Awakening

  • (1) Where the First Great Awakening had been a spontaneous outpouring, the Second quickly became one that was promoted and organized. Techniques that worked were quickly copied such as the Camp Meeting or calling sinners in the congregation by their name.
  • (2) The Second Great Awakening was a reaction to "Enlightenment thinking," and "infidelity" was the brunt of much of the preaching. And yet, the Second Awakening helped spread a high anthropology. The thrust of the Revival was the human ability to turn to God. God doesn't ask us to do anything we can't do for ourselves.
  • (3) Benevolence was one of the outgrowths of the revivals that swept the frontier, as was foreign missions. This growing stress on exporting the gospel served to direct attention away from the problems at one's front door. (Who takes out the garbage?).
  • (4) Temperance also had its roots in this period. The number of Temperance societies formed was significant. One of the things that was happening with temperance movement, however, was that religion was being externalized. One really can't observe a person's faith. And yet here, religion is very public. The person who is saved is one who gives to missions, doesn't drink, and goes to church.
  • (5) The West was thought to be the natural setting for the coming of the King. Indeed, American mythology looks to the future, rather than to a classical golden age. New England had proven not to be the expected Eden. Serpents had cropped up in the form of Unitarians, etc. In the South, the problem of slavery had developed. Perhaps in the West, the hope and promise of the New World could be realized.
  • (6) The emerging dominance of evangelical religion means that increasingly to be an American is to be a Christian. Although this should have tied the South to the nation, it was counteracted by the growing debate over slavery.
  • (7) A growing anti-slavery movement emerges even in South. From 1808-1831, the South is the nation's leader in Anti-Slavery societies. There are Anti-Slavery societies in Kentucky by 1808, in Tennessee by 1815, and in N.C. by 1816. By 1826, there are 45 societies in the South, and the region also led the nation in the number of anti-slavery newspapers.

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

Deism: God and Reason with revelation.

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