The Second Great Awakening

*One of the dominant philosophies of the late 1700s had been that of the enlightenment, which had emphasised reason over emotion and which had created America’s government based on laws rather than the leadership of great men.  Likewise, traditional Christian theology in many parts of America had been austere, focused on church authority, strict morality, and an angry God.  Both of those traditions encouraged a striving for perfection, even if Christian leaders knew that struggle could not truly succeed in this world. 

*The First Great Awakening had challenged the stern religious attitudes of colonial religious leaders, and the growing tide of romanticism in the late 1700s and the 1800s encouraged people to experience personal emotions rather than be coldly rational.  In the late 1700s, these trends combined in a desire for a more personal, emotional relationship with a loving God while retaining the notion that the world could be improved, and perhaps even perfected, possibly even in time for a new millennium—the return of God’s Kingdom.  This led to a Second Great Awakening in America, perhaps starting as early as the late 1780s, expanding in the early 1800s, and reaching its peak in the 1830s, particularly (but not only) in frontier areas where established churches had less influence to begin with.

*Among the first preachers to reach out to the unchurched were the Methodists.  The Methodists were famous even in the 1700s for their open-air church services and their circuit-riders, preachers who traveled across the country or around a regular route of local communities too small to support their own ministers.  One of the first American Methodist Bishops, Francis Asbury, travelled the length of America many times in the late 1700s (including visiting what is now Johnson City in 1788).  In America, Presbyterians were also among the leaders of the early frontier churches.

*On the frontier, particularly in Kentucky, Presbyterian ministers, assisted by Methodists and Baptists, began to hold camp meetings, where thousands of worshippers would come for days to hear a series of sermons and be asked to dedicate or re-dedicate their lives to God.  These were very emotional events, with people touched by the Holy Spirit spontaneously jerking around, rolling on the ground, dancing, speaking in tongues, and shouting.  Eventually, some ministers became skeptical of this ‘acrobatic Christianity,’ especially among the Presbyterian clergy, although some changed their minds when they got the jerks themselves.

*This is sometimes called the Revival of 1800, although there were camp meetings before that, and the largest of these revival meetings took place in 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, under the leadership of Presbyterian minister Barton Stone, who, along with Alexander Campbell, later left the Presbyterian Church and founded the Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ.

*Church membership soared in the following decades, especially among the Methodists and Baptists, who had previously been fairly small sects but became the two largest Protestant denominations in America, as well as among new groups that developed in this period of religious enthusiasm. 

*The revival movement continued for decades, reaching its peak in the 1830s, after Charles Grandison Finney, a former lawyer who became a great preacher, held revivals in New York City and Rochester, New York in 1830 and 1831, starting a wave of religious enthusiasm in the area so great that Upstate New York came to be called the Burned-Over District for the fiery passion of its religious revivals.

*This religious revival also sparked a great missionary movement, with missionaries travelling to Africa, Asia, Hawaii, and the American Indian tribes of the West.  The missionary movement in China would build a great affection for China in the minds of many Americans for generations to come, and the descendants of the missionaries who settled in Hawaii would later play a major role in its annexation by the United States.

*The Second Great Awakening, even more than the first, emphasised the individual’s relationship with God, with personal atonement, salvation, and acting out of one’s beliefs by seeking to improve oneself and society as a whole, so that it inspired both a sense of egalitarianism and a desire for social reform.

*The egalitarianism of the Second Great Awakening attracted women, especially middle-class women, who were often the first to feel the Holy Spirit move them in revivals and who did the most to increase Church membership.  For many of them, the Church was one area outside the home where they could participate as individuals or even equals in society and even have the occasional leadership role.  A very few churches even began to let women preach.

*The individualistic nature of the Second Great Awakening was also one reason that congregationally-organised churches like the Baptists and the Christian Churches flourished:  each could define its own beliefs and practises more or less as its own members pleased (although the centrally-organised Methodists certainly grew, too).

*The individualism and openness to changes in religious practise even led to the development of entire new denominations.  One of the first was the Stone-Campbell, or Restoration, Movement that created the Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ dating to 1804.  Although founded by former Presbyterian ministers, it was based on an attempt to return to basic Biblical practises, and rejected many traditions and teachings that had developed over the centuries.  Among its departures from Calvinism was a rejection of Predestination.

*The African Methodist Episcopal Church was officially formed in 1816 by African-Americans who had sought independence from a white Methodist church where they were discriminated against, but who still wanted to maintain the beliefs and structure of Methodism. 

*Other groups with more distinctive beliefs also developed or became more wide-spread.

*The Unitarian Church in America developed in the mid-1700s and early 1800s (related to a similar movement in England).  It grew out of the Congregationalist Churches of New England, especially around Harvard University, and taught that there was one unitary God, not a Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and so Jesus was not the Son of God, although he was still a great prophet worthy of emulation, and Unitarians still viewed themselves as Christian, although as Christians who could not accept a three-part God in a monotheistic religion.  As the 1800s progressed, particularly as the Second Great Awakening grew, many Congregationalist churches became Unitarian, and the Unitarians became a generally rationalist, modernist, intellectual church, although with a strain of individualist mysticism, too, with the individual seeking unity with God.

*The Shakers had branched off from the Quakers in the 1700s, and got their name from their enthusiastic shaking during worship services.  The Shakers even made dancing an important part of their worship.  Like the Quakers, but to an even greater degree, the Shakers encouraged leadership by women (and even believed that one of their early leaders, Mother Ann Lee, had been a second coming of Christ in female form).  They attracted many people to their faith during the Second Great Awakening, despite their habit of living in separate communities dedicated to simple living, hard work, and celibacy (meaning that their communities could only grow through conversion or adoption)-- although living in separate communities dedicated to a particular lifestyle intended to create a perfect society was not unique to the Shakers, and was quite popular among many groups in the mid-1800s.

*In 1833, a Baptist preacher in the Burned-Over District of New York named William Miller announced a revelation he had received years before that Jesus Christ would return to Earth in the near future, a date eventually revealed to be 22 October, 1844.  His followers, known at first as Millerites, became more numerous in the early 1840s as the end of the world approached. 

*When the world did not end on 22 October, 1844, it was known as the Great Disappointment, and the Millerites split into many different groups, some joining other communities (such as the Quakers and the Shakers) while some formed what became the Seventh-Day Adventists under the leadership of Mary Ellen White, who began to have visions shortly after the Great Disappointment.  Today the Seventh-Day Adventists are one of the largest Christian denominations in the world, thanks to an active missionary movement, and one of the healthiest, due to an insistence on healthy eating (including a strong preference for vegetarianism, although it is not absolutely required, although keeping Kosher is; Kellogg's cereals were originally created as an Adventist health food).

*Around 1820, a farmer in the Burned-Over District named Joseph Smith had a vision of angels, Jesus, and God.  He was told that all existing religious groups were corrupt, and over the years, future visions of angels showed him the true message that he was to preach, particularly after he was guided to a buried set of Golden Plates, which Smith translated (with divine help), and published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, another Testament of Jesus Christ.  It stated that Jesus, after his death in the Middle East, had appeared to American Indians, but that they had lost their faith later through infighting and corruption.

*In 1829, Smith and a few others with whom he had shared his beliefs began baptising their followers as the Church of Jesus Christ, and later called themselves Latter-Day Saints.  In some of their early meetings, they had spells of shouting, speaking in tongues, dancing, fainting, and other exuberant experiences typical of the Second Great Awakening.  As their church grew, Smith was recognised as an Apostle.

*The Mormons' promotion of another testament in the Bible with many new teachings made people suspicious of them.  Their most notorious departure from traditional Christian custom was their belief in plural marriage, or polygamy, which was one of the many reasons they were often driven from their homes.  As they moved west, from New York to Ohio to Illinois to Missouri, their close-knit communities and successful businesses were also seen in some places as an economic or political threat to local leaders, and they often faced violence.  In response, they created their own militia, which only made them seem more threatening and more alien.

*In 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother were killed by a mob in Illinois, but another Apostle, Brigham Young, emerged as a new leader of the church, and in 1846-1847, led his people to Utah hoping to create a separate community--perhaps even a state or a fully independent country--known as Deseret based around Salt Lake City.  Despite the harsh climate, their community flourished, which they attributed to Providence.

*As the 1850s progressed, thousands of Mormons went to Utah, making Salt Lake City one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi River.  Although Young had been recognised as the Governor of the Utah Territory, in 1857-1858 the US government tried to suppress the Mormons by force in the Mormon War, but was not successful (although Young did resign as governor).  Despite its growing population, Utah did not get to become a state until 1896, six years after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints officially ceased to permit any future plural marriages.

*The spiritual movements of the period even included the philosophical and literary movement known as Transcendentalism, a belief popularised by the writer and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson, that the most important experiences transcend the mundane senses.  It was an individualistic movement based on a rejection of traditions, particularly those of Europe, in favour of a commitment to self-reliance, self-discipline, and a personal quest for spiritual fulfillment, which might be found in a church (especially a Unitarian church), but could as easily be found in the beauty of nature. 

*One of the best-known Transcendentalist writers, Henry David Thoreau, famously lived in a cabin by Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts supporting himself through his own efforts (and frequent visits for dinner at the homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived nearby) and wrote about his experience in a metaphorical book Walden:  Or Life in the Woods published in 1854.

*In 1841, twenty Unitarians and transcendentalists including Nathaniel Hawthorne founded Brook Farm near Boston to try to create a community based on shared values and shared work, with the profits from the farm going to those who worked on it in a communitarian model.  Men and women were paid equally, and each person was allowed to work at whatever he or she liked best, in the hopes of creating a model society.  This Utopian community, like most of them, failed because it was not managed profitably and its ideals were hard to live up to.  It closed in 1847 after a fire destroyed one of its largest buildings the previous year.

*This was not the first Utopian community founded in America (indeed, one could say that, as a Republic in an age of monarchies, the United States was, itself, a Utopian Community).  In 1825, Robert Owen, a Welsh owner of a Scottish textile mill, a reformer, and a socialist purchased the town of New Harmony in Indiana to make into a socialist Utopia.  He settled about a thousand people there, but they were poorly managed (Owen himself did not stay long), did not have enough skilled craftsmen to be financially successful, and had too many people trying to live off the work of others to succeed as a socialist experiment, and in 1827 the experiment ended.

*In 1825, Fanny Wright founded the Nashoba community in West Tennessee as an example of how to create a society without slavery.  Thirteen miles north of Memphis, Nashoba was meant to be a place where freed slaves could be educated in preparation for making their way in the world.  The community also believed in full racial equality, free love, and atheism, which won it few friends, and its finances were poorly managed, so that it collapsed within a few years (and it 31 Black members were sent to Haiti).

*One religious community founded in the aftermath of the Great Awakening was the Oneida Community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes.  This was a communal experiment, with property held in common, and its members even holding joint meetings of mutual criticism to help each other become better people and practising 'complex marriage' that was often described by its detractors as 'free love.'  Noyes and other leaders determined which members of the community would have sexual relations with others, with older members (especially women past child-bearing age) serving as mentors to younger members. This was meant to limit child-bearing (which was exhausting and dangerous) and also to make sure that those who did have children were the best members of the community.  They were also economically very successful, producing animal traps, canned goods, silk, and (until 2005) silverware.  However, after Noyes's death, the experiments in free love and in mutual criticism soon came to an end, and Oneida dissolved as a utopian community in 1881, becoming a joint-stock company to continue its manufacturing business.

*Many of the churches that grew or were formed during the Second Great Awakening promoted education in order to have ministers of their own and so that their church members could read the Bible and other publications of their faith.  An increasing number of people also believed that there should be free public schools available to all.  The first public universities were founded in the South:  the University of Georgia was the first to be chartered (1785), then the University of North Carolina (1789), although the University of North Carolina was the first to actually graduate students in 1798.  The University of Tennessee was founded in 1794.  However, the movement to create free schools for all ages was strongest in the North.

*The early free schools (free to pupils at least; they were tax-supported) were very limited, but began to grow as more tax money was set aside for them and more government attention was paid to them, particularly by the Whigs.  One of the leaders of this Common School Movement was Horace Mann, who became head of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837 and in 1839 helped found America’s first state-supported normal school.

*Massachusetts in particular, and the Northeast in general, was a leader in public education, although the Northwest Ordinance's requirement that land be sold to support public education gave some help to schools in that region, too.  In the South, where populations were more scattered and education was denied by custom, and often by law, to slaves, it was harder (and less popular) to provide public education, although Tennessee provided more public education than many Southern states thanks to governors William Carroll and Andrew Johnson.

*A desire to perfect society led to a desire to remove one of its greatest scourges, alcohol, a waster of money and time, an encouragement to sloth and violence, and perhaps even a false idol that a drunk worshipped in place of God.  The temperance movement in America developed out of the Protestant revival of the Second Great Awakening, as moral reformers sought to limit or outlaw the sale of alcohol. 

*One of its most famous early leaders was Lyman Beecher from Connecticut.  He helped found the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance in Boston in 1826.  Two of his children (Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe) would become important leaders in the anti-slavery movement). 

*The first state to completely ban alcohol production and sale was Maine in 1851, and a few other Northern states followed its example, although some of these laws were overturned and they were not often widely enforced.  Overall, there was probably a decline in alcohol consumption over the course of the 1800s, starting from a point at which the average American consumed more than twice the volume of alcohol that he drinks today.

*There was also a prison reform movement in America that dated to the mid-1700s, when states had begun reducing the number of crimes that earned the death penalty and in a few places even trying to rehabilitate prisoners.  For the most part this was ineffective, and jails were overcrowded, often easy to escape from, and barely controlled in large common rooms.

*In the 1820s, starting in New York, reformers began separating prisoners into cells and prohibiting them from talking at almost all times.  Their days were carefully regimented into times of work (which was viewed as a way to build self-discipline and moral character, and also produce goods to sell to fund the prison), for eating, and for sleeping.  Uniforms were provided for prisoners to wear.  This was viewed as a model that was copied in many parts of America and even in other countries.  Over time, whipping, branding, and other forms of extreme punishment were banned (in 1829 in Tennessee), and imprisonment for debt was outlawed.  Although prisons remained harsh places, in theory at least, and occasionally in practise, they became places to help criminals reform their lives and become productive members of society, with many prisons also providing standardised times for education and for prayer, alongside prisoners' other activities.

*The mentally ill were often treated even worse than prisoners, locked into attics or basements by relatives who did not know how to care for them, confined to poor houses, or chained in prisons, sometimes in conditions so filthy that the stench could drive away visitors.  In this age of Christian reform, however, the mentally ill came to be seen as victims rather than as beasts, and some people sought to improve their treatment.  Dorothea Dix was one of the most active and famous reformers of both prisons and insane asylums, traveling the entire country to investigate and report on the terrible conditions in which the insane languished and to demand change, which often was brought about.

*Many reformers, particularly in the temperance movement, were women.  In part this was due to women's growing role in churches which gave them some practise at leadership; that growing religious role also created a growing sense that women were the more moral sex and in some ways ought to be moral leaders (while men could concentrate on being political and business leaders).  This became part of a growing 'cult of domesticity' that encouraged women to be good housewives and mothers, building a nurturing home life for their families and serving as the conscience of their families, their communities, and perhaps even the nation—an updated version of the idea of Republican Motherhood, that good mothers should raise good citizens.

*Women also had more opportunities for education, as women's colleges were founded in America.  Emma Willard founded the Troy Female Seminary as the first women's college in America in Troy, New York in 1814, although the first classes did not begin until 1821.  It is now named Emma Willard School in her honour.  Other women's schools began to open over time, particularly in New England, and in 1837, Oberlin College in Ohio, under the presidency of the Great Awakening preacher Charles Finney, began to admit female students alongside male ones (including Black students who had first been admitted in 1835). 

*This cult of domesticity and female education were partly possible because a middle class was growing in America that could afford for its women not to work for profit--indeed, not having to have the woman of the family work was one of the most basic elements of being middle-class.  Of course, this also gave educated, financially secure middle-class women the time and the ability to demand reform in schools, temperance, prisons, insane asylums, and even for their own rights.

*Many of these early crusaders for women's rights were Quakers, who were already accustomed to equality between the sexes in their own families and meetinghouses.  One of the first prominent women's rights activists was Lucretia Mott, who had been inspired by the role women were playing in the anti-slavery movement in Britain, and who began to work in America with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

*Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a mother of seven who had insisted that the word 'obey' be removed from her wedding vows.  Stanton went so far as to insist on women's suffrage at a time when even many women did not consider asking for that.  In this she was joined by the Quaker Susan B. Anthony, who became the most visible supporter of women's suffrage of all (so that the XIX Amendment was sometimes called the Susan B. Anthony amendment).

*In 1848, supporters of the women's movement met in New York for the Woman's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls.  There they issued a 'Declaration of Rights and Sentiments' based on the Declaration of Independence, declaring, among other things, to 'hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.'  They declared they should not offer allegiance to the United States government until that government represented them by recognising their right to vote and their equality in all ways under the law.  Although little came of this Declaration of Sentiments at the time, it is often viewed as the beginning of the women's rights movement.

*The women's movement did not accomplish a great deal in the first two thirds of the Nineteenth Century, however, because many of the women involved in it and in other reform movements of the time felt that there was one group with needs even greater than theirs, and therefore many reformers put their greatest efforts into the anti-Slavery movement.

This page last updated 29 August, 2018.
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