The 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, perhaps 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 and the Presbyterians.  The Methodists in particular 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 Protestant denominations largest 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 come to 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 also 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 Presdestination.


*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, just 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, not unlike that later seen in the Second Great Awakening.  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 (after some disappointments in 1843 and early 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 eventually 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 exhuberant 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 the 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, one of many Utopian communities formed in the first half of the 1800s.  This Utopia, 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 community ended as an experiment and Owen bought back a lot of the land in New Harmony, although one of his sons and some other idealists remained and remained important reformers in education and promoters of science in Indiana.


*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, who believed that a perfect community could be created on Earth.  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 it dissolved as a utopian community in 1881, becoming a joint-stock company to continue its manufacturing business.


*The Second Great Awakening, like the first, led to a revival of the religious spirit in America (although unlike the first, it also created entirely new religious groups).  Like the first, it also led to an increase in individualism through its emphasis on the individual's redemption through his--or her--own efforts to seek salvation and perfect his or her own life.  This desire for perfection, and belief that it could be attained, or at least approached, also led to the growth of a series of reform movements in America in the mid-1800s.


This page last updated 29 August, 2018.
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