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1800-1835 - Second Great Awakening

The “Second Great Awakening” was a mass religious movement and a pattern of Protestant revivals that began in 1790 and lasted through the 1840s throughout the eastern half of the United States.

It is difficult and ultimately pointless to attempt to date with any precision the period of this religious upsurge. Traces may by found as early as the late 1790s, but it was surely in full swing by the year 1800.

The title derives from the first Great Awakening of the 1740s. The Second Great Awakening flourished among people who were familiar with the doctrines of the first. The Protestant phenomenon known as the Second Great Awakening revolutionized religion in the New England states as well as the rest of the country. The Second Great Awakening was notable for the evangelical impulse that emphasized the individual's role in universal salvation.

Groups that denied basic teachings of Christianity, “infidels” such as Universalists, Unitarians, and Deists, caused a widespread drift from the settled religious customs and practices in New England and throughout the colonies after 1750. Deism taught that God was not involved in the world and that human reason, not God’s Word, was the ultimate authority and judge of right and wrong.

In 1784 Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero who captured Fort Ticonderoga, published "Reason the Only Oracle of Man". In 1794 Thomas Paine, wrote "The Age of Reason", a book that ridiculed the Old and New Testaments as unworthy of a good God. Thomas Jefferson came to represent Deist views to the minds of many.

And by the middle of the eighteenth century, the religious thought of English Non-conformity and New England Puritanism was floundering in the dreary bog of Antinomianism. The major part of the most learned and zealous ministers was opposed to a presentation of the gospel which offered grace to sinners, or appealed directly to their hopes or their fears. The baldest theory of predestination was generally accepted; and, as a logical consequence, it was held to be inconsistent, if not irreverent, to urge sinners to repent, and believe in Christ. The strongest objection to missionary evangelization, when it was first proposed, was grounded in this notion of its impertinence.

In 1782, of Andrew Fuller's "Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation" - a work, distinguished alike for its metaphysical acuteness and its comprehensive grasp of scripture truth - vindicated the infinite fair-mindedness of God in the offer of salvation to sinners, and set forth the duty of urging all men everywhere to repent. It showed how the fore-will of God consisted with the free-will of man, and reconciled the seeming conflict between them. The mobilized Calvinism of this remarkable man made the gospel again a mission to the lost, and sent its messengers forth to call sinners to repentance.

By the end of the 18th century, many educated Americans no longer professed traditional Christian beliefs. In reaction to the secularism of the age, a religious revival spread westward in the first half of the 19th century. The Second Great Awakening began in the Northeast as followers of Edwards, such as Timothy Dwight (1752–1817) and Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), led a counteroffensive against deism. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Wesleys and Whitefield in England, and Edwards and the Tennents in America, became the leaders of a great inter-acting religious movement, wider in its range, and more radical in its results, than any awakening known to the Christian world since the great Reformation.

The first real manifestations of God’s power came in June 1800. When Rev. James McGready, a Presbyterian minister, came to Logan County, he brought with him the Edwardsian slogan of the awful wrath of God upon impenitent sinners. He would portray hell so vividly that persons would grasp the seats to prevent falling into the burning abyss which they saw yawning at their feet. His meetings .attracted great crowds and his fame was widespread.

The Kentucky revival of 1800 is emblazoned on the pages of history on account of the enormous numbers in attendance at the camp-meetings and the violence and variety of the abnormal manifestations. The population in Kentucky at this time was fundamentally Scotch-Irish of good stock, but mixed with this were lazy, shiftless, cowardly descendants of criminal and convict emigrants; Logan County was called "Rogues' Harbor" and "Satan's Stronghold." The latter element furnished the tinder so essential for the sweeping conflagration. The suggestive and contagious character of the population may be estimated by the parallelism known to exist between the revival counties and the lynching counties of Kentucky.

Converts were overwhelmed with conviction of their sins, and in a short period came to faith in Christ and assurance of forgiveness. This “Second Great Awakening” consisted of several kinds of activity, distinguished by locale and expression of religious commitment. In New England, the renewed interest in religion inspired a wave of social activism. In western New York, the spirit of revival encouraged the emergence of new denominations. In the Appalachian region of Kentucky and Tennessee, the revival strengthened the Methodists and the Baptists, and spawned a new form of religious expression — the camp meeting.

The second great awakening was a revolt trom the formality of religious forms, and the inertness of Christian orthodoxy. It resulted in a wide quickening of the religious conscience, in the renewing of Christian love, in the awakening of Christian activity, in the fuller recognition of the efficacy of prayer, and in a resort to preaching which was in the power and demonstration of the Spirit. It brought into exercise the latent energies of the churches long bound in slumber, quickened forms which had become meaningless into significance and power, and combined the faith and love ami zeal of the sacramental host into a living, aggressive force, at once prevalent in prayer, and resistless in persuasion. The converts were counted by thousands, and hundreds of thousands.

The evangelical enthusiasm in New England gave rise to inter-denominational missionary societies, formed to evangelize the West. Members of these societies not only acted as apostles for the faith, but as educators, civic leaders, and exponents of Eastern, urban culture. Publication and education societies promoted Christian education. Most notable among them was the American Bible Society, founded in 1816. Social activism inspired by the revival gave rise to abolition of slavery groups and the Society for the Promotion of Temperance, as well as to efforts to reform prisons and care for the handicapped and mentally ill.

Western New York, from Lake Ontario to the Adirondack Mountains, had been the scene of so many religious revivals in the past that it was known as the “Burned-Over District.” Here, the dominant figure was Charles Grandison Finney, a lawyer who had experienced a religious epiphany and set out to preach the Gospel. His revivals were characterized by careful planning, showmanship, and advertising. Finney preached in the Burned-Over District throughout the 1820s and the early 1830s, before moving to Ohio in 1835 to take a chair in theology at Oberlin College, of which he subsequently became president.

Two other important religious denominations in America — the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists — also got their start in the Burned-Over District. William Miller preached a message in New York and Vermont that the personal return of Christ, the Second Coming, was imminent.

In the Appalachian region, the revival took on characteristics similar to the Great Awakening of the previous century. But here, the center of the revival was the camp meeting, a religious service of several days’ length, for a group that was obliged to take shelter on the spot because of the distance from home. Pioneers in thinly populated areas looked to the camp meeting as a refuge from the lonely life on the frontier. The sheer exhilaration of participating in a religious revival with hundreds and perhaps thousands of people inspired the dancing, shouting, and singing associated with these events. Probably the largest camp meeting was at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801; between 10,000 and 25,000 people attended.

The great revival quickly spread throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio, with the Methodists and the Baptists its prime beneficiaries. Each denomination had assets that allowed it to thrive on the frontier. The Methodists had a very efficient organization that depended on ministers — known as circuit riders — who sought out people in remote frontier locations. The circuit riders came from among the common people and possessed a rapport with the frontier families they hoped to convert.

In 1790, one year before his death, Wesley found that the organization, of which he was the head, boasted of 511 preachers, 120,000 members, and about 500,000 adherents in all. Notwithstanding the extravagances of the first part of his ministry, Wesley's later life exhibited marked control and remarkably good judgment for the age in which he lived, a judgment and control in glaring contrast to that of some of his followers in later, and what should be more sensible, times.

The Baptists had no formal church organization. Their farmer-preachers were people who received “the call” from God, studied the Bible, and founded a church, which then ordained them. Other candidates for the ministry emerged from these churches, and established a presence farther into the wilderness. Using such methods, the Baptists became dominant throughout the border states and most of the South.

The Second Great Awakening exercised a profound impact on American history. The numerical strength of the Baptists and Methodists rose relative to that of the denominations dominant in the colonial period — Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The growing differences within American Protestantism reflected the growth and diversity of an expanding nation.

The profound transformation of American Protestantism in the 1830s swept like wildfire across the Northern states, particularly Yankee territory, during the 1830s, leaving the South virtually untouched. The transformation found particular root among Yankee culture, with its aggressive and domineering spirit. "Yankees" originated in rural New England and then emigrated westward in the early 19th century, settling in upstate (particularly western) New York, northern Ohio, northern Indiana, and northern Illinois.

This new Protestantism — called "pietist" — was born in the fires of Charles Finney and the great revival movement of the 1830s. These pietists have been called "evangelical pietists" to contrast them with the new Southern pietists, called "salvational pietists," who did not include the compulsion to save everyone else in their doctrine.

These pietists are distinguished from contemporary "fundamentalists" because the former were "post-millenialists" who believe that the world must be shaped up and Christianized for a millenium before Jesus will return. In contrast, contemporary fundamentalists are "pre-millenials" who believe that the Second Coming of Jesus will usher in the millenium. Obviously, if everyone must be shaped up before Jesus can return, there is a much greater incentive to wield State power to stamp out sin.

The Second Great Awakening's credo was roughly as follows: Each individual is responsible for his own salvation, and it must come in an emotional moment of being "born again." Each person can achieve salvation; each person must do his best to save everyone else. This compulsion to save others was more than simple missionary work; it meant that one would go to hell unless he did his best to save others. But since each person is alone and facing the temptation to sin, this role can only be done by the use of the State. The role of the State is to stamp out sin and create a new Jerusalem on Earth.

The pietists defined sin very broadly. In particular, the most important politically was "Demon rum," which clouded men's minds and therefore robbed them of their theological free will. In the 1830s, the evangelical pietists launched a determined and indefatigable prohibitionist crusade on the state and local level which lasted a century.

Second was any activity on Sunday except going to church, which led to a drive for Sabbatarian blue laws. Drinking on Sunday was of course a double sin, and hence particularly heinous. Another vital thrust of the new Yankee pietism was to try to extirpate Roman Catholicism, which robs communicants of their theological free will by subjecting them to the dictates of priests who are agents of the Vatican.

If Roman Catholics could not be prohibited per se, their immigration could be slowed down or stopped. And since their adults were irrevocably steeped in sin, it became vital for crusading pietists to try to establish public schools as compulsory forces for Protestantizing society or, as the pietists liked to put it, to "Christianize the Catholics." If the adults are hopeless, the children must be saved by the public school and compulsory attendance laws.

Such was the political program of Yankee pietism. Not all immigrants were scorned. British, Norwegian, or other immigrants who belonged to pietist churches (whether nominally Calvinist or Lutheran or not) were welcomed as "true Americans". The Northern pietists found their home, almost to a man, first in the Whig Party, and then in the Republican Party. And they did so, too, among the Greenback and Populist parties.

There came to this country during the century an increasing number of Catholic and Lutheran immigrants, especially from Ireland and Germany. The Catholics and High Lutherans, who have been called "ritualists" or "liturgicals," had a very different kind of religious culture.Each person is not responsible for his own salvation directly; if he is to be saved, he joins the church and obeys its liturgy and sacraments. In a profound sense, then, the church is responsible for one's salvation, and there is no need for the State to stamp out temptation.

These churches, then, especially the Lutheran, had a laissez-faire attitude toward the State and morality. Furthermore, their definitions of "sin" were not nearly as broad as the pietists. Liquor is fine in moderation; drinking beer with the family in beer parlors on Sunday after church was a cherished German (Catholic and Lutheran) tradition; and parochial schools were vital in transmitting religious values to their children in a country where they were in a minority.

Virtually to a man, Catholics and High Lutherans found their home during the 19th century in the Democratic Party. It is no wonder that the Republicans gloried in calling themselves throughout this period "the party of great moral ideas," while the Democrats declared themselves to be "the party of personal liberty." For nearly a century, the bemused liturgical Democrats fought a defensive struggle against people whom they considered "pietist-fanatics" constantly swooping down trying to outlaw their liquor, their Sunday beer parlors, and their parochial schools.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:30:14 ZULU