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The Second Great Awakening

By the beginning of the 19th century, traditional Christian beliefs were held in less favor by numerous educated Americans. A countervailing tendency was underway, however, in the form of a tremendous religious revival that spread westward during the century's first half. It coincided with the nation's population growth from five to 30 million and the boundary's westward movement. This Second Great Awakening, a reprise of the Great Awakening of the early 18th century, was marked by an emphasis on personal piety over schooling and theology. It arose in several places and in several active forms. In northern New England, social activism took precedence; in western New York, the movement encouraged the growth of new denominations. In the Appalachian region of Tennessee and Kentucky, the revival energized Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, and gave rise to the popular camp meeting, a chance for isolated frontier folk to gather and enjoy the excitement of evangelistic fervor. The first camp meeting occurred in south-central Kentucky in June 1800. James McGready, a Presbyterian, and two colleagues preached for three solid days. The following day, two circuit-riding Methodist ministers arrived and emotionally exhorted the crowd. The revivals of the west were much more emotional than those in the east. The revival's secular effects consisted of two main strains:

  • The virtues and behavior of the expanding middle class—a strong work ethic, frugality and temperance—were endorsed and legitimized.
  • Its emphasis on the ability of individuals to amend their lives engendered a wide array of reform movements aimed at redressing injustice and alleviating suffering—a democratizing effect.
Evangelizing the West also took the form of interdenominational missionary groups, such as the American Home Missionary Society (1826). Their exponents were witnesses for the faith, teachers and civic pillars. Other societies published Christian literature; notable among these was the American Bible Society (1816) and the American Tract Society (1826). Social activism spawned abolition groups, temperance and suffrage societies, and others committed to prison reform, care for the handicapped and mentally ill. A noted proponent of such reforms was the evangelist Charles G. Finney. In addition to being an innovative evangelist whose techniques others would imitate, he held that the Gospel saved people, but also it was a means to reform society. True to his word, Finney was a fervent abolitionist and encouraged other Christians to get involved. The movement spread through southern Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Features of the Methodist and Baptist denominations became assets on the frontier. The Methodists inspired circuit riders from among their common folk; they penetrated to remote areas and enjoyed a natural rapport with the isolated families they evangelized. Among the Baptists, ordinary farmers frequently got the God call, pored over their Bibles, then kindled congregations—which ordained them. The Bible belt of the South and border states was born on this grassroots format. The Second Great Awakening exerted a lasting impact on American society, more than any other revival. While its fervor abated, it left a legacy of many established churches, democratization and social reform.