Historical Events: The Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening was a major religious revival in the United States which took place between 1795-1835, spreading to Britain in the final phase. Prominent figures of the Second Great Awakening including individuals such as Barton Stone and Charles Finney, among others. The Second Great Awakening saw many uneducated believers take on leadership roles, advocating for the perspective that anyone of any background could choose to play a major role in spreading God’s word. Additionally, many black Americans became converted as a result of the Second Great Awakening. Over the ensuing decades, this would empower the Abolitionist movement and ultimately lead to the American Civil War.

Origins of the Revival

Following the American Revolution, many American Christians resorted back to their denominational divisions. They had achieved the ultimate goal of the First Great Awakening in the American Revolutionary War, separating from the British Empire and founding a new nation based explicitly on Biblical principles. With peace and independence achieved, the Colonies-turned-States once more became divided. The Articles of Confederation did not create a stable government as the Constitution later would. Also, after justifying armed rebellion against the British crown, armed rebellion was in turn justified against the new American government. Many free and enslaved black Americans had fought in the Revolution based on promises of freedom, liberty, and justice. These promises were unfulfilled due to the economic dependence on slavery in the Southern States.

The Second Great Awakening began with a group of traveling preachers who trekked across the Appalachian frontier at the edge of the United States, but soon moved into the heartland of the young country. Methodist and Baptist groups worked together to bridge the denominational divide which had once again cropped up. They held “camp meetings” or “tent revivals” where large groups of people would come and spend days or weeks camped outside to hear the preachers speak and engage with the sermons. The first of these is said to be the week-long camp meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky organized by Barton Stone.

Barton Stone
Barton Stone was one of the first to conduct the “camp meetings” of the Second Great Awakening.

Stone’s first camp meeting is said to have been attended by up to 25,000 participants. This would put the number in attendance far above the population of Cane Ridge at the time which was approximately 2,000. If such estimates are correct, people from all over must have traveled to attend the week-long meeting. In the second phase of the Second Great Awakening, Timothy Dwight saw a similar revival at Yale College led by the student body. Dwight was an evangelical and was president at the school. During his time there, he served as a contrast to much of the secular/rationalist thought which was predominant in academia, which was why he expressed surprise at the revival which occurred at the school.

Timothy Dwight
A portrait of Timothy Dwight by John Trumbull.
Message and Spread of the Revival

A different aspect of the Second Great Awakening which set it apart from the first was the engagement of uneducated and illiterate people as spiritual leaders. This included many freed black slaves. “Black Harry” Hosier became the first black Methodist preacher despite being illiterate. This went well with the message of salvation being available to all if they chose it and a rejection of predetermined judgment. The Second Great Awakening sought to ensure people that their salvation was within their power to choose. The usage of uneducated and illiterate preachers drove home the message that anyone could be saved, not just those who had spent decades of their life reading.

Harry Hosier
Harry Hosier was converted during the Second Great Awakening and became a preacher himself.

The Second Great Awakening served to break down denominational barriers between the Methodists and Baptists. At the start, the Baptists were more decentralized with little structure to their congregations, and the Methodists were highly structured. By working together on this mission, their practices merged and adapted to suit the needs of the people. In the third and final phase of the Second Great Awakening, Charles Finney finally brought the revival all the way to New York and began preaching in the small towns throughout the coastal state. Near the end, Finney preached in major cities in Britain, although it does not appear there were significant effects on history outside the United States from the Second Great Awakening.

Effects of the Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening was critical in American history as a catalyst for the American Civil War. As many of the new converts were freed black slaves, the Second Great Awakening both brought many black Americans into public discourse and forged bonds between white and black Americans regarding a shared vision for the country. As such, ending slavery became on of the broader objectives of the Second Great Awakening. The Abolitionist movement would emerge as a result. In turn, Christians across the country demanded an end to the practice of slavery. This demand led to social unrest, political gridlock, and disillusionment between those who demanded the recognition of the human rights of enslaved peoples and those who denied the humanity of the humans they claimed as property.

The South would eventually secede from the Union and form the Confederacy after the North refused to capture and return escaped slaves who crossed the border into the North. After this peaceful divorce, the North and South were content to go their separate ways for a brief time. However, the issue of who controlled federal land eventually brought the North and South to blows at Fort Sumter when both sides claimed ownership of the military base. While motivations for the American Civil War were greatly varied on both sides, and the Confederacy was originally winning the war with numerous victories, the mandate to free the slaves fostered by the Second Great Awakening kept the Union going long enough for Europe to cut off trade to the South and turn the tide of the war. In the end, the mission of the Second Great Awakening was accomplished.

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Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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