Second Great Awakening Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Beginning in the 1790’s, the United States witnessed a spiritual reawakening that gave expression to the new social, political, and economic realities of the late eighteenth century. The Second Great Awakening, coinciding with the first decades of the new nation’s existence, established a long-standing American tradition of charity and humanitarianism.

Summary of Event

The upsurge of religious feeling that began at the end of the eighteenth century constituted one of several major revivals in U.S. history. Designated the “Second Awakening” in reference to the First Great Awakening of the 1730’s and 1740’s, the revival of the 1790’s and beyond followed a period of relative religious laxity. The Protestant Protestantism clergy complained of the decay of morality, particularly in the West, where access to organized religion was difficult. The spread of Deism Deism, not entirely an elite doctrine in the United States, was viewed as a dangerous threat by orthodox believers. [kw]Second Great Awakening (1790’s-1830’s) [kw]Awakening, Second Great (1790’s-1830’s) [kw]Great Awakening, Second (1790’s-1830’s) Great Awakening, Second Religious revivalism [g]United States;1790’s-1830’s: Second Great Awakening[2880] [c]Religion and theology;1790’s-1830’s: Second Great Awakening[2880] [c]Social issues and reform;1790’s-1830’s: Second Great Awakening[2880] Asbury, Francis Cartwright, Peter Dwight, Timothy Finney, Charles Grandison McGready, James Taylor, Nathaniel William Weld, Theodore Dwight

By the late 1790’s, stirrings of revived religious consciousness were apparent in all regions of the United States. Revival among the Congregationalism Congregationalists (Puritan denominations) Puritanism of New England was precipitated in 1802 by a series of chapel sermons by Yale’s Yale College president, Timothy Dwight, who sought to arrest “freethinking” among the students at his college. The results were impressive, and revival soon spread to other colleges in New England and then to villages and towns. Beecher, Lyman Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel William Taylor, and others soon were enlisted in the cause of revival of faith. To the south, in Virginia, the Presbyterian Colleges and universities;nonsecular Education;nonsecular colleges of Hampden-Sidney and Washington had already experienced renewed religious concern and would provide a significant part of the Congregationalists’ evangelical leadership during the Second Awakening. Western New York, which became one of the most fertile areas of spiritual zeal, knew the winter of 1799-1800 as the time of the Great Revival (1799-1800) Great Revival.

The most spectacular of the early manifestations came on the Western frontier. Frontier;American James McGready, a Presbyterian minister, played the leading role in bringing about the Logan County, Logan County Revival or Cumberland, revival in Kentucky, which culminated in 1800, and helped spark revivalism throughout the West. The Cane Ridge, Kentucky, camp meeting that attracted between ten thousand and twenty-five thousand people in the following year has been described as the largest and most emotional revival of early U.S. history.

The Second Awakening affected all the major Protestant denominations, although the more evangelical among them gained the most in strength. The Congregationalists and Presbyterianism Presbyterians contributed some of the outstanding revivalists, but their participation in the more emotional phases of the revival was inhibited by their more staid Calvinist Calvinism traditions. Working together in their Western endeavors, the two sects sanctioned “rational” revivalism, a stand that was rejected by such schismatic groups as the Stonite, or New Light Presbyterian, church. Frontier awakening also saw the birth of new churches such as the Disciples of Christ, a church that advocated Christian unity, a radical doctrine of free grace, and a restoration of New Testament Christianity. Mormonism Mormonism and Adventism Adventism also arose in connection with the Great Revival.

Quantitatively, Baptist Church;Second Great Awakening Baptists and Methodist Church Methodists dominated the Second Awakening, being the leaders of frontier revivalism. The Methodists, however, were most successful in the West, and by the 1830’s constituted the largest religious group in the United States. The Methodists saw notable growth among African American churches African Americans and Native Americans;religion Native Americans, whose membership in the church by the 1930’s numbered fifteen thousand and two thousand, respectively.

Like the Baptists, whose numbers also swelled dramatically during the Second Awakening, Methodists were advocates of a free-will theology that complemented the frontier’s independent and optimistic character. Emphasis on a simple gospel and comfort with an uneducated clergy also contributed to this remarkable growth. However, the circuit rider, a familiar frontier figure adapted to the American scene by the United States’ first Methodist bishop, Francis Asbury, and by charismatic preachers such as Peter Cartwright of Illinois, may have equipped Methodism best to minister to a population at once widely scattered and in motion. The Methodists also enthusiastically adopted the system of protracted outdoor revival service known as Camp meetings (Methodist Church) Methodist Church;camp meetings camp meetings. By 1825, the camp meeting had become almost exclusively a Methodist institution.

Methodist acceptance of the doctrine that individuals have free will to attain salvation was in accord with a general shift of theological emphasis within American Protestantism in the early nineteenth century. Calvinist sects, including Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and certain Baptists, had traditionally adhered to the doctrine of predestination. In the early phase of the Second Awakening, predestinarian Calvinism and free-will Arminianism were preached side by side.

After 1810, Calvinism was modified by such theologians as Timothy Dwight and Nathaniel William Taylor; later, the revivalist Charles Grandison Finney took the lead in establishing what was clearly an Arminian brand of Evangelism evangelism within the traditionally Calvinist sector of U.S. Protestantism. The ascendancy of Arminianism Arminianism appears to have reflected the social and political climate of the country. Although historians have found affinities between Calvinist revivalism and political radicalism in the eighteenth century, by the Jacksonian period the message of free will seemed to many the spiritual counterpart of suffrage and laissez-faire.

Perhaps more significant for the future of revivalism in the United States was the conviction that revivals could be provoked and that methods for creating religious conviction could be cultivated by revivalist preachers, whose ministry shifted from that of a pastor to a winner of souls. Unlike the revivalists of the Great Awakening, First First Great Awakening—who believed that revivalism was the consequence of a gracious outpouring of God’s Spirit, patiently to be awaited—the new revivalists tended to regard revivalism instrumentally as a means or a technique for precipitating religious conviction, inculcating moral principles, or even the restitution of civic life.

At their most successful, these soul-winners became professional mass evangelists, such as Finney, who did much to create the style of modern revivalism represented subsequently by Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham. With Finney, the preoccupation with theology (exemplified in the Great Awakening by Edwards, Jonathan Jonathan Edwards) began to yield to a more one-sided concern with religious experience; revivalism increasingly purveyed a simple religion of the heart.

Another consequence of this emphasis on method and experience was its empowerment of women. Women;in the Church[Church] Women at revival meetings were encouraged to testify and pray in public. They were emboldened to speak openly of the preacher’s opinions and to quote scripture. They formed themselves into voluntary societies that organized and promoted the work of revivalism. In short, revivalism created a psychological and social space for women, within which they could validate their own experience, give voice to their own views, become practiced in organizational ability, and exercise leadership.


The tide of religious feeling had begun to ebb by the early 1830’s, but the social effects of the Second Awakening were pervasive and lasting. Voluntary societies had been formed to promote religious education and Sunday schools, Sunday schools distribute Bibles, and advance charitable efforts. Moral and humanitarian crusades were launched. A crusade for the abolition of slavery African slaves Slavery;and Christianity[Christianity] was entered upon by revivalists such as Theodore Dwight Weld, who employed Finney’s revival techniques in opposing slavery. Colleges and seminaries were founded which, like Oberlin in Ohio, were dedicated to “universal reform” and the education of women and African Americans. Thus, despite the inherent revivalist concern with individual salvation and the reluctance with which evangelists such as Finney embraced social causes, Finney’s own “postmillennialism” involved the belief that the world could be made better in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cleveland, Catherine C. The Great Revival in the West, 1797-1805. 1916. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959. A significant study of the early phase of the revival, with discussion of the social, economic, and psychological factors that shaped it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cross, Whitney W. R. The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1950. Examines the revivals that swept western New York State, with attention to social and religious factors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzmier, John R. New England’s Moral Legislator: Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Biography, examining Dwight’s role as a preacher, theologian, historian, and moralist. Fitzmier argues that an understanding of “godly federalism,” the religious system Dwight created, is the key to understanding his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Charles A. The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion’s Harvest Time. Reprint. New introduction by Ferenc M. Szasz. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. The first major scholarly study on the frontier camp meeting, with a balanced description of the camp meeting’s character, development and role as a social and religious institution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luchettik, Cathy. Under God’s Spell: Frontier Evangelists, 1722-1915. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. Captures the flavor of frontier evangelists’ experience with excerpts from diaries and journals of eighteenth and nineteenth century evangelists. Includes selections from women and African Americans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLoughlin, William G. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Examines the relationship between the United States’ religious awakenings, periods of cultural stress, and social reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perciaccante, Marianne. Calling Down Fire: Charles Grandison Finney and Revivalism in Jefferson County, New York, 1800-1840. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Examines the cultural and social influence of Jefferson County, New York, where Finney was a preacher, on the creation of Finney’s theology and revival methods.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Posey, Walter B. Frontier Mission: A History of Religion West of the Southern Appalachians. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1966. Explores Southwestern revivalism and discusses African Americans, Native Americans, and Roman Catholic expansion.
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    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, George W. Revivalism and Cultural Change: Christianity, Nation Building, and the Market in Nineteenth-Century United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Explores the structural consequences and causal links among revival religion, Republican politics, Prohibition morality, and economic realities. Decided sociological orientation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wigger, John H. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. According to Wigger, the number of Methodists in the United States skyrocketed from 1,000 in 1770 to more than 250,000 in 1820. Wigger explains the reasons for this growth, focusing on the church’s circuit riders, the role of women and African Americans, and the enthusiastic nature of Methodist worship. He also describes how Methodism influenced American evangelicalism.

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Categories: History