The Second Great Awakening and Rise of Evangelicalism


Transformations in American economics, politics and intellectual culture found their parallel in a transformation of American religion in the decades following independence, as the United States underwent a widespread flowering of religious sentiment and unprecedented expansion of church membership known as the Second Great Awakening. Definitions of the term and assessments of the causes, contours, and effects of the Awakening are in dispute, but a number of basic features are generally agreed upon. The Awakening lasted some 50 years, from the 1790s to the 1840s, and spanned the entire United States. The religious revitalization that the Awakening represented manifested itself in different ways according to the local population and church establishment, but was definitely a Protestant phenomenon. Methodist and Baptist denominations experienced a surge of membership, often at the expense of other denominations, prompting a move toward liberalization and competitiveness on the part of the Anglican, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. The numerical success of the Methodists and Baptists lay primarily in their reliance on itinerant preachers who actively brought the message of the church to the people, converting great numbers through emotionally charged revivals. These revivals occurred on a scale and with a frequency previously unseen in the United States, and usually struck more conservative clergymen as excessive emotionalism masquerading as religion. With the maturation of revivalism and the evolution of a distinct revivalist methodology aimed at converting people en masse , the age of evangelicalism had arrived, with the Protestants leading the charge.

The social impact of the Second Great Awakening may be gauged by reviewing several main thrusts of the scholarly literature. The traditional school of thought has tended to portray the period as one marked by widespread secularization and the concomitant efforts of church elites to reestablish order and bring wandering Christians back into the ecclesiastical fold.12 From this perspective, the Second Great Awakening appears as a process of centripetal reorientation, a reassertion of centralized religious authority, as established churches tried to co-opt Evangelical activism by dressing their old theologies in new clothes. By concentrating on the conservative impulses of the Presbyterian and Congregationalist establishments, however, while neglecting the unfolding of the Second Great Awakening outside New England, these scholars often slight the activities of less powerful denominations or of the people themselves.

More recent interpretations of the era have done much to counterbalance this overemphasis on centralization. Two of the more significant contributions come from Nathan Hatch and Donald Mathews. Hatch, in The Democratization of American Christianity, set out to revise the "social control interpretation" of the Second Great Awakening by exploring its role in galvanizing the nation's religious culture of insurgent populist preachers and of the tremendous numbers of common people who hearkened to their message. Hatch wrote:

...we have ignored the most dynamic and characteristic elements of Christianity during this time: the displacement from power of the religious people of ideas by those who leaned toward popular culture; the powerful centrifugal forces that drove churches apart and gave new significance to local and grass-roots endeavors; and the stark emotionalism, disorder, extremism, and crudeness that accompanied expressions of the faith fed by the passions of ordinary people.13

In tracing the siphoning of religious power away from the established churches and into the hands of local preachers and their flocks, Hatch posited an organic relationship between political and religious liberty. The success of the Revolution, he argues, created an atmosphere where resistance to authority and orthodoxy formed the ascendant ethos in the religious sphere as well as the secular.

A driving force in this resistance, as Hatch presented it, was class conflict: the desire of people of comparatively low socio-economic status to undermine or even usurp the consuetudinary power not only of clergymen, but of lawyers and doctors as well. A second driving force, and one which thrived on the first, was leadership. Highly charismatic, hard-working lay preachers inspired large numbers of the population to reawakened religious sentiment through their dynamism, the use of vernacular speech, a refusal to condescend to the audience, their criticism of elites, and, above all, their faith in the ability of people to think for themselves. As the mass movements led by these lay preachers multiplied, and as people felt increasingly free to chart their own spiritual course, religion during this period began to resemble a competitive marketplace, where the traditional establishments could no longer count on a guaranteed level of membership in the face of highly appealing and energetic alternatives.

Hatch's revisionary look at the Second Great Awakening as a fundamentally centrifugal event has provided the field of American religious history with a useful lens through which to view the period, but he gives short shrift to the ways in which the Awakening entailed myriad forms of centripetal cohesion on the local level. Donald Mathews is more sensitive to this phenomenon. In his influential 1969 essay, "The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process," Mathews argued that religious revivalism represented a crucial source of stability in American society, integrating huge numbers of people under the common umbrella of Protestantism. The Awakening, in his words, was "more than a series of religious 'crazes' and camp meetings" and more than the reactionary efforts of New England conservatives. Rather, it was "an organizing process that helped to give meaning and direction to people suffering in various degrees from the social strains of a nation on the move into new political, economic and geographical areas." In effect, Mathews's approach fused the traditional emphasis on authority and cohesion with Hatch's centrifugal model by identifying the Awakening as "a general social movement that organized thousands of people into small groups."14 Because Mathews's article is admittedly a "hypothesis" intended mainly to suggest a new way of thinking about the Awakening and new directions for research, it cannot fully address all of the relevant issues. He highlighted the unifying nature of Awakening at the expense of an analysis of regional variation, and left open the question as to how the actual words or messages of itinerant preachers and the psychological advantages of evangelical Protestantism were instrumental in winning over so many converts.

An answer to the second question must begin by considering the spiritual and theological tenets of evangelical Protestantism. It was in the transformation of Calvinist theology that the Second Great Awakening had the most profound impact on individuals and on American religious culture. In its broad strokes, the Awakening entailed a virtual abandonment of the stricter aspects of Calvinism, in particular the doctrines of predestination and innate depravity, and established as normative the Arminian belief in the possibility of universal salvation through personal faith and devotional service. Where traditional Calvinism had taught that divine grace, or election into heaven, depended on the arbitrary will of a severe God, the evangelical Protestants preached that the regeneration and salvation of the soul depended on one's inner faith. As the belief in unalterable reprobation faded, the notion of free will was correspondingly elevated. Reconciliation with God still required the continued practice of moral living -- free will was understood to mean the freedom to do good -- but salvation had been effectively democratized.

This tectonic shift that the Awakening brought about reflected the contributions of Enlightenment philosophy in moving humanity toward an ontological center, in emphasizing the instrumentality of free will and in conceiving of God and nature as benevolent entities. It is not surprising that this religious philosophy found such a receptive audience in the United States, where the Calvinist doctrine of "inability" seemed out of touch with a culture steeped in the ideology of universal equality and political and economic mobility. It also corresponded nicely with many Americans' self-image as creators of a new Eden; just as the individual soul could be redeemed through the exercise of free will, a national redemption could also follow from collective efforts toward social improvement. Internal moral reform and social reform thus emerged as the two principal and parallel legacies of the Second Great Awakening.

This religious epoch, then, involved much more than theological evolution. In its social aspects, the Awakening had as profound an impact on American culture as the Constitution on American government and the Hamiltonian system on American economics. The Awakening, however, was not a uniform phenomenon; the theological and social changes it effected took place at different times, and with varying intensity, in different areas of the nation. In one sense, the Awakening had the unifying effect of making evangelical Protestantism the nation's overwhelmingly predominant religion. At the same time, within the parameters of Protestantism, the Awakening had a diversifying effect by breeding numerous schisms between the various denominations; after all, sectarianism was only natural in a "competitive marketplace" of religion. In short, more and more people called themselves Protestants, but they also began to distinguish themselves from other Protestants.

The first stirrings of the Awakening occurred in the South and sparsely populated old Southwest, with its predominantly rural economy and poorly developed infrastructure and institutions, where religious organization served the critical function of providing social stability for the populace. Here the two clearly dominant groups were the Methodists and Baptists, although other active sects included the Presbyterians, the Christians and the Disciples (the last two formed by followers of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell). The South did not produce, in Martin Marty's words, "first-rate theological minds" on the order of Jonathan Edwards, but in the decades after independence Evangelical Protestantism spread like wildfire through the region, with preachers fanning the flames at camp-meetings.15 Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright, in his autobiography, describes a typical revival:

They would ... erect a shed, sufficiently large to protect five thousand people from wind and rain, and cover it with boards or shingles; build a large stand, seat the shed, and here they would collect together from forty to fifty miles around, sometimes further than that. Ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty ministers, of different denominations, would come together and preach night and day, four or five days together; and, indeed, I have known these camp-meetings to last three or four weeks, and great good resulted from them. I have seen more than a hundred sinners fall like dead men under one powerful sermon, and I have seen and heard more than five hundred Christians all shouting aloud the high praises of God at once; and I will venture to assert that many happy thousands were awakened and converted to God at these camp-meetings.16

Precise numbers are difficult to ascertain, but Donald Mathews estimates that approximately 83 percent of Southern church members in 1792 were Evangelicals, and this percentage would climb in the decades to follow.17

The picture was much the same in the Midwest. Here, Protestantism achieved steady gains as evangelical methodology received greater definition under the influence of Charles Grandison Finney, who turned revivalism into a virtual science. In an 1834 lecture to his Presbyterian church in New York, entitled "What a Revival of Religion Is," Finney went further than anyone else had to date in setting out the precise methods and objectives of revivalist Evangelicalism. First, he stressed the importance of emotion:

Men are so sluggish, there are so many things to lead their minds off from religion, and to oppose the influence of the gospel, that it is necessary to raise an excitement among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles.18

While emotionalism had long been the practice of revivalists, Finney was the first major religious figure to give the technique a calculated turn. His approach was revolutionary in that it abandoned the traditional notion that only God, through miracles, could induce the intense religious fervor that characterized a revival. As Finney saw it, "[a]ll the laws of matter and mind remain in force" at a revival, which "consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature" and is a "purely philosophical [scientific] result of the right use of the constituted means."19 With the restrictive dogma and uninspiring style of Calvinism pushed aside, then, revivalists could make deep inroads into both the non-practicing population and other denominations.

In New England, these revivalist activities represented a challenge to the Anglican and Congregationalist establishments, which, gripped by a kind of siege mentality, sought to make their own churches more vital and competitive. They did so in large measure by loosening several of the major theological doctrines of Calvinism, principally that of predestination.20 Paradoxically, in their efforts to stem the Second Great Awakening's tide of Arminianism and revivalism, the New England Calvinists ended up participating in the Awakening. Together, these "New Light" Calvinists subverted the orthodox heritage of "hyper-Calvinism," and in so doing managed to save New England Calvinism from total obsolescence.

Three principal architects of the new Calvinism were Yale President Timothy Dwight and two of his students, Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher and the brilliant theologian Nathaniel Taylor. In subtle ways, these men tried to revise Calvinism to appeal to a younger generation that had grown weary of the faith's rather grim doctrines. They incorporated a degree of proactive evangelism into their churches and began to organize reform societies in an effort to become more socially relevant. Theologically, their critical modifications involved free will, divine benevolence, and the preacher's role of moral suasion in bringing people to God. Beecher, in an apparent affirmation of the evangelical method, declared in his sermon "The Faith Once Delivered to the Saints" that the original Christian sect spread because of revivalism:

It was under the preaching of the word, that men were pricked in their hearts, and cried out, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do to be saved?' And it was by the moral transformation which attended the apostolic answer to this question, and not by the power of miracles, that the Gospel defied opposition, and spread during the first three hundred years.21

Like Beecher, Taylor also stressed the power of preaching in his contributions to New Light Calvinism. He undercut the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards and his modern descendants, the "neo-Edwardseans," in his efforts to reconcile Calvinism with Enlightenment ideas of free will. Where Edwards maintained that human will operates almost exclusively in the service of self-interest, Taylor held that the soul retained a longing for spiritual connection and satisfaction, and that it was the role of the spoken word to draw out and encourage this longing. Consistent with Calvinism, nonetheless, in Taylor's theological position God acted as kind of moral governor whose grace depended on the observance of his moral laws. Salvation was achievable but required both the influence of a preacher to spark one's realization of God's laws and the conscious avoidance of sin after conversion.

Across the country, then, the revivalists of the Second Great Awakening brought Evangelical Protestantism to the people and through their reorientation of Calvinist theology and practice irreversibly changed the religious landscape of the United States. It was when the Second Great Awakening had attained maturity, in the late 1820s and 1830s, that an awakening of a similar character, if of strikingly different characters, flowered in Boston under the name "Transcendentalism."


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