views updated


From 1720 to the end of the Civil War, the United States was roiled by religious revivals or, as they were called, "awakenings." Historians generally ascribe the first such revival, the Great Awakening, to the period 1720 to 1790, although some modern scholars have attempted to narrow it to 1739 to 1745, during the itinerant preaching of George Whitefield (1714–1770) in British North America. Whitefield's preaching contained four elements that resurfaced in subsequent American revivals. First, his preaching did not offer an explication of biblical text; instead, it was an emotional call for a new birth for Christians. Second, his evangelical fervor was directed against the sins of avarice and consumption, which he saw as triumphant in America; people seemed more interested in the fruits of this world than in those of the next (though Whitefield himself was not above using secular methods such as printed circulars and advance men to increase attendance at his meetings). Third, although he apparently visited every part of the British American colonies, he was particularly successful in the cities, including Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly for subsequent revivals, Whitefield's call to Christ and salvation occurred outside the confines of established churches and doctrine and without the permission of the local ministries. His revivals featured open-air preaching that reached thousands; he was said to have addressed 23,000 people on Boston Common. Open-air meetings, to which all were invited, regardless of denomination, meant that individuals could make their own decisions about spiritual matters, and this represented an indirect assault on the spiritual authority of the established religions in the colonies.

The Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening occurred from 1800 to 1835 (though it persisted in many forms until the eve of the Civil War). Its most famous camp meeting—so called because participants would camp outdoors at the selected site, opening the event to vast numbers of seekers and creating a community, however ephemeral, organized on Christian principles—was in August 1801 in Cane Ridge, Kentucky. A crowd estimated at 10,000 came to hear local ministers, at least twenty-two, in nearly nonstop preaching over several days. The crowd was so overcome with religious fervor that men and women threw themselves on the ground in fits of religious ecstasy, and were beset by convulsions where they stood and barked like dogs. An eyewitness reported on this improbable outpouring of the Holy Spirit:

Men and women rolled over and over like a wheel or stretched in a prostrate manner … Still more demeaning and mortifying were the jerks … it appeared that the transfixed were being goaded by "a red hot iron." … The last possible grade of mortification seemed to be couched in the barks … both men and women would be forced to personate that animal. (M'Nemar 2007, p. 80)

The meeting at Cane Ridge differed in degree from subsequent meetings of the period. "While revivals were almost always emotional affairs with crying, shouting and sometimes falling, excesses such as barking or treeing the devil … were limited. With the possible exceptions of the early meetings, they never became regular features of the Second Great Awakening" (Hankins 2004, p. 11).

The Second Great Awakening spread north and east and had soon encompassed most of the Northern states, reaching its greatest intensity in western New York and Ohio. Indeed, an area of western New York became known as the "burned-over district" because it was repeatedly racked by successive waves of revivalism and the camp meetings (and the camp fires that went with them) that were essential to spreading the Gospel.

One of the Protestant evangelists who had preached in the burned-over district was Charles G. Finney (1792–1875). Finney had been a teacher and a law student until he had an epiphany in 1821, then became a minister ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1824. Immensely popular, Finney is recognized as the leader of the Second Great Awakening. His sermons and organization were quite radical; he permitted women to pray in mixed groups with men, and prayed for people by name— unconventional ideas for his time. He employed the "anxious bench," where a sinner struggling with acceptance of faith might come and sit in the front of the assembly to be prayed for by everyone present, a practice that prefigures modern evangelism's invitation to the newly saved to come to the front of the church to acknowledge their new birth.

Finney accepted a faculty post at Oberlin Collegiate Institute in 1835 and eventually became the school's president. He molded Oberlin into a training ground for young evangelists and "left men and women eager to demonstrate their virtue through social action" (Walters 1976, p. 38). Although he was staunchly antislavery, Finney, like many other otherwise outspoken evangelists, was hesitant to take a firm public stand for abolition, and he avoided advocating political action. He feared that to do so would divide the church and distract its ministers from their ordained mission, which was the saving of souls. Evangelicals believed that America was God's chosen land selected to evangelize the world, an idea that had persisted since the days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; political disunion would threaten America's divine mission. They were also tormented by a fundamental conundrum—could the proponents of Christian love advocate force of arms to destroy the evil that was slavery?

The Second Great Awakening prefigured modern evangelistic moments in some significant ways. It continued the expansion of lay influence in organized religion, as many revivals took place outside established churches. Finney himself, although ordained in the Presbyterian Church, admitted that he had no knowledge of the Westminster Confession, the faith's central tenet. For Finney and his many followers, the emotionalism of revivalism demonstrated convincingly that the Holy Spirit could touch anyone. Finney eschewed the sensationalism that had marked the Cane Ridge Revival, but his camp meetings were open to all, regardless of formal religious affiliation. This reinforced the idea of interdenominational brotherhood present in earlier awakenings, an idea that spread quickly throughout Protestant America.

In the Second Great Awakening, moral choices and ethical questions replaced dogma as the central concern of a committed Christian, and suggested individual action as a means to triumph over sin:

The revivals' doctrinal innovations related to free will and the agency of man in conversion. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination held that man, by nature sinful, could do nothing to assure his own salvation. But revivals could only work if man was not inherently depraved; and revivalists preached that man could, by an act of will, achieve harmony with God and thus salvation. Moreover, and perhaps more important, the use of revivals to promote conversions implied that men had the power to save others. These tenets had two important implications for the development of the antislavery movement: they declared slavery to be an unacceptable social institution, and they acknowledged that men had the capacity to eliminate evil in the world. (Hammond 1974, p. 183).

In theological terms, the concepts of Arminian doctrine began to replace those of Calvinism. Arminian doctrine stressed "free will, free grace, and unlimited hope for the conversion of all men" (Smith 1980, pp. 88–89). It held that humanity, by God's grace, could either accept or reject salvation and strive for a life of perfection. God's will, to the evangelical revivalists, is to save all who will partake of salvation, that is, by coming to Christ. To the evangelicals, human will is eternally corrupt, but by God's will, humanity is given the freedom to choose to turn to God for salvation. Humanity, however, must live in God's way. Christ's sacrifice, therefore, atones for all, as opposed to Calvinism's somewhat strained belief in Christ's limited atonement only for the elect or those predestined to receive grace. As a consequence of such beliefs converging in the revivals, the once culturally and dogmatically dominant Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans (whose sway held through the Revolutionary period) were displaced by Methodists and Baptists, which grew to become the two largest denominations in the United States (Smith 1980, p. 20).

There were two undercurrents to American revivalism that manifested themselves in different ways—perfectionism and millennialism. Perfectionism, which grew out of the teachings of John Wesley (1703–1791), held that humankind could achieve perfect love of God; to be sanctified was to love God and one's neighbor perfectly. Once sanctified, a Christian would no longer feel any inward inclination toward sin. Evangelists put great emphasis on human effort in sanctification—although it was a gift from God, a committed Christian could use that grace to grow in holiness and achieve perfection through adherence to moral law. Public testimony became important because it was a sign of the Holy Spirit acting through an individual's emotions that gave witness to sanctification. Many evangelists believed that sanctification could be squandered, and it was a Christian's duty to continue to strive for perfection even after sanctification occurred. The main denominational expression of the perfectionist or holiness movement during this era was the Free Methodist Church, founded in the burned-over district of western New York in 1860. It was staunchly and vocally opposed to slavery, and many of its members were active in the Underground Railroad, smuggling escaped slaves to freedom in Can

Both Charles Finney and Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874), the best known female evangelist of the period, integrated the need for Christian perfection into their preaching. Most importantly, the idea of Christian perfection meant that a striving mankind could advance the advent of the kingdom of heaven through right living—perfectionism could lead to the "early inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth" (Smith 1980, p. 105). This idea intertwined with the concept of millennialism—the belief in a golden age, Christ's thousand-year reign on earth. Many antebellum revivalists believed that the Second Great Awakening and the burgeoning social reform movements were signs that the millennium was fast approaching. One evangelist, William Miller (1815–1874), even calculated the exact date for Christ's return as October 22, 1844. Although Miller and his followers were disappointed and ridiculed when Christ did not appear on the appointed day, the idea of the millennium was not completely discredited in evangelical thought; in fact, it "seemed increasingly expected to be ushered in by political movements …" (Smith 1980, p. 15). Thus revivalism came to be linked to perfection and humanitarian reform through ethical principles that applied to the entire sphere of human activity—daily life, commerce, and the eradication of social evil.

The Awakening of 1858

The last of the antebellum awakenings occurred in 1857 to 1858 and is known variously as the Awakening of 1858, the Revival of 1857 to 1858, or, most colorfully, the Businessmen's Revival. Although it shared many of the characteristics of the two earlier awakenings, it was fundamentally different.

In September 1857 the New York City missionary Jeremiah Lanphier organized a noontime prayer meeting at the Old Dutch Church on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. His first meeting was sparsely attended, but by the following spring, 10,000 people—predominantly young professionals—were attending the prayer meetings. The awakening spread rapidly to cities in the North, West, and as far south as Baltimore. The Cleveland Herald, reporting on events in New York, noted that "A very general religious interest now prevails in many churches," and that the churches were so crowded that they had to open at nine in the morning to accommodate the masses of mostly young people who sought spiritual release (Cleveland Herald, December 12, 1857). In January the same newspaper reported that as the awakening continued to grow, "Meetings are held nightly, penitents throng the altar, and a general awakening has taken place" (Cleveland Herald, January 16, 1858).

The revival was characterized by fluidly organized meetings without a prepared plan or liturgy. Anyone present might pray, testify, or sing as long as they stayed within the agreed-upon five-minute time limit and avoided controversial topics such as water baptism and slavery. The New York Herald reproduced a notice from a noontime revival meeting in its February 21, 1858, edition that read: "Prayers and Exhortations Not to exceed five minutes In order to give all an opportunity Not more than two consecutive prayers or exhortations. No controverted points discussed" (New York Herald 1858).

Like earlier revivals, the Businessmen's Revival was interdenominational and placed ethical concerns and a united front against Satan above the doctrine of any one denomination. Unlike earlier revivals, these were essentially prayer meetings without a presiding minister and were urban in character. Earlier revivals had spread from west to east; the Businessmen's Revival first engulfed the cities of the North and then spread west and into the rural North. Meetings focused almost exclusively on individual salvation and avoided any discussion of controversial social issues; news of the revival and the revival fires themselves were fanned by repeated articles in large metropolitan dailies in New York City, perhaps with an eye to increasing circulation (Long 1998).

The antecedents of the Revival of 1857 to 1858 are unclear. The Old Dutch Church was near Wall Street, and a stock-market collapse in October 1857 (the Panic of 1857) may have been seen by the servants of mammon as an omen and warning that they should attend more assiduously to their souls than to their pocketbooks. The Panic of 1857 may also have meant that un- or underemployed stockbrokers, clerks, and other office workers now had time to spare during the day. Historian Sandra Sizer discounts such economic causes for the revival by observing that the United States had suffered panics before without engendering corresponding revivals. She believes that a concatenation of events precipitated the awakening—the long, increasingly bitter struggle around the slavery issue was more in the public consciousness following the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in 1857 and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, first serialized in 1851, which by 1857 had sold two million copies. In addition, the earlier Second Great Awakening had led more Americans to agree that slavery was a national sin. Indeed, some might have seen the Panic of 1857 as God's punishment for the sins of both slavery and avarice. The sin of slavery touched whites in the North and South alike—white Northerners for their complicity and white Southerners for the damage slavery inflicted on social and political institutions. Sizer writes, "Portraits of the slave system in the South increasingly emphasized not only its political tyranny but also its perversion of the family, and therefore of the minds and hearts of whites as well as blacks" (Sizer 1979, p. 88). The revival may have been seen by some as a way to purify themselves and, by extension, the country, by acts of public contrition and conversion.

This view was not necessarily shared by newspapers of the time:

It may not be impertinent to request these expounders of the word to leave the black man to the politicians, and to shower their hardest apostolic knocks against the devil and all his works, as developed in the daily life of the white man in Wall street and elsewhere…. no class needs saving grace more the Wall Street editors and the Wall street financiers …(New York Herald, February 19, 1858)

Sizer notes, in discussing the antebellum revivals:

Despite the intention of the Northerners, who had thought that slavery could be contained, the wrong people—people of an aristocratic and parasitical temperament—had seized the reins of government and intended to spread their pernicious system throughout the land. The situation could only be rectified, from an evangelical perspective, by an inward purification which would lead to a reformation of morals and appropriate political action. (Sizer 1979, p. 91)

There seems little doubt that the antebellum revivals had an impact on the antislavery movement; what is not as clear is the character and extent of that impact. The historian Ronald Walters points out the "long gap between religious awakenings and reform" (Walters 1976, p. 39), but he also observes that "Antislavery could not, in fact, have been what it was after 1830 if there had not been an evangelical Protestant tradition behind it and if there had not been evangelical Protestants in it from beginning to end" (p. 37).

As historian Vernon Burton and other scholars have observed, "religion played a large role in pro- and antislavery movements" (2007, p. 42). Some proslavery theologians advanced justifications of slavery based upon both the Old Testament, where slavery is mentioned, and the New, where it is not, interpreting this silence as assent. This equivocation widened the split between the militant abolitionists and religion.

It may be that it was the very failure of revivalism to define the state as a moral agent for transformation or to advocate vigorous political action to end slavery that led men and women to join antislavery organizations that advocated political means to achieve their ends. Religious beliefs informed political attitudes, then as they do now, and may have prepared the larger population to support those means at the polls. As Burton observes:

Most Americans remained content to imagine that fervent prayer and steady labor would be sufficient until God brought forth his government on earth. For those few who were not content to wait for the Lord, their moral choices made all the difference in driving the nation toward Civil War…. It was not the slavery of sin that looked to destroy the nation and confound the millennium, but the sin of slavery. (2007, p. 49)


Burton, Orville V. The Age of Lincoln. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

Cleveland Herald, December 12, 1857.

Cleveland Herald, January 16, 1858.

Hankins, Barry. The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Hammond, John L. "Revival Religion and Antislavery Politics." American Sociological Review 39, no. 2 (1974): 175–186.

Long, Kathryn T. The Revival of 1857–58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

M'Nemar, Richard. "The Kentucky Revival." In Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, ed. Michael McClymond. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.

New York Herald, February 19, 1858.

New York Herald, February 21, 1858.

Sizer, Sandra. "Politics and Apolitical Religion: The Great Urban Revivals of the Late Nineteenth Century." Church History 48, no. 1 (March 1979): 81–98.

Smith, Timothy L. Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Walters, Ronald. The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism after 1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

James Onderdonk