Awakening, Second

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AWAKENING, SECOND. The term refers to a resurgence of religious activity from the close of the eighteenth century through the first decades of the nineteenth century. This designation covers a wide variety of religious movements and trends that defy simple categorizations.

The first indications of a religious revival in New England emerged in the 1790s in Connecticut, where Trinitarian clergy feared the nation had suffered a decline in religious values following the Revolution, as evidenced by the appearances of unitarianism and deism. Although undoubtedly exaggerated, this perception contributed to the rise of ministers such as Timothy Dwight, Asahel Nettleton, Lyman Beecher, and Nathaniel William Taylor, who at the opening of the nineteenth century commenced a series of revivals that generally sustained the Congregational Standing Order.

Soon the revivals spread beyond New England and moved away from their conservative origins. The "burned-over district" of upstate New York became the center for extensive revivals that lasted through the 1830s. Led by such ministers as Charles G. Finney, revivalists not only instigated a wave of religious enthusiasm but also challenged more traditional Calvinist theology and methods. Consternation over Finney's flagrant challenges to the existing ministerial system in New York produced the acrimonious New Lebanon Conference of 1827. For a short time Finney seemed to move closer to more conventional Presbyterians and Congregationalists. His revival in Rochester during the winter of 1830–1831 was one of the most successful of the era and a model for future revivals.

In time, however, some aspects of the Second Awakening drifted even further away from traditional Calvinism. After leaving the Presbyterian community in 1835, Finney embraced a perfectionist theology, which asserted that all humans are fully capable of perfect compliance with God's laws. William Miller's predictions of the end of the earth in 1843 and 1844 found a substantial audience, especially in northern New York.

Revivals occurred concurrently within the South and Southwest. Methodism experienced a remarkable growth during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Second Awakening was manifested in camp meetings. Apparently beginning with small encampments near revivals, camp meetings grew into spectacular events, culminating with the revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801. Thereafter the religious culture of the region reflected the camp-meeting style. Denominations such as the Church of Christ, led by Barton Stone, the Disciples of Christ, led by Alexander Campbell, and the Cumberland Presbyterians, led by James McGready, entered the American religious scene at this time. The Baptists also expanded from their dissenting origins into a major denomination.

Beginning with a handful of people during postrevolutionary years, Methodism grew to approximately 250,000 communicants by 1816. The earliest growth came within the Delmarva Peninsula, where the quarterly meetings spurred religious growth even before the camp meetings affected the religious climate. With an organizational structure that encouraged rapid expansion and supported by a system of circuit riders, the Methodists proved exceptionally adapted to the growing population in the western regions. The denomination's emphasis upon human ability was suited for the climate of the Second Awakening.

Within the nation's two major Calvinist denominations, the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians, the Second Awakening produced mixed results. These denominations grew, although at a slower pace than the Methodists. Nevertheless, this growth was marred by bitter theological disputes. The New Haven or New School theology developed under the leadership of Taylor and his adherents made significant modifications to the traditional Calvinist tenets of God's sovereignty to allow for greater emphasis upon human freedom. The concerns of traditional Calvinists eventually resulted in the schism of the Presbyterian Church in 1837.

The combination of increased religious activity with a theology that emphasized human abilities also contributed to a growing number of antebellum reform movements. Missionary enterprises, Sabbath observance, religious instruction, and temperance movements were especially compatible with the religious trends of the Second Awakening. The reform impulse was powerful among the New School Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Under the leadership of such men as Beecher, Protestant ministers energetically promoted these causes through voluntary societies supplemented by political action where necessary. Later in the nineteenth century anti-slavery movements flourished among the same religious elements that were prominent in the Second Awakening.

Historical treatment of the Second Awakening has been as varied as the phenomenon itself. Historians who see the movement as an expression of optimism in human nature emphasize the departures from traditional Calvinist religion, particularly the perfectionist theology of Finney. Other historians have interpreted religious activity as a means of exerting social control over a rapidly changing society. For these historians Beecher and Dwight, with their emphasis upon a settled order, were more typical figures of the Second Awakening. Another interpretation of the period emphasizes the democratic trends of denominations that appealed to a wider range of social classes, especially such denominations as the Methodists or the Disciples of Christ.

The long-term effect of the Second Awakening expanded and deepened the religious foundations of the early Republic. Even as the nation grew dramatically during these years, churches demonstrated a vibrancy and an adaptability that endured throughout the nineteenth century.


Conkin, Paul K. The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Cross, Whitney 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.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Hirrel, Leo P. Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

Hood, Fred J. Reformed America: The Middle and Southern States, 1783–1837. University: University of Alabama Press, 1980.

Johnson, Paul E. A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Keller, Charles Roy. The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1942.

Shiels, Richard D. "The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut: A Critique of the Traditional Interpretation." Church History 49 (December 1980): 401–415.

Walters, Ronald G. American Reformers, 1815–1860. 2d ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

Wigger, John H. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Leo P.Hirrel

See alsoEvangelicalism and Revivalism ; Great Awakening ; Religion and Religious Affiliation .