The Rise of Evangelicalism

views updated

The Rise of Evangelicalism


Preaching the Word . In the early national era many Americans became intensely religious. American church membership, after declining during wartime, began to grow quickly in the 1790s. This trend continued to 1815 and well beyond. By 1850 probably 40 percent of Americans were church members, up from around 10 percent in 1790. In part this growth reflected the greater stability of the period: families returned to their pews as they resumed their previous lives. But this development was also a response to the efforts of religious leaders to recruit new members, rebuild their churches, and forge a Christian America. At the heart of this growth was the task of evangelization, that is, the preaching of the gospel. The Christian America that began to take shape during the early national era was evangelical in the sense that it was built by efforts to spread Christianity, and it devoted itself to pursuing that work even further. Evangelicalism had many different features, some of them working at cross-purposes, and had many different proponents, some of whom also worked at cross-purposes.

Revival . The most obvious and dramatic feature of Americas evangelical culture was the religious revival. Beginning in the mid 1790s, a series of revivals occurred in New England as the members of Congregational churches experienced the presence of God in an especially intense, often emotional way. Sometimes sparked by an unusually moving sermon from their ministers, or sometimes by their own prayer and Bible reading, these people dedicated themselves anew to making the service of God central in their lives. These revivals were far from

the first New England had seen. In the 1730s and 1740s a series of these events had swept through many of the colonies, so many that the period became referred to as the Great Awakening for the number of people newly awakened to Gods presence in their lives. Now, a new season of grace seemed to be getting under way as reports of revivals began arriving from many other areas besides New England. Ministers promoting this phenomenon began referring to it as a second Great Awakening as a way of making the revivals seem like a resurgence of older religious traditions. In some ways this was quite true. The old Puritans in New England had always appreciated emotional religious experiences similar to those their descendants were now undergoing. But there were important differences too, in the scope of the revival phenomenon, the methods ministers used during revivals, and even the character of the experiences of the people who participated in them. The revivals of the second Great Awakening are a good example of older religious practices being adapted to the new social circumstances of the new nation. One clear sign of the new directions that American religion took as a consequence of the revivals of the second Great Awakening was the phenomenal growth of the two groups most closely identified with early American evangelicalismthe Baptists and the Methodists.

Baptists and Methodists . Both the Baptists and the Methodists experienced their most rapid growth in the frontier areas of the new nation. Those areas were the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains that were rapidly settled through a westward migration of white people that started in the 1760s but quickly picked up speed after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783. Kentucky, Tennessee, upstate New York, and other frontier areas of the 1790s and early 1800s were the rough and ready West of that time, filled with boomtowns, pioneer farmers and their families clearing land and setting down roots, and drifters seeking to get rich quick, but often ending up poorer than ever. With few churches established in these areas, revivals could not occur among settled congregations or even in church buildings, as was happening in New England. Revivals moved outside and came to be called camp meetings. Camp meetings were some of the most popular and enduring features of religion in the early national era.

Camp Meetings . Revivals taking the form of camp meetings began to appear around 1797 in rural Kentucky. The hills of Logan County were the scene of some of the first of these meetings, led by James McGready, a Presbyterian minister of Scots-Irish heritage. McGready was a powerful preacher, constantly exhorting his listeners to seek the new birth. His work produced many converts, who began attending religious meetings around the countryside, reaching a peak in an exuberant four-day meeting at Red River in 1800. Over the next few years McGready and other ministers, joined by Methodists and Baptists, perfected the camp meeting. They became frequent events on the frontier in the summertime when the weather was good and time could best be spared from farm work. In 1801 the area of Cane Ridge, Kentucky, saw probably the largest and most raucous camp meeting of this period. As many as twenty thousand people gathered together in outdoor services over six days, camping on the fields around the open-air preaching stands. Frenzied worship continued day and night, even through heavy rainstorms, and thousands found themselves caught up in the preaching of Presbyterian Barton Stone and more than twenty other ministers. People shouted out, and one participant compared the noise to the roar of Niagara.

Conversion Experience . Red River, Cane Ridge, and the other camp meetings were distinctly suited to frontier conditions. They brought together hundreds, sometimes thousands, of participants, often from several denominations. People came from a wide area and stayed several nights. Several preachers would lead the meeting, preaching from booths set up for the various denominations. People moved from place to place in the campground, hearing almost continuous preaching meant to inspire an intense religious reaction, the conversion experience. Newly converted persons would think of themselves as having had a new birth in the Spirit. These conversion experiences often led to startling expressions from the participants, who might have spasms called jerks or cry out in barks or even fall away into trances. Congregations would often be swept up in the emotions of the moment, with mass conversions resulting. The intensity of these religious experiences was matched by the intense social life of the campground, for the experience was not solely spiritual. Families would gather together in larger groups, based on region or wider kinship ties, and would eat and live together in a temporary community, partially making up for the isolation of frontier life that was the norm the rest of the year. Many camp meetings culminated in an outdoor communion service jointly led by all the ministers present. All who had been converted during the meeting would gather together in a symbolic meal celebrating the unity they had found in their individual experiences of Christ. Those who had not been converted gathered around the group of communicants, sharing in the spirit of the service, if not in the actual sacrament, and demonstrated another level of the community formed on the campground. While many participants fell away from the intensity of the spiritual experience once they returned to their homes, even more maintained ties to the churches they joined during these meetings. For almost all, the revival, and the conversion experience embedded in it, were not once-in-a-lifetime events but rather something they would join in repeatedly, perhaps once a year.

Circuit Riders. The emphasis on conversion through preaching, as well as frontier conditions, led the Methodists in particular to embrace another religious innovation, the circuit rider. The Methodist minister on horseback, crossing the Appalachian Mountains and traveling from town to town preaching, was a familiar figure in the early national period. While there had been such itinerant preachers in the colonial period, the expansive missionary efforts of the Methodists made the circuit rider a regular feature of the religious landscape. Churches never had enough ministers to be able to provide one for each of the congregations that were springing up across America as settlement spread westward. This was not a problem for the Baptists, who had a tradition of lay leadership and local control, and this denomination boomed under these conditions. While the independence of these congregations suited the emerging democratic ethos of the new nation, church leaders in the East were concerned about sustaining the growth of these groups and providing for their spiritual needs over time. The Methodists, committed to a more centralized form of church government, including bishops, were especially worried about leaving individual congregations alone too much. Methodist congregations were organized into circuits to be served by one minister who traveled from one group to the next, taking as long as six weeks to complete his circuit. These men, intimately familiar with the rough conditions of life in these newly settling areas, could preach to the people they met in language suited to their needs, even if they were not college-trained or highly learned in biblical interpretations. They forged social cohesion among communities when travel and communication were hard and acted as a civilizing force on the frontier, encouraging family life by performing weddings and baptisms.


James B. Finley was not yet converted to Christ when he attended the huge revival meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801. He later became a preacher and missionary to the western Indians. He recalled how overwhelming the Cane Ridge revival had been:

The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others in wagons, and one was standing on a tree which had, in falling, lodged against another. Some of the people were singing, others praying, some crying for mercy in the most piteous accents, while others were shouting most vociferously. While witnessing these scenes, a peculiarly-strange sensation, such as I had never felt before, came over me. My heart beat tu-multuously, my knees trembled, my lip quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground. A strange supernatural power seemed to pervade the entire mass of mind there collected. Soon after I left and went into the woods, and there I strove to rally and man up my courage.

After some time I returned to the scene of excitement, the waves of which, if possible, had risen still higher. The same awfulness of feeling came over me. I stepped up on to a log, where I could have a better view of the surging sea of humanity. The scene that presented itself to my mind was indescribable. At one time I saw at least five hundred swept down in a moment, as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens. I fled for the woods a second time, and wished I had staid at home.

Source: Autobiography of Rev. James B. Finley; or. Life in the Pioneer West (Cincinnati, Ohio: Cranston & Curtis, 1853), pp. 166167.

Spirit of Reform. In constantly preaching against drinking, gambling, and dancing, the circuit riders also gave expression to one of the most important features of the evangelicalism emerging across America, not only on the frontier: the spirit of reform. At the heart of the conversion experience was a belief that people could reject sin and be better in the future, all in response to a call from God to obey his word. The circuit riders often confronted life at its rawest and most violent, and the message they delivered was one of faith in a better world to come, not only in heaven, but here as well, if only people would act on their faith and live up to the ideals set out by Jesus in the Gospels.

Politics. The Disciples of Christ, or the Christians, as they called themselves at first, was another group to emerge in the revivals of the second Great Awakening. The Disciples are the clearest example of the impact of American republicanism on religion. Itinerant preacher Elias Smith, originally a Baptist, made this clear in sermon after sermon in New England, which he filled with a politics of religion. Many are republicans as to government, he declared, and yet are but half republicans, being in matters of religion still bound to a catechism, creed, covenant or a superstitious priest. Venture to be as independent in things of religion, as those which respect the government in which you live. This heady message attacking centralized religious authority in favor of a religion of the people was already being echoed across the country by others. A group of Methodists in Virginia took up this theme in rejecting the bishops of their new church. And Barton Stone, one of the leaders of the Cane Ridge revival, joined with others in issuing The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery in 1803, rejecting all church authority in favor of a complete reliance on the New Testament. Also on the frontier, the Scottish immigrants Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander preached a similar message of each individuals right to pursue truth independently.

Possibilities and Limits. These men and the movements they were part of followed the ideas of civic and religious freedom out to their logical conclusions. They rejected any special status for preachers, embracing the wisdom of the common man and his access to truth. They abandoned the theological intricacies of Calvinism, yet they did not reject all authority. The Bible alone was the place to look for truth, and the Christians searched its pages for guidance. The Campbells revealed what they found there in the Declaration and Address (1809), a work that set out their thinking about a revolutionary new world. They found in the Bible signs of the times that led them to believe a new order was at hand and that God had ordained an egalitarian America to lead the way to it. The new order would actually be a restoration of the ways of the primitive church, in other words, a world stripped of all the corruption added by eighteen hundred years of Western civilization. This ethos had deep roots in colonial American religion, which was also preoccupied with apocalyptic visions, and sought to reform the world into a re-creation of the primitive church. But the movement was also a product of the special circumstances of the early republic. It capitalized on the new reality of political and social freedom and on the reality of life on the frontier to create a unique combination of republican and biblical radicalism, a truly popular religion. It did not last, although a huge denomination led by Stone and the Campbells emerged from this moment. But denomination survived only in building the kind of institutional church that the original participants had so strenuously rejected. The example of the Disciples of Christ suggests the radical possibilities, as well as the very real limits, of the revival movement of the early 1800s.


An English observer at the 1801 Cane Ridge camp meeting offered this description of the behavior of the revivalists who found themselves caught up by the movements of the Spirit:

Thoughtless infidels have fallen as suddenly as if struck by lightning sometimes at the very moment they are uttering blasphemies against the work. Immediately after they become totally powerless, they are seized with a general tremor, and sometimes, though not often, they utter one or two piercing shrieks in the moment of falling. Persons in this situation are affected in different degrees; sometimes when unable to stand or sit, they have the use of their hands and can converse with perfect composure. In other cases, they are unable to speak, the pulse becomes weak, and they draw a difficult breath about once a minute, in some instances their extremities become cold, and pulsation, breathing, and all the signs of life, forsake them for nearly an hour. Persons who have been in this situation have uniformly avowed that they felt no bodily pain; that they had the entire use of their reason and reflection, and when recovered they could relate everything that had been said or done near them. From this it appears, that their falling is neither common fainting, nor a nervous reflection. Indeed this strange phenomenon appears to have taken every possible turn, to baffle the conjectures of those who are not willing to consider it as a supernatural work. Persons have sometimes fallen on their way from public worship, and sometimes after they had arrived at home, and in some cases, when they were pursuing their common business on the farms or when retired for secret devotion.

Sources: Methodist Magazine, 26 (February 1803): 9091.

Theology. Although revivalists stressed the importance of a conversion experience, emphasizing the heart over the head, evangelicals did not neglect the realm of ideas completely. During the first Great Awakening the theologian Jonathan Edwards had brought traditional Puritan theology, largely based on the teachings of the French Protestant reformer John Calvin, into line with more modern thinking such as that of the English philosopher John Locke. While adhering to the Calvinist position that God had predetermined who would be saved and who would be damned (the doctrine of predestination), Edwards also stressed the role of individual responsibility in accepting Gods judgment. This emphasis was a foot in the door for later revivalists. Slowly they began to emphasize the ideas of human freedom and responsibility more, in order to motivate people to accept the idea that their actions influenced Gods judgment on them. This was also a way to keep religion at the forefront of peoples lives since if what you do matters for your salvation, living a moral life is crucial. This was the position of the Methodists, who consistently stressed the importance of the free human response to God and taught that it was possible to realize holiness in this life despite the reality of sin. They preached a message for the times, and this contributed to their spectacular growth in the early national period. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and other denominations more strongly grounded in traditional Calvinist ideas had a harder time modifying their old positions. Led by preachers such as Connecticuts Lyman Beecher, they did adjust, although the full story of the intellectual changes produced by evangelical revivalism belongs to the 1820s and 1830s.


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

Charles A. Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1955);

William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978);

Russell E. Richey, Early American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991);

Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

About this article

The Rise of Evangelicalism

Updated About content Print Article