What Was the Second Great Awakening?

The Second Great Awakening was a nationwide expansion of Christianity in the US, lasting from approximately 1801 to 1840. The awakening affected the new nation far beyond the realm of religion. It shaped American society in remarkable ways that are with us today.

The Second Great Awakening stretched from New England to the frontiers of the Midwest and Ohio River Valley. Many of the leaders of the awakening were unknown to most Americans. They were country pastors or “circuit riders” — itinerant preachers who rode on horseback from place to place to preach the gospel. A few revival leaders were more well-known, like Charles Finney of New York and Timothy Dwight of Yale University. 

What is an awakening?

An awakening refers to the moment when a person realizes his own need to trust in Jesus Christ, otherwise known as the point of regeneration and conversion. A “great awakening” occurs when large masses of people are converted to faith in Christ. Colonial America experienced the First Great Awakening during 1730-1755. 

Christian historians and theologians also refer to these mass awakenings as “revivals.” There is a slight nuance between the two terms, “awakening” and “revival.” Revival focuses on those who are already Christians. Believers are renewed or revived in their devotion to Jesus when there is “revival.” The term “revival” can be used in other ways, as when an individual Christian experiences spiritual reinvigoration or when a church hosts a series of worship services designed to excite fresh faith in those who are already followers of Jesus. However, in this context of the Second Great Awakening, the term “revival” usually refers to large-scale rededication of Christians and always accompanies an awakening of those who were non-Christians. 

What was the spiritual impact of the Second Great Awakening?

On the frontier, some regions were devoid of morals and Christianity. Some of these undeveloped areas didn’t have the stability of law and order and the positive influence of Christian religion on the inhabitants. But the awakening ushered tens of thousands of settlers to a new life in Christ.  

Much of the spiritual change came through outdoor worship gatherings led by local pastors or itinerant preachers. Sometimes tens of thousands of people would gather outdoors to fellowship, worship, hear preaching, and receive communion. These public worship services would last for days and were incredibly powerful, spiritually, which is why they drew so many participants.

The following passage describes one such meeting that took place in Kentucky. It comes from the 1853 autobiography of Rev. James Finley who recounts his experience and his own salvation at the Cane Ridge revival. In the late summer of 1801 a crowd estimated at 10,000 to 25,000 gathered for a week to pray, hear the word preached, repent, worship, and seek God. The Holy Spirit fell powerfully, and many historians mark this event as the beginning of the Second Great Awakening.   

In the month of August, 1801, I learned there was to be a great meeting at Cane Ridge, in my father’s old congregation. Feeling a great desire to see the wonderful things which had come to my ears, and having been solicited by some of my old schoolmates to go over into Kentucky for the purpose of revisiting the scenes of my boyhood, I resolved to go. Obtaining company, I started from my woody retreat in Highland county. Having reached the neighborhood of the meeting, we stopped and put up for the night. The family, who seemed to be posted in regard to all the movements of the meeting, cheerfully answered all our inquiries, and gave us all the information we desired; The next morning we started for the meeting. On the way I said to my companions, “Now, if I fall it must be by physical power and not by singing and praying;” and as I prided myself upon my manhood and courage, I had no fear of being overcome by any nervous excitability, or being frightened into religion. We arrived upon the ground, and here a scene presented itself to my mind not only novel and unaccountable, but awful beyond description. A vast crowd, supposed by some to have amounted to twenty-five thousand, was collected together. 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 – the Rev. William Burke, now of Cincinnati – 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 tumultuously, 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. I became so weak and powerless that I found it necessary to sit down. Soon after I left and went into the woods and there I strove to rally and man up my courage. I tried to philosophize in regard to these wonderful exhibitions, resolving them into mere sympathetic excitement – a kind of religious enthusiasm, inspired by songs and eloquent harangues. My pride was wounded, for I had supposed that my mental and physical strength and vigor could most successfully resist these influences. 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 then 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. My hair rose up on my head, my whole frame trembled, the blood ran cold in my veins, and I fled for the woods a second time, and wished I had stayed at home. While I remained here my feelings became intense and insupportable. A sense of suffocation and blindness seemed to come over me, and I thought I was going to die. There being a tavern about half mile off, I concluded to go and get some brandy, and see if it would not strengthen my nerves. When I arrived there I was disgusted with the sight that met my eyes. Here I saw about one hundred men engaged in drunken revelry, playing cards, trading horses, quarreling, and fighting. After some time I got to the bar, and took a dram and left, feeling that I was as near hell as I wished to be, either in this or the world to come. The brandy had no effect in allaying my feelings, but, if anything, made me worse. Night at length came on, and I was afraid to see any of my companions. I cautiously avoided them, fearing lest they should discover something the matter with me. In this state I wandered about from place to place, in and around the encampment. At times it seemed as if all the sins I had ever committed in my life were vividly brought up in array before my terrified imagination, and under their awful pressure I felt that I must die if I did not get relief. Then it was that I saw clearly through the thin veil of Universalism, and this refuge of lies was swept away by the Spirit of God. Then fell the scales from my sin-blinded eyes, and I realized, in all its force and power, the awful truth, that if I died in my sins I was a lost man forever. Oh how I dreaded the death of the soul; for 

“There is a death whose pang
Outlasts the fleeting breath:
Oh what eternal horrors hang
Around the second death”

Notwithstanding all this, my heart was so proud and hard that I would not have fallen to the ground for the whole state of Kentucky. I felt that such an event would have been an everlasting disgrace, and put a final quietus on my boasted manhood and courage. At night I went to a barn in the neighborhood, and creeping under the hay, spent a most dismal night. I resolved, in the morning, to start for home, for I felt that I was a ruined man. Finding one of the friends who came over with me, I said, “Captain, let us be off; I will stay no longer.” He assented, and getting our horses we started for home. We said but little on the way, though many a deep, long-drawn sigh told the emotions of my heart. When we arrived at the Blue Lick Knobs, I broke the silence which reigned mutually between us. Like long-pent-up waters, seeking for an avenue in the rock, the fountains of my soul were broken up, and I exclaimed, “Captain, if you and I don’t stop our wickedness the devil will get us both.” Then came from my streaming eyes the bitter tears, and I could scarcely refrain from screaming aloud. This startled and alarmed my companion, and he commenced weeping too. Night approaching, we put up near Mayslick, the whole of which was spent by me in weeping and promising God, if he would spare me till morning I would pray and try to mend my life and abandon my wicked courses. As soon as day broke I went to the woods to pray, and no sooner had my knees touched the ground than I cried aloud for mercy and salvation, and fell prostrate. My cries wore so loud that they attracted the attention of the neighbors, many of whom gathered around me. Among the number was a German from Switzerland, who had experienced religion. He, understanding fully my condition, had me carried to his house and laid on a bed. The old Dutch saint directed me to look right away to the Savior. He then kneeled at the bedside and prayed for my salvation most fervently, in Dutch and broken English. He then rose and sung in the same manner, and continued singing and praying alternately till nine o’clock, when suddenly my load was gone, my guilt removed, and presently the direct witness from heaven shone full upon my soul. Then there flowed such copious streams of love into the hitherto waste and desolate places in my soul, that I thought I should die with excess of joy. I cried, I laughed, I shouted, and so strangely did I appear to all but my Dutch brother, that they thought me deranged.

Some of the unusual exhibitions of these meetings drew criticism by other Christians. Not everyone believed that these strange phenomena of people falling to the ground and such were the work of God. Critics labeled them excessive emotionalism, but the fruit of these meetings was abundant. Lives were changed, churches were started, and the good news and works of Christ went forward in the uncharted territory of the new United States. 

Back in New England, there was a lull in Christianity. Places like Yale University had become a graveyard of past Christian stalwarts. These institutions lost their moorings and strayed from their origins to train young men for Christian ministry. Revival came to Yale through the presidency of Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards who was a prominent leader of the First Great Awakening. 

Lyman Beecher, a student at Yale at the time, described the failing spiritual condition of Yale when Dwight took the presidency in 1795. 

The college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and liquors were kept in many rooms; intemperance, profanity, gambling and licentiousness were common. That was the day of the infidelity of the Tom Paine school. Boys that dressed flax in the barn read Tom Paine and believed him … [M]ost of the class before me were infidels and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, D’Alembert, etc.

Under Timothy Dwight’s preaching and leadership, the Holy Spirit began to awaken and revive the campus. Dwight wrote about the dramatic changes:

Such triumphs of grace, none whose privilege it was to witness them, had ever before seen. So sudden and so great was the change in individuals, and in the general aspect of the college, that those who had been waiting for it were filled with wonder as well as joy. And those who knew not what it meant were awe-struck and amazed. Wherever students were found in their rooms, in the chapel, in the hall, in the college-yard, in their walks about the city, the reigning impression was, “Surely God is in this place.” The salvation of the soul was the great subject of thought, of conversation, of absorbing interest; the convictions of many were pungent and overwhelming; the “peace in believing” which succeeded, was not less strongly marked.

Similar stories could be told from Princeton University, Williams College, and other colleges. Revivals and awakenings were shaking the east coast. 

Starting In New York, Charles Finney began leading revivals with great success. Certain western areas of the state were termed “burned over districts” because of how many meetings Finney had led there. 

Charles Finney ended up as the most prominent leader of the Second Great Awakening. But not all were supportive of Finney. The revivalist previously worked in law but was dramatically converted and became a Presbyterian minister. Finney developed innovative ways to lead revivals and taught other ministers how to bring about revival, but many Christian ministers then and now disapprove of Finney’s “new measures.” 

What was the social impact of the Second Great Awakening?

Revival and awakening is primarily a spiritual or religious matter, at least that where the movement begins. But there are social implications of the gospel and the new converts and renewed believers of the Second Great Awakening put their faith to action. 

Abolition of slaves, education, healthcare, and worldwide missions came forth with great force as a result of the Second Great Awakening. For example, a group of students from Dwight’s Yale University, later called “The Yale Band,” headed west to evangelize the Midwest but also with the stated purpose of starting colleges and sounding the trumpet call for abolishing slavery. They worked strategically in Illinois along the Underground Railroad to help African-Americans in Missouri to take hold of their God-given freedom. They started colleges like Illinois College and Grinnell College (IA) for training settlers for ministry and higher education. 

Organizations were formed to reach more people with the love and truth of the gospel message. Social services grew out of the awakening as care was directed towards the fringes of society, to those imprisoned, handicapped or mentally ill. Home and foreign missionary societies were created to ensure that the message of Christ would continue to spread far and wide. These evangelistic endeavors have had an untold impact on the whole world as Christianity has increased more around the world in the last 100 years than in the previous 1900 years. 

How should we evaluate the Second Great Awakening?

There will always be good and bad that come from any place and time in history. The Second Great Awakening is no different. Jesus told His disciples that the kingdom of God was like a field that contains both wheat and weeds. The master of the field sowed good seed but his enemy sowed weeds. Both the wheat and weeds will remain until Jesus comes at the end of the age (Matthew 13:24-30). Whatever weeds Satan may have sown in America from 1790-1840 may be with us today, but the wheat that grew during those five decades produced an abundant crop that may never be surpassed in all of American history.

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  • Donna Hazelton
    commented 2020-08-28 17:13:42 -0400
    Very interesting!

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