The Second Great Awakening laid the foundations of the development of present-day religious beliefs and establishments, moral views, and democratic ideals in the United States. Beginning back in late eighteenth century and lasting until the middle of the nineteenth century,1 this Protestant awakening sought to reach out the un-churched and bring people to a much more personal and vivid experience of Christianity. Starting on the Southern frontier and soon spreading to the Northeast, the Second Great Awakening has also been associated as a response against the growing liberalism in religion – skepticism, deism, and rational Christianity.
2 Although the movement is well-known to be just a period of religious revival, its tremendous effects still influence the nation even up to now. The lasting impacts of the revolution include the shift of the dominating Christian theology from predestination to salvation for all, the emergence and growth of religious factions, the escalation of involvement in secular affairs, and the shaping of the country into a more egalitarian society. These footprints left by the Second Great Awakening helped mold America into what it is today. Contrary to the popular belief of predestination during the First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening emphasized salvation for all, which eventually replaced the former as the dominating Christian theology in America even up to now.
3 During the American Revolution, the largest church denominations were the Quakers, the Congregationalists, and the Anglicans. These earlier denominations believed in a Calvinist theology called predestination. In basic terms, predestination exemplifies that God already predetermined from the beginning of time those who are saved from hell and those who are not. However, this doctrine did not match the Revolutionary spirit of national and personal accomplishment. Thus, when the Second Great Awakening extended throughout the country, most post-war Americans abandoned strict notions of Calvinism and shifted to the Arminian theology of universal salvation through personal faith and devotional service.
Instead of being predestined to either heaven or hell, this doctrine states that salvation can be acquired through faith by anyone; people have the choice to either accept or reject God’s salvation.4 While traditional Calvinism had taught election into heaven depending solely on the will of God, evangelical Protestants preached that the rebirth and redemption of the soul rests on one’s inner faith.5 In addition, the Arminian theology also taught the need to improve the world around us as a preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. By sharing these concepts, religious reformers attracted just about everyone, mostly those in need of deliverance and economic activists.
Churches that adopted this theology, such as Baptists and Methodists, surpassed the previous leading church factions. As of today, both are still the chief Protestant denominations in the United States.6 The spread of revivalism in the period of the Second Great Awakening led to the fueling growth of Christian denominations in America. Today, as the largest religion, not only in the United States but in the whole world, Christianity holds a great number of church denominations.
7 Many of these denominations either experienced a significant boom of membership or trace their roots back in this era of renewal. As the movement swept through southern Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, congregations who garnered these numerous converts were the Methodist and Baptist. Both denominations were based on an elucidation of man’s spiritual equality before God, which aided their goal to acquire more members and preachers from a varied range of classes and races.
Also, since the south, at that time, had a predominantly rural economy and poorly developed infrastructures and establishments, religious organizations functioned as a physical symbol of relief providing social stability for the populace.8 Camp meetings and missionary preachers were also primary reasons for the growth in the membership of both factions.9 With the idea of free will becoming prevalent, new denominations were produced by the movement. Two of these denominations were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the African Methodist Episcopal. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – commonly known as Mormons was founded by Joseph Smith; he was inspired to create a new church faction by the revivals he experienced in the western area of New York called the “Burned Over District-” implying it had been “scorched” by so many revivals.
Although not regarded as a splinter off from an existing Protestant denomination but a restoration of primitive Christianity having distinctive post-biblical doctrines, the Mormon Church is now a flourishing, worldwide denomination. On the other hand, during the revivals, Baptists and Methodists converted large numbers of blacks. However, because of the mistreatment they received from their fellow believers, under the leadership of Richard Allen, the black population broke away from the Methodist church while creating their own denomination; the African Methodist Episcopal.10 Both churches mentioned above, having developed and sprouted out other denominations over the years, still stand even today. While new religious ideas fanned out and denominations proliferated, social activism, in response, also began to escalate.
The Second Great Awakening stirred the initiation of many reform movements in belief to cure the ills and defects of the civilization before the anticipated Second Coming of Jesus Christ.11 Charles Finney, one of the most prominent figure in the awakening, exhorted people to choose God, turn away from their sin and repent, and then work to make the world around them a little better. He inspired American Christians to open their eyes to the problems of the world. With the encouragements of revivalists such as Finney, social reforms started taking action. Advocates of the temperance movement, mostly women, condemned various effects of the role of alcohol in public life.12 A revivalist named Lyman Beecher preached people to voluntarily discontinue drinking alcohol saying it could easily cause people to sin.
Another secular issue tackled by the movement was slavery. Charles Finney proved to be not only an inspirational revivalist but also a devoted abolitionist; he encouraged Christians to view slavery as a moral issue rather than a political or economic one. It took several years, but the abolitionists’ effort to end slavery in America paid off13 – as shown by the 13th Amendment.14 Other reformers pursued the improvement of conditions in cities, prisons, and asylums. They aimed at helping deprived people to concentrate on their own spiritual situation, rather than just their living conditions. The moral idea of improving the world around us are still followed by Americans, Christian or non-Christian, who still send out missionaries and donate more time and money to charitable works around the world.
Social reforms in the Second Great Awakening became the platform for the rise of egalitarian rights in the society. For centuries, America embodied an unofficial hierarchy in which blacks, women, and children were degraded while white, male adults with property reigned. However, this idea began to crumble down as social activism increased. With the victory of the abolitionist movement, which was greatly strengthened by the movement, slavery was abolished; thus, opening the door to the equality of races.
And as women became more involved in charitable affairs, advocating the temperance movement and supporting abolitionists, the women’s rights reform with a purpose to make women equal to men in the eyes of society and the law was established; soon, they began advocating for their own right to vote. Educational reforms also rose up, resolved to make elementary school education mandatory and free of cost in order to guarantee the broadening of educated citizens in the nation.
15 These reforms, as evident in today’s society, were successful in preparing the step for the institution of equality in the United States irrespective of race, gender, or religion. Now the United States has become a place where everybody is equal in front of the law and for the most part in the eyes of society. Overall, the events driven by the Second Great Awakening steered the defining characteristics of the United States into a different direction.
With the predominant theology of free will, the growth of diversified religious factions, the entwining of Christian values with civic values and involvement in worldly problems, and expanding of democratic ideals – America has developed into the country it is right now. Although the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening has already cooled down, its legacy remains permanent.