Religion has always been important in American society. During the colonial era, the Thirteen Colonies were often a refuge for Protestants fleeing persecution in Europe. Beginning with the Pilgrims, different denominations sought the religious freedom offered by America. In the 1830s and 1840s, a new wave of religiosity swept through the United States, promoting social reforms. For the first time, women and enslaved people were allowed to participate actively in religious services. The Second Great Awakening is credited with strengthening the temperance movement to reduce the consumption of alcohol and the abolition movement to ban slavery. Thus, this religious movement could be credited with setting in motion the movement toward America’s ultimate reckoning over slavery, which culminated in the US Civil War (1861-65).
Setting the Stage: The Pilgrims & the Puritans
One reason many Europeans came to the British colonies in North America during the late 1600s and early 1700s was religious freedom. Exiled from England for refusing to worship with the Church of England, the Pilgrims famously came to the Plymouth Colony in the early 1600s and are known for the first Thanksgiving celebration. Dissatisfaction with the Church of England created two groups: Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England of allegedly improper beliefs and practices, while Separatists wanted to develop their own religious beliefs entirely. These Separatists became the Pilgrims, and many Puritans also quickly settled in the British colonies.
A decade after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in present-day Massachusetts, the Puritans arrived nearby and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans were religious conservatives who felt that the Church of England was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church–from which it had split in the 1530s–and had strayed from the original teachings in the Bible. Puritans were known for their strict adherence to devoutness and insisted that members be “visibly godly,” which included sobriety.
Setting the Stage: The First Great Awakening
During the mid-1700s, a wave of religious fervor swept the Thirteen Colonies after beginning in Europe among various Protestant denominations. This First Great Awakening was a reaction against the new movement of Rationalism, commonly known as The Enlightenment. Critics feared that the growing popularity of studying science and history to seek answers to modern dilemmas threatened the focus on religion. To attract more people to religion, formal modes of traditional worship were challenged by evangelism in the Colonies. Skilled orators traveled from town to town and attracted crowds of worshippers, such as George Whitefield.
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The evolution from rigid, formal worship to free-flowing evangelical revivals during the mid-1700s resulted in the creation of new Protestant denominations in the Colonies, including Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Eventually, however, there was a backlash against the loud, extemporaneous revivals, and denominations had largely become permanent and formalized by the 1770s and the beginning of the American Revolution. There was also public discomfort with women and African Americans participating in religious revivals. “Calmer” denominations like Anglicans and Quakers picked up new members in the 1770s as some colonists turned away from the “excessive” revivals.
1820s: Emergence of the Second Great Awakening
The beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s coincided with an increase in secularism, or focus on the contemporary world and science, and a decrease in religiosity. To re-engage worshippers and attract new members, Protestant denominations again began to hold active, energetic revivals. In the early 1820s, popular preacher Charles Finney began to hold revivals in western New York in an area known as the Burned-Over District. This area, so named due to its being “burned over” for hosting so many revivals so quickly, was the birth site of new religious movements, including the Mormon church.
This new wave of revivals in the early 1800s contrasted with the First Great Awakening by focusing on the good works men and women could do to strengthen their relationship with God. While the First Great Awakening focused on existing members of churches, the Second Great Awakening tried to attract new members and focused on the positive choices people could make. The view that men and women could bring about their own religious salvation was relatively new, as Protestantism up through the First Great Awakening focused on predestination or the belief that God’s will had already determined one’s fate. A focus on improving one’s conduct led to the creation of voluntary organizations to seek reforms in society and aid those who were struggling.
1830s: Expansion of Ideas
The Second Great Awakening expanded as the revivals also became important social events, drawing in hundreds, or even thousands, of attendees. These revivals also had a populist spirit that praised the commoner instead of the elites, which fit with the political spirit of the times as well under Democratic president Andrew Jackson. Thus, the Second Great Awakening and Jacksonian Democracy can be seen as complementary. The 1830s saw the last of the states end formal support for churches and denominations, entrenching the separation of church and state and emphasizing religious freedom.
Increased immigration to the United States from Ireland and Germany, bringing in many Roman Catholics and Lutherans, may have intensified the Second Great Awakening by leading Protestants to want to differentiate their religious views from the influx of Catholics. Additionally, the growing number of Protestant denominations likely increased religious fervor as each denomination sought to create their own unique brand of religiosity. Finally, industrialism in the Northeast was bringing about physical and social changes that contributed to anxieties about a changing world. Faced with the uncertainties of America’s industrialization and westward expansion, many sought solace in religion.
The Role of Women
In the early 1800s, women were enjoying more rights than they had in the previous century, although far fewer rights than men. The Second Great Awakening saw women actively work as preachers for the first time, with famed preacher Harriet Livermore even preaching before Congress four times during the era. Part of the increased role of women in Protestant denominations in the 1820s and 1830s came from necessity: rapid growth in congregations required women to help tend the flock along with male preachers. The new religious focus on self-determination and self-governance, as opposed to predestination, also gave women more freedom. If anyone could claim their own salvation through good works, that must include women as well as men.
The populist spirit of religion in the early 1800s also favored more rights for women, who had previously been denied active roles in denominations. In fact, more women than men joined new churches during the 1820s and 1830s. Many women saw religiosity as a way to escape the boredom and isolation of domesticity, especially in areas where industrialization had replaced agriculture. Women who were not needed to help with farm labor were often relegated to household chores (the “women’s sphere”), which could increase social isolation.
Slavery in the Second Great Awakening
Charles Finney, a model for the Second Great Awakening preacher, was opposed to slavery. The Second Great Awakening also saw more African Americans convert to Christianity, as some slaveowners even saw it as their “moral duty” to teach enslaved people about the Bible. This created a dichotomy, as both supporters and opponents of slavery used the Bible to argue their case. Many revivalists opposed slavery on the grounds that the Bible preached equality and mercy, while conservatives argued that Bible justified slavery by pointing to various individual passages that seemed to condone the practice. Some enslavers argued that they were good Christians by “civilizing” enslaved people.
Many African Americans accepted Christianity during the Second Great Awakening because the energetic and vocal nature of revivals and evangelicalism fit more closely with African traditions than more reserved religious practices. As slavery became more entrenched in the South as necessary for its agrarian economy, more Protestant preachers came to accept and even defend slavery. This led to the widespread argument in decades leading up to the US Civil War (1861-65) that slavery was necessary to protect and guide African Americans, who could not be trusted to govern themselves. Unfortunately, this argument fell in line with the widespread treatment of women as subordinate in Christianity, depriving northern Protestants of an argument that the unequal treatment of some Christians was plainly wrong.
Results of the Second Great Awakening: The Temperance Movement
The inclusion of women in the Second Great Awakening resulted in a strengthening temperance movement that tried to reduce consumption of alcohol. At the time, per capita, alcohol consumption was roughly seven gallons per year – much higher than today! Drunkenness was considered a threat to women and families, and thus the temperance movement was seen as a religious crusade against the “demon” of drunken physical abuse. There had been temperance movements before, but the Second Great Awakening intensified the latest attempts to advocate total abstinence from alcohol consumption.
Because the Second Great Awakening focused heavily on voluntary actions to seek salvation, the growing temperance movement of the day featured voluntary temperance pledges that individuals could sign to show their intentions. In 1826, the American Temperance Society was founded, and within a decade, one in ten Americans was a member. This temperance movement continued to expand even after the Second Great Awakening, with Catholic groups taking up temperance during the 1840s and 1850s in urban areas.
Results of the Second Great Awakening: Abolitionism
In the 1820s, the abolitionist movement rapidly expanded with a bold proclamation by Englishwoman Elizabeth Coltman Heyrick, who said that slavery should be ended immediately and without guaranteed compensation for enslavers. During the 1830s, this new boldness in abolitionism spread to the United States and increased the anti-slavery movement from primarily free Blacks to white citizens as well. The American Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1833, sponsored by religious Quakers. Churchgoers in the North formed the majority of abolitionists during the Second Great Awakening era, motivated by religious teachings about equality. Renowned preacher Charles Finney became an abolitionist leader in 1835 at the newly-founded Oberlin College in Ohio.
Religious fervor helped motivate abolitionists to increase their activities during the 1830s, especially with mail campaigns to urge an end to slavery. Although the mailed materials did little to convince Southerners of the wrongs of slavery, they allegedly helped influence public opinion against slavery among Northerners. Although the religious pursuit of abolition of slavery did not secure any legal victories, it helped establish the foundation for political campaigns against slavery. Even after the Second Great Awakening waned, the abolitionist movement remained strong during the 1850s.
The End of the Second Great Awakening
The deep entrenchment of slavery in the South led to the division of religious sects during the 1830s and 1840s. In 1845, the Southern Baptist denomination was created, splitting over the issue of slavery. Similar splits occurred among both Methodists and Presbyterians. Splits over slavery largely dissolved the unified movement of revivalism that had intensified religiosity in America during the previous decade. In the modern era, the Southern Baptist denomination has confronted its controversial origins and acknowledged its dark nature.
One large group of evangelicals, the Millerites, reached up to a million Americans during the early 1840s with their religious revivals. William Miller, their leader, predicted that the second coming of Christ would occur in 1843, with the worthy ascending into Heaven the following year. Unfortunately for the Millerites, Miller’s predictions did not come to pass, and the movement collapsed. When the second coming did not occur in 1843, religious fervor across the nation began to wane.
A Legacy of Religious Conservatism
Although evangelicalism waned during the 1840s, it would return again periodically. One such era was the 1950s, with many Americans seeking religion to insulate against rapid societal changes like the Cold War, consumerism, and the birth of the Civil Rights movement. Modern technology like radio and television allowed preachers to reach millions of viewers. The most famous evangelical leader to emerge during the 1950s was Reverend Billy Graham, who developed a powerful following among Southern Baptists.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a backlash against the Civil Rights and Hippie movements of the 1960s led to the rise of the New Right. This movement included conservative evangelicals who promoted traditional family values to counter what they saw as the harmful rise of feminism, affirmative action, and tolerance of the LGBTQ community. Conservative Protestant leaders like Pat Robertson became televangelists who reached large audiences on cable TV. During the era of President Ronald Reagan, the evangelical movement became a powerful political force, often influencing the Republican Party as a whole.