Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: The Second Great Awakening, Part 1

passioncartoonAfter the American Revolution, morals and religion were in severe decline. War with England destroyed the allegiance of many Americans to the Church of England, headed by the King of England. And war brought with it immorality.

The French Revolution came shortly afterwards, and many Americans were great sympathizers with the French, as they’d supported the Colonies during the war. The French Revolution, like the American Revolution, overthrew a monarchy, but unlike the American Revolution, it also overthrew the church, leading to a period of atheism.

The Revolutionary War won the Colonies rights to British land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, and westward expansion took off, with the settlers spreading much faster than the established churches would keep up.

Of course, the war destroyed farms and houses, cost fortunes and lives, and caused many Colonialists to flee to Canada or England. The disruption was not good for Christianity.

But this all changed due to the revival preaching of many effective preachers, the most influential being Charles Finney. Finney was a Presbyterian but rejected most of the points of Calvinism. He insisted on the ability of anyone to be saved by faith, and saw works as the product of a genuine faith. And he was a remarkably effective preacher and evangelist, traveling across the country and converting many thousands.

Finney’s style became known as Frontier Revivalism, which included “coming forward,” the anxious bench, and a worship service pointed toward a sermon followed by an invitation. Indeed, the idea that “the invitation” should be extended during a worship service can’t be traced back much earlier than Finney.

As one historian explains,

The Cane Ridge Revival became the most famous, and was led by Barton Stone who latter founded the Christian Church. This meeting was a vast gathering (10-25,000). In order to appreciate how big this gathering must have seemed, one need only note that the largest town in the state–Lexington–numbered 1,795 persons. These large gatherings gave neighbors an opportunity to speak and share one another’s company. The represented a break from the isolation of frontier life. And it is said that as many souls were born as were saved as a result of some of these gatherings.

Because they were dealing with a moving, floating population, the preachers at these Camp Meetings–as they came to be called–had to press for an immediate decision. This led them to emphasize and play to the emotions: compressing what Winthrop Hudson refers to as the cycle of guilt, despair, hope, and assurance into a few days or hours. The resulting conversion would occur in an outburst of shouting, weeping, falling, running, jumping, jerking, and barking.

These emotional aspects of the Second Awakening disturbed Presbyterians as they had earlier in the first Great Awakening. A God of order would not countenance such confusion they argued. A split ensued that led Barton Stone to leave the denomination and found his own non-denominational denomination: the Church of Christ. Methodists and Baptists on the other hand took advantage of the converts produced by the revivals. Methodists and Baptists grew exponentially, gaining 10,000 converts each in Kentucky in a 3 year period while Presbyterians declined in numbers because of the splits brought about by the revival.

As was typical of the age, Finney saw the nationwide revival he was helping to lead as an opportunity to do social justice. He preached against slavery and encouraged the formation of “societies” to support missions, publish Bibles, and care for the mentally ill. In fact, the Second Great Awakening led to the Abolition Movement, the Temperance Movement, and others.

The impact of the Second Great Awakening was not limited to a realignment among the denominations. Among its other consequences were:

1) An incipient ecumenicity. At the camp meetings 8-10 ministers of different denominations would position themselves around the grounds. Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist preachers would be present and preach at the same time at the same camp meeting. But what became noteworthy was the fact that whatever the preacher’s denomination, there was a common response to the preaching whatever its stripe. The falling, jerking, rolling, barking, and laughing were not the province of any one denomination. In addition, the revival meetings would last all day and night, and would be accompanied by an ecumenical service at end in which there would be communion. In such situations, there was no way to police the table to insure proper church order, or to enforce denominational restrictions on who could and could not commune. The authorization to come to the table was not given by the clergy or the denomination, but by the inner heart of the individual. Just as survival on the frontier was largely result of the individual’s own efforts, so too people came to see salvation in the same light. This attitude would serve to place severe limits on the authority of the clergy in subsequent years.

2) The Circuit Rider came into its own as an institution of the American frontier. These men rarely lived to reach middle age. Francis Asbury was the exception. Most died very young and were encouraged not to marry. While the personal price was high, this strategy of intinerating ministers allowed Methodists to direct resources to where settlements were occurring. This afforded a rapid response to population changes, permitting the Methodists to gather persons into a church, and move on. When the circuit rider would revisit–which he did with regularity–he would preach, as well as conduct weddings (couples who wished to marry would often set up housekeeping together and wait for the circuit rider before solemnizing their union.)

A parallel development among Baptists was the ease with which a group of people could gather and call an articulate brother to serve as pastor. This person would farm during week, and preach on weekends. What these men lacked in education, they made up in sincerity and earnestness, and closeness to his flock.

3) Music and hymns came to be way congregation learned theology. In an environment where there were no opportunities for education, few books, and most did not know how to read, songs could be easily memorized. This was done through “lining” in which someone who could read would line out the song for the other congregants, who would then repeat it. Hymnody gave people a sense of theology in which Divine Providence looks after and cares for human kind. They also reflected the rising anthropology of the frontier. Where people once sang “Devote your sacred head for such a worm as I,” the lyrics evolved to “Devote your sacred head for a wretch such as I,” to “Devote your sacred head for one such as I.” With each change, man’s status gets better.

4) Theology became indistinguishable from ethics. Simply put, a saved person was expected to behave in certain ways.

5) The idea of Disinterested Benevolence began to take root. Sin comes to be equated with selfishness. With conversion, one shifts from focusing on one’s self to a disinterested benevolence towards others. Faith is to be expressed in action, and a growing stress on perfectionism comes to mark the preaching of the Second Great Awakening. Again, the Revival is seen in terms of the end of time. God is remaking society in anticipation of the coming Kingdom. As a result, voluntary organizations form to bring about the necessary reform, among them being the American Bible Society, the American Colonization Society, and the American Anti-Slavery society. This is a period when countless numbers of educational institutions are established (including Wake Forest) and overseas missions are launched. The goal is to purify American society and make it ready for the coming Kingdom.

(6) The Second Awakening helped advance the liberation of women. The various societies that developed to purify society offered women entry into a new kind of life. These became the first institutions where women could make a contribution, and begin to take on leadership roles.

(7) Where the First Great Awakening had been a spontaneous outpouring, the Second quickly became one that was promoted and organized. Techniques that were successful in gaining new converts–such as the Camp Meeting or calling sinners in the congregation by their name–were were quickly copied.

(8) Temperance has its roots in this period. The number of Temperance societies formed was significant. One of the things that was happening with temperance movement, however, was that religion was being externalized. One really can’t observe a person’s faith. And yet here, religion is very public. The person who is saved is one who gives to missions, doesn’t drink, and goes to church.

(9) The West came to be seen as the natural setting for the coming of the Kingdom. Indeed, American mythology looks to the future, rather than to a classical golden age. New England had proven not to be the expected Eden. Serpents had cropped up in the form of Unitarians, etc. In the South, the problem of slavery had developed. Perhaps in the West, the hope and promise of the New World could be realized.

(10) The emerging dominance of evangelical religion means that increasingly to be an American is to be a Christian.

(11) A growing anti-slavery movement emerges even in South. From 1808-1831, the South is the nation’s leader in Anti-Slavery societies. There are Anti-Slavery societies in Kentucky by 1808, in Tennessee by 1815, and in N.C. by 1816. By 1826, there are 45 societies in the South, and the region also led the nation in the number of anti-slavery newspapers.

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  1. Finney was an interesting guy. His tactics "worked" in that they influenced many to go forward and make a commitment to Christianity. The other side of the coin is that some think his "conversions" were more a result of his play on the emotions that the Spirit of God working in the lives of people. It has been likend to our singing the last verse of the invitation song a few more times. but on steroids.

    Thanks for doing this series on history. Even covering it briefly is good for those that don't much care for the study of history.

  2. Your comment that the GA rose from the spiritual vacujum created by the war is interesting. I would note that, in spite of the hand-wringing over the moral decline of America we are tempted to engage in, that God seems to do his best work in cultures that display the most animosity toward things of God. For example, it was into a world far more corrupt and decadent that Jesus came, and he turned the world upside down. After Chairman Mao began his persecution of Christians in China, the church grew from two million to over eighty million. Look at how Churches of Christ alone are growing on the contient of Africa.

    So the point is that we may be perched on the ledge of another Great Awakening in our country. That's why I like your call to greater unity. Only people who are rallied around the foot of the cross can be prepared to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

    Thanks!