After 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.
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.