The Second Great Awakening

Summary and Key Details

Peter Cartwright and his wife Francis Gaines
The "Backwoods Preacher" Peter Cartwright and his wife.

Ken Welsh / Getty Images

The Second Great Awakening (1790–1840) was a time of evangelical fervor and revival in the newly formed nation of America. The British colonies were settled by many individuals who were looking for a place to worship their Christian religion free from persecution. As such, America arose as a religious nation as observed by Alexis de Tocqueville and others. Part and parcel with these strong beliefs came a fear of secularism.

Key Takeaways: The Second Great Awakening

  • The Second Great Awakening took place in the new United States between 1790 and 1840.
  • It pushed the idea of individual salvation and free will over predestination.
  • It greatly increased the number of Christians both in New England and on the frontier. 
  • Revivals and public conversions became social events that continue to this day. 
  • The African Methodist Church was founded in Philadelphia.
  • Mormonism was founded and led to the faith's settlement in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This fear of secularism had arisen during the Enlightenment, which resulted in the First Great Awakening (1720–1745). The ideas of social equality that came about with the advent of the new nation trickled down to religion, and the movement to be known as the Second Great Awakening began about 1790. Specifically, Methodists and Baptists began an effort to democratize religion. Unlike the Episcopalian religion, ministers in these sects were typically uneducated. Unlike the Calvinists, they believed and preached in salvation for all.

What Was the Great Revival?

At the beginning of the Second Great Awakening, preachers brought their message to the people with great fanfare and excitement in the form of a traveling revival. The earliest of the tent revivals focused on the Appalachian frontier, but they quickly moved into the area of the original colonies. These revivals were social events where faith was renewed.

The Baptists and Methodists often worked together in these revivals. Both religions believed in free will with personal redemption. The Baptists were highly decentralized with no hierarchical structure in place and preachers lived and worked among their congregation. The Methodists, on the other hand, had more of an internal structure in place. Individual preachers like the Methodist bishop Francis Asbury (1745–1816) and the "Backwoods Preacher" Peter Cartwright (1785–1872) would travel the frontier on horseback converting people to the Methodist faith. They were quite successful and by the 1840s the Methodists were the largest Protestant group in America.

Revival meetings were not restricted to the frontier or to white people. In many areas, particularly the south, Black people held separate revivals at the same time with the two groups joining together on the last day. "Black Harry" Hosier (1750–1906), the first African American Methodist preacher and a fabled orator despite being illiterate, was a crossover success in both Black and white revivals. His efforts and those of the ordained minister Richard Allen (1760–1831) led to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1794.

The revival meetings were not small affairs. Thousands would meet in camp meetings, and many times the event turned quite chaotic with impromptu singing or shouting, individuals speaking in tongues, and dancing in the aisles.

What Is a Burned-Over District?

The height of the Second Great Awakening came in the 1830s. There was a great increase in churches across the nation, particularly across New England. So much excitement and intensity accompanied evangelical revivals that in upper New York and Canada, areas were titled "Burned-Over Districts"—where spiritual fervor was so high it seemed to set the places on fire.

The most significant revivalist in this area was the Presbyterian minister Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) who was ordained in 1823. One key change he made was in promoting mass conversions during revival meetings. No longer were individuals converting alone. Instead, they were joined by neighbors, converting en masse. In 1839, Finney preached in Rochester and made an estimated 100,000 converts.

When Did Mormonism Arise?

One significant byproduct of the revival furor in the Burned-Over Districts was the founding of Mormonism. Joseph Smith (1805–1844) lived in upstate New York when he received visions in 1820. A few years later, he reported the discovery of the Book of Mormon, which he said was a lost section of the Bible. He soon founded his own church and began converting people to his faith. Soon persecuted for their beliefs, the group left New York moving first to Ohio, then Missouri, and finally Nauvoo, Illinois, where they lived for five years. At that time, an anti-Mormon lynch mob found and killed Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith (1800–1844). Brigham Young (1801–1877) arose as Smith's successor and led the Mormons away to Utah, where they settled in Salt Lake City.

Sources and Further Reading

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Kelly, Martin. "The Second Great Awakening." ThoughtCo, Apr. 25, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, April 25). The Second Great Awakening. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The Second Great Awakening." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).