The Second Great Awakening

Summary and Key Details

Charles Grandison Finney, Preacher During the Second Great Awakening
Charles Grandison Finney, preacher during the Second Great Awakening.

Public Domain/Christian History vol. VII, n. 4, issue 20

The Second Great Awakening 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. 

This fear had arisen during the Enlightenment which resulted in the First Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening arose in 1800. The idea of social equality that came about with the advent of the new nation trickled down to religion. 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? 

In 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. In the beginning, these focused on the Appalachian frontier. However, they quickly moved into the area of the original colonies. These revivals were looked upon as a social event 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. Preachers lived and worked amongst their congregation. The Methodists, on the other hand, had more of an internal structure in place. Individual preachers like Francis Asbury and Peter Cartwright would travel the frontier converting people to the Methodist faith. They were quite successful and by the 1840s were the largest Protestant group in America. 

Revival meetings were not restricted to the frontier. In many areas, blacks were invited to hold a revival at the same time with the two groups joining together on the last day. These 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 of 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." 

The most significant revivalist in this area was Charles Grandison Finney who was ordained in 1823. In 1839, Finney was preaching in Rochester resulting in approximately 100,000 converts. 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. 

When Did Mormonism Arise? 

One significant by-product of the revival furor in the Burned-Over Districts was the founding of Mormonism. Joseph Smith lived in upstate New York when he received visions in 1820. A few years later, he found 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, they 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. Brigham Young arose as Smith's successor and led the Mormons away to Utah where they settled at Salt Lake City.

What is the Significance of the Second Great Awakening? 

Following are significant facts to remember about the Second Great Awakening:

  • 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. 
  • Mormonism was founded and led to their settlement in Salt Lake City, Utah.