In the early nineteenth century, a succession of religious revivals collectively known as the Second Great Awakening remade the nation’s religious landscape. Revivalist preachers traveled on horseback, sharing the message of spiritual and moral renewal to as many as possible. Residents of urban centers, rural farmlands, and frontier territories alike flocked to religious revivals and camp meetings, where intense physical and emotional enthusiasm accompanied evangelical conversion.
The Second Great Awakening emerged in response to powerful intellectual and social currents. Camp meetings captured the democratizing spirit of the American Revolution, but revivals also provided a unifying moral order and new sense of spiritual community for Americans struggling with the great changes of the day. The market revolution, western expansion, and European immigration all challenged traditional bonds of authority, and evangelicalism promised equal measures of excitement and order. Revivals spread like wildfire throughout the United States, swelling church membership, spawning new Christian denominations, and inspiring social reform.
One of the earliest and largest revivals of the Second Great Awakening occurred in Cane Ridge, Kentucky over a one-week period in August 1801. The Cane Ridge Revival drew thousands of people, and possibly as many as one of every ten residents of Kentucky. Though large crowds gathered annually in rural areas each late summer or fall to receive Communion, this assembly was very different. Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian preachers all delivered passionate sermons, exhorting the crowds to strive for their own salvation. They preached from inside buildings, evangelized outdoors under the open sky, and even used tree stumps as makeshift pulpits, all to reach their enthusiastic audiences in any way possible. Attendees, moved by the preachers’ fervor, responded by crying, jumping, speaking in tongues, or even fainting.
Historians have accounted for this enthusiastic embrace of revivalist religiosity in part by stressing the heritage of the American Revolution. Building on the ideals of the Revolution, the Bill of Rights codified the protection of religious freedom by forbidding the federal government to establish an official state church or to impede on the free exercise of religion. The so-called “Establishment Clause” and “Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment meant that citizens no longer needed to pay taxes to the Church of England and could worship in any tradition of their choosing. This federal protection of religious freedom paved the way for a proliferation of Protestant religious sects, each vying to meet the nation’s spiritual needs.
Events like the Cane Ridge Revival did spark significant changes in Americans’ religious affiliations. Many revivalists abandoned the comparatively formal style of worship observed in the well-established Congregationalist and Episcopalian churches, and instead embraced more impassioned forms of worship that included the spontaneous jumping, shouting, and gesturing found in new and alternative denominations. The ranks of Christian denominations such as the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians swelled precipitously, and entirely new religions such as the Mormon Church and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church also drew sizeable numbers during the Second Great Awakening. The evangelical fire reached such heights, in fact, that one swath of western and central New York state came to be known as the “Burned-Over District.” Charles Grandison Finney, the influential revivalist preacher who first coined the term, explained that the residents of this area had experienced so many revivals by different religious groups that that there were no more souls to awaken to the fire of spiritual conversion.
Within the “spiritual marketplace” created by religious disestablishment, Methodism achieved the most remarkable success. Methodism experienced the most significant denominational increase in American history and was by far the most popular American denomination by 1850. The Methodist denomination grew from fewer than one thousand members at the end of the eighteenth century to constitute thirty-four percent of all American church membership by the mid-nineteenth century. After its leaders broke with the Church of England to form a new, American denomination in 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) achieved its growth through innovation. Methodists used itinerant preachers, known as circuit riders. These men won converts by pushing west with the expanding United States over the Alleghenies and into the Ohio River Valley, bringing religion to new settlers hungry to have their spiritual needs attended. Circuit riding took preachers into homes, meetinghouses, and churches, all mapped out at regular intervals that collectively took about two weeks to complete.
Revolutionary ideals also informed a substantial theological critique of orthodox Calvinism that had far-reaching consequences for religious individuals and for society as a whole. Calvinism suddenly seemed too pessimistic for Americans. Worshippers increasingly began to take responsibility for their own spiritual fates by embracing theologies that emphasized human action in effecting salvation, and revivalist preachers were quick to recognize the importance of these cultural shifts. Some spiritual leaders, such as Lyman Beecher of the Congregational church, appealed to younger generations of Americans by adopting a less orthodox approach to Calvinist doctrine. More radical revivalist preachers, such as Charles Grandison Finney, put theological issues aside and evangelized by appealing to worshippers’ hearts and emotions. Though these men did not see eye to eye, they both contributed to the emerging consensus that all souls are equal in salvation and that all people can be saved by surrendering to God. This idea of spiritual egalitarianism was one of the most important transformations to emerge out of the Second Great Awakening.
Spiritual egalitarianism dovetailed neatly with an increasingly democratic United States. In the process of winning independence from Britain, the Revolution weakened the power of long-standing social hierarchies and the codes of conduct that went along with them. From the institutional side, its democratizing ethos opened the door for a more egalitarian approach to spiritual leadership. Whereas preachers of longstanding denominations like the Congregationalists were required to have a divinity degree and at least some theological training in order to become spiritual leaders, many alternative denominations only required a conversion experience a supernatural “call to preach.” This meant, for example, that a twenty-year-old man could go from working in a mill to being a full-time circuit-riding preacher for the Methodists practically overnight. Indeed, it was their emphasis on spiritual egalitarianism over formal training that enabled Methodists to outpace spiritual competition during this period. Methodists attracted more new preachers to send into the field, and the lack of formal training meant that individual preachers could be paid significantly less than a Congregationalist preacher with a divinity degree.
For individual worshippers, spiritual egalitarianism in revivals and camp meetings could break down traditional social conventions. For example, revivals generally admitted both men and women. Furthermore, in an era when many American Protestants discouraged or outright forbade women from speaking in church meetings, some preachers provided women with new opportunities to openly express themselves and participate in spiritual communities. Some preachers also promoted racial integration in religious gatherings, expressing equal concern for white and black people’s spiritual salvation and encouraging both slaveholders and the enslaved to attend the same meetings. Historians have even suggested that the extreme physical and vocal manifestations of conversion seen at impassioned revivals and camp meetings offered the ranks of worshippers a way to enact a sort of social leveling by flouting the codes of self-restraint prescribed by upper-class elites. Although the revivals did not always live up to such progressive ideals in practice, particularly in the more conservative regions of the slaveholding South, the concept of spiritual egalitarianism nonetheless challenged and changed the ways that Protestant Americans thought about themselves, their God, and one another.
As the borders of the United States expanded during the nineteenth century and as new demographic changes altered urban landscapes, revivalism also offered worshippers a source of social and religious structure to help cope with change. Revival meetings held by itinerant preachers offered community and collective spiritual purpose to migrant families and communities isolated from established social and religious institutions. In urban centers, where industrialization and European famines brought growing numbers of domestic and foreign migrants, evangelical preachers provided moral order and spiritual solace to an increasingly anonymous population. Additionally, and quite significantly, the Second Great Awakening armed evangelical Christians with a moral purpose to address and eradicate the many social problems arising from these dramatic demographic shifts.
During the antebellum period, converts of northern revivalism responded to the moral anxiety of industrialization and urbanization by joining voluntary associations and organizing to address specific social needs. Social problems such as intemperance, vice, and crime assumed a new and distressing scale that older solutions, such as almshouses, were not equipped to handle. Moralists grew concerned about the growing mass of urban residents who did not attend church, and who, thanks to poverty or illiteracy, did not even have access to Scripture. Voluntary benevolent societies exploded in number to tackle these issues. Led by ministers and dominated by middle-class women, voluntary societies’ printed and distributed Protestant tracts, taught Sunday school, distributed outdoor relief, and evangelized in both frontier towns and urban slums. These associations and their evangelical members also lent moral backing and manpower to large-scale social reform projects, including the temperance movement designed to curb Americans’ consumption of alcohol, the abolitionist campaign to eradicate slavery in the United States, and women’s rights agitation to improve women’s political and economic rights. As such wide-ranging reform projects combined with missionary zeal, evangelical Christians formed a “benevolent empire” that swiftly became a cornerstone of the antebellum period.