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The Second Great Awakening - origins and major ideas

The Second Great Awakening was a big religious revival in the early 19th century America. It sparked a rise in church membership and personal faith, especially among women. This movement, marked by emotional camp meetings and evangelical preaching, aimed to create a 'heaven on Earth'. It also inspired social reforms and democratized religion.

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Video transcript

- The Second Great Awakening was one of the most important social, religious, and cultural aspects of the early 19th century in the United States. In fact, I might even make the argument that it's impossible to understand the early 19th century without understanding The Second Great Awakening because as you can see here, it's kind of connected with everything, so what was The Second Great Awakening and why was it such a big deal? The Second Great Awakening was a period of religious revival in the United States where church membership really soared. A lot of people had conversion experiences, meaning that they had a moment where they came to understand their personal relationship with God and want to change their ways to become a more religious individual and give up their ways as sinners. So church membership really soared and lots of new people joined churches, particularly women. Now, you'll note that this is called The Second Great Awakening because there was, in fact, a First Great Awakening, which happened in the 1730s, 1740s and that was the era of Jonathan Edwards and sinners in the hands of an angry God. It was very localized in New England and specifically, with Calvinism or Puritan religious awakenings, so that was a separate event that happened about 100 years before and The Second Great Awakening, as I have drawn here, generally, historians say it lasted from about 1790 to 1850, but I would say that the real heyday of The Second Great Awakening would be from about 1820 to 1840. Those are hazy dates, but that's kind of the hot period of The Second Great Awakening. In this series of videos, I wanna explore some of the aspects that led to The Second Great Awakening, particularly the market revolution and a bunch of other social, political, cultural, and even religious changes that were happening beforehand and then also explore some of the consequences of The Second Great Awakening. What parts of early 19th century American culture are really tied up with this wave in religiosity? So what was The Second Great Awakening like? Well, here's a painting of what I would call kind of the central aspect of The Second Great Awakening, which were camp meetings. So unlike The First Great Awakening, which was definitely a New England thing, The Second Great Awakening took place largely more on the Western part of the United States. Now, when we're talking about Western part, we're talking about Western part circa 1820, which is gonna be Western New York, Kentucky, around Appalachia. These were places that didn't have the kind of strong established church religion that you might have found in a place like Massachusetts and so preachers would set up camp meetings. They'd have a big stage. People would come in tents and they would listen to these preachers and these preachers would attempt to convert the audiences to a more active and particularly, evangelical form of Christianity. Evangelical Christianity comes from this word, evangelical, evangelist, like the four evangelists of the Bible, who were the men who wrote the gospels and the idea of evangelical Christianity was a real strong attachment to the Bible and an attempt to make kind of heaven on Earth, so to make the world below the same as heaven above. So they're kind of trying to bring about a terrestrial paradise, if you will and many of the religious movements that come out of this are particularly concerned with what we would call, really, the apocalypse or in more contemporary terms, sort of millennialism or millenarianism. I know this is a big word, but more or less, the idea that they want Jesus Christ to return to Earth and rule for 1,000 years over a perfect earthly paradise. Now, when you and I think of the apocalypse, we usually think that's a bad thing, but most evangelical Christians in this time period really wanted the apocalypse to happen because it meant that heaven would happen on Earth. Now, these camp meetings were really interesting. You know, they're happening kind of out on the frontier, so it's kinda the coolest show in town, to go see this itinerant preacher. They're often called circuit riders, so that is a preacher who literally rides around on a horse because he does not have an established congregation of his own, so he goes from town to town, setting up meetings, preaching, and hopefully converting people to evangelical Christianity, but the camp meetings of The Second Great Awakening were characterized by a really emotional response from individuals. People who were having conversion experiences and you can see it here in this painting. They would kinda go into fits. They might fall over and shake or bark like a dog because they had been so overcome by this religious spirit. So you can imagine how camp meetings like this, as people heard about them, would've really affected the general populous. If you heard about a story where your friend went off to this camp meeting and they had this incredible conversion experience where they realized how important it was to give up sin and devote one's life to Christianity and working to bring heaven on Earth, you might go check it out yourself. So two of the most famous preachers of The Second Great Awakening were Lyman Beecher, who was based out of Ohio later in his life, and you might be familiar with this name, Beecher, because Lyman Beecher was the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. One of Beecher's concerns was just that society in general in the United States was becoming more secular and taking a very rational approach to religion, as opposed to an emotional approach to religion. He wanted people to feel religion very deeply. He was kind of working toward a period of religious revival and got one in The Second Great Awakening. The other really famous preacher from this time period was Charles Grandison Finney and Finney traveled around and drew just crowds in the thousands. 20,000, 30,000 people might gather to hear him preach and you can notice here that I have Finney and Beecher facing away from each other 'cause they didn't entirely get along. One of the reasons they didn't get along was because Finney approved of women preaching in public, which was definitely a no-no for the time period. So what was unique and new about the theology of The Second Great Awakening? Well, let me give myself a little bit more space here. Well, I've already mentioned some things here. One that, it's taking place out on the frontier in huge ecstatic camp meetings where people were behaving in a way that would have been very strange in a Puritan church, falling down, shaking, shouting aloud and also that it was concerned with this idea of millenarianism or trying to create heaven on Earth to bring about the rapture, to bring about the return of Jesus Christ to Earth for 1,000-year reign. Also, that it served to inspire many converts to be better people, to do good on Earth, to try to bring about this heaven on Earth. Now, contrast this with some of the religious establishment in the United States, specifically the Puritans. Right, Puritans were Calvinists, which meant that they followed the doctrine of John Calvin, which meant that they believed in predestination. Predestination is the idea that before you're born, God already knows and has decided whether or not you are saved, one of the elect or whether you are damned and going to hell, so there's really nothing you can do because either you are one of these elect or you're one of the damned, so your personal actions make no difference in whether or not you're going to get into heaven. The Second Great Awakening really kinda rejects this notion. You can see that in kinda two different ways. One, they do think that it matters if you do good, right? So your time on Earth is not just kind of wading through a veil of tears, waiting until you get to heaven or don't, depending on what your status is, so doing good works, trying to improve the world around you does make a difference in your salvation and we'll see as this goes forward how that really animates people toward all kinds of social reforms in this time period. The other thing this does is really democratizes religion. Right, if the world isn't already separated into the elect and the damned, then anyone has a chance of salvation and you see that in many aspects of The Second Great Awakening. They allow women to preach. Women become really strong members, influential members of these communities of faith. They preach to whites, blacks, free, and enslaved people alike, so all races are eligible for salvation and you also don't have to be a wealthy church father to be influential in religion. You know, people like Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney. They weren't born wealthy. They weren't born as the scions of, say, the Mather family in Massachusetts, which had been one of the most important religious families in Massachusetts, so The Second Great Awakening really attracted lots of poor people, people on the frontier. It wasn't a religion of the elite. Now you don't have to be educated at the seminaries of Harvard or Yale to have a Christian conversion experience. So this is the essence of The Second Great Awakening and in the next video, I'll talk a little bit more about the social forces that caused The Second Great Awakening and the consequences of its proliferation in early 19th century America.