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The Second Great Awakening - influence of the Market Revolution

The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival in early 19th century America, fueled by social changes and the Market Revolution. This period saw a rise in emotional Christianity, promoting moral behavior and social action. The Awakening was particularly influential in areas like Rochester, New York, leading to new religious movements.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In the last video, I started discussing the Second Great Awakening, which was this era of increased religious fervor, religious conversion, and religiously inspired social action that happened in the early 19th century of the United States' history, so approximately 1790 to 1850, although I'd say that the height of this time was from about 1820 to 1840. And the Second Great Awakening involved circuit riders, who were preachers without their own congregation going out, setting up these camp meetings, where they would preach to thousands of people about a very emotional version of Christianity. This included encouraging individuals to give up their ways as sinners and to work for the creation of heaven on Earth. But when we think as historians, it's not enough just to say, okay, there was an explosion of religion in American culture in the early 19th century. Instead we want to say what conditions in American life led to this explosion? Why did this major cultural change happen? So let's explore some of what was going on in the early 19th century that led people to reinterpret religion. As I described in the last video, the Second Great Awakening is part of this larger web of cultural, social, and political movements and economic movements that are going on in this time period. Historians have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on in American life that led to this sudden reemergence of religious devotion. So let's explore more on this side of our web and I have two maps for us to explore here. One is a map of the Erie Canal. And this canal, which allowed goods and crops and all sorts of things to be transported from western New York down to the Port of New York City, and this is kind of the area that we're looking at here. Let's see if I can make it a little more obvious. So this is a blow-up of that little region right there. This canal was completed in 1825. And I tell you this not just because canals are awesome, although they are, but because the Erie Canal is a really important moment in what's called the Market Revolution. Now, I'll go more into the Market Revolution in another video, but what's important about the Market Revolution is that it's this time when how Americans did business and their social interactions with people that they did business with really changed a lot. So there are a couple important aspects of the Market Revolution. One of these is a revolution in transportation, which includes the invention and slow expansion of railroads, canals, like the Erie Canal, steamships. And steamships let you do things like go the wrong way up the Mississippi River and look at all the farmland that leads to this Port of New Orleans here. So these new forms of transportation make it much easier for farmers and people who produce goods to get those goods to distant markets. So if you're a farmer here in Buffalo, now, instead of only being able to sell your apples, say, to people who live within a certain radius before your apples go bad, you can just put them on a nice little barge on the Erie Canal and send them down to New York City within a number of days. Likewise, if you're farming wheat in Missouri, you don't have to sell to just people in here. You can now sell to people all the way down in New Orleans. And that means you can also even sell to people internationally, right? These are the big ports, New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston. So as a producer of goods, you are not just part of a small local market. You're now part of an international market. And it also means you're gonna need ways of communicating with people who are far away, like the telegraph, for example. But one more anxious aspect of this new kind of market-based system is that you're no longer doing business quite so much with people that you know. So you might correspond only by letter or by telegram to the main buyer for your crops. And likewise, someone who's buying those crops might only be able to correspond distantly with the person who's producing them. So this personal relationship between people who are exchanging goods and services starts to erode and that's very anxious for a lot of people. How do you know that the person on the other end of your transaction isn't going to con you in some way? You see this a lot in this time period. The United States also starts to urbanize and there's lots of writing about how people worry that the people that they're passing on the street might be con men or otherwise out to get them. You know, in many ways, up until this time, the United States had something of a barter economy. If you look at people's personal ledgers, you know, everybody kept a very detailed log of what they had given to whom and who they owed what. In an average day, somebody might give you a carton of eggs on credit and you might build a log cabin for somebody on credit because there was this mutual community system of giving and owing that everyone had a notion could be enforced, at least through social mores. Now, as people begin dealing distantly, those social mores don't exist and it makes people really nervous. The other aspect of this Market Revolution that I think is pretty important is, in this time period, more and more people start working for wages as opposed to being subsistence farmers. So, you know, in the early Colonial period, most people worked, it's kind of a family unit. Various tasks might be assigned to various family members, but one way or another, everybody worked in the home. Now, as factories start to spring up as part of the Market Revolution, people are going to work for wages and typically involves a man leaving the home and the woman remaining in it. So we get what was known as the cult of domesticity, where women are the guardians of the home and the moral guardians of their families and men go out into the cruel world and toil away for their daily bread. So why does that matter? Well, one reason that it matters is because people are now no longer their own bosses. Somebody else is the boss of that person. And they only have so much motivation to get something done, right? If your whole family's subsistence depends on you making sure that you get this crop in on time, you're gonna make sure it happens. But if you're just being paid by the hour to run a spindle at a textile factory, how much money your boss makes off your labor isn't really your concern. And so there's a lot of anxiety around making what had been basically a farming nation into an industrial nation. How does one behave as a worker in a factory and how does one, as a factory owner, make sure that you have a sober, intelligent, hard-working, but not too rowdy workforce? So both of these innovations, the relationship between buyers and sellers in distant markets, and the relationship between factory owners and factory workers create anxiety about how you're going to know people are good, how you're going to know that people are holding up their end in society. And one way to promote that is through religion, which tells you not to be a sinner, which tells you to do a good job, which tells you to be a productive member of society and work for the common good, and promote your moral compass. Now, that's just one explanation for why the Second Great Awakening took off in this time period. And you can tell, it's kind of a grim one, right, in terms of promoting religion basically to keep people in line. But that's not the only possible explanation for why the Second Great Awakening may have happened. There are also a bunch of social changes in this time period that could be serious contributors to this explosion of religion. Now, one of these was just westward expansion in general. So as the United States moved west, the rate of western expansion, really, actually increased in this time period. So about 1790, the center of American population was about here, right? So let's think about both north and south, east and west, where people lived. If you kind of totaled them all up and put a dot right in the middle of where everybody lived, it would just be right here kind of on the Eastern Seaboard, as everyone's pretty close to the coast. By 1840, the center of population was way over here. So just think, if this is all the people who had to live there to be on either side of that line, think of how many people have to be on either side of this line for the population to have its center right there. So people have really spread out in this time period. Where before, there was kind of this east coast elite where all the money was, now the Market Revolution has meant that people who live along these byways, live along rivers and canals and railroads, those towns are gonna start having people in them with some money. And so the middle class expands and the amount of people who have the vote expands. So it's really a time of expanding democracy in general, both in terms of wealth and in terms of political power. And so you can see why a religion like that promoted in the Second Great Awakening, the Baptists, the Methodists, that said anyone can have a relationship with God, would become more popular as more and more people started to kind of take their own fates in their own hands, right? This is the time of the rugged individual, a very popular idea that one, you know, pulled oneself by the bootstraps and that's the pioneering spirit. So very characteristic American values that went into making a type of religion with more individuality, with more possibilities for more people much more popular in this time period. And there's one case of this that I think is really interesting and it's in western New York. So in western New York, there's the town of Rochester. And Rochester is really like a boomtown. It's along the Erie Canal, as we saw in the previous map. And Rochester becomes, kind of, almost the epicenter of new religious movements in this time period. So within this radius of Rochester, people called this the burned-over district because there were so many religious revivals in this time period, that it was like the whole district was burned over with hellfire, these preachers coming past and talking about the apocalypse. And so we'll get to talking more about some of the religious movements that come out of this, but within just a couple of miles of Rochester, the Oneida Community was born. Spiritualism, which was the religion that's kind of based around seances was born. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, often called the Mormons, their religion was born outside Rochester. Even the Shakers were founded in upstate New York, near Albany. So I think it's noteworthy that, as new communities, new people are gaining prominence through the Market Revolution, along with them comes a new religious movement. And we'll talk more about what the impact of this new religious movement was on American society in the next video.