4.10 The Second Great Awakening

5 min readjanuary 12, 2023


Sally Kim

Robby May

Robby May

Dalia Savy

Dalia Savy

AP US History 🇺🇸

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The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival movement that occurred in the United States in the early 19th century. It began around 1790, peaked in the 1820s and 1830s, and ended in the late 1840s. The movement was characterized by a renewed interest in Christianity and an increase in church membership, particularly among Baptists and Methodists. Many new religious denominations were formed during this time, and the influence of the established churches declined.

Change in Beliefs

People began to believe that ordinary people should have a say in the government. They extended this idea into churches, and ministers now had to appeal to everyone else as their success depended on how much they appealed.
Calvinist (Puritan) teachings of original sin and predestination had been rejected by believers in more liberal and forgiving doctrines such as those of the Unitarian Church.
  • Original Sin is the doctrine that holds that human nature has been morally and ethically corrupted due to the disobedience of mankind's first parents (Adam and Eve). The doctrine of original sin holds that every person born into the world is tainted by the Fall, and people are powerless to rehabilitate themselves unless rescued by God.
  • Predestination is about God being in control of all that happens through history, including his choice of saving some people for himself, while allowing others to go their own way along the path of sin.
Emotional religious experiences became important because the Market Revolution caused their work and economic relationships to become less personal.

Charles Grandison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney, the best-known preacher of the Second Great Awakening, taught that sin was voluntary. He rejected the traditional Calvinist doctrine of predestination and believed everyone had the power to become perfect and free of sin. This emphasis on human choice and responsibility, rather than divine predestination, helped to make Finney's preaching particularly appealing to people who were seeking greater control over their own spiritual destinies.

Image Courtesy of Connecticut History

Finney also advocated for social reform; he spoke against slavery and for woman's rights. He also saw that women could help convert their husbands and fathers.
He sought instantaneous conversions through a variety of new and controversial methods:
  • Holding protracted meetings that lasted all night or several days in a row. 
  • Placing an “anxious bench” in front of the congregation where those in the process of repentance could receive special attention
  • Encouraged women to pray publicly for the souls of male relatives. 
  • Sometimes listeners fell to the floor in fits of excitement.

The Legacy of the Second Great Awakening

Religiously, the Second Great Awakening led to a significant increase in church membership and the formation of new religious denominations. It also led to a more emotional and individualized approach to religion, as opposed to the more formal and intellectual approach of the previous era. This emphasis on personal religious experience would continue to shape American Christianity for decades to come and would influence the development of various new religious movements, like the Pentecostal and the Holiness movement.
The Second Great Awakening also touched on social reforms. This is how it differs from the first Great Awakening 100 years earlier, which focused on bringing people back to the church. Activist religious groups provided both the leadership and the well-organized voluntary societies that drove the reform movements of the antebellum period such as abolition, temperance, etc. Many of the leaders of these social reform movements were also religious leaders, and they used their pulpits to promote their causes.
Additionally, the Second Great Awakening led to the creation of many new colleges and universities, which helped to promote education and literacy in the United States. This led to an expansion of the middle class and helped to create a more educated and informed citizenry.

Baptists and Methodists

During the Second Great Awakening, both the Baptist and Methodist denominations experienced significant growth.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

In the South on the western frontier, Baptist and Methodist circuit preachers, such as Peter Cartwright, would travel from one location to another and attract thousands to hear their dramatic preaching at outdoor revivals or camp meetings.
Highly emotional camp meetings were usually organized by Baptists or Methodists. In the southern backcountry, it was difficult to sustain local churches with regular ministers. The Methodists solved the problem with circuit riders.
The growth of these two denominations during the Second Great Awakening helped to shift the religious landscape of the United States, as membership in traditional churches like the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians began to decline.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)

Joseph Smith of Palmyra, New York was the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In 1830, he revealed that he had received, over many years, a series of revelations that called upon him to establish Christ’s pure church on Earth.
He published the Book of Mormon, a scripture in which he claimed to have discovered and translated with the aid of an angel. Basically, the Book of Mormon covers the following: 
  • It was the record of a community of Jews who left the Holy Land six centuries before the birth of Christ and sailed to the American continent. 
  • After his crucifixion and resurrection, Christ appeared to this community and proclaimed the Gospel.
  • 400 years later, a civil war in the group annihilated the believing Christians but not all the descendants of the original Jewish migrants. 
  • One of those survivors contributed to the ancestry of the American Indians. 
Smith and those who converted to the faith were committed to restoring the pure religion that thrived on American soil by founding a western Zion where they could practice their faith and carry out their mission to convert Indians. 
In the 1830s, Mormons established communities in Ohio and Missouri. The one in Ohio went bankrupt and then later was the target of angry mobs. Smith led his followers back across the Mississippi to Illinois where he received a charter from the state legislature. 
Smith then reported new revelations that caused hostility from neighboring people. The most controversial was the authorization of polygamy. In 1844, Smith was killed by a mob while being held in jail.
In 1845, Smith's successor, Brigham Young, decided to send a party of 1500 men to assess the chance of a colony in the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake. In 1846, 12,000 Mormons took to the trail. Young arrived in Salt Lake and sent word back on the trail that he had found the promised land.
The main focus of this key topic, as outlined by the College Board Course and Description, is to understand the causes of the Second Great Awakening: "The rise of democratic and individualistic beliefs, a response to rationalism, and changes to society caused by the market revolution, along with greater social and geographical mobility, contributed to a Second Great Awakening among Protestants."
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