The Second Great Awakening occurred well after America had freed itself from the constraints of British rule. From the 1790s to the 1830s, religious fervor once again swept across the country, forever changing the landscape of Christianity in America. Best known for its large camp meetings, unprecedented numbers of people came to believe in Christ.
A big factor in the spread of the religious fervor was the fact that the American Revolution was a largely secular movement. The Founding Fathers had made sure that the government and ruling bodies were entirely separate from the church, even to the point of separating them in the First Amendment of the Constitution. If those in power had had any sway over the spread of religion and how it was presented, the Second Great Awakening would have never happened. Religion also likely would be heavily regulated today, and Christians would be deprived of many of the freedoms we take for granted in practicing our faith on a day-to-day basis.
The camp meetings were much like George Whitfield’s and Jonathan Edward’s larger outdoor meetings from the First Great Awakening. They were charged with emotion, filled with exhortations to leave all behind for Christ, and threats and warnings against sin. Converts were often attracted to the enthusiastic and theatrical style of preaching common among the preachers at the meetings. Audience participation in the sermons was also a particularly large draw. A quote from a participant in one of the biggest meetings in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1802 captures the essence of the gatherings entirely.
“The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others on wagons … Some of the people were singing, others praying, some crying for mercy. A peculiarly strange sensation came over me. My heart beat tumultuously, my knees trembled, my lips quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground.”
This sentiment was shared by thousands of others, overwhelmed by the weight of the message of redemption and of the revelation of their own sin within them. The young man whom this quote came from was so affected by what he experienced at the meeting that he went on to become a Methodist preacher. The Second Great Awakening is one of the most profound examples of ministers to emotionally connect to people on a deep level and spur them to spiritual life and revival.
Despite being wholly separate from the constraints of the government, the Second Great Awakening was still affected by many of the ideals present within the Revolution. Because of the way England had lorded their elite over the common people, the ordinary man was valued more over the elite lord or rich merchant. This sentiment was especially present in the evangelical churches, a focus fostered towards individual piety and salvation rather than formality and stringent processes traditionally required during the time.
All of this would not have been possible had it not been for the immense amount of organizational precision of the churches. The preachers and missionaries all developed techniques to spread the faith that would conform to the frontier style of living that was booming across America as settlers spread further and further west. One of the more popular ways was to have an itinerant preacher responsible for a large area of land. It also included setting up important meeting areas for those who were part of the administration of the church within these frontier areas.
As with its predecessor, the Second Great Awakening sparked a fundamental change in how religion in America was viewed, practiced, and received. Before the Awakening, many people, especially among the Calvinists, believed that the deep blackness inherent within the human soul could only be exhumed through the grace of God. They also adhered to the concept of predestination, the fact that whether or not a person will go to heaven is predetermined. However, the new beliefs brought about by the Awakening shifted the focus from predestination to free will. It brought to the mind of the believer that he or she could actively work to make their situation better and that the grace of God was not only for those predetermined but for those who choose to accept it.
The Second Great Awakening brought about a more optimistic outlook on the spiritual situation of humanity. Throughout the several decades of revivals and religious reform, America slowly became a more Protestant nation. These changes served to bring about a much higher rate of African Americans and women within the church. The Second Great Awakening’s effects are still felt today, and they positively affected Christianity not only in America but all around the world as well.