In the last article, we discussed how the Great Awakening changed the outlook of American religious life, how the evangelists succeeded in converting many nonbelievers to Christianity, and how at the same time they divided the church further. Yet while the evangelists challenged the conventional view of conversion and the authority of the pastorate, still they were themselves Calvinist and conservative, much like the ministers they opposed. In this article, we will cover how the Second Great Awakening, marked by the introduction of the doctrine of free will and denominational disagreements, affected American religious life in ways that continues into the present-day.
Decline of Christianity After the Great Awakening
As mentioned in the previous article, the Great Awakening grew the Christian faith in a time when Unitarianism was strong and a new philosophy known as Deism spread across Europe and the American colonies. The revival nonetheless had the unintended effect of further dividing the church, with denominations splitting over disagreements between ministers and evangelists. Unitarianism was not wholly abandoned, and indeed some conservative preachers retaliated against the evangelists who called for congregations to reject their ministers by fostering Unitarianism in their churches, hoping it would calm their members.
From them sprung a splinter group: the Universalists. In Massachusetts in 1779, the first Universalist church was established by John Murray, a British immigrant. The Unitarians and Universalists did not have many differences, except in their appeal. Unitarianism attracted aristocracy, Universalism attracted the poor. Universalism, like the evangelists of the Great Awakening, stressed freedom from ministers, and they relied heavily on man's reason for salvation. Their theology was so similar to the Unitarians that the two merged in 1961.
Deism was equally if not more popular than either. A product of the Enlightenment, Deism asserted that there was one God who created the universe, but did not interact with it. As such, Deists rejected the Bible for recording God's interactions with man. In America, Deism took hold when Americans embraced Enlightenment ideas, notably on limited government and political freedom, but it was after the Revolutionary War, when Americans won a war influenced by Enlightenment principles, that Deism became especially popular. The Enlightenment had passed its first test when the Americans won, and they began embracing its other philosophies, and Deism grew as consequence.
The Second Great Awakening
Despite decreasing interest in Christianity, evangelists maintained small success after the First Great Awakening, paving the way for the Second. Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists were the most active denominations during this time period, carrying on the work of leaders of the first Awakening. It was in 1795 that these efforts culminated to begin the movement known as the Second Great Awakening. This new Awakening would cause yet another rift in the Christian community in America, this time over the disagreements between evangelists over the doctrines of predestination and free will.
Free will was diametrically opposed to the Calvinist theology of traditional churches; where Calvinism said that God "elected" a few from the masses to be saved from their sin, the doctrine of free will asserted that anyone, not just an "elect" body, could be saved by putting faith in Jesus Christ. Presbyterians were perhaps more aligned with the leaders of the First Great Awakening, as the denomination was founded by Calvinist theologian John Knox. The Baptists and Methodists, on the other hand, held to the doctrine of free will. Although the gospel reached many Americans, the disagreements among Christians over Calvinism and free will would serve to further polarize denominations, solidifying the religious divide in the United States.
The success of the Second Great Awakening is largely due to Methodist leader Francis Asbury introducing circuit riding in America. Asbury, an English immigrant, noticed that the land was so vast that Americans were spread thinly across their states and territories, which often meant that some regions did not have churches, particularly the untamed frontier. In 1784, Asbury came up with a solution: he divided the land into districts, called circuits. A circuit surrounded multiple settlements and towns. One minister, called a circuit rider, was assigned to a circuit, preaching to all settlements within. Methodists became most successful in the West, where settlements lacked preachers. Circuit riding was a success, and soon all denominations involved in the Awakening made use of it.
Circuit riding gave way to new revival meetings known as camp meetings. Camp meetings were outdoor religious services on the frontier lasting days or weeks at a time. The first camp meeting was held in Logan County, Kentucky, when Presbyterian James McCready and a Methodist minister held a service in 1800. The sermon reached a few at first, but a series of camp meetings that followed reached hundreds in the region, leading so many people to Christ that other ministers began using them. One of the most successful circuit riders, Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright, became a Christian as a result of the Logan County camp meetings.
Perhaps the most successful evangelist of the time was Presbyterian Charles Finney (pictured above). Active especially from 1825-1835, Finney converted to Christianity in 1821 in New York while he was a lawyer in the state. After his conversion, he moved quickly into evangelism in New York City, and would become the leading evangelist of the Second Great Awakening. Unfortunately, Finney's position of leadership caused much confusion among new converts and led many to reject the Gospel. Finney was himself a heretic who rejected basic Christian doctrine, such as the Original Sin of mankind and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his famous work Systematic Theology, he even called the doctrine of Original Sin "anti-scriptural." He instead said that man is not naturally evil, but rather, he chooses whether or not he will follow God or be a sinner. Also, at a time when the doctrine of free will conflicted with Calvinism, Finney chose to remain ambiguous about his own beliefs on the matter. Although he had been converted by Calvinists, he did not entirely agree with Calvinism, especially with the idea of election. Critics often claimed that his inability to establish clearly his theological views and his views on the nature of God, were such that if one removed God entirely, Finney's theology wouldn't change in the least.
Slavery and the Second Great Awakening
Historians place the Second Great Awakening in the general range from 1790-1840, with few variations. The late Awakening period from 1820-1840 is notable for another reason: developing views on slavery. While the North and South began debating such issues as the expansion of slavery, popular sovereignty, and the complete eradication of slavery, evangelists and denominations began defining their own views of the morality of slavery, something that would affect the success of their revivals.
Methodists were the most vehemently antislavery denomination of the Awakening. Asbury and Cartwright were very clear that they were opposed to slavery, and their leadership influenced other Methodist ministers. One of the greatest achievements of the Methodists for the African American community--free and slave alike--was the conversion of freeman Richard Allen. Allen had converted to Christianity in 1777, influenced by Methodist preachers. Buying his freedom in 1783, Allen traveled to Philadelphia, preaching to blacks, though tension with whites forced him to move on in 1787. Later, Allen met Bishop Francis Asbury himself, who was impressed with Allen's biblical knowledge and teaching style, such that he ordained Allen as a bishop in 1799. While the Methodist leadership was antislavery, Allen understood that the racial tension lesser ministers and congregants was great enough that an all-black church would be necessary. He and other ministers established the African Methodist Episcopal in 1816, with the approval of Asbury. Richard Allen was its first Bishop.
The Baptists had a rockier situation, as they had established a stronghold in the South. Baptist leadership was generally opposed to slavery, as were many of the ministers that they sent across the United States. However, proslavery Southerners were not pleased with the direction the Baptists were going. When leadership refused to allow proslavery ministers join the revival as well as foreign missions work, the South angrily split, forming the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.
Although slavery was not the primary influence of the Awakening, it certainly affected the reach of the ministers in the South, with many completely rejecting the work of abolitionist ministers. The Southern Baptist Convention would not disavow its racism until 1995.
The Second Great Awakening reached many individuals. The work of the evangelists grew the church (notably, Methodists had only 50 churches in 1780, by the end of the Awakening, they had 20,000) and spread the gospel to thousands. The Second Great Awakening also marked the beginning of new ideas. Free will, for instance, sparked and continues to spark heated debates among Christians. Today, Calvinism and free will are subjects of stringent debate, and conservative and liberal theologians are divided over gender roles within the church, which, though merely introduced during the Second Great Awakening, has become a subject of greater debate over the years. Revivalism of the First and Second Awakenings brought forth new movements including abolitionism, antislavery movements, and progressivism bent on social and economic reform. Disputes among the body as to those movements caused greater rifts within the Church. Denominational splits have continued today, and though not directly caused by the Awakenings, these splits have roots in the initial church breakup during those time periods.