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The Second Great Awakening

Updated on August 9, 2019
James A Watkins profile image

James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.

Second Great Awakening

The very year that the Deist Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States—1801—the Holy Spirit began to move powerfully across America. This greatest of all American revivals would become known as the Second Great Awakening.

It was a time of raucous revivals at giant camp meetings that featured intense fasting, prayer, and hymn singing. People came together to feast and to be fed by round-the clock preaching, even around bonfires at night. They stripped off their masks and pretenses; they examined their souls; they wept and shouted for joy together.

At the forefront were Presbyterian Scots such as James McGready. He was the perfect pioneer preacher—a loud, lanky man of unshakeable convictions. McGready preached hellfire to those who refuse to mend their ways, but the tender mercy of a forgiving God through the atoning sacrifice of His Son for those who will accept it. McGready would look a man right in the eye and challenge him to be man enough to confess the truth about himself.

In America, the number of preachers rose from 2,000 in 1800 to 40,000 by 1845. Evangelical denominations such as Baptists and Methodists exploded in membership. By the 1840s, the Methodists were the largest denomination in the United States with over a million active members. Millions of people pledged to abandon worldly sins in favor of a Godly life.

Just as the First Great Awakening sparked the American Revolution, the Second Great Awakening would bring an end to slavery. Tocqueville observed: "Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other."

ARTIST'S ENGRAVING OF 1801 CANE RIDGE REVIVAL
ARTIST'S ENGRAVING OF 1801 CANE RIDGE REVIVAL
CANE RIDGE MEETING HOUSE (1801) AS IT IS PRESERVED TODAY
CANE RIDGE MEETING HOUSE (1801) AS IT IS PRESERVED TODAY

Cane Ridge

The Second Great Awakening kicked off in 1801 with a week-long, open-air camp meeting attended by 20,000 people at Cane Ridge, twenty miles west of Lexington, Kentucky. It was organized by Presbyterian pastor Barton Stone (1772-1844).

The typically quiet, reverent Presbyterian service turned shockingly emotional and ecstatic. After days of fasting and praying, God paid a personal visit to Cane Ridge. Men rolled in the mud, women swooned; there was groaning, agonized crying out, shrieking, shouting, clapping, laughing, and hugging. Ministers and regular folks alike were amazed at the movement of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Thousands of people came to the meeting and gave themselves to Christ.

The Camp Meeting concept soon spread over most of the United States, and hundreds of thousands of people went to them. In 1811, it is estimated that one-third of all Americans attended a camp meeting. After the Cane Ridge revival, the Altar Call became a permanent part of evangelism, as did presenting Christ as your personal savior with whom you can have a personal relationship.

Evangelists toured the country by all modes of transportation. They preached the importance of personal industry, sobriety, and self-discipline as examples of freely chosen moral behaviors.

The more conservative denominations rejected the emotionalism of revivals, especially in New England. Presbyterians were divided about whether or not revivals were a good thing that would be approved of by the Lord. But Baptists and Methodists had no doubts that the Holy Spirit was behind this spiritual awakening of hundreds of thousands of people. And they decided it was a call for America to end slavery, consumption of alcohol, philandering, and gambling.

TIMOTHY DWIGHT
TIMOTHY DWIGHT

Timothy Dwight

The Second Great Awakening was a response to growing secularism among intellectuals. In 1799, only a few graduates of Yale believed in Christ, and the next year only one went to church regularly. But the average American remained deeply religious. As Tocqueville observed decades later, "There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America."

Even at Yale, University President Timothy Dwight (grandson of Jonathan Edwards) led a revival that swept the student body and then all of New England in the early 19th Century.

Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) evangelized and taught the catechism to New England Indians when he was just four years old. He learned Latin and Greek before he entered Yale University at age thirteen. Dwight graduated at seventeen, and was hired as a tutor by Yale.

Timothy Dwight served as a chaplain for the Continental Army during the American War of Independence. In 1783, he was named pastor of the Greenfield, Connecticut Church, where he spoke and wrote against Deism. Dwight published an influential defense of the Christian Faith against French philosophy in 1794 entitled A Discourse on the Genuineness and Authenticity of the New Testament.

Timothy Dwight was called to become President of Yale in 1795, which was temporarily a hotbed of Deism. Under his guidance, one-third of the students turned to Christ.

BORN AGAIN
BORN AGAIN

Born Again

To be born again refers to a spiritual (and perhaps psychological) conversion experience during which you powerfully feel the presence of God. It only becomes available to you after you admit to being a lost sinner who needs the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to overcome sin; and after surrendering your personal will to the Will of God.

As Nathaniel Taylor, professor of theology at Yale, said: "The Bible is a plain book. It speaks, especially on the subject of sin, directly to human consciousness; and tells us beyond mistake, what sin is, and why we sin." Moral depravity simply is to reject God.

THE BURNED OVER DISTRICT OF NEW YORK IN 1830
THE BURNED OVER DISTRICT OF NEW YORK IN 1830

The Burned Over District

The Burned-Over District refers to Upstate New York in the early 19th Century, meaning that the flames of revival swept over it like a forest fire. It was said at the time that Upstate New York had been "completely overthrown by the Holy Ghost." The theatres and taverns were devoid of customers, because "far higher and purer enjoyment has been found in exercises of devotion."

Lyman Beecher called the revival of 1831, "the greatest work of God, and the greatest revival of religion, that the world has ever seen. " In that year alone, the number of churches in New England grew by one-third.

CHARLES GRANDISON FINNEY (1835)
CHARLES GRANDISON FINNEY (1835)
CHARLES GRANDISON FINNEY (1855)
CHARLES GRANDISON FINNEY (1855)
CHARLES GRANDISON FINNEY (1875)
CHARLES GRANDISON FINNEY (1875)

Charles Grandison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) could claim the title: "First Professional Evangelist." He became the leading revivalist of the 19th Century with a half a million people coming to Christ through his ministry.

As an attorney by profession, Finney observed, as he studied law, that the authors he read frequently quoted the Bible. So he began reading the Bible himself. He had a dramatic religious experience in 1821 that led him to quit his law practice to preach the Gospel, saying, "I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus to plead his case."

Finney's preaching style was earthy but colorful. He was known to pray in public for individuals by name. Charles Grandison Finney sparked another wave of revival in America, and is credited with 100,000 conversions in 1839 alone. One of his secrets of success was to bring masses of the unconverted into direct contact with serious Christians through spectacular public events. He would lead this group of strangers in prayer, which generates a sense of trust and common purpose.

Finney preached salvation through faith and good works. Every person, he said, was a "free moral agent." Each person was free to choose between a life of sin and the Christian life. Sinners simply needed a "change of heart" to embrace spiritual freedom—free from the bondage of sin.

Charles Grandison Finney never heard the name of God mentioned in his home growing up, with the exception of cuss words. Before his conversion he scoffed at prayer and church. Several young adults took to praying for him to be saved. One of them would become his future wife. God moved on his spirit, and Finney began to feel convicted of his sins and unbelief, to the point where he could not eat or sleep. Then, Finney testified, "A mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost overwhelmed him, in waves and waves of liquid love."

Charles Grandison Finney possessed eerily luminescent, hypnotic blue eyes and a mellifluous voice. Wherever he roamed he generated excitement and energized the faithful. Finney preached about community, but not in a socialist way. God forbid. He preached about the fact that sin and sinners drag down families, whole communities, and entire nations. Therefore individual sin was purely selfish, as it involved satisfying some temporary desire regardless of the damage done to others.

Finney said that a Christian wallowing in sin was an offense against America, because it would put Providence at risk. Therefore, living a godly life would improve not only your personal circumstances, and your reward in the hereafter, but it would improve the happiness and prosperity of your family, town, and country. "Since social evils were simply individual acts of selfishness compounded, it followed that deep and lasting reform meant an educational crusade based on the assumption that when a sufficient number of individual Americans had seen the light, they would automatically solve the country's social problems."

Charles Grandison Finney published Lectures on Revivals of Religion in 1835. This practical handbook for evangelists sold 12,000 copies in 90 days and it has never been excelled. Finney also became President of Oberlin College from 1851 to 1866—the first in America to admit women and blacks alongside white males, and a hotbed of the abolitionist movement.

Admit the truth about yourself and do something about it. Sin is pure and simple selfishness.

FIRST AHOGHILL PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, COUNTY ANTRIM, ULSTER, NORTHERN IRELAND
FIRST AHOGHILL PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, COUNTY ANTRIM, ULSTER, NORTHERN IRELAND

The Great Ulster Revival

James McQuilkin was invited to tea one fine Ulster day. A woman was there who, instead of making small talk, spoke about a subject that made McQuilkin uncomfortable: the condition of the soul. He was convicted in his heart by her words. He did not know Jesus. McQuilkin decided to trust in the Lord and a peaceful calm came over him.

The next year, James McQuilkin and a few of his friends were moved to gather once a week and pray for each person in their village by name.

In 1859, McQuilkin called a prayer meeting for all Christians at the Ahogill Presbyterian Church in County Antrim. So many people responded that the meeting had to be moved outside. Hundreds of souls knelt in the rain and mud to confess their sins and praise God.

Out of this prayer meeting sprang the Great Ulster Revival that is credited with one hundred thousand new converts to Christ. The Holy Spirit moved particularly among young people. Teenage boys began to preach on the streets. One clergyman counted 80 adults and 40 children listening to a twelve-year-old boy preach in the village square.

The results of turning to God were remarkable. In 1860, County Antrim had an empty jail and no crimes to investigate. Judges had no cases to hear. Pubs and distilleries closed as their owners came to Christ. Gambling on the horses fell by 95 percent. Church services were jammed to the rafters; small groups multiplied; families prayed together; Bible reading was ubiquitous; giving to charity went through the roof. This revival soon spread to Scotland, Wales, and England. It all started with one anonymous woman unafraid to speak the truth over tea.

MODERN ARTIST'S CONCEPTION OF REVIVAL IN JAMAICA
MODERN ARTIST'S CONCEPTION OF REVIVAL IN JAMAICA

Revival in Jamaica

Word of the prayer revivals that were sweeping the world reached Jamaica in 1860. The Christians there wanted to take part in this outpouring of the Spirit. They organized "peep of the day" (dawn) prayer meetings in a Moravian chapel in the town of Clifton led by the German missionary Theodor Sonderman.

The first prayer meeting was remarkable. Adults and children poured out their souls to God for several hours, begging for His mercy with tears rolling down all cheeks. Notorious sinners soon came to Christ. Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians soon caught the Spirit.

In Bethel Town five hundred came to pray the first day. At least a hundred hardened sinners came to Christ. Within a year, 17,000 persons gave their lives to Jesus for the first time. Couples living in sin got married; divorced people got remarried; rum shops and gambling houses closed. It all began with a single prayer group.

A HUGE CROWD GATHERS IN NEW YORK CITY TO HEAR EVANGELIST GYPSY SMITH
A HUGE CROWD GATHERS IN NEW YORK CITY TO HEAR EVANGELIST GYPSY SMITH

Gyspy Smith

In 1860, Rodney Smith was born in a tent to illiterate Gypsy parents. His father, Cornelius Smith, had heard the Gospel in prison. Rodney's mother, Polly, came down with smallpox while he was still a boy. As she lay dying, Cornelius told her about Jesus—that He died for sinners and would be her savior if she looked to him. Before she died, Polly told her husband that she had prayed to Jesus, and that He had bathed her in the light of salvation.

Cornelius himself then had a conversion experience, and everyone who knew him said he became a brand new man. Observing this powerful change in his father made young Rodney desire this same life-changing experience and he gave his life to Christ.

Rodney Smith would become a great evangelist, known as "Gypsy Smith." Although uneducated, he was a winsome preacher who brought thousands to Christ with straight-forward sermons and simple Gospel songs. He traveled widely as an evangelist, making fifty trips to the United States. God specializes in the unexpected.

CHARLES SPURGEON
CHARLES SPURGEON
METROPOLITAN TABERNACLE OF LONDON
METROPOLITAN TABERNACLE OF LONDON

Charles Spurgeon

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1890) was born in Essex, England. He was of Dutch Huguenot ancestry; both his father and grandfather were pastors in the Congregational Church. Charles Spurgeon's favorite books growing up were Pilgrim's Progress and Foxe's Book of Martyrs. He would become the most famous preacher of his generation.

At the age of sixteen, Charles Spurgeon gave his life to Christ in a Methodist Chapel. He studied the controversy over infant baptism (sprinkles) and decided that baptism was properly done by full immersion of a new adult believer. Thus, Spurgeon joined the Baptist Church in Cambridge. It was there as a teenager that he was soon in demand as a gifted preacher.

Charles Spurgeon came to London for the first time at the age of 19 in 1853. He came to begin a ministry—that would last 38 years. Spurgeon was called to be the pastor of the Park Street Baptist Church. Within weeks, overflow crowds gathered to hear him. The Church moved to larger buildings a couple of times, but the crowds still overflowed. Finally, the Metropolitan Tabernacle was built to hold 6,500 souls. Spurgeon had fervently prayed that it would open debt-free—and so it did.

Charles Spurgeon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle for 32 years. It featured a social center, a school, a college for pastors, and an orphanage—all still in operation today. The Church provided for the needs of the poor out of its abundance, and distributed millions of pieces of religious literature. Metropolitan Tabernacle was truly one of the great churches of all time.

Charles Spurgeon died when he was only 56 years old. 100,000 people filed by his coffin to pay their last respects.

WILLIAM MILLER
WILLIAM MILLER
1833 ENGRAVING OF "THE NIGHT THE STARS FELL FROM THE SKY"
1833 ENGRAVING OF "THE NIGHT THE STARS FELL FROM THE SKY"
JOHN HARVEY KELLOGG GIVES A LECTURE AT HIS BATTLE CREEK SANITARIUM
JOHN HARVEY KELLOGG GIVES A LECTURE AT HIS BATTLE CREEK SANITARIUM
ELLEN G WHITE
ELLEN G WHITE

Seventh Day Adventists

The Seventh Day Adventist Church grew out of the Millerite Movement, which was based on the predictions of William Miller that the world would end in 1843. When the world kept on spinning, Miller decided it would end in 1844. Both times great excitement was widespread and thousands of people prepared for the Second Coming of the Lord, saying their goodbyes to their neighbors and waiting on hilltops.

William Miller was an honest farmer with a keen thirst for knowledge. He was known as a man of integrity, thrift, selflessness, benevolence, and energy. As a young man, Miller threw his lot in with Deists and Masons. They were good people, but he began to think they exerted an influence against the teachings of the Bible.

William Miller had a spiritual experience at age 34. He wrote: "Suddenly, the character of the Savior was vividly impressed upon my mind. It seemed that there might be a Being so good and compassionate as to Himself to atone for our transgressions, and thereby save us from suffering the penalty of sin. I immediately felt how lovely such a Being must be . . . in Jesus I had found a friend. The Bible now became my chief study . . . I searched it with great delight. . . . and marveled that I could have ever rejected it."

William Miller spent two years doing little but studying the Bible day and night. In 1818, he reached the conclusion that the Second Coming of Christ would be in 25 years. But he said nothing until 1831. Then, though fifty years old and unaccustomed to public speaking, he responded to demand that he travel from town to town explaining his ideas. Churches of many denominations invited him to address their congregations. It was noted that after his appearances, liquor stores were turned into Bible study meeting rooms, gambling dens broke up; infidels, profligates, and Deists came to church, many for the first time in years.

November 13, 1833, was the night the stars fell from the sky. A great meteoric shower was seen across the United States. It was described as the "whole heavens in motion" for "several hours in fiery commotion!" Some say it was the most extensive display of falling stars ever recorded. Some took it to be the fulfillment of Matthew 24:29 and/or Revelation 6:13.

William Miller was subject to much sneering ridicule after the world did not end in 1843 or 1844. He had left his comfortable home to travel at his own expense. Now he was called a liar or a lunatic—and that was by the Christians. Those who had believed in his prophecy were shunned or even cast out of their local congregations. This is what led them to band together and form their own church: the Seventh Day Adventists.

Those Millerites who observed the Jewish Sabbath—sundown Friday to sundown Saturday—rather than the Lord's Day (Sunday) became the Seventh Day Adventists and resettled in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1855. In 1866, Adventists opened the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which would later become the center of their movement toward vegetarianism. The Sanitarium also became the home base of one of the first nutritionists, the king of a breakfast cereal empire, John H. Kellogg (1852-1943). The Adventists popularized breakfast cereals throughout the world. Kellogg was the protégé of the prophet of the Adventists, Ellen G. White (1827-1915).

SOURCES

My primary sources for this article include The One Year Book of Christian History by E. Michael and Sharon Rusten; A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson; Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden; and The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White.

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