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NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 19th Century Essay:

Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening
Donald Scott
Queens College / City University of New York
©National Humanities Center
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Nineteenth century America contained a bewildering array of Protestant sects and denominations, with different doctrines, practices, and organizational forms. But by the 1830s almost all of these bodies had a deep evangelical emphasis in common. Protestantism has always contained an important evangelical strain, but it was in the nineteenth century that a particular style of evangelicalism became the dominant form of spiritual expression. What above all else characterized this evangelicalism was its dynamism, the pervasive sense of activist energy it released. As Charles Grandison Finney, the leading evangelical of mid-nineteenth century America, put it: "religion is the work of man, it is something for man to do." This evangelical activism involved an important doctrinal shift away from the predominately Calvinist orientation that had characterized much of eighteenth-century American Christianity. Eighteenth-century Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield had stressed the sinful nature of humans and their utter incapacity to overcome this nature without the direct action of the grace of God working through the Holy Spirit. Salvation was purely in God's hands, something he dispensed as he saw fit for his own reasons. Nineteenth-century evangelicals like Finney, or Lyman Beecher, or Francis Asbury, were no less unrelenting in their emphasis on the terrible sinfulness of humans. But they focused on sin as human action. For all they preached hellfire and damnation, they nonetheless harbored an unshakable practical belief in the capacity of humans for moral action, in the ability of humans to turn away from sinful behavior and embrace moral action. Whatever their particular doctrinal stance, most nineteenth-century evangelicals preached a kind of practical Arminianism which emphasized the duty and ability of sinners to repent and desist from sin.


The core of nineteenth-century evangelicalism was the experience of conversion. Conversion was compelled by a set of clear ideas about the innate sinfulness of humans after Adam's fall, the omnipotence of God--his awful power and his mercy--and, finally, the promise of salvation for fallen humankind through Christ's death on the cross as the atonement for human sin. But what students need to understand is that conversion was an experience. It was not simply something that people believed--though belief or faith was essential to it--but something that happened to them, a real, intensely emotional event they went through and experienced as a profound psychological transformation left them with a fundamentally altered sense of self, an identity as a new kind of Christian. As they interpreted it, they had undergone spiritual rebirth, the death of an old self and the birth of a new one that fundamentally transformed their sense of their relationship to the world.

Conversion consisted of a sequence of clearly mapped-out steps, each of which was accompanied by a powerful emotion that led the penitent from the terror of eternal damnation through redemption to the promise of heavenly salvation. The process of conversion characteristically began in a state of "concern" about the state of one's soul and "inquiry" into what were called the doctrines of salvation propelled by the question "what can I do to be saved?" This led to a state of acute spiritual "anxiety," marked by deep fear over the prospect of eternal damnation, which in turn grew into an unmistakable sense of "conviction," the heartfelt realization that one stood justly condemned for one's sins and deserved eternal damnation. Conviction was the terrifying point of recognition that no matter how much one might desire it, there was absolutely nothing one could do to earn salvation. But there was something the penitent could do, indeed, was bound to do. That was to fully repent and surrender unconditionally to God's will to do with as he saw fit and to serve him fully. It was this act of repentance, surrender, and dedication to serving his will that Finney meant when in his most famous sermon he insisted that "sinners [are] bound to change their own hearts." This moment of renunciation of sin and the abject surrender to the will to God was the moment of conversion, if it was to come, the moment at which, through the promise of Christ's atonement for human sin, a merciful God would bestow his grace upon the repentant sinner.

Guiding Student Discussion

It is important to stress to your students the importance of the emotional state that signaled that one had received divine grace and was a converted Christian. People recognized the fact of conversion by the power and character of the emotions that accompanied it, that made it an emotional catharsis, a heartfelt rebirth. Most characteristically, conversion, often accompanied by tears, provoked a deep sense of humility and peace marked by an overwhelming sense of love toward God, a sense that one had entered a wholly new state of being--defined as a state of regeneration--that was the utter opposite of the state of willfulness, torment, and anxiety that had accompanied unregeneracy. The convert entered a new spiritual state referred to as regeneracy and sanctification in which the paramount desire was to do God's will, a desire expressed almost immediately in active concern for the conversion of family, friends, and even strangers who remained unconverted. Indeed, the most important sign of sanctification was the degree of one's willingness to enlist in the ongoing evangelical campaign to convert the world. (For further discussion of the evangelical convert's role in the world see under Nineteenth Century, Evangelicalism as a Social Movement.)

Revivalism and the Second Great Awakening

A second distinguishing feature of nineteenth-century evangelicalism was its approach to religious revivals. The phrase "religious revival" was originally coined in the eighteenth century to describe a new phenomenon in which churches experienced an unexpected "awakening" of spiritual concern, occasioned by a special and mysterious outpouring of God's saving grace, which led to unprecedented numbers of intense and "surprising conversions" that "revived" the piety and power of the churches. In the early nineteenth century, however, as "the revival" became a central instrument for provoking conversions, it became as much a human as a divine event. In the terms of Charles Grandison Finney, a revival was something preachers and communicants did. It was a deliberately orchestrated event that deployed a variety of spiritual practices to provoke conversions especially among the unconverted "youth" (men and women between 15 and 30) in the community.

The new, self-consciously wrought revivals took several forms. They first emerged at the turn of the eighteenth century with the invention of the camp meeting in western Virginia and North Carolina and on the Kentucky and Ohio frontier by Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. At these meetings, the most famous (or notorious) of which took place at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would gather from miles around in a wilderness encampment for four days to a week. There they engaged in an unrelenting series of intense spiritual exercises, punctuated with cries of religious agony and ecstasy, all designed to promote religious fervor and conversions. These exercises ranged from the singing of hymns addressed to each of the spiritual stages that marked the journey to conversion, public confessions and renunciations of sin and personal witness to the workings of the spirit, collective prayer, all of which were surrounded by sermons delivered by clergymen especially noted for their powerful "plain-speaking" preaching. The second, major variant of the new revivalism consisted of the "protracted meetings" most often associated with the "new measures" revivalism of Finney but which by the late l820s had become the characteristic form of most northern and western revivalism. "Protracted meetings," ordinarily conducted once a year at a time when they would be less disruptive of ordinary life, usually lasted two to three weeks, during which time there would be preaching two or three times each day, addressed especially to the anxious penitents who would gather on an "anxious bench" at the front of the church to be prayed for by the congregation, and prayer and counseling visits by newly converted Christians to the concerned and anxious. Once a person had gone through the experience of conversion and rebirth, he or she would join the ranks of visitors and exhorters, themselves becoming evangelists for the still unconverted around them.

One important result of the new revivalism was a further erosion of older Calvinist beliefs, especially the doctrine of predestination. (For information on Calvinism and predestination see under Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Puritanism and Predestination.) Although some evangelical clergymen did not abandon the idea of predestination entirely (the idea that God had preordained who would be saved and who would not was, after all, a logical extension of the conception of God as an eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent being), in practical terms they held out what amounted to an idea of universal salvation. Most Methodist clergymen came pretty close to embracing the idea of universalism which held that Christ's atonement was potentially universal, available without restriction to all who would repent and surrender to God. Alexander Campbell, the founder of the Church of Christ, made universalism the hallmark of his doctrinal system.

This new style of evangelicalism consisted of more than a doctrinal and devotional emphasis and a set of proselytizing strategies. It has to be understood as a vast and powerful religious movement. By the l820s evangelicalism had become one of the most dynamic and important cultural forces in American life. It is here that another important term comes into play--the Second Great Awakening--the term evangelical leaders adopted to talk of the revivalism and evangelical fervor they found themselves in the midst of. The label sought to describe a broad religious phenomenon that transcended sectarian and denominational boundaries. Most clergymen (and communicants as well) had specific denominational affiliations. But just as the seventeenth-century Puritans saw their Massachusetts Bay experiment as the spearhead of a broader movement to reform Protestantism itself, so too did nineteenth-century evangelicals consider themselves participants in a much broader spiritual movement to evangelize the nation and world. Secondly, they used the idea of a Second Great Awakening to signify their participation in an extraordinary religious phenomenon. The label linked them directly to a special heroic history, namely the great eighteenth-century spiritual outpouring (which they themselves first designated the original or First Great Awakening) associated with such figures as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Tennants. Theirs, too, seemed a period marked by a special and extraordinary outpouring of God's Saving Grace, a period that placed a special burden of responsibility on ministers of God and saved Christians alike to enlist themselves wholeheartedly in the work of extending God's Kingdom. Finally, this sense of participation in and responsibility for the vast outpouring of Saving Grace promoted a sense of direct connection to the ultimate teleological goal of Christian history, namely, the millennium. They came to believe that it was given to them and their generation of evangelical Americans to prepare the way for Christ's Second Coming (which Jonathan Edwards had predicted would take place in the New World) by working unrelentingly to bring about the thousand-year reign of righteousness that would precede his return to earth. More specifically, what this meant was that they and their communicants were to enlist themselves in a broad set of campaigns to reform American society. (For more on the importance of millennialism in nineteenth-century religion see under Nineteenth Century, Mormonism and the American Mainstream, African-American Religion in the Nineteenth Century.)

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Donald Scott was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1985-86. He has taught at the University of Chicago, North Carolina State University, Brown University, the New School, and is currently Dean of Social Science and Professor of History at Queens College / City University of New York. He is the author of From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750-1850 (1978), America's Families: A Documentary History (1982, with Bernard Wishy), The Pursuit of Liberty (1996, with R. J. Wilson, et al.); and he is the co-editor of The Mythmaking Frame of Mind: Social Imagination and American Culture (1993). He is currently at work on a book entitled Theatres of the Mind: Knowledge and Democracy in 19th-Century America.

Address comments or questions to Professor Scott through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."

The Foreign Missionary Movement | American Jewish Experience through the 19th Century | Mormonism and the American Mainstream | Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening | Evangelicalism as a Social Movement | American Abolitionism and Religion
Religion in the Civil War: The Southern Perspective | Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Perspective
| African American Christianity, Pt. I | African American Christianity, Pt. II |
Roman Catholics and Immigration in 19th Century America |
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