Copyright © 2016, Henry J. Sage

The Second Great Awakening

The utopian communities, often driven by religion, rarely lasted more than a few decades, but the religious spirit of the age had more lasting effects. The religious intensity of the American people grew into what became known as the Second Great Awakening. The religious spirit found fertile ground among people moved by the romantic notion of America's special place in the world. Many Americans came to believe that America was destined, perhaps by God, to be an example to the rest of the world, much like the old Puritan idea of New England as a “city upon a hill.” The Unitarian movement that centered on Boston was one manifestation of newer forms of religion.

Charles Grandison FinnetMuch of the Second Great Awakening took place in the frontier regions of America. Pioneers who settled the frontiers often found themselves removed from their fellow settlers. They were hungry for social and spiritual interaction with others. Various Protestant denominations, such as Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and others followed evangelistic impulses and called for a revival of religious feeling. Many of the frontier meetings took place in what were known as camp meetings, assemblies of people who came from considerable distances and camped in wagons or tents. Many of the religious celebrations were exuberant to the point of strangeness, as people spoke in tongues, barked like dogs or expressed themselves in other bizarre ways. Such was the enthusiasm in western New York that a large area in that part of the state became known as the “burned over district,” centered around a fiery preacher named Charles Grandison Finney. Thousands of people converted themselves to the Christian faith from his preaching.

The most prominent group to emerge out of the burned over district of New York was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known as the Mormons. The Mormon faith was founded by Joseph Smith, who claimed that an angel had directed him to some buried golden tablets, which he translated into what became known as the book of Mormon. The Mormons attracted thousands of converts who were promised a pure community centered around Christ in America.

The Mormons were a very close-knit community and professed their righteousness in ways that caused friction with their “Gentile” neighbors. They moved from New York to Ohio, different areas in Missouri, and finally settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, where they remained for five years. Because some members of the Mormon Church practiced polygamy, violent resistance to the group arose, and Joseph Smith was killed by a mob. Smith's successor was Brigham Young, a strong, intelligent and forceful man who led the Mormons on their final trek to the Great Salt Lake basin in Utah. Although Young believed that God would guide his flock, he was a careful organizer and prepared the way for his followers to make the journey by setting up way stations along the trail. The first Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake area in 1847 and found what appeared a desolate wilderness. But soon they created irrigation systems, and through cooperation and industry they brought the desert into bloom.

The Mormons organized their own state called Deseret, planning to establish perhaps a separate nation, which might stretch to the Pacific. Congress, however, created the Utah territory, and with Brigham Young as governor, the Mormons established control of the entire territory. Mormons are still the dominant culture in Utah and areas that border their state.

Arguments about the proper place of religion in American society will no doubt continue, at least through the current millennium. While most Americans readily accept the idea of the separation of church and state, meaning that government should not interfere with the practice of religion, nor bring religion into the halls of government in any overt way, the discussion certainly does not end there. Separation of church and state has never, in fact, been absolute: We may deduct from our income from taxes contributions we make to our churches; taxpayer dollars go for for chaplains for the armed services; government funds may be used by educational institutions with religious affiliations in some circumstances, provided that those funds are not used to disseminate a particular religious doctrine; the motto “In God We Trust,” is still on our money.

The Second Great Awakening

The level of religious enthusiasm in America has waxed and waned over the years, and up to and through the Civil War, religious fervor reached one of its peaks. That movement has given rise to the name, the “Second Great Awakening,” and it had a number of interesting strains. Unlike the first great awakening of the colonial period, which put forth an image of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” a feeling rooted in the Old Testament, the movement in the 1840s and 1850s was oriented more toward the New Testament, in which Jesus preaches a doctrine of mercy and salvation for God's sinners. Yet the intensity of the movement was by any measure often as great as or even greater than any feelings stirred up during the Puritan era.

Preachers such as Charles Grandison Finney sought through religious revivalism to reawaken the spiritual feelings of the masses. At the center of much of the revivalism was a phenomenon known as the “camp meeting,” which was often held in rural areas in the autumn, when farm workers fresh from the harvest would gather and camp in wagons or tents and participate in excited celebrations of their religious feelings. The movement gained such strength that in 1830-31, the number of churches in the Northeast increased by one third. The area of western New York State became known as the “burned-over district” because of the fiery revival fever which had swept the region. Western New York was the province of the aforementioned Charles Grandison Finney, who generated tens of thousands of conversions to the Christian faith in that area in the late 1830s.

Finney's message diverged sharply from orthodox Calvinist doctrine and rejected the concept of predestination.  Finney encouraged believers to accept responsibility for their own salvation, which was available to all. At the center of the Evangelical spirit was the idea of being “born again” into a new level of active faith. Evangelicals sought to bring Christian morality into the daily affairs of all Americans, and from this base they set out to curb what they perceived as the corrupting or corrupted influences which degraded American life in political, economic, and social affairs. The message of personal salvation appealed to many and accounted for much of the growth in church membership and activity, especially among women. Women, responsible for the spiritual development of their children, became more and more involved in pursuits designed to help bring about reforms in many aspects of American life.

beecherIn spite of, or perhaps because of, the intensity of these religious feelings, differences of opinion among various religious groups grew in intensity. Henry Ward Beecher, one of the leading evangelical preachers in New England, warned Charles Grandison Finney not to tread upon his territory. Sharp divisions within churches both North and South focused around the proper Christian approach to slavery. In the South, ministers who attacked slavery even in the mildest way soon found themselves without congregations. In the most extreme cases , some southern preachers began to endorse the idea of slavery as a positive good, ordained by God, using Scripture to reinforce their arguments. In the North the evangelical movement was often closely affiliated with the abolitionist movement, and many of the most ardent anti-slavery advocates exhorted people to reject the institution based upon the principles of Christianity. In their eyes slaveholders were sinners, and they call upon them to repent. That idea of slavery as sin was often directed towards southern women and was at the heart of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The Irish Arrive

Into the midst of this Protestant ferment came yet another element, namely, the arrival of tens of thousands of Irish Catholics who, motivated by economic deprivation and what they perceived as imperious rule by their British overlords, flocked to America in a great wave of migration that peaked during the years of the potato famine in the 1840s. The Irish, of course, were not the first nor only Catholics in America; Maryland, after all, had been founded as a refuge for Catholics, and many Catholic Germans had settled in New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. But the Irish Catholics were less assimilable than many who had preceded them. Up to one third of the arriving Irish, for example, did not speak English but rather Irish, a Gaelic dialect; second, they clung to their ethnic relatives and to their religious faith and gravitated towards urban areas and certain professions such as the constabulary.

In the words of historian Page Smith:

“The Irish Catholics constituted a very particular kind of case. They were, in distinction to most immigrants, curiously unassimilable; you might say indigestible. They would not go down the great American gut and be turned into nourishment for the body politic. They lodged in the upper stomach under the standard of the Democratic Party and gave “native” Americans a vast collective bellyache. As their numbers grew, year by year, they came to constitute a kind of nation with a nation, stubbornly defiant of all the Protestant ethnics/ethics around them. Nothing tested the American system of constitutional government quite as severely as the immigrant Irish in the decades prior to the civil war.”

Violence against Irish Catholics was not infrequent. Catholic churches, orphanages, and parochial schools were often attacked with rocks or bottles and set on fire. The epithet “Dogs and Irish need not apply” was often attached to many notices about employment. Zealous anti-Catholics argued that the Irish were ruled by Rome and therefore would refuse to conform to the strictures of American democracy. Protestant claims were sometimes given credence by statements from the pope, one of whom called American democracy the “bastard brat of French Jacobinism.” Others encouraged American Catholics not to allow their children to attend free public schools, where they would be tainted by Protestant theology. Many saw Catholic self-imposed isolationism as anti-American.

Even as late as 1960, when Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy ran for president, his detractors suggested that he would be guided as much by the pope in Rome as by the United States Constitution. On one occasion, when Kennedy responded that faith would not interfere with his job as president, should he be elected, his critic responded, “Thank you very much, Senator. Now I'd like to hear the same thing from the pope.” Today some 60 million Americans claim the Roman Catholic faith, by far the largest single denomination.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: The Mormons

Out of that burned over district in western New York arose yet another group which became a significant force in American religious life: the Mormons. The Mormon church was founded by one Joseph Smith, who claimed to have had a vision of an angel who led him to a hill where he discovered the Book of Mormon printed on golden tablets in an ancient language. In the belief of the Mormons, some Native Americans were descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, to whom Jesus had appeared in the New World.

The Mormons formed a close-knit community and some of their practices disturbed their more orthodox Protestant neighbors. Seeking to escape religious persecution, they moved across the country from New York to Ohio, Illinois and eventually to Utah, where they settled in the basin of the Great Salt Lake. During the Mormon trek Joseph Smith and his brother were arrested and eventually shot by an anti-Mormon lynch mob. Their successor was Brigham Young, who led the Mormons to Utah and helped establish their refuge in the wilderness. The first Mormons arrived in Utah in 1847 and by 1848 they had begun to tame the desert. They organized their own state called Deseret, and although they continued to find themselves in conflict with neighbors in that region, a military expedition sent to Utah to investigate in the 1850s found the Mormons guilty of some strange practices but no crimes. The Mormon Church thrived and continues to dominate life in the state of Utah as well as border areas of surrounding states. Mormon church membership today numbers around 5 million souls in the United States.

Religious Denominations in America

By including links to the web sites on the right, the author of these pages in no way intends to endorse or exclude any religious faith practiced in the United States or anywhere else in the world. My purpose in including these links is to offer starting points for any students or others who may be curious about the variety of religious experiences in America. It should be pointed out that there are over 100 active Protestant denominations in the United States as well as many other religious groups, whose roots extend to every part of the world. I will be happy to consider any suggestions for links to groups not represented here.

Major Christian Church Denomination web Sites:

Other Faiths:

The Reform Impulse

Like the ebb and flow of enthusiasm for religious ideas, the impetus for reform has alternately grown and diminished at various times in American history. The antebellum period, the decades leading up to the civil war, was one such time. The Progressive Era, 1900-1916 was another. The New Deal era was guided by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wish to reform many aspects of American economic and political society. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s went hand in hand with Lyndon Johnson ideas for a “great society” in yet another major reform period in America.

Reform movements have often been associated with religious fervor, and the era of the Second Great Awakening was certainly driven by that impulse. For many evangelicals, the most important reform needed was the abolition of slavery in United States. But since slavery was protected by the United States Constitution, and since it had a risen to the level of the most fractious political issue in the nation by 1850, the matter of reform of slavery had monumental proportions, and apparently could be settled by nothing short of civil war.

Other areas of public life were more amenable to reforms driven by spiritual awareness. The abuse of alcohol was one such, and the religious connection is apparent by widespread use of the terms “demon rum” or “demon whiskey” to characterize what many religious people saw as an evil influence. The temperance movement, which advocated forbearance in the consumption of alcohol, was a movement that began in the 1830s and 40s and was carried through into the 20th century, when the temperance movement was replaced by the prohibition movement. Abraham Lincoln's first public speech was on the issue of temperance, and many other political figures, often urged on by women who also advocated the abolition of slavery, supported temperance ideas, even if only out of political necessity. (“Demon rum,” not coincidentally, plays a central role in Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.)

The need for temperance in alcohol consumption was readily apparent to any observer of the American scene. From pre-revolutionary days, Americans had consumed prodigious amounts of alcohol. John Adams reportedly started each day with a glass of hard cider, and the per capita consumption of alcohol indicates that whereas young children and many older people drank little if at all, those who did drink drank heavily indeed. As stated, the temperance movement had strong religious overtones, and movements such as the Oxford movement, which attempted to fight alcoholism through the application of religious faith, were common. (They were also antecedents of the well-known self-help group, Alcoholics Anonymous.)

While the temperance movement did to a considerable extent affect alcohol consumption for the better, in one sense it failed. It became apparent to many temperance workers that for some drinkers, temperance did not seem possible. As some have put it, there are those who, when they take their first drink of alcohol, set off a blaze which soon burns out of control and cannot be extinguished except by smothering—in other words, total abstinence. Since temperance for many seemed unreachable, the only other answer was absolute prohibition of alcohol for all. Thus the United States Constitution, arguably the most profound political document ever written, was amended in hopes of preventing people from drinking. Perhaps just as noteworthy is the fact that after 15 years, the “noble experiment” was abandoned, and alcohol was once again available to anyone who wanted it, with modest restrictions, of course.

Other areas of reform included prisons and insane asylums. Both institutions were little more than holding pens for people whose behavior was socially unacceptable. People who suffered from severe mental illnesses or often treated inhumanely, being locked in rooms or chained up so that they could not move about freely. Likewise, prisons were not areas in which any sort of rehabilitation was pursued; rather, the purpose of prison was clearly punishment and nothing more. Reformers such as Dorothea Dix sought to improve institutions for the insane as well as prisons, and while her efforts and those of others did make some progress, major reform in those areas made but slow progress in the 19th century.


Expansion_Reform Home | Updated December 28, 2016