By the end of the 18th century, many educated Americans
no longer professed traditional Christian beliefs. In reaction to the
secularism of the age, a religious revival spread westward in the first
half of the 19th century.
This second great religious revival in American history
consisted of several kinds of activity, distinguished by locale and
expression of religious commitment. In New England, the renewed interest
in religion inspired a wave of social activism. In western New York,
the spirit of revival encouraged the emergence of new denominations.
In the Appalachian region of Kentucky and Tennessee, the revival strengthened
the Methodists and the Baptists, and spawned a new form of religious
expression -- the camp meeting.
In contrast to the Great Awakening of the 1730s, the
revivals in the East were notable for the absence of hysteria and open
emotion. Rather, unbelievers were awed by the "respectful silence" of
those bearing witness to their faith.
The evangelical enthusiasm in New England gave rise
to interdenominational missionary societies, formed to evangelize the
West. Members of these societies not only acted as apostles for the
faith, but as educators, civic leaders and exponents of Eastern, urban
culture. Publication and education societies promoted Christian education;
most notable among them was the American Bible Society, founded in 1816.
Social activism inspired by the revival gave rise to abolition groups
and the Society for the Promotion of Temperance, as well as to efforts
to reform prisons and care for the handicapped and mentally ill.
The revival in western New York was largely the work
of Charles Gradison Finney, a lawyer from Adams, New York. The area
from Lake Ontario to the Adirondack Mountains had been the scene of
so many religious revivals in the past that it was known as the "Burned-Over
District." In 1821 Finney experienced something of a religious epiphany
and set out to preach the Gospel in western New York. His revivals were
characterized by careful planning, showmanship and advertising. Finney
preached in the Burned-Over District throughout the 1820s and the early
1830s, before moving to Ohio in 1835 to take a chair in theology at
Oberlin College. He subsequently became president of Oberlin.
Two other important religious denominations in America
-- the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists also got their start in
the Burned-Over District.
In the Appalachian region, the revival took on characteristics
similar to the Great Awakening of the previous century. But here, the
center of the revival was the camp meeting -- defined as a "religious
service of several days' length, for a group that was obliged to take
shelter on the spot because of the distance from home." Pioneers in
thinly populated areas looked to the camp meeting as a refuge from the
lonely life on the frontier. The sheer exhilaration of participating
in a religious revival with hundreds and perhaps thousands of people
inspired the dancing, shouting and singing associated with these events.
The first camp meeting took place in July 1800 at Gasper
River Church in southwestern Kentucky. A much larger one was held at
Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801, where between 10,000 and 25,000
people attended, and Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist ministers participated.
It was this event that stamped the organized revival as the major mode
of church expansion for denominations such as the Methodists and Baptists.
The great revival quickly spread throughout Kentucky,
Tennessee and southern Ohio, with the Methodists and the Baptists its
prime beneficiaries. Each denomination had assets that allowed it to
thrive on the frontier. The Methodists had a very efficient organization
that depended on ministers -- known as circuit riders -- who sought
out people in remote frontier locations. The circuit riders came from
among the common people, which helped them establish a rapport with
the frontier families they hoped to convert.
The Baptists had no formal church organization. Their
farmer-preachers were people who received "the call" from God, studied
the Bible and founded a church, which then ordained them. Other candidates
for the ministry emerged from these churches, and they helped the Baptist
Church to establish a presence farther into the wilderness. Using such
methods, the Baptists became dominant throughout the border states and
most of the South.
The Second Great Awakening exercised a profound impact
on American history. The numerical strength of the Baptists and Methodists
rose relative to that of the denominations dominant in the colonial
period -- the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Among
the latter, efforts to apply Christian teaching to the resolution of
social problems presaged the Social Gospel of the late 19th century.
America was becoming a more diverse nation in the early to mid-19th
century, and the growing differences within American Protestantism reflected
and contributed to this diversity.