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Age of Jackson: 1824–1840

Second Great Awakening

Rise in Evangelicalism

The Second Great Awakening was an evangelical religious movement that began in the late 18th century.

The notions of freedom and democracy that fueled the American Revolution also spurred the Second Great Awakening (1790–1850). This evangelical religious movement exerted significant social influence in the first half of the 19th century. Evangelical beliefs were based on the notions of equality and free will, or one's ability to act independently of social, natural, and religious constraints. Both concepts were championed by American Patriots. While a Calvinist believes God preordains who will be saved and who will be damned, an Evangelical has a different conviction. Evangelicals believe humans can choose to turn away from a life of sin and that choice, not destiny, determines an individual's salvation.

Leaders of the evangelical movement also disregarded the notion that only those with a college education could interpret the gospel. They argued that anyone who could read the Bible could also understand its messages. A person's devotion to Evangelicalism was for the masses, not just the elite.

Early proponents of evangelicalism drew a direct connection between religion and the success of the United States. To strengthen the country, Evangelical leaders made it their mission to convert, or change the religion of, vast numbers of people. This was often done through a large spiritual gathering called a camp meeting. Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people attended these services, which lasted for several days. Charismatic evangelists preached the gospel in huge tents and open fields. Camp meetings were highly emotional events that included hymn singing and the public confession of sins. For many, the highlight was a "rebirth," or psychological transformation of one's religious identity.
Camp meetings, like the one depicted in Jacques Milbert's Camp Meeting of the Methodists (1819), were known to attract thousands of people from all different backgrounds.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-772
The fervor of the Second Great Awakening promoted rapid growth of several Protestant denominations, including Methodist and Baptist churches. It also led to the establishment of black churches. White plantation owners had once been afraid baptizing slaves would mean having to set them free. Around 1825, under the influence of the Awakening, they began encouraging their slaves to attend revivals. They hoped their slaves would be better workers if they converted to Christianity and felt a sense of duty to God.

Many slaves and free black people found hope in the evangelical messages of love and spiritual equality. Thousands converted to Christianity. Those who followed the Methodist and Baptist traditions eventually formed their own version of Christianity that also drew upon western and central African cultures. Many voiced their sense of community and faith in spirituals—or religious songs—that expressed continuing hope in the face of slavery's hardships.

Social Reform

Evangelicalism's shift from established denominations and its emphasis on individual moral responsibility led to the formation of benevolent societies and civil rights organizations.

The Evangelical movement sweeping the nation in the first half of the 19th century placed emphasis on the need for morality in a world full of sin. At the time, the Evangelical message was that humans are responsible for their own path in life. Those who drank alcohol, gambled, cheated on their spouses, physically abused others, or patronized prostitutes had little chance of salvation. Those who were good, upstanding, moral citizens were ensured a place in heaven. It was up to each individual to choose which way to go. These widely held beliefs, coupled with the evangelists' desire to convert as many people as possible, resulted in an outbreak of social activism.

The first benevolent societies, or charities, were mini-ministries. Their goal was to convert people to Evangelicalism. Later organizations focused on specific societal ills. Temperance societies promoted abstinence from alcohol—the use of which was thought to contribute to crime, violence, and poverty. Magdalene societies of the 1830s and 1840s addressed the issue of prostitution. Members prayed for prostitutes to reform and publicly shamed men who paid for sexual services. Other organizations focused on illiteracy, disease, and those living with disabilities, such as deafness, blindness, and mental illness. Reformers also advocated against public punishment and humiliation of lawbreakers. They instead pushed for criminals to be isolated in prisons where they would be treated humanely. The 1820s also saw an increased demand for free public schools for all children, no matter their family's financial status.

Many Evangelicals had trouble reconciling their religious duty to eradicate immorality with the practice of keeping slaves. To them, slavery was "the sum of all sins." The antislavery abolition movement was in full effect in the North by the 1830s. This led to an ideological divide between Northerners—who generally supported universal freedom—and Southerners, who relied on slaves to support their agriculture-based economy.

Women played a pivotal role in the abolition movement, as well as the other benevolent societies formed during the Second Great Awakening. White women were the first people to flock to evangelical churches, and they were largely the ones running the charities and doing "good works." Women's roles evolved in the crusade for abolition. Excluded from some abolition organizations, they formed their own groups, such as the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Women's new social power coalesced into the 19th century's women's rights movement. Several female abolitionists, including Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began focusing on political, social, and economic equality between the sexes.