Understanding the evolution of a uniquely American religious experience begins with the fiery and emotional early 19th century that gave rise to modern denominations.
In the early to mid-19th century, religious life in the United States followed the same patterns as emerging democratic traditions. Religion became intensely personal and emotional, inviting individual participation within an often turbulent sea of changes. The Second Great Awakening was as much a byproduct of the fervent transformations in economic and cultural life as the rise of Utopian experimental movements and social reforms. Each transformation sought to acclimate personal needs within a rapidly changing society. For religion, this was most often identified with apocalyptic notions that rejected the social status quo.
Free Will and Revivalism
Although religious revivalism began in the late 18th century within the frontier areas of middle America, by the early 19th century spiritually hungry people were joining religious communes like the Shakers and being called to a “born again” life by evangelists like Charles Finney. Mainstream evangelical groups like the Baptists saw fragmentation as sub-sects formed out of existing church groups like the Free Will Baptists, Universal Baptists, and Free Communion Baptists.
Whether Baptist, Methodist, or any variation thereof, the central message was one of individual conversion. Conversion was the first step in Christian morality. Groups like the Shakers sought to live out what they called “authentic Christianity.” Revivalist temperament feed on spontaneous prayer, biblical exposition, and the call to repentance. Evangelical Christianity preached against the sins of alcoholism, a significant social problem.
The Second Great Awakening gave rise to a vibrant Adventist movement. In 1843-44 William Miller led his followers up mountain tops to await the coming of Christ. His group, the Millerites, ultimately formed the core of the 7th Day Adventist Church as well as the Church of God Adventist. Other Millerites joined the emerging Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, sometimes referred to as Mormons.
Apocalyptic images included Old Testament “fire and brimstone” and featured a God who was not averse to punishing for sin. Unlike late 20th or early 21st century Christians that tend to emphasize the New Testament and all but ignore the Old, 19th century Christians saw the Bible as a totality. When President Lincoln quoted Scripture in his Second Inaugural Address, he used both parts of the Bible and tied the passages together. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin ends with a “jeremiad” that predicts the wrath of God upon the American nation for the evils of slavery.
The 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt in Southern Virginia was led by a highly intelligent slave who knew the Bible and was convinced that God had sent him “signs” designed to liberate the slaves. His understanding of Old Testament scripture was no less meaningful than the many sects and movements throughout the nation that harbored millennial expectations. This was even true of John Brown, whose knowledge of the Bible inspired him to act as God’s avenging angel.
Second Great Awakening and the Civil War
Ronald White’s book on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural claims that Civil War soldiers were the most literate soldiers in the history of the American military, particularly in terms of their Bible literacy. As White concludes, these were men that had come out of the Second Great Awakening. Is it possible that part of the intense motivations that led to many bloody battlefields were rooted in personal lessons taken from the revivalist, apocalyptic messages of popular American religion?
Lincoln himself said it well: “both read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Yet both sides interpreted differently. Unlike Europe, there was no “state church” in America. The barriers between church and state allowed the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, which produced a teeming and often turbulent set of religious variables.
- Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992)
- Basil Miller, Charles Finney (Dimension Books, 1941)
- Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years Vol. 4 (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)
- Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002)