The Second Great Awakening: Charles Finney and Religious Revival

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

The Second Great Awakening was launched after the American Revolution, with Americans turning their rebellious spirit toward religion. Explore the issues Americans took with traditional religious beliefs during this time period, plus how leaders such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher influenced a nation of evangelists, missionaries, and social activists experiencing a religious revival. Updated: 08/19/2021

The Second Great Awakening

The American Revolution left more than just a legacy of government. Not long after the war had overthrown the King and the social fabric of Europe, Americans turned their rebellious spirit to the church. If you're an American, the statistical odds are that you share the spiritual values the Revolutionaries fostered, even if you don't belong to one of their religions.

In the 1730s, the First Great Awakening had reshaped the traditional European churches into something Americans were more comfortable with. By the time of the Revolution, the largest denominations were the Quakers, the Congregationalists (descended from the Puritan tradition), and the Anglicans. But after the war, they wanted something that reflected their own values, something more American. First of all, it hardly seemed appropriate to support the Anglican Church anymore. So Americans kicked off their religious revolution by changing the name from 'Anglican' to 'Episcopal.' They selected their own bishops and leadership, and, of course, eliminated the king as the head of the church. The state of Virginia, which had previously supported the Anglican Church as a colony, led the way in separating church from government altogether. But it was more than that. The earlier denominations followed a Calvinist theology called predestination. Basically, God already knew from the beginning of time who would be saved from hell and who wouldn't. A person couldn't possibly change God's mind, so a Christian's job was to prove to himself and others that he was one of the chosen. This was especially true in the Protestant Northeast. But that theology didn't line up with the Revolutionary sense of national and personal achievement. It was time for a new religious revival, a Second Great Awakening.

Charles Finney was a leading revivalist of the Second Great Awakening
Charles Finney Image

Would you expect a revolutionary who believed that God had just helped him defeat the King of England to agree with a church that said he had no hope of making it to heaven? Post-war Americans embraced the Arminian theology of free will that gave them a little more input into their eternal resting place. Rather than being predestined to heaven or hell, this doctrine says humans are responsible for accepting or rejecting God's salvation. What's more, we have a moral obligation to do more than just prove we have a spot in heaven; we need to improve the world around us. Churches that taught this theology, like the Baptists and Methodists, overtook the old churches. Today they are still the biggest Protestant denominations in America.

The Second Great Awakening also spawned new religious groups, like the Shakers, the Latter-Day Saints (commonly called Mormons), and Seventh-Day Adventists. Some non-traditional groups emerged, such as the Transcendentalists, who sought spirituality apart from religion, and the Communal Oneida Society. Though the religious fervor of the Awakening cooled around the time of the Civil War, its influence has been permanent.

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  • 0:10 The Second Great Awakening
  • 3:01 Spreading the Word
  • 5:52 Transferring Christian…
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Spreading the Word

The Second Great Awakening was very democratic - anyone could be saved, personal study of the Bible was as good as or better than being taught by someone with formal training, regular people could be called by God to become preachers, and God expected everyone (not just a special few) to do His work on Earth. Traveling preachers were called 'Revivalists,' and they applied the secular ideals of the Revolution - hard work and personal virtue - in a religious way. One of the most influential revivalists of the Second Great Awakening was Charles Finney. He urged people to choose God, immediately turn away from their sin as soon as it's pointed out, and then work to make the world around them a little better. When they did this, they were, as the Bible said, 'born again' to do good works. Such concepts are still central to the evangelical denominations, and they resonated strongly with Americans in the post-Revolutionary era.

In the same way that they had wanted to do something about Enlightenment philosophy, Americans in the Second Great Awakening wanted to do something about their theology. It isn't enough to just 'be' good; you need to 'do' good. Don't just change your heart; change your world! Does this sound familiar to you? These values are still characteristic of a lot of religious groups and even non-religious activists in America today.

Western New York was the site of fervent religious revival
Burned Over District Map

Some of these efforts were directly related to religion. Have you ever found a Bible in a hotel room? The International Bible Society started doing that in 1823. Have you ever been handed a tract with an explanation of Christianity? You can credit the Awakening for that practice, too. Revivalists also emphasized evangelism and missionary work to bring Christianity to any place that needed it. The movement was especially influential on the western frontier of New York, which was called the 'Burned-Over District' after the fire of religious revival burned so intently there. The Second Great Awakening was also important in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, where established churches were few and far between.

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