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Revival – 9 – The Second Great Awakening in America – The Early Years – 1794-1812

Revival historian J. Edwin Orr marks the Second Great Awakening in America as beginning with Isaac Backus’ call to the churches for prayer for revival in 1794.[1] Thereafter, a period of almost continuous revival existed in the United States until 1842 except for the decade beginning with the War of 1812. The early years of revival occurred in the colleges and churches in the east and in the churches and camp meetings of the west. The early years of revival produced many young leaders, but there was no dominant personality that led the revivals. Orr dated the later years of the Second Great Awakening as beginning in 1822 and lasting until 1842. Unlike the early years, this era produced one dominant figure in evangelicalism during the middle third of the nineteenth century—Charles Grandison Finney.[2] This second period will be discussed in the next chapter.

Changes in the American Protestant landscape

Before we proceed further in our discussion, it is important to step back and once again summarize the forces that preceded and later shaped the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century. Thomas Kidd identified several key factors that defined the flourishing American evangelicalism during the last half of The Great Awakening. These changes in the American Protestant landscape greatly influenced the shape and character of the Second Great Awakening at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The first influence was the disestablishment of the dominant moderate evangelical churches of the 1740s-1750s, primarily the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian (Anglican) churches. In 1760, these three denominations accounted for more than forty percent of all American congregations but declined to less than twenty-five percent by 1790. However, the number of populist evangelical churches grew dramatically. The Baptists grew from forty-nine churches in 1760 to 858 by 1790. The Methodists went from having no churches to over 700 congregations during the same thirty year period.[3]

The revivals of the 1760s proved to be a key moment of transition by the former radicals. Much of the leadership of the radicals from the revivals in the 1740s remained in place and had become prominent players in the revivals of the 1760s. These seasoned revival leaders now saw themselves in somewhat of a different, less-radical light. One reason was that by the 1760s the influence of George Whitefield on the radicals had waned. As new churches were birthed from the revivals, the once radical leaders found that they must not only stir revival but pastor the new congregants between revivals. A second reason was that the former radicals sought to carry their populist and egalitarian ideas into mainstream American Christianity. Although liberty of conscience and separation from the established churches continued to be of central importance, the former radicals saw the necessity of presenting new revivals as both “reasonable and enthusiastic.”[4]

A second influence on the America Protestant denominations was a decline in Calvinistic theology. To many in the new populist Protestant denominations during the last half of the eighteenth century, the Calvinist beliefs about predestination seemed doctrinally incompatible with the emerging individualist evangelicalism. The rejection of Calvinism was found among many North American evangelical denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists. The abandonment of Calvinism by the former radical evangelicals was a frequent occurrence during the revivals of the New Light Stir during the Revolutionary War.[5]

A third influence on American Protestantism was that the new birth had become permanently identified as the most significant feature of evangelical Christianity. For the individual, conversion by the grace of Christ became the most important and spiritually significant moment of one’s life. Whether radical or moderate, emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion had forever become the heart of evangelical churches’ reason for being.[6]

Anti-evangelicalism, deism, Unitarianism, Universalism

As a result of disagreement with certain aspects of The Great Awakening in the 1740s and thereafter, many churches become inclined toward formalism and rejected evangelicalism. As the influence of the anti-evangelical churches declined during 1760-1790, these churches eventually became powerful allies of those professing deism. Together, they would counter what they perceived to be the growing threat of evangelicalism. Deism had once again began to grow and expand during the last quarter of the eighteenth century as it had done for a season during the first quarter of the century before being displaced by the birth of evangelicalism. However, the new deism of the late eighteenth century was of a much more poisonous variety for it embraced a large measure of French rationalism which championed human reason over religious teachings. Although deists would not deny God, worship, or Christian ethics as the Enlightenment’s humanists did, the new deism directly attacked revivalism and its emphasis on a personalized heart religion. As a result, the growing influence of deistic rationalism on Protestant thought “had numbed conviction and cooled enthusiasm” in many Protestant churches. The latent deism that had crept into anti-evangelical New England churches which were in decline after 1760 paved the way for the even greater heretical philosophies of Unitarianism and Universalism. Proponents of these philosophies were able to gain control of many strategic and influential Congregational churches which eventually split over these false philosophies. Over time, many churches captured by Unitarian and Universalist philosophies completely abandoned evangelical Christianity as they drifted toward outright humanism.[7]

A call for a “concert of prayer” in the midst of desperate times

The influence of these anti-evangelical forces in the last quarter of the eighteenth century coupled with the spiritual and moral decline as a result of the debilitating effects of eight years of war quickly became a disastrous setback for evangelicals and the Christian cause in general. This general decline was evident in 1796 near the end of George Washington’s second term as president. A friend wrote to Washington of his concerns for the survival of the young nation.

Our affairs seem to lead to some crisis, some revolution; something that I can not foresee or conjecture. I am more uneasy than during the war.

And George Washington replied:

Your sentiment…accords with mine. What will be is beyond my foresight.[8]

Given the dominance of Christianity and revivalism in much of American culture during the middle years of the eighteenth century, many unbelievers may appear baffled by the new nation’s sudden poverty of Christian spiritual and moral fiber. But for Christians who are familiar with the biblical accounts of God’s people through the ages, great victories invariably lead to strong opposition by Satan, man’s great adversary. But Christians also know that when conditions are desperate and defeat is imminent, they must seek God’s face and pray the prayers of desperate men and women for they know that only divine intervention can save the day. On a national scale that means “nothing less than a revival could effectively deal with the situation.”[9] And so it was in 1794 America.

A brief synopsis of Isaac Backus’ life and ministry was presented in the previous chapter. Although he had pastored the Middleborough, Massachusetts, Baptist congregation for forty-six years, by 1794 Backus was a discouraged man because of the widespread personal impiety and blatant corruption of public morals. The churches in America appeared to be powerless in stopping the abandonment of religious principles and consequent declining moral state of the nation. Although many had given up hope, Backus still wavered between hope and despair. In his desperation Backus recruited Stephen Gano, a long-time friend and Baptist pastor, and twenty New England pastors to issue a call for a nation-wide “Concert of Prayer.” The call for prayer for revival went to pastors of every Christian denomination throughout the United States, and the prayer network almost universally adopted and followed the pattern of the British Union of Prayer which set aside the first Monday of each month for prayer.[10]

Whisperings of revival

Soon revival began in the most unlikely of places—the colleges in the longest settled parts of the nation. Although these schools had been founded by godly men for godly purposes, they had become known as brazen centers of infidelity and immorality. Revival began almost imperceptibly among a handful of students who assembled unobtrusively to pray at various colleges. A few students at Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, none professing Christians, attempted to conduct a prayer meeting, but ungodly students sought to disrupt the meeting. The president of the college quelled the disturbance and chastised the unruly students. Thereafter he invited the students wanting to pray to meet in his study. Very soon more than half of the students attending professed to have been converted and become Christians. Local churches also began to be roused from their spiritual lethargy by the students’ conversions.[11]

Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, became the president of Yale College in 1795. Dwight soon encouraged his students to attack without hesitation the truth of the Bible. He answered their attacks in chapel with a series of powerful sermons such as “The nature and danger of Infidel Philosophy” and “Is the Bible the Word of God?” He then challenged the students with plain expository preaching regarding the problems of materialism and deism. Interest in religion grew to such an extent that by 1802, one-third of the entire student body had made public confessions of faith in Christ. Several new revivals at Yale College would follow in the years to come.[12]

During the summer of 1806, five students at Williams College in Massachusetts met for prayer in a grove of maples as they were accustomed. Caught in the open by a brief thunderstorm, they sought shelter beneath a haystack. There they prayed about evangelizing the heathen for Christ and determined to devise a plan to do so. The small band of five organized a society, met in secret, and recorded their minutes in code. Soon they recruited at least twenty other students who shared their burden. In 1810, the burden for lost souls still burned in the hearts of the students. Samuel J. Mills, one of the original haystack group at Williams College, and three of his closest friends were attending Andover Seminary. The four seminarians met with six ministers of their denomination in the parlor of an interested professor. The students presented their plan to reach lost souls, but it was met with skepticism by several of the ministers who pointed to various obstacles that would hinder their mission. The ministers eventually gave their blessing to the young men after being warned by one minister against trying to stop God’s purposes. From its humble origins under a New England haystack during a thunderstorm in 1806, the “whole modern missionary movement” was birthed.[13]

Small though they may have been, these initial college prayer meetings at several American campuses in the early years of the Second Great Awakening eventually led to revivals of religion in a multitude of colleges and subsequently to the churches. J. Edwin Orr described these revivals as beginning “…quietly and without fanaticism of any kind. There was undoubtedly an appeal to the hearts of the students, but first their minds and consciences were moved.” By the turn of the century the awakenings on the college campuses had produced many powerful revivals from Maine to the southern states and most areas between. This was providential for at that very time there were enormous numbers of people that sought to establish new lives in the unsettled regions west of the Allegheny Mountains. The college campus revivals eventually produced “a generation of evangelistic ministers to serve the opening western states.” But in 1798, the illiterate frontiers west of the Allegheny Mountains would not wait for revival to be brought by these future ministers.[14]

Fourteen states had been admitted to the Union by 1791. In the space of a single generation, ten more states were added, all west of the Allegheny/Appalachian Mountains by 1821. Such was the vast migration of people surging into these new states that Ohio soon had a greater population than all but four of the original states in the Union.[15]

Rogues’ Harbour and Cane Ridge Revivals

The revivals in the east were soon surpassed by revivals in the wilderness regions. Two legendary revivals occurred in Kentucky and set the tone for what was to come. By 1800, revival had reached the western extremities of civilization in Logan County in southern Kentucky. Perhaps civilized is too strong a word for Rogues’ Harbour was known for its wild and irreligious people including escaped murderers, counterfeiters, highwaymen, and horse thieves. Lawlessness was so rampant that local citizens formed themselves into regiments of vigilantes to fight the outlaws, often unsuccessfully, to establish a measure of law and order for the settlements. It was here that Presbyterian minister James McCready settled and became pastor of three small churches in 1797. All through the winter of 1799, McCready and several of his congregants joined the national monthly Monday meetings to pray for revival as well as holding weekly Saturday evening to Sunday morning prayer meetings.[16]

Following months of prayer, revival came in the summer of 1800. Toward the end of a sacramental service at the Red River congregation, Presbyterian McCready allowed Methodist preacher John McGee to address his congregation. This was an unusual occurrence, but McGee was the brother of one of McCready’s Presbyterian colleagues. McGee’s preaching so stirred the audience that “Suddenly persons began to fall as he passed through the crowd—some as dead.” McCready and his fellow Presbyterians were so stunned by the bodily manifestations they “acquiesced and stood in astonishment, admiring the wonderful work of God.” McCready soon began preaching in the Methodist-style of preaching at his other two congregations.[17] The spiritual hunger was so great that eleven thousand came to a communion service. Overwhelmed, McCready called for help from all denominations.[18]

The religious gathering in August 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, is considered to be one of the most famous religious events in American history. Cane Ridge was located a few miles northeast of Lexington in central Kentucky which at that time was the largest city in the state with a population of 2,000. The unique feature of the Cane Ridge revival was that people came prepared to camp at the site of the revival meeting which allowed a new intensity and level of religious experience. Although camp meetings were a part of several earlier localized revivals, the Cane Ridge revival was different in that people came from great distances and included rich, poor, black, and white who joined in prayer together.[19] Drawing from many recorded accounts of eyewitnesses, historian Ellen Eslinger pieced together a picture of the historic outpouring of the Spirit of God in the Kentucky wilderness for almost a week.

For more than half a mile, I could see people on their knees before God in humble prayer…Individuals, suddenly struck by their spiritual plight, began falling to the ground “as if dead.” At times the effect was awesome, with several hundred people “swept down like the trees of the forest under the blast of the wild tornado…Religion has got to such a height here, that people attend from great distances; on this occasion I doubt not but there will be 10,000 people, and perhaps 500 wagons.”…The meeting was presided over by the Cane Ridge pastor and 18 other Presbyterian ministers, at least four Methodists, plus several Baptist elders…Cane Ridge offered spectators a chaotic scene. When individuals were spiritually stricken and fell, a circle of curious onlookers gathered around them. The huge, unwieldy scale of the event necessitated parallel activities. Several ministers often preached at the same time in different sections of the grounds, and the only event that had been previously scheduled was the sacrament on Sunday afternoon.[20]

The fame of the Cane Ridge camp meeting revival was a pivotal event in evangelism and served as a pattern for other revivals in the early years of the Second Great Awakening much as Jonathan Edwards’ widely published descriptions of the Northampton revival during the First Great Awakening had done in the First Great Awakening over sixty years earlier.

Revival spreads

Soon the Kentucky revivals had swept south into Tennessee, the Western Carolinas, and Georgia and then north into Ohio Territory. The revival movement increased dramatically, and sometimes crowds of thirty or forty thousand illiterate pioneer settlers gathered and at which preachers from Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterians would preach in different parts of the campground. As always, Satan sowed tares in the revivals through extraordinary emotional excesses beyond the work of the Holy Spirit. However, in spite of the bad, far greater good for the kingdom of God was accomplished and was remarkably evident in the general religious awe that pervaded the country as “drunkards, swearers, liars, and the quarrelsome were remarkably reformed.” The college awakenings eventually provided a flood of well-educated Bible scholars for ministry in the western reaches of America.[21]

The War of 1812 slowed the waves of evangelism and revival, but during the years 1822-1842, thousands were added to the churches which far surpassed the results of the early years of the Second Great Awakening. The primary beneficiaries were those churches who were most evangelistic in word and action, primarily the Baptists and Methodists who evangelized the unchurched masses.[22]

Larry G. Johnson


[1] J. Edwin Orr, “Prayer brought Revival”, (accessed December 28, 2017).
[2] J. Edwin Orr, The Light of the Nations – Evangelical Renewal and Advance in the Nineteenth Century, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1965), p. 54.
[3] Gordon S. Wood, “Religion and the American Revolution,” New Directions in American Religious History, ed. Harry S. Stout and D. G. Hart, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp.185-188.
[4] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening – The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007), pp.286-287.
[5] Ibid., pp. 312-313, 319.
[6] Ibid., p. 323.
[7] Orr, The Light of the Nations, pp. 15, 17, 20.
[8] Ibid., p. 17.
[9] Arthur Skevington Wood quoted by Orr, The Light of the Nations, p. 14.
[10] J. Edwin Orr, “Prayer brought Revival”,
[11] Orr, The Light of the Nations, pp. 21-22.
[12] Ibid., p. 22.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., pp. 23-24.
[15] Ibid., p. 24.
[16] Orr, “Prayer brought Revival,”
[17] Ellen Eslinger, “Cane Ridge Revival,” Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, Volume 1, A-Z, ed. Michael McClymond, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), p. 89.
[18] Orr, “Prayer brought Revival,”
[19] Eslinger, “Cane Ridge Revival,” Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, p. 88.
[20] Ibid., pp. 88, 90.
[21] Orr, The Light of the Nations, pp. 25-27.
[22] Ibid., p. 18.

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