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Revival – 10 – The Second Great Awakening in America – The Later Years – 1822-1842

The ripening fruit of the Second Great Awakening

During the first half of the Second Great Awakening from 1794 to the beginning of the second half in 1822, the expansion of Christianity rested on two pillars: revival and the evangelical organizations growing out of them, especially in the United States and Great Britain. It was in the first half of the Second Awakening that these Christian organizations were birthed and nurtured, but it was in the second half that they matured and spread Christianity’s evangelical mandate to a waiting world. Here we note but just a few of these Christian organizations brought about by the Second Great Awakening.

Baptist Missionary Society was founded in England by William Carey in May 1792 and is generally regarded as the beginning of modern Protestant missionary endeavors.

Wesleyan Missionary Society formed in 1817-1818 arose from the work of Thomas Coke’s Methodist mission to the West Indies during the 1780s-1790s.

Anglican evangelical Thomas Haweis led in founding the interdenominational London Missionary Society in 1795.

Church Missionary Society founded in 1799 based on an idea conceived by Charles Simeon and sponsored by the Church of England.

The Scottish and Glasgow Missionary Societies were formed in 1796 but did not send out missionaries until 1824 because of opposition from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

The interdenominational British and Foreign Bible Society was established in 1804 for the purpose of dissemination of the Scriptures. The American Bible Society was founded in 1816.

Religious and Tract Society was established in 1799 at the urging of George Burder, a Congregational minister who had been influenced by George Whitefield. In 1825, the American Tract Society was founded to provide Christian literature to the religiously destitute.

The interdenominational Sunday School Union was formed in 1803 and was a direct result of the earlier work of Robert Raikes of Gloucester, England, who in 1780 organized a Sunday school to give religious and moral training to the poor children of his city.[1]

These organizations and many others supplied great energy and motivation to evangelicalism in America and Great Britain during 1822-1842 as well as to their corresponding missionary efforts around the world.

During the second half of the Second Great Awakening, almost all denominations experienced revivals. However, none were more involved in American revivalism during this period than the Methodists. In 1822, the Methodists participated in over a thousand camp meetings. But as the radical evangelicals had discovered during the First Great Awakening, the real work in all denominations began with the discipling of new converts after the revival fires died down, and none did it better than the methodical Methodists. A Methodist Bishop of the time told his preachers: “We must attend camp-meetings; they make our harvest time.”[2] But the harvest must be understood as being that brief season that stands between the enormous preparations and effort that must precede a bountiful harvest of souls and the great work of discipleship and training of the newly redeemed that must follow.

Even though revival fires burned hot in the years 1822-1842, there were still divisions among the denominations. The Baptists were divided not so much by doctrine or practice but of necessity due to reasons of geographical dispersion. An extensive network of small Baptist Associations comprised of local churches joined together in voluntary cooperation. These churches were usually guided by farmer-preachers with little formal education. The Presbyterians and Congregationalists were divided over the methods and manifestations of revival. Anglicans divided into Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical branches. Likewise, Lutherans were split between confessional orthodoxy and tolerant evangelism. Whatever their internal divisions, the Reformed, Anglican, and Lutheran churches were cautiously supportive of revival but to a degree far less than their enthusiastic evangelical counterparts.[3]

Charles Grandison Finney

As previously noted, revival was widespread among the American churches in 1822-1842.
At the center of this great outpouring of the Holy Spirit was Charles Grandison Finney, born in Connecticut in 1792. He studied law in western New York. As a law student, Finney began studying the Mosaic legal code. His interest and study of the Bible grew to the point that he believed in the authority of the Word. Remarkably, but not surprising, Finney’s conversion came not from evangelism by others but from his private study and prayer. Revival historian J. Edwin Orr described young Finney and his path to the pulpit.

His conversion caused a great stir in his community, for he was already (at 29 years of age) a brilliant fellow, a splendid pagan, impressive in personality, and proudly conscious of his intellectual as well as his physical superiority.

Self-taught, but well-disciplined in theology, Finney rebelled against the rigid Calvinism of his Presbyterian fellows, yet he was ordained by a lenient presbytery in western New York. To the end of his days, he pursued his own way in theology, and adopted methods of evangelism which brought him into conflict with many of the leaders of the Calvinistic churches.[4]

Finney’s ministry virtually spanned the whole of the second half of the Second Great Awakening and extended well into the Third Great Awakening.

Finney began his ministry in 1824 at the age of thirty-two. He conducted a series of meetings in Evans Mills, Oneida County, New York, where he preached at a Congregationalist church without a pastor. Although the congregation seemed pleased with his sermons, Finney became distressed after several weeks of preaching without any conversions. Finally, Finney confronted the people with regard to their seeming obstinacy in not responding to the message of the gospel. Frustrated with their complacency, he challenged the congregation. “You who have made up your minds to become Christians, and will give your pledge to make peace with God immediately, should rise up.” [emphasis added] This challenge would be a milestone at the very beginning of Finney’s evangelical career for it was the first time he had asked for an immediate response. He then instructed those that had not risen and therefore had “no interest in Christ” to “sit still.” When no one stood, Finney pronounced judgement, “You have taken your stand. You have rejected Christ and His gospel.” He promised to preach just once more the following night. Finney spent the next day in fasting and prayer. That night the school house was packed “almost to suffocation” with “deists, nominal believers, infidels, Universalists, tavern keepers, respectable citizens, and a husband so angry with the evangelist for upsetting his wife that he would ‘kill Finney’.” Finney preached with all his might and the power of God fell. “Conversions began to occur, some accompanied with falling, groaning, and bellowing. Many inhabitants made ‘heart-broken confessions’ and ‘professed a hope’ of salvation…”[5]

At one meeting while at Evans Mills, Finney closed his sermon with an invitation to all that would give their hearts to the Lord to come forward and take the front seats. In later years this became a standard practice in all of his meetings and was called the “mourner’s bench” or “anxious seat.”[6]

Following the breakthrough at Evans Mills, Finney perfected his preaching style over the next six years in local awakenings in western New York State.[7] Finney described his evangelistic preaching style as “…simply preaching, prayer and conference meetings, and much private prayer, much personal conversation, and meetings for instruction of earnest inquirers.” Finney also served as his own song leader, but singing was never an important component at his revival meetings.[8]

The completion of the Erie Canal linked Lake Erie with the deep waters of the Hudson River near Albany which flowed into the Atlantic Ocean. As a result of this new pathway to the sea, the towns along and near the canal’s route boomed and grew rapidly. In this setting Finney’s ministry eventually transitioned to more urban settings in western New York.[9] Finney and his wife moved to Utica, New York, in October 1825; to Wilmington, Delaware, in December 1827; and then to other areas in the metropolitan east.[10]

In 1830, against the advice of friends, the Finneys chose to go to Rochester in western New York where they stayed from September 1830 to mid-June 1831. Although Rochester was the fastest growing city in the United States during the 1820s due to the completion of the Erie Canal, for ministry purposes it was still considered a smaller and more provincial town as compared to the opportunity to preach in the largest urban areas of the nation.[11]

The pulpit to which he was called to fill was at Third Presbyterian Church. The building housing the church had severe structural damage caused by dampness from the nearby canal and was dangerously near collapse. As a result, the doors of several local churches were opened to Finney’s message. A significant aid to furthering the Rochester revival was its alliance with the local temperance movement in the city. The symbiotic relationship between revival and the temperance movement “united evangelical Protestants like no other social movement had, and it would continue to do so for almost a hundred years.” 12] It was estimated that in Rochester alone, one-tenth of the city’s ten thousand residents were converted and twelve hundred admitted as members of the local churches during the revival of 1830.[13]

Finney wrote that the Rochester revival “spread like waves in every direction.” Without doubt Finney’s assessment was accurate in that the revival spread throughout the northeast with estimates of new church members ranging from 100,000 to as high as 200,000. Finney wrote in his Memoirs that “the very fame of it was an efficient instrument in the hands of the Spirit of God.”[14] Here again we see that the fame of certain revivals within a broad spiritual awakening tends to identify those revivals as the signature event of the era: Jonathan Edwards and the Northampton revival of the 1730s during the First Great Awakening, the Cane Ridge revival of 1801 during the first half of the Second Great Awakening, and now the Rochester revival that gave rise to the 1830-1831 revivals during the second half of the Second Great Awakening.

Dr. Lyman Beecher expressed his opinion of this remarkable work of the Holy Spirit that spread from Rochester to virtually all states in the nation.

That was the greatest work of God and the greatest revival of religion that the world has ever seen, in so short a time. One hundred thousand were reported as having connected themselves to the churches as a result of that great revival. This is unparalleled in the history of the church.[15]

As a result of the Rochester revival, Finney became nationally known and soon preached revival meetings to large crowds in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and other large cities. He became professor of theology at Oberlin College in 1836 and the college’s president in 1851 where he remained until 1866. Over the years following the Rochester revival, Finney’s theology evolved from a Presbyterian-Congregationalist Calvinism to a middle path between Arminianism and Calvinism. By the end of his life he was a strong supporter of the doctrine of perfectionism.[16] Christian perfectionism was at the heart of John Wesley’s preaching. The essence of this doctrine is that the Christian pursues a life of sanctification or holiness in which one has been separated from a past life of sin and continues to live a life separated from sin and dedicated to God.

Charles Finney was and remains a controversial figure as are almost all who preach revival for to do so is to incur the wrath of Satan and the forces of the reigning world system. One of Finney’s most controversial beliefs dealt with how revivals begin. In his 1831 “Lectures on Revivals of Religion,” Finney wrote:

A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means…

I said that a revival is the result of the right use of the appropriate means. The means which God has enjoined [ordered] for the production of a revival, doubtless have a natural tendency to produce a revival. Otherwise God would not have enjoined them. But means will not produce a revival, we all know, without the blessing of God. No more will grain, when it is sown, produce a crop without the blessing of God. It is impossible for us to say that there is not as direct an influence or agency from God, to produce a crop of grain, as there is to produce a revival.[17] [emphasis added]

Throughout his entire life Finney believed that “regeneration is always induced and effected by the personal agency of the Holy Spirit.” He also believed the Spirit works through natural means and human agency.[18] Unfortunately, and as is often the case in spiritual matters, this reasonable understanding of the centrality and manner of working of the Holy Spirit was frequently reduced to conversational shorthand devoid of Finney’s intent and true meaning of his position. Thus, in the minds of many, “revivals of religion” amount to little more than human manipulation or fabrication resulting in salvation by emotion rather than salvation by faith. Dr. J. Edwin Orr described the consequences of this misunderstanding and misuse of Finney’s path to revival by many ministers and evangelists, both friend and foe.

[Finney’s] theory of revivals encouraged a brash school of revivalists and evangelists who thought that they could promote genuine revival by use of means chosen by themselves. The use of means was patently successful in the case of so many other Spirit-filled men. In the case of the less spiritual promoters, the theory gave rise to a brand of promotional evangelism, one full of sensationalism and commercialism…[19]

Although Finney fully embraced the religious enthusiasm of the common people, he was steadfastly opposed to fanaticism which damaged the prospects of spiritual renewal by “ranting irresponsible preachers.”[20] In spite of the objections to and misunderstandings of his methods and message, Charles Finney stands alone as the most brilliant evangelist of the nineteenth century. Although Finney was a master revival tactician and the undisputed revivalist leader between 1822 and1842, the footprint of the later years of the Second Great Awakening was far larger than Finney’s and included many other well-known revivals and evangelists of the era.

The decline of religious life in America 1842-1857

Religious life in the United States began a serious decline during the latter half of the 1840s and much of the 1850s as a result of the confluence of several religious, social, and political conditions.

One well-meaning but misguided evangelist of the 1830s and early 1840s brought reproach on the cause of Christ which helped cool the religious fervor of the Awakening. William Miller was a New England farmer, a sincere man, and a zealous leader of many evangelists. In 1831, Miller began preaching a message that the Lord was coming on March 21, 1843. In the dozen years leading up to the projected date, Miller had gathered a following variously estimated to be between 100,000 and one million. As the date approached, many of the Millerites, as they were known, sold their possessions, camped out in fields, or waited in white garments on nearby hilltops for Christ’s return. The date came and went as did two new dates in March and October of 1844 which were predicted for Christ’s return. As a consequence many of the Millerites became embittered and left the church as a result of their misplaced faith. In 1846, a remnant of the Millerites established the Seventh-Day Adventists. The denomination developed several new doctrines to explain the Millerite disaster. Many of these doctrines were blatantly heretical including the assertion that Christ had already come secretly. These doctrines and other beliefs effectively isolated the Seventh-Day Adventists from the rest of evangelical Protestantism.[21] As a result of the Millerite debacle, the Protestant church as a whole was diminished and frequently ridiculed. During the period 1845-1855, faith in religion was greatly diminished, and the church experienced severe losses.[22]

In the social realm, financial and commercial prosperity abounded to the point that the zeal for the material far outweighed the zeal for things religious. “Boom times caught the public fancy, and turned men’s hearts from God.”[23]

However, it was in the arena of politics that propelled the ship of state into uncharted and dangerous waters. The myths of Andrew Jackson as the hero of the common man and Jacksonian democracy as a watershed event in democratic processes is better described as a hypocritical reform movement steeped in corruption, spoils, and patronage. Elected in 1828, Jackson and his successors’ actions “…ensured the dominance of a proslavery party in national politics…” which continued to exacerbate the problem of slavery until the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.[24]

Slavery was an issue that had been a great cause for concern among evangelicals and an institution upon which they had expended great energy in hopes of bringing it to an end. The efforts to abolish slavery in America began even before the nation’s founding as a result of the moral suasion of Christian people who saw slavery as morally unacceptable within the biblical worldview. The case against slavery had been building among many evangelicals since the eighteenth century. But by the 1830s, it was an issue whose time had come, and none were better positioned to press the cause of liberation than Charles Finney and Oberlin College. Finney spoke strongly against slavery in his Lectures on Revivals. He told ministers that “their testimony must be given on this subject” and that failure to speak out implied “that they do not consider slavery a sin.” Finney believed that it would take a national spiritual revival to end slavery and warned that the ideological struggle over the issue of slavery was quickly driving the nation to the brink of civil war.[25]

Just as the Great Awakening was the formative moment in American history preceding the political drive for independence and making it possible, the Second Great Awakening was the stabilizing moment whose effects lasted until the 1840s and saved the new nation from political and moral destruction. The Third Great Awakening was the sustaining moment that prepared the nation to endure the national conflagration of the Civil War and made possible its reunification and survival in the war’s aftermath. The revival of the late 1850s caused men and women, in both the North and South, to be spiritually prepared for the coming struggle in which the nation would exorcize the demon of slavery and recover its national unity.

Larry G. Johnson


[1] . Edwin Orr, The Light of the Nations – Evangelical Renewal and Advance in the Nineteenth Century, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1965), pp. 40-42.
[2] Ibid., p. 54.
[3] Ibid., p. 56.
[4] Ibid., p. 58.
[5] Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), pp. 36-37.
[6] Ibid., p. 39.
[7] Orr, The Light of the Nations, p. 19.
[8] Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney, p. 38.
[9] Ibid., p. 47.
[10] Ibid., pp. 73-74.
[11] Ibid., pp. 100-103.
[12] Ibid., pp. 106, 110-111, 113.
[13] Orr, The Light of the Nations, p. 59.
[14] Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney, p. 113.
[15] Orr,
The Light of the Nations, p. 54.
[16] Ibid., pp. 59-60.
[17] Charles G. Finney, “What a Revival of Religion Is,” Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Lecture I, 1835, (accessed January 13, 2018).
[18] Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney, pp. 220-221.
[19] Orr, The Light of the Nations, p. 60.
[20] Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney, p. 39.
[21] Orr, The Light of the Nations, pp. 60-61.
[22] Ibid., pp. 99-100.
[23] Ibid., p. 100.
[24] Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot’s History of the United States, (New York: Sentinel, 2004), p. 219.
[25] Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney, pp. 173-174.

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