The Second Great Awakening was a period of religious revival in the United States between 1790 and the 1840s. It followed the First Great Awakening of colonial America. Characteristics of this period include widespread conversions, increased church activity, social activism, and the emergence of new Christian denominations. The period is considered to have ended with the American Civil War, though its legacy continues to this day.
In a response to the perceived lapse in religious devotion following the Age of Enlightenment, a number of preachers sparked the First Great Awakening in the American colonies. Preacher Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” for example, emphasized that God may cast wicked men to hell at any moment. Other preachers joined Edwards in the 1730s and 1740s in delivering sermons with vivid imagery to broad audiences. Their preaching style of connecting emotionally with common people, rather than advancing theological arguments, was widely imitated. The term “Great Awakening” is contested, but most agree that church activity increased in many areas during this time.
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Social activism, especially in northern states, was an integral part of the Second Great Awakening. Advocates of the temperance movement criticized various effects of the role of alcohol in public life. Other activists began pushing for women’s rights, including the right to vote, during this period. Still others pushed for the reform of prisons. Finally, abolitionists gathered around the issue of slavery and called for its end in the United States.
The Second Great Awakening was also a period that saw the establishment of many new Christian denominations. Following the American Revolution, many desired religious independence as well as political independence from Europe. They interpreted the establishment of communities in new American lands as an opportunity to form churches free of European corruption. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, traces its origin to the Second Great Awakening. Similarly, the Baptists and the Shakers developed significantly during this period.
American history was significantly influenced by the Second Great Awakening. The strengthening of abolitionism increased tensions between the northern and southern states, which culminated in the American Civil War. The development of the temperance movement eventually resulted in a constitutional amendment that banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol. Some historians identify a Third Great Awakening that added international missionary work to the other forms of religious activity seen in earlier phases of a broader Great Awakening.