What is the Second Great Awakening?

James Doehring

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.

The Salt Lake Temple, a Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Salt Lake Temple, a Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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.

The Second Great Awakening is said to have ended with the start of the American Civil War.
The Second Great Awakening is said to have ended with the start of the American Civil War.

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.

The Second Great Awakening was marked by fiery sermons.
The Second Great Awakening was marked by fiery sermons.

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Discussion Comments


Where does the Seventh Day Adventist fit in this great awakening and where do you think will they fit in in the coming future?

I've read about William Miller who was a great preacher in the Baptist Church as from 1830-1845.


I think the most important thing about the second great awakening was the fact that it created more ways to express yourself and your freedom, which helped make America the way it is today.


In some ways, the Second Great Awakening still was not that different from the first. Despite its differences in creed, it was still essentially about religious leaders in the United States trying to take control of their followers, and taking it away from the more threatening religious and political leaders from Europe.

While it did lead to positive things like the end of slavery, the Second Great Awakening also led to a rise in fundamentalist thinking, which at times can lead people to be just as harsh to one another as slave owners were to slaves.


@recapitulate, I think the most important thing you mention is the slavery difference. While Edwards and his followers preached strongly about the need to refuse sin and live a moral life, people during the first Great Awakening still did not see enslaving others as an evil thing. But by the Second Great Awakening, slavery was being seen, especially in the North, as a system that not only wasn't necessary and didn't work, but was also cruel and therefore sinful.


The biggest difference between the first Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening was the way in which people focused on religion. In the first Great Awakening, many of the people who converted or became more fervently religious did so in response to the fear brought on by the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and others with similar views. People became more worried than they had been about the risk of falling into sin and being cast into Hell.

In the Second Great Awakening, however, the focus was much more on community and society. Things like alcoholism and slavery became the focus of religious people, and they wanted to improve these conditions to help others just as much as themselves.

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