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13.1: Religious Reforms in the Antebellum United States

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    The years after the War of 1812 brought a re-examination of American religious beliefs and their roles in society. Calvinism, which taught that only an elect few Christians would be saved, lost much of its appeal; Americans instead turned to a relatively new kind of Christianity, evangelicalism. Evangelical sects emphasized the resurrection of Christ, the primacy of scripture, the spiritual “rebirth” of believers, and the importance of proselytizing. The movement began in Europe in the 1700s with the growth of the Baptist movement and the foundation of the Methodist church. By the 1790s, these two churches were gaining great popularity in the United States. Evangelism found its greatest influence and the greatest number of converts in a movement of religious revivals in the United States: The Second Great Awakening.

    Second Great Awakening

    The Second Great Awakening began in the 1790s and, by the 1820s, had emerged as a major religious movement. Evangelical in nature, it stressed that salvation was available to all through free will. Religious reformers preached that individuals were responsible to seek out their own salvation and hoped to regenerate and perfect society through individual conversions. Because it was generally inclusive of everyone, the message was spread to men and women, to rich and poor, and among slaves and free blacks alike. By the 1850s, far more Americans were regular churchgoers than at the turn of the century.

    The most successful denominations of the Second Great Awakening were the Methodist and Baptist churches. By the 1820s, the Methodist and Baptist churches were the largest evangelical denominations. Both were popularly-rooted movements that emphasized conversion and a spiritual rebirth through personal religious experiences. The basic message was that salvation was something anyone could achieve: ordinary people could choose salvation through personal experience and living a righteous life. Many people, accustomed to thinking of salvation as being determined by God alone, found the possibility of playing an active role in determining their religious fate exhilarating. Evangelical churches became tightlyknit communities that sought to transform society first as a force that determined and enforced values, morality, and conduct, and second, by outreach through moral reform societies that concentrated on reforming personal vices such as drinking, sexual misconduct, and gambling. Through these moral reform societies, churches hoped to change society by putting individuals on the “path to righteousness.” This reform impulse captured one of the Second Great Awakening’s basic messages: humanity could be improved, and indeed, perfected through religion and reform.

    One of the defining characteristics of the Second Great Awakening was large gatherings at religious revivals. The meetings typically lasted three to five days and were meant to reawaken or “revive” one’s religious faith through an intense, emotional experience. In part, this was achieved by a certain theatricality of preaching. Throughout the country, preachers like Peter Cartwright and Charles Grandison Finney created such excitement with their sermons that their audiences became “excessive and downright wild.” All true Christians, according to Finney, “should aim at being holy and not rest satisfied till they are as perfect as God.” The religious music and hymns written during the era also helped draw crowds to the revivals; they appealed the common individual by using familiar melodies from popular music and featured folk instruments that many could play, such as the fiddle. Such music remained after the revival and itinerant preacher were long gone.

    Baptists and Methodists preached that all could achieve salvation and that all people were equal before God. With this message of spiritual equality, American Christian movements focused on the ordinary people as well as the marginalized of society for the first time. The message held the greatest appeal for those without power in society. Far more women than men were converted during the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. For some women, church membership and the new Christian message offered more personal power and greater personal freedom, as becoming active in the church was considered to be acceptable feminine conduct. The early message also empowered African Americans, free and enslaved. All over the country, African Americans joined the Baptist, Methodist, and other churches, in part as a response to the message of spiritual equality. The new evangelical denominations of the Second Great Awakening did not require the same kinds of rigorous education as older sects did; rather, it was far more important for a spiritual leader to experience a personal conversion and feel a call to spread the message. Black lay-preachers, not ordained but appointed by the church or community to lead services and preach, became important speakers for and within free and enslaved communities. However, there were limits to spiritual equality; although all were spiritually equal in the eyes of God, for many believers, African Americans and women were still inferior to white men in all other ways. As a result, some African American congregants left the evangelical churches because of racial discrimination or because they were barred from leadership positions within the church and founded their own evangelical denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Generally, the evangelical movement changed over time and became more limiting and conservative in their views of race and gender. The Second Great Awakening swept through most of the country, but it took differing forms in the North and the South.

    Second Great Awakening in the South and in Appalachia

    In Appalachia and the South, the Second Great Awakening brought a sense of community and provided entertainment in isolated rural and frontier areas. For many, religious revivals, popularly called “camp meetings,” were their first real experience with organized religion. Camp meetings were so called because, on the sparsely populated frontier, many attendees had to travel long distances to the meeting and camp out at the location. Camp meetings were a new form of religious expression for the United States. Their intense and emotional atmosphere inspired a tremendous number of conversions. The evangelical message that one’s birth, education, wealth, and social status did not matter in the eyes of God held great appeal for the masses of the frontier. Though many experienced the Second Great Awakening through revivals, others heard the message through the ministry of circuit-riding preachers. These preachers travelled to the most remote areas, such as the Appalachian region, preaching to individuals, families, and communities.

    Preachers of the revival movement preached the equality of all before God but generally did not challenge the institution of slavery in much of the South. For some, the issue initially boiled down to access to the slave population and the ability to bring the message to a wider audience. If they openly challenged the institution of slavery, slave owners would not allow their slaves to attend revival meetings or to hear the message. Indeed, many slave owners feared the message of spiritual equality, so they kept the evangelists out. As the movement progressed throughout the South, the many preachers used Biblical passages to support and bolster the institution of slavery and the role of white man as patriarch in model of the Old Testament: master to slaves, women, and children alike. Simultaneously, the slaves, women, and children were told that obedience to their master was their Christian duty. Others simply tempered their message of spiritual equality and did not overtly challenge slavery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the message changed to reflect the prevailing ideas of the elite, the movement became more popular in the South as slave owners not only attended meetings themselves, but allowed and even encouraged the attendance of the slave population.

    Throughout the South, slaves attended camp meetings. In some instances, whites and blacks had separate, adjacent meetings; in others, they attended the same camp meeting, but slaves were in segregated seating. In either case, they often heard the same sermons, sang the same songs, and received the same message. Revivals also created a widely known group of respected black leaders, many among them preachers associated with the movement. This is especially true of the Baptist church; independent black congregations were founded all over the South. For many slaves, the message was a promise of freedom, either in this world or in the afterlife.

    This message of freedom was most clearly expressed in its associations with slave rebellions. Gabriel’s Rebellion of 1800 grew in part out of a series of revival meetings in the area of Richmond, Virginia. Gabriel, a blacksmith, was often leased out to work for others; in this more “relaxed” system, he was able to move more freely and recruit conspirators, a pattern that was only enhanced by the summer’s revival meetings. Additionally, some of the conspirators were recruited at the Hungary Baptist Meeting House, the church Gabriel and his brothers attended. Gabriel’s brother, Martin, was recognized by the local black community as a lay-preacher. When one of the conspirators proved hesitant to rebellion, Gabriel called on his brother to speak at a meeting of the conspirators to encourage them to action: outright rebellion. Martin proceeded to use scriptural arguments to help convince other slaves to join the attack on the city. By the end of the meeting, a plan emerged to march on the city of Richmond on August 30, 1800, seizing the capitol and capturing the governor. Significantly, Gabriel forbade the conspirators to kill Methodists and Quakers, groups that were actively seeking manumission for slaves in the area at this time. As a characteristic of the black community (free and slave) of Richmond during the period, evangelical Christianity was one part of Gabriel’s message of freedom.

    Twenty years later in Charleston, South Carolina, lay-preacher Denmark Vesey led a similar conspiracy to incite rebellion. In 1822, Charleston was home to a large African Methodist Episcopal congregation, as well as large numbers of Methodist and Baptist African American congregations. Many of the congregants were literate, including Vesey himself. Historian James Sidbury has argued that Vesey and his conspirators “sought to build their liberation movement through their access to books and their skill in interpreting them.” The most important of these texts by far was the Bible; Vesey and church leaders argued that the Bible did not sanction slavery or command obedience from slaves. Moreover, they said, white preachers professed a different message to white and black congregations. Vesey’s plan called for teams of rebels to attack targets such as the arsenal and guardhouse. Afterward, the rebels would flee to the newly-freed nation of Haiti. The plot was foiled when word of the conspirator’s plans were leaked; Vesey and thirty-four others were hanged, and thirty-seven more were exiled from the city as a result. After the conspiracy was quelled, white Charlestonians accused black congregations of the same offense: falsifying and misinterpreting the Bible. The African Methodist Episcopal Church where Vesey preached was destroyed.

    Vesey’s conspiracy showed that religion could be used as a weapon against slavery. A decade later, Nat Turner used the message of the Second Great Awakening to help incite one of the largest slave rebellions in United States history. Turner was a literate, deeply religious man born into slavery in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner, who claimed to have experienced religious visions inspired by the Holy Spirit, used Biblical passages and his account of the visions to recruit more than seventy followers, both slave and free blacks, and incite rebellion. In late August of 1831, Turner and his followers launched the rebellion. Over the next two days, the insurrectionists killed some sixty white men, women, and children. The rebellion was quelled by a local militia, who killed or captured many of the insurrectionists. Fifty-five slaves were tried for insurrection, murder, and treason. They were subsequently executed. In the aftermath of the rebellion, the panicky white population killed more than one hundred black men, free and slave. Rumors spread across the South that the rebellion was not limited to Virginia; more African Americans were killed or arrested in Alabama, Virginia, and in other slaveholding states. Turner himself evaded capture for months. Eventually, however, he was captured, tried, and executed. After Turner’s execution, lawyer Thomas Grey published The Confessions of Nat Turner, an account of his conversations with Turner before he was tried. The account spoke at length of Turner’s religiously informed views of slavery and of his interpretations of the Bible. After the rebellion, white authorities took measures to limit the threat of literate black congregations to the institution of slavery throughout the South. For example, Virginia passed legislation making it illegal to teach slaves, free blacks, or mulattoes to read or write. Moreover, black congregations could not hold religious meetings without a licensed white minister present, presumably to assure that the “right” messages on slavery and freedom were the only ones presented from the pulpit.

    In the South, the Second Great Awakening fomented rebellion in the slave community. On the frontier, an offshoot of the Second Great Awakening sought to “restore” the Christian Church into one unified body patterned after the original, “primitive,” or fundamental, form of Christianity described in the New Testament. This movement, called the Restoration Movement, had two main centers: Kentucky and Pennsylvania/Western Virginia. Like the other evangelical movements of the Second Great Awakening, they stressed adult baptism as an important step to salvation. Today, the influence of the Restoration Movement is seen in the Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ churches.

    Second Great Awakening in the North

    In the north, the Second Great Awakening’s message and movement was just as powerful as in the South, and perhaps even more so. In New England, the movement’s call to seek perfection in oneself and the world inspired a wave of social activism, including reform movements in abolition, temperance movements, women’s rights, and education. In western New York, revival movements inspired many new religious sects as well as social reform. Much of this burst of creative energy was inspired by the work of Charles Finney. In 1821, Finney set out to preach in western New York. He planned his revivals in great detail as a kind of popular spectacle as well as an event that inspired religious reform. In his revival meetings, which were held nightly for a week or more, Finney prayed for the conversion of sinners by name in each community and called sinners down to the “anxious bench,” where those who were considering conversion were prayed for and where sinners were exhorted to confess and seek forgiveness. Finney also encouraged women to speak publicly in “witness” or “testimony” in these mixed-sex gatherings. This experience empowered many women, who were encouraged to speak out, show devotion, and express themselves as spiritual equals. Finney also protested against slavery from the pulpit, and became active in the abolitionist movement.

    Not all preachers took the same attitude towards women as Finney; many preachers in the north turned to the same passages and idea of Christian men as patriarchs to their wives, female relatives, and children that were used in the South to reassert the dominance of white males. Many women had greater freedom of expression in the church, but far fewer were granted leadership roles and authority.

    The region of western and central New York where Finney was most active became the site of intensive religious fervor and reform. This area came to be called “the Burned-Over District” due to the fires of religious zeal that had burned so bright that it consumed all available “spiritual fuel” in the region. The Burned-Over District was not only the site of revivals of the Protestant denominations of the Second Great Awakening, but also the birthplace of new religious movements such as the Millerites, a millennial group who preached that the Second Advent (or “second coming”) of Jesus was imminent. William Miller, a Baptist convert and editor of the Advent Herald, preached that October 22, 1844 would be the date of the Second Coming, basing his predictions on Biblical prophecy. Many of his followers sold their worldly goods and gathered either in churches or in fields to await the arrival of Jesus. The movement experienced what became to be known as “the Great Disappointment” when the morning of October 23 arrived rather than Jesus. Soon after, the movement disintegrated. However, the modern-day Seventh Day Adventist Church later grew out of the Millerite movement. The Latter Day Saint Movement (of which the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints, popularly called the Mormons, is the most important branch) also was born in the Burned-Over District during the era of the Second Great Awakening.


    The driving force behind the Latter Day Saint movement was its founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. In 1823, Smith recounted that an angel named Moroni had visited him. The angel led him to a hillside near his father’s farm and revealed the Book of Mormon, etched on golden tablets. Smith described Moroni as a son of the prophet Mormon and the last of the Nephites, descendants of Hebrews who had travelled to the Americas sometime around 500 BCE. The book reports that there, Jesus visited the Nephites after his crucifixion and resurrection. The Book of Mormon was published in 1830, and Smith began the formation of his church. Like many religious movements of the day, Mormons believed in the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. Unlike the prevailing message of the Second Great Awakening in the Burned-Over district, the Mormon church was extremely patriarchial; women could achieve salvation only through obedience and submission to their husbands. Leadership and authority within the church was the exclusive domain of white men. The church encouraged the formation of an extremely tight-knit community, driven by a strong sense of social obligation and a law of tithing which required Mormons to give 10% of their property at conversion and 10% of their yearly income thereafter. Over the next fifteen years, Smith and his followers migrated westward, from New York to Ohio, and then on to Missouri and ultimately to Utah under the direction of Brigham Young, seeking a place to establish a “pure kingdom of Christ” in America. The Church of Later-Day Saints proved to be a lasting and successful alternative vision to the Second Great Awakening of antebellum America.

    Unitarian Movement

    Evangelical Christianity was certainly the most powerful religious movement in the antebellum United States, but it was not the only one. Throughout New England, many Christians began to espouse Unitarianism, a sect based on the importance of human reason. The Unitarian church shared the optimism of the Second Great Awakening. Unitarians stressed the inherent goodness of humankind. Everyone was eligible for salvation, and a loving God embraced all. Dr. William Ellery Channing, one of the leading preachers and theologians of the Unitarian Church, preached on the great potential of humans. In 1828, his “Likeness to God” sermon argued that true religion is marked by the believer becoming more and more like God. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, Unitarians held that theological ideology should be subject to rational thought and reason; Channing preached that “my rational nature is from God.” Unitarians attested to the “oneness of God.” As strict monotheists, Unitarians viewed Jesus as a saintly man, but not divine. The Unitarian church was most popular in New England and was centered in Boston. For the most part, it appealed to the elite of society. The Unitarian movement spread through many of the Congregationalist churches of the area. Channing’s 1819 “Unitarian Christianity” sermon, which outlined many of the core beliefs of the new American sect, such as a belief in human goodness and rejection of the Trinity, inspired many churches to adopt Unitarianism.


    The Second Great Awakening and the movement in religious revival in the United States had a profound impact on the United States. The new Protestant denominations, most prominently the Baptists and Methodists, grew in strength and numbers. The Second Great Awakening encouraged this impulse to reform by emphasizing individual responsibility and the desire to seek perfection. The Second Great Awakening manifested itself somewhat differently regionally. In the South, the movement became more conservative over time, and generally supported the system of slavery. Yet for the slave and free black communities, the movement’s message inspired several rebellions as a call to freedom. In the north, the movement reached its zenith in the “Burned-Over District” of Charles Finney. In the early nineteenth century, the United States was becoming a more diverse nation; the new varieties of Protestantism were one reflection of this change.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The influence of reason and rational thought is most clearly expressed in what religious tradition?

    1. Unitarians
    2. Mormons
    3. Methodists
    4. Puritans


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The ____________ refers to an area of New York that was so affected by the Second Great Awakening that there “was no more fuel to burn” for the fire of religion.

    1. Burned-Over District
    2. “anxious bench”
    3. Moroni
    4. Millerites


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