2nd Great Awakening: America, Revival and Revivalism

After the end of the first great awakening, the ministers who were of a revival bent continued ministering after the awakening in much the same manner. They just didn't get the same effects.This is another mark of revival - if the same efforts, all of a sudden get much more success, or in this case they no longer get the same effects. Here and there there may have been isolated cases of the moving of the Spirit in revival, however the general revival was definitely over. Even preachers of the stature of Whitefield never had the same success as they did in those short years.

It was not until the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the next that we see such happenings again. In both revivals, the modus operandi was that a preacher, either itinerant or settled, would preach and people would be saved and changed. Revival revolved around meetings either the normal worship and other meetings of the church or special meetings such as we presently see arranged for visiting speakers.

One of the big differences between the two revivals was the sheer length of time of the second compared with the first. While the first lasted around 5 years, the second was around 30 years. Thirty years sounds a short time if you say it fast but it is a complete generation.

This together with the inroads of armenianism or even pelagianism, completely changed the understanding of salvation and revival. Calvinism puts the activity of Salvation and even the ability to be willing to accept salvation in the hands of God. Further, because of the omnipotence and omniscience of God there were those Christ died for and those alone and all of those will be saved

Pelagianism states that a person can choose to become a new creature at any time ie the responsibility and ability to become regenerate is in the hands of the person.

Armenianism suggests that Christ died for all and that any can take up the free gift that is offered.

Through the late 1700s there were a succession of Methodists involved in ministry in the United States. (It is interesting to note that that both Johnson and Marsden the first chaplains to Australia were accused of being enthusiasts ie Methodists) The Methodist method was to itinerate and so a relatively small number of ministers could cause a large if passing effect.

One significant revival between the two awakenings was the revival among the Baptists at James River in 1785. One historian describes the revival in this manner:

Mr. Benedict, in his Abridgment of the History of the Baptists, on page 345, speaking of the great revival that began among them, on James River, in 1785, says, "During the progress of this revival, scenes were exhibited somewhat extraordinary. It was not unusual to have a large proportion of the congregation prostrate on the floor, and in some instances they lost the use of their limbs. . . .


Screams, groans, shouts, hosannas, notes of grief and joy, all at the same time, were not unfrequently [sic] heard throughout their vast assemblies. . . . It is not unworthy of notice, that in those congregations where the preachers encouraged them to much extent, the work was more extensive, and greater numbers were added. It must also be admitted, that in many of the congregations, no little confusion and disorder arose, after the revival had subsided. Even then, among the old fashioned Calvinistic Baptists of the Old Dominion these strange bodily agitations obtained; and many of the preachers 'fanned them as fire from heaven,' and the excitement and confusion that pervaded their vast assemblies well nigh fills Mr. J. L. Waller's measure of a 'New Light Stir' in Kentucky"(pp. 356-357). (quoted in Riss Quake p2)


Another influence leading up to the second great awakening was the beginning of the Shakers. The shakers were started by James and Jane Wardley in response what they perceived as a lessening in the prophetic spirit among the Quakers. They were strongly influenced by the French prophets who were also into strange manifestations. A typical meeting of the shakers went like this:

One of the Quaker customs followed by James Wardley was to assemble his Society together for silent meditation, but it did not end with that. After sitting for a while the congregation began to tremble "and, at times, they were affected with the power of God with a mighty shaking; and were occasionally exercised in singing, shouting, or walking the floor, under the influence of spirited signs, swiftly passing and repassing each other, like clouds agitated by a mighty wind." It was from these strange exercises that the name Shakers was derived (ibid, p. 3).(riss quake p1)

The Shakers were soon established in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky and took a major part in the initial scenes of the second great awakening.

The beginning of the second great awakening is considered to be in Kentucky and Tennessee in 1800. It should be noted that not only is Cane ridge that Pratney mentions near Paris Kentucky but Barton Stone, the minister there in around 1801, was one of the founders of the disciples of Christ that I believe is the forerunner of Churches of Christ and others.

These first years saw the birth of a new phenomena the camp meeting. Originally they were a form of Presbyterian communion service. Presbyterians tend to celebrate communion rarely and make a special occasion of it. With the small populations and the wide distances, the camp meeting was a solution. People traveled for long distances and then they stayed for four or five days enjoying the hospitality of their hosts.

As time went on the numbers of people attending grew and the only way to house and feed the numbers was by them camping in tents and wagons and doing their own providing. Soon the meetings became interdenominational. The best remembered was at Cane Ridge in 1801.

At Cane Ridge, eighteen Presbyterian as well as Methodist and Baptist ministers took part in a week of services (cf Murray p152). It is estimated that between 10,000 and 21,000 people attended. One eyewitness account:

I arrived there on Saturday about 10'oclock: I then began to note some of the extraordinary particulars: I first proceeded to count the wagons containing families, with their provisions, camp equipage, etc to the number of 147: at 11 o'clock the quantity of ground occupied by horses wagons, etc was about the same size as the square between Market, Chestnut, Second and Third streets, of Philadelphia - there was at this place a stage erected in the woods, about 100 yards from the place of the meeting-house, where there were a number of Presbyterian and Methodist ministers; one of the former preaching to a crowded audience - at the same time another large concourse of people collected about 100 yards in an east direction from the meeting-house, hearing a Methodist speaker - and about 150 yards in a fourth course from the house was an assembly of black people, hearing exhortations of the blacks, some of whom appeared deeply convicted, and others converted. The number of communicants who received tokens were 750, nor was there a sufficiency of them - these tokens are small pieces of lead, the size of a five-penny bit, with the letter A or B impressed thereon, and a re distributed by ministers to the members of the several churches, not excluding the Baptists who apply for them. (John Lyle, quoted Murray p153)

Murray comments that the discrepancy between the 750 communicants and the numbers attending demonstrate that a large number of the people attending were not church members

For an account of the sin in the camp meetings check out the hostile book - Slaying in the Spirit the telling wonder by Nader Mickail.

Murray also comments on the numbers. At another communion season, 8000 attended and 350 were communicants. At the same time in 1800 Lexington Kentucky's largest town had a population of 1797 of which 439 were slaves. The sheer size of the meetings are a good indication of the extent to which the revival was reaching. In the words of Robert Davison:

Business of all kinds was suspended; dwelling houses were deserted; whole neighborhoods emptied; bold hunters and sober matrons, young men, maidens, and little children, flocked to the common center of attraction; every difficulty was surmounted every risk ventured, to be preset at the camp meeting. (Murray p153)

The numbers of new Christians who came into the churches during this time were staggering. The Elkhorne association in Boone county Kentucky had 1642 members in 1800. The minutes of 8/8/1801 showed a gain of 3011 members. One witness, McGready reported 330 persons in 1800, and another 144 that he knew in the first ten months of 1801. He had scarcely any doubt of their true conversion. (cf Murray p 156,157)

Manifestations were well known in the meetings. Barton Stone reports of the Cane Ridge revival:

The scene to me was new and passing strange. . . . Many, very many fell down, as men slain in battle, and continued for hours together in an apparently breathless and motionless state-- sometimes for a few moments reviving, and exhibiting symptoms of life by a deep groan, or piercing shriek, or by a prayer for mercy most fervently uttered(p. 12). (Riss Quake p3)

A paraphrase of another witness Richard McNemar:

Then the tumultuous bodily 'exercises' began. Along with the shouting and crying, some began falling. Some experienced only weakened knees or a light head (including Governor James Garrard). Others fell but remained conscious or talkative; a few fell into a deep coma, displaying the symptoms of a grand mal seizure or a type of hysteria. Though only a minority fell, some parts of the grounds were strewn like a battlefield(p. 13). (riss quake p3)

The heady emotion and manifestations were taken as a pointer to the facility of camp meetings by the Methodists. Both the Baptists and the Presbyterians stopped using them shortly after 1800, however by 1812, it was estimated around 400 camp meetings were being held by the Methodists annually (cf Murray p183)

The Methodists believed that the lesson from Kentucky was that camp meetings with their large numbers, emotive community singing were very conducive to a response to evangelism. It has been suggested that the Calvinists realized from the New Testament that no techniques could produce conversion and left the field to the Methodists. It must be noted that the theology of the Calvinists would tend to look askance at any emotionalism because it would confuse the issue, and thus Old style Calvinism would be a hindrance and opponent to mass meetings (Murray p184)

The Methodists had also begun just prior to this to record the number of supposed conversions in meetings, a practice avoided by both Wesley and the Calvinists. Soon they had people positioned to count the number that fell, believing the figure an indication of permanent results. However soon they moved on to another method - that of inviting mourners to the front, or to the altar.

While initially, it was not a means of conversion, rather an opportunity to pray with those touched by God, soon the very coming to the altar became confused with conversion (cf Murray p186). As coming forward became the alternative to being lost, the success of the preachers grew incredibly:

The invitation was no sooner extended than the mourners came pouring forward. The enclosure was so much crowded that its inmates had not the liberty of lateral motion, but were literally hobbling en masse Five hundred persons pressed forward Exhortation and singing were renewed; and it was proposed that [visiting preachers on the platform] should go down and pass among the people for the purpose of conversing with them and inducing them to come forward. (Murray p187)

Soon there was little distinction between numbers of those converted and those coming forward at the altar call. As I said, the Presbyterians soon left the use of mass gatherings to the Methodists - they continued their ministry in small meetings in churches. In one thing though they shared a method with the Methodist. They retained itinerant preachers.

Two of the itinerant preachers of this time I have already mentioned - Asahel Nettleton and Charles Grandison Finney. Nettleton was the most famous of the preachers of the early part of the era. Finney appeared in the latter part of his ministry.

Nettleton was of the old school, a Calvinist and great preacher. His methodology was to preach and attempt to awaken his hearers to their peril. For those convicted, he would visit them and counsel them, help them to understand their need of God. Nettleton would pray that God would convert them. And once they had made a commitment he would wait for the proof of the conversion in changed lives

He was itinerant however he largely preached in the north east of the states. His reputation was such that he was welcome in most places. His ministry was in support of the like minded ministers in residence. The only time anything bad was said about him was when his opponents created a rumor that he had been indiscreet in his conduct with women - a laughable accusation but one that dogged him the rest of his life especially when he moved into areas where he was less well known. (cf Thornbury p86)

Thornbury describes his ministry as bringing, at a conservative estimate 25,000 conversions. In the 1820s the population was only 9 million. Thirty years after his death, very few of the conversions had proved to be spurious. (Thornbury p 233) Yet a mere fifty years after his death, his name is virtually unknown. At most he is remembered as the antagonist of the righteous Finney.

During the first great awakening there was Davenport who was involved in a very strange and divisive ministry. His meetings were loud and emotive, he was continually attacking the settled ministers and dividing churches. Nettleton was active in the very same area of country fifty years later and was even then dealing with the mess left. These were described as the burnt over regions. the metaphor was that of a field of stubble, the fire burnt fast and furious but was soon gone, leaving nothing left of religion.

Nettleton saw the similar methods in use by Finney and his cohorts. This was the first point of disagreement between the two factions. Soon however the debate moved on to the underlying theology.

The lives and ministries of the two overlapped, Nettleton died in 1844 and Finney was ordained in 1824.

There is no doubt that Finney was mightily used in the revivals. in 1825 he preached successively in Rome and Utica. In Rome a town of 4000, 500 were added to the churches. In 1827 a pastoral letter was released by the ministers of the congregational churches of Oneida the area of the new measures revivals. It rebukes some of the things that the new measures included:

Condemning in the gross, of approving in the gross; Making too much of any favorable appearance; Not guarding against false conversions; Ostentation and noise; The hasty acknowledgment of persons as converted; ,(The strength of a church does not consist in its numbers, but in its graces... We fear that the desire of counting numbers is too much indulged, even by good people.); Suffering the feelings to control the judgment; Talking too much about opposition; Censuring, as unconverted, or as cold, stupid, and dead, those who are in good standing in the visible church; Praying for persons by name, in an abusive manner; Denouncing as enemies of revival those who do not approve of everything that is done; Taking the success of any measures, as an evidence that those measures are right, and approved of by God. (Murray p235)

Nettleton commented on the controversy and his part in it when invited to come to a convention aimed at settling the debate:

I have been compelled by ministers to talk and exhaust all my strength and to spend nearly all my time, for about eight months on this subject. I have done all I can; and have been greatly blamed by many for what I have done. I have resigned the subject entirely to the management of settled pastors, whose business alone it is to determine the question, what measures shall be introduced into their churches... (Murray 235)

It should be noted that Nettleton put himself under the authority of the settled minister ie any preaching that he did was in cooperation with the settled minister. Most of the new measures ministers did not.

While Finney has been given the name of the one who innovated these changes. As I have shown they were the logical progression of both the first great awakening and the practice during the camp meetings and just prior. It should also be noted that while Finney was heavily involved in the new measures, there was a whole host of younger itinerant imitators.

These new measures were:

The encouragement of physical responses to preaching (such as falling to the floor); women speaking in worship; meetings carried on through long hours and on successive days (protracted meetings); and, above all inviting individuals to 'submit to God' and to prove it by a 'humbling' action such as standing up, kneeling down or coming forward to 'the anxious seat' (Murray p242)

The issue came down to a discussion of the place of emotion and excitement in revival. While the old school believed that emotion was natural and the normal result of anointed preaching, the use of measures to increase emotion and thus the number of "converts" was considered highly doubtful. One of the old school, William R. Weeks, stated:

We complain that the whole system of measures seems to be adapted to promote false conversions, to cherish false hopes, and propagate a false religion; and thus, ultimately, not only destroy the souls of those who are deceived by it, but to bring revivals, and experimental religion itself, into discredit. (Murray p243)

Underlying the debate was of course a different understanding of revival and a different understanding of conversion. The Old school saw revival as a miraculous gift of God, a greater outpouring of the grace of God bringing greater results to the same efforts. it The New school was working on a very different understanding. It came to be seen that if you went through the correct process, in other words did the right things in the right order, then revival would ensue, automatically.

Finney wrote in his revival lectures exact instructions at a time when the second great awakening was already waning putting him to the lie. The very length of the second great awakening was what allowed this misconstruction. After 20 years, it may well seem that the process was correct and revival could be had at any time.

Finney arguing from the concept of the justice of God, suggested that God would be unjust to require people to do something they were unable to do. Thus a God who required a person to turn to Christ who was unable to turn to Christ because of their sinful nature, was not a just God. Having said this, it is just a small step to saying that anyone can turn to Christ and be regenerated on the decision of the person. The very decision was regeneration, brought about by argument.

As Finney described it:

Instead of telling sinners to use the means of grace and pray for a new heart, we called on them to make themselves a new heart and a new spirit and pressed the duty of instant surrender to God... Such teaching as this was of course opposed by Man, nevertheless it was greatly blessed by the Spirit of God. (Murray p285)

Once you push this idea a little further, you find that any method that can be used to cause that decision, the outward show of which was in the altar call or another similar measure, was valid. Jedidiah Burchard, a probable mentor of Finney, is described thus:

After repeated prayers and appeals, by which he almost compelled multitudes to repair to the anxious seats, he asked again and again if they loved God. They were silent. 'Will you not say that you love God? Only say that you love or wish to love God.' Some confessed and their names or numbers were written down in a memorandum book, to be reported as so many converts. It was enough to give an affirmative to the question: but many were not readily, and without continual importunity and management, induced to the admission. He would continue - 'Do you not love God? Will you not say that you love God?' Then taking out his watch, - 'There now, I give you a quarter of an hour. If not brought in fifteen minutes to love God, there will be no hope for you - you will be lost - you will be damned.' A pause and no response. 'Ten minutes have elapsed, five minutes only left for salvation! if you do not love God in five minutes, you are lost forever!' The terrified candidates confess - the record is made - a hundred converts are reported. (Murray p287)

Asa Mahan a contemporary comments about the evangelists involved in the new measures:

I cannot recall a single man, brother Finney and Father Nash excepted, who did not after a few years lose his unction and become equally disqualified for the office of evangelist and pastor (Murray 288)

Joseph Ives Foot looking back on Finney's ministry in 1838 wrote:

During ten years, hundreds, and perhaps thousands were annually reported to be converted on all hands; but now it is admitted, that his [Finney's] real converts are comparatively few. It is declared even by himself, that 'the great body of them are a disgrace to religion' (Murray p289)

What points can be made about the two awakenings and the move from revival to revivalism:

1) It is God who brings revival and there is no way to create or cause revival.

2) Strange manifestations may or may not accompany the working of the spirit. Manifestations or other responses are not an indication of the successful work of the spirit. The success of the work of the spirit is dependent on the continued decision of the workee.

3) Salvation goes beyond anything we can do, there is the regeneration that is a miraculous work of God.

4) Causal ministry doesn't work ie ministry is not about doing things to cause something to happen, it is about communicating God so that things may happen

5) All moves of the spirit are mixed in that there will be some good things and some bad.

Discussion Questions:

1) What are the differences between our understanding of salvation and those of the second great awakening?

2) What are the key features of the understandings of salvation according to the theologies labelled: Calvinism, Armenianism and Pelagianism?

3) How would you describe your theology of salvation? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

4) What are the differences between the understandings of revival in the first and second great awakenings? What do we believe today? What is correct?

5) How do you deal with the kind of controversies recounted above?


This essay was developed as a lecture and so the references are not as good as they should be. As far as I am aware the material was based on the following books:

"Revival: Principles to change the world" by Winkie Pratney (Whitaker House1983)

"The Manifestations Throughout History" St. Louis CATCH THE FIRE Conference, May 3-6, 1995 by Richard M. Riss (From Rohn Price WWW Blessing Page),

"Revival and Revivalism" by Iain H. Murray (The Banner of Truth Trust 1994)

"God Sent Revival" J.F. Thornbury (Evangelical Press 1977)