Modern history

Saving the Nation from Sin

Americans had established Bible societies, prayer circles, and urban missions as early as the 1810s. These efforts were infused with new energy as evangelical fires—lit by southern camp meetings in the early nineteenth century—swept across the North. Men and women of all classes and races embraced this Second Great Awakening to express deeply held beliefs and reclaim a sense of the nation’s godly mission. Yet evangelical Protestantism was not the only religious tradition to thrive in the 1830s and 1840s. The Quaker and Unitarian faiths also grew in this period. Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues expanded along with immigration, and new religious groups—including Mormons and Millerites—attracted thousands of followers. At the same time, transcen- dentalists sought deeper engagements with nature as another path to spiritual renewal.

The Second Great Awakening

Although diverse religious traditions flourished in the United States, evangelical Protestantism proved the most powerful in the 1820s and 1830s. Evangelical churches hosted revivals, encouraged conversions, and organized prayer and missionary societies. This second wave of religious revivals began in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801, took root across the South, and then spread northward. Although revivals had diminished by the late 1830s, they erupted periodically through the 1850s and again during the Civil War. But it was the revivals of the 1830s that transformed Protestant churches and the social fabric of northern life.

Northern ministers like Charles Grandison Finney adopted techniques first wielded by southern Methodists and Baptists: plain speaking, powerful images, and mass meetings. But Finney molded these techniques for a more affluent audience and held his “camp meetings” in established churches. Northern evangelicals also insisted that religious fervor demanded social responsibility and that good works were a sign of salvation.

In the late 1820s, boomtown growth along the Erie Canal aroused deep concerns about the rising tide of sin. In September 1830, the Reverend Finney arrived in Rochester and began preaching in the city’s Presbyterian churches. Arguing that “nothing is more calculated to beget a spirit of prayer, than to unite in social prayer with one who has the spirit himself,” Finney led prayer meetings that lasted late into the night. Individual supplicants walked to special benches designated for anxious sinners, who were prayed over in public. Female parishioners played crucial roles, encouraging their husbands, sons, friends, and neighbors to submit to God.

Thousands of Rochester residents joined in the evangelical experience as Finney’s powerful message spilled over into other denominations. But the significance of the Rochester revivals went far beyond a mere increase in church membership. Finney had converted “the great mass of the most influential people” in the city: merchants, lawyers, doctors, master craftsmen, and shopkeepers. Equally important, he proclaimed that if Christians were “united all over the world the Millennium [Christ’s Second Coming] might be brought about in three months.” Local preachers in Rochester and the surrounding towns took up his call, and converts committed themselves to preparing the world for Christ’s arrival.

Lyman Beecher, a powerful Presbyterian minister in Boston, declared that the spiritual renewal of the early 1830s was the greatest revival of religion the world had ever seen. Middle-class and wealthy Americans were swept into Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopalian churches, while Baptists and Methodists ministered mainly to laboring women and men. Black Baptists and Methodists evangelized in their own communities, where independent black churches combined powerful preaching with haunting spirituals. In Philadelphia, African Americans built fifteen churches between 1799 and 1830. Over the next two decades, a few black women, such as Jarena Lee, joined men in evangelizing among African American Methodists and Baptists.

Tens of thousands of Christian converts both black and white embraced evangelicals’ message of moral outreach. They formed Bible, missionary, and charitable societies; Sunday schools; and reform organizations. No movement gained greater impetus from the revivals than did temperance, which sought to moderate and then ban the sale and consumption of alcohol. In the 1820s, Americans fifteen years and older consumed six to seven gallons of distilled alcohol per person per year (about double the amount consumed today).

Middle-class evangelicals, who once accepted moderate drinking as healthful and proper, now insisted on eliminating alcohol consumption in the United States.

New Spirits Rising

Although enthusiasm for temperance and other reforms waned during the panic of 1837 and many churches lost members, the Second Great Awakening revived following the panic. Increasingly, however, evangelical ministers competed for souls with a variety of other religious groups. In the 1840s, diverse religious groups flourished, many of which supported good works and social reform. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, the first religious group to refuse fellowship to slaveholders, grew throughout the early and midnineteenth century. Having divided in 1827 and then again in 1848, the Society of Friends continued to grow. So, too, did its influence in reform movements as activists like Amy Post carried Quaker testimonies against alcohol, war, and slavery into the wider society. Unitarians also combined religious worship with social reform. Their primary difference from other Christians was their belief in a single unified higher spirit rather than the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. First established in Boston in 1787, Unitarian societies spread across New England in the 1820s, emerging mainly out of Congregational churches. Opposed to evangelical revivalism, Unitarians nonetheless spread west and south in the 1830s and 1840s, attracting well-to-do merchants and manufacturers as well as small farmers, shopkeepers, and laborers. Dedicated to a rational approach to understanding the divine, Unitarian church members included prominent literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harvard luminaries such as William Ellery Channing.

Other churches grew as a result of immigration. Dozens of Catholic churches were established to meet the needs of many Irish and some German immigrants. With the rapid increase in the number of Catholic churches, more Irish priests were ordained in the United States, and women’s religious orders also became increasingly Irish in the 1840s and 1850s. By 1860 the Irish numbered 1.6 million of the 2.2 million Catholics in the United States. Meanwhile synagogues, Hebrew schools, and Hebrew aid societies signaled the growing presence of Jews in the United States. They came chiefly from Germany, though Jews were far fewer in number than Catholics.

Entirely new religious groups also flourished in the 1840s. One of the most important was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, founded by Joseph Smith. Smith claimed that he began to receive visions from God at age fifteen and was directed to dig up gold plates inscribed with instructions for redeeming the Lost Tribes of Israel. The Book of Mormon (1830), supposedly based on these inscriptions, granted spiritual authority to the unlearned and mercy to the needy while it castigated the pride and wealth of those who oppressed the humble and the poor. At the same time, Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which he led as the Prophet. Although seeking converts, the church did not admit African Americans to worship.

Smith founded not only a church but a theocracy (a community governed by religious leaders). In the mid-1830s, Mormons established a settlement at Nauvoo, Illinois, built homes and churches, and recruited followers from the eastern United States and from England. But after Smith received revelations sanctioning polygamy, local authorities arrested him and his brother, and a mob lynched them. Brigham Young, a successful missionary, took over as Prophet and in 1846 led 12,000 followers west, 5,000 of whom built a thriving theocracy near the Great Salt Lake, in what would become the Utah Territory in 1850.

New religious groups also formed by separating from established denominations, just as Unitarians had split from Congregationalists. William Miller, a prosperous farmer and Baptist preacher, led one such movement. He claimed that the Bible proved that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would occur in 1843. Thousands of Americans read Millerite pamphlets and newsletters and attended sermons by Millerite preachers. When various dates for Christ’s Second Coming passed without incident, however, Millerites developed competing interpretations for the failure and divided into distinct groups. The most influential group formed the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the 1840s.


Another important movement for spiritual renewal was rooted in the transcendent power of nature. The founder of this transcendentalist school of thought was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian pastor who gave up his post to travel and read. In 1836 he published an essay entitled “Nature” that expressed his newfound belief in a Universal Being. This Being existed as an ideal reality beyond the material world and was accessible through nature. The natural world Emerson described was distinctly American and offered hope that moral perfection could be achieved in the United States despite the corruptions of civil society and man-made governments. Emerson expressed his ideas in widely read essays and books and in popular lectures to packed houses.

From the 1830s on, Emerson’s town of Concord, Massachusetts, served as a haven for writers, poets, intellectuals, and reformers who embraced his views. Many Unitarians and other liberal Protestants in the Boston area were drawn to transcendentalism as well. In 1840 Margaret Fuller, a close friend of Emerson, became the first editor of The Dial, a journal dedicated to transcendental thought. In 1844 she moved to New York City, where the editor Horace Greeley hired her as a critic at the New York Tribune. While in New York, she published her ideas about the conflict between women’s assigned roles and their innate abilities in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), which combined transcendental ideas with arguments for women’s rights.

Henry David Thoreau also followed the transcendentalist path. He grew up in Concord and read “Nature” while a student at Harvard. In July 1845, Thoreau moved to a cabin near Walden Pond and launched an experiment in simple living. A year later, he was imprisoned overnight for refusing to pay his taxes as a protest against slavery and the Mexican-American War. In the anonymous Civil Disobedience (1846), he argued that individuals of conscience had the right to resist government policies they believed to be immoral. Five years later, Thoreau published Walden, which offered a classic statement of the interplay among a simple lifestyle, natural harmony, and social justice.

Emerson also urged Americans to break their cultural dependence on Europe, and American artists agreed. Led by Thomas Cole, members of the Hudson River School painted romanticized landscapes from New York’s Catskill and Adirondack Mountains. The sweeping vistas tied the nation’s power to its natural beauty. Western vistas inspired artistic efforts as well. George Catlin portrayed the dramatic scenery of western mountains, gorges, and waterfalls and offered moving portraits of Plains Indians, who, he feared, faced extinction. Other artists captured birds, plants, and animals distinctive to the West. Although relatively few Americans had yet visited the region, many hung copies of frontier paintings on their walls or marveled at them in books and magazines. Clearly the hand of God must be at work in such glorious landscapes.


• What impact did the Second Great Awakening have in the North?

• What new religious organizations and viewpoints emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century, outside of Protestant evangelical denominations?

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