7/19/11 - america's success brings the second great awakening

In today's excerpt - the birth of a new and free nation in the American Revolution—coupled with the innovations of the Industrial Revolution—brought explosive growth and massive immigration to the United States. That growth, however, brought enormous stress and dislocation to the citizens of the young country. The Second Great Awakening, which blazed across the country from the 1790s to the 1840s, was in large part a reaction to this:

"Most of the American revolutionaries believed that their war against the British was backed by God. Benjamin Franklin asked: 'If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?' During the War of Independence, Congress approved the purchase of 20,000 Bibles from Holland to distribute to citizens. Six of the 13 original states had an established church. Central government funded missionary activity among Native Americans. The words 'separation', 'church' and 'state' were not put into the Constitution. Any language the Founders inserted into the Constitution with reference to faith was designed to protect churches from interference by the state, not the other way around. While the American Revolution was full of Enlightenment ideas and language, the average citizen remained closer in spirit to the Puritans than to the Jacobins of France.

"American society changed greatly in the early 19th century. Better transport and industrialisation turned some settlements into cities and others into backward dustbowls. Mass immigration undermined community cohesion; urban growth brought sin. Prostitution, crime and public drunkenness were common. Wage-slavery and debt became a reality of life for a people for whom the American dream meant being an independent farmer. It was in reaction to this confusion that there emerged the definitive American revival movement, one that set the themes and modes of modern US politics.

"From the 1790s to the 1840s there was a remarkable explosion of revivalist activity called the Second Great Awakening. It favoured new churches over the old and the number of Baptist and Methodist preachers tripled. Millennarianism flourished. One centre of intense activity was upstate New York, which earned the title of the Burned-over District because there was nobody left to convert by the end of the period. In that region the Millerites preached that Jesus would return on October 22nd, 1844. When the day fell it became known as the Great Disappointment, for obvious reasons. The Shakers rejected clergy and lived in communes, banning marriage and practicing strict celibacy (in 1840 their denomination boasted 6,000 members; today there are only three). Perhaps the most patriotic denomination was the Mormon Latter-day Saints movement [which was founded in New York and later moved to Utah], whose members believed that Jesus had actually walked on American soil.

"In 1829 an English tourist, Frances Trollope, visited a revivalist camp meeting in Indiana. She was horrified by what she saw. Fifteen clergymen preached to 2,000 people in rotation from Tuesday to Saturday. They passed through tents, all of which 'were strewn with straw, and the distorted figures that we saw kneeling, sitting and lying amongst it, joined to the woeful and convulsive cries, gave to each the air of a cell in Bedlam.' Although the tents were segregated by race, Trollope noticed that preachers attended to as many blacks as whites. She was particularly scandalized by the presence of women. ...

"Trollope concluded that such behaviour in England would result in 'instant punishment ... not to mention the salutary discipline of the treadmill'. Revivalism burned through England too, but Anglican and Catholic critics noted that the existence of a national church seemed to temper its influence upon government. A combination of too much freedom and too much faith, in their estimation, created a frantic theocracy."


Tim Stanley


"To Build a Shining City on a Hill"


History Today


November 2010


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