The Second Great Awakening

1795–1840

The Second Great Awakening was a religious movement that swept through the United States, primarily in the first half of the 19th century. Led by prominent preachers like Charles Finney, the movement contributed to the rise in popularity of social reform movements like Abolition, Prohibition, Civil Rights, and Woman Suffrage.

Second Great Awakening, Camp Revival, Illustration, LOC

This illustration depicts a Methodist Camp Meeting around 1819. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Second Great Awakening Quick Facts

  • Duration — The Second Great Awakening took place from approximately 1795 to 1840.
  • Location — The movement covered the United States, but was stronger in the Midwest and Northeast, especially the “Burned-Over District” in western New York.
  • Leaders — Prominent leaders of the Second Great Awakening were James McGready, John McGee, Barton W. Stone, Timothy Dwight, Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel W. Taylor, Asahel Nettleton, and Charles Grandison Finney.
  • Events — The movement spread through Frontier Camp Meetings, Revival Meetings, and Congregational Churches.
  • Outcome — The Second Great Awakening contributed to an increase in church attendance, the establishment of educational institutions and mission societies, an interest in social movements, and Evangelical Christianity.
  • Also Known As: The Second Great Awakening is also known as the “Great Revival.”
Charles Grandison Finney, Portrait, Illustration
Charles Grandison Finney was a prominent figure of the Second Great Awakening. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Second Great Awakening Overview, Purpose, and History

The Second Great Awakening was a significant religious revival that started in the late 18th, during the Presidency of George Washington, and lasted until the Presidency of Andrew Jackson in the mid-1830s. 

The First Great Awakening

Like the First Great Awakening, it was a period of strong religious excitement that was intended to win people over to Protestant Christianity. The Second Great Awakening was largely a response to secularism and waning religious principles following the end of the American Revolutionary War and the ratification of the United States Constitution.

Economic Expansion and Manifest Destiny

Following the American Revolution, the population of the United States swelled from about 4 million people in 1790 to roughly 17 million people by the mid-1800s. The United States expanded from the 13 Original States, adding new states and territories, largely because of the land acquired through the 1783 Treaty of Paris and the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

As Americans spread west across the continent, a national economy started to emerge that linked the East to the West. However, Henry Clay’s American System, an economic plan, encouraged trade between the West and North, while using protective tariffs to protect Northern manufacturers. The nation was also caught up in a wave of nationalism after the War of 1812, which led to more immigration and a larger economy.

With expansion came opportunity, but also a decline in traditional American Protestantism and church attendance. The reality is, on the Western Frontier, churches simply were not as organized and established as they were on the East Coast.

Evangelical Christianity

The purpose of the Second Great Awakening was to rejuvenate and transform American Protestantism by emphasizing the role of the ministry in converting people to Christianity through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as their savior.

This approach, known as “Evangelical Christianity,” emphasizes a person’s commitment to individual faith, performing good works, and spreading God’s message to others. The theologians of the Second Great Awakening believed each person could create a close personal relationship with God, challenging the idea that God was distant and disinterested in daily life.

Revivals and Circuit Riders

Through Evangelical Christianity, the leaders of the movement looked to renew and reshape American life by spreading their message. To reach the most people possible, large Camp Meetings and Revival Meetings took place. During these events, people were exposed to passionate sermons that were intended to encourage acceptance of religious principles and social reforms.

Minsters also became Circuit Riders, traveling across the Western Frontier to ensure their message not only spread but was reinforced.

Social Reforms

This movement led to significant reforms such as temperance and women’s suffrage. It also led to the establishment of numerous colleges, seminaries, and mission societies, promoting religious education and outreach. 

The Second Great Awakening and Sectionalism

The immediate impact of the Second Great Awakening was most important in the Abolition Movement, which fought to end slavery in the United States. This movement viewed slavery as wrong on moral grounds and helped widen the divide between the North and the South. 

The Second Great Awakening also contributed to the growth of movements related to women’s rights and temperance.

Three Phases of the Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening can be divided into three phases:

Phase 1 (1795–1810) — Frontier Revivals in Kentucky and Tennessee

Revivals took place in the South during the late 1700s, which helped shape what happened in Kentucky and Tennessee, starting in 1800.

The movement started on the Western Frontier with the efforts of American preachers James McGready, John McGee, and Barton W. Stone. Their Frontier Camp Meetings in Kentucky and Tennessee intended to spark religious enthusiasm. These meetings emphasized winning souls over to Christ and created momentum for the movement to spread.

McGready held what is generally believed to be the first Frontier Camp Meeting in June 1800 at Gaspar River in Logan County, Kentucky. At the time, the region was as “Rogues Harbor” and a haven for lawlessness — thieves, robbers, and murderers. It is estimated that 400500 people attended.

The first meeting was so successful that a second meeting was held in July 1800 — with an estimated 8,000 people in attendance.

Second Great Awakening, Gasper River Meeting House, Historical Marker, HMDB
Gasper River Meeting House Historical Marker. Image Source: Historical Marker Database.

John McGree, a Methodist minister from Tennessee, and his brother William attended one of McGready’s Camp Meetings. They returned to their home and organized their own Camp Meetings. The first was held in August 1800 at Drake’s Creek in Sumner County, Tennessee.

The following year, Barton W. Stone organized the Cane Ridge Revival (August 6–12/13, 1801), which was held in Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, Kentucky. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 people attended this revival, which included Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist ministers.

At the time, the total population of Kentucky was around 200,000 people, so the Cane Ridge Revival might have been attended by as much as 10 percent of the total population of the state.

Barton W. Stone, Portrait, Illustration
Barton W. Stone. Image Source: The Great Revival, 1787-1805: the Origins of the Southern Evangelical Mind by John B. Boles, 1872.

Phase 2 (1810–25) — Urban Revivals in New England

The second phase took place in the Congregational churches of New England. It was led by prominent theologians like Timothy Dwight, Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel W. Taylor, and Asahel Nettleton.

Phase 3 (1825–35) — The Burned Over District

In the third phase, evangelist Charles Grandison Finney emerged as a key leader of the Second Great Awakening. Starting in small towns in western New York, Finney used meticulous planning, showmanship, and advertising to draw large audiences. Enthusiastic preaching and emotional religious conversions became hallmarks of this phase. 

In his 1876 autobiography, Finney wrote, “I found that region of country what, in the western phrase, would be called, a ‘burnt district.’ There had been, a few years previously, a wild excitement passing through that region, which they called a revival of religion, but which turned out to be spurious.” This description led to the region being called the “Burned Over District” by historians, which extended into the Ohio River Valley and the lower Midwest.

Interesting Facts About the Second Great Awakening

  • Revivals were held in urban areas and on the frontier.
  • On the frontier, they were known as “Camp Meetings,” and were believed to have been held from 1800–1835.
  • Camp Meetings were based on “Holy Fairs” that were brought to America by immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and Britain.
  • Small revivals attracted hundreds of people, while large revivals attracted thousands.
  • Camp Meetings are described as being more intense and emotional than the urban revivals until the Abolition Movement grew in New England.
  • Camp Meetings typically lasted for several days, because the ministers were riding the circuit and many of the attendees traveled long distances.
  • Revivals were open to men and women, including African Americans, and all attendees were encouraged to participate.

Impact of the Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening made free will, self-reliance, and volunteerism key aspects of religion while emphasizing avoiding sinful practices.

Education and the Second Great Awakening

  • Roughly half of the colleges and universities founded before 1860 were established by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists.
  • In urban areas, Church attendance became a status symbol for businessmen and their families.

Second Great Awakening and the Temperance Movement

  • The rise of volunteerism, evangelism, and the desire to keep others from involving themselves in sinful practices contributed to the formation of Temperance Societies in the United States.
  • The consumption and abuse of alcohol were widespread, especially among white males, which increased the abuse of women. Because of this, as many as 60% of the members of the temperance movement were women, however, they were not allowed to serve in leadership roles.
  • The American Temperance Society was established in 1826. Over time, the society’s mission advocated complete abstinence from alcohol.
  • The society used tactics of the Second Great Awakening to spread its message, including large meetings that were led by mobile speakers who traveled throughout the country.
  • When people refused to give up alcohol voluntarily and avoid a sinful practice, the Temperance Movement looked to alter laws to force people to give up alcohol.
  • Some of the first laws to ban the manufacture and sale of alcohol were implemented in Maine, starting in 1851. The “Maine Laws” were adopted by some of the other Northern States, often leading to public protests and violence. In many cases, the laws were repealed or ignored.
  • The Temperance Movement took a back seat to the Abolition Movement in the late 1850s, as violence spread in the Kansas Territory over slavery.

Abolition and the Second Great Awakening

  • The Abolition Movement grew in New England during the Second Great Awakening, led by reformers such as William Lloyd Garrison.
  • Societies like the American Anti-Slavery Society were formed to help escaped slaves and free blacks emigrate to Africa and to convince slaveowners to free their slaves through manumission — legally freeing them.
  • Many Christians advocated immediate emancipation due to “moral suasion,” which meant immediately ending participation in what was considered to be evil.
  • The Abolition Movement led to more intense, emotional revivals in the Northeast.
  • Over time, many leaders of the Second Great Awakening looked to eliminate slavery through legal means, because they felt slaveowners had to be forced to give up the practice.
  • It also led to theatrics, such as Henry Ward Beecher’s “Reverse Slave Auctions,” violence in “Bleeding Kansas,” and insurrection at Harpers Ferry.

Legacy of the Second Great Awakening

The Great Revival led to the establishment of new Protestant denominations, including Seventh-Day Adventists and Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Some churches became divided over their beliefs. For example, the Methodist Church was split between Mainline Methodism and Holiness Methodism.

The Abolition Movement led to the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, and the 15th Amendment.

The Temperance Movement eventually led to the passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.

The Education Reform Movement led to the establishment of the Public School System. This eventually led to the establishment of government-funded Native American Indian Boarding Schools.

Camp Revival, Second Great Awakening, Illustration
This illustration depicts a Frontier Camp Revival during the Second Great Awakening. Image Source: Old Redstone, or, Historical Sketches of Western Presbyterianism by Joseph Smith, 1854, Archive.org.

Second Great Awakening APUSH Review

The Second Great Awakening is part of APUSH Unit 4 (1800–1848). Use the following links and videos to study the Second Great Awakening, the Abolition Movement, and the Jacksonian Era for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Second Great Awakening APUSH Definition

The definition of the Second Great Awakening for APUSH is a widespread religious revival movement that swept across the United States, primarily in the first half of the 19th century. It created a significant shift in American religious and social life by emphasizing a personal relationship with God, church attendance, and avoidance of sinful practices. Preachers like Charles Finney used Camp Meetings to attract large crowds, leading to the conversion of many people. The Second Great Awakening had significant consequences, including the rise of new religious denominations and social reform movements.

Second Great Awakening APUSH Significance

The Second Great Awakening is significant to APUSH because of the impact made on social movements in the United States, including religion, abolition, temperance, education, and civil rights. It can be argued all social movements in the United States since 1800 can trace their roots to the Second Great Awakening.

Learn More About the Second Great Awakening

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Second Great Awakening
  • Date 1795–1840
  • Author
  • Keywords Second Great Awakening, James McGready, John McGee, Barton W. Stone, Timothy Dwight, Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel W. Taylor, Asahel Nettleton, Charles Grandison Finney, Frontier Camp Meetings, Revival Meetings, Evangelical Christianity
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 2, 2024

The Second Great Awakening is Part of the Following on AHC