The Second Awakening

The closing years of the eighteenth century show the lowest low-water

mark of the lowest ebb-tide of spiritual life in the history of the

American church. The demoralization of army life, the fury of political

factions, the catchpenny materialist morality of Franklin, the

philosophic deism of men like Jefferson, and the popular ribaldry of Tom

Paine, had wrought, together with other untoward influences, to bring

condition of things which to the eye of little faith seemed

almost desperate.

From the beginning of the reaction from the stormy excitements of the

Great Awakening, nothing had seemed to arouse the New England churches

from a lethargic dullness; so, at least, it seemed to those who recalled

those wonderful days of old, either in memory or by tradition. We have a

gauge of the general decline of the public morals, in the condition of

Yale College at the accession of President Dwight in 1795, as described

in the reminiscences of Lyman Beecher, then a sophomore.

Before he came, college was in a most ungodly state. The

college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were

skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and liquors were

kept in many rooms; intemperance, profanity, gambling, and

licentiousness were common. I hardly know how I escaped....

That was the day of the infidelity of the Tom Paine school.

Boys that dressed flax in the barn, as I used to, read Tom

Paine and believed him; I read and fought him all the way.

Never had any propensity to infidelity. But most of the class

before me were infidels, and called each other Voltaire,

Rousseau, D'Alembert, etc.[231:1]

In the Middle States the aspect was not more promising. Princeton

College had been closed for three years of the Revolutionary War. In

1782 there were only two among the students who professed themselves

Christians. The Presbyterian General Assembly, representing the

strongest religious force in that region, in 1798 described the then

existing condition of the country in these terms:

Formidable innovations and convulsions in Europe threaten

destruction to morals and religion. Scenes of devastation and

bloodshed unexampled in the history of modern nations have

convulsed the world, and our country is threatened with

similar calamities. We perceive with pain and fearful

apprehension a general dereliction of religious principles and

practice among our fellow-citizens, a visible and prevailing

impiety and contempt for the laws and institutions of

religion, and an abounding infidelity, which in many instances

tends to atheism itself. The profligacy and corruption of the

public morals have advanced with a progress proportionate to

our declension in religion. Profaneness, pride, luxury,

injustice, intemperance, lewdness, and every species of

debauchery and loose indulgence greatly abound.

From the point of view of the Episcopalian of that day the prospect was

even more disheartening. It was at this time that Bishop Provoost of New

York laid down his functions, not expecting the church to continue much

longer; and Bishop Madison of Virginia shared the despairing conviction

of Chief-Justice Marshall that the church was too far gone ever to be

revived.[232:1] Over all this period the historian of the Lutheran

Church writes up the title Deterioration.[232:2] Proposals were set on

foot looking toward the merger of these two languishing denominations.

Even the Methodists, the fervor of whose zeal and vitality of whose

organization had withstood what seemed severer tests, felt the benumbing

influence of this unhappy age. For three years ending in 1796 the total

membership diminished at the rate of about four thousand a year.

Many witnesses agree in describing the moral and religious condition of

the border States of Kentucky and Tennessee as peculiarly deplorable.

The autobiography of that famous pioneer preacher, Peter Cartwright,

gives a lively picture of Kentucky society in 1793 as he remembered it

in his old age:

Logan County, when my father moved into it, was called

'Rogues' Harbor.' Here many refugees from all parts of the

Union fled to escape punishment or justice; for although there

was law, yet it could not be executed, and it was a desperate

state of society. Murderers, horse-thieves, highway robbers,

and counterfeiters fled there, until they combined and

actually formed a majority. Those who favored a better state

of morals were called 'Regulators.' But they encountered

fierce opposition from the 'Rogues,' and a battle was fought

with guns, pistols, dirks, knives, and clubs, in which the

'Regulators' were defeated.[233:1]

The people that walked in this gross darkness beheld a great light. In

1796 a Presbyterian minister, James McGready, who for more than ten

years had done useful service in Pennsylvania and North Carolina,

assumed charge of several Presbyterian churches in that very Logan

County which we know through the reminiscences of Peter Cartwright. As

he went the round of his scattered congregations his preaching was felt

to have peculiar power to arouse false professors, to awaken a dead

church, and warn sinners and lead them to seek the new spiritual life

which he himself had found. Three years later two brothers, William and

John McGee, one a Presbyterian minister and the other a Methodist, came

through the beautiful Cumberland country in Kentucky and Tennessee,

speaking, as if in the spirit and power of John the Baptist, to

multitudes that gathered from great distances to hear them. On one

occasion, in the woods of Logan County, in July, 1800, the gathered

families, many of whom came from far, tethered their teams and encamped

for several days for the unaccustomed privilege of common worship and

Christian preaching. This is believed to have been the first American

camp-meeting--an era worth remembering in our history. Not without

abundant New Testament antecedents, it naturalized itself at once on our

soil as a natural expedient for scattered frontier populations

unprovided with settled institutions. By a natural process of evolution,

adapting itself to other environments and uses, the backwoods

camp-meeting has grown into the Chautauqua assembly, which at so many

places besides the original center at Chautauqua Lake has grown into an

important and most characteristic institution of American civilization.

We are happy in having an account of some of these meetings from one who

was personally and sympathetically interested in them. For in the spring

of the next year Barton Warren Stone, a Presbyterian minister serving

his two congregations of Concord and Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, and

oppressed with a sense of the religious apathy prevailing about him,

made the long journey across the State of Kentucky to see for himself

the wonderful things of which he had heard, and afterward wrote his


There, on the edge of a prairie in Logan County, Kentucky,

the multitudes came together and continued a number of days

and nights encamped on the ground, during which time worship

was carried on in some part of the encampment. The scene was

new to me and passing strange. It baffled description. 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 fervently uttered. After lying there for

hours they obtained deliverance. The gloomy cloud that had

covered their faces seemed gradually and visibly to disappear,

and hope, in smiles, brightened into joy. They would rise,

shouting deliverance, and then would address the surrounding

multitude in language truly eloquent and impressive. With

astonishment did I hear men, women, and children declaring the

wonderful works of God and the glorious mysteries of the

gospel. Their appeals were solemn, heart-penetrating, bold,

and free. Under such circumstances many others would fall down

into the same state from which the speakers had just been


Two or three of my particular acquaintances from a distance

were struck down. I sat patiently by one of them, whom I knew

to be a careless sinner, for hours, and observed with critical

attention everything that passed, from the beginning to the

end. I noticed the momentary revivings as from death, the

humble confession of sins, the fervent prayer, and the

ultimate deliverance; then the solemn thanks and praise to

God, and affectionate exhortation to companions and to the

people around to repent and come to Jesus. I was astonished at

the knowledge of gospel truth displayed in the address. The

effect was that several sank down into the same appearance of

death. After attending to many such cases, my conviction was

complete that it was a good work--the work of God; nor has my

mind wavered since on the subject. Much did I see then, and

much have I seen since, that I consider to be fanaticism; but

this should not condemn the work. The devil has always tried

to ape the works of God, to bring them into disrepute; but

that cannot be a Satanic work which brings men to humble

confession, to forsaking of sin, to prayer, fervent praise and

thanksgiving, and a sincere and affectionate exhortation to

sinners to repent and come to Jesus the Saviour.

Profoundly impressed by what he had seen and heard, Pastor Stone

returned to his double parish in Bourbon County and rehearsed the story

of it. The congregation was affected with awful solemnity, and many

returned home weeping. This was in the early spring. Not many months

afterward there was a notable springing up of this seed.

A memorable meeting was held at Cane Ridge in August, 1801.

The roads were crowded with wagons, carriages, horses, and

footmen moving to the solemn camp. It was judged by military

men on the ground that between twenty and thirty thousand

persons were assembled. Four or five preachers spoke at the

same time in different parts of the encampment without

confusion. The Methodist and Baptist preachers aided in the

work, and all appeared cordially united in it. They were of

one mind and soul: the salvation of sinners was the one

object. We all engaged in singing the same songs, all united

in prayer, all preached the same things.... The numbers

converted will be known only in eternity. Many things

transpired in the meeting which were so much like miracles

that they had the same effect as miracles on unbelievers. By

them many were convinced that Jesus was the Christ and were

persuaded to submit to him. This meeting continued six or

seven days and nights, and would have continued longer, but

food for the sustenance of such a multitude failed.

To this meeting many had come from Ohio and other distant

parts. These returned home and diffused the same spirit in

their respective neighborhoods. Similar results followed. So

low had religion sunk, and such carelessness had universally

prevailed, that I have thought that nothing common could have

arrested and held the attention of the people.[236:1]

The sober and cautious tone of this narrative will already have

impressed the reader. These are not the words of a heated enthusiast, or

a man weakly credulous. We may hesitate to accept his judgment, but may

safely accept his testimony, amply corroborated as it is, to facts which

he has seen and heard.

But the crucial test of the work, the test prescribed by the Lord of the

church, is that it shall be known by its fruits. And this test it seems

to bear well. Dr. Archibald Alexander, had in high reverence in the

Presbyterian Church as a wise counselor in spiritual matters, made

scrupulous inquiry into the results of this revival, and received from

one of his correspondents, Dr. George A. Baxter, who made an early visit

to the scenes of the revival, the following testimony:

On my way I was informed by settlers on the road that the

character of Kentucky travelers was entirely changed, and that

they were as remarkable for sobriety as they had formerly been

for dissoluteness and immorality. And indeed I found Kentucky

to appearances the most moral place I had ever seen. A profane

expression was hardly ever heard. A religious awe seemed to

pervade the country. Upon the whole, I think the revival in

Kentucky the most extraordinary that has ever visited the

church of Christ; and, all things considered, it was

peculiarly adapted to the circumstances of the country into

which it came. Infidelity was triumphant and religion was on

the point of expiring. Something extraordinary seemed

necessary to arrest the attention of a giddy people who were

ready to conclude that Christianity was a fable and futurity a

delusion. This revival has done it. It has confounded

infidelity and brought numbers beyond calculation under

serious impressions.

A sermon preached in 1803 to the Presbyterian synod of Kentucky, by the

Rev. David Rice, has the value of testimony given in the presence of

other competent witnesses, and liable thus to be questioned or

contradicted. In it he says:

Neighborhoods noted for their vicious and profligate manners

are now as much noted for their piety and good order.

Drunkards, profane swearers, liars, quarrelsome persons, etc.,

are remarkably reformed.... A number of families who had lived

apparently without the fear of God, in folly and in vice,

without any religious instruction or any proper government,

are now reduced to order and are daily joining in the worship

of God, reading his word, singing his praises, and offering up

their supplications to a throne of grace. Parents who seemed

formerly to have little or no regard for the salvation of

their children are now anxiously concerned for their

salvation, are pleading for them, and endeavoring to lead them

to Christ and train them up in the way of piety and virtue.

That same year the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, in its

annual review of the state of religion, adverted with emphasis to the

work in the Cumberland country, and cited remarkable instances of

conversion--malignant opposers of vital piety convinced and reconciled,

learned, active, and conspicuous infidels becoming signal monuments of

that grace which they once despised; and in conclusion declared with joy

that the state and prospects of vital religion in our country are more

favorable and encouraging than at any period within the last forty


In order successfully to study the phenomena of this remarkable passage

in the history of the church, it is necessary to bear in mind the social

conditions that prevailed. A population perfervido ingenio, of a

temper peculiarly susceptible of intense excitement, transplanted into a

wild country, under little control either of conventionality or law,

deeply ingrained from many generations with the religious sentiment, but

broken loose from the control of it and living consciously in reckless

disregard of the law of God, is suddenly aroused to a sense of its

apostasy and wickedness. The people do not hear the word of God from

Sabbath to Sabbath, or even from evening to evening, and take it home

with them and ponder it amid the avocations of daily business; by the

conditions, they are sequestered for days together in the wilderness for

the exclusive contemplation of momentous truths pressed upon the mind

with incessant and impassioned iteration; and they remain together, an

agitated throng, not of men only, but of women and children. The student

of psychology recognizes at once that here are present in an unusual

combination the conditions not merely of the ready propagation of

influence by example and persuasion, but of those nervous, mental, or

spiritual infections which make so important a figure in the world's

history, civil, military, or religious. It is wholly in accord with

human nature that the physical manifestations attendant on religious

excitement in these circumstances should be of an intense and

extravagant sort.

And such indeed they were. Sudden outcries, hysteric weeping and

laughter, faintings, catalepsies, trances, were customary concomitants

of the revival preaching. Multitudes fell prostrate on the ground,

spiritually slain, as it was said. Lest the helpless bodies should be

trampled on by the surging crowd, they were taken up and laid in rows on

the floor of the neighboring meeting-house. Some lay quiet, unable to

move or speak. Some talked, but could not move. Some beat the floor with

their heels. Some, shrieking in agony, bounded about, it is said, like a

live fish out of water. Many lay down and rolled over and over for hours

at a time. Others rushed wildly over the stumps and benches, and then

plunged, shouting 'Lost! Lost!' into the forest.

As the revival went on and the camp-meeting grew to be a custom and an

institution, this nervous epidemic took on certain recognizable forms,

one of which was known as the jerks. This malady began in the head

and spread rapidly to the feet. The head would be thrown from side to

side so swiftly that the features would be blotted out and the hair made

to snap. When the body was affected the sufferer was hurled over

hindrances that came in his way, and finally dashed on the ground, to

bounce about like a ball. The eccentric Lorenzo Dow, whose freaks of

eloquence and humor are remembered by many now living, speaks from his

own observation on the subject:

I have passed a meeting-house where I observed the

undergrowth had been cut for a camp-meeting, and from fifty to

a hundred saplings were left breast-high on purpose for

persons who were 'jerked' to hold on to. I observed where they

had held on they had kicked up the earth as a horse stamping

flies.... I believe it does not affect those naturalists who

wish to get it to philosophize about it; and rarely those who

are the most pious; but the lukewarm, lazy professor is

subject to it. The wicked fear it and are subject to it; but

the persecutors are more subject to it than any, and they have

sometimes cursed and sworn and damned it while


There is nothing improbable in the claim that phenomena like these,

strange, weird, startling, were so much like miracles that they had the

same effect as miracles on unbelievers. They helped break up the

apathetic torpor of the church and summon the multitudes into the

wilderness to hear the preaching of repentance and the remission of

sins. But they had some lamentable results. Those who, like many among

the Methodists,[241:1] found in them the direct work of the Holy Spirit,

were thereby started along the perilous incline toward enthusiasm and

fanaticism. Those, on the other hand, repelled by the grotesqueness and

extravagance of these manifestations, who were led to distrust or

condemn the good work with which they were associated, fell into a

graver error. This was the error into which, to its cost, the

Presbyterian Church was by and by drawn in dealing with questions that

emerged from these agitations. The revival gave rise to two new sects,

both of them marked by the fervor of spirit that characterized the time,

and both of them finding their principal habitat in the same western

region. The Cumberland Presbyterians, now grown to large numbers and

deserved influence and dignity in the fellowship of American sects,

separated themselves from the main body of Presbyterians by refusing to

accept, in face of the craving needs of the pastorless population all

about them, the arbitrary rule shutting the door of access to the

Presbyterian ministry to all candidates, how great soever their other

qualifications, who lacked a classical education. Separating on this

issue, they took the opportunity to amend the generally accepted

doctrinal statements of the Presbyterian churches by mitigating those

utterances which seemed to them, as they have seemed to many others, to

err in the direction of fatalism.

About the same time there was manifested in various quarters a generous

revolt against the existence and multiplication of mutually exclusive

sects in the Christian family, each limited by humanly devised

doctrinal articles and branded with partisan names. How these various

protesting elements came together on the sole basis of a common faith in

Christ and a common acceptance of the divine authority of the Bible;

how, not intending it, they came to be themselves a new sect; and how,

struggling in vain against the inexorable laws of language, they came to

be distinguished by names, as Campbellite Baptist, Christ-ian (with

a long i), and (+kat' exochên+) Disciples, are points on which

interesting and instructive light is shed in the history by Dr. B. B.


* * * * *

The great revival of the West and Southwest was not the only revival,

and not even the earliest revival, of that time of crisis. As early as

1792 the long inertia of the eastern churches began to be broken here

and there by signs of growing earnestness and attentiveness to spiritual

things. There was little of excited agitation. There was no preaching of

famous evangelists. There were no imposing convocations. Only in many

and many of those country towns in which, at that time, the main

strength of the population lay, the labors of faithful pastors began to

be rewarded with large ingatherings of penitent believers. The

languishing churches grew strong and hopeful, and the insolent

infidelity of the times was abashed. With such sober simplicity was the

work of the gospel carried forward, in the opening years of this

century, among the churches and pastors that had learned wisdom from the

mistakes made in the Great Awakening, that there are few striking

incidents for the historian. Hardly any man is to be pointed out as a

preëminent leader of the church at this period. If to any one, this

place of honor belongs to Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards,

whose accession to the presidency of Yale College at the darkest hour

in its history marked the turning-point. We have already learned from

the reminiscences of Lyman Beecher how low the college had sunk in point

of religious character, when most of the class above him were openly

boastful of being infidels.[243:1] How the new president dealt with them

is well described by the same witness:

They thought the faculty were afraid of free discussion. But

when they handed Dr. Dwight a list of subjects for class

disputation, to their surprise, he selected this: 'Is the

Bible the word of God?' and told them to do their best. He

heard all they had to say, answered them, and there was an

end. He preached incessantly for six months on the subject,

and all infidelity skulked and hid its head. He elaborated his

theological system in a series of forenoon sermons in the

chapel; the afternoon discourses were practical. The original

design of Yale College was to found a divinity school. To a

mind appreciative, like mine, his preaching was a continual

course of education and a continual feast. He was copious and

polished in style, though disciplined and logical. There was a

pith and power of doctrine there that has not been since

surpassed, if equaled.[243:2]

It may be doubted whether to any man of his generation it was given to

exercise a wider and more beneficent influence over the American church

than that of President Dwight. His system of Theology Explained and

Defended in a Series of Sermons, a theology meant to be preached and

made effective in convincing men and converting them to the service of

God, was so constructed as to be completed within the four years of the

college curriculum, so that every graduate should have heard the whole

of it. The influence of it has not been limited by the boundaries of our

country, nor has it expired with the century just completed since

President Dwight's accession.

At the East also, as well as at the West, the quickening of religious

thought and feeling had the common effect of alienating and disrupting.

Diverging tendencies, which had begun to disclose themselves in the

discussions between Edwards and Chauncy in their respective volumes of

Thoughts on the Great Awakening, became emphasized in the revival of

1800. That liberalism which had begun as a protest against a too

peremptory style of dogmatism was rapidly advancing toward a dogmatic

denial of points deemed by the opposite party to be essential. Dogmatic

differences were aggravated by differences of taste and temperament, and

everything was working toward the schism by which some sincere and

zealous souls should seek to do God service.

In one most important particular the revival of 1800 was happily

distinguished from the Great Awakening of 1740. It was not done and over

with at the end of a few years, and then followed by a long period of

reaction. It was the beginning of a long period of vigorous and

abundant life, moving forward, not, indeed, with even and unvarying

flow, yet with continuous current, marked with those alternations of

exaltation and subsidence which seem, whether for evil or for good, to

have become a fixed characteristic of American church history.

The widespread revivals of the first decade of the nineteenth century

saved the church of Christ in America from its low estate and girded it

for stupendous tasks that were about to be devolved on it. In the glow

of this renewed fervor, the churches of New England successfully made

the difficult transition from establishment to self-support and to the

costly enterprises of aggressive evangelization into which, in company

with other churches to the South and West, they were about to enter. The

Christianity of the country was prepared and equipped to attend with

equal pace the prodigious rush of population across the breadth of the

Great Valley, and to give welcome to the invading host of immigrants

which before the end of a half century was to effect its entrance into

our territory at the rate of a thousand a day. It was to accommodate

itself to changing social conditions, as the once agricultural

population began to concentrate itself in factory villages and

commercial towns. It was to carry on systematic campaigns of warfare

against instituted social wrong, such as the drinking usages of society,

the savage code of dueling, the public sanction of slavery. And it was

to enter the effectual door which from the beginning of the century

opened wider and wider to admit the gospel and the church to every

nation under heaven.