The Second Great Awakening

Isaiah Dicker


Cane Ridge Revival, 1801
Cane Ridge Revival, 1801

In the early part of the 19th century, the United States experienced a tremendous surge in religious fervor among Protestants, as revivals became popular in various parts of the country. While the Second Great Awakening does not refer to an exact time period, one its starting points has been identified as the revival held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801. The name refers to the fact that this period followed the First Great Awakening, which was a period of intense religious interest in the 1730s and 1740s.

While the Second Great Awakening can be thought of as a primarily religious occurrence, it cannot be fully separated from the social and political issues and movements that were prevalent at the time. For instance, both the temperance movement and the emerging movement for women’s suffrage were intertwined with the religious ideas of the time.

This guide aims to cover some of the political issues addressed during this period, but also provides sources for the Second Great Awakening in general. The secondary sources include works that deal with the time period broadly, as well as resources that address more specific aspects of the Second Great Awakening. Some of the sources also address the different ways in which historians have explained and interpreted this movement. There are also two biographies included. The primary sources include works by prominent religious figures of the period.



Historical Context


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

Wood’s book covers the history of the United States, starting with the writing of the Constitution and ending following the War of 1812. The book discusses a wide range of issues that confronted the young republic and while Wood focuses mainly on political concerns, he addresses a number of social and cultural issues in detail as well. This work should be read by anyone interested in the first few decades of the United States. Chapter 16, entitled “Republican Religion” is most relevant to this topic, as it deals with the roles religion played at this time, as well as with the conflicts that occurred within various religious groups.


Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.


What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

Daniel Walker Howe’s volume covering the United States from 1815 to 1848 follows Wood’s book in the Oxford History of the United StatesWhat Hath God Wrought also attempts to be a general American history covering several decades. The chapter “Awakenings of Religion” deals with various religious movements and concerns in general and with the Second Great Awakening specifically. This chapter focuses to some extent on the social and political issues with which religious leaders often involved themselves during this period. Howe does not discuss religious matters in great detail, but he does discuss the broader political and social context which shaped religious movements and ideas during this period.

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815- 1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.



Secondary Sources on the Second Great Awakening


The Democratization of American Christianity

Nathan O. Hatch primarily discusses the growing democratic quality within American Christianity during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Hatch’s main argument is that at this time, authority in American Christianity shifted towards the laity and away from traditional sources of religious authority. Hatch covers a number of significant events and occurrences, such as the development of Mormonism, the growth of Christianity among African-Americans, and the rise of uneducated preachers. The book does not exclusively cover the Second Great Awakening, but it discusses the Christian movements and leaders of the time in significant detail.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven: Yale  University Press: 1989.


The Burned Over District

Whitney Cross’s book, as the title implies, deals with the area of upstate New York that witnessed a tremendous amount of religious fervor during the early 19th century. Notable leaders such as Charles Grandison Finney and Joseph Smith were active in this region. It should be noted that this book lacks specific citations.

Cross, Whitney. The Burned-Over District, New York: Harper and Row, 1950.


A Shopkeeper’s Millennium

Johnson’s work deals with a more specific case that Cross’s book. The focus of this volume is religion in Rochester, New York, so the book is not necessarily aimed at providing its readers with broader conclusions. The book describes various aspects of life in Rochester, such as economic concerns and political issues, while dealing with movements and conflicts, such as the temperance that were visible in other parts of the country but clearly visible in Rochester itself.

Johnson, Paul E. A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: society and revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.


Your Daughters Shall Prophesy

Like The Burned Over District, Nancy A. Hardesty’s book also tackles a specific aspect of the religious movements of this time period. Hardesty focuses on how the revival movements were related to the growing interest in women’s rights. It should be noted that a specific part of this book discusses theological matters, such as changes to Calvinist doctrine. As the subtitle indicates, Charles G. Finney plays a significant role in this book.

Hardesty, Nancy A. Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Revivalism and Feminism in the Age of Finney, Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1991.



Pedagogue for God’s Kingdom

This book is a biography of the preacher Lyman Beecher, who involved himself in numerous political causes and was among the more theologically conservatives leaders within the Second Great Awakening. The second part of the book discusses Beecher’s work regarding education, including his involvement in building seminaries.  It should be noted that this is a fairly short book. Beecher was one of the most influential religious figures at the time, so general knowledge regarding his life is extremely useful in understanding the Second Great Awakening.

Fraser, James W. Pedagogue for God’s Kingdom: Lyman Beecher and the Second Great Awakening. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.


Reconsidering the Abolitionists in an Age of Fundamentalist Politics

This article specifically addresses the impact of religious activists within the abolitionist movement. Brewer discusses some of the problems with previous scholarly views regarding the impact these abolitionists had in the north. This article is useful because it addresses the relationship of religion to one of the more significant and (at the time) controversial movements in the antebellum United States. It should be noted that the article to a large extent deals with events in 1840s, which is towards the later part of this period. The article also discusses the troubled relationship between the Whig Party and abolitionists.


Stewart, James Brewer. “Reconsidering the Abolitionists in an Age of Fundamentalist Politics.” Journal of the Early Republic 26, no. 1 (2006): 1-24.


The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process

Matthews’s article also addresses prevailing scholarly views of the Second Great Awakening, though it should be noted that the article appeared in 1969. Matthews addresses the origins of the Second Great Awakening, as well as the characteristics that distinguish this movement. This article attempts to uncover the underlying factors that contributed to the Second Great Awakening by looking at the general social context of the United States in the late 18th century.

Matthews, Donald G., “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780-1830: An Hypothesis.” American Quarterly 21, no. 1 (1969): 23-43.


Falling for the Lord

Meyer’s article deals with the Second Great Awakening’s southern beginnings, particularly the revivals that led to the emergence of this movement. The revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801 is mentioned several times. Meyer also discusses the ways in which scholars have discussed the emergence of the Second Great Awakening. This article provides a strong summary of the early years of this era of American religion while also partially dealing with the history of scholarship in this area.

Meyer, Neil. “Falling for the Lord: Shame, Revivalism, and the Origins of the Second Great Awakening.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9, no. 1  (2011): 142-166.


Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism

Hambrick-Stowe’s book discusses the life and thought of Charles G. Finney, who was another major preacher during the Second Great Awakening and was a major figure in upstate New York. Like The Burned-Over District, there are no footnotes or endnotes in this book, but rather a bibliographical essay.

Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eardmans Publishing Co., 1996.



Primary Sources


Cover of "A Plea for the West"
Cover of “A Plea for the West”

A Plea for the West

Lyman Beecher’s 1835 book discusses a number of political and social issues that played a role in American life in the early 19th Century. The book’s main focus is the future of the United States, particularly in light of the threats that Beecher saw as endangering the republic. Most of the book demonstrates Beecher’s strong anti-Catholic sentiments, as he felt that the Catholic Church was fundamentally opposed to American values. Beecher believed that Catholic ideology could not be reconciled with democratic principles and that the growing Catholic population in America could help spread the Church’s views. A Plea for the West also encourages Protestant clergy to move west in order to educate people throughout the country. Beecher also draws a connection between Protestant and American principles. Unlike Catholics, Protestants have a history of challenging traditional sources of authority, according to Beecher. This book is a terrific example of how religious leaders became intensely involved with political issues. Issues like nativism and manifest destiny both played a significant role in American politics.

Beecher, Lyman.  A Plea for the West. New York: Leavitt, Lord, and Co., 1835.


Six Sermons on Intemperance

In these sermons, Beecher describes the causes of and problems related to intemperance, which he sees as one of the more pressing threats to America, in both moral and practical terms. Each sermon is introduced with a biblical quote, underscoring the obviously religious nature of Beecher’s arguments. At the same time, alcoholism is discussed in terms of the social and medical problems it causes. Alcohol according to Beecher is dangerous in any circumstance. Another significant feature of this work is how Beecher depicts Protestants as having supported moral causes in the past. Like A Plea for the West, these sermons are evidence of how religious matters were deeply intertwined with social issues. Beecher also discusses laws regarding alcohol, showing that he was not merely raising abstract moral concerns.

Beecher, Lyman, Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Evils, Signs, and Remedy of Intemperance. Boston: T.R. Martin, 1828. In Lyman Beecher and the Reform of Society: Four Sermons. New York: Arno Press, 1972.


Lectures on Revivals of Religion

This book first appeared in 1835 and mainly deals with Finney’s views regarding religious revivals, which were a defining feature of American religious life at the time. These are vital in demonstrating how a major religious figure of the period viewed popular religious movements.

Finney, Charles Granderson. Lectures on Revivals of Religion. Edited by William G. McLouglin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961.

Charles Grandison Fiinney
Charles Grandison Finney

Practical Sermons

This is a collection of Nathaniel William Taylor’s sermons, first published in 1858. The sermons to a large extent deal with issues of morality and faith, with biblical references playing a major role. Unlike the Beecher works cited above, these texts deal with overtly theological themes, as they deal with topics such as God’s relationship with individuals and the afterlife.

Taylor, Nathaniel W. Practical Sermons. Edited by Bruce Kuklick. New York: Garland

Publishing, 1987.


Princeton Theological Seminary

The Princeton Theological Seminary’s online archive offers access to a large number of relevant primary sources. Some of the works of a number of religious leaders active at this time, such as Finney, Beecher, and Taylor and others can be found on this site. It should be noted that this resource does not claim to include the complete works of any of these figures. For instance, it has very few of the writings of either Finney or Taylor.