The Second Great Awakening as a Movement Towards Democracy
The Second Great Awakening, a religious movement that consumed America in the mid-1800’s, was, at its heart, a drive for a more democratic nation. Though the Second Great Awakening began as a push to bring religion back into American life, it quickly became focused on improving the quality of life of the citizens of America and empowering them to take charge of their religious and secular lives to become contributing members of society. The Awakening’s attempted reforms, aimed at improving the moral landscape of the country, giving power back to the “common man,” and empowering black slaves and women, was mainly a success. Though not all of the fruit planted by the Awakening were immediately ripe for picking, in time, the seeds of thought sewn by the Awakening eventually yielded a ripe harvest of equality and a more moral life.
The most obvious way that the leaders of the Second Great Awakening attempted to expand democratic ideals was in their pursuit of moral reforms. The Awakening was, in fact, begun to combat American moral stagnation. Timothy Dwight, President of Yale University, and believed to have begun the religious movement, shocked at his students’ supposedly lax moral standards began preaching to them a gospel consisting of upright living. These exhortations caused many of Yale’s student body to convert to Christianity and, with other collegiate converts from universities all over the country, become actively involved in missionary work with the poor. This included helping to feed and clothe their bodies as well as tend to their spiritual needs. (Dictionary of American History 238). Though this attempted moral reformation is not usually seen as a democratic reform, it did aid in the furtherance of democracy. A “moral society” will elect upstanding leaders who will in turn govern over the people justly and fairly, respecting the natural rights so important in any democratic nation. In addition, a civic-minded populace will willingly perform works of charity to the poor and disadvantaged, an important trait in advanced societies.
Moral reformation did not stop there. Instead, the movement, branching off from its collegiate roots, stressed the importance of leading an upstanding life. Christian preachers began combating such perceived immoralities as alcoholism and doing work on Sundays, which was seen as a slight against the Sabbath (The American Destiny 99). In doing this, they hoped to hasten the coming of the Millennium, or thousand years of prosperity believed by some to precede Christ’s Second Coming (Donald “Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening”).
However, the moral reforms introduced by the Second Great Awakening did not always succeed. For example, attempts by the Christian clergymen leading the Awakening to stop the Sunday mail and therefore allow Christians to devote the day entirely to God, an important belief held by the clergy, ultimately met with failure. The Congress ultimately decided that doing so would violate the Separation Clause of the First Amendment and would combine Church and State, disenfranchising non-Christians (Johnson 284-288). Nevertheless, despite occasional failures such as these, the Second Great Awakening did instill in the American populace a sense of moral obligation to God and fellow human being, thus increasing public concern for the disenfranchised and causing attempts to alleviate social problems.
Putting Emphasis on the "Common Man"
Another way that the Second Great Awakening further democratized America was its emphasis on the common person. One of the most important examples of this was the use of the camp meeting. Used by most Protestant denominations, but perfected by the Methodists, the meeting tent was an important tool in Christian conversions. It gathered huge crowds, sometimes numbering thousands, together to listen to the fiery orations of several clergy members (The American Destiny 101-102). Besides causing the spiritual conversions of many, the use of the meeting tent highlighted the new interest in converting the common American to Christianity; the clergy was no longer too “sacred” to “stoop” on a level with the average person. This commingling of people from all walks of life also caused the average American to become aware of a wider world beyond the immediate area that warranted care and concern.
Changing philosophy during the Second Awakening also caused more emphasis to be placed on the average person. Leading Christian leaders of the time, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, rejected the Calvinist philosophy of predestination. Instead of subscribing to the elitist doctrine of the “elect,” they argued that one’s destiny was in his/her hands, that a person’s faith determined whether or not he/she would be admitted into Heaven, they placed more power in the common person than ever before. Instead of believing that God was in control of a person’s destiny, theologists now placed one’s destiny in his/her own hands; a person was responsible for him/herself. The logical next step is that people can also be given responsibility to govern themselves (Donald “Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening”).
New religions founded at this time expanded on this radical new approach to personal empowerment. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormon Church, is one important example of this new trust in the common person. In the Mormon religion, all adult males are considered members of the priesthood. Rather than having an established clergy, the laity performs all of the religious duties normally held by priests in other religions (Donald “Mormonism and the American Mainstream”).
Equality for Women and Slaves
Most importantly of all, the Second Great Awakening promoted equality for all, including women and black slaves. In a marked departure from Orthodox views, women were now even religious leaders. Two of these women preachers, Jemima Wilkinson and Ann Lee, even branched off to form their own Christian sects where they preached equality between the sexes (The American Destiny 104). Women, now experiencing greater involvement in religion than ever before at the camp meetings, began demanding a greater involvement in secular governance.
In addition, the roots of the anti-slavery movement began to take root in this time period. Former black slaves, now freed, were joining in on the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening and forming churches of their own. The members of these mostly Baptist and Methodist Churches began complaining of the deplorable conditions that their enslaved brethren were suffering in. Theses churches also helped direct the infant abolitionist movement away from its goal of relocating slaves back to Africa. Instead, they steered the movement to a push for emancipation and rights inside America (The American Destiny 108).
The Second Great Awakening, the religious fervor that spread like wildfire throughout much of the United States during the mid-19th century, helped to further American democracy in important ways. Though not all attempts were successful, the Christian clergymen that were the backbone of the Awakening attempted to moralize the American populace as well as save its souls. They also, for the first time, placed great trust in the average person, giving him/her religious control over his/her destiny. Finally, the Awakening also helped lead to a more cohesive women’s rights and abolitionist movements, which now could derive their authority from religion and God. Taken together, the efforts of leaders such as Charles Finney placed more trust and power in the common people than ever before, an important step in the further democratization of America.
- The American Destiny. Yugoslavia: Grolier Enterprises Inc., 1986.
- The Annals of America. USA: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1976.
- Scott, Donald. “Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening.” October 2000. 3/2/03. <http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us:8080/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/nevanrev.htm>.
- Scott, Donald. “Mormonism and the American Mainstream.” October 2000. 3/2/03. <http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us:8080/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/nmormon.htm>.
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