The Second Great Awakening

A Methodist Gathering. By: J. Maze Burbank.

In the 1810s and 1820s, Americans were drinking as much as seven gallons of alcohol per year per person, drinking at every meal. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 167. Even students at school could see their teacher inebriated while teaching, with drunkenness being commonplace throughout society. Id. This came, however, during the Second Great Awakening, a profound increase in religiosity in American society.

As part of this Second Great Awakening, with the spread of religion came the increase in women participating in organizing and asserting themselves in religious activities. Id. at 173. In Seneca Falls, New York, the women’s suffrage movement began in just 1848 with Lydia Finney leading the way. Id. citing Leonard Sweet, The Minister’s Wife (Philadelphia, 1983), 113-27, 159-72.

Religion was rapidly spreading throughout the United States. To take just one metric, from the “fifty Methodist congregations at the time of the Revolution,” the number of congregations would grow to “twenty thousand by the time of the Civil War.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 180 citing Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 270.

There was an “astonishing variety of religious sects, both imported and native,” but there was also religion permeating “literature, politics, educational institutions, popular culture, social reforms, dietary reforms, utopian experiments, child-rearing practices, and relationships between the sexes.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 186 citing Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York, 1965), 3-95. Even personal identities were changing, with Americans having an identity as a follower of Christ and another identity as a “rational, autonomous individual.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 188.

With this also came a new system of capital pooling and a philanthropic aspect of life that previously was not as pronounced. Donations were coming into many religious organizations, from a diverse population, and those organizations were learning how to manage that capital at a time when there was a capital shortage. Id. at 193. Ultimately, these organizations helped shape “the development of American capitalism.” Id.

Regardless of whether an American participated in religious activities, almost all Americans in the early Republic benefited from the Second Great Awakening. The reverberations of the Second Great Awakening continue to be observable to modern Americans, as it helped to generate a more robust capitalist society and one that participated in various aspects of life, not just work and relaxation.

Most obviously, Americans were weaving religion into every aspect of life, elevating it to a higher level than religion enjoyed during the Revolutionary years of the Republic. While modern Americans may observe that religion’s hold on American society has waned in recent years, it certainly would be a much different dynamic had the Second Great Awakening not occurred.

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