The Return of the Spirit: The Second Great Awakening

by the Editors

Awakening in the West

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 23 in 1989 ]

In the West

BY THE YEAR 1800, nearly a million people had made their way west. They settled in the area west of the Blue Ridge in Virginia, in Kentucky, Tennessee, the Northwest, and in the Indian Territory. In 1803, the crowning achievement of Jefferson’s first administration came: the Louisiana Purchase. This doubled the area of the United States and gave an enormous new impulse to western migration.

What appeared to be an opportunity for national expansion, however, seemed dark for the future of the Christian faith. How, believers wondered, could the Church possibly keep ahead of the vast movement to the new areas? An Episcopal preacher described the Carolinas:

How many thousands . . . never saw, much less read, or ever heard a Chapter of the Bible! How many Ten thousands who never were baptized or heard a Sermon! And thrice Ten thousand, who never heard of the Name of Christ, save in Curses . . . ! Lamentable! Lamentable is the situation of these people.

With the later arrival of great numbers, the situation did not improve. In every southern state, religious leaders voiced their fears and distress. A French nobleman who made a tour of the states wrote that “religion is one of the subjects which occupies the least of the attention of the American people....”

Outpourings of the Spirit

Then suddenly, about the year 1799, the atmosphere changed dramatically. In that year a Presbyterian pastoral letter stated that although there was still much immorality and vice,

We have heard from different parts the glad tidings of the outpourings of the Spirit, and of times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. . . . From the east, from the west, and from the south, have these joyful tidings reached our ears.


They expressed still greater joy in 1801:

Revivals, of a more or less general nature, have taken place in many parts, and multitudes have been added to the church. . . . From the west, the Assembly have received intelligence of the most interesting nature. On the borders of Kentucky and Tennessee, the influences of the Spirit of God seem to have been manifested in a very extraordinary manner.


These were the beginnings of the Second Great Awakening. God had not abandoned his people. The heritage of awakening, last seen in the Great Awakening of the 1740s, was surfacing again. However, this awakening would be much longer in duration than the first, lasting from approximately 1795 through 1835. It would come in two phases, and its effect on the nation would be titanic.

The Great Camp Meetings

In the West, the Second Great Awakening began with James McGready (1762?–1817). McGready was a stirring preacher and under his ministry an extensive awakening spread over north—central North Carolina after 1791. Perhaps equally important was his influence upon young men such as Barton W. Stone and William McGee.

In 1796 McGready became pastor of three small churches at Muddy River, Red River, and Gasper River in Logan County, Kentucky. This was in the southwestern part of the state, and, as the Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright described, it

was called Rogues’ Harbor. Here many refugees from almost all parts of the Union fled to escape justice or punishment. . . . It was a desperate state of society. Murderers, horse—thieves, highway robbers, and counterfeiters fled there, until they combined and actually formed a majority.

The area was primitive in the extreme, and the pioneers lived hard lives, full of danger, loneliness, and privation. But McGready was a fearless preacher, and he informed his hearers that they had not left the eternal God behind them; He was as much there on the frontier as he was anywhere. McGready spoke magnificently of heaven and its glories, thundered about hell and its torments, and questioned his hearers about their salvation. His message was so powerful that by 1798 many were “struck with an awful sense of their lost estate.”

The first real manifestations of God’s power came, however, in June 1800. Four to five—hundred members of McGready’s three congregations, plus five ministers, had gathered at Red River for a “camp meeting” lasting several days. On the final day “a mighty effusion of [God’s] Spirit” came upon the people, “and the floor was soon covered with the slain; their screams for mercy pierced the heavens.”

Convinced that God was moving, McGready and his colleagues planned another camp meeting to be held in late July 1800 at Gasper River. They had not anticipated what occurred. An enormous crowd—as many as 8,000—began arriving at the appointed date, many from distances as great as 100 miles. Tents were set up everywhere, wagons with provisions brought in, trees felled and their logs cut to be used as seats. Although the term camp meeting was not used until 1802, this was the first true camp meeting where a continuous outdoor service was combined with camping out.

After three tense days, the emotions of these backwoods people used to loneliness were at the boiling point. At a huge evening meeting lighted by flaming torches, a Presbyterian pastor named William McGee gave a throbbing message on a doubting Peter sinking beneath the waves. McGready recalled:

The power of God seemed to shake the whole assembly. Towards the close of the sermon, the cries of the distressed arose almost as loud as his voice. After the congregation was dismissed the solemnity increased, till the greater part of the multitude seemed engaged in the most solemn manner. No person seemed to wish to go home—hunger and sleep seemed to affect nobody—eternal things were the vast concern. Here awakening and converting work was to be found in every part of the multitude; and even some things strangely and wonderfully new to me.


The Gasper River camp meeting was the turning point of the Awakening in the West. Interest in spiritual things now became commonplace; concern for one’s salvation was uppermost in that region where recently lawlessness had ruled. Other huge camp meetings were held in later months, and the area of revival soon spread into Tennessee.

Cane Ridge

Yet the full force of the movement was yet to be experienced, and it came about through the activity of Barton W. Stone (1772–1844), Presbyterian pastor of the Cane Ridge and Concord churches, northeast of Lexington, Kentucky. Stone traveled to Logan County to observe McGready’s work, and returned home to plan a similar meeting for August 1801 at Cane Ridge.

Being better publicized than the meetings in Logan County, Cane Ridge attracted an amazing multitude. The numbers arriving, coming from as far as Ohio and Tennessee, were estimated between 10,000 and 25,000. (Lexington, then the largest town in Kentucky, had fewer than 1,800 citizens!) Stone looked on as “the roads were crowded with wagons, carriages, horses, and footmen moving to the solemn camp.”

While Stone and his colleagues had not expected these numbers, preparations had been made so that the crowds could be divided into separate congregations. Invitations had been sent by the Presbyterians to Methodist and Baptist preachers from far and near, and Stone was delighted that “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 Rev. Moses Hoge described the Cane Ridge camp meeting, in an account that could stand for similar meetings of that period:

The careless fall down, cry out, tremble, and not infrequently are affected with convulsive twitchings. . . .

Nothing that imagination can paint, can make a stronger impression upon the mind, than one of those scenes. Sinners dropping down on every hand, shrieking, groaning, crying for mercy, convulsed; professors praying, agonizing, fainting, falling down in distress, for sinners or in raptures of joy!. . . .

As to the work in general there can be no question but it is of God. The sub jects of it, for the most part are deeply wounded for their sins, and can give a clear and rational account of their conversion. . . .

Emotional Awakenings

Cane Ridge became famous not only for its numbers, but also for its excesses of enthusiasm. Hysterical laughter, trances, and more bizarre forms of behavior were seen occasionally. This wildness was of course grossly exaggerated and often used to discredit the camp meetings by their enemies. Nonetheless, it could not be denied that audiences at frontier awakenings often became highly emotional.

Most clergymen opposed this, but often it was beyond their power to control, and in some ways it was inevitable. The roughness of frontier life, its absence of social controls, and the scarcity of social contacts for those living in isolated cabins, made such people very susceptible to uncontrolled displays when they found themselves in the company of large numbers. And under the intensity of much powerful preaching within just a few days, emotions boiled over.

However, though camp meetings were sometimes the scenes of excesses, they were much more the scenes of great spiritual awakening. The rough, violent, irreligious frontier, which many felt threatened to undo the morals of the new nation, was being tamed by the Lamb of God.

In the East

Although many prayed for new awakenings in the second half of the 1700s, their prayers seemed to go unanswered. Historian Sydney Ahlstrom has written, “God seemed almost to have withdrawn his blessing from New England, and above all from those who most cherished ‘true’ doctrine.” Instead came the discouraging rise of groups that denied basic teachings of Christianity, such as Universalists, Unitarians, and Deists. These “infidels” caused a widespread drift from the settled religious customs and practices in New England and throughout the colonies after 1750.

Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, described the period before and during the American Revolution:

The profanation of the Sabbath . . . profaneness of language, drunkenness, gambling, and lewdness, were exceedingly increased; and, what is less commonly remarked, but is not less mischievous, than any of them, a light, vain method of thinking, concerning sacred things, a cold, contemptuous indifference toward every moral and religious subject.

The clergy’s complaints were not exaggerations, and Dwight’s observation that war is fatal to morals was accurate. Along with a political and economic depression, the religious situation in the two decades following the war has been termed “the period of the lowest ebb—tide of vitality in the history of American Christianity.” Some towns in New England saw only four or five new members join the church in a year.

Gloom, Doom, & Deism

Eastern clergymen were not concerned only with the distressing state of things at home. The romance of the West beckoned, and multitudes of seekers answered the call, sorely reducing the population of many Eastern towns. As new states sprang up to join the Union, churchmen were faced with the frightening prospect that the raw wilderness was an ungodly force, threatening to bring a moral breakdown to the entire nation.

In 1789, not long after the events surrounding the American Revolution, the new nation turned its thoughts to another revolution, in France. At first it was generally approved in America, but soon the truth of the widespread murder and lawlessness in France became known. Dwight and many other clergymen were not slow in making the connection between the French adoption of Deism and the atrocities of the French Revolution.

Deism taught that God was not involved in the world and that human reason, not God’s Word, was the ultimate authority and judge of right and wrong. The anger of the clergy at this foreign brand of infidelity turned to fury when anti-Christian writings were first circulated in America. In 1784 Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero who captured Fort Ticonderoga, published Reason the Only Oracle of Man. In 1794 Thomas Paine, who had helped America in the cause of freedom, wrote The Age of Reason, a book that ridiculed the Old and New Testaments as unworthy of a good God. “ . . . It would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the word of God,” he blasted. A large edition was published in France and sent to America to be sold for a few pennies a copy, or given away.

While the other Deists aroused Christian anger, it was Thomas Jefferson who came to represent Deist views to the minds of many. Religion for him was simply a moral code, not a divine revelation. Jefferson boldly questioned the truth of various statements in the Bible. His views, which he expressed frequently in the years leading to his election as president in 1800, convinced many ministers that he deserved their strong criticisms. He in turn became an opponent of the clergy.

For believers in supernatural Christianity, it was a sad, dark day. The spirit of infidelity seemed to be rising. Jehovah was surely withholding his showers of blessing from this disobedient, backslidden nation.

Rays of Hope

Despite these fears of God’s desertion of the new nation, awakenings had been underway for some time in areas of New England and the South.

In Virginia, starting at Hampden-Sydney College, an awakening started that spread through several Virginia counties from 1787 to 1789. Hearing of these Virginia awakenings, New Englanders longed for a similar outpouring of divine grace, and seemed to be rewarded when a renewal broke out in Lee, Massachusetts, in 1792. The Rev. Alvan Hyde of Lee described the awakening:

. . . A marvellous work was begun, and it bore the most decisive marks of being God’s work. So great was the excitement, though not yet known abroad, that into whatever section of the town I now went, the people in that immediate neighborhood, would leave their worldly employments, at any hour of the day, and soon fill a large room. . . . All our religious meetings were very much thronged, and yet were never noisy or irregular. . . . They were characterized with a stillness and solemnity, which, l believe, have rarely been witnessed. . . . To the praise of sovereign grace, l may add, that the work continued, with great regularity and little abatement, nearly eighteen months.

In addition to the Lee revival, there had been a number of minor awakenings throughout Connecticut for some years. “Precious harvests” were being gathered. The answer to the prayers of the faithful seemed to arrive in new “outpourings of the Holy Spirit.”

Timothy Dwight & Yale

Those seeking awakening in New England soon found their leader in Timothy Dwight(1752–1817). Dwight had decided to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather Jonathan Edwards, and entered the ministry in 1777. He was a chaplain in the Revolution. Some years after the war, in 1795, he was elected president of Yale College.

Before Dwight arrived at Yale, the students were undisciplined and rebellious, and had little use for the Christian Faith. Even some of the faculty could not claim to be Christian. Soon after Dwight became president, battle lines were drawn. There were two alternatives, Christianity or infidelity, and there was no middle ground. After a while the students learned to admire and appreciate Dwight’s abilities, his openness in discussing sensitive subjects, and his concern for their souls. A change began to take place.

Early in the spring of 1802 two students were overwhelmed with conviction of their sins. In a short period they came to faith in Christ and assurance of forgiveness. After making a public profession of their faith, they joined the college church. This made a large impact on the other students. In the ten days before vacation, fifty young men declared themselves to be eager to find salvation. Wherever the students gathered, in their rooms, at meals, and around New Haven, the great subject of conversation was eternal salvation.

Dwight disapproved of “enthusiasm,” or displays of emotion such as had been seen during the Great Awakening; orderliness and lack of fanaticism typified all that was done. Many feared that when the students left for spring vacation, the revival might cease. Instead the reverse occurred. The students carried home with them news of Yale’s turnabout, and the impulse spread. When they returned after the summer, more offered their lives to God. Dwight witnessed the conversions of 80 out of the total enrollment of 160 students.

A new awakening came in April 1808 which was almost as powerful as that of 1802, and succeeding revivals came to the students in 1813 and 1815. These awakenings marked only the beginning of a movement which swept Connecticut.

The Spirit of Change

Timothy Dwight was not only the central figure in the college revivals that radiated from Yale to other New England schools, but through his writings and his leadership, he established the desire for awakenings as a permanent feature of American Protestantism from 1800 until the beginning of the Civil War.

The second great change brought about largely by Timothy Dwight came from his ideas and practices concerning how awakenings happen. He placed more emphasis on human choice than his Puritan forefathers had, and for that reason signals another major shift in American Christian thought and practice. The historian Sydney Mead expressed this well:

As for the revivals, Edwards’ connection with the First Awakening was much different from Dwight’s connection with the Second. Edwards preached sincerely and vividly of what he had experienced and apparently was genuinely surprised when the revival began. Dwight deliberately set out to start a revival. . . . To Edwards the revival was a by-product of his shared experience: to [Dwight] revivals were the calculated means to an end.

It is fascinating that Timothy Dwight, his grandfather Jonathan Edwards, and his great-great-grandfather Solomon Stoddard, each represents a major turning point in the history of awakenings in America.

Each of these men would have argued that awakenings were the work of the Holy Spirit, but there was the increasing feeling that God invited men to cooperate with him by praying and preaching for revival. The stage was now set for a major shift in the methods of conducting awakenings. Onto that stage stepped Charles G. Finney. CH

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