Hero Image

In Search of Christian America

Founding Myths and the Second Great Awakening

ABSTRACT: Some Christians presume the story of evangelicalism in America to be one of steady decline, from the robust faith of the founding generation to the increasing secularism of today. In fact, America was far more evangelical in 1860 than it was in 1776. The Second Great Awakening of the mid-1800s brought a surge of new members into the nation’s churches, especially its Methodist and Baptist churches, both of which sought to reach the masses on the frontiers and among the slave populations. Whether America on the eve of the Civil War can be called a “Christian nation” is doubtful; nevertheless, in 1860 the nation was more deeply influenced by evangelical faith than it ever had been before, or ever has been since.

Brilliant as he may have been as a writer, Thomas Jefferson was a lousy religious demographer. In 1822, he wrote to his friend Benjamin Waterhouse about the future of American religion, and his preference for a non-Trinitarian, naturalistic version of Christianity. After denouncing the “demoralizing dogmas of Calvin,” the former president issued a bold prediction: “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die a Unitarian.”1 If there were a list of the all-time worst religious predictions in American history, this would have to be at the top of it.

“By the eve of the Civil War, America was as deeply influenced by evangelical faith as it ever had been before.”

Even as Jefferson wrote — much to his chagrin — the Second Great Awakening was turning America into a heavily evangelical nation. By the eve of the Civil War, America was as deeply influenced by evangelical faith as it ever had been before, or ever has been since.

Scarce Among the Founders

Evangelical Christianity was not inconsequential at the time of the American founding, of course. For example, we can thank evangelical Christians, especially Baptists, for many of the Revolutionary-era gains in religious liberty. Non-evangelical politicians such as Jefferson and James Madison depended on rank-and-file Baptists to pressure state governments to drop their official state denominations, or “establishments” of religion. Virginia abolished its official tie to the Church of England (or Episcopal Church) in 1786, guaranteeing all Virginia citizens liberty of conscience. This created a veritable free market of religion in the state. Virginia’s move was a critical precedent for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with its prohibition on a national established denomination, and its promise of “free exercise of religion” for all. It was not only evangelicals who wanted full religious liberty, but it would be hard to imagine America achieving religious freedom to the extent that it did without the aid of evangelical Christians.

Yet evangelicals did not have anything like the dominant religious and cultural position in 1776 that they would enjoy by the 1850s. Among the major Founders, evangelicals were rare. To find clear examples of evangelical believers, one has to look to lesser-known leaders such as John Jay of New York, author of a few of the Federalist essays, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Then there’s the devout Roger Sherman of Connecticut, the only person to have signed all four great state papers of the American founding: the Continental Association,2 the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Among the most recognizable Founders, there were moderate but deistic-leaning Anglicans such as George Washington, wandering and reticent figures such as Alexander Hamilton,3 Unitarians such as Jefferson and John Adams, and self-described deists such as Ben Franklin. Dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals were scarce.

Born out of the Great Awakening in the 1740s, the evangelical movement was growing across America in 1776, but it remained a minority within most segments of American Christianity. The dominant denominations in America prior to 1776, including Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, usually had a conflicted attitude toward the revivals and revivalists of the First Great Awakening. Church of England officials had an especially rocky relationship with George Whitefield, the leading evangelist of the Great Awakening, who died on his last visit to America in 1770. By the mid-1740s, many Congregationalist ministers in New England also had denounced Whitefield as a rabble-rouser. These “Old Light” Congregationalists had their counterpart in “Old Side” Presbyterians, who worried that revivalists would splinter the churches and bring established ministers into disrepute.

Even many of the pre–Great Awakening Baptist churches in America opposed the revivals. But the Separate Baptists changed that stance. The Separate Baptists were former Congregationalists who not only supported the revivals, but who questioned the validity of infant baptism. Separate Baptists started to become the most dynamic evangelical group in America during the mid-1740s. By the 1750s, they transported their fervor from New England, where they originated, to the southern colonies. This began the century-long transformation of the South into America’s “Bible Belt.”

Rise of Methodism

Arguably the key factor in the story of American evangelical ascendancy was Methodism. Going back to his student days, Whitefield was considered a type of Methodist, because of his association with John and Charles Wesley, and with the so-called Holy Club of pious students at Oxford. But the Wesleys spent little time in America, and John Wesley and George Whitefield had a terrible split during the Great Awakening, due to differences over their respective Arminian and Calvinist beliefs. For a quarter century, they would struggle even to get back on speaking terms. Thus, Wesleyan Methodism had almost no impact on American revivals until the 1760s, when Wesleyan preachers began to appear in Virginia and Maryland.

In the early 1770s, John Wesley vociferously opposed the burgeoning American Patriot movement. The small numbers of Methodist preachers in America accordingly had to lay low, or return to Britain, during the American Revolution, for fear of Patriot reprisals. After the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) ended, Wesleyan Methodists came to the fore again. Wesley granted the American Methodists their functional independence in 1784, ensuring that the denomination would remain nimble and responsive to local American conditions. By the mid-1780s, the Methodists were seeing massive numbers of conversions and new church members, especially in the mid-Atlantic states.

One of the Methodists’ converts-turned-preachers was the former slave Richard Allen, who would go on to become one of Methodism’s most formidable leaders and the organizer of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Bethel was one of the founding churches of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African American–led denomination in the country. Few African Americans were affiliated with any churches at all during the American colonial period. By the 1780s, groups such as the Methodists and Baptists began to make great evangelistic inroads among African Americans. They were especially effective when these groups employed blacks such as Allen as preachers and evangelists. When most enslaved African people had arrived in America, they had no Christian background whatsoever. The Second Great Awakening represented a major pivot in the mass conversion of most of the African American population, at least nominally, to some kind of Protestant faith.

“The Second Great Awakening represented a major pivot in the mass conversion of most of the African American population.”

Before the Civil War, some of those African American Christians attended black-pastored churches such as Richard Allen’s. In the South, it was more common for black Christians to formally attend white-pastored congregations. There were also functionally independent (and often secret) “brush arbor” meetings, held by enslaved people in isolated groves on the plantations. We often think of early America as a time of pervasive Christian commitment, but that was decidedly not the case for the enslaved population of the colonies. But the Second Great Awakening began to change the religious character of the American enslaved population. By the 1840s, the evangelization of the African American population (free or slave) was hardly complete, but the church had already become the most important social institution in the African American community.4

Methodism experienced the most remarkable growth of any of the evangelical churches between the Revolution and the Civil War. Methodist organizers such as Allen, Francis Asbury, and countless other itinerants and “circuit riders” kept up with the breakneck pace of population growth in the early American republic. Their tireless evangelistic and church-planting efforts explain much of the Methodist surge during the era. By 1784, there were around 15,000 American Methodists. Within six years, that number had increased fourfold to 60,000; by 1810, there were some 150,000 Methodist adherents in the nation. By the 1840s, as the sectional crisis over slavery loomed, the Methodist Church had become the largest denomination in America.5

Revived Baptists

Were it not for the Methodists, we might regard the Baptists’ expansion before the Civil War as the most remarkable story of religious growth in American history. The Baptists had an older history in America than the Methodists did, dating back to the early colonial period. Some of the Regular Baptists did support the Great Awakening, at least tentatively, but the Separate Baptists put the denomination on a path of massive revivalist increases on the trans-Appalachian frontier. Baptists claimed about 35,000 members as of 1784, but grew to 170,000 by 1810. The Methodists soon exceeded Baptist membership, however, only to be overtaken again by the Southern Baptist Convention as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination during the mid-twentieth century.

As of 1800, almost all Baptists were moderate or strict Calvinists.6 The new Freewill Baptist denomination had begun to challenge Calvinism’s supremacy among the Baptists, however. By the 1820s, doctrinaire Calvinism waned among many mainstream Baptists. Hard Calvinist conviction became more characteristic of the Primitive Baptists, who also opposed newfangled national missionary societies, such as ones sponsored by the Baptists’ Triennial Convention. The Primitive Baptists regarded these missionary societies as unbiblical and elitist.7 Many Presbyterian and Congregationalist pastors remained Calvinists, though, and revivalist Christianity and Reformed theology found important institutional homes in new schools such as Andover Theological Seminary (1807) and Princeton Theological Seminary (1812). Older divinity schools such as Harvard’s came under the influence of Unitarian and Transcendentalist thought.

Arminian Popularity

Overall, evangelicals during the Second Great Awakening took a big step toward becoming more theologically Arminian, due especially to the increasing dominance of Wesleyan Methodism. This is an aspect of the Second Great Awakening that Reformed or Calvinist readers might well view with concern and ambivalence. The evangelical faith of the First Great Awakening in America (less so in Britain) was almost uniformly Calvinist. That of the Second Great Awakening was a mix of Calvinist and Arminian convictions. If Jonathan Edwards’s theology was representative of the First Great Awakening, John Wesley’s was more typical of the Second. Calvinist revivalism certainly retained an important place on the Anglo-American religious scene, but Calvinism’s former dominance was becoming increasingly contested by Arminian perspectives on free will, the atonement, and other doctrinal issues.

This turn toward popular Arminian theology was capped by the enormous success of Charles Finney in the northern states in the 1830s. Finney was not the most precise or consistent theologian, but there can be no doubt that his philosophy of revival was more human-centered than Edwards’s. It clashed with Edwards’s well-known emphasis on the sovereignty of God in conversions and awakenings. Finney’s wildly popular Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) reviled the notion that people needed to wait on God to do anything in revival. God had given churches and ministers all they needed to see revival happen; the only contingency was whether people would obey God by praying for and preaching revival. With Finney, the concept of a planned revival, foreign to Edwards’s view of the “surprising” nature of true awakening, became a standard feature of American evangelical culture. “Religion is the work of man,” Finney explained. “It is something for man to do.” Finney regarded the notion of the church waiting on God to send revival as devilish. Instead, God was waiting on the church to obey him in seeking revival.

Finney became famous (or notorious, in critics’ eyes) for his use of “new measures” to induce revival, such as protracted, multiday meetings. The characteristic new measure was the “anxious seat” or bench, where men or women wishing to break through to assurance of salvation could come to the front of a sanctuary and receive prayer and exhortations to believe. Finney also followed John Wesley in his emphasis on holiness, and the prospect that devout believers could achieve a virtual state of sinless perfection in this life. This state did not necessarily last forever, or render it impossible for the believer to sin. Yet Finney and his followers taught that God’s call to holiness was not impossible to meet. After conversion, there was an opportunity to consecrate one’s life entirely to God, and to live for stretches of time with no taint of sin at all.8

Women Leaders

The evangelical movement always had powerful female figures, such as Whitefield’s patron Selina Hastings, or Sarah Osborn, whose small home became the epicenter of a remarkable revival in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1760s. Limited numbers of women were chosen as deaconesses or eldresses in certain Baptist congregations in the mid- to late 1700s. But virtually all evangelicals understood that there were biblical and historic limits on women’s formal authority in congregations. Most obviously, women were not permitted to become ordained ministers. The Arminian proponents of revivalist Christianity — again following the example of John Wesley — tended to be more open to informal speaking and offices for women than were traditional Calvinists. These roles even led occasionally to arguments for the legitimacy of women serving formally as pastors and preachers.

One such advocate for female preaching was Jarena Lee. Lee, born to free African American parents in New Jersey, worked as a domestic servant in Philadelphia, and experienced conversion under the preaching of Richard Allen. She was baptized in 1807. Lee was inclined toward charismatic piety, and she believed that God called her in a vision to become a preacher. She requested that Allen and the Methodists appoint her as an evangelist, a request that Allen denied. This did not stop her from becoming a sought-after exhorter and an independent Methodist itinerant. Allen later relented and ordained her in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Lee wrote, “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”9 Despite such occasional protests, it remained far more common for evangelicals to adhere to limitations on women’s public teaching, guided by passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34–35.

Splits and Sects

Biblicism was a defining mark of the evangelical movement, but as seen in Jarena Lee’s struggle to preach, or in Wesley and Whitefield’s feud over Calvinism, biblicism did not end disagreements among evangelicals regarding what the Bible taught. This problem became more acute during the Second Great Awakening. American evangelicals grew more individualistic, and confident about the power of reason to interpret Scripture, without the aid of creeds, confessions, or church tradition. This kind of populist biblicism led to an incredible proliferation of new denominations and sectarian movements in the first half of the nineteenth century. The end of established state churches also fueled the centrifugal trend within evangelicalism. Before the Revolution, the established Church of England, and the Congregationalist churches in New England, kept a lid on disruptive church practices or aberrant theology, and they could employ the force of the state to suppress dissent. Now, the same freedom that allowed for the phenomenal growth of the Baptists and Methodists led to the virtually unchecked work of other new religious movements, prophets, exhorters, and visionaries.

Some of these movements developed jarringly innovative theology, and in the case of the Mormons, entirely new scriptures. Other movements, such as the Churches of Christ, would go on to become standard fixtures of the American Protestant landscape. The Churches of Christ, led by figures such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, were the ultimate products of the evangelical “Bible alone” ethos. Stone and Campbell imagined that through an unaided, plain reading of Scripture, they could take their movement back to the simple purity of the New Testament church. This effort led to distinctive priorities such as prohibiting the use of musical instruments in worship services. Not even members of the Churches of Christ could agree whether such strictures were truly biblical, however, leading to a split that divided the Churches of Christ from the Disciples of Christ in the late nineteenth century.10 Evangelicals were finding that sola scriptura, while an indisputable first principle of Protestants, was more difficult to practice in a unifying fashion when it was unmoored from Christian history and creedal traditions.

Reaching the Masses

For better or worse, then, the Second Great Awakening was arguably more formative than the First in American religious and cultural history. The first reason for its massive impact is that by the mid-1800s, white and black Americans were far more “churched” than they had been in 1776. In 1776, church life in America was more urban-centered and exclusively white than it was by 1860, when evangelical churches had made much progress in reaching frontier white populations and the African American community, both free and enslaved. Whites remained the leaders of most churches and denominations, yet African Americans not only were surging into Baptist and Methodist congregations but sometimes led their own churches and even denominations, as Richard Allen did. The vast church-planting initiative led by Baptists and Methodists not only facilitated the conversion of untold thousands of Americans, but it also provided basic social structure to the burgeoning frontier. For many frontier settlers or enslaved people on plantations, the church was the only social support outlet they had.

“The Second Great Awakening was arguably more formative than the First in American religious and cultural history.”

The second reason that the Second Great Awakening was so consequential was that it led to a range of ambitious missionary and moral reform initiatives. The formal evangelical missionary movement had begun in Britain in the 1790s, but American evangelicals readily adapted to missions too, initiating evangelistic works in city slums, in Native American villages, and to the ends of the earth. Through agencies such as the American Bible Society (founded in 1816), evangelicals made physical copies of the Bible nearly ubiquitous in American homes. Finally, Christians in the Second Great Awakening era took on moral reform causes, such as ministering to the homeless and to prostitutes, curbing alcohol abuse, and opening countless schools and colleges. Some evangelicals engaged in antislavery activism, too, though their influence among evangelical whites was exceeded by proslavery sentiment, especially in the South.

Christian America?

To conclude, let’s return to Jefferson’s faulty prediction. Unitarianism may have been growing in 1822, but on the broader American religious landscape, it was hardly the main event. Americans, especially devout Protestants, tend to recall the American founding as a time of intense Christian fervor, and maybe even evangelical dominance. Sometimes they imply that American history has been a story of decline and decay from that idyllic origin of 1776. As usual, the historical truth is more complicated. America was far more churched and more evangelical in 1860 than it was in 1776.

Did this mean that America was a “Christian nation” by 1860? The brutal nature of chattel slavery, and the ruthless expropriation of Native American lands, should give us pause about making unequivocal claims to Christian identity for the nation, even by 1860. In terms of religious adherence, however, America on the eve of the Civil War was probably as Christian as it ever has been in its history. Indeed, the era of the Second Great Awakening demonstrates the incredible capacity of churches focused on the Great Commission to transform the religious character of a nation.

  1. “From Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, 26 June 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-2905. 

  2. “Continental Association, 20 October 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0094. 

  3. See Obbie Tyler Todd, “Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian? The Troubled Faith of a Disgraced Founding Father,” Desiring God, October 8, 2021, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/was-alexander-hamilton-a-christian. 

  4. See Richard S. Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (New York: New York University Press, 2008); and Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, updated ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). 

  5. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); John H. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). 

  6. See Thomas S. Kidd, “Calvinism Is Not New to Baptists,” Desiring God, June 13, 2015, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/calvinism-is-not-new-to-baptists. 

  7. For more on Baptist history, see Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). 

  8. Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). 

  9. Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (Philadelphia, 1849). 

  10. Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).