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The Second Great Awakening

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Second Great Awakening

The Great Awakening of the mid-1700s had caused an increase in the number of Protestant congregations in America. The new philosophy of salvation by faith in God and by the public confession of sincere repentance for sins, had flown in the face of the Puritan concept of salvation by predestination alone. Large numbers of Americans embraced the idea that they could play a role in their own salvation.

The Second Great Awakening began in upstate New York around the 1790s and continued through the 1830s. Religious revival meetings conducted by fiery evangelical preachers sometimes drew as many as 20,000 people. Like the first Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening caused a surge in church membership among Protestants, especially Methodists and Baptists. The movement appealed strongly to women and to African Americans, even giving rise to a black Methodist denomination known as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

Utopian communities based on religion and philosophy sprang up through- out the United States between 1800 and 1850. People came together with a vision of an ideal society in which everyone would contribute to the good of the whole group. Work, ownership of property, and family life would all be shared.

The religious revival of the early nineteenth century fueled two social and political movements that were to have enormous consequences in American history. The first was the temperance movement, which opposed the consumption of alcohol. The second was the abolitionist movement, which opposed slavery.

The Temperance Movement

Protestant women established the American Temperance Society in the 1820s. Their goal was to discourage people from spending their wages on alcohol and their spare time in saloons. The movement generally targeted men, because they were the worst offenders. In the early nineteenth century, social custom confined women to their homes in their leisure hours; they did not go outside the home for relaxation as men did. No respectable American woman would ever be seen in a saloon or a bar until the twentieth century.

The women who led the temperance movement were no more subtle than the patriots who had dumped chests of tea into Boston Harbor in 1774. They became famous for their aggressive approach to their work—striding into saloons, smashing the glass windows, and taking hatchets to kegs of whiskey, rum, and other spirits until the liquor ran in streams along the board floors. The movement was effective; by the mid-1800s, the national consumption of alcohol had dropped. Temperance advocates continued their crusade against alcohol throughout the nineteenth century. In 1917, they would reach their pinnacle of success with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, popularly called “Prohibition” because it prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages. (Prohibition would be repealed in 1933, having proven a resounding failure.

The Abolitionist Movement

Abolition had been a matter for discussion as long as there had been any slaves in the British colonies. The Pennsylvania Quakers had always spoken out against slavery; prominent Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin had founded the first antislavery society in North America. Ministers of the Great Awakening had preached that each individual must live without sin and urge others to do likewise; holding another human being in slavery was naturally regarded as a sin. Even a slave owner like Thomas Jefferson had acknowledged the hypocrisy of founding a slaveholding nation in a document stating that all men were created equal.

Most northern states had outlawed slavery by the early 1800s. The next step was to try to end it in the South. One idea that took shape was to send African Americans to Africa to establish a republic of their own. The colony of Monrovia, named for President James Monroe, was duly established on the west coast of Africa in 1822. Several hundred African Americans had settled the new nation by 1830. By 1847, the original settlement of Monrovia had become the capital city of the Republic of Liberia (liber means “free” in Latin) and had its own written constitution modeled on that of the United States.

Most African Americans did not want to emigrate to Africa; they had been born and raised in the United States and regarded it as their home, while Liberia was a foreign nation across an ocean. Their goal was freedom from and equality with white people; they wanted to be treated as free citizens of the United States, with the same rights and privileges as white people. By 1826, there were more than 143 antislavery societies throughout the country, many of them organized and run by free blacks. The fight for abolition and equality would continue, led by both white and black activists.

Many people did not want to wait for gradual change in the laws. They wanted immediate action. Nat Turner, a slave born in 1800, led an armed uprising in August of 1831. The area around Southampton, Virginia, quickly became a scene of terror as Turner and his followers killed any white people they came across; eventually, fifty or sixty people fell victim to the enraged slave and his army. The rebellion did not last long, because Turner’s army was far too small to sustain a war; in the end, he and his followers (along with a number of innocent African-American bystanders) were captured and hanged. Southern states were quick to pass harsh new laws that curtailed the few rights and freedoms slaves enjoyed. William Lloyd Garrison, a white journalist, started his famous abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in response to the Turner rebellion. Like Turner, Garrison did not believe in waiting for freedom:

..urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Religion and Reform Practice Test

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