January 17, 2024

The Second Great Awakening Overlook

Stephen Nichols
The Second Great Awakening Overlook

What took place during the Second Great Awakening? Today, Stephen Nichols offers a bird’s-eye view of this significant movement in 19th-century America.


Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. You know, you are meandering around a country road or a scenic place, and all of a sudden, you see it, overlook ahead. Well, let’s pull over and take an overlook of the Second Great Awakening. It was a very pivotal moment in American church history. It has a transatlantic phenomenon element to it, but I want to primarily focus on the Second Great Awakening in America. First of all, why was it needed? How was the American church or American culture asleep? Well, if we look at the 1790s, we see that it was an age of reason, as the book title has it, by Thomas Payne. And at the very beginnings of this young American republic, there was a strong sense of secularism. Historians have documented that church attendance in the decade of the 1790s in America was in the single digits, percentage-wise.

It was not only an age of secularism, it was also an age of deism. These old congregational churches in New England were quickly careening into what was called unitarian universalism, and neither one of those are good doctrines, and put them together, it’s really bad. So, whether you’re looking at the church and deism and unitarianism and universalism, or you’re looking at the culture and secularism, you could say yes asleep. So time for awakening. Second Great Awakening is dated from 1800 to the 1840s, and anything that runs a whole generation is going to have multiple arms to it, and sometimes difficult to wrap ourselves around it and get a handle on it. But let’s do our best. It begins in the 18 zeros, that first decade, and it seems like it starts on college campuses. It starts on the campus of Yale.

Timothy Dwight, he’s Jonathan Edwards’ grandson, he comes in as president, and he realizes that not only are most of the students unconverted and not really wanting anything to do with God, church, or religion, but so too are some of the faculty. And so Dwight starts doing two things. He starts preaching the gospel in chapel. So, he has a presidential chapel every week, and he stands in front of the students, and he preaches passionate sermons of the gospel. And he also holds debates with his faculty to debate them on these doctrines. And so between those two things, eventually revival comes to Yale. It also comes to Andover Newton, it also goes to Princeton University. A young student, Charles Hodge is a student at Princeton. And in 1814 to 1815, he is converted during revival services at Princeton. Well, these students got very excited about the things of the Lord and about missions. And coming out of these students, we have the student volunteer movement and the 18 zeros, 1810s, and this is the entrance of America into foreign missions, and it would come to dominate foreign missions for many decades and even generations to come.

There was also the revivals of Nettleton. We talked about him last week. And so here he is, crisscrossing Connecticut and New York and holding revivals in under his ministry, estimated 30,000 converts to Christ. That’s a lot of people in those days, and if we were to put it in today’s numbers, a massive amount of people. There’s also the revivals of Finney here. We have Finney in his new measures, and we talked about him two weeks ago in the New Lebanon conference, but his revivals begin in Rochester. And then he also is crisscrossing New York and Connecticut, preaching in some of the same exact towns that Nettleton and the others are preaching. And he ends up in New York City and there are the Businessmen’s lunches. And these lunches turn into extended prayer meetings, and revivals are breaking out. And so, we have revivals on the college campuses.

We have revivals in the big cities. And lastly, we have revivals on the frontier. We have Cane Ridge, Kentucky, again back in the 18 zeros. And this was the revival camp meetings where people would come from all over and gathered at Cane Ridge. Covered wagons, trains of covered wagons coming to Cane Ridge and marathon preaching sessions, marathon revivals, and the Second Great Awakening. So there it is, our scenic overlook of a very important moment in American church history, the Second Great Awakening. And I’m Steve Nichols and thanks for listening to 5 Minutes in Church History.