Chapter 1: The Second Great Awakening
By Leif L.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 NKJV
In the next few posts I will examine the period of religious history known as the Second Great Awakening. We will briefly explore it’s historical roots, philosophical basis, and the effects that the movement continues to have upon the Christian world of today. It is a study of the historical influences that bore upon the nature of the movement, and the main characteristics of the religious groups that sprang from it.
There was an almost unprecedented religious fervor that accompanied the Second Great Awakening, with an energetic revivalism in America that has probably not been equalled since. We wish to examine both the basis of the religious, social and political culture that was responsible for creating this as well as examine the thoughts and changes that transpired during that time. We will also look at the fruit of the theological and ecclesiastical changes, to find out what we can learn after almost 200 years.
The Second Great Awakening was an American religious movement which lasted approximately 50 years, from 1800-1850, though some may trace its origins back a few years earlier. It was a time of religious change brought about (at least in part) by the Enlightenment, which had greatly altered the world and human consciousness since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. There were stirrings among the American people, who felt that the time was ripe for a fundamental change in religion, one that would make God more accessible and religion more user-friendly.
New Belief Systems Change America’s Religious Landscape
History clearly attests that the Second Great Awakening was one of the most spectacular vehicles to produce a host of sectarian religious movements. The 19th century witnessed the origin of many belief systems that distinguished or isolated themselves from the main body of Protestant Christianity. We will concern ourselves with some of the reasons that they separated from established Protestantism, where the differences were, and whether the theological changes were an advancement in the pursuit of truth, or whether there was regression in this regard.
Some of the systems of religion from that era which still exist today include Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventism, Armstrongism/Worldwide Church of God (which arose later, but owed much of its theology to Seventh-day Adventism and the Restoration Movement), among others. These movements definitely wished to separate themselves from the Christian world at large, and embraced doctrines which reinforced their exclusivity and incompatibility with other churches.
The Churches of Christ also started during the Second Great Awakening, though they maintained a more much more orthodox Christian theology, and did not consider themselves separate from historic Christianity. In common with the Restoration Movement, they attempted to return to what they believed to be a purer form of the gospel, though in my opinion it was still a blending of biblical teaching with the general worldview common at that time. What is written in these articles applies to these churches as well, though certainly to a much smaller degree than the movements mentioned earlier.
Characteristics of the New Systems
Each of these movements were based on the premise that they were returning to a purer form of Christianity. There were foundational Christian doctrines which were rejected, and new ones established during this time. This change helped to become a leaven that spread through much of American Christianity, many of the ideas have become soteriological presuppositions that remain to this day; the face of American Christianity was forever changed.
From Wikipedia, article “Mormonism and Christianity”:
“Mormonism arose in the 1820s during a period of radical reform and experimentation within American Protestantism, and Mormonism is integrally connected to that religious environment. As a form of Christian primitivism, the new faith was one among several contemporary religious movements that claimed to restore Christianity to its condition at the time of the Twelve Apostles.”
“Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon was brought forth as the keystone of our religion, for the re-establishment of the original Christian Church, today. The truthfulness of The Book of Mormon, as a true witness of Jesus Christ — establishes Joseph Smith as the Lord’s true prophet. It confirms that God has called Joseph Smith, and given him authority, as a modern-day prophet – to organize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
We hope to examine the religious, theological and sociological shifts which changed the face of Christianity in America, England, and the world, and which continue to shape the spiritual awareness and paradigm of many Christians to this day.
The Awakenings an American Phenomenon
“[In the English colonies] the awakenings played a role in the emergence of a national spirit …
“The religious excitement that swept across the colonies had distinctively American characteristics, yet they were were also influenced by revival movements in other parts of the Christian world, and in turn had an impact on those movements. The various awakenings in the British Isles, the Pietist movements on the continent, and the American revival reinforced one another. … The continuities of colonial revivalism with certain previous and contemporary trends elsewhere in Christendom were indeed significant – yet the Great Awakenings were distinctively related to the particular contexts, problems, and opportunities of organized religion in America.” – A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, Chapter: Era of the Great Awakenings in Colonial America, by Robert T. Handy
Purpose of this Study
My own point of view is from the eyes of a former Seventh-day Adventist. Of the several movements that emerged from the Second Great Awakening, this may be one of the least radical overall, claiming to maintain a connection to the Protestant Reformation, and indeed, convinced that they are the continuation of it. Adventism was born in this period, stemming from Millerism. It bears many of the distinct theological characteristics of the other movements of the period.
This study is the result of my own personal quest to discover why I had accepted as my point of view a system of belief that I came to understand was contrary to the implicit and explicit teaching of Scripture.
I believe that much of what falls under the umbrella of Christianity today is merely a form of humanism disguised in the terms and clothing of Biblical Christianity, where man and his needs are subtly but surely placed before the Biblical viewpoint of the sovereignty of God in all things.
It is a worldview that we are comfortable with, for it answers the natural desires of our fallen human condition, and works well within the humanist framework which our culture has been immersed in for the last couple centuries. Our society is becoming ever more humanistic as the knowledge of the rule of God is erased from human consciousness.
It is this line of thought that I will attempt to prove in the following chapters. It is not an easy subject to approach, for on the one hand, we must swim against the tide of human pride, and the very foundations what we have come to find our inner value and worth as a species. On the other hand, we may be viewed as if we are trying to prove that the earth is flat after all; that we are returning to a primitive theism that does not take into account the learning and human self-awareness that has been gained since the Enlightenment. Actually, in a very real sense, that is the goal of this study, to perhaps uncover where modern religion went wrong so many years ago, and that the possibility that wise Christian men of the past, who battled the forms of humanism in their day, were actually more right than wrong.
I do not seek to answer the question of whether the Second Great Awakening was of God or of men. For not a leaf blows in the wind without his permission; God knows the numbers of the hairs of our head, and sees each sparrow fall; he causes the sun to rise on the just and the unjust; in the movements of men he is aware and always working to accomplish his purpose. Whether he is bringing his children as a freed nation into the promised Canaan, or dragging them bound in chains to Babylon, God’s plan is being accomplished, in darkness, and in light.
This study is also not a critique of the social reforms which supported the cause of the abolition of slavery and the temperance movement which steered the culture toward the prohibition of alcohol, and urged the restriction of the use of tobacco and stimulants. These are positive social reforms which continue to affect us until today.