The Skeptic’s Guide to American History
Episode 7 The Second Great Awakening: Enduring Impact
Mark Stoler PhD (2012)
This fascinating video concerns another topic that is never taught in high school: the history of the US evangelical movement.
According to Stoler the First Major (evangelical) Awakening occurred in each of the 13 colonies prior to the US War of Independence. He believes this tendency to challenge established church authority possibly Influenced the US decision to break away from Britain.
The Second Major Awakening, he asserts, began during the late 1820s, and continues to the present.
During the 19th century, this anti-authoritarian tendency manifested politically in the election of self-made military hero Andrew Jackson. It manifested in the religious sphere through a widespread challenge of traditional religious beliefs. Whereas, the Puritans who had founded New England believed in original sin and predestination,* evangelicalism essentially democratized religion by making salvation available to everyone. Anyone willing to publicly confess their sins could be “born again.”
Although this was more likely to occur in revival camp meetings than in established churches, by the 1850s, evangelicalism had such a major impact on society that one out of every three Americans was attending church regularly.
Early evangelical Christians also worked for social reform, believing they could hasten Christ’s second coming by improving the world.
This emphasis on social reform also spilled over into secular movements, such as the Transcendental** movement; Horace Mann’s program to eradicate economic inequality via universal compulsory education; Dorothea Dix’s movement to improve the treatment of the mentally ill in insane asylum’s; a temperance movement aimed at reducing at an epidemic of alcoholism (which Stoler attributes to the massive dislocation caused by America’s industrial revolution); the antislavery movement; and the women’s suffrage movement.***
*Predestination is the doctrine that God has foreordained all things, especially that God has already elected certain souls to eternal salvation.
**Transcendentalism was a 19th century philosophical system based on a belief in the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of humanity, and the supremacy of insight over logic and experience.
***Dedicated to winning women the right to vote, the US suffrage movement was founded in 1848 at Seneca Falls New York.
The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.