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Historical Themes

Religious Revivals

By Julie Roy Jeffrey, Ph.D.

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In the religious free market of the antebellum period, revivals represented one of the ways in which churches sought to maintain religious institutional vitality and foster individual commitment. Beginning in the 1790s and occurring periodically until the Civil War, revivals swept over different parts of the country. Known collectively as the Second Great Awakening, these revivals were times of heightened religious interest when major efforts were made to convert those who were indifferent to organized religion, skeptical about its claims, or unwilling to affiliate themselves with any particular church. In the early period, Kentucky and Tennessee were the scenes of ebullient revivalism sponsored by the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, while New England and New York experienced more restrained activity. Between 1810 and 1825 the Northeast became a center of revivalism, and then the West rivaled the East as a hotbed of revival action. Despite the power of cultural values like personal honor, revivalism also flourished in the South, making the Methodists and Baptists the region's largest denominations by 1860. A new intellectual climate supported revival activity. In the eighteenth century revivals were seen as miracles. But in the nineteenth century, revivalists believed that rather than being miracles from God, revivals were events that human beings were responsible for initiating and orchestrating. The Presbyterian revivalist, Charles Grandison Finney became famous for his success in leading revivals.

While the skills of the revivalist were key to its success, Finney emphasized that "God has made man a free moral agent." Every individual attending a revival had the ability to cooperate with the work of salvation and, at the climactic moment of choice, accept Christ as a personal savior. The act of conversion might occur in seconds. But the process of bringing individuals to conversion could take much longer. The revivalist might spend several days or weeks preaching in a community. Finney's revival in Rochester, New York, lasted for six months.

"We must have exciting, powerful preaching," said Finney, for "where mankind are so reluctant to obey God, they will not until they are excited." With forceful words, the revivalist emphasized that without conversion, all were doomed to hell. The preacher walked a delicate line. The stress on sin and damnation, necessary because people had to believe that they were in terrible danger or they would not change, could become so overwhelming that people despaired and closed themselves off from the possibility of saving grace. Thus the revivalist also had to encourage those who acknowledged their sinfulness also to accept the reality of forgiveness and union with God. The fact that these appeals to repent took place in a collective setting made it possible to create a highly charged emotional climate that could encourage and support individuals as they tried to break with their past and accept Christ.

Specific measures also contributed a feeling of urgency. Stirring hymns sung at strategic moments, impromptu prayers, often offered by women, raised the emotional temperature. As one New Yorker attested, a hymn "sung with pathos . . . never fails to melt the audience." The anxious seat or bench located towards the front of the congregation also proved effective. Reserved for those who felt troubled and agitated about their spiritual state but who were still unable to break with the past, the anxious bench set "sinners" physically apart where they became the main focus of attention. Members the congregation, family members and friends, along with the preacher poured out earnest pleas, supplications, impromptu prayers, groans and even tears. Sometimes supporters even clustered around the anxious bench to urge the sinner on. As one observer explained, anyone sitting in the anxious seat "could hardly avoid being affected by the tide of emotions."

In addition to the revival meetings themselves, a host of other activities contributed to overall success. Women made up a majority of those converted (perhaps as many as two thirds), and they played an instrumental role in assisting the work of the revival. Often the first converted in their families (thus demonstrating their independence in spiritual matters), women believed that they had a special duty to carry the pressing message of repentance to family members and others in the community. They organized prayer meetings in their homes to work up enthusiasm for the revival and engaged in house to house visiting to encourage attendance at revival meetings.

The prominence of women in revivals and in their work and some of the key revival strategies struck some more conservative church people and clergy as questionable. In 1826, some were already criticizing Finney's use of the anxious bench, his informal language, the scheduling of "protracted" or daily meetings, and the practice of praying for individuals by name. The free way in which women prayed aloud offended traditionalists who thought that women should be silent in church. Finally, Finney's promptness in making the converted church members seemed lax. Yet it was hard to fault the short term success of revivals and the impressive number of converts. A three week revival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, garnered 150 converts while other revivals garnered even more. While revivals manipulated emotions during their meetings, the behavior they elicited was subdued compared to the Methodists camp meetings. Camp meetings were outdoor mass gatherings drawing people from near and far. Those from a distance would camp during the few days of the meetings. Every day the crowds came together to hear preachers, often from different denominations, and lay exhorters. The objective was to whip up religious enthusiasm and convert as many of the crowd as possible. Little worried about decorum, preachers promoted an atmosphere that encouraged spontaneity and expressive, even frenzied behavior. Camp meetings, William Bentley declared disapprovingly were "brutal attempts to excite the passions," to encourage "fainting, shouting, yelling, crying, sobbing and grieving," But for most, like Ezekiel Cooper who was preaching at one, the camp meeting was a sacred event. "Sinners were struck as with hammer and fire, or like as if thunder flashes had smitten them," he wrote. "A general cry began, so that I was forced to stop preaching. I stood upon the stand and looked on, and saw them in every part of the congregation with streaming eyes and shouting for mercy, while others were shouting praises to God for delivering grace."

To one observer in the 1830s, camp meetings, with their expressions of the religious feelings of ordinary people, were "festivals of democracy." From a modern perspective, scholars have also suggested that they represented an early form of mass entertainment. Whether viewed as mass entertainment, festivals of democracy, or profound religious experiences, the exuberant character of camp meetings became less acceptable as Methodism grew more respectable in the last two decades before the Civil War. While camp meetings continued to contribute to religious, social, and cultural life in the South and on the frontier, by the 1840s, more conservative Methodists had established several permanent meeting sites that signaled a shift away from democratic exuberance. Part resorts charging for accommodations, part religious retreats, these campgrounds were quite different in spirit from the simpler places that had once hosted such passionate crises connected with salvation.

Bibliography
Altschuler, Glenn C. and Jan M. Saltzgaber. Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community in the Burned-over District (1983)
Dolan, Jay P. Catholic Revivalism: the American Experience,1830-1890 (1978)
Johnson, Paul. A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (1978).

©Copyright 2000 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project