Since the Revolution, America had become increasingly
secular. Educated Americans, in particular, came to embrace the
doctrines of the Enlightenment, which favored logic
and reason over piety. Partly as a reaction against this growing
rationalism, the Second Great Awakening emerged in the 1800s and
caused a resurgence of religious faith.
Enlightenment Critique of Religion
Influenced by the Enlightenment ideals of logic and reason,
many Americans began to question certain elements of the Christian
faith, embracing new rational views on religion. Proponents of rationalism held
that religious beliefs should not simply be accepted but should
instead be acquired through investigation and reflection. For most
rationalists, the existence of God was proven most prominently by
the orderly workings of nature, which hinted at a rational creator.
The most extreme rationalists, called Deists, argued
that where the Bible conflicted with reason, it should be ignored.
Deists, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, believed
that a rational God, like a celestial clockmaker, had created a
perfect universe and then stepped back to let it operate according
to natural laws.
The ideas of the Enlightenment led Americans
to seek more rational religious ideas. These Americans criticized
traditional religion and looked to science and logic for proof of
their religious beliefs.
Along with Deism, other rationalist challenges arose to
traditional religion, including Universalism and Unitarianism. Universalism
held that science and reason ensured that all souls would eternally
progress toward salvation, regardless of the adoption of any specific creed.
Between 1794 and 1807, Thomas Paine published his Universalist
book, The Age of Reason, which objected
to all organized religion. Many critics condemned this book as a defense
of atheism. The other new creed, Unitarianism, opposed the Christian
doctrine of the trinity (the belief that God exists in three equal
and eternal parts: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy
Spirit). Unitarianism gained a small following of religious liberals
during the late eighteenth century, and grew throughout the early
nineteenth century to emerge as a separate denomination with its
The Second Great Awakening
About seventy years after the First Great Awakening, the Second
Great Awakening emerged during the early 1800s, partly as
a backlash against the spread of rationalism, and partly in response
to calls for an organized religion more accessible to the common
man. As in the First Great Awakening, revivalist ministers during
the Second Great Awakening urged followers to reach a personal,
emotional understanding of God. Women, blacks, and Native Americans
participated heavily in the revival meetings.
The revivals began in Connecticut in 1790. Unlike
the revivals during the First Great Awakening, which were emotionally
raucous and neared hysteria, these revivals were often calmer and
quieter, as gatherers respectfully observed believers in prayer.
In New England, these revivals spawned a movement to educate and
reform America. Social activists, inspired by their renewed religious
spirit, founded all sorts of evangelical and reform groups: the
American Bible Society (1816), the Society for the Promotion of
Temperance, abolition groups, and groups urging educational reform
and women’s rights.
Religious fervor quickly spread to the West, where revivals
more closely resembled the earlier, more animated revivals. In Kentucky
and Tennessee, camp meetings were rowdy gatherings
filled with dancing, singing, and shouting. The Methodists, who
emphasized that religion was a matter of the heart rather an issue
of logic, came to dominate frontier revivals. By 1845, Methodism
was the most popular denomination of Protestantism in the U.S.
While the Second Great Awakening made great strides toward
converting a secularized American public, it was not without critics.
Some claimed the revivals encouraged more lust than salvation. Unitarians
criticized the emotional displays of the revivals and argued that
goodness sprang from gradual character building, not sudden emotional
Transcendentalism and Literature
Along with the Second Great Awakening, other
religious reform movements arose in the nineteenth century to challenge
rationalism. One such movement was transcendentalism,
which emerged during the 1830s. Transcendentalists argued that knowledge
did not come exclusively through the intellect, but also through
the senses, intuition, and sudden insight. They believed that concepts
such as God, freedom, and absolute truth were inborn and could be
accessed through inner experience and emotional openness.
Two prominent transcendentalists were the authors Ralph
Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whose works emphasized spontaneous
and vivid expression of emotion rather than logic and analysis.
In his essays “Nature” and “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed
that all people were capable of seeing the truth if they relied
on their inner selves and trusted their hearts. In Walden, Henry
David Thoreau recounted his two years spent living in a cabin
in the woods away from civilization and materialism. He advocated living
a simple life according to one’s conscience, not according to society’s
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also
known as Mormonism, was the most controversial challenge
to traditional religion. Its founder, Joseph Smith,
claimed that God and Jesus Christ appeared to him and directed him
to a buried book of revelation. The Book of Mormon, similar in form
and style to the Bible, tells of the descendents of a sixth century B.C.E. prophet
whose family founded a civilization in South America. Violent religious
persecution forced Mormons to move steadily westward in search of
land upon which to establish a perfect spiritual community. After
Smith’s murder in Illinois, a new leader, Brigham Young, led the
Mormons to present-day Utah, where they have since prospered.