The Second Great Awakening: 1790-1830

After the long-fought War for Independence, the infant American republic began to waver spiritually. Deism and rationalism, especially as they were expressed in the writings of Thomas Paine and Voltaire, captured the minds of many young intellectuals. Episcopal Bishop Mead of Virginia at the time said, “I have come to expect every educated young man to be a skeptic,” and Presbyterian minister Robert Smith wrote, “The young men of Kentucky are scoffers at religion.” Lyman Beecher described the condition of Yale College in 1795: “Most of the class before me were infidels and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, etc.” At that time at Princeton, only two of 150 students professed to be believers. A sad change had come over the country. The First Great Awakening seemed all but forgotten.

God in His good providence, however, purposed to revive His work in America. In the late 1780s some students at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia read Joseph Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted. Several were thereby converted and started prayer meetings. The revival among them was a prelude to the Second Great Awakening in America.

On a bleak wintry day in 1794, twenty-three New England ministers met together to pray. They issued a “circular letter” calling on churches to pray for revival. Soon churches from Connecticut to Kentucky were setting aside special days of prayer for revival.

Although a host of godly ministers was used mightily during this great reviving, in this article we will limit ourselves to looking at only four of them: Edward D. Griffin, Asahel Nettleton, James McGready, and Daniel Baker. Dr. Edward D. Griffin, president of Williams College in Massachusetts, was preaching in New Hartford, Connecticut in November, 1795, when God broke in upon the people with reviving grace. A dozen families fell under awful conviction. Soon about one hundred souls were added to the Lord. This was the beginning of the blessing in New England. In 1839, Dr. Griffin wrote that genuine revivals had never ceased in that area of New England since they began in 1795. Dr. Griffin described the work as orderly, with no signs of emotion in the hearers except solemn faces and the quiet shedding of tears.

In 1801 the little village of Killingworth, Connecticut, was touched by revival. A 28-year-old farmer named Asahel Nettleton was one of the village’s first converts. Nettleton graduated from Yale in 1811 and began one of New England’s most fruitful ministries. While Lyman Beecher was recovering from illness, Nettleton preached in Beecher’s church. During those five months, seventy souls were soundly converted in the Litchfield, Connecticut, congregation. Beecher wrote, “Those converted under Nettleton during those five months have shown less defects than I have ever known.”

The power of Nettleton’s preaching lay in his exhibition of the Calvinistic doctrines “explained, defined, proved, applied, and objections stated and answered.” In the fall of 1827, as Nettleton preached at Hampden-Sydney College, more than one hundred inquired, “What must I do to be saved?” Nettleton’s burning desire was to be a foreign missionary, but his health did not permit it. In 1844, he died at age 71, but many of his converts became missionaries.

As the wonderful work of God in New England continued, the Spirit began His mighty work in the South. One of the men He used in the South was James McGready, who is credited with being the creator of the camp meeting. McGready was born in Pennsylvania around 1760 and then moved to North Carolina with his family. He became a Presbyterian minister and labored in North Carolina and Kentucky. One that heard him preach in North Carolina testified, “Such earnestness, such zeal, such powerful persuasion, enforced by the joys of heaven and the miseries of hell, I had never witnessed before…. Never before had I felt the force of truth.… Had I been standing, I should have probably sunk to the floor under the impression.”

Soon McGready was called to Logan County, Kentucky, where for three years he ministered in Rogue’s Harbor (called that because many criminals lived there). In July 1799 he held a communion service and many of the most bold and daring sinners of the place covered their faces and wept bitterly. Amid a growing awakening, another communion service was held in August 1801 with twenty thousand people attending. Many came from as far away as a hundred miles. McGready reported later that out of about five hundred who confessed Christ, most of them continued faithful to Him.

Daniel Baker was born on August 17, 1791, in Midway, Georgia. Having lost his mother when he was an infant and his father when he was only eight, Baker was cared for by a godly aunt and an older sibling. Baker had an empty profession until age fourteen when he became terrified about his lost condition. After coming to Christ, Baker began to seriously consider how he should spend his life. At age twenty, Baker began attending Hampton-Sydney College and studied under Dr. Moses Hoge. While in college, Baker joined the Presbyterian Church. He started a regular student prayer meeting and had the joy of seeing a profane student converted.

After two years of college, Baker transferred to Princeton, where only six of the 145 students professed Christianity. In his sweet, brotherly manner Baker organized another regular student prayer meeting, which resulted in a great revival in Nassau Hall. About seventy-five young men attended the prayer meetings. Forty-five were converted and about thirty became ministers and missionaries.

After graduation, Baker began preaching in Virginia and married Elizabeth McRobert. They had several children and were married 42 years. Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Kentucky were all scenes of revival under Baker’s ministry. However, Texas was Baker’s favorite place to minister. In 1849 he established Austin College for the purpose of training Presbyterian ministers. Hundreds of souls came to Christ under Baker’s ministry. The proof of their conversion was witnessed by fruit that remained. Baker went to be with Christ on December 10, 1857.

The Second Great Awakening filled churches from New England to Texas with thousands of new converts. God’s name was greatly glorified in the land. The blossoming of the foreign missionary movement can be traced to that Second Great Awakening. That which began in prayer meetings continued generating more prayer meetings for several decades. Great were the answers to prayer that began among twenty-three New England ministers in 1794. “O God of our salvation,… wilt thou not revive us again?” (Psalm 85:4, 6).

Did You Appreciate This? Share it...

By Myron Mooney

Rev. Myron Mooney is minister of Trinity FPC, Trinity AL.