It’s that time again when we take a break from talking about what God is going to do in the future and talk about what He has done in the past in America. We’ve been talking about how the Lord has been molding and shaping America through the Great Awakenings. In the First Great Awakening, we saw how certain customs and traditions that were detrimental to the spread of Christianity were rooted out. In the Second Great Awakening, the entire fabric of society was transformed. The Church community experienced a massive change… a change so great that it affected the States forever. Essentially, America became a specific kind of nation. If you want to learn more about this great transformation, keep reading…


By Karen Thompson
Fifth in a Five-Part Series

The Spiritual Condition of America

Before the Second Great Awakening, the spiritual condition of America was bleak. The book, “The Incredible Power of Prayer,” gives us an overall profile of America’s spiritual condition after the colonies fought the War of Independence. Sadly, the effect of America’s First Great Awakening had worn off. Due to the war, ministry in the churches had been interrupted and hampered. Church membership had stalled. As a result, there was a great slide away from God. Alcoholism was epidemic. Out of a population of five million, 300 thousand were drunks. An estimate of 15 thousand people died of alcoholism every year. The overall morality of society was low. Profanity was on the increase. Every day, a bank was robbed. Women were afraid to go out at night for fear of being assaulted. Society was overtaken with licentiousness.

Harvard and Yale, which were founded as seminaries, were taken over by secular humanism. A poll was taken at Harvard and not one person professed to be a Christian. Princeton had only two Christians. There was, in fact, a very anti-Christian atmosphere at all college campuses. At Dartmouth, they put on anti-Christian plays. They burned a Bible in a public bonfire. There was even some kind of movement regarding “filthy speech.” Like Harvard and Yale, both Princeton and Dartmouth were founded for the purpose of teaching Christian theology. Dartmouth was founded specifically to educate Native Americans in Christian theology and to train Congregationalist ministers.  By the time of the Second Great Awakening, they were filled with profane unbelievers.

America’s Wild, Wild West

After America gained her independence, she grew in size. In addition to the 13 original colonies, the states of Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee were now a part of the Union. Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota were not yet states, only territories that were purchased in 1783.

By the year 1800, over a million people had packed up their belongings and moved west… “the wild, wild west” as they put it. “The wild west,” now called the Midwest, was the wild frontier. It was undeveloped, uncivilized. Yet there was endless opportunities for a new life. There was also little to no law enforcement. With a vacuum of law enforcement, an outbreak of outlaws emerged, like Billy the Kid, Jessie James, Black Bart, Butch Cassidy, the Dalton Gang, to name just a few.

How the Second Great Awakening Changed America’s Social Structure

Now let’s talk about how the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840) initiated a change in America’s social structure. The social structure of eighteenth century America was hierarchical. People lived their lives in a particular rank and order. The higher ranks of society governed, and the lower ranks of society deferred to the higher ranks as their “betters.” The higher ranks made all the decisions for the community. Even the family structure had its own rank and order system. It didn’t matter if a family was of higher rank or lower rank in society, the husband of that family was head of household. That meant he had the highest level of rank in the family. As the highest rank, he determined a great many things for the family. And his family, as the lower ranks, obeyed the decisions he made for the family. For example, it was his role to find the best and most suitable mates for his daughters. It was also the father’s role to find suitable occupations for his sons. It was custom for a man’s family to submit to his decisions.

That was eighteenth century life for people living in America. But the Second Great Awakening initiated a change in society. The societal custom of rank and order began to dissolve. There had begun a shift toward a more egalitarian society, the idea that all people were equal in all areas of life.

Things Change for Women

We see women, especially, begin to come out of their shells. America’s First Great Awakening was literally America’s first youth movement. In that revival, there were equal parts of both young men and women that were converted to Christianity. But in America’s Second Great Awakening, the greatest number of converts were women. And it’s fascinating to see how this mass of new female converts became an organized force for good.

Before the Second Great Awakening, women didn’t have much of a public role in society. But now women began to have an active role in charity work as well as the promotion and spread of the Gospel. They did not yet have leading ministerial positions, but they began to have a public voice in church meetings. The culture of the time was that women were not to speak in public, especially if men were present. Women could pray and teach other woman and children. Anything else was improper. God used Charles Finney to help knock down that barrier. Even though there was pushback, Finney had women pray during his services when men were present. In addition, women began to stand up in meetings and share their testimonies of how they were converted. They also assisted in helping both men and women get converted. That was a big societal change.

Innovative Ministry:
The Print Media

Law enforcement wasn’t the only vacuum in the Wild West. The other vacuum was that there was virtually no organized religion in the newest parts of the nation. Christians answered the call of God to take the Gospel into all the parts of America. It was an ambitious goal. To accomplish it, the Church had to get organized. Out of the Second Great Awakening came forth highly innovative and effective ways to promulgate the Gospel to all parts of America. They came up with brand new methods of spreading the Gospel—methods still used today. One of the first ways the Church began to evangelize was through an explosion of print media, producing Bibles, Christian newspapers, magazines, and tracts on a mass scale.

Plus, what also came into being were a plethora of organizations and societies for the purpose of spreading the Gospel and charity work. Even though it was mostly men that were the heads of these organizations and charities, it was really the newly converted women who did all the work. Two of the most important organizations are still in operation: the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society.

The American Bible Society

The American Bible Society (ABS) was founded in 1816 for the purpose of distributing free copies of the Bible across the nation, especially to the new wild frontier. Its mission and purpose was endorsed by prestigious Americans like Francis Scott Key, John Jay, and Theodore Roosevelt. Naming their mission, “The Bible Cause,” their stated goal was to distribute the Bible to as many people as possible. Those in the organization believed the Bible’s message, if taken to heart, was able to transform a person’s life. America was a new nation, and they wanted to “set the nation on a proper moral course.”

In the 1830s, they expanded their mission to include distributing Bibles to the nations. With that purpose in mind, they began translating the Bible into many languages, which was a tremendous endeavor! The first overseas mission was to the Middle East nations: Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey. By the end of the 19th century, they were distributing Bibles in almost every nation. Also, ABS is proud to say they have distributed Bibles to American soldiers in every war since the Mexican-American War (1846–1848).

It’s probably most known for its Bible translation called “Good News,” first published in 1966. Its original name was “Good News for Modern Man.” When I learned that, I personally was blessed. That’s the Bible the person that led me to the Lord gave me. How about that! The American Bible Society touched my life directly! That’s kind of cool!

After 203 years in operation, ABS’s mission hasn’t changed. Their goal is to get the Bible into the hands of 100 million Americans by the year 2025!  I don’t know about you, but I am in awe of the ABS.

American Tract Society

The American Tract Society (ATS) was founded in 1825 for the purpose of distributing Christian literature. ATS was the very first organization to produce and distribute all forms of Christian printed literature on a mass scale, printing millions of copies of 100s of tracts and books. The tracts were actually long, like 36 pages. Many of the tracts reveal how the new egalitarian belief that all people were equal had influenced their evangelism. In an effort to reach all ethnicities, many of their tracts were testimonies of non-white people getting converted. Their emphasis was that Jesus died to save all of mankind, from every nation, no matter the class or color or the people group.

Innovative Ministry:
Circuit Riders, Missionary Societies, Sunday Schools, Street Witnessing

Circuit Riders

The American frontier was primitive, yet thousands of settlers moved to the new territory to begin a new life. The villages that began to pop up were not only primitive but lacked a religious presence. Actual churches were rare and there were even fewer ordained ministers to oversee the congregations in the churches. The Wild West frontier became the missions field for the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. One way they evangelized the Wild West was by sending out itinerate ministers, called “circuit riders,” to the most remote areas of the country to preach the Gospel. The goal was to preach the Gospel to every area, no matter how sparsely populated or isolated it was. Denominations would assign their circuit riders to a specific geographic area in which they would traverse on a regular basis to the same communities. These circuit riders would conduct worship services, visit the members under their charge, conduct weddings, funerals, baptisms, and establish new churches in the area. 

The most well-known of these circuit riders was Peter Cartwright, mainly because he wrote an autobiography entitled, “Autobiography of Peter Cartwright: The Backwoods Preacher,” published in 1857. He was a Methodist preacher assigned to the Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio areas. He himself was converted in the camp meetings in 1800. He went on to become a circuit rider, helping to bring Christianity to the Wild West.

Missionary Work

The seeds of missionary work were first planted in the First Great Awakening. But it wasn’t until the Second Great Awakening that missionary work exploded. Multiple missions societies were formed during this time. At first, their goal was to reach every part of America. They sent missionaries into all the new states and territories of America, to the worst and most remote places. In fact, it was the Female Missionary Society in New York that hired Charles Finney in 1824 to go to the isolated places of upstate New York. When you read his biography, you’ll notice he went to all the small, isolated and out-of-the-way villages and communities of New York State. The Female Missionary Society was a highly organized and efficient organization that was responsible for a great number of Christian converts on the New York frontier.

Many of the missions societies were formed to reach a specific group of people or a specific area. For instance, the New York Mission Society was formed in 1796 for the purpose or reaching the Indians. Overall, the missions societies were organized to reach every nook and cranny of America—especially the new territories. But then these organizations got a vision for the world and began to focus their attention on other nations. They began to set their sights on parts of the world that had never been reached with the Gospel message.

American Sunday School Union

In 1817, the Sunday and Adult School Union (SASU) was founded for the purpose of starting Sunday schools in rural communities. It also produced publications. In 1824, it changed its name to the American Sunday School Union (ASSU), and its goal was to send missionaries into the Valley of the Mississippi for the purpose of establishing Sunday Schools in destitute places along the Mississippi. The SASU had influential people involved, serving as officers or in other capacities. Men like Francis Scott Key, Associate Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, and U.S. Mint Director James Pollock. Their goal was to “establish a Sunday-school in every destitute place where it is practicable throughout the Valley of the Mississippi” within two years. Their most well-known ASSU missionary was “Stuttering Stephen” Paxson.

Stephen Paxson, Apostle to Children

Stephen Paxson is a man who did extraordinary things for God. He did so much to spread the Gospel, yet his name is barely known. His life is a testament of someone born into overwhelming hardship, going on to become a remarkable person. Unschooled, he taught himself how to read. He had a speech impediment, but he taught himself to overcome his stuttering. He was a cripple, but he never let it prevent him from being a missionary for the American Sunday School Union. Though he lived in constant pain, he started 1,314 Sunday Schools in rural America with a total of 83,000 attending his Sunday Schools. He was one of the first ministers called to children’s ministry. His profile says he was possibly the “single biggest influence in evangelizing the America frontier.”

The ASSU paid Paxson one dollar a day as a missionary. He traveled from place to place on horseback in an area that stretched across a great deal of land. He preached every night and five times on Sunday. He rode over 100,000 miles on horseback on the roughest of roads and in all kinds of weather. He was so zealous about his mission that he once set a record of starting 40 Sunday schools in 40 days.

He was known as the “Apostle to Children.” He gained that name because whenever he saw a child, he stopped to talk and persuade him or her to come to Sunday School. He did this so often that his horse, without command, automatically stopped whenever they came upon a child.

There is a story that tells you how influential Paxson was. There was a man who was greatly adverse to Paxson’s influence on the community; in fact, he was so against Paxson that he moved twice to avoid his Sunday Schools. But when Paxson showed up at the third place to where he moved, he must have decided to face his nemesis. He went to hear Paxson minister. Much to his surprise, he liked what he heard. Afterward, he enrolled himself and his seven sons in one of Paxson’s Sunday schools. Not only that, but he gave the first donation to start a Sunday School library!

William Booth: The Birth of Street Witnessing

I love the story of how the Salvation Army got started. A guy named William Booth from London, England began his ministry in 1852. His heart went out to the poor, the homeless, the destitute, drunks, thieves, gamblers, prostitutes, and the like. He went where they were… on the streets. He began to win converts preaching to those most in need. The established churches weren’t pleased with Booth’s methods. They preferred he stay within the accepted means of preaching the Gospel—inside churches. But the people he wanted to reach didn’t go to church. He had to go to them. Booth is the inventor of street witnessing.

His first converts were thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, drunks, and the like. He led them to Christ, but even though they were born again, the churches would not accept booth’s converts because of their past lifestyles. I guess they didn’t really believe in the scripture, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2nd Cor. 5:17). No matter, Booth gave his converts direction and purpose in life by putting them to work making converts of the kind of people they once had been. They joined Booth in his ministry outreach by singing and preaching on the streets and giving their testimonies of how Christ changed their lives.

In 1867, he had 10 fulltime workers. But seven years later in 1874, he had 42 evangelists and 1,000 volunteers. Between the years 1881 and 1885, they had 250,000 converts.

In 1879, they brought their ministry to the United States and began witnessing to the people in the streets. The work grew so quickly that they expanded into areas all over the States. Currently in the United States, there are more than 10,000 local neighborhood units. The Salvation Army is still active in virtually every corner of the world.

 Innovative Ministry:
An Explosion of Charity Work

During this time, not only did Christians come up with innovative ways to preach the Gospel, but they also began to come up with innovative ways to help the less fortunate. They founded many charities that would help the needy, organizations like the Charity Organization Society in 1887 to help the poor, which eventually became The United Way. The Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America were formed in 1904. Other social reform projects focused on prisons, care for the handicapped and mentally ill, the temperance movement, abolition, and suffrage. Some of America’s wealthiest people contributed greatly to these organizations. Women played a major part in the operation of these various charities.

The Temperance Movement

One of the many social causes was the Temperance Movement. When people think of the Temperance Movement today, they turn up their noses thinking that it was a bunch of really uptight religious people trying to shut down people having a good time. But that’s not what the Temperance Movement was about. The movement had a lot of supporters, and there’s a reason for that. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there began an epidemic of alcoholism. Before the epidemic, Americans drank lightly alcoholic beverages like cider which a person could drink all day and not get drunk. But then came the production of cheap and strong alcoholic beverages like rum and whiskey. Since it was cheap and plentiful, it sparked overindulgence among the men.

At the time, drinking was strictly a man’s activity due to the fact that women weren’t allowed in the saloons. So cheap, plentiful booze that was sold in a place where women couldn’t enter resulted in a lot of alcoholic men. Alcoholism took over a man’s life, turning him into a different person. Many men spent all their free time in the saloon drinking, frequently spending their whole paycheck. This was bad for society, as it resulted in chronic unemployment, poverty, domestic violence, and homelessness. It became a women’s issue because as they saw it, alcoholic husbands were destroying their families, their children’s futures, health, and safety. Something had to change.

As a result, several temperance associations began to form to take a stand on the issue. In the beginning, some temperance associations allowed for moderate drinking. One organization, The American Temperance Society, was founded in 1826. In just 12 years, it had more than 8,000 local groups and over 4,500,000 members. That’s how passionate the subject had become. At one point, the Temperance Movement split into two groups, with one group allowing moderate drinking and the other group supporting complete abstinence.

Carrie Nation and Her Smashers

Thousands of people were involved in the Temperance Movement, but the name that most people connect with the Temperance Movement is Carrie Nation. The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Carrie Nation is a hatchet-carrying woman, busting up taverns and saloons. She was one of the most notorious persons connected with the movement… and fascinating!

In 1865, Carrie married Charles Gloydin, and in 1869, he died of alcoholism. Personally affected by alcoholism, Carrie Nation became crazy passionate against alcohol consumption. She joined the movement by forming a local branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and began campaigning for a ban on the sale of liquor in Kansas. She was passionate about her mission. And she was bold. Really bold. Her tactics began with simple protests. Then she escalated her tactics by singing hymns to customers as they entered saloons. But to the bartenders, she saved her most damning greeting: “Good morning, destroyer of men’s souls.”

Still she wasn’t getting the results she was looking for so she prayed to God for direction. She claims God answered her when one morning she was awakened by a voice speaking to her in a murmuring, musical tone saying “Go to Kiowa,” a city in Kansas. Then she claims she heard “I’ll stand by you” spoken in a very clear emphatic voice. After which she was impressed with an inspiration. She interpreted the inspiration to mean she was to take something in her hands and throw it at the bars in Kiowa, smashing them to bits.

So on June 7, 1900, Carrie busted up her first saloon in Kiowa, Kansas. She picked up a bunch of rocks (“smashers” she called them) and went to Dobson’s Saloon. Right before she started pitching the “smashers,” she announced to the customers, “Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard’s fate.” After she destroyed all the saloon’s stock of alcohol, she went to two other saloons in Kiowa and smashed their stock as well.

That was just the beginning. Sometimes she smashed up a bar by herself, and other times, she was accompanied by other women singing hymns. She would march into a bar singing and then demolish it. As her arrest record grew, she became notorious and her fame spread everywhere. At one point, she started using a hatchet instead of rocks which she called “hatchetations.” In ten years’ time, she was arrested 30 times. She paid her fines with her lecture fees and the sale of little souvenir hatchets that were engraved on the handle with the words “Death to Rum.”

You can’t make this stuff up!

She was dedicated to her cause and was willing to endure the consequences. After busting up saloons in Kansas City, she was fined $500 which is the equivalent of $15,000 today. The judge suspended the fine if she agreed to never return to Kansas City. Once she spent three days in the poorhouse for refusing to pay a $35 dollar fine.

Carrie Nation was actually a very accomplished woman. She was successful in many endeavors. Though her name is associated with busting up saloons, she was involved in a lot of charity work. She helped those in prison. She founded a sewing circle to make clothing for the poor, and she prepared meals for them on the holidays. She also established a shelter for wives and their children of derelict, alcoholic husbands. Future battered women’s shelters would be based on Carrie’s shelter home.

Other Major Causes

There were so many major causes during this time after the Second Great Awakening that it would be difficult to give them all ample time. The most well-known were, of course, abolition and suffrage. Other social causes taken up were the creation of asylums for the mentally ill and the push for a public school system so all children throughout the nation would have access to a proper education.

America Gained Reputation as Most Generous People

Because of all their societies and organizations, Americans became known for their generosity. A French civil servant named Alexis de Tocqueville was sent to America by the French government to study the prison system between 1831 and 1832. After observing America, he was inspired to write the book, “Democracy in America.” It was, at the time, a very influential book. He wrote about how Americans loved to establish non-governmental organizations for the purpose of helping others. He observed that there was a plethora of organizations that covered every area of life, social or civic, solely created for the purpose of improving the quality of life for their fellow man. It was this generation of Americans that would cause the rest of the world to view Americans as the most generous people in the world.

Main takeaway: After the Revolutionary War, America was no longer shackled to a nation 4,000 miles away. She was now free. The Lord used America’s Second Great Awakening to mold America into the kind of nation He needed her to be. Through His supernatural guidance, America received a new identity specific for His purpose. He birthed in her an egalitarian mindset, initiating an effort where people would begin to strive for a reality where all people would be treated equally. He created America to have a spirit of generosity, looking out for the less fortunate. On top of all that, He made America to become the most prosperous nation that ever existed. He gave her a passion for evangelism, and to direct that passion toward reaching the nations with the Gospel using innovative methods. All of this He did with the sole intent of creating a nation and a people that He could use as a tool in the great End Time Harvest of souls. To reach the nations. His nations.


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