On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update 94

Did the Second Great Awakening exist?

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We are pressing on.  I got in a good three hour writing session this morning in which I churned out about 1000 words on Chapter Five.  Today I was writing about the connection between the distribution of ABS Bibles and the triggering of the revivals of the so-called “Second Great Awakening.”

Recently I got an e-mail from a scholar who asked me if I could recommend the best synthesis of the Second Great Awakening.  I had to admit that I do not know of such a survey–probably because the revivals were scattered geographically and spread out over time.  I found it interesting that few books on religion or reform in the early republic or antebellum period even use the term “Second Great Awakening.”  For example, Mark Noll, in his magisterial America’s God, only mentions the phrase twice and those two mentions suggest that the phrase is largely unhelpful and should probably not be used.  Here are those two passages:

p.181: To the extent that the United States ever experienced a Second Great Awakening, Methodist expansion was it.  In charting the rise of a much more evangelical America, historians have probably given too much attention to highly visible revival meetings, yet they too played an important part.”  

p.565: “[The Second Great Awakening is] an imprecise term that is usually taken to refer to a series of revivals managed by Presbtyerians and Congregationalists (from the 1790s? from the early 1800s? into the 1830s?) that brought great numbers into the American churches.  If used at all, it should feature the less publicized efforts of Methodists and Baptists who did most of the work in churching and civilizing the American populace between the War for Independence and the Civil War.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement from the current dean of American religious historians.

2 thoughts on “On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update 94

  1. Certainly the book has many weaknesses, but Barry Hankins's The SGA and the Transcendentalists covers some figures, geography, and themes in an introductory way. Of course, what some scholars have suggested about the “so-called FGA” may be more accurately said of the Second.


  2. What did you recommend, John? I usually go with Hatch's “The Democratization of American Christianity,” but like you said it's not a true synthesis of the entire period.

    Personally, I'm a advocate of the Stark/Finke “Churching of America” argument about the second Great Awakening as a response to a supply-side shift, ie disestablishment.


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