“Awakenings and Revivals,” Church History Topics
“Awakenings and Revivals”
Around 1829, 13-year-old Nancy Alexander attended a large meeting of Methodists. “They covered more than an acre of ground with their tents,” she remembered, and “held their meetings for several days and made many converts.” During the meetings, a minister invited her up to the “anxious seat,” where she and others would receive encouragement from the entire congregation to turn their lives over to Christ. “I failed to get that change of heart,” she confessed. Those who did shouted, “Glory Hallelujah, I have got religion,” she recalled, “but I could feel no different.”
Joseph Smith also attended revival meetings as an adolescent, and like Nancy, he desired to “feel & shout like the Rest” but “could feel nothing.” The struggle of seekers like Nancy and Joseph to “get religion” and of clergymen hoping to win converts and strengthen their churches triggered religious revivals that swept the northeastern United States in the early decades of the 1800s.1
The American Revolution brought a new government, one charged with protecting religious liberties. At the same time, ministers watched their congregations stagnate, with church attendance dwindling below 20 percent in most states. In response, ministers from many churches sought to spur their parishioners to greater faith. Churches once supported by the government lost their privileged position, opening the way for preachers from a wide variety of churches to aggressively seek converts. The spread of revivals—what historians would later call the Second Great Awakening—inspired many American Protestants to experiment with different denominations, volunteer in social causes, and promote their Christian beliefs.2
The spirit of awakening energized men and women of all races and from all walks of life. Groups such as Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians practiced more structured worship. Their revivals typically consisted of formal lectures and Sunday preaching, with their ministers intensifying their remarks to rouse audiences to greater devotion. In contrast, Methodists and Baptists canvassed the countryside, holding classes and worship services. As their preaching circuits fanned out deeper into the frontiers, many circuit riders grew famous for braving hazards to take the gospel to remote outposts. In many rural areas, preaching featured overnight camp meetings that drew crowds for days at a time.
Personal conversion, the hallmark of revivalist preaching, appealed to religious seekers who felt dissatisfied with the dominant churches of the time. Stories of conversion emphasized a convicted conscience, a realization that God would be justified in casting one’s soul down to hell, and a profound witness that the grace of Christ had come to the rescue. As friends and neighbors testified of such experiences, interest and activity in churches and reform societies soared.