American Church History: the 1800s
What happened in this century?
Contact Mark Nickens, Ph.D. in Church History, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions, comments, and observations are welcome.
©2011 Mark Nickens
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James McGready and other Presbyterian ministers preached for 4 days
on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. This small revival
is considered the first revival of the Second Great Awakening.
1801 Revival at Cane Ridge, KY. This was the first large revival of the Second Great Awakening. An estimated 20,000 people attended. Camp meetings such as these would become a prominent frontier feature of the Second Great Awakening. Typically these occurred at the end of the harvest season with farm families traveling great distances to gather for a week or more. These camp meetings were a time of spiritual reflection after a summer when many did not get to church often or at all, but were also times of rest, getting together with family members, courting (for a spouse), and just general "vacation" time. But the overarching purpose was the revival. To see a great hand-drawn map of an 1809 revival from an eyewitness, click here.
The Big Picture: The Second Great Awakening (early to mid-1800s)
Whereas the First Great Awakening (of the 1700s) began in the urban areas and moved to the frontier, the Second Great Awakening (2GA) began in the frontier of the West (meaning Kentucky and Tennessee) and moved to the urban east. The 2GA was different than the 1GA in a number of other ways: use of camp meetings, more pronounced use of emotions (crying, running, rolling, barking, shouting, etc.), introduction of the anxious bench (Charles Finney; precursor to the altar call of today), increased conversion of slaves, use of large tents, rise of the Baptists and Methodists, and proliferation of societies (volunteer organizations whose purpose was to improve society; for example, Temperance or restraining from drinking alcohol which would eventually lead to Prohibition). One gradual change which fully occurred at the end of the century: a movement toward directing services so that people were brought to a state of spiritual crisis instead of waiting on God to direct it.
Go here to view an early 1800s map of a camp meeting
1802 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter which contained the phrase "a wall of separation between church and state." To learn more about this letter and to read it in full, go here.
1805 Joseph Smith, Jr., born. He founded the Mormons.
1808 The USA bans the importation of slaves. This does not end the internal slave trade, but slaves can no longer legally be brought into the USA.
1814 New Harmony, Indiana, established as a utopian community. During the late 1700s to early 1900s over 100 of these communities developed; these groups peaked in the mid-1800s. The purpose was to separate from society and form a self-sustaining Christian community. All of these died out except for one, the Mormons. To learn more and read a short list of some of these communities, go here.
1814 also The Triennial Convention was the first Baptist Convention in the USA. Baptists as a denomination (or denominations) date from here.
1816 The African Methodist Episcopal denomination was formed by separating from the Methodist Episcopla denomination. It is the first independent black denomination. To learn more about the formation of this denomination, click here.
1824 The Sunday School Union was formed in Pennsylvania.
1825 Finney began a decade of highly successful revivals. He introduced what would be called "New Measures" to the Second Great Awakening: the "anxious bench" (in which those who showed a spiritual struggle were directed to come sit in the front of the church; the precursor to the altar call), women prayed and testified in the meetings, the meetings met at "unseasonable hours" (for long periods and late at night), entire communities aided in preparing and hosting the revivals. To read more about Finney and the New Measures, go here.
The Big Picture: Societies
Many people became Christian during the Second Great Awakening. Combine this with the idea of a new nation with very little restrictions or laws governing many aspects of a person's life, and you end up with Societies. Many Christians looked around at their new country and decide to improve different aspects by forming Societies. Examples of Societies include abolition (free slaves), temperance (reduce alcohol consumption), missions, education, Sabbath observance peace, prison reform, Sunday school, and women's rights organizations. These will have varying degrees of success. For example, the Temperance Movement will eventually help lead to Prohibition and the decision by some denominations to switch from wine to grape juice during Communion. (To learn more about this, go here.)
1830 Joseph Smith published The Book of Mormon. In the 1820s he claimed to have found gold tablets written in an unknown language and special glasses so that he could read the gold tablets. He finally published the translation in this year. He said the angel Moroni took the gold tablets back to heaven.
1830 In reflection of the tremendous interest and involvement in Christianity produced by the Second Great Awakening, between 1790 and 1830 over 600 religious magazines were started.
1831 Between 1829 and 1831, the American Bible Society printed and distributed one million Bibles. During this middle part of the century, the American Tract Society will print the equivalent of 5 pages of tracts per person.
1831 also Richard Allen died.
1831 also The Nat Turner Rebellion. Nat Turner led a rebellion in rural southeastern Virginia which killed 60 white people. It was eventually defeated by the white militia and Turner caught and hanged. Because of this rebellion most southern states enacted laws restricting the rights and freedoms of slaves and even free blacks. The right to gather without a white presence, the ability to save money, the ability to purchase one's freedom, the ability to read and write, all these were curtailed after the Turner Rebellion. [author's note: The South which most people think of when they think about the way the slaves were treated developed after the Turner Rebellion; this period is also called the Antebellum Period.]
1834 William Carey died. He is known as the Father of Modern Missions. To learn more, go here.
1835 Finney ended his revivals and became a professor at Oberlin College.
1837 The Presbyterians split into the Old School Presbyterians and New School Presbyterians. The issue was how to incorporate the new ideas that had developed in large part due to the Second Great Awakening.
1839 By this time Smith and his Mormon followers have moved to Nauvoo, IL. They intend to stay here and began building a Temple.
1840 The Methodist denomination is the largest Christian group in the USA.
1843 The Wesleyan Methodist denomination was formed.
1844 Joseph Smith murdered. Brigham Young became the leader of the Mormons and they began the long trek to Salt Lake City. At that time Salt Lake City was in Mexico, therefore the Mormons were trying to leave the country. In 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War, this area (south to the Rio Grande River) became American property.
1844 also The Methodists split. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was formed. In 1939 several smaller Methodist denominations (including this one) will merge and lose the "Episcopal" part of the name, forming the Methodist Church. And in 1968 they will join with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church.
1844 also March 21: the date William Miller set for Jesus to return to earth. Thousands gathered at different locations to await being raptured. Nothing happened. He then set October 22 as the new date. Thousands gathered at different locations to away being raptured. Nothing happened. Nevertheless, many of Miller's followers form different Adventist denominations, the largest (today) is the Seventh-day Adventist church. To learn more about why Miller chose 1844, click here.
1845 The Baptists in the South withdraw from the Baptist denomination and form the Southern Baptist Convention.
1851 The first Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) was formed in Boston. The YMCA began in England in 1844.
1853 Hudson Taylor made his first trip to China. He founded the China Inland Mission.
1857 The New School Presbyterians split north and south over the slavery issue.
1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.
1859 also John Brown led a raid on the US armory in Harpers Ferry. He was unsuccessful but this raid played a role in causing the Civil War.
1861 The Old School Presbyterians split north and south over the slavery issue.
1861-65 Civil War.
The Big Picture: Post Civil War Innovations
The 50 years after the Civil War experienced many innovations which American Christianity would struggle with: the issue of evolution and geological studies questioned the Genesis account of creation, higher criticism of the Bible questioned the validity of some biblical stories and concepts, the rising fields of sociology and psychology questioned the spiritual aspect of humans and reduced religion to a social phenomenon, and comparative religious studies questioned the validity of Christianity as the sole method for reaching God.
1863 The Seventh-day Adventist denomination is formed. Being adventist, they focus on the return of Jesus, and being seventh-day they believe the proper worship day for Christians is Saturday.
1872 Dwight Moody begins to rise to prominence as an evangelist.
1875 Charles Finney died.
1877 Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877. Reconstruction tried to integrate the blacks into society in the South. This ended with the Compromise of 1877 which caused whites to gain much more power in the South and led to Jim Crow laws.
late 1870s Charles Taze Russell founded the Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society. This would eventually form the Jehovah's Witnesses.
1880 The Salvation Army first appeared in the USA. It was formed in London, England in 1865.
1881 Russia: The Way of the Pilgrim is printed. It is an Orthodox spiritual classic which describes how to pray unceasingly. For more information on this book, go here.
1886 The National Baptist Convention is formed. Today it is the largest African-American Baptist denomination.
1893 Francis Thompson's poem and spiritual classic The Hound of Heaven is published. To read an excerpt, go here.
1894 The Church of God in Christ (African American) denomination is formed. Today it is the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination.
1895 The National Baptist Convention, USA, (African American) is formed.
1899 Dwight Moody died. He had been a very popular traveling evangelist.