The Second Awakening
Meanwhile, the Protestant side of Christianity, especially evangelicalism, remained still a relatively small part of the faith worldwide, still splintering with every new idea. Specifically in the U.S. context, the Second Awakening from the 1790s to the 1840s was distinctive in two respects: the launch of entirely new denominations and millennialism.
The first of several splits was, predictably for the United States, around the problem of racial prejudice, as slave and free African-American Baptist and Methodist preachers emerged. One such figure was “Black Harry” Hosier, an illiterate freedman whose remarkable ability to memorize long biblical passages made him popular with white and black audiences; however, he was repeatedly passed over for ordination and barred from voting at the conference that formally established American Methodism. Another was Richard Allen, who was ordained by the Methodists in 1799 but also faced discrimination.
In 1816 Hosier and Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. As evidence that racial prejudice was widespread, in 1821 the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was founded as another denomination in New York City.
A similar split occurred among the Baptists, whose organization into local congregations already made for a loose denomination. Formed by slaves and free African Americans in South Carolina and Virginia, the denomination spread to other states, with a side effect of fostering the demand for freedom. During African-American revival meetings in Virginia in 1800, one leader, Gabriel Prosser, devised a plan for slave rebellion that was discovered and crushed before it started. After the Nat Turner Uprising of 1831, African-American congregations managed to maintain their independence in Baptist associations, but many Southern state legislatures passed laws requiring the presence of a white man at their meetings.
Fragmentation was further aided by another development, a sudden interest in the lurid, dreamlike visions in the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, which lends the work to a variety of interpretations.
Notably, Revelation 20:1–6 begins with the description of a vision as follows: “I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” During that millennium, the newly awakened U.S. evangelicals began to believe, Christ would preside over a golden age or earthly paradise before the final judgment. In the 1830s and 1840s, from a mixture of massive disillusionment with existing mainline Protestantism and fevered enthusiasm for Revelation and other extrabiblical sources, the Advent Movement emerged, which involved expectation of the impending Second Coming (or Advent) of Jesus.
One obvious outgrowth was Millerism, named after preacher William Miller, who was a forerunner of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Another less obvious development was the “holiness” movement, an attempt to emphasize Wesleyan teachings on sanctification, which led to an organizational break between mainline Methodist and Holiness churches.
Such discontent sparked a longing for “primitive” or original Christianity, which grew in popularity after U.S. independence. This made sense to immigrants from Britain of the early 19th century, who viewed the new nation as pristine and undefiled and the perfect place to restore Christianity. One group that resulted from such efforts was the Shakers, committed to simplicity and lifelong chastity.
More broad and secular was Restoration Movement, led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who resisted what they perceived as spiritual manipulation at revival camp meetings. In the South, revivals drawing on the ideas of the Campbells were led by Barton Stone. In the end, all reverted to the original emotional pressure techniques of the original model.
Another spinoff, the Latter-Day Saints or Mormons, was founded by Joseph Smith. A farmer in western New York, he claimed that in 1827 an angel showed him writings in “reformed Egyptian” engraved on golden plates buried in Cumorah Hill. Known as The Book of Mormon, the plates tell the story of an oddly Hebraic God’s revelations to the ancient original Americans and the appearance of Jesus Christ in the New World shortly after his resurrection. The angel is said to have conveyed God’s command to Smith to translate the plates into English so he could restore Christ’s true church in Smith’s time, “the latter days.”
The addition of new scripture, among other unusual practices and beliefs (including polygamy and the belief that African Americans are “cursed”), makes Mormonism an outright departure from Christianity as understood since the times of the apostles. It was not the last such deviation in the United States, but it remains the only full-fledged pseudo-Christian religion to spring out of the Second Awakening.
More mainstream effects sprung from the preaching of Presbyterians and Methodists who remained within their denomination but set the stage for new outcroppings in the Third Awakening.