What caused the Second Great Awakening?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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First, we must acknowledge that it is somewhat difficult and dangerous to try to say why religious changes occur.  When we try to find historical causes for religious events we imply that religion is simply made up by humans for their own needs.  A religious person might say, for example, that the Second Great Awakening occurred because of God touching people’s hearts.  If we are to be respectful of the beliefs of religious people, we must be cautious about attributing changes in religious beliefs to historical/social causes. 

That said, historians typically give two reasons for the Second Great Awakening.  First, they say that it got its start in the 1790s because religion was becoming too intellectualized in places like New England and because there were few organized churches on the frontiers.  People came to feel that something was missing from their religion because it was too intellectual.  Therefore, they turned to a more emotional brand of religion.

Second, historians say that economic changes contributed to the second wave of the Second Great Awakening.  This was the wave of the movement in which Charles Finney played a large role.  This wave was caused by economic changes like the opening of the Erie Canal.  These changes weakened social ties between people and made them long for something that would make them feel emotionally close to others again.  The emotional nature of the evangelical religion fulfilled this need.