A society for everything: Remaking America's charitable landscape during the Second Great Awakening

For many, "the Second Great Awakening" is one of those historical terms from a dusty textbook that sounds vaguely familiar, but the details are fuzzy at best. Yet the Second Great Awakening was hugely impactful and helped to change the way we think about and approach charity, giving, and concepts of "worthiness" that are still with us today.

In a nutshell, the Second Great Awakening was a Protestant religious movement that attracted and impacted millions of Americans in the early decades of the 1800s. It was particularly known for large revivals—massive assemblages of congregants and converts who outgrew (or couldn't afford) traditional buildings and instead flocked to fields, tents, and hillsides. Many Protestant denominations still in existence today saw their ranks grow and become mainstream thanks to the Awakening, including Baptists and Methodists.

Color illustration showing many tall, white tents, a stage with a speaker, an audience of men and women. In the left side of the image, a woman tends a kettle on a fire.

How was the Awakening, well, awakened? Much of the answer lies in the American Revolution and the founding of the Republic. When the colonies declared independence from Britain and a monarch, they were also severing religious ties with a national church back in England. Americans then turned around and enshrined freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights. If the Revolution cracked the door for the Awakening, then the First Amendment kicked it open along with the windows, screens, and chimney flues too.

Yet there was something deeper going on as well. Americans fought the Revolution with language and ideas as much as cannons and muskets. That drumbeat of rhetoric emphasized independence, freedom, and mastery of one's own fate, while reviling the opposites—dependence, subservience, and acquiescence. It was hard to internalize such powerful and revolutionary thinking and then compartmentalize its application solely to King George III. Such thoughts began to creep into all kinds of relationships: between employers and employees, teachers and students, parents and children, and—most relevantly to the Second Great Awakening—clergy and their congregations.

Some questioned why only college-educated elites from wealthy families could lead a congregation, as was often the case particularly in New England. Others (particularly women) questioned why they were excluded from participating in activities, rituals, or decisions. Still others wondered why they needed a clergyman at all, especially when they were perfectly capable of reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves (literacy rates were as high as 90% in Northern states by the 1840s).

Illustration of a tall tree with green leaves. Colored balls or fruits on the tree contain text such as "prayer." Below the tree, near the trunk, two angels in robes with white wings battle a demon with black wings and horns. One of the angels waters the tree. The tree's trunk says "Hope, Love, Faith, Repentance."

Photo of board game where game progresses along a spiral-shaped track. Gold-colored ovals alternate with ovals in which illustrations of people and places are featured.

It is during this period that popular culture began to reflect a variety of metaphors illustrating the way to salvation—paths, stairs, trees, ladders, etc. The device makes sense when framed as a question of control. Heaven could be reached through one's own actions and by choosing to follow a widely and democratically-distributed roadmap. Since there was strength in numbers, converting others to the same path would mutually enforce everyone's journey. And it is from these steps that some of America's most important cultural movements emerged as perceived moral imperatives: the temperance movement, abolition, suffrage, anti-prostitution and anti-vice crusades, prison reform, and missionary outreach.

The importance of giving was woven throughout all of this change and evolving thought—giving funds to support the printing of Bibles or to send missionaries into Indian territories; giving time to teach the proper "path" to children through Sunday schools; giving one's oratory talents to converting others. Giving also became more democratic and more controlled by those doing the giving. No longer willing to drop alms into an alms box for someone else to distribute, Americans took to organizing their own charitable outreach. The organizations multiplied exponentially—so much so that French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840 harrumphed at the scale of it all: "The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society."

Book open to first page. On left, a family group gathers around the Bible. On right, "The Child's Bible with Plates" and image of a king with crown. Black ink, white paper, faded over time and slightly stained.

With the way to success and salvation now widely distributed through Bible tract societies, countless organizations, and massive revivals and conversion events, it was easy to assume everyone had the information they needed to succeed. Those who seemed perpetually impoverished became easier and easier to dismiss as moral failures rather than victims of systemic or market forces. And as the national and urban population swelled with new immigrants from Germany and Ireland especially, charity began to be tied tighter and tighter to moral instruction and proof of worthiness. Immigrants were expected to adopt the Awakening’s emphasis on thrift, deferred gratification, and temperance—the last especially an ongoing source of friction between donors and recipients.

The Awakening eventually wound down by the 1850s, but by then the charitable landscape of America was completely transformed. Charitable organizations were now legion, particularly across the North (the South still preferred hierarchical control—a fact that reflected the slave society it had become.) Today over ten percent of Americans work in the nonprofit sector, a reality made possible by the organizing energy of nearly 200 years ago!

Daniel Gifford was a contributing historian to the History of Philanthropy Project. He is currently a professor at George Mason University. He has also blogged about Benjamin Franklin's philanthropy and the crossroads of innovation and immigration.