The Great Awakening and Revivalism in America

The Great Awakening was the name given to the evangelical religious movement that swept the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Image: Camp-meeting / A. Rider pinxit ; drawn on stone by H. Bridport, 1829, Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The first wave of the movement began shortly after the arrival of European settlers in the early 1700’s and resulted in the growth of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches. The Second Great Awakening began in the last decade of the 18th century and reached its peak in the second half of the 19th century, in the revivalist oratory and hymnody of camp meetings, and in gatherings of the Salvation Army, the YMCA, and other Protestant-affiliated sects.

Revivalism exerted a profound influence not only on America’s religious music, but on her language and social conscience as well. The rhetoric of charismatic preachers like Jonathan Edwards, Evangeline Booth, and Henry Ward Beecher provided high drama, and elicited intense emotional responses from the congregation. Beecher used the pulpit of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church to propound Abolition, universal suffrage, and other reform causes. Itinerant preachers gathered huge crowds (at places like Putnam’s Campground near Danbury, Connecticut, where the young Charles Ives came) to listen to their fire-and-brimstone sermons, and to induce the worshippers to come forth with their own testimonies and be baptized into a born-again Christianity. The cadences of these speeches found their way into poetry from Walt Whitman to Vachel Lindsay.

Revivalist Poetry & Song

In these revivalist services, music played a significant role. Preachers used the congregational singing of hymns, psalms, and spirituals as a form of emotional bonding. As more and more of the African-American population became Christian, black and white music found a common ground in revivalist services, especially in the outdoor camp meetings which functioned as religious, social, and recreational gatherings. One of the most dynamic evangelist teams was comprised of Dwight L. Moody, a former Boston shoe salesman, and Ira David Sankey, a musician and singer. Together they took their message across America, staging revival meetings at which Moody preached and prayed and Sankey sang what came to be called Gospel songs. Other composers who contributed to revivalist music included William Bradbury, Philip Bliss, and Robert Lowry. Lowry’s hymn “At the River” would capture the imagination of several subsequent composers, among them Charles Ives, who incorporated the tune into his violin sonata “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” and Virgil Thomson, who used it in his Variations on Sunday School Tunes.

Revivalism also acquired a political perspective, as fundamentalists sought to influence government to adhere to their conservative moral perspectives. One of the most dramatic clashes resulting from this thinking occurred in 1925 at the Scopes Trial, in which a Tennessee teacher named John Scopes was accused of instructing his pupils in Darwin’s–not the Bible’s–view of the creation story. The fiery fundamentalist orator and former Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, transforming courtroom into church, won a conviction. It was later overturned on a technicality, but the Tennessee law banning Darwin remained in effect until 1967.

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing



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