The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival that spread across the United States from 1790s to 1830s. American religious leaders were deeply concerned by low church attendance; only about 10% of the white population was going to church.
These leaders encouraged religious revivals across the country. These revivals dramatically altered Christian theology in the United States by emphasizing self-improvement, self-reliance and self-determination. The Second Great Awakening fundamentally changed the Christian faith in America.
Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803) was a prominent New England preacher and theologist who developed a new understanding of God’s nature called the New Divinity. Hopkins was not alone in the endeavor; both Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Bellamy contributed the development of the New Divinity, but Hopkins has become most associated with these religious beliefs. The New Divinity upended long held Calvinist beliefs and argued that people had the right and ability to choose right from wrong. Additionally, a person’s holiness and sinfulness belonged to them personally. Hopkins emphasized the importance of free will. People’s choices mattered and determined whether or not they would be saved. Hopkins died just as the Second Great Awakening began to get underway, but several preachers including Charles Finney spread a modified version of Hopkins’ beliefs to the masses.
Charles Finney did not start preaching until 1921, but he quickly became the leading revivalist of the Second Great Awakening. Finney preached a version of Hopkins’ beliefs, the New Haven theology. He was essentially credited with spreading it throughout the early Republic. New Haven theology emphasized that a sinner is morally responsible for their own actions and not enslaved by the sins of Adam. While God created a moral and judged people, he did not determine the outcome. People had free will and had control over their fate. Finally, Christ’s sacrifice was meant to encourage sinners to give up sin and convert to Christianity. While Finney’s preaching outraged Calvinists, it was embraced by the public.