Forgotten, Real Revivals of the Second Great Awakening


After revival swept through his congregation in the winter of 1807 and 1808, adding over 200 members to his church, Edward Dorr Griffin wrote to his friend, Ashbel Green. He described the revival as follows:

This work, in point of power and stillness, exceeds all that I have ever seen. While it bears down everything with irresistible force, and seems almost to dispense with human instrumentality, it moves with so much silence. . . . The converts are strongly marked with humility and self-distrust: instead of being elated with confident hopes, they are inclined to tremble. Many of them possess deep and discriminating views; and all, or almost all, are born into the distinguishing doctrines of grace.[1]

Characterized by “stillness,” “silence,” and the “distinguishing doctrines of grace,” this revival may seem out of place in the period known as the Second Great Awakening. Many see the First Great Awakening as controlled, orderly, robustly theological, and Calvinistic, epitomized by the theology and leadership of Jonathan Edwards; conversely, the Second Great Awakening is viewed as emotional, wild, atheological, and Arminian, epitomized by frenzied camp meetings on the frontier or Charles Finney’s manipulative “new measures.” The First is seen as a genuine work of God, while the Second is described as a work of man-centered manipulation. The First is seen as revival, while the second as revivalism. These sharp contrasts fit when focusing on certain aspects of each era. But these generalizations neglect large and important spheres of the Second Great Awakening. By naming the entire movement a result of man-made revivalism, we fail to recognize many examples of true revival between 1798 and 1820 that we can rejoice in and learn from.

This article will describe some revivals of the Second Great Awakening that we have largely forgotten. I focus on the earliest years of the Awakening, but these revivals are characteristic of many similar revivals that took place in New England, New Jersey, and New York between 1798 and 1820 among disciples of Jonathan Edwards. I hope these stories will encourage, I hope they will increase our desire for revival, and I hope they will help us to stop saying, in an unqualified way, that the Second Great Awakening was a result of man-made revivalism.


Griffin was mentored by Jonathan Edwards, Jr. in one of many Edwardsian “Schools of the Prophets.” His first pastorate was in New Hartford, Connecticut, where he experienced a revival that began in November 1798. Over the next twelve months, one hundred “were hopefully added to the Lord.”[2] The revival also spread from village to village in Litchfield and Hartford counties, an area where churches were led mostly by Edwardsian pastors. Historian David Kling has calculated that thirty Congregational churches in northwest Connecticut admitted 1,699 new converts to membership between 1798 and the end of 1800.[3] Griffin later recalled:

I saw a continued succession of heavenly sprinklings at New Salem, Farmington, Middlebury, and New Hartford, (all in Connecticut,) until, in 1799, I could stand at my door in New Hartford, Litchfield county, and number fifty or sixty congregations laid down in one field of divine wonders, and as many more in different parts of New England.[4]

By the fall of 1799, Samuel Hopkins was rejoicing in the revival’s spread: “A remarkable revival of religion has lately taken place in New England and part of New York State, it is said in more than 100 towns mostly if not wholly under the preachers of Edwardean divinity.”[5]

So before the Cane Ridge camp meeting in 1801 and before Timothy Dwight led a revival among his students at Yale in 1802, Edwardsian ministers had already witnessed widespread revival in their Connecticut churches. God had once again visited New England, and he had done so through disciples of Jonathan Edwards. And these revivals were much more like those Edwards had led than the ones Finney would lead in the coming decades.

Church-Centered Revival

These revivals did not occur away from the regular rhythms of life at camp meetings, nor did they flow from the heightened anticipation of a tent meeting, nor were they led by famous traveling evangelists. They occurred in local churches and resulted in converts joining local churches. The revivals were led, almost exclusively, by the preaching and shepherding of ordained and settled pastors. Other than prayer, these pastors believed that the main means God would use to send revival was “the clear presentation of divine truth.” Therefore, the pastors emphasized the importance of preaching the truth. They would hold extra meetings during the week for preaching and discussion of spiritual matters, and exchange pulpits or travel in pastoral teams to serve nearby churches. Rather than minimizing the role of the local church, these pastors sought to heighten the importance of church membership. They abandoned longstanding practices in New England by limiting communion and church membership only to those who gave credible testimony of regeneration.

Theologically Calvinist

The Second Great Awakening has often been viewed as atheological and Arminian. However, the Second Great Awakening is not a uniform story of Arminianization and a declining interest in theology. Jonathan Edwards had “found that no discourses have been more remarkably blessed, than those in which the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty with regard to the salvation of sinners … have been insisted on.”[6] His followers agreed. The revivals they led in Connecticut at the outset of the Second Great Awakening occurred as the clergy preached the doctrines of Calvinism, and their hearers converted not just to Christ, but also to the difficult doctrines of grace taught by their ministers. Regarding the revival in New Hartford, Griffin wrote, “The calvinistic doctrines were the great engines in the hand of the Spirit which assailed and broke the hearts of sinners.”[7]

Rather than preaching a positive view of the human will, these pastors aimed to convince their hearers of their total depravity. The human heart, they taught, is opposed to God and thus all unregenerate efforts to gain God’s favor were in vain. They constantly pressed the lost to see their sinful inability, and thereby acknowledge their complete dependence on God for salvation. As one minister reasoned, “Could they once obtain a clear view of their awful depravity, they would renounce every thought of doing anything to help themselves … and would lie on their faces in sackcloth and ashes, and think of nothing but to cry, day and night, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”[8]

As people were converted they came to believe and cherish these same truths. Griffin offered several examples of converts whose new faith manifested itself in their embrace of Calvinist doctrines like God’s sovereignty and election. This convergence of conversion and Calvinism was also common in other towns. Samuel Mills, Sr. reported, “It has been no uncommon thing for the subjects of the work, whose chief distress and anxiety antecedently arose from a sense of their being in the hands of God, unexpectedly to find themselves rejoicing in that very consideration. . . . They have . . . apparently rejoiced in God’s supremacy, and in being at his disposal.”[9]

Calm and Ordered

The Second Great Awakening has often been associated with emotional excess and manipulation. Whether it was the intense and sometimes frenzied emotion of frontier camp meetings, or the lawyerly pressure of Finney’s anxious seat, conversions were often prompted by and resulted in intense emotional displays. The church-centered, Calvinistic revivals of New England were different on this point as well. In report after report of local church revivals, the pastors described the spiritual intensity of the people manifested in silent and earnest attention to the teaching. Griffin reported a season of revival in his church:

The conferences and public assemblies on the Sabbath or lectures were as still almost as a burying ground. No crying out, no noise or disorder, no symptoms of fanaticism of any kind. The work seemed to be carried on by a still small yet powerful and all conquering voice; by the power of divine truth on the mind.[10]

In Somers, the awakening “was not, in a single instance, attended with outcry, or noise.”[11] In West Britain, Reverend Jonathan Miller explained, “nothing noisy or tumultuous has been discovered, no outcries or swoonings,” but instead, “silent and earnest attention to religious instruction has prevailed.”[12]


So what came out of these Calvinist, church-centered, emotionally restrained revivals? Hundreds of people were converted to Christ and joined local churches. The evidence of an extraordinary work of God is evident on dozens of church rolls during this period. In addition, these same pastors and their churches took the lead in starting America’s early missionary organizations. On June 21, 1798, as the revivals were becoming more widespread, these Congregationalist pastors formed the Missionary Society of Connecticut. Their passion to spread the gospel and see revival spread led these same ministers to start the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Bible Society, Andover Seminary, and the United Foreign Missionary Society. Through these largely forgotten revivals, God fanned a spiritual flame that fueled an unprecedented missionary movement in the 19th century.


So if these revivals were so significant, why haven’t we heard more about them? The main reason is that by the 1820s, the Second Great Awakening was overtaken by a new theology and new methodology that promised impressive results. As Charles Finney and his new measures began to grow in prominence, Edward Dorr Griffin and others sounded the alarm and sought to push back against what they saw as man-made revivalism. By 1827, Griffin had become the president of Williams College. He urged the graduating class to “show yourselves the friends of revivals.” However, he went on to warn them to “avoid those extravagancies which have often brought a stain upon” revivals in the past, “and prejudiced men against them, and laid fatal stumbling blocks before the blind.”[13] One former student recalled that Griffin was “no friend of fanaticism,” and that he “opposed all the forms of man-made revivals” and “all methods of getting up revivals by human artifice.”[14] When some students, during a campus revival, began to believe that prayer would inevitably lead to conversion, Griffin quickly corrected them.

In 1832, Griffin wrote two letters in which he countered the new measures directly. He criticized the different methods evangelists were using in order to “lead awakened sinners to commit themselves.” These “maneuvers”—such as calling people to “request public prayers by rising; to come out into the aisle …. to take particular seats, called … ‘anxious seats’; [and] to come forward and kneel, in order to be prayed for”—were in danger of leading to “a reliance on other means than truth and prayer, and on other power than that of God.” Ministers were calling sinners to form “resolutions” and utter “promises” they were unable to fulfill on their own. Instead of making resolutions, Griffin argued, sinners “must cast themselves instantly on the Holy Ghost.”[15]

Though designed to get sinners over their fear of man and awaken others to similar commitment, the new measures tended to lead sinners to a “self-righteous dependence” on their own acts rather than on God. Ministers’ reliance on “these newly-invented means of impression” meant that the truths of God’s character, human sinfulness, the “provision of the atonement, and terms of acceptance with God” were “very imperfectly brought out, or even studied.” Instead, Griffin claimed, evangelists just touched on a “few topics of exhortation,” leaving the people “in ignorance, with a high susceptibility of irregular excitement.” This form of revival, he warned, would lead to false conversions and religious sectarianism.

Griffin and his friends like Asahel Nettleton continued to long for revival, and believed their doctrinal system and methods were best fitted to bring it about. Griffin warned that Finney and his followers were teaching the error of “the Arminian self-determining power,” and turning salvation into a product of man’s methods and will. In this growing civil war, true revival, he feared, would be one of the casualties. He foresaw that the new, man-centered theology would cause those with right theology to draw back from seeking revival. Revivalism, he warned, would cause people to forget revival.

In many ways, Griffin was right. The historical revivals he helped shepherd have largely been forgotten. So too has his vision for biblical revival. Griffin and his fellow pastors certainly did not get everything right. But the revivals they led and their writings can help us more clearly see the dangers of revivalism and more fully believe in possibilities of God-sent revival.

[1] William Buell Sprague, Memoir of the Rev. Edward D. Griffin, D.D., Compiled Chiefly from His Own Writings (Albany, NY: Packard, Van Benthuysen & Co., 1838), 93.

[2] Sprague, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 427 (appendix).

[3] Kling, Field of Divine Wonders, 252.

[4] Edward Dorr Griffin, in William Buell Sprague, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Glasgow: William Collins, 1832), 426 (appendix).

[5] Samuel Hopkins to John Ryland (draft), 17 October, 1799, Samuel Hopkins Papers, Trask Library.

[6] Edwards, The Great Awakening, 4:168.

[7] Griffin, Letter on Religious Revival in About Forty Adjacent Parishes.

[8] Ibid., 1:375.

[9] CEM 1 (July 1800): 29.

[10] Griffin, Letter on Religious Revival in About Forty Adjacent Parishes.

[11] CEM 1 (July 1800): 19.

[12] CEM 1 (July 1800): 23.

[13] Edward Dorr Griffin, A Sermon, Preached September 2, 1827, Before the Candidates for the Bachelor’s Degree in Williams College(Williamstown, MA: Ridley Bannister, 1827), 15.

[14] Cooke, Recollections of Rev. E. D. Griffin, 149.

[15] Sprague, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 435-436 (appendix).

Mark Rogers

Mark Rogers is the senior pastor of Fellowship in the Pass Church in Beaumont, California.

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