Megan Dunn and Travis Lacy

Prof. Westblade

18th Century Theology

14 February 2011


1800-1810: Romanticism Expressed through the Second Great Awakening

Romantic idealism and limitless expansion characterized the beginning of the 19th century.  America and Europe’s boundaries saw considerable growth: one through westward expansion, another through the Napoleonic Wars.  As the world explored new physical frontiers, new movements in philosophy and theology gave rise to a new style of literature and thought.  Romanticism, although introduced in the 18th century, took root in the 19th century. In Christianity, this movement expressed itself in a general rejection of Calvinism and embracing of experiential Christianity.  Experience became paramount to the validity of one’s conversion, and this belief characterized much of the Second Great Awakening.  The first decade of the 19th century saw the advent of the tent meeting, and many miniature revivals occurred across the United States.  The religious and philosophical trends of the decade, as a whole, reflect Romantic values.  While these values did not directly cause the Second Great Awakening, they undoubtedly had a great impact on America’s 19th century revival.

Between 1800 and 1810 in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte rapidly expanded his domain and dissipated the longstanding Holy Roman Empire.  While he believed that religion was a necessary institution that maintained civil society, he did not view religion as a valid source of truth.  In this sense, he took a utilitarian approach to religion, believing that it was only needed as far as it served society’s ends (Lyons 85).  He signed a Concordat in 1800, which reconciled Church and State and allowed for freedom of worship, but the revolution had already taken a toll on the perceived legitimacy of the Catholic Church (Lyons 81).  Despite these destructive influences, there was a minor Catholic revival in France: signs of personal devotion persisted in the face of the declining number of clergy and parishes (Lyons 81).  Napoleon’s friendly relationship to the Church did not last long, though, because in 1805 he—quite symbolically—crowned himself emperor and thus provoked the Catholic authorities (Asprey 489).  Pope Pius VII excommunicated him, however, after he boldly invaded Rome in 1809 (Lyons 83).  On the global scale, Napoleon’s rapidly developing empire promoted the Western Romantic ideal of man’s boundless achievements.

A similar attitude of conquest and limitless opportunities reigned in America, where numerous explorers and settlers headed west into unchartered land.  In 1803, Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon for fifteen million dollars, opening up America’s horizons and doubling the size of the nation (Harbert 332).  The next year, Louis and Clark set out on their famous expedition in which they discovered and documented a bevy of new plants and creatures.  America was determined to outdo Europe in every possible way, and they seemed to be succeeding (Morse Vol. 1, 1). Passionate visions of America’s destiny as savior of the world were birthed during this period, and since have been called the concept of Manifest Destiny, or Romantic Nationalism.

In the educational realm in America, the Library of Congress was founded in 1800, classes began in the first state university in 1801, and Noah Webster published the first dictionary of American English in 1806, standardizing spelling across the nation (Harbert 74).  In 1808, the Constitutional law banning the importation of slaves to the United States became effective.  Enthusiasm about emancipation grew to be a theme in the early 19th century, particularly among Christians during the Second Great Awakening.  Freedom seemed to be the cry on America’s lips: freedom to explore the land, freedom from slavery, and freedom from dogma.  The ideals of Romanticism fit perfectly with this cry.

Romanticism sparked at the end of the 18th century, which allowed for its ideas to penetrate more deeply into the common psyche by the 19th century. As a reaction to the intellectual presence of the Enlightenment, the romantics emphasized the validity of emotion and experience. Philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau repudiated traditional concepts like original sin, explaining that man had been corrupted by his environment and must find unity and serenity in nature (Morse Vol. 2, 13). In contrast, the harsh truths of Calvinism seemed out-dated and dogmatic. Although the philosophies of German Idealism, Realism, and Utilitarianism arose during this period, Romanticism seems to have had the most immediate effect on literature and religion of this decade.

            Romantic literature in the latter 18th century paved the way for certain Romantic manifestations in the early 19th century, particularly in American religion.  One of the main tenets of the Romantics “was some kind of recovery of control over the spiritual element” and the value of “aesthetic experience” (Berlin 50).  William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798, often reflect such a sentiment: “Twas partly Love, and partly Fear, / And partly ‘twas a bashful Art / That I might rather feel than see / The Swelling of her Heart” (Wordsworth 123).  His desire to “rather feel than see” love is characteristic of the period, for similar statements typify Romantic poetry.  William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” published in 1789, contrast the desirable pleasure of experiencing beauty with the deplorable experiences of everyday life.  The latter form of experience, brought through pain, suffering, and even intellectual analysis, wrought an “early death to life” (Berlin 42).  While most Romantics used their philosophy in the form of lyric poetry, such as Wordsworth, Blake, and Coleridge, the French poet, Franćois-René de Chateaubriand, wrote an aesthetic defense of Christianity in 1802 entitled “The Genius of Christianity.”  He argued that Christianity is valid not because of its intellectual superiority, but because of its aesthetic contributions to arts and culture.  Intellectual superiority was an enlightenment principle, and the Romantics were eager to depart from anything that breathed of the Enlightenment.  Such ideas were not only common among European Romantics, however, because Romantic philosophy clearly took hold on the other side of the Atlantic.  The most visible evidence of Romanticism in America during the early 19th Century was its effect on Christianity, namely: the Second Great Awakening.

            Towards the end of the 18th Century, many congregational ministers in America lamented “the universal deadness and stupidity” that accompanied most churchgoers, yet signs of life arose in Gasper River, Kentucky when the nation’s first tent revival took place in July, 1799 (Murray 150).  By 1801, a revival had spread across the Western frontier into the South and New England.  Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians alike all saw massive church growth across the nation, nearly tripling their numbers in certain states (124).  This revival also took place on college campuses.  A student at Yale recalled that “there was but one professor of religion in the Freshman class, not one in Sophomore, only one in the Junior, and not more than ten in the Senior” in 1793, yet in 1802 the Yale student body experienced a revival that saw over seventy-five of its two hundred thirty students make professions of faith (133).  A similar revival later took place at Princeton in 1815.  As the revival spread, however, so did a longing to express Christianity through emotional mediums.

While emotion always had its place in Puritanism and American Christianity, the early 19th century saw emotionalism displayed in a new, radical manner.  One Kentucky pastor remarked of a revival he witnessed in 1801, “The audience is thrown into what I call real disorder.  The careless fall down, cry out, tremble and not infrequently are affected with convulsive twitchings” (Murray 166).  Certain ministers, such as John Lyle, greatly rejected such displays of “religious affection” and remarked that “like a worm it destroyed the beauty of a revival and would ere long discredit the work of God” (167).  American Christians had long held the understanding that Christianity should be, to some degree, felt.  The new displays of twitching, convulsing, and being “slain in the Spirit” took feeling to a whole new level, however.  This longing to experience God led to the rejection of widespread, orthodox beliefs.

            Just as the Romantics sought aesthetic experience and a sort of universal transcendence with the divine, many Christians in the Second Great Awakening saw religious experience as the only necessary part of a Christian’s life.  “Those who believed that a new age of the miraculous had dawned came to regard men regularly set aside to preach as no longer necessary,” Murray writes.  “The people themselves, now endowed with visions, dreams, and prophecies, could all minister to one another” (Murray 169).  If experience is the only prerequisite for truth, then preachers are superfluous.  It is in doctrines such as these that Romantic philosophy shows its affect on American Christianity.  Furthermore, the years from 1800 to 1810 witnessed widespread rejection of the doctrines of Calvinism, believing that its “rationalist theology” crushed emotional longings within the believer.  Some pastors, such as Alexander Campbell, believed that a “simple” approach to Christianity was best and “stripping away the accretions of theology and tradition would restore peace, harmony, and vitality to the Christian church” (175).  This “simple Christianity” became known as the Restoration Movement, and as the Restoration Movement grew so did the rejection of Puritanical beliefs.  Just as Romanticism inherently rejected Enlightenment principles, the doctrines of Calvinism bore too much resemblance to “Enlightenment Rationalism” to remain valid for ministers such as Campbell. 

            The longing for experience caused much controversy among ministers in the early 19th century.  While many saw “loud emotion, shouting, sobbing, leaping, falling, and swooning as ‘the true criteria of heartfelt reigion,’” ministers such as James McGready lamented the desire to value feeling above thinking (Murray 183).  McGready writes in 1809, “The greatest divine and greatest Christian upon earth if he have a clam, dispassionate address, cannot move them more than he could move the leviathan” (189).  The way to combat this over-abundant emotionalism was solid, biblical teaching.  Emotionalism, McGready observed, gave way to even more dangerous teachings than Armenian Theology and the value of experience.  Barton W. Stone, a Second Great Awakening preacher, even rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.  Other pastors rejected traditional forms of worship for more modern forms.  These rejections of Calvinism, Trinitarian Theology, and traditional worship caused many denominations to split.  Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists saw their once cohesive congregations split into numerous, smaller denominations.  These minority groups included the Disciples of Christ, Shakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, Churches of Christ, and the Cumberland Presbyterians (175). 

As a whole, the desire to feel Christianity proved to be a sort of paradox: there was undoubtedly a revival happening in the 1800s, yet many considered this revival to bring more death than life to American Christianity.  It is important to note, however, that the longing for emotion did not characterize every American church in this time period.  Experience characterized the majority of these churches going through a revival, yet many pastors held the belief that the congregation was only as emotional as the pastor.  Pastors such as John Lyle were reported to preach with a “passionate, joyous solemnity” that maintained control over his congregation.  People would weep, bemoan their sin, or sing in loud exultations during worship, yet the dramatic convulsions, faintings, and twitchings never occurred (168).  As a whole, however, the more radical displays of emotion characterized churches in the early 19th century revival. 

            Most of the events in the Second Great Awakening took place after 1820, yet the ideas and philosophies that characterized it took hold in the first part of the 19th century.  The Second Great Awakening’s beginnings in the early 19th century saw a departure from traditional Christianity and acceptance of newer, more experiential forms.  Clearly, many of the ideals of Romanticism were displayed in this revival, yet that does not mean the Second Great Awakening was not legitimate.  Certainly, the Spirit can move in marvelous ways.  It must be noted however, that European Romanticism heavily emphasized the value of aesthetic experience, and when that philosophy reached the continent it must have had some effect on the Americans, as well.  This effect was seen in the Second Great Awakening, when people began to value religious experience above all else.  The core beliefs of Romanticism also rejected total depravity, elevating man as a “limitless” being.  This was consistent with the idea that it was man’s destiny to push westward and enjoy greater freedom.  Similarly, the ideals proposed in the Second Great Awakening embraced a more “free, limitless Christianity” that was not fenced in with religious dogma and tradition.  Romantic philosophy clearly had a great impact on the events of the decade from 1800-1810 and largely affected the trajectory of American Christianity.








Works Cited

Apsrey, Robert. The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: Basic Books, 2000.


Harbert, Earl N., Ed. Henry Adams: History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Literary Classics of the United States: 1986.


Lyons, Martyn. Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press: 1994.


Morse, David. American Romanticism Vol. 1: From Cooper to Hawthorne. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books: 1987.


Morse, David. American Romanticism Vol. 2: From Melville to James. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books: 1987.


Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.


Wordsworth, William, and Samuel T. Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. N.p.: n.p., 1798. Print.


Murray, Iain H. Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858. N.p.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994. Print.