The Third Great Awakening refers to a hypothetical historical period proposed by William G. McLoughlin that was marked by religious activism in American history and spans the late 1850s to the early 20th century. It affected pietistic Protestant denominations and had a strong element of social activism. It gathered strength from the postmillennial belief that the Second Coming of Christ would occur after mankind had reformed the entire earth. It was affiliated with the Social Gospel Movement, which applied Christianity to social issues and gained its force from the Awakening, as did the worldwide missionary movement. New groupings emerged, such as the Holiness movement and Nazarene movements, and Christian Science.
The era saw the adoption of a number of moral causes, such as the abolition of slavery and prohibition. However, some scholars, such as Kenneth Scott Latourette, dispute the thesis that the United States ever had a Third Great Awakening.
1859 - The Impact of the Third Great Awakening
The Ongoing Effects of Revival
The effects of such an awakening are immeasurable. It resulted in the addition of approximately one million converts to the churches of the United States. It added spiritual strength and material prosperity to a decadent Christian cause everywhere. Baptists added almost 200,000 to their numbers by baptism. The revival gave new importance to the work of laymen in churches. It encouraged good interdenominational relationships in ways that had never been encouraged before. It added a large number of young men to the ranks of gospel preachers and filled theological seminaries with those who had committed themselves to preach Christ. It also resulted in the formation of some new seminaries. The awakening gave the nation a badly needed moral lift. It tied the gospel with social work in a manner that had not been seen in this country before. It gave a boost to missionary giving and resulted in unusual missionary efforts during the War between the States. It prepared the nation for the blood bath it would soon experience in the war years of 1861-1865. It gave birth to the great revivals which swept the armies of the South during the days of the war. It softened the hardship of the period of reconstruction for the South. It continued in the work of later evangelists who labored until the end of the nineteenth century. [From When Heaven Touched Earth by Roy Fish, page 205]
The Revival of 1858 was easily the most unique awakening this country has ever experienced. Its beginning, its approval from almost every source, its spirit of cooperation, and its lack of emotional excess easily set it apart from other awakenings. It contained all the wholesome features of other awakenings and sifted out the questionable ones. Never before or since has evangelical Christianity received such widespread publicity or promotion from the public press. Ultimately, this awakening gave birth to a new era in evangelism and did not actually terminate until its force had been felt on three continents. [From When Heaven Touched Earth by Roy Fish, pages 206-207]
Recruits for Ministry and Mission Field
The Awakenings of 1792 and 1830 onward had exerted a helpful effect on recruitment for ministry and missions, but denominations in North America had suffered for years, because the supply of new ministers was not equal to the demand. In 1858 it was predicted,
This general Baptism of the Holy Spirit, this wonderful turning to God on the part of the young men throughout the country, will multiply the number of candidates for the ministry, and give those who enter it a more entire consecration to the service of their divine Master. 1
This prediction was fulfilled. An editor noted late in 1858: "the effect of the religious revivals of the present year has already seen an increase of students for the ministry. 1' 2
Union Theological Seminary in New York reached a new peak in enrollment of students, drawing from the Middle Atlantic States and farther afield. Seemingly all denominational colleges, when they reopened in autumn 1858, reported greatly increased enrollment which they ascribed to the interest from the Great Awakening. Many of these students later enrolled in theological seminaries. [From The Event of the Century by J. Edwin Orr, page 299]
The Resurgence of Evangelisim
One notable characteristic of the awakening was its short-term effect in bringing such very large numbers of adults to conversion. It was not that young folk were left untouched, rather that so many cases of conversion were occurring among both men and women in "maturity of life, heads of families, absentees from the sanctuary, those who had lived through many seasons of awakenings, and still remained destitute of religion." So widespread in the churches was Horace Burshnell's emphasis upon Christian nurture, and so prevalent was the expectation of seeing converts only among the young, that the denominations had virtually lost faith in conversion of adults as such. Now a lead article in The Watchman was insisting that "the large majority of converts in the powerful revival now sweeping over the land are of adult years." Some were in late middle life and not a few advanced in old age, all being accessions of experience and maturity to the churches.
Of the converts, Sylvia Penn of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, wrote:
They are from the unknown and the well-known; the fanner in his field, and the sailor on the wide sea; the princely merchant, and the humble artisan; the old man of three-score years, and the little child .. .
God's grace could change the hearts of rich, poor, elderly, middle-aged, youth, farmers, bankers, merchants, clerks, statesmen, judges, housewives and servants, as easily as those of children. This was the lesson of the 1858 Revival. [From The Event of the Century by J. Edwin Orr, page 310]
Social Impact of Revival
Because of evangelical preoccupation with evangelism first, then social action, Unitarian "keepers of the social conscience" asserted that a true religion was not merely a spiritual experience to enjoy and a holy life to be lived. But the Evangelicals also had advocates of "self-sacrificing zeal in good works." H. C. Fish rebuked big businessmen for consecrating pews but not their counting houses.
Gilbert Seldes termed the 1858 Revival "a penitential outbreak after the panic" and wrote that it did not have any profound effect on the social and intellectual life of the American people. William Warren Sweet took exception to this uninformed opinion and declared that it was based on a too limited knowledge of the facts:
Out of [the 1858 Awakening] came the introduction of the Y.M.CA. into American cities. It produced the leadership, such as that of Dwight L. Moody, out of which came the religious work carried on in the armies during the civil war. It gave impetus to the creation of the Christian and Sanitary Commissions and numerous Freedmen's Societies (hat were formed in the midst of the war. All benevolent enterprises flourished during the civil war, and the period saw charities on a larger scale than ever before. Though war always loosens purse strings, charitable giving at any time must depend chiefly upon people whose sympathies are the most touched by the sufferings of their fellowmen and, in the great majority of instances they are the ones whose hearts have been warmed by a divine flame.
Timothy Smith also noticed that the churches were bettering the condition of destitute and needy as well as giving them the Gospel message. Interdenominational societies as well as the local churches distributed food and clothing, found employment, resettled children, and provided medical aid for the poorer classes. 27 From just a few before the Revival of 1857-58, the city missions increased to several hundreds by 1860. It must never be forgotten that a great Civil War erupted within three years of the 1857-58 Revival. The energies of the nation were absorbed into military action or dissipated by civil disruption. To understand what the 1857-58 Awakening might have done, one has only to look at the proliferation of the societies for social betterment in Britain following the 1859-60 Revival there. [From The Event of the Century by J. Edwin Orr, page 315-316]