The emergence of the religious “common man”
The Presidency of Andrew Jackson and The Second Great Awakening symbolize the two major social movements taking place during the first four decades of the nineteenth century. One movement was toward a bold new individualism and anti-elitism. It was personified by the self-made man and seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson. The second movement was a nationwide re-emphasis on religious principles.
These two movements shared some common elements and motivations. In a way, President Jackson was himself a manifestation of Great Awakening thought. At the same time, some elements of Jacksonian democracy lay in direct conflict with prevailing religious thought. The relationship between these two movements was complex and multi-layered. Jackson had to walk a fine line between his Presbyterian faith and his responsibilities to the nation as a whole. In the end, both Jacksonian democracy and the Second Great Awakening had profound and lasting effects.
Andrew Jackson – Man of the people
Andrew Jackson was a unique character among the early Presidents of the United States. He was not born into society’s elite like most of the previous Presidents. Up to the time of Jackson, the Presidency was reserved for highly educated and wealthy men.
Growing up, Jackson developed a reputation as a rough and tumble character. He was a brawler, even once killing a man in a duel (Remini, 1984). His formal education was minimal, but as a teenager he developed an interest in the law. He studied on his own for the most part. None the less he was able to craft a successful career as a Tennessee lawyer.
Jackson was able to buy an estate along with a number of slaves. He became a congressional representative then served in the military during the War of 1812. Jackson became a nationally known character due to his military exploits. In a war that was mostly a disaster for the United States, Jackson assembled a rag-tag group of soldiers to successfully defend the critical Port of New Orleans.
In his political career, Jackson portrayed himself as the advocate for the “common man”. He himself had come from humble roots and understood the needs of the average American. He tried to reform the process of patronage. Jackson wanted to decrease the onerous influence of government on the people but, once in office, he adopted a more dominating stance. He used the power of the veto and increased the role of the President in policy making. Meanwhile in America a new religious movement was emerging.
The Second Great Awakening
In the late 1700s Christian leaders were concerned with what they saw as an increasingly secular society. A new movement had to be launched. The problems were complex.
In the wake of the Revolution, churches faced three major tasks:
(1) organization, (2) reviving vital religion and, (3) following
the population westward.
(University of Virginia, 2008)
The Second Great Awakening was not an event that had specific starting and ending times. Generally speaking, the movement lasted from 1800 until about 1840. The peak of this awakening occurred during the Presidential term of Andrew Jackson. The First Great Awakening had occurred less than a hundred years before. Theologians separate the two movements because of the unique characteristics of the Second Awakening.
This movement was driven by Protestant clergy. Its goals were to increase the influence of Christianity and to prompt practicing Christians to re-dedicate themselves to biblical principles. The unique circumstances of the movement caused a new brand of missionary work to emerge. The opening of the western territories led church leaders to examine their methods for reaching the unchurched masses. A more vocal and effusive method of worship was designed to draw crowds in from far-flung places. In concert with the individualistic nature of the western settlers a more personalized and less rigid form of Christianity was offered.
Evangelism was a primary aspect of the Second Great Awakening. In the past, protestant churches had not been as assertive in recruiting new church members. Most churches were small and locally oriented. The Louisiana Purchase started a process that would result in a massive expansion of U.S. territory. The western part of the country was a combination of new settlers, transients, criminals, Native Americans and immigrants. In order to target these diverse and dispersed populations, Protestant leaders developed the now well-known strategy of evangelism. Charismatic preachers traveled the land, hosting camp meetings. These meetings would last for days and often featured spirited preaching and singing (Bruce, 1974).
This approach to recruitment was somewhat more egalitarian and inclusive than religions had been in the past. The movement was not without dissenters. During this age, the Christian community became much more fragmented. Denominations divided and re-divided, often taking on the characteristics of the local community.
Despite criticism of its methods from some within the religious community, The Second Great Awakening clearly had a number of benefits for society. In certain parts of the country, evangelism triggered a new era of social activism. Efforts to provide care for the needy and infirmed benefited many. Some church-based organizations undertook efforts at social change. Temperance leagues and the movement to abolish slavery were both direct offshoots of the Second Great Awakening. Andrew Jackson supported some of these initiatives, once saying that “charity is the real basis of all true religion” (Burstein, 2003).
In America, the influence of religion on politics has always been heavy. As religion took on a different character during the Second Great Awakening so, too, would politics. All of the early Presidents were religious men. Andrew Jackson was no exception. Jackson, however, reflected a unique individualism and sense of personal freedom that gave religious leaders hope of gaining even greater influence on American politics.
Analysis and Conclusion
Jacksonian democracy and the Second Great Awakening had profound impacts on American society. Jackson saw himself as a man of God. His faith increased as he moved through life toward his destiny as the seventh U.S. President. He was a Presbyterian, but was keenly aware that he was now President of all Americans. As such, he held firm to the principles of democracy even when pressured by religious leaders to do otherwise.
At the same time, Jackson had the same failing as many of his pre-Civil War colleagues. He continued to justify the practice of slavery. Jackson was the champion of the “common man” – but not on this particular issue. Meanwhile, the disfavor of slavery was increasing among most people of faith. Interestingly, Jackson “found no conflict between his religious views and his strong support for the institution of slavery…[or] for the forcible relocation of Native Americans” (Roberts, 2003).
Andrew Jackson was a religious man but not a religious President. His Presidency was considered successful, even if some of his actions left him open to criticism. He was not beholden to the Second Great Awakening and its leaders, but he accepted most of principles. His stance on local control and the rights of the common man helped provide an environment in which the Awakening could flourish even if reality did not always match up with high-minded statements of principle.
Together, Andrew Jackson and the Second Great Awakening provided a more egalitarian era in the early 1800s. Neither was able to end the practice of slavery, though. America would half to face that crucible before the ideals of either Jackson or the Second Great Awakening could be more fully realized.
Bruce, Dickson. (1974). And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain Folk Camp Meeting
Religion. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Burstein, Andrew. (2003). The Passions of Andrew Jackson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Remini, Robert. (1984). Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-
1845. New York: Harper and Row.
Roberts, Peter. (2003). “The Religious Affiliation of the 7th U.S. President”. Retrieved
4/15/2008 from: http://www.geocities.com/peterroberts.geo/ReligPolitics/AJackson.html .
SullivanCounty.com. (2005). “The Second Great Awakening: the broad picture”.
Retrieved 4/15/2008 from: http://www.sullivancounty.com/immigration/2nd_awakening.htm
University of Virginia. (2008). “The Second Great Awakening and Rise of Evangelism”.
Retrieved 4/15/2008 from: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma95/Finseth/Evangel.html .