Essential Question

What was the Second Great Awakening, how did it change American society, and how does Sacred Harp singing exemplify its ideals?


On September 3rd, 1783, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens met with British Representatives David Hartley and Richard Oswald in Paris’ Hotel d’York. Together they signed the Treaty of Paris, which officially recognized the United States as a sovereign country. After seven years of fighting, the Revolutionary War had been won, and Americans were free to craft a nation as they saw fit.

But as the metaphorical dust cleared, new challenges confronted the fledgling country. The economy and culture of the northern and southern states grew further apart, making unification a trying process. The powers granted to the federal and state governments had to be carefully balanced, and the interests of both urban and rural Americans needed to be negotiated. But perhaps most urgently, the so-called “Land of the Free” had to confront its own reliance on slavery.

While politicians negotiated the governmental foundations of the United States, religious leaders were worried about the moral and cultural future of the country. The Revolutionary War had levelled churches in many colonies, and people were also beginning to move west, where organized religion had little foothold. The separation of church and state had been ingrained into the Constitution, ensuring that religious denominations would receive no help from the State in building congregations. The religious leaders also worried that the Deism embraced by many of the Founding Fathers–the belief that God did not intervene with the world through miracles or revelations–was too human-centric and dismissed the more spiritual aspects of religious belief. Would America move forward without God?

In response to these concerns, preachers and ministers such as Charles Grandison Finney, Peter Cartwright, and James McGready attempted to reignite a religious fervor within the country by holding a series of revival “camp meetings” throughout America. Characterized by intense preaching, communal singing and heightened emotions, camp meetings quickly became a national sensation. The meetings were so successful at converting people, in fact, that the era between the Revolutionary and Civil War in the United States became known as “The Second Great Awakening,” the second time since the early 1700s that Americans embraced religion in large numbers.

Music provided much of the time the energy and emotion that made camp meetings popular. Preaching was interspersed with collective hymn, and gospel singing which would spontaneously arise from the crowd. This singing was often repetitive and improvistary, and attendees would regularly add religious lyrics to popular melodies. Soon, the songs commonly sung during camp meetings were compiled into hymnbooks. Arguably the most famous of such books was The Sacred Harp, published by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King in 1844. Written using a shape-note system that made singing accessible to those without formal music training, the book was so popular that it become synonymous with a unique style of music. “Sacred Harp” singing continues to be performed to this day.  

The Second Great Awakening significantly altered the course of American politics and society. Through the camp meetings, Americans gradually turned away from a Calvinist mode of religious thought that privileged fate and predestination to an Arminian theology that stressed free will and personal moral responsibility. This turn in religious outlook helped create a generation of social activists who played seminal roles in the temperance, abolition, and suffrage movements that would continue into the 20th century. Set upon bringing the Earth into a closer alignment with Heaven, activist such as Lyman Beecher, the Grimké Sisters, Theodore Weld, and the Tappan brothers fought for a complete and unequivocal equality between the races and sexes–demands that many are still working towards today.

In this lesson, created in partnership with the Association for Cultural Equity, students discover the causes, characteristics, and lasting effects of the Second Great Awakening by examining the biographies of historical figures associated within the movement. They also consider how Sacred Harp Singing represents the ideals of the Second Great Awakening by watching Alan Lomax’s ethnographic videos of a Sacred Harp performance.  

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The political and social landscape of Antebellum United States
    • The causes and historic effects of the Second Great Awakening
    • Sacred Harp Singing
    • Prominent religious figures and social activists during the Second Great Awakening, including Lyman Beecher, Charles Finney, Richard Allen, Nat Turner, Theodore Weld, Lewis Tappan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Angelina Grimké
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to recognize how the Second Great Awakening influenced American society and culture by analyzing footage of religious singing, and reading biographies of seminal figures in the movement.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Tell students that for this lesson they will be taking on the role of ethnographers – social scientists who study people in their own environments. Explain that they will be watching two videos of a musical performance, and as ethnographers they should practice what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description,” taking notes that detail the setting of the performance, the performer’s age, attire, body, body language, and anything else they notice.
  2. Play Clip 1, “1982 Holly Springs Sacred Harp Convention: Abbeville (#33) with Prayer.” Then ask:
    • How would you describe the music featured in the video? Do the singers seem more professional or amateur? Are they performing for an audience?
    • Who seems to be leading this event?
    • Would you characterize this event as emotional? Why or why not?
    • How would you describe the people participating in the event?
    • What might be the function of this event? 


  1. Tell students that the style of singing they saw in the video is called Sacred Harp singing, a unique form of American religious music. While the style has a long history, it became widely known as “Sacred Harp” music in the mid-1800s, during a period called “The Second Great Awakening.” This was a time of religious revival in the United States, when preachers across the country revitalized people’s interest in religion by hosting “camp meetings,” which were impromptu gatherings featuring music and preaching.
  2. Pass out Handout 1 – Peter Cartwright’s Observation of the Cane Ridge Revival, telling students that this account describes one of the first camp meetings that occurred, in Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Have the class read the handout aloud, then ask:
    • Based on Cartwright’s account, how would you describe the atmosphere of a camp meeting? How does it compare to the video you watched?
    • Why might have the Presbyterian Ministers felt the need to organize one of these camp meetings? What do you think they hoped to attain from it?
    • In 1787, the Constitution was ratified, which enshrined the separation of church and state. How might have this contributed to the motivation behind the Cane Ridge Revival Meeting? Why might have one of the first camp meetings occurred in Kentucky, and not in one of the original colonies? (Encourage students to consider Westward Expansion, the lack of established churches in what was the frontier at that time, the the harsh living conditions frontier life might entail.)  
    • What denomination started the Cane Ridge meeting, and which denominations joined in?
    • How did the officials in the Kentucky synod treat the preachers who organized the Cane Ridge camp meeting?
  3. Explain that one of the reasons Presbyterian Church officials might have been wary of the camp meetings had to do with the involvement of Methodists and Baptists, who had different views of Christianity than the Presbyterians. Show Image 1, “Calvinism versus Arminianism.” Ask students:
    • What are the primary differences between Calvinism and Arminianism? Which seems to rely more on fate or predestination, and which on free will?
    • How might adopting a more Arminian way of thinking influence one’s social actions? Might it spur someone to be more socially or politically active? Why?
  4. Tell students that they will be looking at the ways camp meetings during the Second Great Awakening might have motivated religious leaders and social activists of the time. Break students up into groups, and pass out to each group one copy of Handout 2 – Café  Conversation Activity. Have students follow the instructions on the handout.
  5. Ask students to share what they learned about one historical figure based on the Café Conversation (not the one presented in the paper they chose). After most of the eight historical figures in the handout have been discussed, ask students:
    • What do these historical figures have in common? What is different about them?
    • Was there one person in particular you found interesting or inspiring? Why?
    • What kind of arguments did these activists make in advocating for abolition, temperance, or women’s rights?  
    • How did the events of the Second Great Awakening affect these figures?
  6. Tell students they will be looking again at the Sacred Harp tradition. Play Clip 2, “Sacred Harp Singing,” and encourage students to think about connections between Sacred Harp singing at the Second Great Awakening. After the video, ask students:
    • In your own words, how would you describe Sacred Harp singing?
    • In what ways might Sacred Harp singing reflect the ideals of the Second Great Awakening? (Beyond its religious associations, encourage students to think about the ways Sacred Harp singing encouraged community, equality, and democracy).
    • Why do you think that feeling of “what’s lasting, true, and good” may have inspired social action during this period?

Summary Activity:

  1. Show Image 2, “Writing Prompt,” and have students follow the prompt given. Collect responses, or have students present their responses to the class.

Extension Activity:

  1. Writing Prompt: While a very old tradition, Sacred Harp singing remains popular today. There are Sacred Harp summer camps, and groups in the Northern United States are taking it up again, regardless of their religious background. In today’s society, what might people find valuable or rewarding about Sacred Harp singing?  
  2. Writing Prompt: Despite calls for integration and equality by religious leaders going back to the Second Great Awakening, church services in many ways remain, as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once lamented, “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” Research church segregation today, and summarize some contemporary projects that address the issue.   

Explore Further:

  1. Books:
    • Barry Hankins, The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists (Greenwood Press)
    • Buell E. Cobb, Jr. The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and its Music (University of Georgia Press)
    • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Norton Critical Editions)
  2. Films:
    • Matt Hinton, Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp (Awake Productions)
    • Steven Spielberg, Amistad (Paramount)
  3. Records:
    • Various Artists, Awake My Soul (Official Soundtrack) and Help Me to Sing (Songs of the Sacred Harp) (Awake Productions)


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard #7-Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard #8-Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard #9– Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard #10-Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards#11-Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.3 Analyze the aesthetic value of a specific commercial work of art and defend that analysis from an industry perspective.
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.

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