The Second Great Awakening and American Educational Reform: Insights from the Biography of John Milton Gregory

Article excerpt

School attendance in America at the beginning of the 19th Century was undemocratic. Poor and working-class households could not afford the loss of a potential worker. Children would often work at home or be hired out. Children of slaves were not schooled at all. Further, the subjects taught in school were limited. Young boys and girls who attended the common school would learn reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic. In some towns, nine-or ten-year-old boys could attend a grammar school, where they learned English grammar, Latin, Greek, history, geography, and mathematics. Older girls as well as older boys might attend an academy, where they could learn whatever the teacher was prepared to teach, but early academies generally limited girls to coursework in composition, music, and art. A few young, privileged white men could attend college to prepare for a career in the ministry or law.

This picture would change dramatically by the end of the 19th Century, when education would become more practical and increasingly, if not yet equally, accessible to all. What caused the change in practicality and access? Scholars have found that following Thomas Jefferson, many supporters of public schools argued that democracy is best assured by an educated populace, (1) but another cause of the public school movement is frequently overlooked. A religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening surged through what is now the Eastern half of the United States in the first half of the 19th Century. The first Great Awakening one hundred years earlier focused on spiritual regeneration. It strengthened evangelical denominations such as Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. The second wave had a social impact, generating popular support for temperance, the abolition of slavery, and other social reforms, including universal education. The relationship of the Second Great Awakening to the gradual realization of universal education in America can be explored through the life of John Milton Gregory (1822-1898). (2)


A disproportionate number of 19th Century educational reformers came from the Northeast, and Gregory was no exception. His family lived in Sand Lake, New York, about 10 miles east of Albany. The area was religiously "cooler" than the famously "burned-over" district to the west, but that did not mean religious beliefs were less common or less firmly held. In 1805, Protestants in Sand Lake erected a Union Meeting House (which stands today) and worshipped there. Among them was Joseph Gregory, the father of John Milton Gregory. Known locally as "Deacon Josie," Joseph was remembered as "a type of the Puritan, industrious, scrupulously honest, almost gloomily religious, his language being full of Biblical phrases." (3) His first wife, Ruth Babcock, died after the birth of their first child in 1811. His second wife, Rachel Bullock, bore nine children. Rachel's seventh child was born on July 6, 1822, and he was named after her favorite poet. Rachel Gregory died when John Milton Gregory was only four, but because he was literate from a very early age, she possibly taught him how to read.

In 1831, Joseph married a widow, Almira Foster, who had ten children of her own, and he set his large, blended family apart with a group of other believers to form the Second Baptist Church of Sand Lake. Although separate from other Protestant believers, they were not "anti-mission." In 1835, the "2d Sand Lake church and congregation" supported the American Baptist Home Mission Society by giving their minister a life membership. (4) It is doubtful, however, that the church would have supported united, evangelical efforts such as temperance societies, abolition societies, or interdenominational Sunday schools, all of which grew out of the Second Great Awakening.

Joseph Gregory was a subsistence farmer and a tanner who had a small shoe and harness factory. His son John attended a common school briefly when he was ten. …