In Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, McLoughlin draws on psychohistory, sociology, and anthropology to examine the relationship between America's five great religious awakenings and their influence on five great movements for social reform in the United States. He finds that awakenings (and the revivals that are part of them) are periods of revitalization born in times of cultural stress and eventuating in drastic social reform. Awakenings are thus the means by which a people or nation creates and sustains its identity in a changing world.
"This book is sensitive, thought-provoking and stimulating. It is 'must' reading for those interested in awakenings, and even though some may not revise their views as a result of McLoughlin's suggestive outline, none can remain unmoved by the insights he has provided on the subject."—Christian Century
"This is one of the best books I have read all year. Professor McLoughlin has again given us a profound analysis of our culture in the midst of revivalistic trends."—Review and Expositor
About the Author
The late William G. McLoughlin was professor of history at Brown University, a Guggenheim fellow, a fellow at the Charles Warren Center, and a senior fellow of the National Humanities Foundation. His works include Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandeson Finney to Billy Graham and Isaac Backus and the American Pietistic Tradition.
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Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform
An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607â"1977
By William G. McLoughlin
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1978 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Awakenings as Revitalizations of Culture
Revivalism and Protestant Hegemony
Awakenings have been the shaping power of American culture from its inception. The first settlers came to British North America in the midst of the great Puritan Awakening in England bringing with them the basic beliefs and values that provided the original core of our culture.
Our Revolution came after the First Great Awakening on American soil had made the thirteen colonies into a cohesive unit (e pluribus unum), had given them a sense of unique nationality, and had inspired them with the belief that they were, "and of right ought to be," a free and independent people.
Shortly after the Constitution had launched the American republic, a second era of religious revivals created the definitions of what it meant to be "an American" and what the manifest destiny of the new nation was. After the Civil War had cemented our sense of the Union ("One nation, indivisible under God, with liberty and justice for all"), the Third Great Awakening helped us to understand the meaning of evolutionary science and industrial progress and led us into the crusades "to make the world safe for democracy" in 1917 and 1941.
Since 1960, Americans have been in the midst of their Fourth Great Awakening (or their fifth, if we include the Puritan Awakening). Once again we are in a difficult period of reorientation, seeking an understanding of who we are, how we relate to the rest of the universe, and what the meaning is of the manifold crises that threaten our sense of order at home and our commitments as a world power abroad.
Great awakenings (and the revivals that are part of them) are the results, not of depressions, wars, or epidemics, but of critical disjunctions in our self-understanding. They are not brief outbursts of mass emotionalism by one group or another but profound cultural transformations affecting all Americans and extending over a generation or more. Awakenings begin in periods of cultural distortion and grave personal stress, when we lose faith in the legitimacy of our norms, the viability of our institutions, and the authority of our leaders in church and state. They eventuate in basic restructurings of our institutions and redefinitions of our social goals.
Great awakenings are not periods of social neurosis (though they begin in times of cultural confusion). They are times of revitalization. They are therapeutic and cathartic, not pathological. They restore our cultural verve and our self-confidence, helping us to maintain faith in ourselves, our ideals, and our "covenant with God" even while they compel us to reinterpret that covenant in the light of new experience. Through awakenings a nation grows in wisdom, in respect for itself, and into more harmonious relations with other peoples and the physical universe. Without them our social order would cease to be dynamic; our culture would wither, fragment, and dissolve in confusion, as many civilizations have done before.
Revivals and awakenings occur in all cultures. They are essentially folk movements, the means by which a people or a nation reshapes its identity, transforms its patterns of thought and action, and sustains a healthy relationship with environmental and social change. To understand the functions of American revivalism and revitalization is to understand the power and meaning of America as a civilization. Until the present generation these periods of cultural readjustment have been associated almost wholly with the Protestant churches. The association of awakenings with revivalism derives from the fact that Protestant ideology has, until recently, been so dominant in our culture that other faiths have not really counted, or have not been counted, in measuring the growth of the nation in it efforts to redeem the world.
Until recently, most Americans assumed that the progress of their nation toward the millennium could be measured in the growing adherence of people here and around the world to some form of Protestantism. Protestants assumed that the preaching of God's Word (especially by gifted evangelists or missionaries) would eventually bring the whole world into a right relationship with God. Periods of mass conversion were seen as evidence of God's favor and of man's obedience to his will. R. H. Tawney said, in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, that "Calvin did for the bourgeoisie of the sixteenth century what Marx did for the proletariat of the nineteenth ...; the doctrine of predestination satisfied the same hunger for an assurance that the forces of the universe are on the side of the elect as was to be assuaged in a different age by the theory of materialism." Americans, whose nation began with the upthrust of Calvinism in England and whose prosperity rose with the success of capitalist enterprise, have always felt that they were the elect of God, and the growth in church membership (which in seventeenth-century New England included about 20 percent of the population) to close to two-thirds of the population in the 1970s confirmed the view that God had blessed America spiritually as he had blessed it materially.
The success of the British colonists against the pagan Indians and their Catholic Spanish and French allies prior to 1776 seemed proof of this. Our successful revolution against British tyranny, our rapid expansion to the Pacific, our rise to industrial power, our triumphal role in the great European wars, and our assumption of global power after World War II added further conviction that we were indeed God's chosen people. But that conviction rested on the ideological assumption that Protestants had replaced Catholics as the true church after 1517 just as Christians had replaced Jews after the death of Christ. Protestant church growth was the measure of Christianity's success, and revivalistic evangelism was the means of that growth.
The first inkling of the possibility that evangelical Protestantism might not remain the dominant religious ideology of the new nation came with the massive immigration of Irish Catholics in the second quarter of the nineteeth century. Their resistance to evangelistic effort produced a great fear among pious Protestants that the safety and progress of the nation were endangered. Fear as well as hope has been a spur to revivalism ever since. Evangelistic efforts to reach the unchurched redoubled after 1830, and a host of "professional" revivalists arose to sustain Protestant church growth. After the Civil War, when the cities were described by home missionaries as seething caldrons of foreign, godless, and radical immorality among "the masses," new evangelistic techniques were directed toward "winning the cities for Christ." Revivalists like D. L. Moody, J. Wilbur Chapman, Sam P. Jones, and Billy Sunday led elaborate revival campaigns in cities across the country. Because they were thought to have a special gift for "reaching the masses," they were given broad Protestant support and publicity. Their success, however, proved limited.
After World War I, when it became statistically evident that non-Protestant church membership was rising more rapidly than Protestant membership and when the split between Fundamentalists and Modernists led many of the rising generation to abandon formal church affiliation for agnosticism, humanism, or atheism, xenophobic fears became so great that the nation's first immigration-restriction laws were passed. These were specifically written to exclude immigrants from non-Protestant countries (just as earlier laws and agreements had specifically excluded Oriental immigrants).
The New Pluralism
Fundamentalist Protestants began to adopt a premillennial perspective on human history at the end of the nineteenth century because their conception of America's covenant with God ceased to be dominant among the largest denominations. Pervaded by gloom as the non-Protestant immigrants increased and as Protestant leaders abandoned belief in a literally infallible Bible, the Fundamentalists concluded that they were the saving remnant. Yet they doubted whether they alone could save America or the world from the imminent Apocalypse. The Modernists or Liberal Protestants, accommodating the Bible to the higher criticism of the Bible and to Darwinian evolution, assumed that God still intended to work through America to redeem mankind. However, they yielded considerable authority to the scientists (including sociologists, psychologists, economists, and political scientists) in working out man's progress toward the millennium. The nonchurchgoing humanists and agnostics, relying on science rather than revelation or the churches, had more in common with the Modernists than with the Fundamentalists. And, for the first time, Liberals (whether Modernist Protestants or lapsed-Protestant humanists) made gestures of including Catholic and Jewish liberals in their efforts to overcome the roadblocks to the millennium. After all, many of the poor, and many members of the working class, were recent immigrants; to uplift them, to allow them to participate fully in the working-out of America's millennial mission, could be construed to be as much the task of the Catholic and the Jew as of the Liberal Protestant and the progressive humanist.
Unfortunately, this tentative ecumenism was still tainted with superciliousness on the part of the native-born; their general support of restrictions on immigration and their feeling that Catholic and Jewish immigrants needed to be "uplifted" from their "backward" and "superstitious" ignorance scarcely contributed to religious equality. However, when the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 created a revolutionary force in the world that rivaled the potential power of the Americal Revolution as a source of hope for the oppressed of the world, a new kind of ecumenism began to develop among conservative Fundamentalists, Catholics, and Jews.
Fearing that Communism represented the Anti-Christ, aware that it threatened not only private property and American capitalism but the Judeo-Christian faith, many Fundamentalists and Catholics found common ground in defending "the Cross and the Flag" against this satanic foreign conspiracy. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 (following Hitler's efforts to eliminate the Jews from human history) provided a link between conservative Evangelical Christians and Jews. According to Fundamentalist exegesis of the Bible, the redemption of the human race included a role for the Jews; particularly noted was the prediction that in "the latter days" a sign of the millennium would be the return of the Jews to their homeland. Defense of religious liberty, of capitalist hegemony in the world, of "inalienable natural rights" against tyrannical fascists and communists alike, also united Liberal Protestants and humanists behind a common front with Catholics and Jews after 1950.
At this point Americans at last accepted the concept of a pluralistic nation, at least to the extent, as Will Herberg put it in 1955, of agreeing that "to be a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew are today the alternative ways of being an American." The election of a Roman Catholic to the presidency in 1960 and the admiration for Henry Kissinger (a foreign-born Jew) as secretary of state after 1968 were outward symbols of this pluralism. Although Orientals were still only a tiny group in the nation, their religious outlook gained respectability in the 1950s when the rising generation found the ecumenism of the new pluralistic "establishment" too fear- ridden, conservative, and culture-bound. The interest in Zen Buddhism suggested that ecumenism should be worldwide rather than American or Western.
When a tremendous upsurge of interest in religion began in the 1960s, many journalists and social critics found signs that a new awakening was at hand, but they found them at first in the older symbols of revivalism. Protestant evangelists like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, and Kathryn Kuhlman resurrected the tradition of mass revivalism in the cities, while Catholics like Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen and Jews like Rabbi Joshua Liebman aroused tremendous popular response within their faiths. Revivalism seemed more ecumenical but not essentially different. What did not fit the old pattern was the new interest in Zen Buddhism, magic, astrology, satanism, and the occult. It seemed that, while the older generation of Americans was ready to reaffirm its Judeo-Christian heritage, a large proportion of the younger generation was ready to abandon it. There was also a renewed interest in atheistic Marxism in the 1960s, not to mention the continued appeal of scientism, evident in Scientology, Esalen, and est. Faith in the Holy Spirit was matched by faith in ESP. Revivalism was present, but it did not seem to be at the center of the new awakening. The emergence of the Jesus People and the new popularity of neo-Evangelicalism (personified in President Jimmy Carter and his faith-healing sister) were matched by the death-of-God movement and the new rural communes, which seemed to reject the nation's Judeo-Christian heritage. To explain all this, a new definition of an "awakening" was necessary.
Toward a New Definition of an Awakening
The purpose of this essay is to indicate why the key to a great awakening is no longer to be found simply in Protestant (or even ecumenical) mass revivalism. Most historians, although they note a serious ideological shift in American culture between 1890 and 1920, do not describe that period (as I shall here) as America's Third Great Awakening. They do not because they rightly see that Dwight. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Aimee Semple MacPherson were not really at the heart of that ideological reorientation in the same sense that Jonathan Edwards was at the center of our First Great Awakening and Lyman Beecher at the center of our Second. Nevertheless, these four great eras of ideological reorientation (along with the Puritan movement) are similar. What we need, therefore, is a model that can abstract the causes, functions, and results of such reorientations from the Protestant revivalism that originally characterized them.
If we can rid ourselves of the old Protestant definition of revivalism and awakenings and think more sociologically and anthropologically about religion, we will better understand our past as well as our present times of concern with man's place in the universe. Ever since the first applications of psychological analysis to religious experiences in the 1890s there has been a tendency to denigrate their spiritual quality. But while such analysis freed us from doctrinal explanation of conversions, it also tended to deny their religious dimension. Despite the best efforts of William James, most psychologists, whether Freudian or behaviorist, have reduced religious experiences to secular terms by stressing latent versus manifest content. The scientific analyst of religion has also stressed the "primitive," "backward," "culturally impoverished," "economically deprived," "socially ostracized," or privately "neurotic" aspects of religious experience. But reductionism is not explanation. Nor does it help to say simply, as anthropologists have, that all cultures construct rituals to help the child transform himself into a man or herself into a woman. To call conversion a rite de passage still begs the question of periodic mass awakenings. It explains what a culturally normal event is, but it does not explain the culturally abnormal event. Hence the new interest among anthropologists since 1960 in ghost-dance religions and cargo cults.
Some religious experiences are undoubtedly the results of pathological problems. Still, I would say with William James and Erik Erikson that, even in what may seem extreme cases, the results may be heuristic or cathartic. By and large, most religious converts move from states of anxiety and inhibition to states of functionally constructive personal and social action. Similarly, the abnormal cultural events that we call religious awakenings or revivals — movements that grip whole communities or nations for many years — are not only fruitful but necessary if a culture is to survive the traumas of social change.
I propose, therefore, to view the five great awakenings that have shaped and reshaped our culture since 1607 as periods of fundamental ideological transformation necessary to the dynamic growth of the nation in adapting to basic social, ecological, psychological, and economic changes. The conversion of great numbers of people from an old to a new world view (a new ideological or religious understanding of their place in the cosmos) is a natural and necessary aspect of social change. It constitutes the awakening of a people caught in an outmoded, dysfunctional world view to the necessity of converting their mindset, their behavior, and their institutions to more relevant or more functionally useful ways of understanding and coping with the changes in the world they live in.
The Protestant theologian speaks of great awakenings or revival times as divine manifestations of concern for the "salvation of Adam's children from the bondage of Satan," as signs of "the coming Kingdom of God on earth," or as kairos (the invasion of the temporal by the eternal). What I have to say will not necessarily contradict the faith system of either the behavioral psychologist or the Judeo-Christian theologian. My concern is with the social function of religious systems and with achieving a historical perspective on their periodic transformations.
Excerpted from Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform by William G. McLoughlin. Copyright © 1978 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Martin E. Marty
1. Awakenings as Revitalizations of Culture
2. The Puritan Awakening and the Culture Core
3. The First Great Awakening, 1730-60
4. The Second Great Awakening, 1800-1830
5. The Third Great Awakening, 1890-1920
6. The Fourth Great Awakening, 1960-90(?)
Suggestions for Further Reading