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April 10, 2004

American Religious History--Who Knew?


I’ve been working on a posting about the art history of the Gilded Age. In doing so, however, I wandered into the history of American 19th Century religion, which is chiefly the history of the Second Great Awakening. I don't recall any of my U.S. history classes really coming to grips with this (maybe it was mentioned, in passing) but it was obviously a huge deal for American culture—and it clearly remains a major influence on our culture to this day. As Ian Frederick Finseth (whose essay you can read here) remarks:

Where traditional Calvinism had taught that divine grace, or election into heaven, depended on the arbitrary will of a severe God, the evangelical Protestants preached that the regeneration and salvation of the soul depended on one's inner faith. As the belief in unalterable reprobation faded, the notion of free will was correspondingly elevated. Reconciliation with God still required the continued practice of moral living -- free will was understood to mean the freedom to do good -- but salvation had been effectively democratized…It is not surprising that this religious philosophy found such a receptive audience in the United States, where the Calvinist doctrine of "inability" seemed out of touch with a culture steeped in the ideology of universal equality and political and economic mobility. It also corresponded nicely with many Americans' self-image as creators of a new Eden; just as the individual soul could be redeemed through the exercise of free will, a national redemption could also follow from collective efforts toward social improvement….In its social aspects, the Awakening had as profound an impact on American culture as the Constitution on American government and the Hamiltonian system on American economics.

Or, as Terry Matthews mentions in his analysis of the movement (which you can read here), the movement emphasized that:

Faith is to be expressed in action, and a growing stress on perfectionism comes to mark the preaching of the Second Great Awakening. Again, the Revival is seen in terms of the end of time. God is remaking society in anticipation of the coming Kingdom. As a result, voluntary organizations form to bring about the necessary reform, among them being the American Bible Society, the American Colonization Society, and the American Anti-Slavery society. This is a period when countless numbers of educational institutions are established (including Wake Forest) and overseas missions are launched. The goal is to purify American society and make it ready for the coming Kingdom.

In addition to hugely boosting church attendance across the country and virtually remaking the American experience of religion, the Second Great Awakening threw off numerous social reforms, including feminism, abolitionism, the temperance movement and more. In addition, a whole series of new religious movements came out of all this that had a significant impact on American society: the Latter Day Saints, the Shakers, the Disciples of Christ, the Transcendentalists, etc., etc.

Obviously, the Second Great Awakening was among other things, a (successful) attempt to use religion to deal with life on the frontier and to give structure and meaning to a new, democratic world where all the rules weren't being made for people by the powers-that-were. In short, the whole thing seems to have been a wild, crazy, American-style experiment, combining everything from popular music—to all-day preaching—to education (literacy was relatively scarce in, say, Kentucky)—to the literature of Thoreau and Emerson. Yee-ha! What a combination: religious creativity, human uplift, and—best of all—the use of private persuasion rather than governmental coercion to achieve a new social order!

Okay, I grant you, all this was the doing of a bunch of dead white male Protestants--oops, wait a minute, the Protestant part is correct, but the movement was remarkable for addressing and incorporating marginalized groups like blacks, Asians, women, you name it. Ah, heck, let's cut the irony: speaking explicitly as a non-Christian, I must say that stuff like the Second Great Awakening makes me darn proud to be an American. We could use more weirdness like this in our daily lives.



P.S. Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but I must ask: why didn’t our Lousy Ivy University teach us anything—or at least anything inspirational or even useful—about our own national heritage? (All the best parts of which are exceedingly odd and goofy, I might add.) What were they trying to do--teach us to be Americans and have decorum, too? What fools these educators be!

posted by Friedrich at April 10, 2004


Amen, bro.

I got a heap of good learnin' about American religiouis history from an excellent Teaching Company lecture set, which I blogged about here. Full of all kinds of touching, exciting zaniness.

Looking forward to you on Gilded Age art too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 10, 2004 9:11 PM

Sorry, I forgot about that post until I looked it up again. Oh, well, great minds run in the same paths, right?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 10, 2004 9:26 PM

Yup. Absolutely critical to American history. Cannot overestimate this.

What I am not sure about is the degree to which it is a British/Scottish import. Wesley, Wilberforce, Burke, Coleridge? Secondly, I think, if it was built on British influence, the fact that it hit here early may held off the influence of Bentham and Mill that was much stronger in England and the Continent.

I have heard a generational narrative put to this.
1) Immigrants who founded the plantations,estates and businesses in the early 1700s
2) Their children, with enough wealth and free time to become our Founding Fathers
3) FF's kids, never able to measure up, wastrels and failures and suicides
4) 4th generation with the examples above to rebel against, and the religious awakening

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 10, 2004 11:00 PM

It's rather interesting, the good things you never hear about America...or about the intersection of American public life and American religious life.

I haven't seen anyone give such a simple, but clear distinction between older-school Calvinism and the newer "evangelical", personal-choice approach. It gives me a new understanding of the layout of modern religious life in America, too.

Posted by: steve h on April 11, 2004 12:36 AM

I don't know that it's correct to say that the "evangelical" approach is newer than old-school Calvinism; Lutheranism is older than Calvinism. One of the cries of Lutheranism is "Sola fide," "Only by faith!"; moreover, Lutheranism doesn't include the notion of predestination and election that is one of the hallmarks of Calvinism.

Calvinists talk about two heresies, Pelagianism and Arminianism. Pelagianism is (IIRC) the belief that we must earn salvation. Calvinists reject this; according to them, we can do nothing to earn salvation. Arminianism is the belief that while we cannot earn salvation, we can at least say "Yes" or "No" when God offers it to us. A strict Calvinist would again cry foul; even saying "Yes" is, to a strict Calvinist, doing something to earn salvation.

Me, I'm an Arminian. This makes my Calvinist friends unhappy, but hey, if it was good enough for C.S. Lewis, it's good enough for me. Besides, it makes sense.

So anyway, the movement wasn't from old-school Calvinism to something brand new; the movement was from old-school Calvinism to old-school non-Calvinist Protestantism. With, granted, a newish flavor to it.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 11, 2004 11:21 PM

Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but I must ask: why didn’t our Lousy Ivy University teach us anything—or at least anything inspirational or even useful—about our own national heritage?

Perhaps because you didn't enroll in the appropriate classes?

Wait till you get to Social Gospel Christianity, the emergence of Christian "fundamentalism," and the Third Great Awakening. Some people think we're in the Fourth Great Awakening right now -- turn on TBN sometime and take a look at it.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 11, 2004 11:47 PM

Mr. Hulsey:

Would you regard me as a person lacking in intellectual curiosity, or one likely to take minimum requirements to graduate? I was a history major, for goddsakes! Would you structure a university to permit kids to graduate without knowing stuff like this? Moreover, in the classes I did take, the amount of what can only be described as Marxist-inspired attempts to blame America for just about everything wrong with the world was pretty astonishing, in retrospect. In the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up--the professoriate of my Lousy Ivy University was not in any kind of mood to cut American history any breaks, or even to present it warts and all...they preferred a heavily-edited warts-only version that was astonishingly light on local color.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 12, 2004 12:45 PM

Would you structure a university to permit kids to graduate without knowing stuff like this?

Yes. You can't micromanage education -- there's just too much stuff out there to know. That's why colleges have majors.

Many of the historicist (not history, but literature combined with history) courses I took as an undergrad featured American religion, though not always as a prominent component. They weren't on the cutting edge of anything, though. Cane Ridge has been a fixture of American Studies for about the past three decades, and an important issue in American lit for roughly the past quarter-century (basically, since scholars started paying serious attention to Uncle Tom's Cabin).

To the extent that American history focuses on social and cultural issues, religion tends to come up there, at least nowadays. But introductions to American history tend to focus more on politics and economics than social and cultural stuff -- that's the nature of the discipline.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 12, 2004 5:04 PM

Mr. Hulsey:

I must ask--when did you do your undergraduate education. If you weren't doing the college thing in the early 1970s, I think it may be difficult to explain what it was like. All I can say, the selectivity principal at work was not just a consequence of too much material to get through in four short years, IMHO.

And while I am a big believer, for adults, in the principal of 'you pays your money and you takes your choice,' I am less of a proponent of this where children are involved--and at the age of 49 I would definitely not class college students as adults.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 12, 2004 6:28 PM

if you are interested in further insights into this topic I would suggest "The Life of the Mind in America" by Perry Miller 1965 and other titles by this forgotten author

Posted by: tom on April 12, 2004 9:00 PM

I'm pretty amazed that your "Lousy Ivy University" didn't teach you much about the Second Great Awakening. I'm a high school senior, I took A.P. U.S. History last year and we actually went into some depth into this subject. Some people say we're going through another "Great Awakening" right now, although I find it hard to determine since history is always best analyzed in retrospect. It's just like the Iraqi War - I frequently wonder how historians will se it in the future, but right now it's impossible to predict.

Posted by: Rod on April 12, 2004 11:23 PM


Interesting thoughts. Let me suggest Louis Bouyer's "The Spirit and the Forms of Protestantism" for another interesting viewpoint on the appearance and reappearance of 'American Awakenings.' As a convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism, his theme is that Calvin's notion of God's Sovereignty led to the belief that what God 'chooses' to be good is so defined by His choice. This is opposed to the view of God's Sovereignty that God can not choose what is good...what is good is known as God reveals Who He is...that He is Love, etc.

In the former case, we ask why does not God today choose X to be good, and tomorrow choose Not X to be good? Press out the logic of this doctrine and God becomes 'beyond human knowing' and the cultural expression of this are Puritan or Amish 'plain' clothes, and austere, symbol and ornament free (idol free) white clapboard congregationalist transforming to Unitarian church buildings that aren't very diffent inside than the interior of a Mosque. White, bare.

Man is not a disembodied spirit, so even 'faith alone' becomes a 'work of the flesh' abhorrent to a doctrinare Calvinist, but the working comes in by the back door once sacraments are banished as idolatry. The work of screwing up one's mind into what is called 'saving faith' becomes the goal and result of ecstatic emotionalism, produced by the theatrics of frontier tent meetings and fiery revivalists. You know its real when you feel it! Or when it results in good works. So, acts of charity become a sort of sacrament.

And so, Bouyer believes you have these continuous convulsions from ecstatic charismatic freedom and craziness, to its institutionalzation, to its fossilization, where upon 'revival' breaks out in a new age into new forms of emotionalism and ecstacy (youth) to institutionalization (adulthood) to a dreary and lifeless shell waiting for the next storm of 'renewal'.

These storms are an instinctive reaching back, like Campbellism and the Church of Christ reform in the late 1800's to catholic 'forms' of worship which recognize and express the 'materiality' of being the marriage of a rational soul and a material body.

Pure Celvinist sentiments produce a population ready to accept the International Style in Architecture, because they strip ornament from the church as a religious principle...the only human art permissable in the Calvinist church is a Text, the Bible! The purest form of this stripping of the altars as religious practice is the Quaker Meeting. I attended one where we sat silent for an hour, each meditating, praying in his own way to God. As a nigh high church Episcopalian, the experience to me was excruciating!

The good works the Revivalists and the Wesleyans catalyzed were 'material actions' which were marks of true faith, material similar to Catholics partaking of the Eucharist.

America, the home of every utopian experiment and every ecstatic Crazy!

Christopher Dawson says western history makes no sense without studying Church History as its formational and maintenance motive. He also wrote a book, Crisis of Education, in the 40s that said when we abandon the study of the spiritual core of western civilzation, we will be lost to the generating energy which created our culture and by which we make sense of ourselves. We become defenseless when we bleat to the Islamicists to 'be nice' and submit to the 'melting pot' of a modernity which believes religions are 'equally (in)valid' forms of human social engineering technique which ought to be able to transcend themselves and sway together, smiling and shiny, to verses of 'We are The World'.

Hmm...gotta learn for yourself?

Posted by: Carl Jahnes on April 13, 2004 12:02 AM

Dare I point out that the lousiness of our Lousy Ivy Education had much to do with the '60s? In the wake of the '60s, we seemed to be left with a few snoozer-dinosaurs drinking their way to retirement, or, on the other hand, lots of radical-wannabes laying a lot of propaganda on us in place of an education. In four years at that crummy place, I think I took four good, useful classes. Thank god for the library, the film series, the bookstore, friends, etc.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 13, 2004 1:00 AM

A few years ago I enjoyed reading Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History by Philip Jenkins (who also wrote an underrated history of the U.S that is commendable for its conciseness). Jenkins covers much American weirdness independence to the present and writes darn well for an academic, too.

Posted by: Chris Martin on April 13, 2004 1:41 PM

I must ask--when did you do your undergraduate education. If you weren't doing the college thing in the early 1970s, I think it may be difficult to explain what it was like.

My undergrad education occurred in the late '80s to early '90s, and it wasn't Ivy League (though I have since found no cause for dissatisfaction with it). However, I know more than a little about the hard-line leftism that pervaded elite colleges at that time -- and by most accounts, pervades many of them still, though not to the same degree.

But why grind your axe against an education you received nearly three decades ago? If your objective is cultural critique, it lacks currency; if your objective is to bemoan some personal deficiency, I see no grounds for it. You're financially successful, well-informed on a number of subjects (and expert in a few), and possessed of a not-unreasonable degree of happiness. Surely by any practical standard you must admit that your education, on which all these achievements are founded, has served you well over the years.

Since you are willing to take credit for those achievements and the education which made them possible, I would hope you'd possess sufficient generosity of spirit to acknowledge the educators who helped you along the way, instead of railing about what fools they be.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 14, 2004 2:51 AM

Thank god for the library, the film series, the bookstore, friends, etc.

You like to talk about your Lousy Ivy Education, Michael. Yet since you were willing to participate in your university's cultural life to this degree, I cannot see how you can claim it failed you. Granted, you acquired your education by your own effort -- but who doesn't? The important thing is that your university provided you with an environment where you could acquire an education through your own effort. Your testimony indicates that it succeeded, and that you acquired habits there which allowed you to build on your foundational knowledge over the past few decades. No educator, however gifted, could ask for a better outcome than this.

BTW, I chose my undergrad institution mainly because it had a good library. (Unfortunately, the head librarian in Special Collections had a major "dengle fetish," so I spent a lot of research time peering between uncut pages.)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 14, 2004 3:06 AM

Tim -- What's hard about understanding that we might still be annoyed about the lousy education we got in college? And why would you want to defend the people who gave us that lousy education? Seems a ... slightly odd impulse on your part.

OK, to spell it out:

* Our (not-well-off) parents spent a ton of hard-earned dough, to rather little point.
* These were impressionable, mind-forming years, which were basically wasted by the idiots who ran the school.
* What actual educations we've managed to get we wound up having to piece together for ourselves.
* It's taken both of us many post-college, adult years to shake off the garbage that got laid on us and cobble together a body of knowledge that's proven itself solid, useful and helpful. Why should that have had to be the case? What a lot of wasted time. Also, shaking off delusions and re-educating yourself in a sensible way is a difficult thing to do in your adult years, given how cluttered, overwhelming and full adult life is.

We got used, in other words, by an institution more interested in promoting its own prestige than in providing a halfway-decent education, and by a bunch of teachers more interested in purveying political propaganda than in educating us. We aren't supposed to be griped about this? Or to enjoy raking over the coals of the experience? But it's been a big part of our lives.

Anyone who finds the spectacle less than galvanizing is certainly free to avoid watching it, as I'm sure you know.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2004 1:21 PM

FvB -- But Tim's got a good point: what was the upside of our years at our Lousy Ivy University? Let's be positive for a change.


Aside from the pleasant and obvious? As in, met some good and enduring friends; good library; good film series; good bookstore; good tennis courts; OK art museum.

But I'd say the one thing I came away with from our Lousy Ivy that I might not have carried away from a decent state school was that I'm not impressed by Ivy degrees.

How about you? The upside of having attended our Lousy Ivy?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2004 3:52 PM


How 'bout a quixotic desire to warn 17-year-old Californians that going East to Ivy League colleges might not work out quite as well as they would hope? (Don't worry, I usually manage to stifle that one before I embarrass the poor kids.)

Hmmm, positive stuff from our Lousy Ivy College? Made me less inclined to trust or credit authority figures than I already was (which I guess is useful for a budding entrepreneur)?

Good film program for viewing films. Regrettably, the film making program was only for apple-polishing Post Structuralists (as I believe they would have identified themselves at the time, although I may have this wrong by a few years.)

Good friends. Good library--I read all of Nietzsche and Raymond Chandler there. One or two good teachers. One or two interesting local cemeteries dating back to Revolutionary days.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 14, 2004 6:28 PM

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