The Great American Awakenings

Posted on June 16, 2014


We tend to think of ourselves pretty much at the center of the universe, and, in a way of course, we are. We are alive and everyone before us is gone, and those before us are unborn and in the future.
But we are tied to the past, personally by our memories, and collectively as a people by the history of those who came before us.
While some people “live” in the past—past glories, past triumphs, past defeats, past tragedies—and some in the future—wait until [and you can fill in the blank]—most of us live in the present, and so are lifted up and borne along by the events of today, not yesterday, or tomorrow.
Eerily, however, the past can carry a familiarity that sometimes astounds us. Did people really do that? They did what we are doing! We tend to discover that we are not so inventive after all.
It can be a fun and instructive exercise to take anything we do today, and look back and see how we did the same things then, a hundred, two hundred, or two thousand years ago.
Our little game doesn’t work across the board. We can’t look back to 1800, for example, and see how they played baseball then. Baseball wasn’t invented. You can follow this thread yourself. No one flew from London to New York. But people did go from London to New York. There were no cell phones, but people communicated. You get the gist of what we can do.
Let’s narrow our focus a bit to the periodical outbreaks of religious fervor by Christians for reform and renewal over the years, a popular theme for almost two thousand years since Christianity came into existence.
Christian pastors and priests have never been content with the state of peoples’ souls, from as early of the dawn of the Church when the Apostle Paul preached and wrote in the first century A.D. to today.
Paul got after the Corinthians for excesses of all kinds that detracted from their spirituality, and a few Sundays ago my pastor delivered a sermon on the apostasy of the today’s people, and the apostates who undermine the spirit and will of Christians generally.
It is, in fact, a never ending battle, but it has bubbled and spilled over occasionally like volcanic eruptions, spewing rocks and lava and fire and brimstone on the plains below the mountain tops.
In fact, we can go back even further than Christianity, to the time of the Hebrews described in the Old Testament. Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments to instruct the Hebrews in God’s ways. In his absence, they created a golden idol to worship, defiling their covenant with their God.
Moses got so angry he smashed the stone tablets with the Commandments, probably one of the first acts in the tradition of pastors, clerics, priests, and prophets denouncing the evil ways of their people. So, my pastor is keeping good company.
The Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s was the first major outbreak of revivalism within our nation, then still a colony. Frustrated by the dry rituals and formalized worship and doctrine in most churches, reformers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield put passion back into worship.
They, and others like them such as the brothers John and Charles Wesley, struck out against formal, intellectual forms of worship driven by creeds and fashioned like templates and opened their hearts and minds to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The result was the First Great Awakening.
Revivals swept the country from New England to Georgia, the newest colony in the Deep South. Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon in July, 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that still sets people on edge. Sinners were depicted like spiders dangling over the fiery pit of eternal hell, held only by the slender thread of salvation offered by Jesus Christ.
Like most sermons, it was long, but it was characteristic of the “New Lights,” as the followers of Edwards, Whitfield, the Wesleys and others were called. It dripped with both despair and hope for the human condition. There was no compromise, no appeal to the sensibilities of the congregation, nothing but fire and brimstone.
“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God…
You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it….
And let everyone that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell …now harken to the loud calls of God’s word and providence.
Let everyone … fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation: Let everyone fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.”
Baptists and Presbyterians flourished and grew, while the Methodism of the English Wesley brothers found a fertile foothold in the colonies. Americans shared for the first time a common experience that cut across all the colonies and classes, and in many ways prepared the way for the American Revolution.
The first American Great Awakening was followed by a Second in the early nineteenth century, and some would say a Third and Fourth, the last one still alive and well today. Each contributed a significant thread to the American tapestry, including not only the concept of religious freedom, but also abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and other principles that became part of our cultural and legal woof and warp.
To diminish or downplay or otherwise deprecate the role of Christianity in the making of our nation is basically ignorance gone to seed, or simply ideological self-indulgence.
Like all movements, there were excesses and often wildly differing perspectives that split denominations. In the main, however, revivalism is deeply rooted in the American psyche. We periodically reinvent ourselves personally, and we periodically take deep and long looks at what and who we are collectively. It is part of the American way.
To hear my pastor hit his stride on apostasy and apostates was to hear a little bit of history, the echoes of a Jonathan Edwards or George Whitfield, throwing the challenge out to his people. Put pastor under a tent and we’d be off to the races.

Publised as The Great American Awakenings in my blog, The Port Rail, in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday June 8, 2014