The Great Awakenings

Posted on October 15, 2016


Last week we mentioned seeing the man by the side of the highway in Cottondale with his sign “Repent!” I suggested that we are all heirs or descendants, in one form or another of his message. We may think he’s nuts, or, conversely, we may think he’s the Cottondale prophet. Or, perhaps we are just not quite sure where to squirrel him away in our brain boxes.

I’m not sure which box he belongs in either, but he makes his point, and in doing so joins a huge stream of American people who have taken up the call to awaken and restore the faith over the centuries.

In today’s complicated world, with the added dilemma of choosing a president among two candidates who hurl accusations like in a barroom brawl, we sometimes don’t know where to turn for peace and truth, for morality and good behavior, for a lot of things we treasure but seem to have lost.

Let me gently suggest that much of what we know to be good and desirable issues from our Christian faith, although Christians themselves can be a prickly, unlovely, severe and hypocritical bunch.

But, to save us from ourselves, in our faith is imbedded the need to constantly reappraise who we are and what we do.

Ergo, the need for “awakenings” to restore the true dimensions and nature and doctrines of Christianity.

The First Great Awakening in America broke out in the eighteenth century when rationalism was on the rise and religion on the decline. Great preachers like Jonathan Edwards awoke their listeners to the terrors of sin and eternal damnation, and in this spirit of revival was born some of the great modern denominations like the Methodists.

In the 1820s and 1840s another revival swept through the land as preachers examined their flocks and turned to an emotional and enthusiastic appeal to the Holy Spirit to awaken their congregations. The Baptists and Methodists multiplied across the land.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the third Great Awakening took religion out of the churches and revival tents and applied Christian doctrines and power to ameliorate the conditions created by industrialization and urbanization. The social gospel was born. The physical boundaries of the old church were broken and Christians took to the streets.

A fourth Great Awakening started in the second half of the twentieth century, and is still alive and underway today. Evangelical Christians, generally labeled charismatics or Pentecostals, turned to the words and promises of Scripture in the areas of healing, miracles, prophets, tongues and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

Their goal was nothing less than to revitalize Christian worship which was frozen in forms and mired in traditions which emphasized continuity, rituals, and creeds rather than the spontaneous movements of the Holy Spirit.

Denominations split apart, new “Word” churches emphasizing the power of the Holy Spirit were formed, “Spirit-filled” congregations challenged the older forms of worship, and they rejected the denominational structures of Protestantism which seemed dry, sterile, and empty of the power of the Holy Spirit.

This fourth Great Awakening has drawn from the early Church to study and practice the faith as it was established early in the first century or two of its existence. In a way, it was following the path pioneered by Martin Luther almost exactly five hundred years ago when he published his criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, and so triggered the Protestant Reformation.

We are in the midst of such a revolutionary change in Christianity, but it is an “awakening” similar to its predecessors, seeking to restore Christian worship, doctrine and meaning to its origins.

Secular society sees most religion as hopelessly adrift from the realities of the world. The new non-denominational churches, on the other hand, have returned to the realities, and powers and promises, of the old faith, reinterpreted with evangelical fervor within the lights and sounds and music of the younger generation’s culture.

Perhaps we could sponsor a major, international exposition in 2017 of this new phenomenon, the Fourth Great Awakening.

Do it right here in the heart of the Bible Belt, right here within the heart of a major university– if it has the integrity and guts– like the University of Chicago has recently expressed, to open its doors and its community to true and open inquiry.

Examine the new Christianity flourishing and transforming our American culture. That would be a magnificent stroke for what higher education is all about.