Evangelicalism, Revivalism, And the Second Great Awakening

Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening, The Ninete…Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center 4/7/09 3:26 PM from the National Humanities Center NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 19th Century Essay: Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening Donald Scott Queens College / City University of New York © National Humanities Center Links to online resources Nineteenth century America contained a bewildering array of Protes
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  4/7/09 3:26 PMEvangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening, The Ninete…Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities CenterPage 1 of 6 fromtheNationalHumanitiesCenter NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 19th Century Essay: Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second GreatAwakening Donald ScottQueens College / City University of New York © National Humanities Center Links to online resources Nineteenth century America contained a bewildering array of Protestant sectsand denominations, with different doctrines, practices, and organizational forms.But by the 1830s almost all of these bodies had a deep evangelical emphasis incommon. Protestantism has always contained an important evangelical strain,but it was in the nineteenth century that a particular style of evangelicalismbecame the dominant form of spiritual expression. What above all elsecharacterized this evangelicalism was its dynamism, the pervasive sense of activist energy it released. As Charles Grandison Finney, the leading evangelicalof mid-nineteenth century America, put it: religion is the work of man, it issomething for man to do. This evangelical activism involved an importantdoctrinal shift away from the predominately Calvinist orientation that hadcharacterized much of eighteenth-century American Christianity. Eighteenth-century Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield had stressed thesinful nature of humans and their utter incapacity to overcome this naturewithout the direct action of the grace of God working through the Holy Spirit.Salvation was purely in God's hands, something he dispensed as he saw fit forhis own reasons. Nineteenth-century evangelicals like Finney, or LymanBeecher, or Francis Asbury, were no less unrelenting in their emphasis on theterrible sinfulness of humans. But they f ocused on sin as human action. For all they preached hellfire and damnation, they nonetheless harbored an unshakablepractical belief in the capacity of humans for moral action, in the ability of humans to turn away from sinful behavior and embrace moral action. Whatevertheir particular doctrinal stance, most nineteenth-century evangelicals preached a kind of practical Arminianism which emphasized the duty and ability of sinnersto repent and desist from sin. Conversion  4/7/09 3:26 PMEvangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening, The Ninete…Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities CenterPage 2 of 6 The core of nineteenth-century evangelicalism was the experience of conversion.Conversion was compelled by a set of clear ideas about the innate sinfulness of humans after Adam's fall, the omnipotence of God--his awful power and hismercy--and, finally, the promise of salvation for fallen humankind throughChrist's death on the cross as the atonement for human sin. But what studentsneed to understand is that conversion was an experience. It was not simplysomething that people believed--though belief or faith was essential to it--butsomething that happened to them, a real, intensely emotional event they wentthrough and experienced as a profound psychological transformation left themwith a fundamentally altered sense of self, an identity as a new kind of Christian. As they interpreted it, they had undergone spiritual rebirth, the deathof an old self and the birth of a new one that fundamentally transformed theirsense of their relationship to the world.Conversion consisted of a sequence of clearly mapped-out steps, each of whichwas accompanied by a powerful emotion that led the penitent from the terror of eternal damnation through redemption to the promise of heavenly salvation. Theprocess of conversion characteristically began in a state of concern about thestate of one's soul and inquiry into what were called the doctrines of salvationpropelled by the question what can I do to be saved? This led to a state of acute spiritual anxiety, marked by deep fear over the prospect of eternaldamnation, which in turn grew into an unmistakable sense of conviction, theheartfelt realization that one stood justly condemned for one's sins and deservedeternal damnation. Conviction was the terrifying point of recognition that nomatter how much one might desire it, there was absolutely nothing one could doto earn salvation. But there was something the penitent could do, indeed, wasbound to do. That was to fully repent and surrender unconditionally to God's willto do with as he saw fit and to serve him fully. It was this act of repentance,surrender, and dedication to serving his will that Finney meant when in his mostfamous sermon he insisted that sinners [are] bound to change their own hearts. This moment of renunciation of sin and the abject surrender to the will to Godwas the moment of conversion, if it was to come, the moment at which, throughthe promise of Christ's atonement for human sin, a merciful God would bestowhis grace upon the repentant sinner. Guiding Student Discussion It is important to stress to your students the importance of the emotional statethat signaled that one had received divine grace and was a converted Christian.People recognized the fact of conversion by the power and character of theemotions that accompanied it, that made it an emotional catharsis, a heartfeltrebirth. Most characteristically, conversion, often accompanied by tears,provoked a deep sense of humility and peace marked by an overwhelming senseof love toward God, a sense that one had entered a wholly new state of being--defined as a state of regeneration--that was the utter opposite of the state of   4/7/09 3:26 PMEvangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening, The Ninete…Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities CenterPage 3 of 6 willfulness, torment, and anxiety that had accompanied unregeneracy. Theconvert entered a new spiritual state referred to as regeneracy and sanctificationin which the paramount desire was to do God's will, a desire expressed almostimmediately in active concern for the conversion of family, friends, and evenstrangers who remained unconverted. Indeed, the most important sign of sanctification was the degree of one's willingness to enlist in the ongoingevangelical campaign to convert the world. (For further discussion of theevangelical convert's role in the world see under Nineteenth Century, Evangelicalism as a Social Movement.) Revivalism and the Second Great Awakening A second distinguishing feature of nineteenth-century evangelicalism was itsapproach to religious revivals. The phrase religious revival was srcinallycoined in the eighteenth century to describe a new phenomenon in whichchurches experienced an unexpected awakening of spiritual concern,occasioned by a special and mysterious outpouring of God's saving grace, whichled to unprecedented numbers of intense and surprising conversions that revived the piety and power of the churches. In the early nineteenth century,however, as the revival became a central instrument for provokingconversions, it became as much a human as a divine event. In the terms of Charles Grandison Finney, a revival was something preachers andcommunicants did. It was a deliberately orchestrated event that deployed avariety of spiritual practices to provoke conversions especially among theunconverted youth (men and women between 15 and 30) in the community.The new, self-consciously wrought revivals took several forms. They firstemerged at the turn of the eighteenth century with the invention of the campmeeting in western Virginia and North Carolina and on the Kentucky and Ohiofrontier by Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. At these meetings, the mostfamous (or notorious) of which took place at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801,hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would gather from miles around ina wilderness encampment for four days to a week. There they engaged in anunrelenting series of intense spiritual exercises, punctuated with cries of religious agony and ecstasy, all designed to promote religious fervor andconversions. These exercises ranged from the singing of hymns addressed toeach of the spiritual stages that marked the journey to conversion, publicconfessions and renunciations of sin and personal witness to the workings of thespirit, collective prayer, all of which were surrounded by sermons delivered byclergymen especially noted for their powerful plain-speaking preaching. Thesecond, major variant of the new revivalism consisted of the protractedmeetings most often associated with the new measures revivalism of Finneybut which by the late l820s had become the characteristic form of most northernand western revivalism. Protracted meetings, ordinarily conducted once a yearat a time when they would be less disruptive of ordinary life, usually lasted two  4/7/09 3:26 PMEvangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening, The Ninete…Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities CenterPage 4 of 6 to three weeks, during which time there would be preaching two or three timeseach day, addressed especially to the anxious penitents who would gather on an anxious bench at the front of the church to be prayed for by the congregation,and prayer and counseling visits by newly converted Christians to the concernedand anxious. Once a person had gone through the experience of conversion andrebirth, he or she would join the ranks of visitors and exhorters, themselvesbecoming evangelists for the still unconverted around them.One important result of the new revivalism was a further erosion of olderCalvinist beliefs, especially the doctrine of predestination. (For information onCalvinism and predestination see under Seventeenth and EighteenthCenturies, Puritanism and Predestination.) Although some evangelicalclergymen did not abandon the idea of predestination entirely (the idea that Godhad preordained who would be saved and who would not was, after all, a logicalextension of the conception of God as an eternal, omniscient, and omnipotentbeing), in practical terms they held out what amounted to an idea of universalsalvation. Most Methodist clergymen came pretty close to embracing the idea of universalism which held that Christ's atonement was potentially universal,available without restriction to all who would repent and surrender to God.Alexander Campbell, the founder of the Church of Christ, made universalism thehallmark of his doctrinal system.This new style of evangelicalism consisted of more than a doctrinal anddevotional emphasis and a set of proselytizing strategies. It has to be understoodas a vast and powerful religious movement. By the l820s evangelicalism hadbecome one of the most dynamic and important cultural forces in American life.It is here that another important term comes into play--the Second GreatAwakening --the term evangelical leaders adopted to talk of the revivalism andevangelical fervor they found themselves in the midst of. The label sought todescribe a broad religious phenomenon that transcended sectarian anddenominational boundaries. Most clergymen (and communicants as well) hadspecific denominational affiliations. But just as the seventeenth-century Puritanssaw their Massachusetts Bay experiment as the spearhead of a broadermovement to reform Protestantism itself, so too did nineteenth-centuryevangelicals consider themselves participants in a much broader spiritualmovement to evangelize the nation and world. Secondly, they used the idea of aSecond Great Awakening to signify their participation in an extraordinaryreligious phenomenon. The label linked them directly to a special heroic history,namely the great eighteenth-century spiritual outpouring (which they themselvesfirst designated the srcinal or First Great Awakening) associated with suchfigures as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Tennants. Theirs, too,seemed a period marked by a special and extraordinary outpouring of God'sSaving Grace, a period that placed a special burden of responsibility onministers of God and saved Christians alike to enlist themselves wholeheartedlyin the work of extending God's Kingdom. Finally, this sense of participation inand responsibility for the vast outpouring of Saving Grace promoted a sense of direct connection to the ultimate teleological goal of Christian history, namely,
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