[Part 1 in the Revival and Reform series]
Imagine an America where the church has almost no impact on the culture. Ivy League students–the leaders of tomorrow–are polled and those who profess faith in Christ are in the single digits. Nationwide, church attendance hovers between 5 and 10%. In the public mind, our nationalistic pursuits outweigh spiritual concerns. Science, reason, and technology have relegated religion to the margins as categorically superstitious and superfluous. Public morals are out of control–public intoxication is rampant, abuse of the vulnerable pervasive, and bigotry acceptable.
While this may or may not depict where our nation is going, it certainly describes where we have been. This was American life in the years between the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the end of the 18th century.
Then around 1800, from the learned halls of Yale College to the raucous camp meetings of Kentucky, revival broke out. God brought about a Second Great Awakening to our nation, and it would shape our religious landscape more than any movement since.
I will be dedicating a number of articles to this period of our spiritual and national history. This is not because the key human players in the Second Great Awakening–Charles G. Finney, Barton Stone, and Francis Asbury–are theological heroes of mine. Their theology was decidedly antagonistic to the theology I love, that espoused by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield in the First Great Awakening. Nor is it because I believe the “new measures” of revival galvanized during the Second Great Awakening–alter calls and anxious benches–should be adopted in our day.
Rather, my interest in this era is the particular way in which the ministers of the early and mid-19th century held an equal passion for the eternal destiny of individuals and the moral good of our nation. The Second Great Awakening birthed not only spiritual experiences but social justice movements. There was no tension between calling sinners to repentance and calling our nation to repent from her sins of the slave trade, the abuse of alcohol, the neglect of educating our children, and withholding rights from women.
Today we bear the name “evangelical,” and as we look back at our history, we should identify the parts we want to duplicate and those we should jettison. A thorough reading of 19th century religious history would identify many bones to spit out, but the meat of evangelistic fervor and social engagement gives us much to chew.
Mark Noll’s words from A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada capture what made this period of time a past worth repeating: “Antebellum America was ‘evangelical’ not because every feature of life in every region in the United States was thoroughly dominated by evangelical Protestants but because so much of the visible public activity, so great a proportion of the learned culture, and so many dynamic organizations were products of evangelical conviction.”
May God bring about such a movement in our day.