American society periodically weathers de-cades-long storms of moral renovation set off by thunderclaps of Christian evangelism. Old spiritual and moral doctrines get reinterpreted in a new light, producing far-ranging, and not always welcome, political change. Scholars commonly refer to these tumultuous periods as “Great Awakenings.”
Historians date the First Great Awakening to the mid-18th century, when widespread Presbyterian and Baptist revivals helped beget the American Revolution. The second came in the early 19th century, when evangelical Christians launched temperance, abolitionist, and other reform movements, culminating in the Civil War. The third was a response to Darwinian theory and to the social problems caused by rapid industrialization and urbanization in the late 19th century, ending with the Progressive Era in the early 20th century. The fourth unleashed the “culture war” that began in the 1960s and has dominated political debate ever since. But thankfully, there are signs that the Fourth Great Awakening is finally coming to a close. Among other beneficial side effects, this ending of an era likely will reduce calls for censorship and other legal intrusions into private activities while broadening tolerance for new and different ways of life.
Historian William McLoughlin, in his 1978 book Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977, defined awakenings as “periods of ideological transformation.” They “begin in periods of cultural distortion and grave personal stress, when we lose faith in the legitimacy of our norms, the viability of our institutions, and the authority of our leaders in church and state,” McLoughlin wrote. “They eventuate in basic restructuring of our institutions and redefinitions of our social goals.”
The Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Fogel, in his 2000 book The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, posited that Great Awakenings “are primarily political phenomena in which the evangelical churches represent the leading edge of an ideological and political response to the accumulated technological, economic, and social changes that undermined the received culture.” Awakenings, Fogel maintains, go through three phases: revival, when cultural stresses produce religious revitalization movements; reform, when activists persuade governments to adopt moral improvement programs; and resistance, when religious fervor wanes and the forces of moralization encounter stiffened cultural opposition.
The Fourth Great Awakening has reached the stage where moral hectoring is being resisted. The once politically potent Moral Majority has disappeared, and the Christian Coalition is a shadow of its former self, its membership down from millions to tens of thousands. Voters have tossed out such Bible-thumpers as Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.), Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), and Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.). Evangelical political projects have failed around the country, from a ballot measure to prohibit abortion in South Dakota to a Missouri initiative to ban embryonic stem-cell research. The Kansas state school board has repealed guidelines that had questioned biological evolution.
These developments may be glimmers of the Fourth Great
Awakening’s impending demise. But there is a darker possibility as
well: that the awakening is merely mutating into a more left-wing
phase of moralizing.
The First Awakening
The First Great Awakening erupted in Great Britain and its American colonies in the 1730s. Preachers such as the English Methodist George Whitefield and the New England Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards began to soften the harsh Calvinist doctrine that only a few predestined elect would be admitted into the joys of Heaven while the majority of born sinners headed straight to Hell. Whitefield and Edwards stressed God’s willingness to save those who had truly repented of their sins. During revival meetings, repentant sinners experienced an emotional “new birth.”
The revivalists urged believers to trust their own experiences rather than depend on the authority of corrupt church officials. Consequently, many converts defied traditional authorities in asserting their new convictions. This spirit of defiance also led many Americans to challenge the colonies’ tax-supported churches as inimical to freedom of conscience.
The theological idea that all people were equal in the sight of God had other political implications. If everyone is equal before God, on what grounds could elites claim moral or political superiority? As the Protestant minister Elisha Williams put it in 1744, “Every man has an equal right to follow the dictates of his own conscience in the affairs of religion…even an equal right with any rulers be they civil or ecclesiastical.” By teaching citizens to question both church and civil authorities, the First Great Awakening helped unleash the American Revolution.
The period of resistance to reform, to use Fogel’s schema, took off after the Revolution. Paradoxically, as religious tolerance became widespread, religious enthusiasm waned. By 1790 only 5 percent to 10 percent of the adult population belonged to formal churches. Both the democratic spirit and the call of the frontier loosened American morals. In their 1982 book Drinking in America, the historians Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin described the period from the 1790s until the early 1830s as “probably the heaviest drinking era in the nation’s history.” In 1800 the mean absolute alcohol intake for Americans 15 years and older was 5.8 gallons per year. By 1830 that had risen to 7.1 gallons per person, of which 4.3 gallons were hard liquor and 2.8 were beer, cider, or wine. The historian W.J. Rorabaugh argued in The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (1979) that post-Revolutionary Americans regarded heavy drinking as their right as free people. As Lender and Martin summarized Rorabaugh’s argument, “a personal binge…was in a sense an assertion of individuality, a freedom from communal restraints. Even the drunkard, in essence, was a pluralist—free under the laws of the nation to pursue his or her own lifestyle no matter what others thought.”
In American Metropolis: A History of New York City (1999), the historian George Lankevich estimated that 1820 New York, with a population of 124,000 people, was home to 2,500 saloons—one bar for every 50 residents. Today, by comparison, there are just over 10,000 licensed bars, restaurants and nightclubs in a city of more than 8 million people—one bar for every 800 residents.
Prostitution also became common in cities during the period of the First Great Awakening. By 1831 moral reformers improbably claimed that New York City was home to some 10,000 prostitutes; that would have been 27 percent of the city’s young female population. The historian Timothy Gilfoyle offered a more reasonable, and still quite high, estimate in his 1992 book City of Eros: “five to 10 percent of all nineteenth-century young women in New York (between 15 and 30 years of age) prostituted at some point.” Whatever the number, it was clear that the fire-and-brimstone religious revival ushered in by the likes of Jonathan Edwards had become a distant memory in the wake of the revolution it helped inspire.
The Second Awakening
Even as Americans were enjoying themselves in barrooms and brothels, the revival phase of the Second Great Awakening was gathering strength. When Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, became president of Yale, the vast majority of students described themselves as skeptics. But through a series of powerful sermons beginning in 1801, Dwight revived Christianity on campus. About the same time, Methodist camp revivals were taking root in the trans-Appalachian West.
These revivalists completely rejected Calvinist predestination in favor of free moral agency, arguing that anyone could be saved by God’s grace if he struggled fiercely against sin. Evil arose from an individual’s conscious choice, not, as Calvin had claimed, from his innate depravity. Since everyone was free to choose good or evil, the revivalists located the source of social problems in individuals. “Lurking in this view,” Fogel writes, “was the belief that poverty was the wages of sin.”
The Second Great Awakening fostered the rise of numerous single-issue organizations advocating programs of moral and political uplift, from temperance in alcohol to the abolition of prostitution to official enforcement of the Sabbath. The temperance movement proved so successful that per capita alcohol consumption fell by more than 50 percent between 1830 and 1840.
All this took place against a background of mass immigration, especially from Ireland. Some reformers feared the tide of alien Catholics would overwhelm and outbreed America’s Protestant majority. Thus arose a campaign to ban abortions, led by the newly formed American Medical Association. (In the early 1800s American women were legally free to terminate a pregnancy until quickening—that is, until fetal movement in the womb could be felt.) The Boston physician Horatio Storer kicked the anti-abortion campaign into high gear in 1855, a full 14 years before the Vatican definitively forbade abortion for Roman Catholics. “The fashionable young bride, accustomed to adulation, is reluctant to forego at once the excitement of society,” he warned. “Wishing still to enjoy the immunities of unmarried life—to be as free, as unshackled as ever—she will not endure the seclusion and deprivations necessarily connected with the pregnant condition, but resorts to means, readily procurable, to destroy the life within her.”