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The Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part One of Nine

By Shlomo Phillips © 1989 (last updated 12.12.2013)

Formerly known as The Fourth Great Awakening

           Note: This entire study is also available in a different format that makes the topics more easily accessable. That version can be found HERE.

America the Religious

Despite what many revisionist historians are now teaching, the United States was established firmly on religious principles and on the premise that each person should be free to practice religion as led by Divine Providence without government interference. While the theological views of the founders varied and included some Deists, John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States (appointed by George Washington, a staunch Christian and Sunday school teacher, in 1789) made the following statement about American religious life:

"It certainly is very desirable that a pacific [i.e. non-violent] disposition should prevail among all nations. The most effectual way of producing it is by extending the prevalence and influence of the gospel [i.e. faith in God as understood by Christendom]. Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war.
Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people [i.e. the Americans as a whole] the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers" (source and full letter).
At the same time, we must understand that we live in a radically different world today. Regardless of what our founders believed, the question confronting us today is what WE believe. What kind of society do we collectively wish to leave to our children and to theirs? In this determination, knowledge of religious history is vital, but we must not be governed by it. For religion to be meaningful it must have current relevance. If religion is to remain a significant element of human society each generation must struggle with it and determine its personal and communal practices. This is seldom a clean cut process, but then, it never was.

Consider this balanced wisdom by Paul Gottfried:

One of the stupidest historical debates I've ever tried to follow concerns the personal religious conviction of our founding father George Washington. Presently there seem to be two opposing schools of propagandists. They can be divided more or less into Beckites and Obamaites, and both seem obsessed with Washington's theological leanings....
Current attempts to understand the social-religious view of eighteenth-century Virginia gentlemen by relating them to modern-day fixations are an infantile project. The most we can hope to do by making comparative studies is to understand how different the past was from the present. Washington was no more a precursor of our egalitarian, post-Christian times than he was Donald Duck. And he could easily entertain theological doubts without wishing to hand over his country to cultural radicals, and especially not in a government that he would no longer have recognized as his. Equally important, his understanding of religion was anchored in non-modern social concepts, like deference and authority. Washington may have been the commander who finished the work begun with the Tea Party in 1773, but his solution in the end was as stately as the man himself and the holiday [i.e. U.S. Thanksgiving] he proclaimed (Source).
This is vital to understand. American religion was built on its inherited belief systems, but those systems was redesigned for the realities of the New World. Today what they viewed as the New World is no more new to us than their Old World was to them. We must determine who we are as a people and what role if any religion will play in our present day. With the rise of global Jihadi Islam and the decline of Christianity and its values systems this determination is as vital as ever. One Nation Under God

Although amended in 1954 (in response to the perceived threat of "godless Communism") to specifically include faith in "God" (undefined but contextually Judeo-Christian), the motto "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" expressed the convictions of the nation as a whole. To that nation as a social entity, being "religious" meant being a good and moral person who believed in Divine Providence from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective.

For Christians Divine Providence was dependant on the acceptence of the Christian faith. For Jews it was not as clearly defined, but had Torah observance at its basis. The religious guiding convictions of the day, even among the Deists, were deeply and firmly rooted in Torah, from within the Judeo-Christian paradigm. In the U.S. the two religions mainly peacefully co-existed and upon their essential values "New Zion" (i.e. the United States) was established and prospered.

When considering the development of religion in the United States we therefore do well to begin with the Judeo-Christian ethics of the majority of the founders. Before doing this however we will briefly consider the origins of those beliefs.

The Birth of American Religion

It can be said that Christian history begins with an unplanned pregnancy during the reign of Herod the Great (73/74 BCE - 4 BCE), the Roman client king of Judea. At that time an unmarried Jewish girl in her early to mid teens was "found to be with child." On or around Thursday, October 6, 7 BCE she gave birth to a son. I discuss the date of this birth elsewhere. According to the Christian New Testament the child was born in a sukkah or temporary hut. The Greek word used to convey this is phatne. (note 1) .This references the temporary shelters used by shepherds and lived in by Jews during the biblical holiday of Sukkot (as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt).

The baby was named Y'shua ben Yosef, which is to say "Yeshua son of Joseph." His father, whether biological or adoptive we do not know, was a religious Jew and a carpenter by trade. In the 1600's Y'shua's Greek name (Isous) was changed to Jesus for the English speaking world. His original Hebrew name (Y'shua) implies that the God of his people is the source of redmption. In Arabic his name is Isa.

Seemingly his parents realized that the mercy of the child's ancestral God would be his only hope of survival, let alone of a meaningful life. A mamser or child of uncertain birth and lineage, was at a marked disadvantage in First Century Judea. According to Matthew 1:21 an angel gave them his name to signify that through the child the Jewish people might be protected (sozo) from their offenses (hamartia). For Christians this indicates his potential as a significant spiritual leader among his people and the regard him as the universal savior (of all who personally accept him as such).

Under normal circumstances the child's questionable parentage would have resulted in the shunning of his mother (if not in her stoning). Conceived from a socially and scripturally forbidden union, Y'shua would have been branded a bastard and a mamser (this word has technical requirements that may or may not have applied to Y'shua). In any case he would have had little if any chance at living a meaningful life (Isaiah 57:3). In order to preserve the honor of the mother and future of the child Yosef (Joseph) married Miryam (Mary) before the child's birth.

According to most Christians Y'shua was none other than the Christ (the "Anointed"), the 'Son of the Living God', the Messiah of the Jews, God incarnate, and the origin of us all (Colossians 1:15). According to the Jews these claims are blasphemous, contrary to Torah and the prophets, and a violation of First Century and present Jewish belief and interpretation.

Jews reject these claims, in part, because Y'shua did not fulfill the messianic requirements. Verses such as Colossians 1:15 can be understood in different ways depending on the reader's religious paradigm. Jews point out that biblically the Messiah's mission is to restore and rule Israel from the Throne of King David, and yet Y'shua consistently refused all involvement in politics. He even said that "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). Prophetically the Messiah must bring all the Jews home to Israel and rule over them, and yet a mere 35 years after Y'shua's execution almost all the Jews were either slaughtered or forced into exile from Judea. Torah forbids human sacrifice and yet a human 'sacrifice' at the hands of Roman Pagans is the event they seek to establish their claims on. He was executed "outside of the city" and yet sacrifices must be performed at the Temple, in the City. How, our sages ask, could he possibly have been our Messiah when he met none of the requirements? Nonetheless, of him it is said:

"He is the most well-known historical figure in of all human history. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, have not affected the life of humankind upon this earth as much as this "One Solitary Life" -- Dr. James Allan Francis - 1926.
But is he the Messiah? What is commonly known about him is mainly the myth, not the man. Y'shua ben Yosef or Jesus remains the most misunderstood Jew in history, both by Christians and Jews alike. The United States and its foundational religious paradigm was firmly established on this myth.

The American founding father's sought to establish a nation, built on this myth, in which all people would be free to interprete and apply the Christian religious principles as each saw fit, free from Papal or other hierarchical influences, including those of the national and state governments ("Congress shall make no laws concerning the establishment of religion nor the free excercize thereof").

Impact of the American Religious Experience

Since the days of Rome's usurpation of the Way Jewish Movement begun by Y'shua and his disciples, Western religion has focused on and debated the fundamental nature of Jesus' birth and the proper human response to it. These religious debates, revivals and awakenings impacted every aspect of American life and beyond. Even in the East these revivals had significant impact. For instance there can be little doubt that the popularity of Indian bhakti-yoga (i.e. the Hindu Path of Devotion), Pure Land Buddhism, Sikhism and other Eastern teachings became more popular and advanced because of the Christian awakenings.

Judaism, the other major religion in the West, was also developing new insights during these years. Unlike Christianity Judaism tended to look inward rather than outward. Jews were understandably wary of non-Jews due to the rampant persecution and anti-Semitism they faced. Historically no religion was more dangerous to Jewish survival than Christianity. Other religions sought to kill the Jewish body, but the New Religion (i.e. Christianity) was determined to kill its soul through its relentless missionary activities.

For this reason, in part, Judaism has historically been one of the few non-missionary religions. There were splendid debates, revelations and awakenings within Klal Israel over the past 2000 years, however the overall impact of these on society at large was much less influential. For instance, the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer), who lived 1698 - 1760, had a profound and lasting impact on Judaism and yet few non-Jews have ever heard of him or his key successors like Rebbe Nachman, the Lubavitcher Rebbes, et al. For most of American history the question was asked: Do you accept Jesus or aren't you religious?

Eastern Influences

Once Roman Universalism (i.e. Catholicism) was established, very little meaningful dialogue occurred between Christian and non-Christian philosophers or religionists other than during missionary attempts. As the Church became all powerful it successfully silenced all opposing voices, at least for a time. One thing that makes our current time unique to the American religious experience is the degree of non-Christian participation (CE 3).

It can be argued that the reemergence of Islam as the largest world religion (when Catholicism and Protestantism are viewed as separate religions as the Vatican does), the growing popularity of Eastern concepts (if not the religions themselves), and the clearly fading influence and embrace of Christianity, is now setting the agenda of a new and very different religious awakening.

During the Third Great Awakening, as will be discussed below, Eastern traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, entered the dialogue as religious novelties. It was not until the 1960's and 70's however that they began exercising any real influence in the American experience. Concepts such as karma, transmigration (reincarnation), ahimsa (non-violence), yoga (both its original spiritual meaning of yoking to the gods as well as its popular physical excercies form), meditation, ying and yang, and the like are all basic Eastern ideas that are broadly incorporated into Western culture and religion (note 2) .

These influences are having profound impacts on Western material and spiritual conceptions of reality and perspectives about the nature of God. A significant number of American Jews today are even being referred to Bu-Jews (i.e. Buddhist oriented Jews). Many non-Orthodox synagogues even offer yoga classes today!

The secular sciences are also moving toward the embrace of more eastern approaches as we see from Chaos and String theory (which are quite similar to Samhkya and certain Buddhist concepts).

Most Christians and Jews have never really studied the Bible to determine its teachings. Fewer still have explored Talmud, the Chassidic writings and so on. Most know very little about the rich religious traditions they have inherited from the past that established the Western nations. This is fundamentally altering the American religious experience.

The times are changing. The designations of East and West are far more fluid now than they have ever been (MiD 199). Throughout recorded history explorers and other travelers circumambulated the globe in search of the exotic. They occasionally discovered regions with little or no outside contact with the West, however these isolated communities were already hard to find by the 1800's (S 13,14). The world is a much smaller place than it was in in 1776!

Sikhism (AKA the Sant Mat) is a good example of a once 'alien' religion that is now making a place for itself in the West. The bearded, turban wear Sikhs with their long swords were once considered exotic. Today we seldom notice them. They have become part of the American tapestry.

Judaism is no longer the second largest religion in the U.S. About half of the world's Jews died in the Shoah (i.e. the European Holocaust). Many of the survivors came to the United States after the war. Today about half of the world's Jews have returned to Israel, including many from the United States. About 5.3 million Jews (which is about 2.2% of the U.S. population) now live in the United States. The US is second only to Israel in the number of Jewish citizens (many hold dual Israeli-US citizenships).

Islam is now is the second largest religion in the U.S. 2.11% of the U.S. population self identify as Muslim. This number is growing quickly. The figure above for Jews includes both the religious and non-religious while these figures refer to all Muslims, most of whom are religious (most U.S. Jews are not religious). Religious Muslims therefore outnumber religious Jews by an uncertain but considerable margin.

For most modern Secular Americans Judaism and Islam are simply two of the many "alternative religions." While many feel that none of the religions have any objective validity or worth, Judaism and Christianity are more and more commonly being viewed as negative social elements and as barriers to peace. Once again, the nations are turning against the Jews and anti-Semitism is rising at an alarming rate in the United States as in the rest of the world. Chairman Mao's statement that "religion is the opiate of the people" is becoming a widespread perspective among many Americans, especially the young adults.


Many Westerners, including many American Jews and Christians, are seeking new, less demanding, more inclusive, religious consciousness and forms. The growing communication with the East, its own embrace of Globalism (which is destroying Eastern traditional culture) is seen by many as critical in developing a widely desired global secular religion and political union. Through uniting the diverse religions and countries into a proposed Global Union of Nations many believe they have found the Path to Peace.

However Globalism has been tried before (remember the 1930's?) and it will work no better this time (Genesis 11:9)! This Path will certainly seal our downfall as once free countries if it is not halted. As the saying goes: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely!

As we read in Talmud:

Sanhedrin Folio 97a: ...Thus hath R. Johanan said: in the generation when the son of David [i.e. Messiah] will come, scholars will be few in number, and as for the rest, their eyes will fail through sorrow and grief. Multitudes of trouble and evil decrees will be promulgated anew, each new evil coming with haste before the other has ended.'...

Sanhedrin 97b: ... Rab said: All the predestined dates [for redemption] have passed, and the matter [i.e. of the redemption] [now] depends only on repentance and good deeds...
R. Eliezer said: if Israel repent, they will be redeemed; if not, they will not be redeemed.
R. Joshua said to him, if they do not repent, will they not be redeemed! [i.e. this is not so] But the Holy One, blessed be He, will set up a king over them, whose decrees shall be as cruel as those of Haman, whereby Israel shall engage in repentance, and he will thus bring them back to the right path.

Is Globalism and Multi-culturalism laying the foundation for this planetary despot who will be 'more cruel than haman'? Similarities between this and Christian New Testament prophecies of the coming Rex Mundi (global potentate) are obvious (note that this is not a topic most Jews focus on nor are even aware of). Still the world careens onward into the fog and American religious experience is an intrisinct element of what is happening.

At least as far back as the Persian ruler Darius I (c.500 B.C.E.), the West has had first hand knowledge of basic Eastern concepts. It has long desired to incorporate these (note 3). By the time Alexander the Great conquered Darius III (Codomannus) at the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C.E. Western influence was permanently established in India (HA 6,7). Even the Buddhist architecture of Ashoka, with its pillars and winged lions owed much to Western influence (S 13,14). Indeed, the link between India and the West, in architecture, Indo-European language, economics, religion, and philosophy is of great antiquity and is still growing.

After the Roman Christian subjugation of Europe the exchange of ideas between what was then considered the Christian West and the Heathen East was largely halted except for missionary work. As Rick Fields points out, in the West the Buddhists, regardless of how pure their ideals or sound their ethics may have been, were condemned as unrepentant sinners destined for eternal torment. Eastern thought was almost universally rejected in the West and most communication ceased for hundreds of years (S 20).

It would be incorrect to say however that during the Church's theocratic stranglehold on the West only its missionaries confronted Eastern religionists. While contact was minimal, it did occur. For instance, there were the travels of explorers such as Marco Polo (1254-1324). La Loubere, King Louis the XIV's envoy to the king of Siam (1678-1679), discussed the intellectually challenging concept of nirvana in his Description du Royaume de Siam (S 24). Likewise, in 1727 Englebert Kampfer in his History of Japan Together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam published the first English book on Zen Buddhism. He introduced zazen, satori and Koans to the West (S 24,25; note 4). Despite these exceptions, due to the religious exclusivity that typified Medieval Christianity, meaningful dialogue between East and West remained infrequent until the Third Great Awakening in late nineteenth century. More on this below.

The Noahide Church

According to Acts 1:4 and 2:1, the Jewish Way sect of Y'shua ben Yosef formally began in Jerusalem on Shavu'ot, the Festival of Weeks. This day is also called Hag ha-Bikkurim (the Festival of First Fruits), as well as the Day of Pentecost. To be clear, the Christian festival of Pentecost is not observed as described at Leviticus 23:15 and bears little similarity to it. None of the Christian holidays are biblically founded.

Y'shua's brother James led the first century disciples and sent missionaries out into the Diaspora. The others were answerable to James as 'chief rabbi' of the sect. Through the efforts of the Twelve Disciples (especially Peter and Paul), the Way Movement quickly spread throughout Judea (renamed Philistia by the Romans after Greek Cyrian immigrants), Syria, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, North Africa, Italy, Spain and points beyond.

As the sect gained momentum the Way attracted ever more non-Jewish followers and by the 2nd century it had become a primarily Noahide (i.e. monotheistic non-Jewish) sect only marginally associated with Judaism. Most of its members and elders were no longer Jewish nor identified with Klal Y'israel. John warns his Jewish friends about this developing sect which he calls the Nicolaitan here:

Revelation 2:9 ... I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
3:9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
Verse 15 may have been in reference to Zechariah 8:23 that speaks of the non-Jews going to the Jews for truth in the Olam Haba (or World to Come).

Under the leadership of James (Acts 1:4 and 2:1) most Gentile followers of the sect observed Torah as Noahidim. To educate the newcomers, in the late middle first century CE James established a sub-movement based on the Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach: the Seven Noahide Laws for these people. This is discussed at Acts chapter 15.

Within three hundred years of its inception, the Jewish Way Movement had been usurped by the Romans and ceased to exist as part of Judaism. The New Religion that arose from its shadow became the dominant religious and political force of the Roman Empire throughout the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Over the next six hundred years the new religion spread like wildfire, largely through the Roman sword and coercion. Jews did not fare well under this expanding Christian reign.

The Rise of Islam

With the rise of Islam circa 624-733 CE the Church faced stiff competition for the hearts, minds, bodies and souls of the world.

Shortly after the death of Muhammad Mustafa (June 8, 632), on August 26, 636 Byzantine fell before the Muslim armies at the battle of Yarmouk and then all of Syria was taken to the Taurus. In February 637, the Zoroastrian Persian army was devastated at Qadasiya, just south of Hira. All of Iraq was then occupied by the Muslim armies, including Ctesiphon, its capital (just south of Baghdad, near the believed location of the Garden of Eden). In 640 Egypt was occupied and that same year the once mighty Persian Empire ceased to exist. The mighty religion of Zoroastrianism then began to wane and never recovered (IWH 377-398). The impact of Zoroastrian concepts on Islam and Christianity can not be overstated.

Between 661 and 750 CE the armies of the Islamic Ummah conquered a large portion of the known world, China excepted. Determined that Shariah (note 5) would be submitted to by all the earth (islam is Arabic for submission), the forces of Islam moved boldly into Europe with seemingly unstoppable force. The Christian world was being directly threatened and began to teeter.

The advance of the Islamic Caliphate was finally halted in 732 at Tours in central France. The conquering Christian forces were composed of a "stout hearted army of Franks" and their leader Charles Martel (grandfather of Charlemagne). This single battle determined the religious and political future of Europe and, indirectly, of the U.S.

Because of Martel's defeat of political Islam, the West remained in the hands of the Christian Church while much of the East became the domain of Islam (PWB 445).

The Church Divided

In what remained of the embattled Roman Christian Empire the Church was divided into two main bodies. The Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church was centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul in northwest Turkey), and the Roman Orthodox Catholic Church, remained centered in Rome (RNA 54). Both of these religious bodies can trace their origins to Emperor Constantine by whose authority Christianity was established and under whose edicts the Way of Y'shua and his disciples died. The New Universal Roman Religion has little in common with the Judaism of Y'shua and his followers.

The famed Jerusalem Rebbe Gamaliel was shown to be correct in his estamation of the new movement (Acts 5:34-40). Without rabbinic authority and maintaining the Jewish traditions the Way sect was unable to survive. The religion known as Christianity bears little theological association with the doctrines espoused by Y'shua, James, Peter and Paul as the following video from Jews For Judaism discusses:

The Awakenings

From the Battle of Tours until the 1960's Christianity remained the indisputable religious, social and legal authority of Western society. It is not surprising therefore that most of what are termed spiritual awakenings, as well as the revivals that occur within them, have taken place within the Christian arena (RNA 10). By this I mean that for the most part the historic Western awakenings began as reform movements within the Christian communities.

As we will see as we continue, there were significant exceptions to this such as the rise of Chassidus among the Jews.

Continue with Part Two