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The Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Three of Nine

By Shlomo Phillips © 1989 (last updated 12.23.2013)

The Awakenings

Return to Part One

More on Das Aufklarung: The Enlightenment

Secular Humanism

The human equality and personal responsibility principles of the Enlightenment discussed previously exercised profound influence on the minds and philosophies of the American Founders. Under the influence of this new line of thought it became fashionable to ridicule the so-called superstitions and dogmatism of Western religion, while developing an ethnic appreciation for those of the East. The popular religious respect and tolerance of the past was being transformed into intellectual and secular pomposity. From this arrogant trend arose the neo-religion of Secular Humanism.

Christian and Jewish theology and religious piety was systematically being replaced by a materialistic belief in the fundamental goodness of nature. Any meaningful belief in God was quickly waning both in concept and in practice. This trend is exemplified in Haskalah as discussed before. The dawning Humanist world view was championed by people such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28 1712 – July 2 1778). The religion of the day, at least in intellectual circles, was a nature-based panentheism exemplified by the words of the poet Thomas Gray: "Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry" (DRP 218) (note 18). The depth of this growing neo-Pagan paradigm was threatening both traditional religious faith as well as the rationalism of the eighteenth century as the nineteenth dawned.

Ironically its proponents considered themselves to be the most rational generation in history. The world was rushing to replace tradition and religious faith with the secular sciences and they felt it was about time. This intended transition from cold reason to a more tender turn of the heart produced a wide array of philosophical fruit. In Kierkegaard's satire against the rationalism of Hegel, the appreciation of patristic and medieval Christian values among the English Tractarians and others, and the emphasis of religious feeling in the works of people such as Schleiermacher and Chateaubriand we see evidence of this transition in perspective. As is always the case, there were pros and cons to this growing trend.

Romanticism and the First Great Awakening

What is known as the Romantic era (or Romanticism) began in Europe during the mid to late 1700's in response to Das Aufklärung (i.e. the Enlightenment discussed previously) and came to the Americas with the original settlers. While not rejecting rational thought entirely, this trend encouraged the artistic, literary, and emotional expression of it. The Enlightenment (Das Aufklärung) hailed a rational, intellectual humanism that Romanticism sought to infuse with emotion, thereby making it arguably more truly 'human'. The timing of these trends overlapped considerably.

Romanticism was intimately linked with the First Great Awakening. Some consider the terms to be interchangeable but I see a subtle distinction. Romanticism was not primarily concerned with the quest for religious/spiritual truth. Its aims were more broad than a spiritual awakening. Both the First Great Awakening and Romanticism were reactions to the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760-1840). Both trends challenged the hierarchical social and political assumptions of Das Aufklärung and Haskalah. In the Americas both trends were seeking something new to replace the old, something harmonious with Das Aufklärung and yet something uniquely American. Neither the post-Pagan scientific rationalizations proposed by the Enlightenment nor the authoritarian religious conventions of the Old World supported the aims of their New Zion.

As credence in the organized Church continued to wane, many religious leaders sought to bolster their authority during the Romantic Period by stressing the cultural, intellectual, traditional, and social aspects of their religious systems and structures. For many people embracing the new was viewed as a betrayal of the already endangered past and yet to others clinging stubbornly was foolish and short sighted. "New Zion" had to unite both perspectives.

Within Protestantism this transition is evidenced in Friedrich Schleiermacher's obvious attempts to reconcile the principles of das Aufklärung with Protestant Christianity. Schleiermacher (lived November 21, 1768 – February 12, 1834) is often considered the Father of Modern Liberal Christian Theology.

On the Catholic side we see this trend in the views of people like Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand (lived September 4, 1768 - July 4, 1848) who stressed the importance and beauty of Church tradition. As an unintended result of this philosophical and religious maneuvering, the American Church lost much of its vitality and moral certitude and never regained it. In the minds of the general Christian public a new and dangerous spiritual relativism was being embraced, one that failed to meet their essential needs (RE 91). The citizens of the New World were looking for a solid foundation upon which to build their new society. They were developing a world that would include personal freedom and responsibility while maintaining the important aspects of their Old World traditions. For many it now seemed the religions of the past were incapable of providing this. A new more 'American' religious expression was needed. Enter: Religious Humanism.

In the eyes of many Christians during this period, the Church had conclusively demonstrated that its primary concern was hierarchical material advancement rather than the propagation of the Gospel. Because of this common perception active participation in the churches and acceptance in its tenants began to decline among many of the Colonists. Others renewed their loyalty to their particular sect and harshly judged the rest as unworthy of the destiny intended by God for New Zion. Hellfire and damnation surely awaited all those who failed to embrace "true Christian piety'. Two different Americas were now emerging, one staunchly religious, the other 'religiously' secular.

This widely perceived hypocrisy, opportunism, and sectarianism still haunts the Church, both Catholic and Protestant. If the Christians can't agree among themselves then how can the world accept their Gospel Message? This was a growing and unanswerable question that threatened to destroy the Church's authority.

It was mentioned earlier that Christian Fundamentalism seems to be the liveliest aspect of the declining contemporary Church today. This is at least in part because the Fundamentalist sects manage to present themselves as pious alternatives to the widely perceived lukewarm aspects of Christendom.

Many sincere people continue to leave the mainline churches for these more radicalized and emotionally charged forms hoping to find 'something real'. Some Fundamentalists are now embracing "Messianic Judaism" sincerely hoping to harmonize their dogmatic belief in biblical literalism with what they imagine to be the beliefs of 'the first century church'. The problem is, without rejecting the Nicene Creed and 'traditional' anti-Torah dogmas and interpretations re-discovering Y'shua's actual teachings is not possible. And even if one could reestablish his reform movement, one would be no better off because his teachings and reforms were rejected by the rabbis and they, as he said, hold the divine authority (Matthew 23:3).

As sincere Christians turn to the more Fundamentalistic forms of their religion, all too often they lose faith as these forms fail to deliver the divine power they promise. All too often such people become spiritually rudderless and lose all faith. Many of these sincere seekers end up rejecting the Fundamentalist (including 'Messianic') reforms as being doctrinally too rigid, inflexible and intellectually or scripturally insupportable, and are unable to return to their previous 'simple faith'. They decry the hypocrisy evidenced by some of the sect's leadership and the lack of solid foundation. Once a real seeker of God seriously examines the historic and biblical foundations of Christianity they often come to this conclusion. Y'shua and his disciples were Jews, not Christians.

Ironically their complaints are generally the same ones laid at the steps of the Church by the Fundamentalists they now reject. This is particularly a problem for the 'Messianic' sects because once people begin to seriously examine the New Testament from a Torah consistent perspective they inevitably discover how far removed from Torah and the New Testament their beliefs really are. Having lost their Christian faith is one thing, converting to Judaism is another.

The First Great Awakening

Like today, during the First Great Awakening the Colonists were establishing themselves in the midst of religious and political turmoil. While many replacement theology embracing Christians viewed the Americas as "the New Zion" (and themselves as the anointed inheritors of the Covenant of Avraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses), believing that God intended to establish His Messianic Kingdom in the New World, others viewed the Americas as a haven from the religious dictates and authoritarian abuses of the Old World. Organized religion was the last thing this latter group wanted. In fledgling America this period was generally known as the First Great Awakening (note 19). Also like today, the general public was fiercely divided on the role religion should play in society. Today the majority are leaning toward the Secular but then most favored a religious direction. It was this fiery debate that led to the Awakening.

This First Great Awakening began in the Dutch Reformed Churches of New Jersey circa 1726. It soon spread to the Presbyterian and Congregationalist communities. The Awakening finally reached its zenith in New England in the 1740's. It produced influential thinkers such as Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), John Locke (1632-1704), John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitfield (1714-1770). These religious reformers and their peers opposed the high level of emotionalism that was typical of the emerging religious revivalism of the day (RE 9).

Meanwhile, itinerant preachers such as the Reverends Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Davies, Eleazar Wheelock, Samuel Finley and others traveled throughout the thirteen colonies expounding emotionally charged "American Protestantism." Such preachers incited a new brand of religion that was born of American experiences and it was quickly catching on (RNA 10; RAR 63).

Famed theologian Jonathan Edwards (October 5, 1703 – March 22, 1758) proclaimed the Awakening to be a "surprising work of God." He enthusiastically proclaimed that "Jesus has flung the door of mercy open so that all could enter." While not promoting a state religion, such leaders did expect Christian (by which they meant Protestant) unity would do away with the historic divisions (especially Catholicism). They sought not a nationally mandated (top down) religion but rather a grass roots awakening that would arise from the repentant hearts of the masses.

During this period, the fatherhood aspect of the Christian God was more strongly emphasized (partly in opposition to the Pope as Papa). As the anointed of New Zion the Colonists believed they had been granted a clean slate. They regarded themselves as His special children (as "spiritual Israel") with unprecedented access to 'the Throne of His Glory'. These restored children of God fully expected that He would lead them if they obeyed and punish them for any sins they allowed. As a result 'submission of the stubborn human will' became an important concept and the religious life of the day reflected this. What the European Church (both Catholic and Anglican/Protestant) had sought to promote by force of law, inquisition, and fear, the American Church hoped to achieve through the preaching of Hellfire and damnation, repentance, peer pressure and the advancement of the Word (i.e. their interpretations of the New Testament). Personal holiness in all things came to typify the Puritan revival that occurred within and spurred the First Great Awakening (RAR 45-49).

According to E.S. Gaustad, "the founding of the Separates and the Separate Baptists was the most conspicuous institutional effect of the [first] Great Awakening in New England." It was by no means the only one however. By 1755, there were over 125 Separate (aka Strict Congregationalist) churches in New England. By 1776 over 70 autonomous Separate Baptist Churches existed. Later came the Universalists, the Unitarians, Free Will Baptists, Shakers and Quakers, the New Light Theologies (later organized as Edwardsianism, Hopkinsianism, and Consistent Calvinism), etc. (RAR 60-72). The general consensus of these movements was fundamentally Calvinist, but this Old World theology of predestination was now being challenged and redefined (more on this below).

John Calvin was one of the primary 16th Century Reformers and a gifted debater and theologian. His teachings had a profound influence on the Reformed Christian Movement. The distinctive teaching of Calvinism is the doctrine of predestination. This Christian belief holds that before the foundations of the heavens and the earth God had already chosen those people who would be 'saved' or 'lost'. The teaching is not that God in His foreknowledge knew which people would choose to accept salvation (available to all as is commonly believed today among Christians), but rather that God chose whom He would redeem and whom He would not. Those He did not choose for salvation are damned to suffer eternal torment in Hell no matter what they do. Those He chose to redeem are 'saved' regardless of what they do.

As in other areas of life, the dawning American religion demanded personal accountability and limitless human potential. It was believed during this period that as an American one could do or become anything one desired if only one was willing to apply oneself. Because of this American-born conviction, Calvinism was not as popular here as it was in Europe. Most American Christians today do not understand the doctrine of predestination nor its dark implications for those who believe in self-determination and personal salvation. Calvinism denies both.

The First Great Awakening sparked the conviction that God is willing to 'save' anyone who truly repents (note 20). To do otherwise, it was argued, would be un-American. For the ministers of the Awakening, America was the tool through which God would establishment the millennia reign of Christ (RAR 98) (note 21). That demanded a commitment to self determination, the willing embrace of the Christian Gospel, and a lot of self sacrifice. Calvinism simply would not do.

E Pluribus Unum

The spiritual fires ignited by the First Great Awakening spread southward into Virginia and to points beyond during the exciting days of the 1750's. It was impossible to maintain the fervor of the new Christian zealots however, and the Awakening fires soon cooled.

Although somewhat short lived, the impact of this First Great Awakening was essential for the colonies as it created a bond between them, a spirit of e pluribus unum (i.e. "Out of many, one"). Those who deny the essential role of Judeo-Christian tradition on the United States and its founding principles need only consider this point. It was Judeo-Christian supremacy that established the United States as "One nation under God." When the American people uttered this phrase with newly found national pride, it was the God of the Bible, the Judeo-Christian God, that they were referring to. To them, He was the only true God. All of the others, to the limited degree that people knew of them, were the false gods of people in desperate need of "the Gospel." To this end an American missionary spirit was birthed that would reach out to the far flung corners of the earth (whether this was for good or ill is a matter of perspective of course!).

During this period between the first two American Awakenings a sense of national identity and a religious destiny for Americans as a distinct people developed (RAR 1). No longer did most Americans feel the need to look to Europe for their enlightenment. They now considered themselves to be the Chosen People of New Zion. Let the Europeans seek them if they would know the truth! God had largely abandoned the Continent for the New World! For New Zion! Together 'We the People' would establish New Eden! A nation of free and religious Christian people.

There is always anti-Semitism of course, however in New Zion the Jews found an inclusion they had seldom known. In the New World Jews could advance the Jewish goal of tikkun olam (repairing the world) by helping to build the new society. And the Jews excelled at this. They entered all walks of professional life and blessed the new nation in innumerable ways.

Protestant Americans now hailed the United States as the Protestant Promised Land (RNA 93). The presence of the Jews merely demonstrated that God was with this new people, the Americans. Most hoped that in time the Jews would embrace Christianity however until then they would be accepted as fully American. Synagogues were built and Jewish communities emerged everywhere, especially in the North east. Today there are far more Jews in America than in any other country besides Israel.

Even as American Christianity was different from European Christianity, so too American Judaism was reformed to American sensibilities. While Orthodox Jews found a mainly welcoming home here, as discussed above, the Reform Jewish Movement established itself as the dominant form of American Jewish observance. For Jews, this was a very different life than they had known in Europe.

Catholicism was also here of course and it contributed much, both to individuals and far strung communities. However while they continued looking to Rome for guidance the Protestants considered themselves Americans first. They tended to look down at the Catholics because of their loyalty to the Vatican. Protestantism, always a numeric minority when compared to Catholicism, was now coming into it own. The Protestants considered themselves to be God's anointed stewards by Divine Providence. The Catholics and Jews were here, but America was Protestant. Not surprisingly most of the excitement experienced with the American Great Awakenings occurred within the Protestant sectors of Christianity.

The Second Great Awakening

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and through the middle years of the nineteenth the spirit of Awakening reemerged. This renewal is often referred to as the Second Great Awakening (generally dated 1790-1830). During this period the still young United States was seriously questioning its Calvinistic roots referenced above.

Implicit in the unfolding 'American Dream' (a term popularized later by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America, written in 1931) was the Religious Humanist understanding that human beings are limited only by their own imaginations and willingness to apply themselves to their chosen tasks. This widely held conviction of personal responsibility and potential was in direct opposition to Calvinism, with its paradigm of predestinarianism This dichotomy was central during this period.

The remaining 'rationalism' of the Enlightenment also moved people to question Augustine's Catholic Doctrine of Original Sin, the belief that all humans inherit the 'sin of Adam' at conception and that without the 'atoning blood of Jesus' (and blessing of the Mother Church according to Catholicism) everyone is destined to an eternity of torture in Hellfire by the God of Love. While Calvinism made the personal embrace of this belief irrelevant, other Christians stressed it. People of Christian faith were sharply divided on this issue. While Calvinism was fading, Original Sin was becoming a mandatory dogma. Rejection of Hell became synonymous with rejection of Christian salvation. This fearsome belief spread terror of Divine retribution throughout the New World and beyond.

As the Second Great Awakening was emerging, Secular Humanism began replacing the Religious Humanism of the Romantic Era. This spirit-denying world view was establishing itself as the secular scientific religion and philosophy of the upper classes. A new period of anti-religious enlightenment was dawning.

Secular Humanism is a religion. Like zealous missionaries of most religions, the Secularist academicians, scientists, educators, and intelligentsia of the new nation began promoting their ivy league religion and showing more and more destain for the Judeo-Christian world view. These "free thinkers" had grown weary of the ceaseless religious debates and moral principles which their lack of faith could not support and their scientific knowledge could not defeat. The emerging scientific priesthood set for itself the task of disproving and overturning traditional religious beliefs and replacing them with scientific facts and theories. As 'Science' entered this arena it stopped being the intellectual quest for truth and became a religion as dogma based as any other.

While this may seem like a cynical commentary on the motives of the scientists, I believe it is correct in general terms. The claim that secular science is merely the altruistic quest for objective knowledge can only be made as a statement of secular religious faith while wearing blinders! The funding of research, lab appointments, publications in respected journals, the boards overseeing the results and implementations of that research, financial potentials on every level, political pressures of all sorts, social pressures ... such realities define modern scientific dogma far more than objective research for the sake of knowledge.

Pour enough money into an idea and you will achieve the desired results. For example consider the Kinsey Institute studies. Because most people were unwilling to reveal their private lives for these studies due to their religious based modesty, Kinsey and his team mainly interviewed prostitutes and other sexual minorities. His research, once completed, was then presented 'normative American sexual mores' based on that minority perspective as though it reflected the majority. In the years that followed more and more Americans embraced his findings as true and today American society is largely as defined by Kinsey. In other words, in part as a result of the publication of his findings standard American sexual mores today are what was common among sex workers and their customers in his day.

“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it” ~ Adolf Hitler

It is often said that people will 'believe it when they see it' but rather the truth is that people will 'see it when they believe it'. This is a key principle in Advertising. First make the product, then create the market. The Secularists first chose to discredit traditional religious faith, then they determined how best to do it. That is not the scientific method. That is the religious missionary method.

Soon the new scientific doctrines entered the institutions of learning at all levels, students accepted them blindly and the religious paradigms of the nation began to shift. History repeats. From the halls of the new secular temples came clarion voices denouncing traditional religion as outmoded superstitions that no one of intelligence could possibly believe.

Among these critics was Bertrand Russell who delivered his well known talk, "Why I Am Not A Christian" on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society.

Spiritual Awakenings always occur during times of growing materialism and secularism as people of faith seek to address the new realities. Just as the First Great Awakening was sparked by the Industrial Revolution the Second was a response to what we might call the Scientific and Educational Theory Revolution. As a result of this growing trend toward Secular Humanism, coupled with a rising commitment to the principles of 'Americanism', Calvinism began to wane and new religious forms and doctrines were developed, largely by the Protestant thinkers (note 22).

Among the new Christian sects that arose during this shift away from Calvinism and secular materialism were the Missouri Synod, the Norwegian Evangelical Synod, the Church of the United Brethren, the Disciples of Christ, the Millerites (from whom numerous denominations and sects emerged), and Mormonism (i.e. the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) (note 23). Also appearing during the Second Great Awakening was Swedenborgianism (i.e The New Church movement), Taylorism (or Beecherism), Mesmerism, Owenism (Utopian socialists), Fourierism, the Oneida Society, the Mennonites, the Moravians, the Seventh Day Baptists, the Six Principle Baptists and Dunker Baptists, the Free Will Baptists, the YMCA, and many others.

This enlivening of individual responsibility and self worth began once again among the New England Congregationalists (note 24) and soon spread throughout the United States and beyond. Soon evidence of the Awakening was present in all major denominations to some degree. By the mid 19th century however this Awakening likewise faded and was absorbed into the religious structure and traditional dogmas of the new and old denominations (note 25).

In its aftermath however Christianity had been fundamentally altered. People of faith had engaged the new Secular opposition and rekindled their determination to establish a Christian America. Hopes for a "New Zion" were largely abandoned, but Christian America would live on!

The growing Agnosticism and Secular Humanism was preparing for war as the Christians again settled into their pews and returned to inaction.

It should be remembered that these flowerings of intellectual and spiritual awakening do not occur within a vacuum. Each appearance of spiritual renewal is directly tied to the experiences of its predecessors and is witnessed in contrast to the society at large. Despite the number of new denominations that formed and the renewed zeal of the newly awakened 'True Believers', most Americans remained religiously uninvolved and were led by the greater norms of the increasingly secular society in which they lived.

The fires of Awakening were yet again rekindled between the years of 1875 and 1914 as the Third Great Awakening occurred. This one was largely triggered in response to the advances made by Secular Humanists, especially the Darwinians. Some authorities do not see a break between the second and third Awakening as I list them here. As I see things, there was a clear break as the Second Great Awakening faded and a few years of non-revival took place before the Third. The nature of the religious developments that occurred within these two periods were in many ways different. For instance, in the Second it was mainly a movement of congregations while in the Third it was more commonly the dedication to a specific leader as we will see as we continue. It was as though the Second Great Awakening was a premature but unavoidable spiritual birthing for the Third Great Awakening. The religious spark had become so cold that without the rekindling of the Second Awakening the Third may never have taken place.

The Awakenings

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Continue with: Part 4
Bibliography and Resources


  • Note 18:Gray, at the time, was at the Grande Chartreuse (the mother house of the Carthusians, near Grenoble, France, DRP 219). return
  • Note 19: The dates given for the Four Awakenings are approximations only. As we are referring to diverse areas and experiences scholars of course vary somewhat on the specifics. return
  • Note 20: Strict Calvinism maintains that certain people are predestined to be saved while others, the vast majority of humankind, are foreordained to spend eternity in Hell. return
  • Note 21: The millennial reign of Christ is the predicted thousand year earthly kingdom referred to at Revelation 20:1-3. return
  • Note 22: This period produced such uncertainty that a still popular jingle emerged from it: You can and you can't, you shall and you shan't, you will and you won't, you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't (RAR 101). return
  • Note 23: The Mormons brought forth new scriptures, The Book of Mormon, which was allegedly another Testament of Jesus Christ, The Doctrine and Covenants of the LDS, and The Pearl of Great Price, a selection from the revelations, translations and narrations Joseph Smith, first Prophet, Seer and Revelator to the LDS (D/P; BoM). return
  • Note 24: According to McLoughlin, this Awakening began in the trans-Appalachian valleys of Kentucky and Tennessee, but he adds that it is easier to look first to the New England camp meetings of 1798-1808 for it origins. return
  • Note 25: This does not mean that it left no fruits, only that the creation of new ones ceased. This does not mean that it left no fruits, only that the creation of new ones ceased. return
    Be the Blessing you were created to be
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