January 04, 2005

Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform

William G. McLoughlin | First published 1978 | Amazon

I ordered this because I wanted to know more about the dynamics of earlier revival moments - the First and Second Great Awakenings, and the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. I definitely got that, as McLoughlin traced how these bursts of faith reflected changes in the underlying society. A bonus was McLoughlin's discussion of how the "peculiar institution" of slavery affected religious perspectives in the American South:

If demography and environment helped to make the difference between the awakening experience and church life North and South, it also goes far to explain the failure of southern revivalism to eventuate in political reform. What the southern churchgoer came to consider social reform (the only kind of reform appropriate to the Christian qua Christian) was the personal moral reform that brought order to the community by restraining violence, strengthening self-discipline, and encouraging familial and neighborly responsibilities for good behavior. Beyond personal behavior lay politics, and according to the southern definition of the separation of church and state, the church was not to concern itself with politics. Among the Methodists the doctrines of perfectionism were especially strong in inculcating this emphasis on personal morality as the measure of Christian virtue, but Baptist church discipline also emphasized the need to subdue the unruly nature of self-assertion. (133)...

The reason why southern revivalism failed to produce the same kind of political reform and institutional restructuring that occurred among "romantic perfectionists" in the North lies in the problem of slavery. Even a major prophet like Peter Cartwright dared not touch on the issue of slavery after 1830, and when he tried other ways to oppose that institution, he was finally forced to give up preaching in the South. He was not afraid to say that slavery was "a domestic, political, and moral evil," but southern folk were unwilling to hear it. This mixing of social reform and spiritual affairs cut too deeply into the traditional fabric of the southern way of life. It threatened rather than consolidated communities; it promised violence when the function of religion was to curtail violence. The kind of perfectionism the Methodists and other denominations sought was inward and personal holiness, and southern preachers could find nothing in the Bible that told them to declare the institution of slavery was a sin. In fact, taken literally, the Bible seemed much more clearly to accept slavery as a sad but necessary condition for some people....

Christianizing the social order in the South, as among the more intense holiness groups in the North, meant converting every individual to the basic moral pattern of rural middle-class virtue. The awakening challenged southern culture - or was allowed to - only in terms of private self-control. In a land with little real poverty, no urban slums or factory towns, minimal culture conflicts with Roman Catholic immigrants, with Indians removed to the West and the blacks considered childlike beneficiaries of civilization, the white southerner felt that his region was closer to millenial perfection than any other part of the country....

In the North, the Second Great Awakening challenged the older way of life at every turn, producing endless schisms and theological debates. In the South, after some initial denominational turmoil in the first decade of the century, this awakening confirmed the prevalent lifestyle, increased religious homogeneity, and made the Methodists and Baptists so dominant that other sects were an almost invisible minority. Southern white Christians were not averse to benevolent reform if that meant encouraging personal temperance and helping the orphan or widow, the deaf, the dumb, the blind, and the insane. But if it meant rearranging the social order, tampering with slavery, interfering with state sovereignty, defending the Indians' right to remain on good farm and cotton land, then benevolent reform was totally misguided. It was in fact un-Christian, since it created political tests for spiritual organizations. Whether a man held slaves or not was irrelevant to his right to join a church. (136-7)

McLoughlin's bias throughout the book seems pretty clearly toward such benevolent reform, misguided or not. As the book continues, it becomes clearer and clearer that he prefers reformers who want to apply Christ's teachings more broadly. At the end of the book, after an interesting look at how beatniks and hippies fit into American religious patterns, this leads him into a serious misprojection of where the "Fourth Great Awakening" he sees starting after World War II will lead the country, though:

By giving total attention to whether one's own or one's neighbor's heart is right with God, neo-Evangelicalism justifies turning one's back on worldly affairs so complex that only God can cope with them. It argues that we can change the world only when God has changed the hearts of everyone in it.

The internalization of values is a crucial process in any awakening... but too much of the old political and economic conservatism of the Fundamentalist ideology is implicit in neo-Evangelicalism. Too much narrow-minded authoritarianism and obscurantism is heard from its leading church spokesmen to enable it in its current foundations to offer "new light" for the future. Somewhere within it, among those unattached to any denominational institution and unwedded to ritualized behavior and escapism, may well lie the seeds of this awakening's new light. But this light has yet to become distinct and evocative. Soul-winning neo-evangelicalism is a divisive, not a unifying, force in a pluralistic world.

At some point in the future, early in the 1990s at best, a consensus will emerge that will thrust into political leadership a president with a platform committed to the kinds of fundamental restructuring that have followed our previous awakenings - in 1776, in 1830, and in 1932. Prior to this institutional restructuring must come an ideological reorientation. Such a reorientation will most likely include a new sense of the mystical unity of all mankind and of the vital power of harmony between man and nature. The godhead will be defined in less dualistic terms, and its power will be understood less in terms of an absolutist, sin-hating, death-dealing "Almighty Father in Heaven" and more in terms of a life-supporting, nurturing, empathetic, easygoing parental (Motherly as well as Fatherly) image. The nourishing spirit of morther earch, not the wrath of an angry father above, will dominate religious thought, (though different faiths and denominations will communicate this ideal in different ways). Sacrifice of self will replace self-aggrandizement as a definition of virtue; helping others will replace competitiveness as a virtue; institutions will be organized for the fulfillment of individual needs by means of cooperative communal efforts rather than through the isolated nuclear family.

While I share McLoughlin's biases to a substantial degree, and wish the present looked more like that vision than its present state, it seems pretty clear that things have turned out very differently from what he predicted in 1978. The "conservatism of the Fundamentalist ideology" is presently triumphant in politics, and seems to be reaching a larger and larger number of people. The focus on the politics of personal behavior seems to have annihilated hopes for a broader "benevolent reform" and left a lot of people on all sides cynical.

Posted by simonstl at January 4, 2005 12:10 PM