ROAD TO THE
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Awakenings have been the shaping power of American culture from its inception. William G. McLoughlin
THE SUPRISE OF REDNECKS debouching from the Appalachians into the Atlantic plain and the explosion of Pentecostalism in the inner cities has unnerved those who had convinced themselves that religion was a thing of the past, now that God was dead.
The idea of a spontaneous, widespread religious revival is today considered rather shameful, overdetermined with images of Elmer Gantry and the sawdust trail. Our modern elites in the media and the academy sneer at the simple pieties of the revivalist. They regard the manipulation of crowd emotion by the charismatic preacher as fraudulent, and delight in the hypocrisy of the man of God who succumbs to the sins of the flesh as proof that his message is a lie. Yet these same people swoon without irony over the spontaneous religious movement we call The Sixties, celebrate the consciousness raising of progressive political movements, and, in the 1990s, notoriously overlooked the flaws of that charismatic man of the people, Bill Clinton. Popular movements, their leaders and their followers, whether welcome or unwelcome, progressive or religious, are a fact of human history. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something. For religious awakenings are not new, or even exceptional. The most important Awakening in the United States was the one that gave it birth.
In the middle of the 18th century a powerful outburst of Protestant enthusiasm erupted in both England and colonial North America. In Britain, John Wesley and his brother Charles preached a revival of Protestant religion using a simplified doctrine called Methodism. It contained nothing new in doctrine. Its emphasis was on the practical side of life. (Johnson 1979 p62) It was Christianity reduced to the bare essentials, adapted to the needs of the simple mechanics who were changing the world out on the margins of England, developing water-driven cotton weaving, steam-driven mine pumps, and iron bridges.
The upper crust was offended by Wesleys revival. It was concerned that his preaching would foment revolution. But Wesley would have none of it. The people that converted to Methodism, he wrote, the upper echelons of the working classes and others anxious to improve their status, almost all became frugal and industrious in their new-found faith, and they achieved a modest competence. As their wealth increased, their interest in religion began to fadeand also their interest in overturning the established order.
Wesley was excoriated for reducing religion to the capabilities of the lowest people and allowing untutored and barely literate mechanics to preach. True, Methodism had little to say to the tip-top swells of London, but it spoke volumes to the struggling mechanics in Carbondale and Ironbridge. In the crucible of Methodism these rough countrymen transformed themselves into the respectable chapel-going English lower middle class. Work all you can, save all you can, give all you can. This was the simple doctrine that Wesley taught. It inspired mechanics to the ministry in the eighteenth century, and, as we shall see, continued to do so in the late twentieth century.
At the same time that the Wesley brothers were inspiring the mechanics of England, preachers Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were preaching revival in New England, and from the scattered farms ordinary people came in their thousands to participate in a Great Awakening that convulsed the social order and led directly to the American Revolution.
George Whitefield was only twenty-three when he broke into the American colonies with his itinerant preaching and brought a dramatic new style to the pulpit. He had gone to Oxford with the Wesley brothers and had belonged to the Holy Club they had formed at the university. Then he came to America, and launched the first great modern revival, the Great Awakening. To Americans used to moralizing and doctrinal sermonizing from the pulpit, his charismatic style:
startled and enthralled his audiences. Whitefield... would sing hymns, wave his arms, tell stories in colloquial language, employ vivid imagery, weep profusely over his own melodramatic appeals, and pray extemporaneously and directly to God, as though he were talking to him. On provincial Americans who had never seen anything like it, the effect was electric. (McLoughlin 1978 p61)
Benjamin Franklin knew Whitefield, admired his eloquence, and grew a substantial business printing many of his sermons. Once, when Whitefield was preaching outside in the city of Philadelphia, the practical Franklin walked around in the crowd to estimate how far his voice could carry, and thus how many people could hear his voice. Franklin also helped a preacher threatened with excommunication by the Presbyterians on account of his heterodox views.
Whitefields theatrical revivalist production was no amateur hour. He was a gifted publicist, and planned his itinerant ministry like a commercial product introduction. People were amazed that he could create crowds out of thin airhis farewell address on Boston Common was said to have been attended by 30,000 at a time when the population of Boston was 20,000but Whitefield was not. He believed that he had been charged by God to cause a spiritual awakening. He and his assistants were skilled advance men who knew how to attract crowds, and spent time and money to make crowds happen.
Whitefield was a master of advance publicity who sent out a constant stream of press releases, extolling the success of his revivals elsewhere, to cities he intended to visit. These advance campaigns often began two years ahead of time. (Finke, Stark 1992 p88)
Of course, the skills of a great entrepreneur and publicist are worth nothing if his product and his message fail to resonate with the market. Timing is everything. According to William G. McLoughlin, the critical factor that drove the Great Awakening to success was a breakdown in the traditional patriarchal family structure. In the seventeenth century fathers, by deeding land to heirs in their wills, maintained control over their sons until they reached middle age. Young people were kept in subordination to their elders, and accepted this subjugation as the price of acquiring title to landthe chief form of wealtheventually. Their egos were subordinated to community. This social order began to break down around 1700 as young men moved further west, acquiring inexpensive land and establishing an independence from father and the rigid Puritan community.
Freedom throws off the yoke of subservience, but it rips away the veneer of security that protects a life lived in subordination to a strong master. The security of subordination is replaced by the terrors of responsibility. But man cannot live alone face to face with reality. Life is not a smooth progressive growth curve. It is a terrifying battle with reality, and mankind cannot survive face to face with the reality of nature red in tooth and claw. The smooth surface of Apollo is a necessary to hide the frightful reality of Dionysian frenzy. Culture is the veneer of hope we construct to block out the absolute terror of reality.
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Click for Chapter 4: The Nineteenth Century From the Top Down
When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of agesthey seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990
In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society
We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State
Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures
The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since
1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and
philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West
Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its
characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then,
once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities
But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie
that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.
In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness...
But to make a man act [he must have]
the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove
or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm