The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald by Frances FitzGerald - Read Online

Book Preview

The Evangelicals - Frances FitzGerald

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP

CONTENTS

Introduction

1 The Great Awakenings and the Evangelical Empire

2 Evangelicals North and South

3 Liberals and Conservatives in the Post–Civil War North

4 The Fundamentalist-Modernist Conflict

5 The Separatists

6 Billy Graham and Modern Evangelicalism

7 Pentecostals and Southern Baptists

8 Evangelicals in the 1960s

9 The Fundamentalist Uprising in the South

10 Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority

11 The Political Realignment of the South

12 The Thinkers of the Christian Right

13 Pat Robertson: Politics and Miracles

14 The Christian Coalition and the Republican Party

15 The Christian Right and George W. Bush

16 The New Evangelicals

17 The Transformation of the Christian Right

Epilogue

Photographs

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Glossary

Notes

Bibliography

Index

For Jim as always

INTRODUCTION

WHEN JIMMY CARTER, a liberal Southern Baptist, ran for president in 1976, the pollster George Gallup estimated that fifty million Americans were born-again Christians, and Newsweek magazine ran a cover story, Born Again! The Evangelicals, explaining who these millions of people were.1

Four years later the Christian right emerged in force, declaring holy war against secular humanism and vowing to mobilize evangelicals to arrest the moral decay of the country. Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist pastor, Pat Robertson, a televangelist, and conservative Southern Baptists led the charge against the gay rights movement, abortion, and the banning of school prayer. At an enormous rally in Dallas Ronald Reagan became their standard-bearer, and won the presidential election with the help of evangelical votes.

The sudden appearance of the Christian right shocked most political observers. Who were these people, and where did the crusade against secular humanism come from? Journalists wrote furiously about these questions until the mid-1980s, when the movement seemed to die away. The Christian right was forgotten for several years, as were evangelicals generally, until the telescandals of Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Then evangelicals were forgotten again. The pattern continued. As the veteran journalist Joe Conason wrote, the political coverage of evangelicals was a cycle of neglect followed by sensationalism and then more neglect. Rick Warren, the best-known of evangelical preachers, told journalists in 2005, It’s a funny thing to me that every five years American journalism reintroduces evangelicals to America. It’s like starting with Carter—you know there’s a headline, ‘Who are Evangelicals?’ Well, it’s not like they’re a fringe group.2

Even the well informed tend to have very short attention spans when it comes to evangelicals. Many equate evangelicals with fundamentalists or the Christian right when only a minority belong to either group. Others dismiss them as a marginal group doomed to extinction with the process of modernization. In fact evangelicals compose nearly a quarter of the population. They are also the most American of religious groups, and during the nineteenth century they exerted a dominant influence on American culture, morals, and politics. By the mid-twentieth century the United States was becoming a more secular nation, but since 1980 many evangelicals, led by the Christian right, have struggled to reverse the trend, and while they have not entirely succeeded, they have reintroduced religion into public discourse, polarized the nation, and profoundly changed American politics.

The category evangelical is, of course, not a political but a religious one. The word evangelical comes from the Greek evangel, meaning the good news, or the Gospel. While the word could be claimed by all Christians, evangelical became the common name for the revivals that swept the English-speaking world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In America the series of revivals, known as the First and the Second Great Awakenings, with their emphasis on simple Bible preaching and immediate conversion, touched virtually all Protestant denominations. For most of the nineteenth century almost all Protestants would have called themselves evangelicals in the sense that they believed they had been born again in Christ and had a duty to evangelize, or spread the good news of the Gospels in America and abroad.

Today white evangelicals are a very diverse group that includes, among others, Southern Baptists, Mennonites, Holiness groups, Pentecostals, Dutch Reformed groups, and a number who belong to nondenominational churches. Many have little in common except for the essentials of their faith. As the religious historian George Marsden writes, Evangelicalism today includes any Christians traditional enough to affirm the basic beliefs of the old nineteenth-century evangelical consensus: the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, the real historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture, salvation to eternal life based on the redemptive work of Christ, the importance of evangelism and missions, and the importance of a spiritually transformed life.3

This book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life, but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years. It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals. Only long after the success of the civil rights movement did some black churchmen begin to enter the story of the white evangelicals and their internal conflicts. What is important to stress is that the white evangelical world has always been changing, though it has retained many of the characteristics acquired during its history. In any case, no movement, including the Christian right, has ever been static or completely coherent. Evangelicals have had some influential leaders, but in essence their world is decentralized and difficult to lead, much less to control.

The book begins with the two Great Awakenings, the first in the late eighteenth century with the end of Puritan society, and the second in the decades after the American Revolution. The first, led by Jonathan Edwards and the English revivalist George Whitefield, helped make a nation out of the disparate colonies by crossing the colonial boundaries and spreading the evangelical faith from north to south. The separation of church and state in the Constitution, though only a federal law, permitted evangelical denominations, such as the Methodists and the Baptists, to evangelize freely in spite of the established churches in states such as Connecticut and Virginia. It created a marketplace of religion, giving all denominations and sects an incentive to increase their flocks, and beginning a process that made America the most religious country in the developed world. The Second Great Awakening, which began a decade or more afterward, was in essence a revolt against the Calvinist establishment that led to the disestablishment of the last state-subsidized churches, and made the United States a more egalitarian society.

Many of the revivalists of the Second Awakening were lay preachers, who, working on the frontiers, created a populist religion focused on conversions that introduced an anti-intellectual strain into evangelicalism. The more established preachers began reform movements in areas such as education, health, temperance, and criminal justice. In the North some, such as Charles Finney, were abolitionists, whose campaigns against slavery led indirectly to the first feminist movement.

The Second Great Awakening inaugurated a period of evangelical hegemony, or what the religious historian Martin Marty calls the Evangelical Empire. For most of the nineteenth century, in spite of increasing Catholic immigration, evangelical Protestants dominated all cultural institutions, including the public schools and the universities. In this period there was no real distinction between religion and politics. Still, it was not the Golden Age the Christian right looks back to with nostalgia. For one thing, a series of divisions rent Protestant society. In the first part of the century northern and southern evangelicals parted company over slavery. The southern defense of slavery extinguished the reformist zeal, affected evangelical theology, and made the South a closed society. Meanwhile many new intellectual currents flowed through the North. After the Civil War, Darwinian evolution and other aspects of modernist thought, such as German biblical criticism and a new epistemology, divided northern evangelicals between liberals, who embraced modernist thought, and conservatives, who rejected it. At the same time industrialization and urbanization elicited different reactions from the two: the modernists sought structural reform to help labor in its conflict with capital while the traditionalists continued to believe that the conversion of individuals and prayer would heal the rift between the two. Evangelicals today debate these issues, but many of those Protestants who identify with modernist thought and social reform no longer call themselves evangelicals.

Toward the end of the century conservative ministers associated with the great evangelist Dwight Moody formed Bible societies to defend the traditional religion against what they saw as the apostasy of the modernists. Taking from the Princeton seminary the idea that every word of the Bible was inerrant, or absolutely and literally true, and from John Nelson Darby, the English sectarian, the prophecy that civilization was in an inevitable decline and was heading toward the great battle of Armageddon in which Christ would return to restore His kingdom in Jerusalem, they fashioned an essentially new religious amalgam that eventually became known as fundamentalism.

The fundamentalist-modernist conflict that erupted after World War I took place among the Baptists and Presbyterians but affected all Protestant denominations and profoundly marked the fundamentalists, who lost and had to leave their denominations. After the Scopes trial in which the great lawyer Clarence Darrow defeated William Jennings Bryan in a rhetorical battle over evolution, most informed people thought fundamentalism dead. To the contrary, it grew mightily in the North, through the work of separatist pastors, radio preachers, and tent revivalists, who preached to rural Americans and to those who migrated to the fast-industrializing cities in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.

After World War II, when Americans poured into churches and synagogues, Billy Graham, then a fundamentalist, attracted enormous crowds to his revivals. In the 1950s he became a celebrity, well known in Washington, and a confidant of important men such as the oil baron Sid Richardson and Richard Nixon. His preaching evolved, and in the hope of bringing all Protestants into his big tent, he broke with the fundamentalists, and called himself an evangelical. The term, which had gone out of use, he and fellow moderates defined as a conservative Protestant who had been born again. For many years not all conservative Protestants used it, but eventually the term stuck in part because pollsters, journalists, and academics used it in order to describe the confusing set of conservative denominations and independent churches. Fundamentalists then became a subset of evangelicals, and most of them were separatists who had left their denominations.

Graham and his mentor, Harold Ockenga, the Presbyterian pastor of the Park Street Church in Boston, knew the importance of creating institutions. Ockenga, who had helped found the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, formed the National Association of Evangelicals to gather conservative Protestants and create an alternative to the liberal National Council of Churches. Graham started a magazine, Christianity Today, as a rival to the liberal Christian Century. Both flourished, but soon developments within other sectors of conservative Protestantism changed the balance of power in the evangelical world. One was the explosive growth of Pentecostalism, and the spread of Pentecostal beliefs to the liberal Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church. The second was the integration of white southern evangelicals into the life of the nation for the first time since the Civil War. Of the two, the first was more surprising, but the second was more politically significant.

Pentecostalism had begun among the poor, black and white, in a Los Angeles mission in 1906. The movement had spread quickly across the South and Southwest, and segregated denominations formed, but in the 1920s and ’30s white Pentecostals, like their black counterparts, remained largely poor farmers, or people working in marginal jobs in the cities. Their distinctive belief was that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, like speaking in tongues, prophesying, and healing, were available to believers today as they were to the apostles at Pentecost. Before World War II most Protestants looked down on Pentecostals, calling them snake-handlers or Holy Rollers. In the 1950s, however, many Pentecostals became middle-class, and one of the tent revivalists, Oral Roberts, left his tent to preach on radio and television, to build a university, and to make Pentecostals respectable. In the 1960s, a time of spiritual experimentation, some of the Pentecostal beliefs caught on with liberal Protestants and Catholics, who integrated them into their own church doctrines and practices. The so-called charismatic renewal movement took on a life of its own, spreading even to conservative Protestants.

In the same period white southerners, including evangelicals, emerged from the isolation they had proudly suffered since the Civil War. By then the dominant religious force in the South was the Southern Baptist Convention. Its theology had been untouched by modernism, and Southern Baptists thought it to be the pure Gospel of the New Testament. Until the Second World War the SBC had stood as a bastion against social change, championing states’ rights, white supremacy, and the existing economic order. In the villages the church reigned supreme as the arbiter of morals, the social order, and the truth of the Gospel. The arrival of northern industry, highways, and federal regulations therefore came a as shock to the system. The growth of cities, improvements in education, and involvement with the rest of the country created a cosmopolitan elite. Some of the heads of the SBC belonged to it and became more theologically and politically moderate. In 1954 the SBC’s Christian Life Commission persuaded the Convention to accept the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, and three years later its chairman acted as mediator between President Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Orval Faubus in the conflict over admitting black students to Little Rock Central High School. What did not change was the commitment of SBC leaders to evangelism. When southerners moved out of the South, many to Southern California and the cities of the Midwest, where industry was booming, they formed their own congregations, and the SBC followed, building churches at an astonishing rate and moving out across the country until there were Southern Baptist churches in every state. The SBC’s office in Washington thus became a power to reckon with.

The 1960s and early 1970s—the so-called Long Sixties—saw the election of the first Catholic president, the Supreme Court decision banning prayer and Bible reading in the schools, the civil rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, and the Roe v. Wade decision. Surprisingly, only the fundamentalists objected to all of them. Other evangelicals took moderate stances on many of them, and the period passed quietly. It even saw the growth of a small evangelical left in the colleges.

The reaction came later, first with the upsurge of fundamentalism in the South, and then with the appearance of new leaders. Billy Graham, who had associated himself with Nixon even during Watergate, lost his influence; separatist Baptists grew in number, and fundamentalist Southern Baptists successfully challenged the moderate leaders for control of the Convention. Jerry Falwell and a host of pastors and televangelists took to national politics, forming the Moral Majority, the Christian Voice, and the Religious Roundtable. A talented preacher, Falwell picked up on the grassroots rebellions against the sixties in all its forms, from sex education to homosexuality, to the federal government’s insistence on the integration of Christian schools. He also voiced the southern sense that Washington was encroaching on states’ rights, and that Jimmy Carter was weak on national defense and was destroying the economy with deficit spending. Out of all this, he constructed a jeremiad that conservative Christians had to get into politics or see the destruction of the nation. With a few changes the Christian right has used the same jeremiad ever since. Falwell and Reagan created a bond that was more rhetorical than real, but the South moved gradually into the Republican Party from the presidential level on down.

The Christian right was a populist movement, and it had only two systematic thinkers, R. J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer. Of the two Rushdoony was by far the more radical. He proposed that Christians should reconstruct the society based on biblical law, a theonomy that would lead directly to the coming of Christ. Reconstructionism, his school of thought, was too outlandish to be adopted fully by more than a few people, but his ideas circulated anonymously in a watered-down form. Schaeffer, by contrast, was a major intellectual celebrity, who lectured in evangelical colleges, wrote best-selling books, and made two influential documentary series, one released in 1979, condemning abortion in such vivid terms it changed the minds of thousands of evangelicals. In the book he published two years later he wrote that humanism was a total world view standing in complete antithesis to the Christian world view, and that humanists used the concept of pluralism to mean there was no right and no wrong. Schaeffer died in 1984, but ever since many Christian right leaders have testified to the profound influence he had on their thinking.

Jerry Falwell had to shut down the Moral Majority in the late 1980s, but he was soon succeeded by Pat Robertson, the son of a U.S. senator from Virginia who had built a successful television network. A contradictory figure, he had political ambitions, yet to the embarrassment of his father, he hosted a television program in which he claimed to heal the sick and to avert hurricanes. In 1988 he ran for the Republican nomination for president, and when he lost, he supported the establishment candidate, Vice President George H. W. Bush. Shortly afterward he formed the Christian Coalition to change Republican politics with the boyish-looking Ralph Reed as his executive director. A brilliant political organizer, Reed trained Christian right activists to run in local races, figured out new tactics to attract pro-family voters to the Republican Party, and distributed millions of voter guides favorable to socially conservative Republicans. By the 1992 election the Coalition had not only become indispensable to the Republican politicians, but also was integrated into Republican ranks and in control of the GOP apparatus in eighteen states.

During the first two years of Clinton’s administration the Coalition, along with other Christian right organizations, experienced an explosive growth in membership and financing. In the midterm elections the GOP gained a major victory that put Republicans in control of the House for the first time in forty years. White evangelicals moved decisively into the Republican camp, giving the party 75 percent of its vote. The Coalition by its account mobilized four million voters and helped the Republicans sweep the South. It seemed unstoppable until the House leadership decided to impeach Clinton. The effort ended in disaster for the GOP, and the Coalition broke apart, beset by financial difficulties.

By 2000 even many Christian right stalwarts almost gave up on the movement. George W. Bush, however, had been born again; he spoke their language, and he knew how much Republicans depended on the Christian right with its influence on evangelical voters. His first administration saw a growing alliance between the two because he gave them access to the White House and supported some of their favorite programs, but most of all because of what they perceived as his strong leadership after 9/11 and in waging the Iraq War. The major Christian right figures in this period were James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, and Richard Land, the head of the policy arm of the conservative SBC. Like Falwell and Robertson, they believed that America had been a Christian country and would be one day again. Between them they revived the moribund movement by making a concerted effort to ban gay marriage in the states. The 2004 election was close, particularly in the key state of Ohio, and when they succeeded in passing referenda against same-sex marriage, they could take credit for Bush’s victory.

In the second Bush administration the Christian right had its greatest triumphs and became more radical than before. Its alliance with the increasingly unpopular Bush administration, however, created a backlash in Congress, in the general public, and even among evangelicals, who feared they had become identified merely as a part of the Republican Party. Around 2005 many leading evangelicals, such as Rick Warren, began to distance themselves from the Christian right, and some began to voice dissent publicly for the first time. Known as the new evangelicals, many of them took up social justice issues, such as poverty and climate change.

The decline of the Christian right had begun. Jerry Falwell and other Christian right leaders, now in their seventies, died or retired, and no one took their place. The baby boomers and the subsequent generations had absorbed the social changes that had taken place since the 1960s, and many of the older concerns had receded. According to polls, the young were more inclined to worry about the environment than their elders and were more in favor of an active government at home. Abortion was an important issue for them, but homosexuality was not, and in 2007 one in three favored same-sex marriage. Most took the equality of women for granted, and on the whole they were more tolerant of the views of others and believed the U.S. a pluralistic country.

After Obama won the 2008 election, policy-oriented new evangelical leaders faced off over the president’s health care bill against the Catholic bishops and the remaining Christian right leaders, who believed its mandates on contraception and abortion would violate their religious freedom. The bill passed, but Obama’s victory coincided with an economic crisis that began on Wall Street and spread to Main Street, causing the worst recession since the Great Depression. The reaction this time came from the right in the form of the Tea Party, a movement financed by libertarian corporate barons, such as Charles and David Koch. At the grassroots level Tea Party members supported programs, such as Social Security, they perceived as going to productive members of society, such as themselves, but opposed government handouts to undeserving freeloaders, a category that seemed to be made up of the young, undocumented immigrants, and people of color. These people, the Tea Party members seemed to feel, were destroying the fabric of American culture. Christian right activists, who shared much the same sentiments, melded into the Tea Party, the larger and more powerful group.

The new, or progressive, evangelical leaders fought for the cap and trade bill to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, for the protection of the poor against budget cuts, and for immigration reform with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. On immigration reform they were joined by groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention because the Bible spoke of welcoming strangers, but also because they already had Latinos and Asians in their churches, and they saw that their prospects for growth lay in evangelizing these and other immigrants.

Growth had become an important issue because in the first decade of the new century the evangelical population had plateaued. Some denominations, such as the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, were growing with Latino converts, but the enormous Southern Baptist Convention was losing members every year. What was more, the number of Americans who had no affiliation to any church was growing fast. One solution, the evangelical leaders knew, was to bring more immigrants into their churches.

The trouble was that many people in the pews of white evangelical churches did not want immigrants, whom they felt were destroying American culture. They also knew that most Latinos, both Catholics and evangelicals, voted Democratic and that many supported legal abortion and same-sex marriage.

By the time of the 2016 election, the evangelical world had become a complex place. The Christian right no longer dominated evangelical discourse. Further, it had taken up a more secular language—there was little talk of Christianizing America. In Washington many thought the Christian right dead, but Republican legislators in the red states passed scores of laws restricting abortion and LGBT rights. That Donald Trump, the thrice-married libertine, won the Republican nomination for president with many evangelical votes confounded most evangelical leaders. Clearly something was happening that would change American politics, and the Christian right would not be what it had been before.

1


THE GREAT AWAKENINGS and the EVANGELICAL EMPIRE

THE ORIGINS of evangelicalism as a distinct form of Protestantism lie in the revivals that swept back and forth across the English-speaking world and Northern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the American case, the revivals came in two waves. The earlier, known as the First Great Awakening, peaked in the 1740s but set off reverberations that continued to the time of the American Revolution. The later one, the Second Great Awakening, began just after the end of the War of Independence and continued intermittently in various parts of the country through the 1850s. Everywhere, the revivals involved a rebellion against the formalism of the established churches and an effort to recover an authentic spiritual experience: a religion of the heart, as opposed to the head. And everywhere, they introduced a new idea of conversion as a sudden, overwhelming experience of God’s grace. In Europe the established churches survived and incorporated the pietistic strain within their own traditions. But in America the revivals transformed Protestantism. They undermined the established churches, led to the separation of church and state, and created a marketplace of religious ideas in which new sects and denominations flourished. At the same time, they made evangelical Protestantism the dominant religious force in the country for most of the nineteenth century.

In America the periods were, not incidentally, ones of rapid demographic growth, and social, as well as political, change. The expansion of settlement and commerce opened space for initiative and innovation, and small, integrated communities dissolved into an expansive, mobile society. The itinerant revivalists themselves embodied this mobility and this reach. In offering individuals the possibility of a direct relationship with God they helped adjust the society to its new circumstances and to transform the hierarchical colonial order into the more egalitarian society of the nineteenth century. After the Revolution many of them explicitly preached individual freedom, the separation of church and state, voluntary association as a primary means of social organization, and republicanism as the best form of government. Awakenings, as the scholar William McLoughlin tells us, are periods of cultural revitalization . . . that extend over a period of a generation or so, during which time a profound reorientation of beliefs and values takes place.1

The two Great Awakenings are not just a matter of historical interest. Some of the attitudes formed at the time, such as the spirit of voluntarism, have become a part of our common heritage. Others have had a particular and lasting effect on American Protestantism. Indeed, to ask what is religiously or culturally distinctive about either mainline or evangelical Protestants today is to find that most explanatory roads lead back to their particular inheritance from the Great Awakenings. On the evangelical side, for example, the revivalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries pioneered mass evangelism and introduced new communications techniques that, with additions and modifications, have been used by evangelical preachers ever since. In their eagerness to save souls, the revivalists introduced vernacular preaching styles, de-emphasized religious instruction, and brought a populist, anti-intellectual strain into American Protestantism. Then, as most of them saw it, America was a Christian—read Protestant—nation.

The First Great Awakening

The First Great Awakening began among the Congregationalists, the direct heirs to the Puritans of New England, in the midst of what William McLoughlin and other historians have described as a crisis of religious authority. The Puritans had established close-knit communities, bound by covenant, where church and state cooperated in an effort to build a Holy Commonwealth. Calvinists, they believed that God, unreachable and unknowable, determined everything that went on in His creation and that human nature was totally corrupt (utterly depraved) and had been since Adam’s fall. Life, therefore, was a constant struggle with Satan. God, in their view, had reason to condemn all mankind to hell, but because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, He had arbitrarily decided to save an elect few saints. Through piety and soul-searching, men might come to hope they were among the elect and might experience an infusion of His grace. But whatever God willed, all men had a duty to help each other, to respect the clergy and the magistrates, and to obey the law. As reformers, the Puritans believed that God might work among them to create a New Jerusalem, a city upon a hill, if only men kept their covenant with God and submitted themselves to the will of the community. Ultimately, they believed, Christ would return, either to establish a millennial reign of peace on earth, or, as the emissary of a wrathful God, to destroy it.2

The Puritans were dissenters from the Church of England and from medieval aristocratic traditions, but their society, like most of those in Europe at the time, was stratified and patriarchal. In the preface to the covenant signed aboard the Arabella, John Winthrop wrote: God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence hath so disposed of the conditions of mankind, as in all times some must be rich and some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection. After the early days of the settlement, clergymen and the civil governors, who came from the propertied elite, assumed authority for regulating the affairs of the community in much the same way that Puritan fathers regulated the affairs of their households. These Puritan rulers valued order above all other social virtues and saw themselves as responsible only to God. Family discipline, as well as the theology preached from the pulpit, taught that man’s duty was submit to authority and to accept his station within the God-given hierarchy.3

By the eighteenth century, this Puritan order faced both social and ideological challenges. Congregationalism remained the established religion, its churches subsidized by taxpayers in all but one of the New England colonies. (Rhode Island, settled by Baptists, was the exception.) Yet the immigration of other Christians and nonbelievers had eroded the Puritan control of the polity. Then, too, the westward movement of the settlers and the growing wealth of landowners and merchants bred a new spirit of individualism. Economic controversies erupted, pitting settlers against the gentry who ran the colonial governments, and political factions emerged. At the same time, Enlightenment ideas about free will and the power of reason circulated among educated people, causing some to doubt fundamental Calvinist doctrines, such as predestination and human depravity. Congregationalist clergymen preached obedience to the God-given order, but many people could not fit their lives into the old patterns—though they were haunted by guilt for their apostasy. In the first two decades of the century, Increase Mather and other clergymen concluded from their reading of the biblical prophecies that human society was descending into such a state of sin and chaos that God would intervene cataclysmically and Christ would return to deliver His judgment on mankind. Such was their sense of crisis.4

The revivals in New England began in 1734 in a citadel of orthodox Calvinism: the church of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts. The son and grandson of Congregationalist ministers, Edwards had studied science, or natural philosophy, as it was then called, at Yale and had read the works of Isaac Newton and John Locke. In college, he had struggled with the idea of God’s total sovereignty, but one day, walking in his father’s pasture, he had a conversion experience. Looking up at the sky and the clouds, he had, he later wrote, a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, and as he looked around, this divinity appeared to him in everything, the trees, the grass, and the water. Later in his theological works, he used the methods of the Enlightenment thinkers to revitalize Calvinist theology and to defend it from the clergy swayed by Enlightenment humanism. In 1729, at the age of twenty-six, he assumed the pulpit of his grandfather’s church in Northampton. Finding that many in the parish, in particular the young, had fallen away from the moral standards of the church—there was tippling, carousing, and chambering—he went to work, holding meetings and prayer sessions around the parish. Five years later, while he was giving a series of sermons on justification by faith, an outbreak of religious fervor occurred in his parish. People laughed and wept, some saw visions, and many were filled with hope and joy. In the space of six months three hundred people were converted, bringing the total membership of his church to six hundred—nearly the whole adult population of the town. Visitors came to his church, and the revivals spread to towns up and down the Connecticut River and from thence to other parts of New England. In his account of these events, Edwards attributed the revival to a sudden, surprising descent of the Holy Spirit.5

Edwards was not a highly dramatic or emotional preacher—he read his sermons from a manuscript or detailed notes—but he nonetheless had a powerful effect on his listeners.

In his revivalist sermons, he began by telling people what they already believed: that as sinners they deserved everlasting punishment. In case they had forgotten what this meant—or had put it to the back of their minds—he used vivid language to describe God’s wrath. In his most quoted sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), he used particularly vivid rhetoric. The God, he said, that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. Sinners, he said, could look forward to Millions of Millions of Ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless Vengeance; and then when you have so done . . . you will know that all is but a Point to what remains. In concluding, however, he delivered, as always, a message of hope: And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the Kingdom of God.6

Revivals had occurred before among the Puritans and their descendants, but the call of the preachers had been to covenant renewal—or obedience to the God-given order of ministers and magistrates. Edwards, however, was preaching the evangelical message that individuals could have a direct relationship with Christ—and that Christ would save not just the apparently worthy, but all those who would receive His grace. Previous revivals had been local and short-lived. This one, however, kept going on, and not just among the Congregationalists, but also among the Presbyterians, the descendants of the Scots-Irish Puritans who had settled in the Middle Colonies, and the Dutch Reformed of New York. With the arrival of the English evangelist George Whitefield in 1739, the revivals spread through all of the colonies.

Unlike Edwards, who was a theologian and pastor, Whitefield (1714–70) was an itinerant evangelist and by far the most popular preacher of his day. An Oxford graduate and an Anglican minister, he had a powerful voice, a dramatic preaching style, and an ability to simplify church doctrines for a mass audience. (He had studied acting and David Garrick, the greatest actor of the day, said that he could seize the attention of any crowd just by pronouncing the word Mesopotamia.) At Oxford, he had met John and Charles Wesley, the founders of a pietistic movement within the Anglican Church known as Methodism. A Calvinist, he had theological differences with the Wesleys, who had adopted Arminian, or free will, doctrines, but in college, he, like John, had a profound religious experience that banished all doubts he had about his salvation. This experience, which he called a new birth, became his criterion for conversion, and with the Wesleys he established it as a staple of revivalist preaching.

In 1738, Whitefield made the first of seven voyages to the American colonies, and two years later, at the age of twenty-six, he traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, preaching in the major cities and towns. His sermons had already caused a sensation in London, and in America he drew crowds of thousands to open-air meetings. Even the skeptical Benjamin Franklin was impressed by his voice and delivery. With the help of the media of the day—the newspaper reporters who heralded his meetings and the printers who published his sermons and journals—Whitefield became the first intercolonial celebrity and an inspiration to local revivalists across the country. By the end of his year in America, evangelicalism had turned into a countrywide movement with a radical wing fomenting religious rebellion.

Gilbert Tennent, a Presbyterian whom Whitefield met not long after his arrival in Philadelphia, was one of the leaders of the rebellion. The minister of a parish in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and a formidable preacher (Whitefield called him a son of thunder), he had come to America with his family from Ulster in 1718, during a period when many Scots-Irish were immigrating, and a year after the founding of the first Presbyterian Synod in the colonies. His father, William, a Presbyterian pastor, had established a small academy, known as the Log College, in rural Pennsylvania to train local ministers. Gilbert had gone to Yale, but he and his four brothers had grown up in the pietistic and intellectually informal atmosphere of the Log College. All had become converts to evangelicalism, and during the 1730s he, his brothers, and several of the Log College graduates had held revivals in Presbyterian churches in the region, preaching salvation through a sudden experience of God’s grace.7

These revivals filled the pews of many rural churches, but a number of the more orthodox Calvinist ministers of the Philadelphia Synod objected. Some questioned the spiritual validity of the crisis conversions and complained of the methods used to obtain them. (One Log College minister was accused of giving whining and roaring harangues that terrified to distraction some of the deluded Creatures who followed him.)8 Others suspected that the theological education of the Log College graduates did not meet Presbyterian standards, and many felt that the itinerant revivalists were intruding on settled parishes and attempting to turn people against their own pastors. In 1738 the Synod in Philadelphia created a New Brunswick Presbytery for Tennent and his colleagues, but voted that other presbyteries could refuse itinerant preachers and promised that the Synod would evaluate the credentials of all ministerial candidates who had not graduated from well-known universities.9

In 1740, Gilbert Tennent took the occasion of Whitefield’s arrival in Philadelphia to make the case for his evangelical convictions and to mount an incendiary attack against the anti-revivalist party. In The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, a sermon he gave to a congregation about to choose a new pastor, he held that no minister, no matter how learned, who had not undergone a conversion experience, or been called to preach by the Holy Spirit, had the power to save souls. He went on to call the unconverted anti-revivalists hypocritical Varlets, dead dogs that can’t bark, and a swarm of locusts. Comparing the unconverted to the Pharisees who opposed the itinerant ministry of Jesus, he accused them of being greedy for money and social status, and so conceited about their learning they look’d upon others that differed from them, and the common People, with an Air of Disdain. In conclusion, he urged the congregation to find another minister if the one sent to them did not preach the Gospel.10

A year later, the Philadelphia Synod, quite understandably, expelled the New Brunswick Presbytery, but Tennent and his colleagues persevered. In 1745, the Log College men, joined by other ministers, created a new synod with presbyteries in four states and founded the College of New Jersey (later, Princeton University). The New Side Presbyterians—as they were now called—sent itinerant evangelists into every hamlet that asked for them, and, following the Scots-Irish diaspora, carried the revivals into Virginia and North Carolina. Their success was such that when Presbyterians reunited in 1758, the New Side ministers outnumbered Old Side clergy by three to one.11

Whitefield also traveled through New England in 1740, gathering huge crowds, and the following year Gilbert Tennent, at his request, continued his work in the region. Encouraging evangelical preachers, converting others to the cause, and inspiring some to great heights of fervor, the two created a wave of revivals that, Jonathan Edwards wrote, were vastly beyond any former outpouring of the Spirit that ever was known in New England.12 By the end of two years, Edwards began to feel that something momentous might be happening. It is not unlikely, he told his parishioners in 1742, that this work of God’s Spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or a least, a prelude of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture, which in the progress and issue of it shall renew the world of mankind . . . And there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.13

Increase Mather had preached that Christ’s millennial reign would come only after cataclysm caused by the declension of human society, but Edwards rejected this premillennial eschatology for its opposite. He saw revivals as evidence of God’s favor and His determination to redeem mankind without an Armageddon or a personal Second Coming. This optimistic, postmillennial view echoed the Puritan view that God might begin His work in America. Edwards’s vision was not of a dramatic interference by God in the course of history but rather of human spiritual progress that would gradually bring a reign of peace and harmony into the souls of men.14

For all of Edwards’s optimism, the revivals inspired by Whitefield and Tennent created as much of a reaction in New England as they did in Pennsylvania. Until then, most of the Congregationalist clergy had seen the revivals as yet another season of renewed piety and welcomed the increased attendance in their churches. But the huge crowds Whitefield and Tennent drew, the revivalists’ appeal to individuals over the heads of the clergy, and Tennent’s denunciations of unconverted ministers seemed uncomfortable novelties. Further, the two itinerants encouraged less decorous revivalists, whose preaching caused extreme reactions like screaming, fainting, and convulsions. Even worse, some of these radicals, such as James Davenport, preached in settled parishes without permission, fired up lay exhorters, and urged the saved to separate themselves from the impure churches of their unconverted and Christ-despising ministers. To local clergymen, this new phase of the revivals seemed an attack not just on the established church but on the whole social order—which to an extent it was.15

Moderate revivalists, such as Edwards, distanced themselves from the radicals, and conceded that errors and disorders had occurred. But even the moderates were challenging the established authorities of church and state by denying them sanctifying power and relocating religious authority to an experience in the hearts of individuals. What was more, even they used vivid language to waken people from their lethargy, to make them feel their own sense of guilt so that they could rid themselves of it through the ecstatic experience of being born again in Christ.16 An anti-revivalist party therefore grew up, and while some of its members concerned themselves mainly with the encroachments on their parishes and the unseemly emotions evoked by the radicals, others attacked the revivalist New Lights on theological grounds.17

Between 1741 and 1743 Charles Chauncy of the First Church of Boston carried on a debate with Edwards via printed sermons and treatises that began with a dispute over the emotions raised in the revivals and ended with an argument about the nature of religion itself. A minister much influenced by Enlightenment thinking, Chauncy at first merely inveighed against what he saw as the excesses of the radical preachers, but from there he went on to question whether the anguish and joy the revivalists evoked were works of the Holy Spirit, or simply psychological disturbances. Edwards, who had spent much time pondering that very issue, replied that while not all emotional manifestations signified conversion, conversion had to begin with a lifting of pious affections. True religion, he argued toward the end of the exchange, was essentially emotional—a sense of the heart about the glory of God.

Chauncy for his part insisted that sinners required knowledge of the Gospels before they could achieve grace. It had not escaped him that the revivalists aggressively reasserted the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and human depravity, and he came to believe that revivals produced contempt for reason and for human ability. An enlightened Mind, not raised Affections, he wrote, ought always to be the Guide of those who call themselves Men.18

By 1743, debates over the revivals, many of them carried on in far less temperate language, rent convocations of Congregationalist ministers. These public conflicts shook the confidence of laymen in the ecclesiastical establishment. The irony was that the New Light revivalists had undermined the authority of the clergy by preaching the harshest version of traditional Calvinist doctrines, while some of their opponents defended the status quo by emphasizing themes more in tune with Enlightenment thought, such as the importance of reason, education, and good works. In any case, the public conflicts gave the radicals the opening they were looking for.19

Just a year after Whitefield’s visit to Boston, groups of people in Connecticut and other parts of New England began to withdraw from the Congregationalist churches to form prayer groups and churches of their own. Calling for a return to the purity of the early church, these Separates took laymen they believed graced by the Holy Spirit as ministers and attempted to strip away the accretions of history from their ecclesiastical practices. Those who rejected the practice of baptizing unsaved infants largely left the Congregationalist fold to become Separate Baptists. Inspired by the radical revivalists, these Separate groups proved as troublesome to the civil authorities as to the orthodox clergy. With liberty of conscience as their rallying cry, they struggled to attain exemption from the taxes that supported the established churches. When the request was turned down as schismatic, many refused to pay. Fined and sometimes jailed as tax dodgers, they practiced civil disobedience and published tracts denouncing the magistrates and clergy as a tyrannical upper class.20

Subsequently, they called for an end to all tax support for religion and for the right of religious dissent. Their petitions went largely unanswered, but after the Revolution, they became leaders in the movement for the disestablishment of the church from the state. In the meantime, many Separate Baptists set out for the Middle Colonies and then for North Carolina and Virginia.21

The South proved fertile ground for the evangelicals. The Anglican Church had been the established church in Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia since the settlement of the colonies, but it had neither independence nor power. The local landed gentry, who dominated the church vestries, opposed the creation of a diocese, preferring to keep the clergy and the ecclesiastical taxes under their own control. As a result, the church had no bishop, no ecclesiastical machinery, and little leverage with the Church of England. The task of an established church was to hold society together under the rule of religion, but because London sent few ordained priests, and the parishes were immense and sparsely populated, this could hardly be done. By the mid-eighteenth century, the expansion of settlements into the frontier districts left many in the South outside the sphere of organized religion. Those churches that flourished were essentially fiefdoms of local gentry and identified with a class system that sharply distinguished the aristocrats from common people and slaves. The wealthy sat in private pews, and from the pulpits came messages that the lower classes should be obedient and defer to their betters. Further, the scholastic theology taught by the ministers had driven many of the less educated out of the churches and some of the best educated, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, beyond Christianity into Deism.22

In 1744, evangelical missionaries began to move into the southern colonies to fill the institutional vacuum. The first to arrive were New Side Presbyterians, who at the request of a group of pious laymen came to minister to a congregation in Hanover County, Virginia. The governor of Virginia had no liking for dissenters, but Rev. Samuel Davies, a graduate of the Log College and a learned man, somehow convinced him that the New Sides were orthodox Presbyterians with as much a right to preach in Virginia as they had in England. In the 1750s Separate Baptists from Connecticut established churches in Sandy Creek, North Carolina, and gradually pushed on to the coast and into Virginia and South Carolina. They were not as politic as the Presbyterians. Fresh from their battles in New England, they maintained that civil authorities had no right to interfere with religion and refused to ask for licenses to preach or to abide by the laws against itinerancy. Many were fined or jailed for breaking the law, and others were attacked by mobs in midst of their enthusiastic meetings. Then, in the late 1760s, some of the first Wesleyan missionaries came to America and journeyed south. Methodism was still a movement within the Anglican Church, and the itinerants were welcomed by a few local ministers—until they began to entice their congregants into schism.23

The New Side Presbyterians, the Separate Baptists, and the Methodists had theological and other differences, but they were alike in preaching a radical break with a society dominated by the values of the landed aristocracy. As in the North, the evangelicals called for a dramatic conversion—a profound psychological change—that would separate the individual from a sinful past. In the South, they put equal stress on growing to grace within a religious community separate from the world. Southern aristocrats engaged in foxhunting, horse racing, dueling, and dancing; they dressed in fine clothes, gambled at cards, and cultivated witty conversation. But the evangelicals condemned all of these markers of social prestige as the trifling activities of the godless. (The Separate Baptists went so far as to call learning one of the frivolities of the unsaved.) They dressed plainly, lived abstemiously, and preached that the true worth of a man depended simply on his piety and moral discipline. As the historian Donald G. Mathews has shown, the converts to evangelicalism were not by and large the aristocrats or the very poor; rather they were hardworking farmers and tradesmen battling a class system and the lawless, socially chaotic world at its margins. To such people, the evangelical churches offered fellowship and help in achieving orderly, disciplined lives. Within the church, individuals would be separated from the unregenerate, instructed in Christian behavior, and held to it under the watchful care of the community. Then, too, the churches offered social status. As Mathews tells us, the word respectable lost its connotation of social rank and came to mean pious or "moral. This program clearly had great appeal, for by 1776 there were almost twice the number of evangelicals in the South as there were Anglicans.24

The revivals of the First Great Awakening continued through the 1760s and trailed off thereafter, though the evangelical sects continued to proselytize. By the time of the American Revolution, evangelicalism had penetrated all three sections of the country; it had created divisions in two of the major Protestant denominations, inspired an evangelical Baptist movement, and shaken the rule of the established churches.

The Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening was even more explosive than the first. The revivals, which began not long after the War of Independence and continued intermittently until the Civil War, coursed through the whole country and through all the major Protestant denominations, sweeping away the stricter aspect of Calvinism and creating a simpler, more democratic faith that accorded with the spirit of the new country. With the passage of the First Amendment and the gradual disestablishment of the churches in the South and New England, the revivalists gained complete freedom of action. The revivals threw up new denominations and sects and made the country more religiously diverse while at the same time turning the vast majority of American Protestants into evangelicals.

Shortly after the War of Independence, revivalist preachers, most of them Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, set out to church the unchurched on the frontiers of the expanding country, moving west through Kentucky and Tennessee, then into the South and the Middle West. In 1790, according to the first U.S. government census, 94 percent of the American settlers lived in the original thirteen colonies. By 1850, more than half lived outside of them in the states and the territories to the west. Meanwhile, even without much immigration, the population grew at an astonishing rate, rising from two and a half million to twenty million in the seventy years following the Revolution. In this burgeoning country, the social and political arrangements left over from the colonial period, and the Federalist vision of a country ruled by an educated minority of merchants and landowners, soon became obsolete. As the historian Nathan O. Hatch has shown, the frontier revivalists participated in the social and political upheavals of the postrevolutionary period and in the struggle to create a more egalitarian society. To reach their audience in a world without churches, they created new methods of proselytism and a simplified form of evangelicalism: a folk religion characterized by disdain for authority and tradition.25

The Second Great Awakening broke out in camp meetings in Kentucky and Tennessee at the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1801, a meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, drew some twenty thousand people—a vast number in those sparsely populated territories—and it lasted almost a week. Multiple speakers preached from platforms around the encampment all day long, and emotions ran high. According to Barton Stone, a Presbyterian minister and the main organizer of the meeting, many people were affected by bodily agitations, some laughing uncontrollably, others dancing, singing, running, or falling down in a faint. Evangelicals had seen such phenomena before, but never on such a scale. When news of the meeting spread, revivals broke out around the region with crowds of thousands gathering to listen to preachers in the hopes of experiencing similar religious ecstasies. The Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians had resumed evangelizing in the South after the end of the Revolutionary War and had seen a modest rise in their church memberships, but the revivals produced a sudden surge of conversions on both sides of the Appalachians and laid the foundation for growth of a new order of magnitude in the succeeding years.26

During the Second Great Awakening, no denomination worked as hard, or made as many converts, as the Methodists. Previously a small group within the Anglican Church, the American Methodists established their own independent Episcopal church in 1784 and immediately prepared themselves for work on the frontiers. Under the leadership of Francis Asbury, an itinerant preacher who had come to America in 1771, they divided the country into districts and directed resources away from the settled areas and toward the peripheries. Asbury, who later took the title of bishop, made camp meetings a regular part of church activities and assembled a small army of circuit riders—some seven hundred of them by the time of his death in 1816—who traveled hundreds of miles a year on horseback to preach to the unconverted and to tend to their flocks in scattered settlements. Asbury, who himself rode an annual circuit of five thousand miles, established an orderly hierarchy under his command. Every district had an elder in charge, who reported to the bishop; the circuit riders had assigned routes; the congregations, or the societies, gathered by them were divided into cell groups, or classes, of twelve to fifteen people that enforced discipline and nurtured the religious life of their members. But the Methodists combined a central control with an egalitarian style and a democratic inclusiveness. Where there were no ordained clergymen, laymen were recruited to perform pastoral functions, and lay participation was always encouraged. The circuit riders, though full-time professionals, were characteristically young and poor. Many of them started out as lay leaders of classes on the frontier and, like the people they served, few had more than a grade-school education.27

The Baptists grew almost as rapidly, though their ecclesiastical structure was almost the opposite of the Methodists’. A group of independent churches, they banded together in regional and national associations, which—being voluntary and democratic—sometimes split apart over doctrinal issues and sometimes joined with others to create more powerful organizations. The large associations had missionary societies, and some assigned itinerants to preach the Gospel in areas where there were no Baptist churches. But most of their evangelists were independent preachers. John Leland, a prominent Baptist, best known for his support for Jefferson’s bill establishing religious freedom in Virginia, traveled, by his own account, the equivalent of three times around the globe between the Revolution and 1824, and preached eight thousand sermons. The typical Baptist evangelist, however, was a farmer licensed to preach by his church who moved into a new area and gathered a congregation. These farmer-preachers were self-supporting, and like the Methodist ministers, they rarely had any more education than their congregants.28

By 1800 the Presbyterians were well organized in the South with two synods and seven presbyteries, and in 1801, they established a Plan of Union with the Congregationalists to evangelize New York state and the territories to the west. But their gains were mainly in the settled areas, for their intellectually weighty Calvinism was not well suited to frontier evangelism. For one thing, it required a well-educated clergy, and that limited the number of ministers they could deploy. It also required sustained preaching and teaching—and therefore a more conservative approach to evangelism. Many Presbyterians were horrified by what they heard about the Cane Ridge meeting. Their General Assembly banned camp meetings and gradually withdrew from the practice of revivalism. Presbyterians on the frontiers, however, refused to abide by the Assembly’s restrictions. Some modified their message, while others rejected the doctrinal and educational requirements of the denomination. These defections led to schisms and the formation of new sects: the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and a Christian movement that thirty years later joined with a group formed by Alexander Campbell, another dissident Presbyterian, to create a new denomination, the Disciples of Christ.29

The frontier evangelists gained authority not from ecclesiastical credentials, but from their ability to appeal to audiences. Unlike the settled clergy, they preached without notes in colloquial language and used earthy humor and commonsense reasoning. Storytellers rather than didactic moralists, they dramatized biblical stories and vividly described the torments of hell. Of Lorenzo Dow, an independent Methodist and one of the most popular preachers in the first two decades of the revivals, a contemporary wrote:

His weapons against Beelzebub were providential interpositions, wondrous disasters, touching sentiments, miraculous escapes . . . a