April 5 Flashback: Awokenings

April 5 Flashback: Awokenings April 5, 2022

From April 5, 2017, “Why we can’t have Nice Things (cont’d.)“:

I’ve studied enough about Great Awakenings to realize they’re really not that great. No matter how widespread the “awakening” seemed to be, it didn’t help most people get woke or stay so. Consider the First Great Awakening, led by figures like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Edwards was interested in eschatological justice for sinners, but not terribly interested in justice here in this life. Whitefield, on the other hand, proved to be an effective campaigner for political and social change — he helped to legalize slavery in the colony of Georgia so that he could run a more profitable plantation.

The Second Great Awakening is perhaps a bit more hopeful. It was led by folks like Charles G. Finney, who argued for abolition and women’s suffrage (and temperance, and anti-Masonry, and other causes of the day that haven’t aged quite as well). But the revivalism of this period didn’t always, or even usually, include such integral concern for justice. Confederate soldiers, too, saw Jesus in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps. And many of the revived and awakened took up arms again after the war, leading or joining the terrorist militias that repealed and replaced Reconstruction, imposing a century of Jim Crow in Jesus name, Amen.

Some religious historians talk of a third and even a fourth “Great Awakening,” but the evidence for any such thing is not terribly convincing, and the idea is depressing to contemplate. The claim that such events ever took place requires us to define Great Awakening down to something utterly inconsequential.* (If a Great Awakening falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it still make a noise? What if they threw a Great Awakening and nobody came?)

I still appreciate the idea of such a thing. I see the resurgent ugliness of ethnic nationalism here in America and in Europe and I think that another Pentecost might be a very good thing right about now. But Pentecost is a church thing, and it’s no use looking to the church to provide the solution to a problem that seems most acute and most deeply rooted in our churches themselves. Frankly, it’s when I look at our churches that I most often think, “Those people need Jesus.”

Not that I’m giving up on our churches, mind you. Like I said, I still believe that everybody can be saved — even white American Christians. And our churches certainly have the resources and the stories that ought to enable them to rediscover the virtue and duty of solidarity, to repent from hatred and be liberated from resentment. …

* (The purported “Fourth Great Awakening,” if you’re interested, supposedly took place from ca. 1950-1980. I’d argue that this was, in fact, a period of religious revival, one in which prominent Christian leaders prophetically called for national repentance and rebirth. But the people who talk about a fourth Great Awakening ignore that. They’re not talking about the Civil Rights Movement, but about, like, Billy Graham and the explosive growth of Pentecostal churches.)

Read the whole post here.


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