Thursday, May 12, 2005

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How Did Evangelicals Get To "Own" Religion in America?

A historical look at its rise in 19th Century America by the historian Gary Nash. Contrary to the political sloganeering you hear today, the dominant view of religion in Revolutionary generation had little in common with those of evangelicalism. The balance shifted only with the Great Awakening. Nash explains:

After the revolution, an outpouring of evangelical religion erupted, in which, as the historian Nathan Hatch has written, "the right to think for oneself became . . . the hallmark of popular Christianity."

"The right to think for oneself." That proposition may sound unremarkable today, but it was a radical notion 200 years ago. Traveling ministers in the early 19th century carried that message to working people throughout the country. The movement they represented—deeply democratic and, in its focus on personal revelation, at odds with Church hierarchy—would do more than anything else to spread Evangelical Protestantism and eventually make it the dominant religion in the nation.

Note: "The right to think for oneself" refers to understanding scripture individually, as opposed to accepting the authority of church leaders.

posted by on 05.12.05 at 09:16 AM


By default.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 05.12.05 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

I'm afraid the post is a little misleading, though not the Nash article linked in the post. Mr. Greenberg's post implies that the Great Awakening followed the Revolution, which is only partially correct. The initial Great Awakening was a phenomenon of the mid-18th century and was followed by a subsidence of religous fervor in the colonies. The revolutionary period itself was time of what Richard Brookhiser has called reduced religous temperature. Much of what Nash is discussing in his article is the second Great Awakening, the great evangelical expansion of the first half of the 19th century. This is certainly what turned the US to a predominantly evangelical, as opposed to traditional congregationalist or Anglican or Presbyterian or Lutheran, form of Christianity. While Hatch and others (see Frank Lambert's good book on this topic) have emphasized the importance of expanding individual choice in the genesis of the first Great Awakening and in some sense as a precursor of the Revolution, the second Great Awakening is partly a result of the Revolution. The increasing emphasis generated by the Revolution on individual freedom invaded many realms, what Bernard Bailyn called the "contagion of liberty." In addition, the second Great Awakening had a particularly optismistic theology, a real break with the rigorous predestinarian Calvinism of the best prior American theologians, and also emphasized human choice and human capacity. This is something that probably comes indirectly from the Enlightenment. This is also what made the second Great Awakening a generator of reform movements like temperance, anti-slavery, and women's rights.
As an aside, the theology of many contemporary evangelicals is quite different from that of the second Great Awakening and efforts to conflate the two should be resisted.

posted by: Roger Albin on 05.12.05 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

Adding to Roger Albin's point, the first Great Awakening in the mid-18th century emphasized personal experience very heavily, though usually in a theolgical context heavily influenced by Calvinism. Also, contemporary evangelical Christianity differs from its predecessors in being less personally demanding, far more ecumenical and more open as well to exotic variants like Pentacostalism. These characteristics can arguably be traced back to the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century, but it's not a slam-dunk case.

Just to stir up trouble, let I suggest that the most important aspect of the alienation between evangelical and secular Americans -- which is mutual, and may if anything be more strongly felt on the secular side -- has little to do with most of the theological disputes that preoccupied earlier generations of American Christians. Rather, it has to do with attitudes about sex, which is even more central than materialism to the moral universe of secular America.

posted by: JEB on 05.12.05 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

Maybe the Evangelicals got to "own" religion because the non-Evangelicals gave it up?

Read Unitarian Universalist Rev Dan Harper who talks about people defending darwinian theories doing more harm than good.
Evangelicals tend to donate more to their Churches too... that's got help anyone trying to own anything.

Don't tell me what you believe? Tell me where you spend your money and I'll tell you what you believe.

posted by: Bill Baar on 05.12.05 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

Unfortunately far too few share the same enlightened vision of religion in an "awakened" independent nation that the great patriot Thomas Paine had. His ideals still hold value even in today's world:

"As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith. Let a man throw aside that narrowness of soul, that selfishness of principle, which the niggards of all professions are so unwilling to part with, and he will be at once delivered of his fears on that head. Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe that it is the will of the Almighty that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us. It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness; were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle I look on the various denominations among us to be like children of the same family, differing only in what is called their Christian names."

posted by: manoppello on 05.12.05 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

Extending the "logic" of the argument -- modern Americans themselves have no claim on history, since the people who founded the country dressed much differently and more often than not wore those silly, white, wig-looking things. So I guess no one can lay any claim on anything as long as there's the least bit of difference.

I'll go eat breakfast now, but the trouble is the egg I was going to cook doesn't look exactly like the egg I cooked yesterday, so I'm not sure I can claim it really is an egg -- so I guess I'll have to skip breakfast.

posted by: Danny Carlton on 05.12.05 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

My lordie,

It certainly seems to me that Frist, DeLay, Bush & Co never read Tom Paine!!! I guess that Dan Drezner may get his own conservative views better informed with a bit of inspiration from authentic democrats like Paine!!

posted by: Robert Gagnon on 05.12.05 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

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