Monday, September 19, 2011

The First Great Awakening: The Myth of Engendering Unity

“…the Great Awakening helped bind Americans together with a shared sense of
Spirituality as a people and, perhaps, “prepared them,” in the words of one historian,
“for the coming ordeal of sacrifice and war.”

Historians such as Benson Bobrick, here quoting John Anthony Scott, represent a great many writers who give the event called The Great Awakening a great deal of significance in providing a sense of national unity to the colonists of the British territory that became the United States of America in their war for independence. In Alan Heimert’s 1966 book, Religion and the American Mind, he makes the case that it was a consequence of the First Great Awakening that the American Revolution was not only made possible but “inevitable” and that it provided a “thrust toward American nationalism.” It is important to examine the exact nature of the event called The First Great Awakening or simply The Great Awakening to see if it was even the powerful force of its own time it is given credit to be, much less the potent political-religious force of decades later that many authors insist it was.

The religious event called the Great Awakening or more specifically the First Great Awakening, it can be shown, was not the catalyst for giving the colonists a sense of shared identity that it has been claimed to be. In fact, it can be shown that the Great Awakening is more of a mythological construct imposed on the colonial era than a real motivator enabling the colonists to rise up against a perceived oppressor. The series of revivals that give meaning to the 19th century invention of the phrase, The Great Awakening, and read back into the 18th century, were localized and not national in character, affecting different areas of the colonies differently and having no long lasting influence on colonial society. In fact, the men who led the revolution as its most visible chieftains were not men who were influenced by revivalism and emotional constructs of religion at all. It will be necessary to explain both revivalism and to provide a groundwork for the overall religious state of the majority of the colonies, as well, in this paper.

Besides Alan Heimert’s mid-1960’s book and Joseph Tracy’s famous The Great Awakening that gave a name to the series of revivals a hundred years previous to him, mostly in New England, there are several other good books and articles on the subject at hand. For the journal Church History, there is the 1976 article “Church Vitality and the American Revolution” which shows the consensus of historiography being that the period before the revolution was one of spiritual malaise, a notion the author, Douglas Sweet, attempts to overthrow. This paper focuses mainly on New England. In the same volume of Church History Mark Knoll’s article on Ebenezer Devotion takes the life of one particular Connecticut clergyman to underscore the importance of religion in the beginning of the war for independence. Again, in the very same issue of that journal, William Hogue presents an argument that the Great Awakening’s emotionalism and out of control responses to preaching like George Whitefield’s actually increased membership in the Anglican church thus implying that if the Great Awakening had any great consequence it was just the opposite of the effect given it by historians.
In addition Frank Lambert offers several articles that even call into question the legitimacy of giving the so called First Great Awakening such an appellation. There are other works which will be included in this paper to flesh out the thesis that the Great Awakening lacked in reality the importance that historians have read back into it with regard to the willingness of the colonies to rebel against the mother country.

The Great Awakening was “a series of fervent religious revivals” in the early 1700’s. A “revival” of religion carries with it several meanings. One is the meaning of individual revival where a person returns to an enthusiastic start that it is presumed he or she began with when they became “saved” or “born again” experiencing the “new birth” as commanded by Jesus Christ in the New Testament of the Bible, presumably after hearing some inspiring preaching. Another meaning of revival refers to an event that Christians attend where preaching is heard and people, some of whom have never been “born again” do experience it as a result of that preaching whereby they confess faith in Christ as their savior. In general we should define a “revival” as a revival of religion and religious impulses for the purpose of understanding what was called “The First Great Awakening” in the larger perspective and as a spiritual and intensely emotional event in the lives of those who attended preaching where revival broke out.
Jonathan Edwards, the preacher who is often credited with beginning The Great Awakening gives an adequate description of what would go on as a consequence of a meeting where a revival broke out as he described the equally famous George Whitefield after his success in preaching from Edwards’ pulpit; “the minds of the people in general appeared more engaged in religion, shewing a greater forwardness to make religion the subject of their conversation…and to embrace all opportunities to hear the Word preached.” Edwards wife, Sarah, had this to say about Whitefield’s preaching success, “It’s wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience…I have seen upwards of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence…broken only by an occasional half suppressed sob.”
The Great Awakening was influenced by an Evangelical Revival that swept from England in the early 1700’s. While there were certainly differences between the two regions there were certainly many similarities, as scholar Michael Crawford points out in an article for the Journal of British Studies. “The two movements shared ideals and goals; rejection of contemporary religious norms; emphases on sin, forgiveness, and new birth; existential experience of God’s presence; and intuitive basis for faith. They shared many social forms: religious gatherings of large numbers; itinerant preachers; lay exhorters; open and communal expressions of emotion, sometimes accompanied by convulsions and fainting; religious societies for pious consultation, prayer, and psalm singing; and mass conversions.”
Scholars have expressed their understanding of the importance of these events on colonial society as George Whitefield and others preached to large crowds up and down the Eastern seaboard. “The Great Awakening was nevertheless the single most transforming event in the religious history of colonial America. It left the legacy of evangelical “born again” Christianity.” The question is, though, did it do as Bobrick’s quote at the beginning of this paper claimed, prepare the people for the “coming ordeal” by providing, as the Heimert quote claimed, a thrust toward American nationalism and did it make the drive for independence from England inevitable?
There is no question that religion was a very important factor in the revolutionary generation. But it was not so because of any evangelical fervor on the part of the nation’s founders. Holmes points out that Ben Franklin was a Deist, a believer in the watchmaker God who winds everything up and then walks away. Washington was probably the most religious in his moral viewpoints but was certainly never bound by a need to unite with the body of Christ in worship. Jefferson did not believe in the supernatural and Adams was of the Unitarians, who don’t believe that Christ is the very God who created us, in human form. Madison was never outwardly religious himself but was respectful of religion. In essence the Founding Generation was raised with a thorough knowledge of the Bible, often appeared less devout than they were personally in public as pretending to be an intensely religious person did not carry the same political weight as it does today, and knew the Bible not only as a guide for life, a guide for government, and the foundation of Protestantism, they knew it as literature. They “understood their religion in the terms of their background and their day.” But, they were also steeped in the classics of Rome and Greece and in European political philosophy as is commonly known and need not be referenced here. Their faith can hardly be characterized as evangelical or tied to emotional revivalism. Theirs was an intellectual faith. The Christian religion, in all its diversity from Calvinistic Anglicans to Arminian Methodists to persecuted Baptists possessed of annoying evangelical fervor, was only one of the characteristics of the colonies in general and not the most important one. But, there is no question that “for a significant number of Americans, the revolutionary experience was still best conceptualized within an essentially religious framework.”
But, the question still remains, of what significance was the event known in the 19th century and onward as The Great Awakening? It is true that George Whitefield connected local revivals “crafting a national event before the existence of a nation.” It is also true that in the more conservative areas of the country, like New England, revivalism was a destructive force that split congregations and destroyed established churches, sending many people into the Independent and Baptist camps, in spite of William Hogue’s assertions pointed out earlier, causing division and confusion more than cohesion, creating more and more diverse and conflicting Christian groups. The Great Awakening then was also in great part a pastoral phenomenon and often a negative one.
But, one thing The Great Awakening was not was a unifying political force in colonial America. It was mostly a northern event that left vast areas of colonial America untouched. Interestingly, there aren’t many contemporary accounts of the events, as the revivals were local affairs. Revivals, in and of themselves, do not have long lasting effects, as is well known by anyone who has regularly attended them. They are highly charged emotionally and for any effect to linger must be followed up by more revivals. A religious revival meeting is of the same type of event as a sporting event or a modern rock concert. They are wholly incapable by themselves of establishing political unity or giving such a diverse group as the Thirteen British colonies any sense of political or even religious cohesion. Indeed, from an evangelical religious perspective the term, The Great Awakening, implies two fictions; one, that people were in general indifferent to religion before it and two, that people were inflamed with religious sensibilities after it, neither of which have any evidence showing them to be true across the board. What did give the colonies a sense of solidarity and cohesion, if not this myth called The Great Awakening?
John Jay said it best in The Federalist Papers. “I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.” This is what unified the American people, not a scattered series of intercolonial revivals of short term effect given continuity by an Anglican itinerant preacher named George Whitefield who manipulated the news media of the day and gained converts for Christianity who soon were as “lost as a goose in a horse race” without the regular attendance at such events, that happened dozens of years prior to the events of the American Revolution.
In fact, as Bobrick points out, political unity was not a new thing but, indeed, he says, “In one way or another the colonies had been trying to unite since 1643, when the four New England colonies had signed articles for mutual defense against invasion by Indians or any other hostile force.” In the French and Indian War as many Americans served as had British military. The colonists without question were willing to unite for their defense and for their rights once convinced that those established rights had been threatened by King George III and his parliament without any great socio-political change effected by the “unifying” preaching of a Congregationalist preacher from Connecticut named Jonathan Edwards.
Samuel Eliot Morison relates an account in his The Oxford History of the American People that sheds light on the motivation of the colonists through an anecdote, “What made the farmers fight in 1775? Judge Mellen Chamberlain in 1842, when he was twenty one, interviewed Captain Preston, a ninety year old veteran of the Concord fight: “Did you take up arms against intolerable oppressions?”
“Oppressions?” replied the old man. “I didn’t feel them.”
“What, were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?”
“I never saw one of those stamps. I certainly never paid a penny for one of them.”
“Well, what then about the tea tax?”
“I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.”
“Then I suppose you had been reading Harington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty?”
“Never heard of ‘em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac.”
“Well, then, what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?”
“Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
Morison also gives this revealing look at the movers and shakers of the American Revolution in his book. “The American Revolution was brought about by radical groups in the seaport towns, usually in alliance with local merchants, and with planters of the Southern tidewater.” Certainly, this group of men were not the kind whose lives would be moved and changed by a group of religious events characterized by intense emotional outbursts.
It is important to repeat, though, that the Christian religion was an important factor in the Founding Generation. Of that there is no denying. But if you peruse even the pages of a highly partisan book like the 1864 The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States by Benjamin F. Morris who reads back from the 19th century into the men of the American Revolution the most pious of Christian motivations making no mention of The Great Awakening or revivals, and merely reveals a letter from Benjamin Franklin to George Whitefield about how he doesn’t see the need for faith if he performs good you can see my point.
Ever since Tracy’s 1840’s book on The Great Awakening historians have been bandying around this notion that Britain’s American colonies were given their unity and prepared for the battle for independence, at least in part, by a semi-mythical event that took place mostly in New England in the 1740’s and was almost finished before it was even acknowledged by its most ardent defenders. And yet, the colonies had already been prepared for the coming ordeal of a war for Independence by banding together for mutual aid against hostile natives, against hostile French, and by their sharing of a commonly expected set of rights and privileges as Englishmen.
Also, if you’ll notice in the John Jay quote aforementioned he does not even speak of a heritage of religious revivals and people frothing at the mouth, crying, falling to their knees, and going into convulsions as a prerequisite for fighting for independence. The very idea carries with it an absurdity that goes beyond understanding. It is simply something normally rational people repeat because historians have said so, that the Great Awakening gave unity to the colonies they didn’t otherwise have and prepared them for the War for Independence.
It’s important to address the quote that this paper began with by Benson Bobrick from his outstanding and wonderfully written history, Angel in the Whirlwind. The Great Awakening did not offer to the American people a sense of shared spirituality. If anything it divided them more; into the born again and destined for Hell, into a multitude of denominations and sects, and into revival supporters and those people who fled to the Anglican Church as a negative reaction to emotionalism. The Great Awakening, if anything, is simply an American myth.
In conclusion, a couple of quotes from Jon Butler’s book, Awash in a Sea of Faith, are appropriate at this point to drive the final nail in the coffin in order to bury this famed event. “The emphasis on “The Great Awakening” may say more about subsequent times than about its own. The term was not contemporary, nor was it known to the historians of the revolutionary and early national periods. Nowhere in George Bancroft’s magisterial history of the United States can a single reference to this “event” be found. Although Tracy coined the term, he limited his history to New England and wrote only fleetingly about revivals elsewhere in the 1740’s.” Butler then goes on to compare The Great Awakening in mythological terms to the famed Donation of Constantine, the early medieval fraud. “More important, an obsessive concern with it distorts important historical subtleties and obscures other crucial realities of eighteenth century American religious development.”

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