Rude Awakenings: Thoughts on Religion in America

by Tyler Hendricks <>
Tuesday 27 July 1999

As a rule, Americans love awakenings, and Unificationists are no exception. How often have I heard the prediction that a revival, a Pentecost, is on the way, or should be. We are aware that the Awakenings boosted the democratic spirit and substance of America, by empowering the "common people" to build institutions on their own (beginning with their churches) based upon their direct experience with the Lord . While being an offspring of this great tradition, I'd like to temper our enthusiasm with a splash of cold history concerning religious awakenings in America and the democratization that accompanied it. First, a couple of points about the context in which awakenings took place and the action steps that followed from them.


Jeremiads: Awakenings are preceded by periods of "declension," when everything seems to be growing worse and worse. Americans, at least until this century, interpreted declension as a sign of God's displeasure with us, or God's "controversy" with us. Christian leaders searched in prayer for what they were doing to cause God's displeasure. This brings on the preaching of "jeremiads," in which the pastor and people tear their clothes in anguish and repentance for their sins which are bringing upon them the the word comes from the name of the prophet Jeremiah, who preached this type of sermon to the errant kings of chastise the people and call them to turn from their evil ways to prepare for the day of the Lord. And the people took these messages very seriously.

Taking action: Awakenings are followed by a period of intensive social action. The people who were awakened felt empowered. The people on the basis of their repentance were moved to sense that God could work directly through them. These awakened souls immediately took action. They evangelized. They became fervent, uncontrollable witnessers. They defied the secular and religious authorities of their day to break the boundaries of parish and tax at great sacrifice. They got results. They created revivals; they founded missionary organizations and Bible societies; they generated social reform and, many argue, built the American nation. Lay power is what lay power does.


Divisions wrought by awakenings: Every awakening brought with it a division between those who welcomed it as a work of God and those who decried it as a work of the devil. This accounts for most of the divisions of denominations in America. In many towns there is a First Presbyterian and Second Presbyterian, or First Congregationalist and Second Congregationalist church. These resulted from the awakened congregations (the "new school" or "new lights") moving out (or being driven out) of the parent church, or from the "old school" or "old light" members growing sick of the revivalist intensity (they would say,) and moving out of the parent church.

Manufactured Faith: The most articulate opponents of the revivals were liberal Congregationalists in the 1700s, Unitarians and Universalists in the 1800s, together with church-centered Christians from the Lutheran, Reformed and Catholic traditions. The liberals had numerous criticisms, only two of which I will mention. One, they saw the revivals as human artifice, religious experience manufactured by professional crowd-pleasers. The revivals were deemed spiritual factories that produced mindless believers who spouted the same rhetoric. For the liberals, faith is a life-long organic process of growth, not a sudden transformation. The second criticism deserves its own header.

Enthusiasm: The opponents of the awakenings labeled them "enthusiasms." By that they meant that the religious experiences were not true but were the result of overheated emotions and peer pressure. Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest American theologians, had his ministry forged in the fires of the first awakening and he took this question very seriously. He could not deny that the awakening was from God, and yet he could also not deny that much of it was flawed with superficial emotionality and was just a false as what the individuals supposedly were awakening from. He wrote treatises on the dynamics of personality that we identify as "religious." He sought to identify true faith, to distinguish it from false religion. Thus he attempted to defend the revivals as truly being from God. In the end he criticized the revivals as much as he defended them. He argued that many traits that we take to be signs of true faith, such as fervor in prayer, generous tithing, steady attendance and extensive biblical knowledge, are in fact not authentic signs. His conclusion was that it is only the practice of true love that provides evidence of true religious conversion.

Demagoguery: One unpleasant phenomenon that attaches to democratic society is demagoguery. Since the awakenings were populist "democratic" events, they were rich soil for demagogues. To back up a moment, I would mention that the fear of demagoguery loomed large in the minds of the founding fathers. To combat it they installed such institutions as the Senate and the appointment of the higher judiciary by the President and for life, as opposed to by popular vote. They did not trust that the "the people" always knew best; in fact, they questioned whether any entity that can be called "the people" even exists. (Cf. the communist appeal to the authority of "the people." Note further the incredible authority of polls, representing supposedly the will of "the people" in America.)

A demagogue is a person who manipulates the crowd, telling the people what they want to hear for the sole purpose of gaining power over them and, in the case of politicians, getting elected. A demagogue turns a civil society into a mob ruled by their passions and appetites. He stimulates the passions and appetites and promises to satisfy them. He will promise people anything, anything, if they will support him. The founders feared that the appetites of the common people were so base, so physical, that any man or party promising "the people" an abundance of food, sleep and sex (to use the familiar Unificationist triad of mind-body debilitations) would gain political control. These founders were skeptical that "the people" could rule themselves. Of course, this aspect of the democratic experiment, probably its most important aspect, is still not decided. Bill Clinton, it seems to me, is a demagogue.

What does this have to do with the awakenings? The awakenings were democratizing movements. Democratic religion follows the principle that the congregation picks its own pastor. In the hierarchical church, the Catholic and Episcopalian for instance, the church authorities (the bishop) and his advisors assign priests to congregations. In the democratic church, the Baptist and Congregationalist, for instance, the congregation "calls" its pastor, and has the right to dispose of him. This obviously leads to the problem of the pastor catering to the appetites of the congregation in order to gain and keep his job. It hampers the ability of the pastor to set a standard by which the congregation is judged and called to repentance. Edwards lost his position as pastor in Northampton, MA, when he judged his congregants for allowing sexual promiscuity among the youth. (Of course there are problems with the hierarchical system as well, revolving around the lack of accountability of the pastor to the congregation.)


Returning to Edwards's analysis of true religion, we note his conclusion that the trueness of religious life does not lie in its external form but in its internal content. In fact, he noted 12 possible signs of true religion, and concluded that only the twelfth is authentic. What is the twelfth? In essence, living for the sake of others. The problem is not lack of knowledge but lack of love; not lack of power but lack of ability to sacrifice. Where true love abides, whether in Baptist or Catholic forms, the laity is found fully participating in the life of the church and the pastor is found truly ministering to the needs of the people.

All forms of religion have prospered in America. We have everything from the hierarchical form of the Catholics (still boasting a membership greater than all other churches combined) and the LDS, to the democratic form of the Baptist and new paradigm churches (the Vineyard, Calvary and myriad independent congregations). No matter what institutional form, sometimes the institution hinders the work of the spirit. Sometimes it enhances or facilitates the work of the spirit. So let us pray for God's spirit to move among us and let the form follow the function.