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Great Awakenings and the Future of America

Bob Guaglione
February 10, 2016

In ten short years America will turn 250 years old. I still vividly remember the festivities of our nation's bicentennial birthday, but as a then-fourteen year old was far too young to grasp both the significance of that milestone and the brevity of the American experiment.

How's this for perspective: Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, during her sixty-four-year reign as monarch, has known and conversed with 25% of all US Presidents (Bates*).


During this small period we call American history, religion has played a significant role in crafting our destiny. Historians tell us that the last 250 years have produced four "Great Awakenings," religious-political cycles where religious fervor and personal revival have led to subsequent reform and political change within the dominant culture.

In his book, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, economist Robert William Fogel explains:

Upsurges in religious enthusiasm in America have tended to run in cycles lasting about one hundred years. Each cycle consists of three phases, each about a generation long, beginning with a phase of religious revival that intensifies religious beliefs and ushers in new or reinvigorated ethics and theological principles. The phase of religious revival is followed by a phase in which the new ethics precipitates powerful political programs and movements. Each cycle ends with a phase in which the ethics and politics fostered by the religious revival are challenged and the political coalition promoted by that revival goes into decline. These cycles overlap, the end of one cycle coinciding with the next.

America is divided today as much as she has ever been since possibly the Civil War. With a national election looming, some are even questioning the constitutional freedoms once outlined by our founders. Religion, still vibrant among the populace, is being pushed out of the public square.

Is America really doomed to decline, as so many have written? Will she indeed go the way of Europe and other so-called Christian nations? Or could a fresh awakening and revival be on her horizon?

In the remainder of this essay I want to examine these four crucial awakenings to see if they give us a glimpse into where our country may be headed and if the course we are charting is the correct one. (But, remember, no one knows what the Lord might do, and this peek at the past is purely historical.)

First Great Awakening, 1730-1830

The religious revival of this period lasted about 30 years with two individuals rising to the forefront: Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational minister from a church in Northampton, Massachusetts, and George Whitfield, an itinerant minister from England. Whitfield relit the waning fires of the early Puritans who had settled the colonies with his fiery eloquence and practical preaching.

Whitfield even caught the attention of Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin, a lapsed Puritan and a deist at best, whose ambition was to see America join the Enlightenment of Europe rather than return to puritanical values. Franklin, however, became obsessed with Whitfield's sermons, and even began printing them in his Pennsylvania Gazette, "making Franklin rich and Whitfield famous" (Issacson).

The political spillover was obvious as Americans began to disdain royalty and the Church of England. This would lay the groundwork for the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. Farmers, framers, deists, and the devout banded together to begin the American experiment.

Second Great Awakening, 1800-1920

The forty years of revival during this period gave rise to camp meetings, revivalist preaching, and Methodism. The belief that America was a city set on a hill and that God's kingdom had come to earth, available to all, led to critical social reforms such as the temperance movement and abolition of slavery.

Riding the wave of this new theology, political reforms such as women's suffrage, compulsory education of children, bans on alcohol, and abolishing graft in city and local government arose. The tension produced by the religious awakening led our nation into the Civil War, and to the establishment of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Third Great Awakening, 1890-1970

The Third Great Awakening was marked by a critical split among evangelicals on critical issues such as Darwinism, inerrancy of Scripture, and the reform of cities, which were overtaking rural areas. The dawn of a new century was ushered in by a powerful revival among Pentecostals, birthing denominations such as the Assemblies of God, Church of God, Foursquare Church, and Pentecostal Holiness Church.

It was during this time that new monikers were given to believers, including "fundamentalist," "millennialist," and "modernist" ("liberal thinkers"). A dichotomy arose in the Church: on one side, those believing in a Rapture or end-of-the-world scenario; on the other, those subscribing to a new social gospel. Meanwhile, colleges and universities, once the producers of America's theologians and religious thinkers, began to be dominated by secular and liberal thinking.

A breath of fresh air during this time was Billy Graham, who used open-air crusade preaching and connections within mass media to bring the spread of the gospel to dizzying heights.

Fourth Great Awakening, 1970-?

Many of you reading this essay are a product of this religious revival characterized by the Charismatic Movement within the Catholic Church, the Jesus Movement, and the rise of televangelism and the megachurch. It was in this period that the term "born again" hit the mainstream, with the conversion of Charles Colson and the election of Jimmy Carter.

Political movements and individual participation in government gave rise to the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, and brought evangelicals to the forefront of the Republican Party. The persistent theme of this awakening was a constant battle for conservative social values, with the opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and fighting the government for access for Judeo-Christian values within public institutions.

An argument could be made that we are at the tail end of the last Great Awakening in America, or simply awaiting a new one. A plethora of books are written each year, secular and sacred, telling us the Church and religion are waning in our country, especially among Millennials. They will point to decreasing church attendance; the rise of "nones," those proclaiming no particular religious attachment; our sliding morality, particularly in cities; and the true religion of America: the economy, stupid.

While all these indicators may be true, our nation has seen this before. We were once, as Ken Burns chronicles, "a nation of drunks," New York City was an "island of vice" (Zacks), and the fight for the American soul, even from its founding, has always been over God and money.

Personally, I'm bullish on America. If you travel outside the country enough you will realize that the way of life we are used to here could have never come through human will or achievement. Our founders believed in the guiding hand of Providence and a destiny outlined by the Almighty for this great nation.

If our nation is not only to succeed, but flourish, we must allow God to show us the way. We must once again look to the Scriptures to enlighten us. We must long for revival in our churches. And we must understand that, though the message of the gospel stays the same, the methods and programs to communicate it most likely will not. That is what history shows us.

It will take young leaders, burdened for the lost, to rise up with a burgeoning and entrepreneurial spirit, willing to step out in faith regardless of failure and criticism. It will take the realization that what we are looking for cannot be legislated by the state or government, nor the equalization of poor and rich.

We must discover once again that true riches are spiritually gifted. That purpose, vision of opportunity for one's life, discipline, and a thirst for knowledge can never be doled out by the State, only enhanced and guarded by it once founded. This is what made America great, and I pray that as we approach our quarter-millennium mark, we regain this sense of destiny.

I will close with these oft-repeated words:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers -- and it was not her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not her rich mines and her vast world commerce -- and it was not her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution -- and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

* Works Cited

Stephen Bates, Royalty Inc.: Britain's Best-Known Brand

Ken Burns, Prohibition documentary (PBS)

Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism 

Walter Issacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Richard Zacks, Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York

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