Some of your students will be aware of those trends—and therefore will have greater confidence when it comes to speculating about the social sources of contemporary evangelicalism’s popular appeal—the transient lives of many Americans as population shifts to the South and West, the high incidence of family fragmentation in the face of staggering divorce rates, the uncertainty over gender roles fueled by feminism, the threats that recent scientific discoveries and “secular humanism” are perceived by many to pose to “traditional values,” and so forth.
Okay, here’s the payoff lurking at the end of this seeming digression into the religious culture of the late twentieth century: by now at least some students will see the connection between popular religious inclinations and broader social trends.
The earliest manifestations of the American phase of this phenomenon—the beginnings of the First Great Awakening—appeared among Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Led by the Tennent family—Reverend William Tennent, a Scots-Irish immigrant, and his four sons, all clergymen—the Presbyterians not only initiated religious revivals in those colonies during the 1730s but also established a seminary to train clergymen whose fervid, heartfelt preaching would bring sinners to experience evangelical conversion.
They took great exception to “itinerants,” ministers who, like Whitefield, traveled from one community to another, preaching and all too often criticizing the local clergy.
And they took still greater exception when some white women and African Americans shed their subordinate social status long enough to exhort religious gatherings.Hence Edwards’s famous description of the sinner as a loathsome spider suspended by a slender thread over a pit of seething brimstone in his best known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” These early revivals in the northern colonies inspired some converts to become missionaries to the American South.In the late 1740s, Presbyterian preachers from New York and New Jersey began proselytizing in the Virginia Piedmont; and by the 1750s, some members of a group known as the Separate Baptists moved from New England to central North Carolina and quickly extended their influence to surrounding colonies.You’ve sketched out the story of the first Great Awakening—its beginnings in the mid-Atlantic, its transit to New England, and its culmination in the South, its legacy of debate and division.And you’ve emphasized that it was only the colonial manifestation of a religious revival of much broader geographic scope—it spread the length of British North America (where, indeed, the only public figure whose name was known to virtually all colonials was George Whitefield!To keep the discussion on that track—and to make such connections more accessible to students—you might try tossing out the observation that religious culture in America today bears many resemblances to that of the eighteenth century.As many commentators, both scholarly and popular, have noted, recent decades have witnessed an evangelical revival—what some regard as yet another “Great Awakening.” Since the 1960s, membership in conservative evangelical Protestant churches has grown dramatically, while the membership of national organizations like the Promise Keepers and local bible study groups have also expanded at an astonishing rate.Anglicans and Quakers gained new members among those who disapproved of the revival’s excesses, while the Baptists (and, in the 1770s, the Methodists) made even more handsome gains from the ranks of radical evangelical converts.The largest single group of churchgoing Americans remained within the Congregationalist and Presbyterian denominations, but they divided internally between advocates and opponents of the Awakening, known respectively as “New Lights” and “Old Lights.” Inevitably, civil governments were drawn into the fray.Chances are that most students will simply look confused at this inquiry—although some Christians among them might suggest that divine providence inspired large numbers of people to embrace “true Christianity.” If that happens, you have a prime opportunity to point out that while such an explanation might well be persuasive from the standpoint of faith (that is, the perspective of a believer), historians (no matter what their personal religious convictions might be) strive to explain the IMMEDIATE causes of why things happened without reference to acts of God.(Otherwise they’d all be out of business, since the ULTIMATE cause of every historical event, from the standpoint of faith, is the will of God.) With a little luck, those remarks will return the class to thinking about the SPECIFIC HISTORICAL CIRCUMSTANCES that might have enhanced the appeal of evangelical Christianity, with its formidable array of emotional consolations and moral certitudes, to large numbers of people in the eighteenth century.