I hesitate using the term “great awakening” here lest I get a chewing out by Larry Schweikart, a real historian, for pirating that term, for they were recognized periods in American history. But because they were “events” of the rolling thunder variety; passing from missionary to not only the lost at the meeting house, but also to more would-be missionaries, who would carry the storm even further down the valley to even smaller tents, they don’t neatly fit into historical events which occur at the top where many historians are most comfortable, with papers, letters and written policies that chronicle events.
“Top-down” history is easier to chronicle than organic history at the bottom such as these “great awakenings” for their influence is more speculative.
But what we generally know about the long term effect of these Great Awakenings is that they would tip the scales of history. There are elements of these both “recognized” Great Awakenings; pre-Revolution colonial America, circa 1740s, and the pre-Civil War 1850s, that are found in our current national mood swing arising from the election of Barack Obama morphing into the rise of Donald Trump to counter it. Twelve years and counting.
And thanks to social media, for which I am certain it was not designed, thousands of everyday Americans have been able to put on their investigative historian caps and develop their own theories as to what’s going on. As an amusement I suspect it’s more entertaining (and educational) than those little “civilization building” video games we see advertised on television. It may even be better than Risk.
More importantly, probably for the first time, it’s a “game” Americans can play at any level they wish about any current event. Look up the word “zeitgeist”, a “defining mood or spirit”, and then realize there are two competing zeitgeists abroad in the land today. One is of an enduring, un-abiding love of America and the other a relatively modern, but just as deeply held, vitriolic hatred of that same America.
In both 1776 and 1860 there were also competing belief systems, and, as patriotic Americans view our history, after a couple of generations of snoozing we were re-awakened…by our religious leaders (and not our politicians)…to restore and redirect our purpose.
Not just Donald Trump’s place in history (and his successors’), but the original fire of Freedom continuing as the dominant driving force in this unique freak of Nature called America, will depend largely on how this next Great Awakening takes shape.
The original Great Awakenings were religious in nature, while our modern version, already in progress for over a decade, is more patriotic. But American patriotism has always been joined at the hip with not just religion, but the revivalist sort as moved those earlier movements. Considering their era before mass communication, that was about the only way a mass movement could become “mass”. So great revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards and Whitfield had to compose sermons and then travel to preach them, and then hope that some of their listeners would would pick up both the content and the fire and pass it on to still other gatherings.
Great Awakenings were visual events. But it was amazing how quickly a fiery sermon in Massachusetts could end up in southwestern Virginia and the Carolinas to smaller groups dressed in buckskin. These were not dry “tending-to-the-flock” sermons aimed mostly at the womenfolk and sedentary townsmen, but to hunters and farmers; about the wages of sin, especially hard drinking and wayward behavior.
And these revivalist periods were unlike other nations, many who had state religions in place, barely tolerating others…which is part of the reason America ever got settled in the first place. So it only made sense that revivalist would used language that could be understood by all the people, as if among equals instead of the olde English or papist way of beginning every sermon with something like “My dear children”.
Americans didn’t like being spoken down to in those days, either.
Interestingly, Europe also had a “Great Awakening” in the early late 17th and 18th Century, only they called it “The Enlightenment”, giving to Western civilization some of our greatest thinkers. But that thinking was entirely top down in the intellectual sense, for one, very few people in Europe who could give a farthing for what the commoners thought about anything. People like us weren’t encouraged to think, only to do what we were told by their betters.
(Pause: I can’t remind you enough of the seismic effect of America simply being born, out-of-wedlock so to speak, had on Western civilization’s entire top-down view of the world.)
If all this sounds familiar, the alarm about the rise of Barack Obama and his kind, and the subsequent insertion of Donald Trump into history, was borne on the feathers of the most primitive form of patriotism, as in “not in my house” patriotism, in response to just this sort of down-the-nose condescension that had existed in Europe since they invented the divine rights of kings.
But while religious in the personal sense, both Great Awakenings played key roles roles in the great and historic things that would occur in their wake; things that were not religious in nature…the American Revolution and the American Civil War. (I’ll let you decide if either of the things would have occurred without the role the “revival of religion played in making them happen.)
In the American Revolution, our first Great Awakening made its mark on the development of the territories just opening up in western Virginia and the Carolinas almost a century after Jamestown and Plymouth, for it sped up by a generation the process by which they were “patriotized” in America, a process I’ve often said requires three generations. Most of the western militias formed from those areas were second and even first generation, mostly Scot-Irish, but in the latter half of the War of Independence, in the South, it can be argued that their militias made the difference. (One of my kinsmen, Mark Renfro, a captain of the Carolina militia, was one, and was granted land in Kentucky called Renfro Valley, south of Richmond.)
Likewise, in the 1850s, (the Republican Party ran its first national campaign in 1854), while modern historians and economists cite all sorts of causes for the Civil War other than slavery; political, social and economic, the indisputable fact is that the Union Army fought and won that war because 2.2 million young men volunteered and 365,000 of them died. (Very few were drafted)
Most of those young men’s were taught the evils of slavery from their local pulpit.
Know this: it can rightfully be said that the American Civil War was the first time any nation in history had ever fought a war to free another people.
All those young volunteers left farm cots and towns from 20 states. (Interestingly, most of these are “blue states” today, if you want to put your finger on what that they had in 1860 they don’t have now.) Not only was this a first, but America has done this same thing on other occasions since 1860, our graveyards found all over the world while no other nation has seen fit to follow suit unless we were there by their side.
But still more remarkably is that those 2.2m volunteers had never seen a black person before!
So, if anyone wants to challenge you about American exceptionalism, start with this simple fact.
So, to say that from-the-pulpit grassroots religion had nothing to do with American patriotism would be wrong.
America has had other mini-great awakenings that have helped define a social movement. I bring up the revival preacher, Billy Sunday, from the first third of the 20th Century, for his life and career highlighted some key aspects of how to fight the modern incarnations of Evil in the modern media age.
The American Left hated Billy Sunday, for one, because he plowed the same ground the Socialists wanted to plow; farms and factories. And the “Libertarian Right” hated him, in part because of that one hip they shared with the Left; the total disdain for the common man and his common way of thinking, which to them was, well, common. “Anti-intellectualism” was first coined by the academic Left and the elitist Right to describe the general public. or as H L Mencken called the (us), “booboosie”.
Mencken, had he been able to hang onto his mind, might have been one of the founders of early Libertarianism, but like Ayn Rand, he had an intolerance, social and ethical, for all those commoners that caused America to be born in the first place, and which the constitutional conservative, William F Buckley referred to as the “first two hundred names in the Boston Telephone Directory” whic he would prefer to be governed by than the faculty at Harvard. Both Mencken and Miss Rand, are worth studying from time to time, however.
One of his best friends was Sinclair Lewis, a Nobel Prize winner, and communist. Mencken had a visceral hatred for Billy Sunday, the revivalist, who he considered to be a national threat because of his success on the revival circuit from the WWI era into the Great Depression. In 1927 Sinclair Lewis published the famous novel “Elmer Gantry” with some inspiration, maybe even collaboration with Mencken, patterned on Sunday’s success with his “performance art”. Sunday was from Chicago, a big city boy, but Lewis decided to portray Gantry as a southern revivalist because, possibly because it suited the image the Left wanted to define the southern rube with; a preacher traveling around, drinking, deflowering young girls, while also saving souls. Burt Lancaster (a great actor and leftist) won an Academy Award on 1961.
I was raised a Methodist and into my high school years in the early-mid-60s, when revivals were still practiced in that church, Billy Sunday was still the first name mentioned by our visiting revivalists, even though he’d been dead 25 years.
Factually, Billy Sunday had done at least ten times more (and worse) than Donald Trump is accused of having done. And that was a key to his preaching. He knew sin from first hand experience and knew the Devil “on a first name basis”. Like Whitfield, his preaching wasn’t aimed at the womenfolk but their husbands, and his objective was to make them fear both God and Evil equally.
It was street cred that made Billy Sunday dangerous.
It’s in those areas of instilling fear in our enemies in a mass media age that you will find the core ingredients to our modern “great awakening”- revival approach. For one, we have to have a message that can not only be told and retold, to grow and inspire our troops, but to instill fear in our enemies as they see us do it.
Moreover, we have to find ways to engage them that causes to feel just the slightest tinge of fear, a fear that cannot be overcome by conditioned, knee-jerk derision. Look at Twitter and you will see all the catcalls and “CSMF’s” that may make us feel better but does not cause them a nano-second of reflection or fear.
They know we have all the guns, so we don’t have to display them to prove the point. Just give them enough pause to think you may have one hidden somewhere else. A 6″ blade may even be better.
We obviously have the fire, the “want to”. So how do we “Message” our next Great Awakening?
Trump can’t do it on his own.
See Part III.
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