The Great Awakening and anti-Intellectualism in America

The Great Awakening

I have, for some time, had an interest in the historical period around the Revolutionary war.  I am, by no means, a historian but I enjoy reading about the 18th century in America, especially as it pertains to the development of our Republic here in the United States.  It’s certainly not a common topic for discussion on this blog, but today is an exception.

Today I grabbed one of the books I had bought some time ago (probably from a used book store, which is my personal kryptonite) about this time period to do some reading.  I ended up pulling out a book called The Role of Ideology in the American Revolution edited by John R. Howe Jr. (I wonder if there is any relation to the General Howe of the Revolutionary war).  It is a collection of essays, and I began with the first essay entitled The Revolutionary Era as an Age of Politics by Edmund S. Morgan.

The thrust of this essay is about the shift from religious to political influence in colonial thinking during the 17th and 18th centuries.  And in talking about the Great Awakening, started in part by the English minister George Whitefield, Morgan says the following:

Men and women who had worshipped for years without result under the guidance of an erudite but undramatic minister, found grace after a few hours at the feet of some wandering apostle.  The itinerant was often a layman who had never been to college and knew no Greek, Latin, or Hebrew, but had a way with an audience.  If God selected him to do so much without learning, was learning perhaps more a hindrance than a help to true religion? The thought occurred to many converts and was encouraged by the increasingly confident, not to say arrogant, posture of the itinerants.  Whitefield had warned broadly against ministers who preached an unknown and unfelt Christ.  His followers did not hesitate to name individual ministers as dead of heart, blind teachers of the blind.

The time-period here is the middle of the 18th century, the 1740’s to be more precise.  But what we are seeing here is precisely what many preachers, specifically televangelists, have become today; largely ignorant, charismatic people with an ability to keep an audience.

What we see here is the beginning of a part of the anti-intellectual protestant Christian American mindset.  Granted, it has become more complicated over the last 250+ years, but the basics are all here.  Most Americans are ignorant not only of theology, but of their own scripture’s history and the history of their religion.  They are simply acculturated, entertained, and emoted towards their faith, and then subsequently sustained by the occasional inspirational feeling that they associate with the charismatic mythology that they have been fed with a flailing spoon by people who don’t know very much more than their congregations.  Yes, they often know much of the scripture itself, but not the context of its composition nor how it relates to higher learning in the sciences, history, and philosophy.

Morgan continues in talking about what happened to the “erudite but undramatic ministers” after they were deserted for the more charismatic and entertaining itinerants:

At first the deserted clergymen merely looked upon the Awakening with skepticism.  But as its exponents (known at the time as the New Lights) became more and more extravagant, skepticism spread and grew to hostility.  Ministers who had spent their lives in the study of theology and who had perhaps been touched by the Enlightenment, were appalled at the ignorance of New Light preachers and dismissed their convictions and conversations as hysteria….

This reminds me somewhat of Karen Armstrong’s point in The Battle for God that fundamentalism (which this movement seems to be a necessary precursor to) is a reaction to modernity.  These “New Lights” (perhaps comparable in some sociological sense to “new atheists”?  Or perhaps not 😉 ) were in part a reaction to the recent Enlightenment, being a primarily emotional and anti-reason approach to religion.  The educated and Enlightenment-influenced clergy were understandably affected by this movement, since it took away not only from their sophistication and effort, but also from their wallets.

With historical hindsight, we can reflect that this is sort of pre-cursor to what is happening now.  These educated 18th century theologians were dissociating themselves from the uneducated and charismatic itinerants only to find that their congregations were abandoning them for those for said itinerants.  And, like many liberal theologians today, these sophisticated clergy were not quite yet aware that they were being deserted by reason and science as well.  Today’s clergy don’t have the excuse, like their 18th century analogs, of having less conflicting scientific discovery to deal with (no Darwin yet, for example) but they were often aware that what people such as Newton had discovered were at least raising their theological dander a little.  And while Newton himself was a pious man (to some degree), the discovery of natural laws was the beginning of the conflict between faith and reason, science and religion, naturalism and supernaturalism.

When we put this into our contemporary context, the appearance of Rob Bell and other accommodating religious thinkers is not a surprise.  Reason and much of the religious instinct, especially that led by our emotion, are in conflict.  To soften the blow of the success of scientific naturalism’s effect on religion and its many revelations, the liberalization of theology is a reaction to the fundamentalism which is, itself, a reaction to the Enlightenment.

It is a resignation on the part of some of today’s religious leaders that the Enlightenment and it subsequent naturalistic worldview (and to gnu atheism, ultimately) are forces that cannot be beaten, ignored, or entertained away; they must be dealt with, even if some insist upon maintaining their belief despite the immanent conflict between the faith that sustains such a belief and the reason that tells them they must resign–even if not all the way.

The Signing of the Constitution (note lack of Christian symbolism)

Fundamentalism is anti-intellectual, especially when it tries not to be.  Many are starting to realize, as we gnus are especially aware, that even the anti-intellectual cannot hide from the quality of reason’s success in changing our world.  And so religion and its allies resign and accommodate to this realization by shifting, a little at a time, until their religion is not much more than the a watered-down new age paganism, some Sunday social gathering of hymn-singers and socializers, or to some vague deism recognizable to many of our Constitutional fathers.  And if deism is all that can survive this neo-Enlightenment which is the science-driven worldview of the skeptic, the atheist, and the gnu, then that’s the right step in the right direction of history.

It makes me wonder if I should be less cynical and misanthropic.  I’m still skeptical about hat though.

Finally, I wonder (as I have before) if when American religious thinkers claim that this is  Christian nation, they are referring to this attitude that exists from before the Constitution.  Well, yes we are largely a Christian culture, but the simple fact is that the Constitution was composed, signed, and ratified after a period of time when the Colonial culture that spawned the Great Awakening and its anti-intellectual attitude gave way to a somewhat elitist deist crowd of people in Philadelphia in the 1780 and 1790s.  Yes, our culture is largely influenced by this anti-intellectual worldview from the Great Awakening (And, later, the Second Great Awakening), but our Constitutional Government arose despite this, not because of it.

Our attempt, here in the United States of America, at creating a more perfect union occurred despite our anti-intellectual Christian culture, not because of it.  The Great Awakening was not what created America, after all.  What created America was a desire for a secular government conceived of by men who, mostly, saw the effects of the Great Awakening as I see it; anti-intellectual riff-raff in a time of need for reason and education.

Let’s get on that.

3 thoughts on “The Great Awakening and anti-Intellectualism in America

  1. Interesting. I wonder if history will identify a third Great Awakening, in the rise of evangelical, fundamentalist religion in the latter half of this century. It seems that America has been plagued with this recurring wave of evangelical, anti-intellectual religion since the beginning. Kind of like a chronic disease. It would be nice to think of the current evangelical movement as something that will rise and fall just like its predecessors, instead of as an ever-growing force.

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