Monday, March 9, 2009

The Revolution and the First Great Awakening

Today's article in The Washington Post by Phillip Pan gives us an empathetic look at “Georgia, a Nation Stalled On the Road to Democracy.” The subtitle hints at the broader principle extrapolated within the body, “Fragility Is Norm for States in Transition.”

Although Frank Lambert (Inventing the Great Awakening) provides valuable insight into the promotional genius that people like George Whitefield employed to promulgate the gospel in the 1700s, his suggestion falls short that the Great Awakening was more a media event than a widespread phenomenon of spiritual transformation. America after the Great Awakening was simply too different from America before the Great Awakening for it to have been anything less than a life-changing event for those involved. Denominations split. Vast migrations from denominations like Anglicanism to groups like the Baptists forever changed the religious shape of our soon-to-be nation.

First Great Awakening revisionists like Lambert, Jon Butler (who has called for disuse of the term “Great Awakening” altogether), and Joseph A. Conforti notwithstanding, I not only believe that the Great Awakening as traditionally described was a real event, but I further side with Alan Heimert and William G. McLoughlin (against Christine Leigh Heyrman and Christopher Jedrey, for example) in seeing the First Great Awakening as instrumental in the creation of the United States of America. McLoughlin's description is fitting: The First Great Awakening was "the key which unlocked the door to the new household of the republic."

What does this have to do with Georgia? Everything. Our national ambition under George W. Bush has been to export democracy to the world. I'm a big fan of democracy, and if our nation believes in it, we ought to be willing to export it. Certainly despotism and collectivism have their flaws writ large on the history of the modern era. Yet I think a despondency is palpable and growing in reaction to the fact that democracy does not quickly and readily succeed in every soil into which we plant it. Eastern Orthodoxy may want an alternative to Stalinism, but it will not soon lose sight of the English King James I's poignant observation that non-episcopal religion “agreeth as well with a monarchy as God and the Devil,” and vice-versa.

The soil in which democracy thrives is evangelical Christianity. Exporting democracy is no good reason to spread the gospel abroad, any more than it makes sense to purchase the Happy Meal just for the toy, but I do believe that the spread of political freedom cannot possibly succeed among people who are in bondage spiritually. This is not only a good explanation for the struggles to implement democracy in Russia or Georgia, but is also a good cause for us to pray all the harder about the future of our own nation of people migrating further away from the core truths of the First Great Awakening.


David Samples said...

Bart, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading your thoughts. Though I don't always agree with you--I appreciate you and the scholarly way in which you approach your subjects. Be blessed!

Quinn Hooks said...

Thank you for sharing this information. The liberal bias in history books today discount the importance of the Great Awakenings on our nation.
It is amazing to read the changes that took place not only in individual's behavior but the changes in society as a whole.

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Dr. BB,

Yes, the revitalized Christianity of the colonial people during that period was a major factor in their ability to think clearly and act bravely in the 1770s.

And yes, the lack of such Christianity is most of the reason why self government does not take hold easily in other countries.

Now, here's a question for us: if, as the founding fathers said, our Constitution is suitable for a moral, religious people, and not for any other kind, what do we do now that we are not, generally, a moral and religious people. I have spent much of my adult life urging a return to the Constitution, but should that even be a goal? Do we need some other form of government?

Love in Christ,


Bart Barber said...

Jeff Richard Young,

I thought you was dead (I hope you've seen “Big Jake” at least once in your life).

You and I, my brother, have been called to be Whitefield and Edwards and Frelinghuysen and Tennet and Davies and Jarratt, not Washington and Jefferson and Adams and Madison and Henry and Franklin. I cannot conceive of a preferable form of government, but I can conceive of a nation renewed to the form that we have. Or at least I can pray for it and work toward it.

Thanks also to Dave Samples and Quinn Hooks for your kind comments.