King’s Survey: Reviving

Revival Meeting
Methodist Revival Meeting, 1839

In which we try to understand the logic of faith.

OK, kids, here we go: the SGA.

—What’s SGA stand for?

Funny you should ask, Jonah.

—Yeah. Absolutely hilarious. You really should to stand-up, Mr. K.

Thank you, Emily, for that heartfelt remark. The SGA, Jonah, was the Second Great Awakening. Anyone have an idea that was?

—Let me guess: It was this big religious thing that followed the First Great Awakening.

That’s a start, Ethan. Anybody remember when the First Great Awakening was?

—The 1600s.

—The 1700s.

When in the eighteenth century, Jonah?

—I dunno. 1750?

A little earlier. The First Great Awakening really got underway in the 1730s and 40s. But religious intensity dipped in the latter part of the century. God was never far away in the early years of the American republic. But the Founding Fathers had a much less pious outlook. The word “God” doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution. Some of them, like Thomas Jefferson, looked at organized religion the way they looked at slavery: as something likely to fade out. As with slavery, they were wrong.

The first stirrings of a new religious earthquake we know as the Second Great Awakening were felt in what was known as the Old Southwest, specifically the town of Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801. It was there that thousands of people gathered to hear a group of ministers lead prayer and song. It was a big social eventpeople came from far and widebut it was also a very intense emotional experience for many. At the center of it were the individual sinners who agreed who get in the “hot seat.” People like our alcoholic friend, Chris here.

—Yeah, like me.

It was obvious to people back then that drinking was a failure of will, an act of selfishness. And if Chris got in the hot seat, he could expect to be excoriated

—What’s that mean?

Severely criticized. Just scorched with abuse.

—Why on earth would anyone do that?

Because, deep down, Chris wants that.

—Hear that, Chris? You want that.

—Oh yeah. Totally.

Because Chris is ashamed. And running from his sins, pretending they don’t exist, is getting harder and harder. Living in denial. Pretending that everything is fine. Here I’m reminded of the words of a man who wouldn’t be caught dead at a revival meeting, Nathaniel Hawthorne: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” The truth, even the awful truth, is liberating. Taking off the mask. Facing the sin.

And then, in the very depths of his degradation, Chris will be reminded of something else: God’s love. An unconditional love offered to every one of us. Even though every one of us is a sinner. And that love is there no matter how bad our sin is. Yes: Jesus loves us. The Bible tells us so. And so Chris’s spirit will now soarsoar higher and farther than it ever had before. Chris will be a new person. Chris will be born again.

—I can see it. A real glow is radiating from Chris. Oh wait: that’s sweat.

—Shut up, Em.

—I love you too, Chris.

Can you see the appeal of this, kids? Can you see what it might have to offer Americans of the early nineteenth century?

—Yeah, well, if I lived in the middle of nowhere I’d probably go out of my mind, too.

Is that what we’re talking about, Adam? A really bad case of cabin fever?

—Honestly, yes.

What about you, Chris? You’ve been saved. Are you going to stay saved?

—Probably not.

—I think you guys are being a little too hard on these people. I mean, a lot of us look for a sense of meaning in our lives, even today. Some people just need a little help to cope. I can totally see how something like this could help someone like Chris.

—I think Sadie’s right. Anything that helps people is good.

Do you think it would help you, Kylie?

—I’m not very religious.

Why not?

—Why not?

Yes: why not?

—You’re asking her kind of a personal question, Mr. K.

I know, Sadie. I am. And Kylie doesn’t have to answer it. Or she can say something diplomatic, sort of the way Chris did: not my kind of thing. It’s true I’m taking a little bit of a chance here. But Kylie is used to me pushing the envelope. And I’m guessing she doesn’t mind too much by this point.

—I guess it’s really just a matter of the way I was raised. We never really went to church or anything. I think my grandmother did. But I don’t have a lot of experience with it. Maybe if I did I’d feel differently.

—Yeah, and maybe if you did you’d want to get away from it.

Certainly many people felt that way, Adam. A great many: we live in a much more secular, and diverse, society than the Americans of the early 19th centuryvirtually all Americans of the 19th century. Doesn’t really matter where you lived: Jesus was everywhere. But, as I’m about to explain, he wasn’t around the same way.

—What do you mean?

I mean, Yin, that the Second Great Awakening was a national event. But there was a strong regional character to the way it was experienced. As I’ve indicated, the SGA began in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, which is to say the South. Kentucky was a slave state (though, admittedly, not a slave state the way Mississippi or Alabama were). As you know, the South is a distinctive region in the United Statesand, in fact, there are different Souths. But how is the South different than the North?


Well, sorta, Jonah. Remember that slavery was in all of the colonies at the time of the Revolution. By 1801 it’s gone in New England. But slavery is still legal in New York, for example.

—It is?

Yes. It’s fading, but it’s there. And New Jersey, too. Of course slavery is bigger in Virginia. But it’s fading in Virginia just like it is elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic states (and unlike the Deep South). So no, slavery isn’t the real difference, as far as the Second Great Awakening is concerned. By the way, there’s a strong anti-slavery quality to SGA, even in South, at least in its early days.

—We give up, Mr. K. Tell us how the South is different.

Not yet. Let’s go back to our friends Jefferson (who is president now) and Hamilton (who isn’t quite dead). Hamilton, you will rememberand you do remember, right?

—Yeah, we remember. We all have the Hamilton soundtrack.

Hamilton believes in a strong federal government. Powerful institutions like the Bank of the United States. But Jefferson is much more of a libertarian.

—I hear that term all the time. But I’m never entirely sure what it means.

You’re not entirely sure, Jonah, but I bet you have an idea. Take a shot at it.

—It has something to do with liberty? With freedom?

—Yes, but who’s against freedom? Didn’t all the Founding Fathers fight for freedom?

—They didn’t fight for the slaves’ freedom.

That’s true, Brianna. Freedom is always limited or relative in one way or another. But to address you, Yin: There were accents on the part of those who spoke the language of freedom. Let me overgeneralize a bit for the sake of clarity. For the Puritans and their heirs in New England, freedom often involved the capacity of individuals to come together and make collective decisions without outside interference. In the mid-Atlantic states, it involved creating a well-defined arena, a general set of rules (typically a market), within the boundaries of which people could interact (which usually meant trade) in any way they wanted. But in the South, liberty was a much more individualistic affair. And that extended to religion, too. Think about that hymn I cited a few minutes ago: Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so. Faith is about my personal relationship with God. It’s not that people from other parts of the country didn’t have a personal relationship with God. That notion of the personal reflects Protestantism generally. And Christianity, generally. But it’s especially pronounced in the South. That’s why I used a language of personal responsibility to cure Chris’s alcoholism. Drunkenness was understood as a personal failing.

—That’s kinda rough.

Yes, Yin, I can see why you’d say so. We live in an age where alcoholism understood in terms of disease (or, more recently, as a form of dysfunctional learning). But in a way, this evangelical, Second Great Awakening vision of alcoholism it also liberating: If drinking is a personal failure, sobriety is a personal choice. You’re empowered to overcome your addition through self-knowledge and an active decision to recognize, and honor, your limitations, the way any sinner who loves God does. This is one reason why Alcoholics Anonymous has a spiritual approach to taking one day at a time (and also why it’s controversial among some secular-minded alcoholics and health care professionals).

Anyway, my point here is not to argue the merits of the case but rather to suggest different ways of looking at the world. The Second Great Awakening began in the South, and as such had an individualistic cast. But the SGA didn’t remain in the South; it spread across the country. It had a dramatic impact on places like upstate New York, which was known as “the Burned-over District.” But look at that region on the map. This is Erie Canal country. But where do you think most of the people who populated this region in the early 19th century came from?


Yes. All the New England states. You can run a line that goes westOhio, Michigan, Iowa, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. A Yankee stream, coast to coast. The wave of religious revival washed over these people. But given who they were, what do you think happened?

—The opened religious banks.

—They burned witches again. That’s why they called it the burnt over district.

Ha ha ha. You should do stand-up, Emily.

—Two Puritans walk into a bar. Wait: did Puritans drink?

Like fish.

—Take two. Two Puritans walk into a bar ….

—They tried to get together to make the world better.

Phew. Thank you, Kylie. They tried to make the world better. Here’s the thing: the Second Great Awakening was not simply a replay of the First. Remember that the Puritans were Calvinists. They believed that your fate was decided before you were born.

—Two Puritans walk into a bar because they have no choice …

OK, Em. But this was a couple hundred years after the Puritans had first arrived. The world had changed. There had also always been tensions, even contradictions, in the Calvinist worldview. (why would the Puritans have come here in the first place if they felt they had no control over their salvation?) But now the American Revolution had happened. Freedom had become a political reality for white Americans, and was increasingly an aspiration for black ones. The idea that your fate wasn’t fixed was now widespread. But with that power came responsibility. A responsibility, to quote Kylie, to make the world a better place.

An age of reform was at hand. And it took a dizzying array of forms: an effort to improve prisons. To improve the care of the insane. To improve family life. To end alcoholism. Just to name a few. We can’t do justice to them all. But I do want to touch one at least one or two. But we’ll come back to start improving the world tomorrow.

—Two Puritans walk into a bar to stop everyone from drinking …

—Em! Stop!

—Sorry, Sadie. It’s my destiny.

—How about you exercise your freedom and shut up?

—That would be exercising your freedom.

—Yeah, well, I need all the exercise I can get.

—Well then how about the both of you shut up?


Next: Two teachers talk out of class

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