We tend to think of ourselves pretty much at the center of the universe, and, in a way of course, we are. We are alive and everyone before us is gone, and those before us are unborn and in the future.
But we are tied to the past, personally by our memories, and collectively as a people by the history of those who came before us. While some people “live” in the past — past glories, past triumphs, past defeats, past tragedies — and some in the future — wait until [and you can fill in the blank] — most of us live in the present, and so are lifted up and borne along by the events of today, not yesterday, or tomorrow.
Eerily, however, the past can carry a familiarity that sometimes astounds us. Did people really do that? They did what we are doing. We tend to discover that we are not so inventive after all.
It can be a fun and instructive exercise to take anything we do today and look back and see how we did the same things then, 100, 200 or 2,000 years ago.
Let’s look at the periodical outbreaks of religious fervor by Christians for reform and renewal over the years, a popular theme for almost 2,000 years since Christianity came into existence.
Christian pastors and priests have never been content with the state of peoples’ souls, from as early of the dawn of the church when the Apostle Paul preached and wrote in the first century A.D. to today. In fact, we can go back even further than Christianity, to the time of the Hebrews described in the Old Testament. Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. In his absence, they created a golden idol to worship, defiling their covenant with God.
Moses got so angry that he smashed the stone tablets with the commandments, probably one of the first acts of pastors, clerics, priests, and prophets denouncing the evil ways of their people.
The Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s was the first major outbreak of revivalism within our nation, then still a colony. Frustrated by the dry rituals and formalized worship and doctrine in most churches, reformers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield put passion back into worship.
They, and others like them such as the brothers John and Charles Wesley, struck out against formal, intellectual forms of worship driven by creeds and fashioned like templates and opened their hearts and minds to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The result was the First Great Awakening.
Revivals swept the country from New England to Georgia. Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon in July 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that still sets people on edge. Sinners were depicted like spiders dangling over the fiery pit of eternal hell, held only by the slender thread of salvation offered by Jesus Christ.
It was characteristic of the “New Lights,” as the followers of Edwards, Whitfield, the Wesleys and others were called. It dripped with both despair and hope for the human condition. There was no compromise, no appeal to the sensibilities of the congregation, nothing but fire and brimstone.
“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God…You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it…. And let everyone that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell … now harken to the loud calls of God’s word and providence.”
Baptists and Presbyterians flourished and grew, while the Methodism of the English Wesley brothers found a fertile foothold in the colonies. Americans shared for the first time a common experience that cut across all the colonies and classes, and in many ways prepared the way for the American Revolution.
The first American Great Awakening was followed by a second in the early 19th century, and some would say a third and fourth, the last one still alive and well today. Each contributed a significant thread to the American tapestry, including not only the concept of religious freedom, but also the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and other principles that became part of our cultural and legal woof and warp.
To diminish or downplay or otherwise deprecate the role of Christianity in the making of our nation is basically ignorance gone to seed. There were excesses and often wildly differing perspectives that split denominations. In the main, however, revivalism is deeply rooted in the American psyche. We periodically reinvent ourselves personally, and we periodically take deep and long looks at what and who we are collectively. It is part of the American way.
To hear a pastor today hit his stride on apostasy and idolatries is to hear a little bit of history, the echoes of a Jonathan Edwards or George Whitfield, throwing the challenge out to his people. Put that pastor under a tent and we’d strike a match to light the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Larry Clayton is a retired University of Alabama history professor. Readers can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.