Sunday, September 28, 2008

Review: The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists by Barry Hankins

Seeing that Barry Hankins has a biography coming out on Francis Schaeffer, I found another of his books which promises an interesting scope. Since it is a volume of the Greenwood Guides to Historic Events: 1500-1900, I also expected an introductory volume suitable to an undergraduate class. I was not disappointed. Although evangelical himself, Hankins clearly recognizes Catholics as Christian — in contrast to the attitudes of many of the reformers of the Second Great Awakening. This book is a solid introduction to the Protestant revival movements of the first half of the 19th Century. It's a good book for a public or academic library to have on hand for general readers.

I love the ancillary material in this book, which is invaluable for students and general readers like myself. A three page timeline takes us from 1706 to 1920. Events listed include preaching to slaves, First Great Awakening, the main events of the Second Great Awakening, the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and Disciples of Christ denominations, the foundation of Transcendentalist utopias, the events of the abolition and feminist movements. There's a photo essay of 7 images: 2 lively caricatures of the revival movement and portraits of Charles Finney, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, R.W. Emerson, and H.D. Thoreau. At the conclusion of the volume are short biographies of the major figures, restating in summary form the main issues of their lives. These include: Amos Bronson Alcott, Richard Allen, Susan B. Anthony, Lyman Beecher, Alexander Campbell, Peter Cartwright, Timothy Dwight, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Finney, Margaret Fuller, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, James McGready, Lucretia Coffin Mott, Phoebe Worrall Palmer, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Barton Stone, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Henry David Thoreau, Nat Turner, and Theodore Dwight Weld. And some primary documents are also included by Richard Allen founder of the AME, Peter Cartwright (a supportive report on revivals yet critical of excesses), Lyman Beecher (a supporter of revivals who held to a Calvinist view of God's sovereignty), Charles Finney "How to Promote a Revival," Angelina Grimke (promoting the immediate abolition of slavery), Thomas Dwight Weld (emphasizing the injustice of slavery), letters between Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimke debating the relative importance of abolition and feminism, Emerson's "Self Reliance," Thoreau on Transcendentalism, Thoreau on walking, Thoreau on Civil Disobedience, two poems by Margaret Fuller.

Forgive me for detailing these supporting materials, but this may help the student or teacher who is looking for something in particular. There's also a glossary and an index.

The heart of this book is the impact revivalism had in changing American Protestantism from a Calvinistic emphasis on God's sovereign predestination of elect and the damned to an Arminian belief that salvation is open to all and the pivotal role of human free will. The First Great Awakening had been Calvinist and Presbyterianism had been able to deal with the tensions which arose (probably because it was in a geographically contained area). By contrast, the Second Great Awakening faced a dispersal due to the opening of the frontier. Like the First Great Awakening, the Second began with Presbyterians, but when Presbyterian authorities tried to reign in revivalists like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, they formed their own non-denominational group, which later became denominations: the Disciples of Christ, the Independent Christian Churches, and the Churches of Christ.

The Methodists and the Baptists were better able to flourish in the Second Great Awakening due to structural and doctrinal differences from the Presbyterians. Methodist preachers were circuit riders, responsible for shepherding a series of churches at one time. This lessened the impact of a cult of personality as their bishop could assign them to other circuits from year to year. Being fully congregationalist, Baptists had no hierarchy to be in conflict with. This congregationalist structure allowed them to expand wherever a group could be brought together, without depending upon a licensed and formally educated pastor. The human effort and initiative involved in organizing and choosing to attend a revival was somewhat problematic for Presbyterians because it conflicted somewhat with the emphasis on God's free election (although Lyman Beecher and Jonathan Edwards before him were able to reconcile the practice of revivals with divine sovereignty). The Methodists in particular had an advantage here because their theology was framed in terms of free will and seeking holiness. Clearly, this Arminianism also influenced Presbyterians and Baptists as they expanded into the frontier and as the waves of revival swept back from the frontier to the cities in the East.

The major engine of changing Presbyterianism from Calvinist to Arminian was Charles Finney, who is discussed throughout Chapter 3 of this study. Finney, who infamously claimed that "a revival of religion is not a miracle" (44), put the emphasis of conversion on the hard work and methods of the preacher and the cooperation of the converts. Although the Presbyterian establishment in the Eastern cities opposed him in principle (Asahel Nettleton and Lyman Beecher, p 45), they ended up conceding to him in practice (46). As an urban phenomenon, the revivals of this time have been examined from a Marxist social control theory as well as a societal change that called all classes to reform their lives. Although Hankins is mostly opposed to the social control theory, he does see it as having some impact in the complex mix of the history of revivals.

The Second Great Revival was a time of change in African-American Christianity as well. While the emotional and dramatic gestures of the frontier revivals resonated with African religious customs, the emphasis of freedom in the Scriptures strongly appealed to slaves and called white Christians to what we might now call a praxis of liberation (at the same time making slave holders and other nervous). The foundation of African Methodist Episcopalism (AME) and the spread of the Baptist demomination among blacks are both discussed in Chapter 4. The orthopraxy of abolition and feminism are explored in Chapter 5 and Chapter 6.

As other reviewers have noted, Chapter 2, Transcendentalism as a New Religious Movement, is the weakest in the book. It's weak because it focuses on the Transcendentalist mostly as parallel yet isolated from the Protestant revival movement. And yet, Emerson and other Transcendentalists were originally called together by George Ripley, a Unitarian minister. The roots of Transcendentalism are mainly seen as an American share in European Romanticism reacting to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. But I do wonder: what elements of Liberal Unitarian Christianity survived and determined the forms of Transcendentalism (Unitarians denied the divinity of Christ but affirmed the miracles)?

On a final note, I think that this book could have benefited from an examination of the Catholic revivals that were going on at the same time with Isaac Hecker — Hecker was a Transcendentalist who joined the Brook Farm movement before converting and becoming a Catholic priest, so some mention of him would be expected (I would also have expected some mention of Rose Hawthorn, Nathaniel's daughter who co-founded a Dominican religious order seeing as it mentions Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe, notable daughters of other figures covered in the book). Readers who are curious as to the roots of revivalism in the Counter-Reformation, should look to (one time Catholic) Bill Cork's study, "The History of the Parish Mission." Revivalism itself has ancient roots in the relationship between the hierarchical apostolic mission and the apostolic mission of the baptized (which is the original impetus of monasticism and the mendicant orders). See Ratzinger's "The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements," especially beginning with Part II which offers a historical perspective.

Originally published at Late Papers

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