Author Joel Rosenberg is promoting his book by lamenting recent news of cannibalism, mommy porn, and gay marriage. He says that what we need is another Great Awakening. While he only mentions the first two, Rosenberg describes these movements as,
“massive, widespread, game-changing eras of spiritual revival in which millions of people became deeply devout and passionately evangelistic followers of Jesus Christ. In 1770, for example, there were fewer than two dozen Methodist churches in America. By 1860, there were nearly 20,000. In roughly the same time frame, the number of Baptists went from under 200,000 to more than one million” (Source)
This all sounds very fine, but consider some of the combined effects of the Great Awakenings. The First Great Awakening has been described this way:
“Revivalism taught people that they could be bold when confronting religious authority, and that when churches weren’t living up to the believers’ expectations, the people could break off and form new ones” (Source)
So the fundemental aspect of the First Great Awakening was anti-authoritarianism. Note that this is very different from reform of authority – it is the throwing off of authority. Importantly, this anti-authoritarianism was not qualified by an emphasis on critical thinking:
“In the late colonial period, most pastors read their sermons, which were theologically dense and advanced a particular theological argument or interpretation. Leaders of the Awakening such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield had little interest in merely engaging parishioners’ minds; they wanted far more to an emotional response from their audience” (Source)
Trading mistaken intellectual ideas for emotion-driven committments is of questionable value. The Second Great Awakening followed the same pattern as it “moved beyond the educated elite of New England to those that were less wealthy and less educated” (Source). Further,
“The explicit convictions of the famous evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, Charles G. Finney, were much further down the Pelagian road than Rome. Finney not only denied justification through faith alone in Christ’s merits alone. He based this on a rejection of original sin, the substitutionary atonement, and the supernatural character of the new birth.” (Source)
The results of such a “revival” are not surprising: it “produced dozens of new denominations, communal societies, and reform movements” (Source). This is a nice way of saying that not only new churches but new heretical religious sects such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses came out of this revivial period. This result differs only by degree from the results of earlier moves away from any kind of church authority, and hurt mainline denominations even as it supported more independent movements:
“Protestant denominations weakened sharply in both membership and influence while the most conservative religious denominations (such as the Southern Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans) grew rapidly in numbers” (Source).
While it may be seen as a victory for the conservative denominations, the establishment of heretical religious groups was aided by the same principles that were being celebrated for increasing numbers in more orthodox churches (especially Baptist, as these ideals fit the Baptist notions of local church autonomy and “soul liberty” perfectly). Thus it seems that the good results of the Awakenings were due to conservative morality (which the heretical groups shared with the conservative orthodox groups) rather than orthodox doctrinal concerns.
The reality is that the principles that undergirded the Great Awakenings did not restrain doctrinal error. So why should they be trusted to restrain moral error?
The moral issues facing the early revivals included things like drinking and playing cards – activities that even many Baptist churches no longer consider an issue (and the abolition of slavery, often touted as one of the Awakening’s great moral victories, itself divided the Baptists between North and South). With the former Great Awakenings’ emphasis on personal devotion, subjective interpretation, and anti-authoritarianism, what would stop the next one from indirectly making allowance for the above activities as well? After all, I am not aware of any Bible verses that speak against BDSM or cannibalism.