Edwardseanism and the Second Awakening

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Jonathan Edwards did not live long to put his theology into full play, but his two disciples, Samuel Hopkins from West Springfield, Massachusetts; and Joseph Bellamy of Bethlehem, Connecticut; they did. What both men generated first was not revival but controversy.

In 1766, Hokpins’ An Inquiry Concerning the Promises of the Gospel indicted the New England Churches for having watered down the depravity of original sin, and then turn conversion into a gentile embrace of polite morals, and thus ending up making God into an indulgent uncle rather than a righteous father. Given the profound moral warpage of human depravity, one might as easily expect a hand-less climber to scale a mountain as to expect a sinner to use the means of grace. Given God’s hostility to human sin, its ill effects could only be overcome when gives a new heart in regeneration. Only then, is a foundation laid in the mind for the discerning of the truth of the Gospel in its real beauty and excellency.

This meant that there could be no gradual wrapping up to a new heart. Instead, this change was worked by the spirit of God immediately and instantaneously. Nobody should fool himself into believing that there were promises of regenerating grace made to the exercises and doings of the unregenerate. There was only one option. Hopkins said that men are required to repent and turn to God on pain of eternal damnation, and are declared to be in a state of condemnation until they do so.

Established Congregational order in New England was defied by the prospect of the new divinity, which discounted all the efforts made under the use of means, and demanded the full use of their natural ability and immediately repent. They liked it still less when Hopkins and Bellamy began excommunicating those who didn’t repent at once. And when Hopkins began teaching that not only were people obliged to use all their natural ability to repent, but were also obligated to exercise, after repentance, a Christian and self-denying life.

Through Edwards’ juxtaposition of natural ability and moral necessity, Hopkins and Bellamy could preach the most extreme Calvinistic versions of absolute divine sovereignty.

They enraged some people by this. Hopkins, in fact, was forced out of his church in 1769, and moved to New Port, Rhode Island, where he enraged still more people by denouncing the slave trade as the ultimate sin against disinterested or impartial benevolence. Bellamy stayed as pastor of Bethlehem for 50 years. In the words of one of his followers, his preaching “made God so great”. Indeed it did.

The Second Awakening

Restless and idealistic theological students, fresh from the tepid atmosphere of Yale and Harvard, flocked to Hopkins and Bellamy for ministerial apprenticeships. It was these next generation Edwarseans who really lit the bonfires of revival across New England, in what became generally known as the Second Great Awakening. By the 1790’s, Hopkins estimated that he and Bellamy had planted over 100 of their pupils and sympathizers in pulpits across Western Massachusetts and Western Connecticut. The revivals were sweeping more than 100 towns in New England, most of them under the preaching of this new divinity.

These preachers prided themselves with the passion with which they wrote and studied. Nathaniel Taylor devoted himself for 78 years, from ten to sixteen hours a day, in his study. Hopkins met with two of his students to talk theology through the day. They eventually noted a glow from a fire in the East. It was actually the sun coming up the next day.

Bellamy was even more determined to train new divinity missionaries for the New England churches. Upwards of 60 theological students passes through the barn he refurnished in Bethlehem as a one-man seminary. They became the most vivid and demanding voices for a consistent Calvinism, as they called it, in the post-Awakening and post-Revolutionary decades. They, in turn, trained ministerial students of their own.

The Father of Modern Revivalism

None of the new divinity ministers, however, cleared a wide path for himself in American culture as Charles Grandison Finney. Born in Western Connecticut, Finney moved to upstate New York, and originally trained as a lawyer. In 1821, Finney was dramatically converted, and embarked on a new career as a preacher of revivals. No one ever wielded the thunderbolts of the sinners’ moral ability, that need for immediate repentance and the requirement for a perfect disinterested benevolence, than Charles Finney.

He served as pastor of the Chatham Street Chapel and the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City. Eventually, he became one of the leading lights in founding Oberlin College. He denounced selfishness as the sin of sins, and the diametric opposite of disinterested benevolence. Under the heading of selfishness, Finney included everything from slave owning to overdressing.

Revivals of religion are not permanent states of affairs. With Finney, the violence of the new divinity reached its apex, and then diminished its intensity. His preaching dwelt so much on the sinners’ natural ability to repent, that people forgot (and accused him of forgetting), that he was, after all, a Calvinist. Disinterested benevolence, which shaped both the origins of the anti-slavery movement and the organization of missionary work, finally degenerated into a cheerless code of does and don'ts.

When Finney tried to illustrate just how much natural ability sinners had by installing an anxious bent near his pulpit, and inviting anxious sinners to come, sit there and be prayed with; even his fellow revival laborers began to dismiss him as a sensation-seeking embarrassment. Yet, these intellectual airs of Jonathan Edwards turned the Second Great Awakening into a great cultural force. In a secular republic, the revivalists wrenched control of the will of the republic, or at least of the republic’s culture, out of the hand of the deists, out of the hands of the secularists, and turned the ship that Jefferson and Madison had imagined would sail before secular winds, and set it to sail before God’s winds.

They showed by this that American religion did not need an official tax-supported, government-recognized base in American politics in order to have a decisive influence on American life. In almost the same way that Edwards had taught, that God rules human conduct not by force but by the presentation of motives, so the Edwarseans transformed all the protestant churches of America into presenters of motives to American culture, rather than tax collectors who were backed up and reinforced by civil statutes.

Unable to legislate, they organized independent societies for Bible distribution, for alcoholism reform, for observance of the Sabbath, for suppressing vice and immorality, and for the end of slavery. Specially for the end of slavery.

Edwardseans and the Anti-slavery Movement

Slavery described precisely the sort of natural inability and natural necessity which Edwards insisted was not the true notion of Calvinism. To the extent that slavery literally involved the repression of Christianity among the slaves by their masters, it was bound to arouse the animus of the new divinity. Oddly enough, Edwards himself had been a slave owner, although not on the dimensions of Thomas Jefferson. His slave ownership was limited to the purchase of an occasional domestic helper for the Edwards’ household in 1731 and 1736. But, as early as 1741, Edwards was already criticizing the New England slave trade. During Edwards’ pastorate in Northampton, six African slaves were admitted to full membership on an equal par with any other citizen of Northampton.

It was Hopkins who characteristically applied the full logic of Edwards to slavery. In 1771, he began his preaching against slave trade as a violation of the principle of disinterested benevolence. Two years after that, Hopkins began directly attacking not just slave trade, but slavery itself. He was joined in his protest by Edwards the younger, in New Haven. Radical opposition to slavery eventually became an independent issue on its own for the new divinity.

In 1859, the most radical blow yet struck against American slavery, would come from a man nurtured under a new divinity pastorate, John Brown. The power generated by the revivals, awakenings and the new divinity theology gave the now disestablished churches of New England everything they needed to accomplish the reforms that Jefferson’s wall of separation prevented them from imposing directly as organized churches.

When the French liberal Alexis de Toqueville took his celebrated tour of the United States in the 1830’s, he was amazed to find that in the United States religion had no influence on the laws or on political opinions, nevertheless it worked to regulate the State. If Edwarsean style of revivalism was an important means for firing up interest in religions and reform, the truth was that it was a less than happy instrument, less than successful instrument for sustaining that interest.

The demand for immediate repentance and for disinterested benevolence was supposed to infuse new virtue back into public life through renewed individuals. Well, unhappily, it might just as easily convince renewed individuals to have nothing further to do with public life, to disengage entirely from the sinfulness of their surrounding neighbors. So, Edwarsean revivalism was, at the end of the day, still a reflection of the old Puritan weakness for syncretism.

The revivals called people to repentance, but they also called them out of society, out of their normal relations, out of their everyday moral lives, to participate in an intensely demanding, but still very other-worldly version of protestant Christianity. The very fact that a revival was judged necessary at all was a judgement on the failures of the regular churches and on the impurities of conventional society. Its logical end was to turn people into come-outers of various sorts, and to inflate a radical individualism.

A new answer to the problem of religion’s role in leading American life will come from the 19th century academic moral philosophers, and from John Witherspoon’s Scottish philosophy of common sense.