The story of the great awakening is the perennial story of the struggle between thought and feeling. It is also the struggle between the establishment tradition and radical innovation. Now usually when I tell the story of the struggle between the establishment and the radical, we Unitarian Universalists identify with the radical. But at the time when the first great awakening swept New England beginning in 1734 our Unitarian roots were sunk into the Boston Establishment. Those moved by the Great Awakening felt that the established religion of the day had strayed from Puritanism. One of these was Charles Whitefield who wrote in his journal that: “It has the form of religion kept up, but has lost much of it’s [sic] power. I have not heard of any remarkable stir for many years… There is much of the pride of life to be seen in their assemblies. Jewels, patches, and gay apparel are commonly worn by the female sex. The little infants who were brought to baptism were wrapped up in such fine things, and so much pains taken to dress them, that one would think they were brought thither to be initiated into, rather than to renounce the pomps and vanities of this wicked world.” [i]
But it was not just the worldliness and “lack of stirring” that concerned Whitefield, it was the theology that was emerging among the established churches. Whitefield wrote that “Bad books are becoming fashionable among tutors and students” By this he meant the new tendency towards “Arminianism” which suggested that people are born with both the capacity for sin and for righteousness, meaning that God’s will was not the final factor; we could chose God’s grace, or we could choose to sin. These ideas, arose in contrast to Calvinism, which taught that God’s will was sovereign, and we were elect or sinners by God’s design, and became popular among Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists. It was those Congregationalist churches, that would one day be some of the first Unitarian churches; by the early 19th century, Unitarianism had converted 9 of Boston’s original 13 orthodox Congregational churches.
Whitefield criticized the puritan style churches of his day saying that Many Bostonians “rest in head-knowledge, are close to Pharisees”[ii] In contrast, this radical new movement, the Great Awakening, was characterized by “Great fervor and emotion in prayer”. Whitefield had grown up in England, and came to America in 1739 to evangelize. He worked here as an Itinerant Methodist preacher (traveling town to town) and is considered by many to be a central figure of the Great Awakening. Whitefield had a powerful preaching style that was quite new to his puritan audiences. He was known to preach out of doors, in part because he commanded crowds of thousands which couldn’t fit into the local churches but certainly also because in England the traditional churches would not allow him to preach within their walls. News reports of the day say that he would preach in a field, on tree stumps, or even, one report said, on a horse. This was a movement that appealed to the lower classes, who felt that the establishment churches did not speak to them. Whitefield even preached to slaves, which scandalized many in the traditional churches. Evangelicals today believe that the Great Awakening fostered such revolutionary sentiment that it fomented the Revolutionary war.
Whitefield was a preacher who could engender great feelings in his audiences. David Garrick, then the most famous actor in Britain said of his preaching: "I would give a hundred guineas," he said, "if I could say 'Oh' like Mr. Whitefield." Jonathan Edwards's wife, Sarah, remarked, "He makes less of the doctrines than our American preachers generally do and aims more at affecting the heart. He is a born orator. A prejudiced person, I know, might say that this is all theatrical artifice and display, but not so will anyone think who has seen and known him."
The opposition looked on this with suspicion. One of the folks at the center of that opposition was Charles Chauncy (1705-1787) minister of the First Church Boston (Congregationalist). He championed the role of reason in religion, and was suspicious of all these expressions of emotion. Chauncey wrote on:
“The next thing I shall take Notice of, as what I can’t but think of dangerous Tendency, is that Terror so many have been the Subjects of; Expressing itself in strange Effects upon the Body, such as swooning away and falling to the Ground, where Persons have lain, for a Time, speechless and motionless; bitter Shriekings and Screamings; Convulsion-like Tremblings and Agitations, Strugglings and Tumblings, which, in some Instances, have been attended with Indecencies I shan’t Mention; None of which Effects seem to have been … peculiar to some particular Places or Constitutions; but have been common all over the Land…” [iii]
Though Whitefield may have been a particularly skilled orator, the emotional and spiritual passions of participants in services during the Great awakening movement, including visions and trances, seem to have been wide spread. The preachers would stress the sinful nature of humans and their utter incapacity to overcome this nature without the direct action of the grace of God working through the Holy Spirit. There was a focus, in these services, on the necessity of Conversion or “new birth.” This conversion would be not a new understand of ideas, but a visceral, emotional, spiritual, transformative experience.
Another hallmark of this movement was the role of Itinerant preachers (often without formal ministerial training). Chauncy retorts: “Some of these Itinerants, ‘tis evident, have travelled about the Country preaching under the full persuasion of an immediate Call form God; and as to most of them, it may be feared, the grand Excitement, at the Bottom, has been, an overfond Opinion of themselves and an unchristian one of their brethren. It has, therefore been their practice, too commonly , not only to boast of their own superior Goodness, wherever they have gone; but to insinuate suspicions against the fixed pastors, if not to preach against them, and pray for them, as poor, carnal unconverted men.” [in “Epic of Unitarianism p. 52] Chauncy worried about a preacher who “mistakes the workings of his own passions for the divine communications, and fancies himself immediately inspired by the SPIRIT OF GOD, when all the while he is under no other influence than that of an over-heated imagination.” (Robinson p. 12) Ironically one of those Chauncy mentions with suspicion was “A stranger who has of himself assumed the character of a preacher.” This stranger was John Murray, the founder of the first Universalist church in America.
Another important preacher of the Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational minister in Northampton, Mass. He had Studied at Yale, where he read Newton and Locke. He lost the church he served as their minister by stating that “a public profession of saving faith based on the candidate's religious experiences as a qualification not only for Holy Communion but also for church membership.” Dismissed from his church in 1750, got job in Indian mission at Stockbridge. Eventually he became President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1757. He died young from side effects of small pox inoculation. [iv]
What is important about Edwards is his Influence on Congregational and Presbyterian theology. Being a learned man, he was able to put together a Defense of determinism (Calvinism)-- a sort of neo-orthodoxy. He postulated that the notion of Free will undermines god’s sovereignty. He said in his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:"
The world of misery, the lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you...Hell’s gaping mouth [is] wide open, and you have nothing to stand upon or take hold of...It is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up...The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you. You have offended him...0 Sinner! You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe...and burn it asunder. You have nothing to lay hold of to save yourself. There is nothing that you have ever done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment. [v]
Another who spoke out in opposition to the Great Awakening was Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766). He was the minister of the West Church in Boston (congregational) and was a proponent of that Armenian Liberalism. Said Mayhew “God is a ‘Wise and infinitely gracious being’” by reason “we resemble God Himself.” He preached that Man can choose right and wrong (the central doctrine of Arminianism) and of the Trustworthiness of reason and conscience (a founding principle of American Democracy). Generally the tenants that held together that opposition to the Great Awakening were important tenants for Unitarians throughout our history: The belief in Human goodness and free will, the Unity of God and the importance of using Reason in studying scripture.
Rationalism, Biblicism and moral aspiration- these were the early response to 1st great awakening. Perhaps for some the cool light of reason was a relief set alongside the heated passion of the revival meetings. For some the use of reason in interpreting the bible restored sure footing in a time when itinerant preachers teaching out of a personal sense of call, imbued with the spirit. And Moral Aspiration- the idea that we could of our own free will choose to do right, is it any wonder that this idea grew in response to the hopelessness of feeling oneself held over a fiery pit on a slender thread “There is nothing that you have ever done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.”
It turns out there were 4 “great awakenings” all together, and I think the Second Great Awakening (1825-35) had the most direct impact on Universalism. This great awakening was another revival movement that emerged during the early 1800s, This second great awakening was a reaction against rationalism and desire for a church that served the needs of common people. The theology of the second great awakening embodied a transition between Calvinism and Arminianism, expressing a movement from god’s absolute sovereignty to god as “moral governor.” In this theological movement sin is seen now as a result of human action rather than predetermination by an all powerful God. There is still the immanent threat of Hellfire and damnation (which once again figured powerfully in the sermons of this second great awakening) but now the response to this knowledge is for humans to “repent.” It was called “New Haven” theology because of influence of Yale. Once again it was characterized by a personal, emotional response to god. In Kentucky and Tennessee folks held interdenominational 4 day events called “camp meetings” which attracted thousands of people. The Camp meetings emphasized conversion with singing and shouting and dancing, and folk style music. And once again Unitarians criticized the emotional displays of the revivals and argued that goodness sprang from gradual character building, not sudden emotional conversion.[vi]
One of the leaders of this movement was Charles Grandison Finney (August 29, 1792 – August 16, 1875) who has been called The Father of Modern Revivalism. He was an extemporaneous preacher, known for his innovations in preaching and religious meetings. For example, he developed the "anxious seat", a place where those considering becoming Christians could come to receive prayer, and he lead public prayer for people by name. He also bucked the establishment by having women pray in public meetings of mixed gender. Finney was also an abolitionist. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a movement where both women and black persons participated, and a movement where folks were responsible for their own moral choices would spark social action in areas like temperance and abolitionism. This was something I hadn’t realized -- I hadn’t realized that abolition was an area where liberal and evangelical theologies came together to create change. It makes me wonder how many other times liberals and evangelicals have stood shoulder to shoulder in the struggle for social change. I wonder if it could serve as an important model for us today.
This was not the only powerful religious movement of the day that swept through Western New York in particular. It is because of this period of religious fervor that the area between Albany and Lake Erie is called the “burned over” region of New York. The term was coined during second great awakening by Charles Grandison Finney, one of those 19th century evangelicals, who had said that “the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no "fuel" (unconverted population) left over to "burn" (convert).”
Universalism became a major antagonist of the Second Great Awakening and evangelical culture under the leadership of the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou. By articulating a doctrine of universal salvation, we pointed out and challenged the Protestant drift away from traditional Calvinist orthodoxy because this idea of repentance actually challenges god’s sovereignty. So in a way, the universalists were the orthodox Calvinists during this period, because they believed that God was still all powerful, but had a loving, rather than a judgmental character.[vii] Between the first and second Great Awakenings, that “stranger” John Murray spread his radical idea through itinerant preaching, and we saw the settlement of the first Universalist churches (including the church of the Restoration in Philadelphia and later UUCAS) Now during the time of the second Great Awakening Universalism grew from the radical fringe to be the 6th largest denomination in the country, as folks were hungry for an alternative to hellfire preaching. It was during this period that many of the churches in the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention were born.
As 21st century UUs, we sometimes look at the passion and drama of the revival movements, those “great awakenings” from the vantage point of cool reason. We are proud to bring our rational minds into those most important questions- of who we are, of how we are to live, of how we are saved, and for what we are saved. It feels good to know that we can figure out with our own minds the important truths of life. But sometimes we look at the passion and inspiration of these evangelical services, both in history and in our neighboring churches, wishing we could have that much heart, that much spirit in our Sunday worship. A few years back I was teaching a class on “religion and the media” and we showed the clip of a revival meeting from a popular movie. When the clip was over, a number of us said things like “I wish I could feel the spirit like that in worship” but one of our older members who had been a child in Germany at the time of the second world war said “Oh, I don’t like it, it reminds me of the Nazi rallies during the war.”
This is, perhaps, the natural ebb and flow of religion. We become tired of the old established ways, which seem to them boring, stale, bereft of inspiration. We worry that we and our neighbors are following their religions teachings in name only, that “one would think they were brought thither to be initiated into, rather than to renounce the pomps and vanities of this wicked world.” Long to wake up from this spiritual sleepiness, we long for revival. So we shake off the head-bound sermons of the learned clergy, and sing and dance and yell in a field or on a tree stump.
Sometimes this divide between those who let the heart rule and those who are ruled by the mind, the reason, can be the deepest divide in religion, perhaps deeper than that of theological conflicts. If we understand and explore both kinds of knowledge, both kinds of spiritual truth, we increase not only our own spiritual wisdom but also our capacity to understand the spirituality, the theology of our neighbors. Our UU faith is not just the cool reason of our enlightenment forefathers. We have also in our history the passionate preaching of our itinerant Universalist forbearers. In fact, this very church, so the story goes, started out as a Baptist church. When an itinerant preacher called Noah Murray began preaching in this area he drew such crowds that the Rev. Moses Park (minister of the Baptist church here) went to debate with him but was himself converted and soon his congregation with him”
This morning’s service seems kind of rooted in the head. We sang kind of old timey hymns and talked about our history, (except joys and concerns, which many call the heart of our service) but those were hymns of the great awakening. The words of John Edwards of dangling over hellfire seem strange to us now, but that same preaching sent folks into visions and trances. Yes sometimes, we are rooted in our heads, but also in our hearts and in the spirit of life. About a month ago we gathered in a park down the street to sing and dance in celebrate the earth. So Awakening, reviving is not something that can be done once, but is something which must be done again and again, each time we fall into rote routine, each time we fall out of balance whether that be as individuals, as a congregation, or as Unitarian Universalism. Let us always be awakening.
[iii] From Chauncy ”Seasonal thoughts on the state of Religion in New England” cited in Epic of Unitarianism p. 53
[vii] [From The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880 by Ann Lee Bressler (Religion in America: Oxford University Press) http://www.wordtrade.com/religion/christianity/universalismR.htm]