The Presbyterian Meeting House
at Cane Ridge--sight of a key
Revival Meeting in the Second
The Second Great Awakening is often said to have begun with a revival meeting at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, Kentucky in 1801, but in fact, Cane Ridge was only one of a series of revivals that had been going on for over a decade and would continue into the 1840’s.
The more traditional denominations—Catholics, Episcopalians (formerly known as Anglicans), and Congregationalists stayed aloof from the revivals and, for the most part, the revivals were on the American frontier—in what is today Kentucky, Southern Ohio, and Tennessee though there were also revivals in the rural areas of the South, in particular the Carolinas and Georgia and western Virginia. Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians predominated in the revival movement and each of those denominations grew considerably as a result of the converts the revivals drew.
The revival movement fragmented the Presbyterians as the more staunchly Calvinist—and in general the more theologically sophisticated Presbyterians—found many deserting their ranks for breakaway groups headed by Barton Stone and the father and son team of Thomas and Alexander Campbell. These groups would eventually evolve into what is today known as the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ. The Stone-Campbell movement is known as “restorationism” and was an attempt to transcend Christianity’s having fractured into denominations by going back to what was perceived as the New Testament model of Church. I hope to do some entries on the Campbellite movement in the future, suffice it to say for now that what began as frontier revival has developed into some fairly sophisticated Christian denominations.
Far more impact was felt in what happened to Baptists and Methodists as a result of these revivals. As the movement spread like wildfire on the frontier, both denominations came to rely more and more heavily on lay preachers who were generally poorly educated and without any theological formation. In the case of the Methodists this established a radical discontinuity with the original Methodist spirit of the Wesleys which was both theologically sophisticated (the Wesley brothers were Oxford men) and highly sacramental (they were also high-church—by 18th century standards and favored frequent communion as well as traditional Christian spirituality). Frontier Methodism, propagated by lay preachers, had little time for formal worship or sacraments, and was characterized by wildly emotional preaching and doctrinal imprecision. Even worse were the Baptists who, though in their Rhode Island origins were theologically sophisticated, in the frontier became both biblical fundamentalist and doctrinally loosey-goosey with individual congregations ranging from strictly Calvinist predestinatarian with the gloomiest theologies of fallen human nature to wildly Arminian semi-pelagians. Religious truth was reduced to whatever the individual thought that it was and religious experience was nothing more than raw subjectivity. It ended up, of course, with Jesus telling President Bush to invade Iraq, but that is a story for another day.The end result of the Second Great awakening was the snapping of the cord that ties religious faith to human reason. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all rolled over at once in their individual graves. This sort of fundamentalism combined with religious subjectivity has come since World War II to infect American Catholicism as well. The Katholik Krazies just feel that it isn’t Mass if you can understand it and it isn’t Jesus if you aren’t receiving on your knees with your eyes closed and your tongue stuck out. The happy-clappy crowd, on the other extreme, just wants to hold hands and sing Kumbaya as some just-beyond-middle-aged two-bellied and three-chinned creature in capri pants hands them a piece of French bread or a glass goblet of wine. (Lest I be accused of chauvinism, I have two bellies and three chins, though I never—ever—wear capri pants, not even at the beach.) I think the first thing we need to do—even before we send Cardinal Burke packing to permanent retirement with the boys in blue at Gricigliano, or even have another synod—is restore the proper balance between religious faith and human intellect. Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to emotions, but they are no basis for the commitments of Christian discipleship. We Catholics were once known for our keen intellects, our spirit of inquiry, our willingness to refine our theology in the light of expanding human knowledge. We cannot afford to be intellectually sloppy in this post-Christian world or else the credibility of Christ and his Gospel will be lost. The Second Great Awakening is over. Move on.