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Evangelicalism - Causes Leading to Evangelicalism

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Introduction

Evangelicalism did not evolve or operate in a space. It is essential to consider the ways in which members of this group participated in and changed their culture, and, conversely, to assess how its social context provided both the ideas which evangelicalism adopted or transformed and those which it actively rejected or resisted. As movements that came of age during the first half of the nineteenth century, Evangelical Protestantism can be understood most clearly in the political, economic, and religious contexts of post-revolutionary American society. Although the movement would come to effect profound changes in its society it was very much in a sense that the culture had grown ripe for its emergence. The tension between the evangelical movement and the past movements radicalism and centrism suggests that American society was still very much in transition from one era to another: the Revolution was not yet complete.

History: Causes leading to Evangelicalism

The fifty years following independence witnessed dramatic changes in the character of American society. As is the case with all periods of momentous social change, the early national period generated both optimism and unease. While the Revolution had succeeded in throwing off the British, it by no means resolved the growing nation's infrastructural, political and racial problems. Rather, in the sudden absence of imperial control, Americans of all stations were confronted with the task of structuring and preserving a viable society in a time of great uncertainty and instability, when internal political discord, unstable international allegiances and the disorienting surge of capitalist enterprise shook the foundations of tradition and security that they had long relied upon. Particularly distressing was the realization that political union did not necessarily entail cultural harmony, and that conflicts between Americans could become violent, as exampled by the party warfare of the 1790s, by such eruptions of economic discontent as Shay's Rebellion, by ethnic- and class-based urban disturbances, and by the seemingly insoluble dispute over slavery. In many ways, American society seemed to be growing more rather than less fragmented.

American society began to open new channels for energies in the culture which had previously lain dormant. In the proliferation of benevolent societies, the temperance and feminist movements, reforms in education, an increasingly abolitionist corporations and other civic associations, we see the desire to create a more ordered and morally upright society. Somewhat ironically, many of these social organizations took as their immediate goal the uplifting of individuals. The focus of individual advancement and social responsibility found greatest expression, however, in a religious uprising that shook the country during the early nineteenth century. The basis of this religious transformation can be found in the longing of many people for an intensity of spiritual experience.

The Second Great Awakening and Rise of Evangelicalism

Transformations in American economics, politics and intellectual culture found their parallel in a transformation of American religion in the decades following independence. As a result, the United States underwent a widespread flowering of religious sentiment and unprecedented expansion of church membership known as the Second Great Awakening. The Awakening lasted some 50 years, from the 1790s to the 1840s, and spanned the entire United States. The religious revitalization that the Awakening represented manifested itself in different ways according to the local population and church establishment, but was definitely a Protestant phenomenon. Methodist and Baptist denominations experienced a surge of membership, often at the expense of other denominations, prompting a move toward liberalization and competitiveness on the part of the Anglican, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. The numerical success of the Methodists and Baptists lay primarily in their reliance on itinerant preachers who actively brought the message of the church to the people, converting great numbers through emotionally charged revivals. These revivals occurred on a scale and with a frequency previously never seen in the United States. With the maturation of revivalism and the evolution of a distinct revivalist methodology aimed at converting people en masse, the age of evangelicalism had arrived, with the Protestants leading the charge.

The social impact of the Second Great Awakening may be gauged by reviewing several main thrusts of the scholarly literature. The traditional school of thought has tended to portray the period as one marked by widespread secularization and the concomitant efforts of church elites to reestablish order and bring wandering Christians back into the ecclesiastical fold. From this perspective, the Second Great Awakening appears as a process of reorientation, a reassertion of centralized religious authority, as established churches tried to co-opt Evangelical activism by dressing their old theologies in new clothes.

In his influential 1969 essay, "The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process," Donald Mathews argued that religious revivalism represented a crucial source of stability in American society, integrating huge numbers of people under the common umbrella of Protestantism. The Awakening, in his words, was "more than a series of religious 'crazes' and camp meetings" and more than the reactionary efforts of New England conservatives. Rather, it was "an organizing process that helped to give meaning and direction to people suffering in various degrees from the social strains of a nation on the move into new political, economic and geographical areas." In effect, Mathews's approach fused the traditional emphasis on authority and cohesion with Hatch's central model by identifying the Awakening as "a general social movement that organized thousands of people into small groups." He highlighted the unifying nature of the Awakening and left open the question as to how the actual words or messages of itinerant preachers and the psychological advantages of evangelical Protestantism were instrumental in winning over so many converts.

An answer to that question must begin by considering the spiritual and theological tenets of evangelical Protestantism. It was in the transformation of Calvinist theology that the Second Great Awakening had the most profound impact on individuals and on American religious culture. In its broad strokes, the Awakening abandoned the stricter aspects of Calvinism, in particular the doctrines of predestination and innate depravity, and established as normative the Arminian belief in the possibility

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