Thursday, November 01, 2007

Building a Culture of Faithfulness (Part 8)

Economics and Family, Politics and Church in the Age of Jackson

In the early nineteenth century the new United States experienced rapid and profound changes economically, socially, politically, and religiously.

Economically, in Western society, the ideas of Adam Smith took hold along with the blossoming of new industrial technology to produce the Industrial Revolution. This produced an unparalleled increase in the supply of goods. But it also produced deep social changes that impacted the family greatly, especially in the growing urban areas. Production was gradually separated from the home and family. This did not immediately occur in America to the extent that it took place in England. At this time, America still remained a largely rural society, and even the new factories in New England were rather pristine compared to their European counterparts.

Yet the type of production implanted at this time in America did eventually bear fruit in family struggles. Brink Lindsey is correct in his assessment that “the transformation of the family from a unit of production to one of consumption had enormous consequences.”[i] The home began to be looked at as a refuge from the rough, work-a-day world outside. Women were sometimes viewed as the more naturally religious sex who were to maintain virtue in the home. But, contrary to what many historians assert, I do not believe that the economic changes of the Industrial Revolution forced these changes in the family, although they certainly facilitated them. What really changed throughout this time were Americans’ ideals, which were closely related to Americans’ religious beliefs. We now turn to that subject.

This time in America’s religious history is known as the Second Great Awakening. In many ways there was a powerful work of God’s Spirit during this time. Some soundly orthodox preachers, such as Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844), were greatly used of God. Lyman Beecher was a well-known leader at this time, although he drifted theologically in his later years (his well-known descendants departed from the faith completely). The Methodist and Baptist denominations began explosive growth during this time.

Yet there were serious spiritual flaws in much of the Awakening movement. There is a reason that a leading history of American religion calls this time period “The Golden Day of Democratic Evangelicalism.” The key word here is “democratic.” Older conceptions of religion and Christianity were thrown out, and the individual became supreme in determining for himself his relationship with God. The Calvinism of the Puritan founders of New England and of the first Great Awakening (e.g. Jonathan Edwards) was rejected in favor of a man-centered (Arminian, if not outright Pelagian) conception of salvation and the church. Many “restorationist” movements developed, all claiming to restore pure NT Christianity, which rejected prior creeds, confessions, and practices of churches. The irony of these movements is that by claiming to interpret the Bible for themselves, they embraced an epistemology that was not found in the Bible, and many of them taught false doctrine.

The most influential figure who embodied and promoted most of the worst traits of this movement was Charles Grandison Finney. He combined rationalism with elements of Christianity and promoted it with a powerful, direct preaching style. He basically believed that conversion and revival were the result of simple, humanly-achievable steps. For example, he declared, “Revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a purely philosophical [i.e. scientific] result of the right use of the constituted means.”[ii] This kind of unbiblical thinking was woven into the fabric of American Christianity, and it has had tremendous impact even to our day.

Many Americans of that day formed their religion to fit their American ideology, and American ideology reflected the triumph of democratic, not republican, ideals. The election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency epitomized the triumph of democracy. Historian James Truslow Adams wrote, “Democracy was seating itself in the saddle, and in 1828 it rode hard.”[iii] This was in contrast to what some founding fathers, like George Washington and John Adams, believed. They believed in a republican ideology that would keep the masses in check. They did not believe in direct rule by the people. As Sean Wilentz writes of the founders, “Philosophically, the assumption prevailed that democracy, although an essential feature of any well-ordered government, was also dangerous and ought to be kept strictly within bounds.”[iv] But America was moving away from these assumptions, and the religious expressions of the new country reflected that fact.[v]

The Second Great Awakening did much to preserve American Christianity from the problems overtaking New England theology. It also helped to spread Christianity throughout the rapidly expanding American frontier. It is one of the great reasons why Christianity in America did not fade away during the modern period like Christianity in Europe did. Yet the Second Great Awakening also bequeathed problems to American Christianity which we still have to this day – activist, doctrinally shallow, individualistic Christianity with no organic connection to the church and with no ability to prophetically withstand the whims and fancies of each new generation.



[i] The Age of Abundance (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 67. He goes on to quote Edward Filene, “Since the head of the family is no longer in control of the economic process through which the family gets its living, he must be relieved of many ancient responsibilities and therefore many of his prerogatives.” Lindsey then adds, “The toppling of the old paterfamilias could be seen in the ongoing elimination of legal disabilities for women, culminating in 1920 with the extension of suffrage under the 19th Amendment. With increasing female independence came a loosening of the marital bond: between 1870 and the 1920s, the divorce rate climbed over 30 percent per decade.” Cf. also pp. 106-112.

[ii] Cited by Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 460.

[iii] The March of Democracy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933), 2:161.

[iv] The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 7.

[v] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, “Jacksonianism thus assisted the growing secularization of society. Its substantial effect was to divert the church toward what many in this century believe its true function: to lead the individual soul to salvation, not to interfere in politics. Religion, the Jacksonians felt, could best serve itself by ending its entangling alliances with political reaction” (The Age of Jackson [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950], 360). If we recognize that “secularization” is itself a religious position, then I believe that Schlesinger’s first sentence is accurate. Jacksonianism was a move toward a pagan dualism. The church did need to end its entanglement with the state, and Massachusetts was the last state to finally do this in 1833. Unfortunately, however, it seems to have been done on pagan principles, not on Christian ones.

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