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I have been in a very odd mood lately–odd enough so that, when I finished Real Work (meaning writing) this morning, I put on Beethoven’s 9th in the background.

I am not usually a person who is interested in listening to Beethoven in the morning, and if I start writing at 4, eight o’clock is still first thing in the morning. 

But there I was, and there was Beethoven, and I was worrying about a man named Charles Grandison Finney.

This is going to be one of those posts that practically none of you will read to the end, and fewer of you will commment on, unless you’re all hijacking the blog.

If I was the kind of person who spent her time worrying about how many hits the blog got, this post wouldn’t be here.

But I am myself, and things like Charles Grandison Finney are what tend to end up on my mind from time to time.

So, a few preliminaries.

I am reading, at the moment, a book called The Life of the Mind in America, by Perry Miller. 

Miller was an academic historian, mostly active in the 40s and 50s, who wrote mostly about American intellectual history from the Colonial period to the Civil War.  I’ve reported here on his books about the intellectual development of Colonial New England.

This book–The Life of the Mind in America–begins just after the Revolution during the Second Great Awakening, and it is the Second Great Awakening that brought me to Charles Grandison Finney, since he was probably the most prominent figure in the entire period.

For those of you who know little or nothing about American history and aren’t in the position of not being able to care less:  the Great Awakenings were popular religious movements in the territory now known as the United States.

I put it that way because the First Great Awakening occured before the country became a country.

And the first Great Awakening was a very strange thing, on many levels.

For one, it was lead by Jonathan Edwards, New England’s premiere Calvinist theologian, and not the sort of person you’d expect to throw in his lot with huge, emotionally-charged revivalist meetings in meadows and fields–but there he was.

The customary explanation for how and why the Awakenings happened is to say that they were a revolt against the Enlightenment–not only against Deism and its offshoots, but against the supremacy of reason over feeling in all walks of life, and especially in religion.

And this, too, makes Edwards’s participation in the First Great Awakening very surprising,

What may be less surprising is that the First Great Awakening ended badly.  It was preached–at least on Edwards’s end–in a thoroughly Calvinist manner, stressing the irredeemably evil nature of human beings and the impossibility of earning grace in any way. 

It ended up with two people dead of suicide, convinced that there was nothing in store for them, ever, but Hell.

 All revolts against the Enlightenment are essentially revolts of emotion against (cold, unfeeling) reason, and Miller spends a fair amount of time drawing the connections between American religious revivalism and the Romantic movement in Europe–Byron and Shelley and those sorts of people.

But what struck me about the Second Great Awakening, the one that got going around the turn of the 19th century and that sort of disintegrated in the run up to the Civil War, consists of these two things.

1) It was a revolt against Calvinism as much as (if not more) a revolt against “reason” AND

2) It was the first major revolt of the “rude Westerners” (flyover country!) against the educated Eastern elite (coastal elites!).

I’ve got to be careful here, because there are some singular differences between this period, although weirdly much fewer than you might think.

In both cases, you had a group of people considered by the elites to be vulgar, uneducated and probably stupid.  In both cases, the probably stupid people contained a fairly high proportion of people who were very well educated indeed, but in different places and to different assumptions than the elites who looked down on them.

In the Second Great Awakening, though, there was no pretense on the part of the Rude Westerners that they were advocated in favor of the uneducated against the educated.

If there really were Rude Westerners out there, Finney was adamant that they did not make up the bulk of his audience.  His audience, he was convinced, was comprised of the very best and most civilized and cultivated people in the areas in which he preached.

The other thing–the anti-Calvinism–also has its counterparts in the America of right this minute.

Calvinism maintained that human beings were destined from all eternity for heaven or hell, and that nothing they could do could change their fate.  God had all the power.  Human beings had none.

Finney and his counterparts rejected this absolutely.  They maintained that human beings could determine their own trip to heaven or hell, if they had the will and the stamina to stay the course.

There had always been something distinctly anti-American about predestination, and once it was out in the open, people deserted Calvinist preachers by the score and set themselves off in dozens of dissident sects, of which Joseph Smith and his Mormons were only the most colorful.

And that, too, is like today.  The largest and most well attended Christian churches in this country are not the doctrinally correct, putting out a stern message about the fallenness of man and the inevitability of sin.

They are almost universally megachurches and denominations that stress the idea that God wants you to be happy, that he wants you to be prosperous, that being happy and prosperous requires only that you take your salvation into your own hands and cooperate with God as he tries to do good things for you.

The conventional wisdom these days is that the megachurches thrive because they are “conservative” in theology and politics–but I don’t think so.

There are lots of conservative churches that don’t do the kind of business of, say, Joel Osteen’s operation down in Oklahoma (?).

What is wanted here is almost the polar opposite of conservatism in its classical sense–the feeling that good things await us in the future, that we should be oriented to the future and not to the past, that suffering and failure are the exceptions, not the rule, and should be rejected as coming from the Devil always, and never God.

I think of Sister Louis Bertrand and her constant exhortations to “over it up” to God and to suffer together with Christ, and I think she must be spinning like a top wherever it is she might be now.

I’m being a little flip here.  I do know there’s a lot that’s deeply flawed in the prosperity Gospel, not least of which is the fact that the world is a cussedly contrary place, and bad things do happen to good people through no fault of their own.

But the prosperity Gospel is also very American, and the appeal to hope has always been stronger here than the appeal to guilt.

I’ve always thought that was one of the weaknesses of a lot of progressive initiatives–too many of them (“white privilege,” for instance) depend on instilling a conviction of guilt as a motivator for action.

I don’t think it works very well here, at the moment.  I don’t think it ever has.

In the meantime, I’ve started looking for what I think ought to be easy to find, but isn’t–a professionally done, sympathetic but not sycophantic, biography of Charles Grandison Finney.

There doesn’t seem to be one anywhere.

Written by janeh

June 3rd, 2014 at 10:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Romantics'

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  1. I have often thought that both Militant Atheism and the Green movement have similarities to evangelic Christianity. But Militant Atheism is not a revolt against reason and the Greens seem to be a mix of science in the form of ecology and mysticism in the form of Gaia.

    And just to hijack the thread, try this



    3 Jun 14 at 5:20 pm

  2. No, I am NOT arguing Grace, Free Will and Predestination with an atheist. It would be too much like discussing round the world travel with a flat-earther.

    I do feel obliged to point out, in defense of my fellow Christians of the Reformed faith, that sincere Calvinist believers are not prone to suicide on that account. Many have found the faith liberating. Such cavaliers as Montrose and Rupert of the Rhine were of the Reformed, and even the allegedly dour Cromwell kept a personal organist while tossing them out of churches. (I have similar feelings about the acoustic guitar.)

    I should also say the religious revivals were a response to unbelief, not reason. (No, they’re not the same.) See Chesterton, who pointed out that the Church knew how to come back from the dead, since our Founder had shown us how it was done.

    As for churches in America today, I would say all the growing churches are conservative as a progressive would define conservative–they can recite the Apostles’ Creed without hedging, and believe the Ten Commandments and the laws and prophets generally are not subject to revision in light of the editorial page of the New York TIMES or majority votes of a professional association. This puts them on one side and Matthew Arnold, who believed contemplation of Beauty could make one more moral than Christ on the other. But any congregation which believes life is supposed to be easy for Christians isn’t reading the Bible enough. They should perhaps start with the Sermon on the Mount.

    There you go: a long comment and no hijack. But I can’t help with the Finney biography.


    3 Jun 14 at 7:10 pm

  3. I must launch a mini-hijack.

    I don’t know anything about the history of American religious belief, but I have to wonder what dark and dank religious sewer the Bergdahl family oozed out of. As for Obama “exchanging” a bunch of Taliban terrorists for a craven deserter, words fail me.

    While I might have voted for Obama in 2008 myself, it defies belief that any sane person could have voted for this fool and his bunch of thugs twice knowing what we already knew about them by 2012.


    4 Jun 14 at 9:50 am

  4. Consider the alternative, Mique. Gah.


    4 Jun 14 at 12:10 pm

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