Jonathan David Faulkner
It seems like a harmless enough question, although I should know by now that there is no such thing when discussing reconciliation and American History. When Pastor Bryan Lorritts asked it I felt myself rouse for a fight. After all, I am a historian of that time period and though I have spent the better part of Seminary studying 19th Century Eucharistic Reformed theology (Mercersburg) I have read everything we have in print by Jonathan Edwards and wrote a major paper on the debate between Edwards and Charles Chauncy over the First Great Awakening and traced out how that particular controversy began a series of controversies, divisions and fights that culminated in the Fundamentalist / Modernist controversy of the early 20th century. I am currently preparing to write my thesis on the controversy between Mercersburg and Princeton, the sectarians and the Revivalist in the 1840’s. So, when Pastor Bryan asked the question: “Were the Great Awakenings real revivals because they did not bring about an end to slavery?” I was more than ready to answer yes and bring the full authority of my historical knowledge with me, but then I thought about it and though my answer is still yes, it is a yes with a caveat.
Before I go on I have to establish some historical guidelines before talking about this subject. There is a tendency in the modern study of history to commit the fallacy of Present ism; present ism is reading our own cultural attitudes and actions back into history while making no effort to understand how the people of that time period thought or acted. The famous musical Hamilton would be a case of present ism, though because it is a creative art and not a major history paper I have no problem with their presentation. The other thing I want to do is acknowledge my bias, In school I learned a white-washed history of this time period, as I did in college and for years I brought that bias to my study of historical figures. The result was a one-sided view of historical figures, it was not until I read George Marsden’s book on Jonathan Edwards that I knew he owned slaves. So this question and seeking to answer it requires me to do what I claimed to do when I first presented my theory of method for studying Church History, examining every angle of a topic to answer the question.
Because the fact remains, Jonathan Edwards owned slaves, by every account he treated them well: “As part of the family” as one historian puts it, but that does not and will never justify owning another human being, that is indefensible. Inconsistently though, had his family and the powers that were in the Massachusetts colony had listened to Edwards when he insisted on treating the Indians with respect and dignity we likely would have avoided the escalation of fighting in the French and Indian War. His contemporary and fellow Awakening Preaching George Whitefield also had a troubled history with slavery. He had preached and written an anti-slavery pamphlet in Virginia but was told that no one would come to hear him preach if he published it. Shortly after that he worked to convince the governor of Georgia to adopt slavery so he could build his orphanage, a task that he was successful at.
Anyone who is familiar with the story of the Hymn Amazing Grace knows that John Henry Newman was a slave trader who later repented and was the wise council behind the young parliamentarian William Wilberforce who fought for and succeeded at passing the abolition of the English slave trade. In the states the revivalist Charles G. Finney fought for abolition twenty years before the Civil War though he speaks in the same bigoted language of many of his 19th century contemporaries (the only place I have not found it is in the Mercersburg Theologians, one of whom was a German who had theological issues with slavery, the same kind we wish others would have formed).
The Awakenings were incredible things, especially if you read Edwards accounts of them or the accounts of the revivals led by Finney or the later tent revivals led by D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. In all three Awakenings men and women and children came to faith in droves, and those in first would sit for upwards of 3 hours to learn what they were getting themselves into. But even after slavery was abolished, during the Civil Rights years and the Graham Crusades left the late Billy Graham lamenting that he wished he had done more to advance the cause of Civil Rights.
The church during the Awakenings and Civil War grew divided on this issue, especially as the Abolitionists grew stronger and won the abolition of slavery in the North. As Lincoln moved forward to prevent the spread of Slavery into new territory succession began and the divide between the churches grew. On January 4th, 1861 Henry Ward Beecher stood in his pulpit in Plymouth New York and called Slavery: “The most alarming and most fertile cause of national sin.” Meanwhile, in the south James Henley Thornwell, a preacher in South Carolina asserted that slavery was a: “Good and merciful way of organizing labor which providence has given us.”
A revival may be defined as: A move of the Spirit of God, directed by God, working towards the outward and inward transformation of the individual or group through drawing them to God or through their own personal decision. Because this outward change is lost in the third Awakening (it was an awakening focused on the inward change) many, myself included, do not consider it a legitimate awakening. But since the other two still did not abolish slavery, was it a legitimate awakening?
As I said earlier, I do believe it was, in fact, I agree with Edwards that an Awakening is an Awakening if it produces outward fruit and in the case of the First and Second Awakenings it is hard to deny that there was some form of outward fruit. Even Charles Chauncey, who was hostile to the New Lights admitted in Seasonable Thoughts on the Sate of Religion in New England that fruits were evident in some who had been “so affected.” In Religious Affections Edwards asserts that the only true mark of an inward work of the Spirit was “the fruit of such a work.” As C.S. Lewis would say two hundred years later in his lectures on Christianity, the evidence was not that nice men became nicer, but that “new men become new.” One had to show they were truly transformed and redeemed. One of the issues that John Williamson Nevin would raise in the 19th century with Finney’s “Anxious Bench” is that it forced “disingenuous conversions.” Though Finney would be the flagbearer for revivalists for a century even to the point of a redaction of his social theology.
The trouble was that there was a concerted and conscious effort to oust any social theology that upset the “Status quo” or was “Outside Accepted Christian Doctrine.” That meant that those who redacted Finney’s works removed any mention of the abolition of Slavery. Thankfully Garth Rosel has restored these manuscripts for us and we can learn more about Finney’s social theology than ever before. At the time though, the accepted thought patterns of the day in America were bigoted and maintained an order of Racism. It would take something catastrophic to dismantle that system of thought.
I do however, think that God was working against the evil of slavery, working to dismantle that system and that is why we had two Awakenings and then a Civil War. The spirit was working to change the lives, inward and outward, of the people and that should have naturally brought about a hatred of and contempt for the institution of slavery. The issue is that those systems of thought were so ingrained that even when the Spirit turned Finney against Slavery, his bigotry remained.
David French made an interesting point in a national review article recently when he said that: “of all the worlds history of slavery, the west was the only part of the world to look at this institutional and call it the evil it was.” Even so, as the Spirit of God tried to move us in that direction through two Awakenings and then the terrors of the Civil War, instead of letting Him complete the work and bring reconciliation, which Grant and Lee wanted not just between North and South but between Whites and Blacks, the church, especially in the south, upheld and supported Jim Crow and segregation, some of whom were my own distance relatives. There are still those who call themselves Christians who continue to espouse bigoted thought and support racist systems. Men like Jerry Falwell Jr. fail to realize that the Church, the people in the pews on Sunday are, according to sociologist Peter Beinart is “Less likely to be racist, bigoted or misogynistic their unchurched counterparts. The Church today is also integrating racially and socio-economically, the latter of which is not happening in communities that are racially integrating. But this is three-hundred years after Edwards wrote “On Revivals” and almost 200 years since the Civil War and is an extremely new development in Church History as we look to be entering an ecumenical age of the Church.
I think the Revivals were legitimate, I think they were genuine awakenings. The people living in their time largely considered them to be and it would be dishonest for us to tell them they were wrong because we have the perspective of three hundred plus years. However, I think they were incomplete and that the spirit was working against slavery but because people of that time were so enculturated to think in the terms of their time. The entire system of thought was corrupted and needed to be completely torn down. I think one of the reasons we ended in Civil War is because the Spirit was doing that work against Slavery and a war was the only thing that might tear down that system…and even that did not. In the church we are moving towards a total rejection of that system of thought, towards what I would consider a more biblical view with a definition of humanity rooted in the Imago Dei and a call to treat all with deference and love.
Part of the reason for this is that the institutional church, as a whole, has lost the position of power it enjoyed during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries respectively in America (and since Constantine in Rome). Secularization has made it possible for people in some parts of the country to be ignorant of the location of church buildings. Church Leaders recently released a poll that found that 95% of unchurch people polled had never met a Christian. On top of that, the narrative pre and post-election of the current president has been extremely unfavorable to Christians as well as painted an extremely inaccurate picture of American Christianity. The lack of Churches added to the diversifying of neighborhoods and small towns means we are worshiping with brothers and sisters from many ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately, though, if you ask the spokes people chosen by the Media to represent Christianity, or who serve on the president’s advisory board, they are unaware of the current trends in the Church. If they would talk to their people, they would find a very different Church then the one they think they are representing.
The problem has been that each event that has meant to be catalytic has only shaken the foundations of the system of thought. It has taken the election of our current president for many of us to realize just how divided we have become and had been. I know, I know, research tells us that people are more comfortable in homogenous groups. But we are moving well beyond a time when homogeneity will be the expected norm and likely will become the exception as communities and churches integrate. Therefore, we must be willing to listen and respond with compassion and, if need be, repentance, in the hopes of healing broken relationships between ethnic groups. After reconciling us to God, as I said in last week’s article, God works to reconcile us to one another, and we have been stubborn and even indignant in allowing God to do that.
I think the Spirit has been working at this reconciling work for a long time. First working to get rid of the institution of Slavery, then working to change the hearts and minds of the people during the Civil Rights Era and now through drawing us together in our communities and churches. I also think this has taken so long because man is despairingly depraved and has fought against such a change on nearly every front. Now, secular culture, though aimlessly so, is fighting for reconciliation, though it is an incomplete one without Christ. We should have been and can be, leading in this area and leading by example.
Maybe that’s what the spirit intends?
I hope we’re open to it…
 This may have just been an attempt to paint Edwards in a favorable light, though Marsden makes this same point and even acknowledges that Edwards freed the first slave he bought and had many free men in his congregation at Northampton.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church.