by Matthew Raley
The term awakening is important to American evangelicals — and ought to become more important. It refers to periods of spiritual renewal, of which churches are in desperate need.
So I was not surprised to find the word associated with Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, and the formation of his Black Robe Regiment. One of the regiment’s websites announces that it is “awakening the Christian community.” Another is more specific: “The time has come that we must now arise and awaken to the danger of this hyper-progressive agenda that so permeates every aspect of our political, legal, and educational systems.”
The term moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform. “Awakening” gets picked up by various Beck enthusiasts as a focus of their hopes.
Here is one pastor about the “evening of prayer and spiritual renewal” Beck hosted at the Kennedy Center on August 27th, the eve of the big rally: “I’m telling you tonight was like the beginning of a Revival for our country with Asians, Latinos, African-Americans and people from all walks of life singing praise songs and calling upon God to restore our Nation . . . .” The pastor concludes, “Tomorrow, I pray will begin the next great awakening in America.”
The next great awakening. There seems to be some confusion.
“Great awakening” is a phrase applied to two periods in American history. The First Great Awakening occurred in the 1740s, the Second from 1800 to roughly 1830.
Here’s the problem: Beck’s regiment is modeling its awakening not on those periods, but on the Revolutionary War period (1775-83). That is a generation after the First and about a generation before the Second Great Awakenings. No one classifies the Revolution as a period of spiritual revival. Quite the reverse.
Iain H. Murray, in his study Revival and Revivalism (Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), summarizes (p 74), “With the possible exception of Western Pennsylvania, there seem to have been no areas where there was general revival during the years of the War of Independence . . . . In most of the country there was evident spiritual decline as political and military events dominated public attention.”
Murray quotes an observation from Robert Semple, who was fourteen when the war was won in 1783. Semple said that with liberty came “leanness of soul” (p 76).
This chill to their religious affections might have subsided with the war, or perhaps sooner, if there had not been subsequent occurrences which tended to keep them down. The opening a free trade by peace served as a powerful bait to entrap professors who were in any great degree inclined to the pursuit of wealth. Nothing is more common than for the increase of riches to produce a decrease of piety. Speculators seldom make warm Christians. With some exceptions the declension was general throughout the State [of Virginia]. The love of many waxed cold. Some of the watchmen fell, others stumbled, and many slumbered at their posts.
Note that last sentence describing Virginian pastors. That would be the original Black Robe Regiment — falling, stumbling, slumbering.
The spiritual drought lasted so long, according to Semple (Murray, p 78), that it “induced many to fear that the times of refreshing would never come.”
At this moment in our nation’s life, pastors need to know their jobs. The surest way to freeze congregations in self-righteousness is to go soldiering in the populist militias. Churches are populated with sinners who have trampled the holiness of God, and whose only hope is that the Jesus Christ whose name they have claimed will recognize them on the last day.
I fear we are not on the edge of an awakening, but inhaling the fumes of stupefication.