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The Fourth Great Awakening
A NOBLE PRIZE-WINNING ECONOMIST AND HISTORIAN SAYS WE’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF ONE OF AMERICA’S MAJOR PERIODS OF REFORM
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
These movements have always had complex and contradictory elements and, if you want to put it in political language, a left and a right. Black Pentecostal and evangelical churches are much more left-oriented in their social programs than are predominantly white evangelical churches, and they want to move in different political directions. But on both sides there’s a belief that society has to be reformed, and while there are strong differences, there is also a considerable area of overlap in what they see as the reform program. There is always an old school and a new school, and there’s always a struggle over whose reforms will win out. That’s true of every one of these movements. Just to mention two issues, the left wing of the evangelical movement was hostile to slavery and friendly to Prohibition, while the right wing was not. We could go through a much larger agenda of issues and see further splits and agreements.
Let’s talk about slavery. How did the basic pattern you describe work there? What was the crucial technological innovation that sparked a crisis that produced an evangelical and then a political response? The cotton gin?
Not just the cotton gin. The crisis was the intrusion of modern productive methods on all aspects of life. The rise of the factory system drastically changed labor relations and brought pressure on traditional artisans. Advances in ocean transportation made the trek from Europe cheaper and safer and encouraged millions to come to our shores. These immigrants settled mainly in the North, turning small towns into huge cities so rapidly that housing was swamped and so was public sanitation. These cities came into conflict with the agrarian ideal of the country and were very unhealthy. Life expectancy in New York and Philadelphia in 1830 was only 24 years, about 6 years less than for slaves in the South. Between 1820 and 1860, the urban population of the United States grew faster than it ever had or ever would again. There were all kinds of problems that hadn’t really existed before: ethnic conflicts, racial conflicts, pandemic diseases, a decrease in life expectancy, and the sense that the cities were going to corrupt the whole nation. There was great fear in evangelical circles that they were not going to have a city on a hill. They were going to have hell.
So these people say, “Look, we’re in a crisis. How do we save America? We want to prepare America for the imminent coming of Christ, and look what we’ve got.” So they argue over what the programs should be. What they come up with are things like getting rid of drinking. Alcoholic consumption was about four times as great as now, and that was driven by technological change, which made alcohol so cheap that people could afford fantastic quantities of it. A lot of people became unchurched because the churches couldn’t keep up with the movement of the population. Also, the huge increase in Catholics was transforming a Protestant country where virtually the entire free population had been of British origin in 1790.
What do you do about it? Well, first you develop a campaign to get people to promise not to drink. If that doesn’t work, you pass laws so that it’s illegal for them to drink. You raise the level of education, and particularly you make the King James Bible the center of public education, which creates another crisis, because the Catholics don’t want their children studying the King James Bible, they want them studying the Catholic Bible. Then, when you look around at what’s corrupting people, you decide it’s not only alcohol but also slavery. Slaves can’t achieve grace because they can’t exercise free will, and their masters are corrupted by their pursuit of absolute domination.
“Every populist movement in the United States that has been of enough scope to get into the history books has had a big religious underpinning.”
Does this mean that without opposition to Catholic immigration and urbanization there wouldn’t have been opposition to slavery?
Anti-immigration politics and antislavery were closely intertwined. Lincoln himself didn’t link the Catholic threat and the slave-power threat, but his campaign manager and many Republican newspapers did. The Republican party had a strong anti-Catholic tinge.
So, the antislavery movement was part of a whole cluster of evangelical-led political movements?
Right. Some of them were about education. Some of them were about temperance. Some of them were about slavery. Some of them were about peace. And, of course, the feminist movement comes out of abolitionism. It’s women in abolitionism who create the feminist movement.
Your Third Great Awakening is in many ways more secular, but it has a big religious component. It’s essentially an attempt to address the rising inequality produced by industrialization, and it turns to government to make things change.