Climate Change and the Last Great Awakening

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tags: climate change, 1960s, religious history, Great Awakening

Douglas S. Harvey is a history professor in the Kansas City area. He is the author of The Theatre of Empire: Frontier Performances in North America, 1760-1860 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010).  Currently, he is working on his second book, a biography of eighteenth-century frontier revolutionary Herman Husband.


Historians from Joseph Tracy in 1842 up to the present day have seen the religious revival movement of the mid-eighteenth century as the first mass movement in American history.  With its roots in the works of Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards and the John Wesley-influenced Anglican George Whitefield, it renewed and expanded the Puritan notion of the “second birth” in achieving salvation in a Christian-dominated milieu.  Tracy dubbed this movement the “Great Awakening” and it began what I like to think of as “conscience in American history.”  This movement, as it ebbed and flowed over time, influenced the American Revolution, abolitionism, women’s rights, the labor movement, social welfare, and environmental concerns right up to the present day.  


Another American mass movement was the social revolution of the 1950s into the 1970s that resulted in more equitable civil rights, the end of the Vietnam War, the rejuvenation of the women’s rights movement, and the environmental movement. Today, this mass movement for change is in need of resurgence. We need another Great Awakening to convince the public and political leaders to accept the devastating reality of man-made climate change and embrace efforts to combat it. Even if movements like Extinction Rebellion take off and become massive, with millions of people in the streets, the attempt to curb the catastrophic effects of Climate Disruption may well be the Last Great Awakening.


Fifty years ago, historian Richard Bushman wrote that twentieth-century inhabitants, if they had ever even heard of it, misunderstood the nature of the eighteenth-century Great Awakening.  This was a period of religious “revival” that ran through the middle third or so of the eighteenth century.  The fervor of the original sixteenth and seventeenth century Puritans – the ones who had made their way to Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower– believed themselves to be creating a “City on the Hill” to welcome the imminent return of Christ the Messiah, ushering in a thousand-year reign known as the Millennium.  These colonists were Calvinists, meaning that they embraced not only millennialism, but a doctrine known as “pre-destination” – it had already been determined who was going to Heaven and who was going to Hell in the eternal realm of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But how could one know if one was pre-destined for Heaven or not? Calvinists responded that one could know by having a “second birth” of the spirit – a profound psychological experience that would leave a lasting mark on one’s psyche making it quite clear that one versed in the doctrine had been “Chosen.” The relief from the experience or dread from not having it could, and usually was, profound.  Today, we hear of people being “Born Again” in charismatic Christian churches (and elsewhere), but many consider this to be either fake or the ramblings of the mildly insane.  So, when one mentions this business of a “second birth” now, many people simply ignore it and carry on with their lives.  They don’t understand the implications for those having the experience, especially during the eighteenth century’s Great Awakening.  This is what Bushman was saying.

Great Awakener Jonathan Edwards’s famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is often put forward as an example of the kind of jeremiad that would induce the desired “second birth” of the reprobate (one who had not had the “second birth”). Subtitled “Sermon on the Danger of the Unconverted” and delivered at Enfield, CT in July of 1741, it needs to be remembered as a spoken sermon delivered "enthusiastically."  (Think “hellfire and brimstone”.)  The function of the sermon was to induce a sublime terror that would propel the listener into a cataclysmic psychological transformation.  


This is not an unusual psychological journey for humans on Planet Earth. Visionary experiences are common in the mystical aspects of all religions.  The context and agency can vary.  Bushman implies this in his essay when he compares the eighteenth-century Great Awakening to the ‘60s Civil Rights and anti-war movements.  The Civil Rights movement – delayed justice for African Americans – and opposition to the atrocious crime known as the Vietnam War, were “awakenings” that had both a political and cultural side.  The politics were that of the New Left – Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and others.  The cultural side was a bohemian spirit inherited from the "Beats" of the 1950s that became truly massive with the "hippie movement" and featured, among other things, the shared experiences of rock music and psychotropic substances like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote cactus buttons, etc.  While this directly impacted a fairly small percentage of the population overall, historians and other students of this period including psychologists and other care-givers, are beginning to understand this impact. And, like the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, there was a ripple effect that spread throughout the culture at large.  


Like the first Great Awakening, the fragmented twentieth-century movements mentioned above made an impact that is strongly felt today, although many people born since then don’t realize it.  The idea of self-realization – becoming the person you were meant to be (or, in Christian terms, the person God intended you to be), getting society back on a track of justice and equity and freedom, having a sense of mission for bringing positive change to the world – these are the results of such profound psychological experiences not unlike the Great Awakening. An entire generation awoke to both what we were doing to the planet and that we were essentially poisoning ourselves by not paying attention to what we were putting in our mouths.  In the eighteenth-century Awakening, Bushman estimated up to twenty or thirty percent of a town could be converted to the “New Lights” (those who had experienced the “second birth”) in one pass by the iconic Anglican preacher George Whitefield.  The counterculture and its politics, while suppressed, has maintained significant numbers of adherents.  It is possible to see both of these “Awakenings” as “seasons of revival, outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and converted sinners experiencing God’s love personally."  In the eighteenth century, those who experienced the “second birth” often “saw the light” of both religious and political freedom, compassion for their fellow humans, and a strong sense of staying attuned to their inner life.  In the twentieth century, many in the Boomer Generation experienced similar feelings of love and compassion for not only their fellow humans, but for all life.  


Now, in the twenty-first century, as the Boomer Generation has begun passing through the Sun Door, we have the reality of Climate Disruption and cataclysmic change staring us in the face.  It was the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies – readers of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson (et al.) – who first awoke to this danger on a mass scale.  If one takes the language of the first Great Awakening metaphorically, Bushman’s admonition hits close to home.  The “slippery slope” that Edwards, Whitefield, and a small army of itinerant revivalists used to induce the transformative “second birth” describes the reality we now face.  We are sliding.  Edwards’s “God” is our “Climate” and its reality cannot be denied.  We're too late to prevent many of the cataclysmic disruptions to come in the name of profit and convenience.  But we can still mitigate some of it.  We still have some agency, but it is slipping away daily. This is the Last Great Awakening. It’s not just humanity that is sliding, it’s the entire planetary ecological system as well as future generations.  This is the REAL DEAL, the Sixth Extinction is underway and everyone is responsible now. 


Richard Bushman’s observation that modern observers do not understand those eighteenth-century individuals who underwent a “second birth” has gained profound significance.  Ignoring what we have been doing to our home planet has created consequences that we are only beginning to grasp and that are no longer abstract.  The itinerant preachers of the Great Awakening bent on inducing a “second birth” were, in their way, absolutely right about the need for profound personal change and diligent attention to one’s inner life.  The Last Great Awakening, if it is to be massive and successful, must involve profoundly altering our personal behaviors and inner lives while seriously committing to living in a sustainable way.  Indeed, the sublime terror needed to propel massive action does not need the abstract references to HELL of the First Great Awakening.  The consequences of the “reprobate’s” failure to change is not abstract at all; it's happening now.


©Douglas Harvey 2019

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