Friday, September 21, 2012

The spirit of self-made men

The religious revivals known as Great Awakenings paved the way for the self-made man

The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture. 

In the scope of their ambition and the societies they were instrumental as founding, John Winthrop, Roger Williams and William Penn could plausibly be seen, in retrospect, as self-made men. But for them an their colonial peers, God, not man, as the source of all creation. Penn went further – much further – than the Puritans did in his belief that the Inner Light was a gift that humans could use to fashion a society as they saw fit. With this indispensable source, they were born free to make of themselves what they will. In that relatively narrow, but relatively real, sense he would agree they were self-made.
In the eighteenth century, a new wave of religious denominations emerged that built on agency-driven vision of faith. These exploded into view in the second third of the eighteenth century in a phenomenon that has come to be known as the First Great Awakening. The flames of this trans-Atlantic revival were fanned by charismatic preachers like the great Anglican minister George Whitefield (1714-1770), and New England Congregationist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).
For Whitefield, Edwards, and like-minded evangelists, however, the First Great Awakening was a tricky proposition, theologically and otherwise. They remained Calvinists, as did many of their believers. But the intensity of what was in many respects a bottom-up religious movement shaded, at times imperceptibly, toward a notion of individual agency. This tension could be seen, for example, in the rise of ministers who felt they could – even must – shed the baggage of formal training and rely on the force of experienced conversion to sustain them and their followers. (Such people were known as New Lights, in contrast to denominationally orthodox Old Lights.) Edwards in particular, who recognized the vitality of the New Lights but worried about their rhetorical and emotional excesses, tried to navigate between them, ultimately found himself rejected by his flock in Massachusetts. He ended up in New Jersey as a president of Princeton, which became a bastion of the Calvinist inflected Presybterianism that dominated the middle colonies in the decades on either side of the American Revolution.
Their efforts notwithstanding, Edwards and Whitefield were increasingly displaced by more avowedly Arminian sects that emphasized the power – and responsibility – for believers to actively choose their own salvation. Among the most important were the Baptists, who grew sharply from their Rhode Island roots, becoming the largest Protestant denomination in North America, which they remain. Unlike the infant baptisms of the Catholic Church, Baptists emphasized that this sacrament must be the informed decision of an adult. Similarly successful in this period were the Methodists, led by the much-traveled Briton John Wesley (1703-1791), whose very name suggests a concrete series of steps believers could take to experience a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
In an important sense, American religious culture has never looked back – hard to see how it could have once Thomas Jefferson codified life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness into a new form of sacred scripture. The idea that man was the forger of his own fate reached its theological apotheosis in the ministry of Charles Grandison Finney (1791-1875) a self-trained Presbyterian minister who dispensed with Calvinism altogether and made individual choice of the cornerstone of a remarkably successful career as a revivalist, theologian, and president of Oberlin College. Finney’s vision of faith is aptly captured in his famous analogy of a man approaching the edge of Niagara Falls who is warned of danger and steps back from the brink of destruction. [81-2] In this formulation, God is the messenger, but the man’s decision, and subsequent action to save himself, are his alone. Finney, the rock star of 19th century American religion, was a central figure in the next and greatest religious revival in American history, the Second Great Awakening, which dominated the social, cultural, and political life of the nation in the first half of the nineteenth century. His periodic tours, mostly in northeastern cities, made him internationally famous.  His innovation of the “anxious seat,” in which he invited participants to come forth and profess their worthlessness as a prelude to experiencing the awesome power of God’s redemptive love, thrillingly dramatized the power of individuals to change their lives.
The Second Great Awakening was a complex, long-term phenomenon with different accents in different locales. In the old southwest in the states surrounding Kentucky, for example, its impact tended to be individualistic, defined in personal terms. Its later incarnations in the North, especially the so-called “burnt-over district” of upstate New York, had more of a social dimension. In this regard, it echoed the dialectic of the Puritans (many of whose heirs had moved west into the region). Your power to change your life and re-make yourself was affirmed in terms of your power to do good for others. All the great reform movements of the nineteenth century – the quest to conquer alcoholism; suffrage for women, and especially, the fight against slavery – drew their vitality from the spiritual power unleashed by the Awakening. (It was also the source of vitality in some of the social byways of the era, from Mormonism to less well-known crusades like those for dietary, prison, and sex reform.) Finney used the word “perfectionism” to describe such quests, one reason he was regarded as controversial by religious traditionalists, but one which had biblical justifications that had been invoked by First Great Awakening evangelicals.
The age of self-making may have arrived, but all over the country, it was also hedged. Personal freedom was coupled with an assertion that success on earthly terms must be coupled with that of spiritual regeneration and/or redemption, which often – but not always – had a collective dimension. The nature of this must was ambiguous: sometimes it was asserted that worldly success was impossible without a moral basis; other times it was conceded such success was possible but could never be truly satisfying. From the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth, believers – in the broadest sense of that term – struggled with squaring the injunction to do well by doing good with a suspicion that worldly and heavenly grace were not always convergent.
Of course, some people were more worried about this corundrum than others. Actually, from the very beginning of England’s North American experiment there were those whose orientation toward moral considerations in making a life for themselves were nominal. Their God, figuratively speaking, was Demeter. And their heaven – one decidedly of their own making – was here on earth.

On the docket: a series of posts on the self-made agrarian, from William Berkeley to Thomas Jefferson. Stay tuned.