Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Fourth Great Awakening or Apostasy: Is American Evangelicalism Cycling Upwards or Spiraling Downwards?

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Fourth Great Awakening or Apostasy: Is American Evangelicalism Cycling Upwards or Spiraling Downwards?

Article excerpt

In his 1999 presidential speech to the Evangelical Theological Society, Professor Wayne Grudem, in an otherwise excellent address, suggested that evangelicalism has been evolving toward a more mature sense of the essentials of the faith over its history. University of Chicago Nobel laureate Robert W. Fogel argued for a similarly rosy picture of the trajectory of American evangelicalism in his recently published The Fourth Great Awakening and. the Future of Egalitarianism. Professor Fogel believes that beginning with the "First Great Awakening" evangelical Christianity has been on the vanguard of social renewal in America pushing forward the progress of "egalitarianism." Professor Grudem gives us the view of someone very much on the inside while Fogel's perspective is that of an outsider. Robert Fogel is a self-confessed secular Jew and a world-renowned empirical historian, a founder of the scientific economic history school known as cliometrics. As such, Professor Fogel's work is a valuable source for diagnosing the moral health of America and the evangelicalism with it.

Fogel's paradigm is drawn from what he believes are cycles of ethical challenges America has undergone provoked by technological innovations that create moral crises that, in turn, are resolved by evangelical awakenings.1 In its own way this is another expression of "the Enlightenment faith in progress."2 In a Hegelian-like dialectic, egalitarian movements pose a thesis that has excesses that are corrected by an "antithesis"; the synthesis leaves us better off than before, but soon another "awakening" poses another thesis, and onward and upward we go. There may be lags between technological transformations and the human ability to cope with them in Fogel's theory, but eventually, with the impetus of religious institutions, America adjusts to the new ethical complexities.

Fogel's cycles begin with the "First Great Awakening." In harmony with recent scholarship, Fogel believes the Awakening was crucial in developing the sentiments and concepts that led to the American Revolution. New Lights, both close to the people and reflective of their values, had the most to do with preparing the ground for the Revolution.3 After the cultural influences of the Puritan awakening helped provoke the American Revolution, they regrouped, were joined by the Methodist invasion, and set off the "Second Great Awakening." The creation of the term "Second Great Awakening" in the nineteenth century created the impression of a repetition of something similar, which in turn lends itself to the idea of cycles. Whether there are cycles is one of the major questions in weighing the Fogel paradigm.

Fogel is in part breaking from and in part affirming his mentor Simon Kuznets. Kuznets, also a Nobel laureate in economics, described the modern economic epoch as instilling "secularism, egalitarianism, and nationalism."4 Fogel, a self-described secular product of the "Third Great Awakening," no longer believes that the Puritan ethic is evaporating under the hot sun of Western secularism. But he does seem to believe in secularization as demystification. The values that the Puritans inculcated in their followers on the basis of divine sanction became part of the national ethos. Fogel affirms Kuznets's link of the modern economy to egalitarianism, though in light of his findings on slavery Fogel would not argue that egalitarian progress was an inevitable fruit of modern economic growth. In his view, the "New Lights" made that possible. Hence the main catalyst for the growth of moral progress in America, according to the Fogel paradigm, has been the religious ethic found principally in the Puritans and inherited chiefly (though not solely) by today's evangelicals. The "Great Awakenings" in his view were uprisings of the Puritan conscience still deep in the American psyche.


But is this optimistic picture of evangelicalism accurate? …

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