Last week, President Donald Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual bipartisan event that brings together faith leaders and members of Congress. Using language like “I’ve been with you,” and “you better get out and vote on Nov. 3” — insinuating all those of faith gathered align with the president — Trump called once again on support from his most loyal followers: white evangelical Protestants.
The alliance between white evangelicals and the far-right precincts of the Republican Party over the past 40 years has been so unwavering that most Americans might be forgiven for believing that evangelicalism has always listed to the right of the political spectrum. That, however, is not the case. Over the course of the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, evangelicals were engaged in a broad spectrum of social reform efforts, many of them directed toward those on the margins of society. It should be surprising, then, that evangelicals now identify so closely with a leader who just this week unveiled a budget proposal that slashes safety net programs aimed at serving those same people.
As we debate this administration’s policies — and the defenses of it proffered by some of evangelicalism’s most well-known names — it’s worth looking at the history that brought us to this moment.
‘Slain in the Spirit’
Aside from the Civil War, the Second Great Awakening was arguably the most consequential event in American history. Coming on the heels of the American Revolution and taking place during the decades straddling the turn of the 19th century, the evangelical revivals associated with the Second Awakening convulsed three theaters of the new nation – New England, the Cumberland Valley of Kentucky, and upstate New York – and utterly reshaped religion in America.
The New England phase of the Second Great Awakening was relatively placid. The epicenter of the awakening in New England was Yale College, where Timothy Dwight, president of the school and grandson of the redoubtable Jonathan Edwards, succeeded in turning students away from Enlightenment Rationalism and toward orthodox Christianity. In 1802, one of those students, Benjamin Silliman, described Yale as a “little temple” where “prayer and praise seem to be the delight of the greater part of the students.” The Connecticut Evangelical Magazine reported another awakening at Yale in 1815, and Nathaniel William Taylor, pastor of the First Congregational Church in New Haven, witnessed a more general revival in both the school and the town in January 1821. As Yale graduates fanned out to congregations across New England, revivals often followed in places from New York to Maine, from Vermont to Rhode Island.
The Cumberland Valley theater of the Second Awakening was by far the most dramatic. This is the era of the camp meetings, when settlers gathered for a week or 10 days of socializing, hymn-singing, prayer, and preaching, which lasted from sunrise well into the night. Although critics contended that more souls were conceived than converted, contemporaries tell of people being “slain in the Spirit,” which manifested itself in all sorts of “exercises” – barking, jerking uncontrollably, or falling to the ground. As settlers in this frontier area returned to their homes, they organized Baptist congregations and, with the help of circuit riders, Methodist churches, thereby stamping the South with an evangelical, revivalist ethic that persists to this day.
Abetted by the population and economic boom from construction of the Erie Canal, some of the revival energies shifted toward western New York by the late 1820s and early 1830s. The people of Rochester, N.Y., reported a “powerful revival of religion” as early as April 1827, and the region was so singed by the fires of revival that it became known as the “burned-over district.” The arrival of Charles Grandison Finney in Rochester in 1831 gave the revival a boost. “Mr. Finney is preaching to overflowing houses,” the Baptist Chronicle reported. “Conversions are daily occurring,” including “men of wealth, talents, and influence.”
Finney and other evangelical revivalists in the 19th century, however, believed that evangelicalism entailed more than mere conversions. A regenerated individual, in obedience to the teachings of Jesus, bore responsibility for the improvement of society and especially the interests of those most vulnerable. Finney, in fact, understood benevolence toward others as a necessary corollary of faith. “God’s rule requires universal benevolence,” he wrote. “I abhor a faith which has no humanity in it and with it,” he added. “God loves both piety and humanity.”
Evangelicals for Social Reform
The program of social reform unleashed by Finney and other evangelicals early in the 19th century stands in marked contrast to the agenda of the Religious Right that rose to power in the 1970s and continues its stranglehold on the Republican Party today. For antebellum evangelicals, benevolence took many forms, including education, prison reform, and advocacy for the poor and for the rights of women. Many evangelicals, seeking to obey the commands of Jesus to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, enlisted in efforts to oppose violence and war; I’ve also found a reference to an evangelical campaign for gun control. Even though the evangelical obsession with temperance looks presumptuous and paternalistic in hindsight, the temperance movement was a response to the very real depredations and suffering, including spousal and child abuse, caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
While it is true that many Southerners, notably James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney, defended slavery, evangelicals in the North sought to end the scourge of slavery. Some evangelicals were caught up in nativist sentiments, but a far greater number supported such initiatives as public education, known then as common schools, so that the children of immigrants and those less fortunate could toe the ladder of upward mobility. Unlike President Donald Trump’s derision of “government schools” in his State of the Union address last week, these evangelicals proclaimed the benefits of broad access to education. “Common schools are the glory of our land,” a writer declared in the Christian Spectator, “where even the beggar’s child is taught to read, and write, and think, for himself.”
Now we see Betsy DeVos, the current secretary of education and a professed Christian, leading the department to divert taxpayer money from public education in favor of charter schools and sectarian religious schools.
The Second Awakening energized an extraordinary mobilization of evangelicals on behalf of those Jesus called “the least of these.” Animated by their desire to bring about the kingdom of God on earth, they sought to alleviate suffering and work toward equality — crudely and imperfectly at times, to be sure, but determinedly. Theirs was not an abstract faith. Antebellum evangelicals understood that, in Finney’s words, “God loves both piety and humanity.”
Next time in this series: Charles Finney and the evangelical critique of capitalism