5. THE THIRD GREAT AWAKENING
It is debatable if a Third Great Awakening took place indeed between 1850 and 1900, or whether what happened was only an extension of the Second Great Awakening. A religious awakening must be preceded by a religious sleep of the masses. Almost a century separates John Winthrop’s discourse from the First Great Awakening. Likewise, there are more than 60 years between the First and the Second Great Awakening. Until the middle of the 19th century the religious awakenings and sleeps interchanged. Instead, the Third Great Awakening started immediately after the Second Great Awakening; there was no period of religious relaxation and, furthermore, the general euphoria was weaker compared to the previous awakenings. The problem was that the Second Great Awakening lacked closure; a good part of the religious systems and utopias which began in the first part of the century extended into the Third Great Awakening. The world and science were changing fast and religion had to keep up the pace; there was no time for another religious relaxation.
The Third Great Awakening seems to have been an irrational reaction to the spreading of atheism and the pressure exercised by science upon religion. In 1859 Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution undermined the infallibility of the Bible, the foundation of Christianity. Social Darwinism, a faulty philosophy which stated that man “must do good,” began to develop. Occultism, theosophy and spiritualism – irrational spiritual movements – rose in reaction to this materialistic and rationalistic attack, at the same time signaling that the theological synthesis of the Second Great Awakening failed. In the middle of the century a large number of Americans were disillusioned by the prophetic or utopian failures, by the problem of slavery, or by the problem of racial and gender inequality. In 1857 a financial panic erupted, causing economic chaos, the bankruptcy of many banks and of the railway companies. The American states were on the brink of collapse and a civil war seemed unavoidable due to the slave-owning issue.
The challenge of the Third Great Awakening was to create new systems of belief at a time when the Bible was no longer considered infallible. One answer to this issue came from Mary Baker Eddy, who in 1886 introduced a new concept: “Christian Science” – a complete, coherent, verifiable and demonstrable science of nature. The biblical miracles can be explained through science and Eddy, apparently, learned the method of Christian Science after she cured a wound by applying one of Jesus’s remedies. Furthermore, because everything emanates from God, there is no matter, but only mind, spirit and principle. Through prayer, knowledge and sympathy all things are possible.1154
Others preferred to answer with obstinacy. The failures of the Second Great Awakening and the Civil War, together with scientific development, created a context that helped John Nelson Darby promote his dispensationalism and the literal interpretation of the Bible in America. In 1878 the leaders from Niagara stated the divine and plenary inspiration of the Bible, the total depravation of man, the necessity of a new spiritual birth and the premillenarist return of Christ. The divine authority of the holy texts demands a literal fulfillment of the prophecies. The end is very near, but it is not predictable; so, the Millerite arithmetic and the fallible calculations are irrelevant. Only one thing is certain: the Bible is never wrong, it is infallible. But its human interpreters can make mistakes, and exactly these mistakes are the source of opposing interpretations, reinterpretations and schisms that have influenced the history of Christianity.1155
The postmillenarism of the Third Great Awakening gave rise to social activism, movements and actions of social reform, new utopian experiments, new sects and a powerful missionary activity. After the Civil War, the American people struggled in the convulsions of the Industrial Revolution. The cities were packed with poor and unhappy workers, the proletariat of Marxist theories. In accordance to the ideals paved by the Second Great Awakening, men and women were susceptible of perfection through work, while material failure was presented as a punishment for sin. Religious groups such as the Salvation Army or the Social Gospel channeled their energy to repair the everyday problems of society: poverty, gender inequality, violence, racial discrimination, alcohol, child labor, poor hygiene or faulty education. These kind of groups believed that the Second Coming of Christ cannot occur as long as mankind does not remove, through its own efforts, social malignity. Most of them disintegrated at the beginning of the 20th century, due to the disillusions and the traumas caused by the First World War.1156
As the millennium was, allegedly, getting closer and closer, postmillenarism encouraged the progressive outpouring of the Spirit, a hysterical wave of miraculous healings, visions and speaking in tongues. The contrast between the scientific enthusiasm and the increasing desire of Christians to experience the divine was amazing. Some preachers expected unusual events to take place during their speeches, as signs that mass revivals were about to, once again, sweep the nation. In the 1870s, in the region of New England, the sermons of William Doughty were marked by shakings, dancings, screamings or cryings. The ardent desire of becoming more pure gave birth to methods and doctrines meant to make man a veritable sanctuary of the spirit. The Holiness Movement said that the carnal nature of man can be cleansed by the Holy Spirit only if one has his sins forgiven through the faith in Jesus Christ. The purpose of the movement was reaching absolute sanctification, as it had been conceived by the Methodist John Wesley. But when the Holiness Movement began to fade at the end of the century, from within it the progeny of Pentecostalism …
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