Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: History gives moral direction

21st in a series
The Second Great Awakening denotes a period of religious revival that lasted over 40 years, roughly from 1795 until 1835. It left an indelible mark on the American mind. Its effects are manifold, sometimes contradictory, or at least apparently so. They run very deep. To attempt to explain all this in a single essay would be foolhardy, but I shall attempt it at the risk of being reproved by the dictum “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” The quest for historical understanding inevitably runs such risks.
To begin with, the rhythm, so to speak, of the history of Christianity, individually and communally, is marked by a cycle of decline and revival, of repentance, forgiveness, and regeneration. These characteristics are omnipresent in the religions of the Abrahamic tradition, among them, Judaism, Christianity and Islam in their many varieties. Divine perfection from which follows a sublime standard of Justice, which is at the root of them all, accounts for this. The demands of the Law and the Prophets set a very high standard of righteousness that few can attain, and, were it not matched by a super-abundance of divine mercy, few if any could hope to gain divine approval, for true righteousness as it is represented in this tradition requires not merely obedience to the letter, but sincerity and purity of heart, in short, a perfect union of the outer and inner life. Right actions that proceed from impure motives are fundamentally wrong. There can be no satisfaction in doing the right thing unless it proceeds from the right motive.
Because of the frailty and fallibility of the human condition, it should come as no surprise that anyone who takes seriously the divine demand of righteousness should be afflicted with a guilty conscience. And this sense of guilt grows even more acute when it is joined by a sense of the presence of God (see Psalms 51 and 139).
The Second Great Awakening is well documented, and has been well interpreted by one of its foremost figures, Charles G. Finney (1792–1875). He not only understood it, he experienced it, and he embodied it in his life and activities. Born in Connecticut, he spent his youth in central New York. Although largely self-educated he was constantly in search of teachers; he became a schoolteacher, and then a lawyer, and then, following his conversion, a minister, ordained in the Presbyterian Church, he became minister of the Broadway Tabernacle, which is now part of the United Church of Christ. All during this time, he continued his activity as an itinerant revivalist. In 1836 he was invited to become professor of theology at Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College), and in 1851 he became its president. It was at Oberlin that Finney wrote his “Lectures on Revivals of Religion.” He also wrote and published lectures on systematic theology. While at Oberlin he continued his activities as a revivalist.
It should begin to become clear Finney embodied and gave expression to two basic traditions in American intellectual and spiritual life that have since grown apart: evangelicalism and liberalism. The abolitionist movement arose from this union, and Finney came to represent its heart and mind. Given the divisions in American society today, Finney’s life and thought takes on a new relevance, and one might hope that there would be a revival of interest in him. It would do this nation much good.
From all this, the question follows: What would it take to reunite these two traditions of evangelicalism and liberalism? The short answer is to return to the source, read Finney. But the revival that Finney promoted was a revival of religion, and it involved the Christian Gospel. What of those who are not Christian, or those who have no religion at all? The concluding chapter of his “Lectures on Revivals” offers a way: It contains a checklist of the signs of regeneration that is rich in moral wisdom. It involves acceptance of one’s station in life and its responsibilities, an ability to overcome personal resentment and self-pity, a spirit of compassion and friendliness together with an attitude of good will toward others; also a readiness to resolve social differences peacefully, amicably, and fairly; an open mind. Finney’s checklist requires no acceptance of doctrine. It expresses the sort of moral wisdom that can be accommodated to secular life. For evangelical Christians, it opens a way to a recovery of their faith and a renewal of their sense of justice. The study of history can be edifying; it may sometimes be an instrument of revival, which would be consistent with the life of the mind in America, it would open a path to moral renewal, to a Great Awakening.
Postscript: Finney’s autobiography, as well as his “Lectures on Revivals of Religion,” together with many sermons and letters are available online at gospeltruth.net/cgfworks.htm.

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