Sundays With The Christianists: American History Textbooks That Go Down On the Freedom Trail
As astute Wonkers know, today is the day of that Family Research Council's wacky funtimes prayerfest that is supposed to renew America. And by a happy coincidence, today's installment of our series on American History books for Christian Homeschoolers will be looking at the 18th century wave of religious fervor known as "The First Great Awakening," that mass outbreak of evangelism in Colonial America that both textbooks paint as a necessary precursor to the Revolutionary War. There's no denying that the zealotry inspired by the charismatic preachers of the Great Awakening led to great social and political change; and since it was Protestant evangelical zealotry, it was just and holy. Of course, that sort of religio-political zealotry in another religion might be called "jihad," and must be crushed.
Our 8th-grade text, America: Land I Love (A Beka Book, 1994) wastes no time explaining why the Great Awakening occurred: by the late 1600s, God's people had become slackers:
Because all men have a sinful nature, societies fall into states of spiritual decline. By the 18th century, many churches in the American colonies failed to preach the gospel, and consequently many church members -- even ministers -- remained unconverted. These people attended church and practiced a cold, formalistic Christianity but had never accepted Christ as personal Savior ... The land desperately needed revival.
The situation was especially bad in New England, where Puritanism had become tainted by spiritual laxity and people were eventually allowed to become church members without having been "converted," because political rights depended on church membership. Unfortunately,
the move compromised the Puritan conviction that the church ought to be composed of true, converted believers. Instead of the church changing sinners, sinners were changing the church.
The text is a bit unclear on just how these terrible sinners were harmful; probably had something to do with insufficient vigor and fired-uppedness, which the book describes as "spiritual darkness."
Our high-school textbook, United States History for Christian Schools (Bob Jones University Press, 2001), finds at least one tangible thing to blame on that "Half-Way Covenant": since church doctrine had gotten loose, that's probably the reason for the Salem Witch hysteria. Yep, according to this textbook, the Salem witch trials stemmed from insufficient Christian zeal.
U.S. History also acknowledges that other factors (which they dismiss) may have been at play:
Secular historians in search of "causes" of the Great Awakening recognize the desire for security created by economic and political uncertainty as a reason for the revival. These factors may indeed have contributed to the revival, but ultimately it was simply, in the words of Jonathan Edwards, "a surprising work of God."
We won't go into all the doctrinal details of the Great Awakening; in essence, it was the continent's first wave of popular, fire-and-brimstone preaching, since there's apparently nothing Americans like better than being told just how badly they need to straighten up and fly right. This is the religious movement that gave us Jonathan Edwards and his 1741 prototype of the hellfire and damnation sermon, Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, which we remember rolling our eyes at in our ninth-grade English textbook and still find nearly impossible to read. Colonists ate it up, fell to their knees, and came to God, certain that He was going to send everyone else to hell. Land I Love says that Edwards "is remembered as colonial America’s foremost theologian and as one of the greatest intellects our nation has ever produced," which will definitely be on the test.
The other great evangelist of the Awakening was George Whitefield, who both texts proclaim Bestest Evangelist Ever. Because English churches found him too radical, he began holding outdoors revival meetings, and he eventually brought his revival meetings to the colonies. Land I Love presents him in Guinness World Records fashion:
In 1738, Whitefield made the first of seven trips to America, where he continued his outdoor preaching, proclaiming the gospel from one end of the colonies to the other. With his booming voice and eloquent style, Whitefield could effectively reach crowds of up to 20,000 people. Whether in America or the British Isles, Whitefield preached at every opportunity, sometimes speaking four or five times per day. It is calculated that during his 34-year ministry he preached 18,000 times.
With stats like that, it's no wonder that he had several great seasons in the 1740s. U.S. History notes that though he remained an Anglican, his listeners often ended up later becoming Baptists, which provoked Whitefield to lament, "My chickens have turned to ducks." (This is, as far as we can tell, the first deliberate joke we've seen in one of these textbooks).
Also, the Great Awakening taught colonists the value of religious freedom, because it overturned the stuffiness of the established church, and blah blah made the American Revolution possible because "preachers emphasized that all men are equal in the eyes of God. It logically followed that all men deserve equal justice under the law." Shazam! Liberty! OK, sure why not?
Oh, also, the Great Awakening brought Christianity to the slaves and convinced many whites to become abolitionists, but let's not mention (and neither book does) the efforts of slaveholders to prevent slaves from attending revivals, or to neuter all that freedom talk by finding Biblical justifications for slavery. Instead, Land I Love gives us a side box with a portrait of one "Great American" touched by the Great Awakening, "Phillis Wheatley: Slave, Poet, Child of God:"
As a child in Africa, Phillis was kidnapped and brought to Boston, where a tailor, ]ohn Wheatley, purchased her as a companion and
helper for his wife. As Mrs. Wheatley taught the girl to read, Phillis showed remarkable intelligence and talent. She quickly grasped the English language and began to study the Bible, one of her chief textbooks, as well as Latin and classical works. Before long, Phillis came to know Christ as her Savior ...
Wheatley’s poetry reflects a reverence for the Bible, an understanding of Scriptural truth, and a love for America. In spite of her condition of servitude, she was thankful for being brought to America, where she could hear the gospel.
Well, then, everything worked out pretty good for her, didn't it?
Next Week: Jesus hands George Washington the Constitution, and Thomas Paine never wrote anything blasphemous.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.