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Great Awakenings are commonly said to be periods of religious revival in Anglo-American religious history. They have also been described as periodic revolutions in American religious thought. The Great Awakenings appear to form a cycle, with a period of roughly (very roughly) 80 years. This forms a Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
There are three commonly accepted Great Awakenings:
- The First Great Awakening (1730s - 1740s)
- The Second Great Awakening (1820s - 1830s)
- The Third Great Awakening (1880s - 1900s)
In addition, Strauss and Howe, projecting the cycle backwards through time, list two additional Great Awakenings in British history:
Projecting the cycle forward, Strauss and Howe list a Consciousness Revolution, which lasted from 1964 to 1984. Other scholars accept a Fourth Great Awakening which occurred during the 1960s to the 1970s.
The Pattern of Great Awakenings
For a recent analysis of the causes and effects of Great Awakenings, see Generations (book).
A Great Awakening happens when social change renders traditional religion (or the thesis in Hegel's terminology) no longer able to answer the questions posed by contemporary life. A certain disconnect occurs between religion and the real world. New belief systems attempt to fill the gap, eventually leading to a full Great Awakening. Examples of such precursors to a Great Awakening are the Spiritualism movement, which preceded the Third Great Awakening, and the Beatnik movement, which preceded the Fourth.
A Great Awakening consists of the rise of a multitude of new denominations, sects, or even entirely new religions. In addition to completely new belief systems, existing belief systems gain new popularity. Since, by its nature, religion is traditional and hard to change, many of the new beliefs attempt to do an end-run around tradition by appealing to even more ancient (and usually fabricated, or at least distorted) tradition, dismissing current beliefs as innovations. This is why Great Awakenings are often referred to as revivals.
In response to this new antithesis, fundamentalist sects form, which oppose some of the new ideas (while quietly accepting others).
Over the course of roughly the next 40 years, a form of natural selection takes place, as the more radical sects on both sides are either defeated or merge into a new synthesis of belief. A crucial step is the coming-of-age of a generation raised in the beliefs of the newest Great Awakening. For them, the new beliefs, even if they are not their own, are a fact of life, and not dangerously radical ideas.
But this new synthesis eventually ossifies, becoming the new thesis, starting the cycle over.
America and the Great Awakenings
Although the Great Awakenings influence and are influenced by religious thought from throughout the world, the cycle of Great Awakenings appear to be unique to the United States. This could be because the United States is home to many different denominations and sects, while remaining largely Protestant Christian. The lack of a single dominant faith or state-sanctioned religion means that new ideas can be spread without having to slowly reform existing institutions from within, or allowing pressures to build up until the existing institutions are violently overthrown. On the other hand, the established sects have enough prestige and inertia that the pressure for new ideas build into a regular cycle of (relatively - there are riots involved) bloodless revolution.
Since religion has often been used to dictate or justify morality, the Great Awakenings have exerted influence on the politics of the United States. Joseph Tracy, the minister and historian who gave this religious phemonenon its name in his influential (and still, to many, definitive) 1842 book The Great Awakening, saw the First Great Awakening as a precursor to the War of Independence. For another example, the abolition movement, part of the wider Second Great Awakening, eventually contributed to the American Civil War.
- Robert William Fogel; The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism; 2000, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226256626
- William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning, New York: Broadway Books, 1997.
- Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield, 1997, Banner of Truth, ISBN 0851517129. This is a reprint of the original work published in 1842.
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