Revivalism in the Burned-Over District Part 2

In Revivalism in the Burned Over District Part 1 I attempted to illustrate something simple: Philosophical movements often precede and influence religious movements. This was an attempt to connect the dots. But before I illustrate how religious movements precede and influence social and political movements I have to take time to unpack some more of this revivalism. I have discovered that Finney’s perfectionism is far more important than I had originally thought.

I like the analogy of the streams rather than dots. Connecting dots could imply direct connection from one thing to another. As I warned earlier, history just isn’t that simple. Furthermore, connecting dots doesn’t show how strong the influence of one thing is on another. But the stream analogy does. When you look at a river, it is made up of streams of water that flow from many different sources–some creeks and some tributaries. Sure the Mississippi has its headwaters in tiny stream dribbling out of Lake Itasca Minnesota but no one would say that Lake Itasca is the one source of the Mississippi. Likewise, the Romanticism of Emerson or Finney’s perfectionism can’t be definitively the source of the ills of the Burned-Over district. But they are tributaries in what would become a river. And like a river the route is seldom straight and picks up all sorts of debris along the way. When I last posted, I thought Finney’s revivalism was just a stream. Turns out that his perfectionism was tributary all its own.

Here’s a quote from John H. Martin’s Saints, Sinners, and Reformers

By 1851 when he accepted the College Presidency, Finney had changed as American religion had changed. His doctrine of reforming one’s self led to the various reforms movements of the nineteenth century, and American Protestantism was to head in different directions after the 1850s. One portion evolved towards a completely literal approach to the Bible and the coming Millennium, while the other, among the major Protestant denominations, downplayed much of traditional theological concerns in favor of a growing interest in the Social Gospel which would concern itself with the betterment of society.

So Finney was the headwaters. But downstream we have other reform movements. Some good (anti-slavery) and some bad (radical millennialism). Recall that perfectionism was a reaction to some forms of Calvinism. Perfectionists believed that the human soul was perfectible rather than being predestined. As a result, it was possible to live a life virtually sinless and revivals were the key to rededicating one’s self to that task. Recall also that I did not like the term “Perfectionism” because it confused Finney’s theology with Aristotle’s virtue theory. Whitney Cross in his excellent book The Burned Over District (Cornell University Press, 1950) doesn’t use that term but instead speaks of “Ultraism” and that is indeed what many in the burned over district called it. So from now on Aristotle can rest easy. We’ll call it Ultraism. Here’s what you need to know about Ultraism:

1) It was anti-intellectual. By that I don’t mean it just didn’t like academic science. I mean it eschewed all forms of systematic study of the scripture. I mentioned in the last post that Finney didn’t want scholarship to interfere with his understanding of God. Cross actually reports that Ultraists wanted nothing to do with prepared sermons because they lacked fire and power. As one Ultraist put it, “We must have exciting, powerful preaching, or the devil will have the people, except what the Methodists can save.” The key here is that in order to distance themselves from the “dusty” puritans, the Ultraists embraced vices in spiritual development. The idea that a prepared sermon wrought with study and prayer lacks fire is ludicrous.

2) It was anti-doctrine. Because sermons were unprepared they tended to bypass doctrinal issues that would divide revival attendees. Cross says, “The practices of the revivalist dulled nice distinctions between denominations and confused logical lines of thought.” And when you don’t have any doctrine to parse out for the poor, benighted farmers, what do you have to preach about? You sensationalize. “Adapting texts to the need of the hour cultivated a taste for the sensational . . . Invective easily came to predominate in attacks on clergy and laymen alike.” Reminds me of a joke I heard in hermeneutics class. What did the preacher’s notes on his sermon say? “Point weak here. Yell louder.”

3) It was hyper-experiential. The people took their cue from the revivalists. No study but lots of passion and fervor and wild gesticulations. To be sure there was much prayer. But since no one thought to actually study the nature and spirit of prayer. The Burned-over district settled for sensational and authoritarian prayer. People demonstrated their powers of prayer by praying horses from one pasture to the next according to Cross. Private prayer meetings became so boisterous as to disturb tourists to the region. Charles Finney would examine the audible prayers of his congregants and pronounce judgment on them for their “Mockery of God” but sadly as one district resident professed, “very few . . . know much about praying . . . I do not find anybody that knows how to teach me on that subject.”

So there are some streams in the Ultraist movement. Since this is a blog and not a lecture (and I’m no revivalist) let us all discuss this. Post your thoughts and let’s sift the good from the bad and the ugly.


Comments

Revivalism in the Burned-Over District Part 2 — 2 Comments

  1. Great articles! I’ve visited a local Independent Baptist church a few times, once for a funeral, once for a revival and a couple of regular services. One thing I noticed that you do not mention is how alter calls/calls to salvation are not about repentance nearly as much as about “making gramma happy, who is up in heaven now, hoping to see you. . . ” and those types of manipulations.

  2. In keeping with the streams theme, it all boils down to this it seems to me and although I am not qualified to critique church history, it seems that the same mistakes keep recycling and history keeps repeating itself……….even to the present day.
    The mixing of polluted waters with the streams of living water of the Word. The mixing of truth and error that led to the demise of Israel now to the apostasy in these last days. Thanks for a good article and a fitting analogy.

    “ For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, And hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.Jeremish 2:13

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