New Rites, Old Stories
As I read Tara Isabella Burton’s fascinating new book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, I could not help but think of the 19th century. Burton’s thesis is that religion is not on the decline—we are not in a secular age—it is simply taking on some new, and it must be said, very bizarre forms. Christianity may be on the decline, and the world may be “giving up on God,” as Ronald Inglehart recently claimed in the pages of Foreign Affairs, but this does not mean that spiritual revival is not taking place. In the wake of mainline Protestantism’s decline, alternative forms of spirituality are filling the void. Burton identifies religious expression in everything from SoulCylce and Wicca. Similar things, sans the stationary bikes, were taking place a couple of centuries ago.
Max Weber’s “disenchantment” or secularization narrative is the one typically applied to the 19th century, but, in truth, it was a period of religious revival and infatuation with the supernatural. Although the First Great Awakening gets all the press, the Second Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century arguably had a greater impact on shaping the religious milieu of the young republic. Mark Noll claims that it was “the most influential revival of Christianity in the history of the United States.” The First Awakening was a bit of a flash in the pan, even if Alan Heimert’s thesis—viz., that the first American revivals had a net result of producing political solidarity and shared American identity—is adopted. The revivals of the 1730s and 1740s were followed by a spiritual lull. Some historians estimate that less than 10% of the population were church members by the final decade of the 18th century.
The Second Awakening was quite a different story. It produced incalculable ripple effects. Its legacy was more enduring religiously and politically. There were revivals throughout the nation, most spectacularly in the frontier states, until well after the Civil War. It may be inaccurate, therefore, to even refer to a single awakening of the 19th century. Rather, the initial Cane Ridge “camp meeting” (i.e. the Red River revival) ignited a flame that burned for decades.
The 19th century was a season for the upstarts. To this extent, a decentralization narrative is apt. Following the Kentucky revivals at the dawn of the new century, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and new groups spread rapidly throughout the south and west. But it was especially the Baptists and Methodists that experienced unprecedented gains. “By the 1830s,” says Noll, “these groups had replaced the Congregationalists and Presbyterians as the largest denominations, not only in the South but in the whole United States.”
Despite Baptists and Methodists dominance, the religious field did not lack fresh competition. The newly minted Shakers also surged in membership, and by century’s close, an incalculable number of new sects had arisen. Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell spearheaded the Kentucky revivals and began the restoration movement which eventually led to the founding of the Disciples of Christ, and in turn, the Church of Christ. Some of the newbies, like the utopian, communist Oneida community, fizzled out just as quickly as they arose. Others, like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Scientologists, are still with us.
Both American awakenings resulted in the further personalization, internalization, and privatization of religious practice. With established religious institutions displaced, social cohesion was at an all-time low by the middle of the 19th century. This fact was not disconnected from a widespread interest in the supernatural, which led to the establishment of several heterodox and millenarian cults. As Roger Luckhurst points out, contrary to popular belief, the rapid advance of science and technology did not secularize the western mind at the same pace. Rather, the reverse was true. “Every scientific and technological advance encouraged a kind of magical thinking and was accompanied by a shadow discourse of the occult. For every disenchantment there was an active re-enchantment of the world.”
In the early decades of the century, there was a craze for Mesmerism. People on both sides of the Atlantic clambered for hypnotic sessions wherein ailments were healed and visions of the future ranted. Charles Dickens fancied himself an accomplished mesmerist. There was also the Spiritualist movement which used mediums to communicate with the dead and, therefore, challenged the Christian doctrine of eternal damnation. Especially by the latter decades of the 19th century, mystical societies were ubiquitous, and a sort of magical revival was underway.
We are seeing similar trends now, as Strange Rites shows. Earlier this year, Bianca Bosker of the Atlantic connected the rise of witchcraft with the plummet in confidence in established institutions. The same connection could have been made in the 19th century. In 2019, the New York Times ran numerous stories on witchcraft, including an earnest testimonial and another emphasizing the appeal of witchcraft amongst feminists. A 2018 story in the Atlantic covered a trend of black, millennial women leaving Christianity for “African witchcraft,” often mediated through “digital covens.” People, it seems, are just as spellbound today by the paranormal as the Victorians were.
Also mirroring the 19th century, many of Burton’s niche religious communities appeal to, or are only actionable by, the affluent. It is difficult for someone on food stamps to be an adherent of the cult of wellness. Likewise, the impoverished youth of crime-ridden inner cities or opiate ravished Appalachia are unlikely to get into Harry Potter cosplay. Only a small, very wealthy cadre of the entire population can truly adopt the optimism and techno-progressivism of what Burton refers to as the “California ideology,” headquartered in Silicon Valley. Most of the people hosting séances and tarot card readings in their homes or reading books on “animal magnetism” were gentlemen amateurs, that is, hobbyists with time to kill, money to burn, and a gaping hole in their (spiritual) life.
The largest portion of Burton’s book is dedicated to the social justice movement. She is, of course, not the only one to discern the fundamentally religious character of wokeness. James Lindsay, John McWhorter, and Andrew Sullivan have each written extensively on the religiosity of what Lindsay, in particular, calls “critical social justice.”
Yet again, something of the 19th century is in play here. Back then, the social gospel movement, led by Washington Gladden, emerged as a reaction to protestant approaches to social issues which were considered overly individualistic and philanthropic. By contrast, proponents of the social gospel, as Williston Walker described it, “focused attention on the corporate aspects of modern life and on the achievement of social justice,” especially surrounding slavery. The movement was largely post-millennial and “[d]edicated to the building of the kingdom of God on earth.” Social gospel sentiments were prominent in the northeast amongst those who had defected from the religious establishment.
Gladden’s movement coincided with, or responded to, broader concerns over social issues, one manifestation of which was the rise of the “benevolence empire.” For nearly every cause, there was a corresponding activist organization: Bible printing, foreign missions, education, orphans, modesty, temperance. Humanitarian crusades were launched to remake society according to the new moralism. But, again, the cause that took priority was that of social justice (e.g. slavery and labor issues).
The activist, evangelical elites of Victorian morals were especially taken by new socialist theories of society. The Owenite sect, named for their founder Robert Owen, preached a socialist message, literally employing “social missionaries.” But the socialism-Christianity exchange may have been a two-way street. As Ian Shaw suggests, Marx’s vision for an alternative social structure was influenced by radical Anabaptist sects who referred to themselves as “Christian communists.”
Today’s woke religion, informed by neo-Marxist thought with postmodern modifications, is most dominant in so-called post-protestant circles. Mark Tooley expertly identified this sect, which has emerged out of mainline Protestant territory. Tooley’s insightful analysis connects the decline in organized religion to a new religious form of expression:
“As Mainline Protestantism imploded in membership… new demographic called the ‘religious nones’ has emerged. Many of them descend from the Mainline and are largely educated white middle class Anglo whites who carry the WASP persona even if they are post-Protestant and arguably post-Christian. These post-Protestants no longer seek redemption through traditional Christianity and they no longer understand America through the Protestant sense of moral mission. Now they seek validation through affirming social and political themes commonly identified as woke, by which they are societally credentialed as good people.”
Several years ago, Jody Bottum identified the same thing in An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. It is in these same young, post-Protestant circles that support for socialist policies is strongest.
Though the faith of social justice is easily found amongst the post-Protestants, it is also creating severe tension in broad evangelicalism and most evidently in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), though the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is not without its own related problems. Likewise, Tooley’s United Methodist Church (UMC) recently experienced an exodus of a conservative pocket of bishops over the denomination’s approach to LGBTQ issues.
Though the PCA is also navigating calls for denomination-wide repentance over past (and allegedly present) racism— a 2016 Religion New Service op-ed claimed that that racism was the “catalyst” that started the PCA and that Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), was founded as a safe haven for segregationists—this issue has most plagued the SBC, for obvious, historical reasons. The circumstances of the SBC’s founding are beyond dispute. Per Walker, “The most extensive nineteenth century denominational schisms occurred in connection with the struggle over slavery… Northern and Southern sentiments were hopelessly divided.” As the war approached, both the Baptists and the Presbyterians split over it. Only the Episcopal church proved capable of reuniting later. The SBC has publicly apologized for the circumstances of its founding over the years.
But the surge of social activism and the advent of a racial reckoning in America—appropriately referred to often as the “Great Awokening”—the SBC has again come under fire. It is now argued that the denomination’s slaveholding past and alleged complicity in postbellum segregationist policies produced an enduring legacy of inequality and blindness to systemic racism in the denomination—a legacy which has yet to be sufficiently addressed. Al Mohler and SBTS have made some efforts to do so, to little avail. A few weeks ago, SBC pastor Dwight McKissic upped the ante, calling for the removal of the names of slaveholding founders of the seminary from campus buildings. Mohler’s seminary was called out last year when it rejected calls for reparations from a neighboring, historically black college.
Debates over the past and future of the SBC’s flagship seminary are not the only signs of the influence of increased social justice enthusiasm in the broader culture on the country’s largest evangelical denomination. Lawrence Ware made waves in 2017 when he penned an op-ed for the New York Times announcing his departure from the SBC for its, in his mind, lackluster commitment to the cause of social justice and racial equity. Others followed. In 2018, the New York Times ran the headline “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches” chronicling this trend across evangelicalism. Most recently, John Onwuchekwa’s Atlanta congregation exited the SBC for similar reasons as Ware.
Perhaps nothing has compounded internal tensions within the SBC, and evangelicalism writ large, more than the resurgence of Black Lives Matter (BLM) this past spring. In an article for the New Yorker last month, Eliza Griswold detailed the shift in thought and approach by church leaders on issues of social justice and, specifically, BLM. Griswold interviewed Jemar Tisby who highlighted the explosive force that BLM has had in evangelicalism. “What Black Lives Matter did was highlight the racism and white supremacy that still has a stranglehold on much of white Christianity… You have this phrase and this movement that is forcing people, essentially, to take sides.” Tisby argues in in his bestselling book that evangelicals failed to stand up to racism both in the antebellum South and during the Jim Crow era and that, that “compromise” still defines them.
Tisby is right. BLM has deepened divisions within evangelicalism or, as he put it, forced people to pick a side in the social justice movement. People are not quite sure what to do with BLM, or identity politics generally. Endless, largely unfruitful, semantical wrangling has ensued. J.D. Greear raised more than a few eyebrows when he promoted the BLM slogan in a video this past summer.
On the one hand, then, the resurgence of BLM has backfired. The Religion News Service has reported that, following a riotous summer, some Christians are saying that they are “less motivated to act on racial justice” or believe that there is a “race problem in the country.” But in the sense that Tisby identifies, the divisions are necessary to growth. In many ways, the election of Donald Trump had the same effect, at least in the SBC. Wrapped up with the evangelical reckoning with race is the conflict over the uses and abuses of critical social theories in the SBC (beginning with Resolution 9 last summer) which, again, mimics similar conflicts of the 19th century.
Then, as now, evangelicals had to grapple with a rapidly changing intellectual environment, viz., the rise of Darwinism, critical approaches to the Bible, as well as socialist theories of politics and economy. As Walker put it, “The impact of the revolutions in scientific and historical thought was remaking the reigning concepts of the nature of the world and its history. Those who were reared in the traditional Biblical views of creation were shaken by the new ideas coming from the geologists on the one hand and the Biblical critics on the other.”
Some evangelicals held fast to the old ways. Others attempt to integrate the new insights into their preexisting theological commitments whilst retaining their evangelical identity. Much of this battle took place in seminaries like Andover, which championed the “progressive orthodoxy” which Walker notes “proved to be but a transition to liberalism.” Such “transitions” were matched by further entrenchment on the conservative side, leading to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that tore denominations apart.
The most concerning aspect of this 19th century analogy is the end result. The Second Awakening proved remarkably fissiparous. Disenchanted with the established religious forms, people found new ways to express their spirituality. Rapid technological advancement coincided rather than frustrated this trend, which, as Burton shows, is the case today. Even the young, reactionary traditionalists mediate their expression and simulate old liturgical forms through new technologies. We may be witnessing the beginning of a displacement of the establishment and a rise of new, stranger sects. More distressing still, if the 19th century analogy holds, is that present internal friction, especially that caused by conflict over social issues, may precipitate denominational realignment and more serious schism.
Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. His writing has appeared at Areo Magazine, The American Spectator, and National Review, and he writes regularly on law, theology, and politics at Conciliar Post.