Saturday, June 14, 2014

Report on "Second Great Awakening" article by Donald G. Mathews

In an ongoing effort to chronicle some of my reading, to preserve the work and make it accessible to mainly me, I'm posting a few notes like this. The articles and books I'm reporting on are typically seminal works, important secondary sources in my historical research.

Mathews, Donald G. "The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780-1830: An Hypothesis." American Quarterly 21 (Spring 1969): 23-43.

Mathews begins by suggesting that "present interpretations" of the Second Great Awakening may not be "sufficiently comprehensive" (23).

Scholars typically choose between two places of the SGA: the west or New England (24). And, it truly was not the same in those two different locales.

Mathews notes that the very term revival(ism), with its prefix "re," indicates that something (faith, churches, etc.) is already there.

Mathews says that there was a continuity between the "end" of the Great Awakening and the "beginning" of the SGA. The discontinuity between the two was that whereas the First "demanded a rethinking of church authority without subsequent general expansion of the churches, the Second Awakening was most noticeable in the undeniable quantitative fact that the Methodist and Baptist sects were not restructuring church life so much as extending it-- . . . by the tens of thousands" (26).

"It is . . . the thesis of this paper that one of the major determinants of the Second Great Awakening was irrelevant to theological issues and can be studied apart from them, that the Awakening in its social aspects was an organizing process that helped to give meaning and direction to people suffering in various degrees from the social strains of a nation on the move into new political, economic and geographical areas" (27).

The SGA characterized by unity

Mathews criticizes Perry Miller's interpretation of the SGA by saying that Miller investigated intellectual facets of the Awakening and (surprise, surprise) identified intellectual (theological) sources or causes of the Awakening. Miller's work "leaves out the social patterns and untidy non-intellectual events of the Second Great Awakening" (28). (Mathews appears to be speaking primarily about the Miller article, "From the Covenant to the Revival"). Mathews also says that Miller's analysis does not really account for all of the SGA, only for New England, not for "the South, West, and Chesapeake" (28).

The SGA as "a vast process of organization" (29)

Mathews has criticisms for W. W. Sweet, but also credits him for recognizing that religious expansion had to do with more than just religion (29). Likewise, an extension of and corrective to Sweet, the work of T. Scott Miyakawa (Protestants and Pioneers, 1964), "demonstrated how, in a mobile society, the churches could become" places of integration, where they found social unity (29-30).

The SGA as "a movement" (30)

H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937, footnote 8, on p. 30 of Mathews).

"We know that [the SGA] was a movement that converted hundreds of thousands of people and that it had some kind of profound social implications. But too often scholars have examined religion without taking its dynamism and stability seriously as social phenomena--a mistake that should be corrected" (30).

Toward that end, Mathews says that what he's going to say next is a suggestion, "a hypothesis" (31). Returning to the theme of organization, he points out that the SGA had to have been more than crazed activity and camp meetings. There was organization. Leaders at the local level had to define what it meant to be a member of a church. There was discipline and order established, etc. Boundaries were created, and observed, that distinguished insiders from outsiders, the saved from the damned (31).

Theory of social movements resulting from undefined social strain (32-33). Mathews suggests that the post-American Revolution era was characterized by social strain and that that "created a general susceptibility to social movements" (33).

As a result, the new U.S. became the scene of a specialized-society craze; all sorts of special interest societies. Mathews says that what emerged then was "a more persuasive and pervasive organizing force under which the societies themselves could be subsumed, i.e., the Second Great Awakening" (34).

In his book The Psychology of Social Movements (1941), Hadley Cantril said that people are open to suggestion when:
1. they have no adequate worldview for explaining the way things are (now? how they've come to be).
2. they experience a special event, something unique.
Cantril also said that the opposite is true. People are susceptible when everything is so very rigid as well as when they are painfully open-ended (34).

p. 35, Mathews continues to explicate how it was that the SGA was a social movement, and why that meant it was such a juggernaut.

The real question of the "success" of the SGA had to do not with the length of a camp meeting, but with how many viable churches came out of the revivalism. The SGA was a recruiting force. But what about subsequent devotion, organization, life together in the church. The group most ready and able to meet that challenge was the Methodists. They had the right sort of vision and organization for the job (36). No settled ministers. Mathews says the Methodists did not have a strong intellectual, theological tradition. What they had was a system and procedure that led to organizing people (36). Between 1781 and 1791, they went from approximately 10,000 members to 75,000.

Mathews gives more stats re. the growth of the Methodists (37) and says that the Baptists learned from the Methodists how it was done.  The incredible success and growth of the Methodists and Baptists in the the 1780s and 90s is quite a contrast to the dearth of religion in America in the wake of the Revolutionary War (37-38). Things had been in a shambles.

To an extent, Methodists and Baptists became more like each other; whatever accommodation there was had the purpose of organizing and nurturing the movement.

Methodists faltered in 1792, debates over the ecclesiastical elite, delegation of power (38-39) FVB wonders: is this a reference to the O'Kelly Schism only, or to more than that? Anyway, says Mathews, the Awakening itself did not falter. Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians all continued to thrive.

Mathews says that the essential sameness, the universality of the SGA made it a nationalizing influence. Its effect was anti-provincial.

"[T]he Revival helped make religion one of the major determinants of public discourse everywhere in the country. And it is not surprising that the period 1794-1825 was the great period of founding religious magazines and papers" (40).

SGA "as an organizing process and social movement" (42).

Mathews ends by saying there are other vistas of his idea that just can't be covered in an article:
1. class contours of the story. Specifically, it seems that who was being organized by the SGA was "a rising middle class."
2. More specifically, it seems that the SGA was "the greatest organization and mobilization of women in American history."
Other questions as well (42).


1. SGA "began as an organizing movement, not as a Calvinist reaction"
1.b. was successful because it adopted the Methodist way of organization
2. SGA began in the 1780s, continued to grow for more than a generation and "enveloped the entire country" (42).
3. Related to point 2, the SGA generated a 'common world of experience' (42). A strong national organization was not its secret. It didn't have that. What it had going for it was that it was a network of churches "that shared common values and norms with their counterparts throughout the United States" (42-43).

Significantly, Mathews refers to his article as presenting a "new thesis" (43).

"To explain the Revival in this manner enables students to see the social impact of what is too often presumed to be a purely religious movement . . . " (43).

Note that this article by D.G. Mathews is one of seven sources in the bibliography of Thomas H. Olbricht, "Great Awakenings" in Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

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