Little wonder at the staggering numbers of new-church communicants. Protestant mainline churches clearly are a large part of the sending end of the (receiving-end) megachurch evangelical phenomenon. And the new evangelism, symbolized by more elemental faith generally and megachurches specifically, suggests a third Great Awakening is at hand.The first occurred over a quarter-century — beginning about 1730 — in New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South. Heavily anti-Anglican (Church of England), it splintered Protestant denominations and democratized American religious practice. New churches were formed, and new colleges — Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers, Dartmouth. The Great Awakening reached one of its highest peaks in, yes, Virginia.
The second began in the late 1700s and projected well into the 1800s. Largely an orthodox reaction against supercilious (and secularizing) Protestant hierarchs, it, too, splintered many churches and led to the establishment of new ones in the westward expansion. It was zealous, simplifying, evangelistic, abolitionist, and helped produce what historian Allen Guelzo terms America’s “redeemer president”: Abraham Lincoln.
In their “Great Republic,” Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn and five others write:
“The Second Great Awakening . . . did not simply intensify the religious feeling of existing church members; more important, it mobilized unprecedented numbers of hitherto unchurched people into religious communion. But popularizing religion as never before . . . this great revival marked the beginning of the republicanizing and nationalizing of American religion. Thousands upon thousands of ordinary people found in evangelical religion new sources of order and community.”
That may confirm how big — how huge — the Protestant schisms to which we now are witness may be, with the Episcopal schism perhaps the most consequential. Do the Episcopal hierarchs and their counterparts in other denominations know not what they do? Their actions may well have precipitated a third Great Awakening that will reshape the nation’s Protestant landscape.
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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