The first generation of Americans were pioneers. Many of the first Europeans who came to America were Christians, more importantly they were Protestant Christians who came to the New World during a time when the Reformation that was going on in Europe was still very much in progress.
These people had a new sense of what it meant to be a Christian. Belonging to the Church was no longer a guarantee of salvation. Salvation came through an individual’s relationship with Jesus Christ, the sole mediator between God and man. Although all members of this new society were expected to behave as though they were Church members, salvation was a matter of election, the Calvinist idea that God had predestined certain individuals for eternal life.
Furthermore, they believed that God was sovereign and was guiding their destiny. This divine sovereignty placed God as the sole ruler over their society. There was no longer a need for kings, bishops and popes the rule in the affairs of men. Each had the responsibility to be self-governing and to stand alone before God in accountability. A man’s actions were rewarded as he obeyed the supreme laws of God. This alone was the necessary motivating factor in maintaining the social order.
These pioneers realized that saving grace was no longer a theological concept or a doctrine but an everyday experience. They lived and breathed and avoided death in a hostile environment because of the protective hand of God. In this strange new world they were without the intermediary of a national Church to insure salvation in the hereafter. These Christians saw their salvation being worked out by God alone in the here and now.
The Kingdom of Heaven was already comprised of individuals who were alone accountable before God. From this realization came the concept of individuality. God had made them individuals; each one of them was unique and had been called and predestined by God to fulfill a special destiny in this new unfolding society.
The second generation of Americans were settlers. This was the generation who took their destiny back from God. By the time that the first generation had accumulated wealth and passed it on to their children, a comfort and ease had begun to set into their society. No longer was life and death in the hands of an almighty God; predestination began to become a concept and salvation began to lose its relevance in the here and now.
Two other factors that determined American idealism during this time period were an unlimited access to land, wealth in the form of natural resources and freedom from European feudal systems in favor of private ownership and capitalist investment. From this perspective came the notion of unlimited wealth, the Protestant work ethic and the free enterprise system.
Capitalism in its pure form existed in this society; surplus was reinvested in order to gain a larger surplus. Because wealth was unlimited in the New World, wealth was available to all at the expense of no one. The only prohibiting factor was the amount of industry provided through individual initiative.
By the time that the second generation had settled in and had become comfortable, fewer could claim to have had the same experience of saving grace as the previous generation. This was the age in which Church membership and not election began to become the basis salvation.
The Pioneers baptized their children believing that they would have the same inner experience of a personal relationship with God when they came of age. But when it came time for the third generation to be baptized, the wealth which had permeated the society kept their children away from a need for a Savior.
They were like the Laodiceans: they already had everything they needed. They were aristocrats; they lived in comfort and ease. Many of them could not testify to having had a personal experience with their God. Their parents resolved to compromise, however, and let them continue as Church members although they had no experiential faith. The result of this was a repetition of some of the same circumstances which the reformers had protested. Church membership soon became the basis for salvation.
The drives of individualism, materialism and competition began to replace the idea that individuals were to work toward God’s reward and that wealth was only to be had as a blessing by Christians who were but stewards, part time owners of God’s material blessings. Individualism is distinct from individuality; materialism from the work ethic; competition from free enterprise. The former are birthed from selfish motives; the latter are descriptive of an individual’s God-given character and giftings.
The Spirit who gave life to these godly principles of the early Pilgrims had departed and these distinctly American characteristics now existed as merely an empty shell. The stage was set for a new move of God.
The Great Awakenings
The same pattern has followed in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. We see a Spiritual Awakening beginning around the turn of the century with three generations of pioneers, settlers and aristocrats in each. The following chart shows the three generations of Christians in the four centuries of American revival and reformation:
Although this chart is a generalization, we can see a definite pattern of spiritual awakening stirring America around the turn of each century during a time of great moral darkness and national crisis.
David McKenna, author of The Coming Great Awakening, offers this analysis:
Has God given up on our society or passed us by? Are evangelical prophets of doom, who squint into the twilight and fix their eyes on the darkness, right about our civilization? I say no. God has not given up on us. If we watch closely we can see the stirrings of the Spirit among us today….
Awakenings invariably begin in a time of cultural conflict. The cause may be a natural period of exhaustion and decline in the culture. When speeding social change creates moral disjunctures in the culture and makes the traditional ways of coping with change obsolete, a society is in trouble. In either case, malaise sets in, along with self-doubt and despair. The symptoms of cultural conflict are threefold:
(1) the existing moral consensus breaks down;
(2) the traditional authority of established institutions, such as the home, church and schoool, is rejected; and
(3) the credibility of legitimate leadership is questioned.
Each of the awakenings in American history began in a time of trouble caused by moral conflict … (which) caused disjuncture throughout the whole nation, from national leadership to grassroots. Social change with its resultant tension is not enough to stimulate the process of spiritual awakening. In a Great Awakening, the cultural conflict must be moral and the social tension must be disruptive….
Whenever society is threatened by revolutionary change, particularly in the field of morals, the first reaction is to return to the ways that worked in the past. Students of the Great Awakenings call this conservative swing a “nativist reaction.”
According to McKenna, the “nativist reaction” can actually stall a move of God rather than promote it. Nativism is defined as the revival of traditional values of a particular culture. In Puritan America, Cotton Mather spearheaded the call for a return to the “Old New England Way.” He was responding to the acculturizing trends of 18th century rationalism. But it wasn’t Mather who was responsible for bringing the Great Awakening to America but Jonathan Edwards who appeared on the scene just a few years after Mather’s death. Unlike the nativists, revival figures, such as Jonathan Edwards and 18th century evangelist Charles G. Finney, appear as children of their age – not enemies of progress.
In our day, the Reagan presidency and voices coming from what has been termed the “Christian right” called for a nativist return to “traditional family values.” Some imagined a return to the 1950s – Ozzie and Harriet television reruns, tail fins on Chevys, drive-in theaters and crew cuts – as if that would bring us a much needed moral awakening. We are still waiting for the Finneys and Edwards of our own generation.
We, in the 1990s, are the aristocratic, Laodicean generation of the 20th century. But if the pattern of revival and spiritual awakening holds, the next thirty to forty years promise to be a time of one of the greatest outpourings of the Holy Spirit in American history. Will you be prepared for it?
Puritan Colonial America
1620 – 1649 Pioneers
1650 – 1689 Settlers
1690 – 1719 Aristocrats
The Great Awakening and the American Revolution
1720 – 1739 Pioneers
1740 – 1769 Settlers
1770 – 1789 Aristocrats
The Second Great Awakening and the United States of America
1790 – 1829 Pioneers
1830 – 1859 Settlers
1860 – 1889 Aristocrats
1890 – 1919 Pioneers
1920 – 1959 Settlers
1960 – ? Aristocrats