The Second Great Awakening, “Evangelicalism,” and Jan 6.

In the aftermath of the January 6 riots at the United States Capitol a flurry of journalistic and scholarly pieces warning about Christian nationalism overtaking orthodox Christianity have been written. Recently some of the writers who issue these warnings have conceded that the movement they fear is largely consigned to Charismatic Pentecostals, but they nonetheless indict “Evangelicals” for not worrying enough about Pentecostal Christian nationalism. Its demonstrably true that the gathered crowds co-opted Christian imagery and symbology to justify their cause, and its undoubtedly true that some in the crowd and among the rioters believed they were acting in a Christian cause to save America. However much this may concern so-called Evangelical scholars, it should not surprise anyone who knows the history of religion in the United States. Since the beginning of the Nineteenth Century millennialism has formed a powerful motivation for civil, political, and social involvement particularly among heterodox forms of North American Protestantism. Since the advent of the republic, post-Protestant groups like Pentecostals have believed it was their mission to bring about the kingdom of God through political and social action. Liberal mainline Protestants believed this as well for much of their history. This essay will focus on the Revivalist millennialism that motivates modern Pentecostal Christian nationalists.

Innovative forms of post-millennialism informed the religious commitments of New England Congregationalists at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The collapse of Puritanism into Transcendentalism, Unitarianism, and various forms of post-Protestant spiritualism in the northern states meant that older forms of post-millennialism articulated by Jonathan Edwards transmogrified in to folk millennialism typified by groups like the second-coming obsessed Millerites, proto-Adventists, and the Latter-Day Saint movement. Folk millennialism drove the Second Great Awakening. Robert Remini commented on the nexus of the occult, heterodox Calvinism, and Romanticism in the Early National United States in his biography of Joseph Smith Jr. “It was a generation of seekers in search of a faith by which they could govern their lives to the satisfaction of the Almighty.” American Evangelicals and adjacent Revivalist groups “believed fervently in Christ’s imminent Second Coming, more so than any generation before or since.” American millennialists insisted that “Armageddon was close at hand…salvation was of immediate concern and need.” Because an event as momentous as the apocalypse was imminent, revivalists and Evangelicals threw off the strictures of older Protestant confessions and waded in to folk beliefs—even magic and spiritualist divination—with gusto. “If amulets and talismans could assist them in their quest for redemption and a better life, so be it.” [1]

Few confessional or traditional Protestants saw any reason to have any irenic relationship with the nascent Revivalists. Charles Hodge, principle of Princeton Seminary, openly scorned revivalism and bragged that Princeton would not place one original—innovative—thought in the head of its graduates. Hodge’s star student and assistant John Williamson Nevin wrote The Anxious Bench, which denounced revivalist practices and beliefs. Bishops of the Episcopal Church, notably Charles P. McIlvaine, William Meade, and John Ravenscroft, also issued denunciations of revivalists. Revivalism as a tradition particularly influenced Holiness Wesleyans, and the provenance of the Pentecostal tradition is a direct consequence of the Second Great Awakening’s millennialism.

The separation of traditional Protestants from Revivalists remained fairly fixed until the Twentieth Century. The rise of “Evangelicalism” as a taxonomy, as a sociology, and as a mechanism for church growth increasingly flattened confessional and doctrinal distinctives following the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy. D.G. Hart noted in his The Lost Soul of American Protestantism that the “revivalist Protestant impulse was firmly behind several of the evangelical initiatives of the 1940s” D.G Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 71). Telemedia in particular sustained Evangelical homogenization. By the end of the Twentieth Century, a Baptist, a Pentecostal, and a Presbyterian might safely attend large Evangelical churches without worrying about their respective doctrinal commitments. That the intellectual and theological unity of “Evangelicalism” was largely ahistorical and socially contrived never seemed problematic for the movement’s devotees. The 2016 and 2020 elections heightened the influence and presence of Revivalists in the Republican political coalition. This triggered fears among neoconservative Evangelical politicos that Christian nationalists—usually folk Revivalists—were a rising new force perverting American Christianity. In fact those groups and their beliefs had been common in North America since the Second Great Awakening.


1 Robert V. Remini, Joseph Smith (New York: Viking, 2002), 5-6.

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