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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Eighteen


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 25, 2015)

Romanticism and the First Great Awakening

What is known as the Romantic era (or Romanticism) began in Europe during the mid to late 1700's in response to Das Aufklärung (i.e. the Enlightenment discussed previously) and came to the Americas with the original settlers. While not rejecting rational thought entirely, this trend encouraged the artistic, literary, and emotional expression of it. The Enlightenment (Das Aufklärung) hailed a rational, intellectual humanism that Romanticism sought to infuse with emotion, thereby making it arguably more truly 'human'. The timing of these trends overlapped considerably.

Romanticism was intimately linked with the First Great Awakening. Some consider the terms to be interchangeable but I see a subtle distinction. Romanticism was not primarily concerned with the quest for religious/spiritual truth. Its aims were more broad than a spiritual awakening. Both the First Great Awakening and Romanticism were reactions to the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760-1840). Both trends challenged the hierarchical social and political assumptions of Das Aufklärung and Haskalah. In the Americas both trends were seeking something new to replace the old, something harmonious with Das Aufklärung and yet something uniquely American. Neither the post-Pagan scientific rationalizations proposed by the Enlightenment nor the authoritarian religious conventions of the Old World supported the aims of their New Zion.

As credence in the organized Church continued to wane, many religious leaders sought to bolster their authority during the Romantic Period by stressing the cultural, intellectual, traditional, and social aspects of their religious systems and structures. For many people embracing the new was viewed as a betrayal of the already endangered past and yet to others clinging stubbornly was foolish and short sighted. "New Zion" had to unite both perspectives.

Within Protestantism this transition is evidenced in Friedrich Schleiermacher's obvious attempts to reconcile the principles of das Aufklärung with Protestant Christianity. Schleiermacher (lived November 21, 1768 – February 12, 1834) is often considered the Father of Modern Liberal Christian Theology.

On the Catholic side we see this trend in the views of people like Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand (lived September 4, 1768 - July 4, 1848) who stressed the importance and beauty of Church tradition. As an unintended result of this philosophical and religious maneuvering, the American Church lost much of its vitality and moral certitude and never regained it. In the minds of the general Christian public a new and dangerous spiritual relativism was being embraced, one that failed to meet their essential needs (RE 91). The citizens of the New World were looking for a solid foundation upon which to build their new society. They were developing a world that would include personal freedom and responsibility while maintaining the important aspects of their Old World traditions. For many it now seemed the religions of the past were incapable of providing this. A new more 'American' religious expression was needed. Enter: Religious Humanism.

In the eyes of many Christians during this period, the Church had conclusively demonstrated that its primary concern was hierarchical material advancement rather than the propagation of the Gospel. Because of this common perception active participation in the churches and acceptance in its tenants began to decline among many of the Colonists. Others renewed their loyalty to their particular sect and harshly judged the rest as unworthy of the destiny intended by God for New Zion. Hellfire and damnation surely awaited all those who failed to embrace "true Christian piety'. Two different Americas were now emerging, one staunchly religious, the other 'religiously' secular.

This widely perceived hypocrisy, opportunism, and sectarianism still haunts the Church, both Catholic and Protestant. If the Christians can't agree among themselves then how can the world accept their Gospel Message? This was a growing and unanswerable question that threatened to destroy the Church's authority.

It was mentioned earlier that Christian Fundamentalism seems to be the liveliest aspect of the declining contemporary Church today. This is at least in part because the Fundamentalist sects manage to present themselves as pious alternatives to the widely perceived lukewarm aspects of Christendom.

Many sincere people continue to leave the mainline churches for these more radicalized and emotionally charged forms hoping to find 'something real'. Some Fundamentalists are now embracing "Messianic Judaism" sincerely hoping to harmonize their dogmatic belief in biblical literalism with what they imagine to be the beliefs of 'the first century church'. The problem is, without rejecting the Nicene Creed and 'traditional' anti-Torah dogmas and interpretations re-discovering Y'shua's actual teachings is not possible. And even if one could reestablish his reform movement, one would be no better off because his teachings and reforms were rejected by the rabbis and they, as he said, hold the divine authority (Matthew 23:3).

As sincere Christians turn to the more Fundamentalistic forms of their religion, all too often they lose faith as these forms fail to deliver the divine power they promise. All too often such people become spiritually rudderless and lose all faith. Many of these sincere seekers end up rejecting the Fundamentalist (including 'Messianic') reforms as being doctrinally too rigid, inflexible and intellectually or scripturally insupportable, and are unable to return to their previous 'simple faith'. They decry the hypocrisy evidenced by some of the sect's leadership and the lack of solid foundation. Once a real seeker of God seriously examines the historic and biblical foundations of Christianity they often come to this conclusion. Y'shua and his disciples were Jews, not Christians.

Ironically their complaints are generally the same ones laid at the steps of the Church by the Fundamentalists they now reject. This is particularly a problem for the 'Messianic' sects because once people begin to seriously examine the New Testament from a Torah consistent perspective they inevitably discover how far removed from Torah and the New Testament their beliefs really are. Having lost their Christian faith is one thing, converting to Judaism is another.

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