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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Twenty-Two


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 26, 2015)

The Third Great Awakening Begins

The Third Great Awakening occurred just prior to the onset of the First World War. It had a profound impact on American and global religion. As a direct result of this Awakening the future was fundamentally altered as a plethora of religious innovators appeared on the scene setting the stage for the religion of the Twentieth Century. This period was in some ways reminiscent of 1st centuries BCE and CE when Messianic fervor led to many Messianic claimants. Just as the first centuries BCE and CE failed to produce the yearned for Messiah, so too the Third Great Awakening. Just as the first centuries BCE and CE forever altered Judaism and the world, so too with the Third Great Great Awakening.

Some of these new religious leaders encouraged the best in humanity, some the worst. Whereas in the two previous Great Awakenings there had been a basic theological (Christian) consensus, in the Third few doctrines were accepted as sacrosanct. Everything was now being redefined, debated, and challenged.

McLoughlin maintains that this period did not begin until 1890 but most date it from the 1870's. The plethora of 'camp meetings' that erupted around 1857, McLoughlin argues, does not qualify as a true Awakening because of its limited impact. I will yield to his opinion here, however by 1875 there was clearly a major Awakening underway.

D.L. Moody and the Fundamentalists

Following the Second Great Awakening American Christianity had largely returned to a state of spiritual slumber. Those who were 'in the Church' generally remained in their pews while those outside remained outside in a state of mutual truce with them. Calvinism began making a slight comeback during this period. It was soothing to simply "trust God" without taking personal responsibility for ones salvation.

The monumental successes of D.L. Moody's revival meetings in the 1870's reflect the powerful birth of Missionary Christian Fundamentalism (DRP 421). Moody in fact has been called the first Christian Fundamentalist (RAR143). The Third Great Awakening was born among these people of faith (although it reached far beyond).

Like his Protestant forebears Moody's Fundamentalist teachings were based squarely on his literalist interpretations of the Bible ("God said it, I believe, that settles it!"). This remains the defining position of all Christian Fundamentalists. This conviction often includes the doctrine known as 'the Priesthood of all Believers' wherein Christian Fundamentalists are taught to read the Bible (often the King James Version only), to accept what it says literally, and to hold dogmatically to it. Being trained in Fundamentalist interpretation these Christians usually see what their sect believes with this process. Offering a different understanding often results is reject and condemnation rather than open discussion and study. They are not therefore actually biblically literalists.

Moody and his followers successfully created a transdenominational movement that continues to grow. His doctrinal world view is, in the minds of Christian Fundamentalists, "Mere Christianity" (note L). To reject this version of the religion is viewed as rejecting God Himself.

Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) battled toe to toe with the intellectuals of his day. He rejected the rationalism of Das Aufklärung (the Enlightenment). He likewise opposed the mainline emotionalism and neo-Pagan spirit he saw within Romanticism and Modern Liberal Christian Theology with its so-called higher criticism of the Bible. Along with his long-time associate and song leader Ira David Sankey (August 28, 1840 - August 13, 1908), Moody condemned the doctrine of predestination, the cardinal teaching of the Calvinists. He also rejected the popular teaching of 'salvation by works' expressed by some segments of what we today would call the Religious Right. Moody also condemned the new Secular Humanist doctrine of evolution. He rejected the Enlightenment notion of essential human goodness returning, as he saw it, to the fundamental belief in the doctrine of Original Sin and the necessity of being 'born again' through 'the blood of Jesus' (RAR141-144).

From today's perspective it is difficult to appreciate how amazingly widespread the acceptance of his audience was to his views. Dwight L. Moody's teachings and the Bible institute he founded held a very important place in this Awakening. He led the way to Christian Fundamentalism as we know it today. to the near end of Calvinism, and to the zeal of missionary work.

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