Sunday, August 4, 2013

He seemed to kindle with fervor: A window into the Second Great Awakening via Washington Irving

I teach Relief Society.  It’s fun.  More fun than teaching Primary, anyway.  Grown-ups don’t test the limits by trying to jump out the window or build forts out of chairs during the lesson.

Teaching from the Teachings of Presidents of the Church series 1 led me to research a time period I knew almost nothing about:  the time period often called Jacksonian America (roughly 1815-1848).   The lesson manual contains only direct quotes from President Lorenzo Snow.  This is enough to tell me what President Snow thought about, for example, grace.  If I want to know why he believed what he thought about grace, or even why he was concerned about grace to begin with, it helps to understand what Americans in general thought about grace at the time President Snow lived.  I’ve come to a deeper understanding about my church’s theology as I have studied how it fits into the bigger picture of American Christianity.
Lithograph by H. Bridport, ca. 1830
From Wikimedia Commons
Note the women overcome by the Spirit upon conversion

Which brings me to America's Second Great Awakening.    The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited establishment of religion, but this applied only to the federal, not the state governments.  In the early 1800s, many states disestablished churches, resulting in more of an open marketplace of religious ideas.  People began comparing churches, looking for one they believed taught true Christian doctrine.   This increase in religious fervor is called the Second Great Awakening. 

 One thing I find really interesting about the Second Great Awakening was the expected conversion experience.  Churches at this time typically proselyted to religious seekers using revivals.  People attended revival meetings hoping to have a conversion experience, in which they would be called by Jesus Christ and saved by his grace.  Rather than looking for a church that answered specific theological questions or a church that makes them feel welcome, as many who look for truth do today, 2 seekers then were looking for a sudden, overwhelming supernatural manifestation of God’s love and forgiveness.  And they expected to get it.
Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside
1864 Painting by Cristian Schussele (from Wikimedia Commons)
Irving is seated, center, facing the viewer

As I learned more about Jacksonian America, I wanted to get a feel for what the Americans who lived then were concerned about.   I decided to read some of the things they read.  In the middle of a collection of short stories written by Washington Irving (originally published between 1819 and 1855), I ran across a description of a character’s conversion experience.  I enjoyed it so much I thought I would share it:

The carnival passed away; the time of Lent succeeded; passion-week arrived; we attended one evening a solemn service in one of the churches, in the course of which a grand piece of vocal and instrumental music was performed relating to the death of our Saviour.
I had remarked that he was always powerfully affected by music; on this occasion he was so in an extraordinary degree.  As the pealing notes swelled through the lofty aisles, he seemed to kindle with fervor; his eyes rolled upwards, until nothing but the whites were visible; his hands were clasped together, until the fingers were deeply imprinted in the flesh.  When the music expressed the dying agony, his face gradually sank upon his knees; and at the touching words resounding through the church, “Jesu mori,” sobs burst from him uncontrolled—I had never seen him weep before.  His had always been agony rather than sorrow.  I augered well from the circumstance, and let him weep on uninterrupted.  When the service was ended we left the church.  He hung on my arm as we walked homewards with something of a softer and more subdued manner, instead of that nervous agitation I had been accustomed to witness.  He alluded to the service we had heard.  “Music,” said he, “is indeed the voice of heaven; never before have I felt more impressed by the story of the atonement of our Saviour.—Yes, my friend,” said he, clasping his hands with a kind of transport, “I know that my Redeemer liveth!”
From Adventure of the Mysterious Stranger
Published 1824, in Tales of a Traveler

1. Ebooks of the series can be found here (scroll down).
2. See CNN opinion piece here