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How Religious Awakenings Presage Radical Reforms

(Presented at History of Economics Society Annual Meeting, Syracuse, New York, June 2010)

Religious upheavals have generally preceded waves of radical reform and reaction in U. S.  history, thus serving at least as leading indicators, and perhaps as causative explanations. As these waves rise and swell, crest, crash and ebb, they sweep and tumble most individuals along, to and fro. However inner-directed one may be, we are social beings who interact with others. However we personally may feel about religion, from true believers to cynics, the beliefs of others affect us through them. Life is never simple enough to encompass in one sweeping generalization; and beware of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Rather, the facts of history force us to see these waves, and acknowledge their force, as opposed to purely mechanical, materialistic interpretations of history and forecasts of future history.

I try to frame and support this hypothesis by identifying five major religious “Awakenings” in U.S. history, from 1740 onwards, that have presaged and thus presumably helped cause major changes in the dominant public mood, in social psychology, and hence in public policy. These cycles are: “The Great Awakening” from about 1740, leading to The American Revolution; Abolitionism, Feminism, and Revivalism in the north, from 1820, leading to The Civil War, Reconstruction, and land reforms; Populism after the crash of 1873, leading to The Progressive Movement in power, 1902-18; the Irish-American Catholic Awakening, leading to The New Deal, 1933-45; and the Second Catholic Awakening after Vatican II, 1960-69.

A lesson for reformers, of whatever stripe, is to work with the public mood as expressed in religious trends. A social psychology of stasis may last through most of a reformer’s lifetime while his or her best efforts break like waves against adamant. Then suddenly pent-up waters break through in a rush that carries all before it. “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven”. Another lesson for reformers is that we are now due for another great cataclysm: make ready, timing is everything.


1 comment to How Religious Awakenings Presage Radical Reforms

  • This is similar to what George was saying I think in P&P Chapter 42

    How Modern Civilization May Decline

    “A vast change in religious ideas is sweeping the world that may have a momentous effect, which only the future can tell. This is not a change in the form of religion — it is the negation and destruction of the ideas from which religion springs. Christianity is not simply shedding superstitions; it is dying at the root. And nothing arises to take its place.

    The fundamental ideas of an intelligent creator and an afterlife are quickly weakening in the general mind. Whether or not this may be an advance in itself is not the point. The important part religion has played in history shows the significance of the change now going on. Unless human nature has suddenly changed its deepest characteristics, as shown by the universal history of the human race, the mightiest actions and reactions are thus being prepared.

    Previously, such stages of thought have always marked periods of transition. To a lesser degree, a similar state preceded the French Revolution. But the closest parallel to the wreck of religious ideas now going on is when ancient civilization began to pass from splendor to decline.”