Segment from Born Again

Wake Up!

The hosts consider what an “awakening” is anyway, and discuss how the way believers experience revivals compares with the way historians interpret them.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

ED: But first, I’d like for us to puzzle a little bit over that powerful story that Thomas Kidd toldus about Mercy Wheeler and the First Great Awakening. Peter, it seems to me that ThomasKidd talks persuasively about the connections between that story and big patterns in Americanhistory. And I wonder if you could help us figure out how we connect these individual accountswith those big stories.

PETER: Well, what Thomas Kidd is doing and historians do is connecting a lot of dots, becausethere is no such thing as “a movement.” It’s what we make of what people are doing and whatthey’re experiencing. And there was a feeling in the 18th century in the 1740s, especially, thatthis was the Grace of God descending on America.

BRIAN: That’s the First Great Awakening, right?

PETER: That’s the First Great Awakening, right.


PETER: But it’s only in the 19th century when revival fires are burning again in what we now callthe Second Great Awakening, that the idea that there had been a First Great Awakeningemerges. And that George Whitfield’s travels across the continent, Jonathan Edwards’ revivalin Northampton, Massachusetts.

All of these things are drawn together. The dots are connected. They become the featureattractions in this great panoramic story that tells us who we are as Americans and who we areas Christians.

And it’s that search for meaning, which is, after all, what revivals are about is searching formeaning. That’s what’s happening in the Second Great Awakening.

BRIAN: So are you saying, Peter, that even during the so-called First Great Awakening, peoplelike Whitfield and Edwards, not to mention our protagonist here, Mercy Wheeler, they don’treally realize they’re part of a Great Awakening, regardless of their own awakening?

PETER: Well, they do believe that something important is happening. They know it. When30,000 people gather in a field in Middletown, Connecticut to hear Whitfield, you knowsomething is going on here.

BRIAN: Before football is even invented.

PETER: That’s exactly right. So this is a mass phenomenon. There’s no mistake about that. Butwhat are they doing, Brian? They’re focused on God. They’re focused on what they see to be agreat shower of grace.

ED: And they’re focused on their own heart, their own simpleness, right?

PETER: Their own heart and the work of the Christian dispensation, the restoration of theKingdom of God on earth. What an amazing thing.

So there are different interpretive schemes that are in play. That’s what I would say. And withMercy Wheeler, her major concern is not to advance the cause of women.

Her major concern is with her own connection with God and to share that with her loved ones,and to hope that she could inspire and spark their conversions as well.

ED: And that’s a very humane view, Peter, that I really endorse. But where does revivalism fitinto this? I mean that seems to be an intersection of history and religious faith.

PETER: Yeah.

ED: And people themselves would have said, we’ve back-slid because of this or that, sort ofsecular purpose. Now, let’s reclaim through religion, and I’ll say to make religion everything inother words.

PETER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think what revivalism shows us are ways in which the people dotheir own history and the tradition of revivalism is a kind of vernacular popular history. And itboth make sense out of the past, it shapes your future. But I think most importantly that notionof revival tradition anchors you in your world as part of a larger faith community over time.

BRIAN: So Peter, at the risk of being overly social scientific here, does this revivalist impulseappeal particularly to marginalized people, marginalized within the world they’re living in?Which means they need to look back to this previous world to reclaim their authenticity?

PETER: Yeah. Brian, I think there is a sense of a possibility of becoming part of that faithcommunity. Because that’s what a revival is. That’s the evangelical impulse is to bring peoplein. It’s not in order to promote the democratic project early to our notion of a better future,perhaps.

It’s instead to complete the work of God, and to ecstatically connect with that world, toexperience it. And yes, the doors open, the tent gets bigger, and those moments are momentsthat religious people cherish in their own faith tradition because then they see their missionfulfilled.

But it’s also moments that people from other traditions can see and admire, that is, the reach ofthese communities. The possibility of a human solidarity transcending a narrow tribal, familial,dynastic connections reaching to a larger world. I think that is a source of inspiration forreligious and to non-religious people.

ED: And that’s the spirit, especially of evangelical Christianity. The tribalism, the tribe can growexponentially.

PETER: Yes, indeed.

ED: It doesn’t matter who you have been before, now you can become reborn in Christ and bea part of this community.


ED: But this impulse to bring everybody into the tent faces the fact that not everybody wants tocome into the tent. That it’s constantly trying to evangelize America, which leads to all kinds ofsocial consequences.

PETER: Ed, and it suggests that all men could be made equal in ways that deny our sense ofwho we are. That is, you want me to be born again on your terms? Well, that’s an offer, that’san opportunity, but that’s also a negation of everything I know I am.

ED: And that’s why I think every time there’s been a revival, whatever we might want to call it,whenever it is, it always comes with all this social tension surrounding it. And holds out thepromise of America finally coming to its own, and also holds up the promise of Americabecoming something it was never meant to be.


BRIAN: It’s time for us to take a quick break, but stick around. When we get back, amomentous religious vision that features, of all people, George Washington.

ED: You’re listening to “BackStory.” We’ll be back in a minute.


View Resources

Born Again Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

The lesson materials that follow focus on helping students become discriminating readers of text material, learning the value of reading widely and critically in order to frame questions and evidence-based perspectives. The materials are designed to help students learn to write concisely and persuasively. They also give students an opportunity to discover how things change and how they remain the same, often differing more in the words and media used than in the purpose and message.

The materials and activities in this lesson ask students to look critically at the words chosen to convey the message, the context in which information is presented, and the effect these choices have on their understanding and feelings about individuals and their times. As students read critically to discern differences between evidence and assertion and to frame useful questions, they will engage in reasoned debate and evidence-based interpretation. The materials provided include primary sources from the 1920s and 1930s as well as history and biography from 1931 to 2015. Students are asked to consider how these accounts differ in regard to word choice, descriptions of the time period, and the impressions created by the writings. Change over time can be observed in evolving narratives constructed from available sources, cogent inferences, and changing interpretation.