Chapter 2: The Influence of Humanism on Religious Thought During the Second Great Awakening
By Leif L.
The American Revolution and the Second Great Awakening
There were scars left from the Revolutionary War (the American War for Independence) that disillusioned many Americans with the political, intellectual, and religious norms and culture of the Old World. There was a surge of resistance against political authority and religious orthodoxy. The stage was ripe for experimentation in these matters, and the desire for innovation in the political sphere spread to the religious world. As it were, one revolution (secular) led to another (religious).
The movement provided both an emotional and spiritual outlet, and a form of security for a nation that was awash with change. The excitement that accompanied the revival meetings especially appealed to the middle and lower-class sections of society.
The Awakening also dovetails with the rise of Transcendentalism, which is interesting, but we are unable to cover this aspect in this article. More information about this can be found here.
Humanist Principles of the American Revolution
The United States experimented with and established a radically new form of political government. They laid aside the baggage of the Old World and it’s ideas, with the intent of erecting a system of government built on the following humanist ideas:
- Personal liberty
- The supreme value of the individual
- Justice for all
These three principles concern the rights of the common man, thus they are humanist principles. They are anthropocentric (man centered), for they focus on human needs and realities, and certainly are vital to the liberties that we enjoy in the West.These liberal humanistic principles of the enlightenment were largely the work of the 17th century philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbs. Building on these new humanistic ideals created a system a novel system that works in the arena of politics and human affairs, with certain caveats (i.e. liberty must coexist with morality and personal responsibility).
Since many were anxious to challenge established religious orthodoxy, it was a natural extension to attempt to apply these ideals to religion. In the process, there was a move to discard much of the cumulative experience and learning of Spirit led men through the centuries. While I think it usually approriate to apply these liberal humanist principles in the realm of humankind (social structures, governments), they are incompatible with the principles of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not a democracy engineered to best suit human preferences, but a reflection of the supreme holiness of our great God, King, and Creator. Humans are invited, through the gospel, to partake of that great kingdom through the work of Christ and the transformation of the gospel (regeneration, sanctification and final glorification)
I believe these three humanist principles made their mark on the religious and theological changes that occurred during the Second Great Awakening.
“Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. In philosophy and social science, humanism is a perspective which affirms some notion of human nature, and is contrasted with anti-humanism. Secular Humanism is a secular ideology which espouses reason, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making. Secular Humanism contrasts with Religious Humanism, which is an integration of humanist ethical philosophy with religious rituals and beliefs that center on human needs, interests, and abilities. …
Religious and Secular Humanism arose from a trajectory extending from the deism and anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment, the various secular movements of the 19th century (such as positivism), and the overarching expansion of the scientific project.” – “Humanism”, Wikipedia
“Christian humanism is the position that universal human dignity and individual freedom are essential and principal components of, or are at least compatible with, Christian doctrine and practice. It is a philosophical union of Christian and humanist principles.” – “Christian Humanism”, Wikipedia
“In the widest sense, humanism is conceived as referring to an approach to understanding the world and of living in that world focused first and foremost on humans rather than on God or on nature.” -“Humanism.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008.
It is important to understand the basics scope of humanism as a philosoph:
- It focuses on human values and concerns, rather than God’s
- It espouses reason, ethics and justice from a human point of view
- It places universal human dignity and individual freedom above all else
In essence, humanism is concerned with considering and examining everything that we know, or can know, from the point of human experience. Thus, human needs, interests, values and concerns are always first and foremost in all observation and reasoning. It also, of necessity, puts human importance and dignity ahead of all other considerations.
We will be using these definitions of humanism as a springboard to analyze the philosophies and religious views of the Second Great Awakening, and the history that led to it’s formation and establishment. We will also use these definitions as a contrast to the common Protestant beliefs that preceded the movement, and examine the trajectory of the contrast between the two systems of thought (pre-Second Great Awakening Protestantism and post-Second Great Awakening religion).
Biblicism vs. Rationalism
“Biblicism” uses the Bible to establish the parameters of understanding the text of scripture. Rationalism in Biblical interpretation is where we start by testing Biblical paradigms with human reasoning before we even start to interpret Scripture. The two systems are antithetical, and will yield completely different views of life and salvation.
Humanism in one form or another is the basis of all liberal theology. It seeks to make salvation simply about serving man and his needs, with little regard for a Biblical view of exalting the glory of God according to the teaching of Scripture. It places human-to-human relationships and “rights” (established by culture) above the demands and commands of Scripture and the relationship of man to God. It also seeks to rationalize biblical truths to make the gospel less offensive to human sensibilities and reasoning.
To be continued …