Dr. Rick Chacon ~ 19th Century North American Christian Fundamentalism (DIH 2008)

Dr. Richard Chacon is an associate professor of Anthropology at Winthrop University, SC.

This talk is about revivals in North America in the 19th century.

First, some definitions:

Christian Fundamentals are only thosse who believe in a literal interpretation of Scripture are saved.

Revivalism is Christian Fundamentalism.

Establishment Protestants are Anglicans, Presbyterians, & Congregationalist, and so forth.

Revivalism in North America started at “The Great Awakening” (1739), which was a bit of a reaction against the “age of enlightenment”. There was also a big element of class conflict, particularly between clergy and the church members.

Established a new form of Protestantism – individualist, private revelations, anti-intellectualist, escapist, unorthodox (rejection of sacraments), anti-denominational, …

Restraints on Biblical interpretation were severed, as they enjoyed unlimited freedom in interpreting scriptures.

Spread through camp meetings, particularly in KY, TN, OH (under-served, isolated). These were IMMENSELY popular, with as many as 50,000 folks showing up at a time (Cane Ridge, KY 1801).

Very dynamic, unusual physical manifestations (i.e., “the jerks”).

The private revelations would even extend to instant marriages, etc. People would act on any thought that entered their mind, believing that it came straight from God.

Sometimes, the more bizzare the idea, the greater the test.

A few case studies.

The Oneida Experiment. A series of utopian experiments spread, and this one was started in 1833 by John Humphrey Noyes. He decided that he was the next coming of Christ, and he was freed from normal moral standards.

He started by replacing marriage with complex marriage, where all sect members were married to each other.

This quickly turned into eugenics, by picking 24 men and 24 women to breed with each other.

He then separated parents from their children.

While this was on the extreme edge, it exemplified the sort of chaos that was going on in Revivalism.

The Millerites. In the 1830s WIlliam Miller predicted that the Second Coming would occur in 1843 after studying the Book of Daniel.

This attracted tens of thousands of followers.

He fine-tuned his prophecy and came up with a year time window. After nothing happened, there was something known as the “Little Disappointment”. Afterwards, one of the followers changed the date to Oct. 22, 1944.

In anticipations of this many stopped farming, gave away possessions, etc.

Millerites constituted a very large percentage of the asylum population in New England.

On October 22 thousands gathered and went wandering into the forest, and of course nothing happened. This was the Great Disappointment.

This led to huge increases in deep depression, and eventually insanity, and also suicides.

Many were financially ruined, and starved to death. A few who survived went to court and tried to regain their property.

Miller publicly stated that he was wrong, but still claimed he was right in general. This led to the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who all steadfastly proclaim Christ’s imminent return.

In other words, failure of prophecy does not diminish belief … in fact, it can intensify their efforts.


1. Conversion to a sect likely results from interpersonal attachments, NOT theology.

2. Sects provide emotional lifelines to hurting people.

3. Sects make people feel important, provide a purpose in life.

Therefore, fidelity to the prophecy appears to be an emotional coping mechanism, event though they are in denial.

“If more and more people can be persuade that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct”. (Festinger et al. 1956:28)

Secret Rapture Doctrine. (I.e., the Left Behind books). This is a novel doctrine that stems from a few mentions in 1600 – 1800, then popularized in the Darby Study Bible in 1859.

Some Revivalism Ethos

Escapist. For example, the War of 1812 proved to many revivalists that the end times were near. Again with Haley’s comet, the 1833 Leonid Meteor Shower. Often very fatalistic view of the world.

Staunchly Anti-Denominational. For example, Charles Finney 1824, “there is a jubilee in hell every year about the same time as the General Assembly”.

Emotionalism Runs Deep. Heart religion is superior to head religion. Book learning suspect. Worship services much more boisterous, very non-liturgical.

Individualism. Finney concentrated on the religious conversion of the individual, Moody picked up on this and said that the most important thing is a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ (me and Jesus).

Anti-intellectualism. Moody – “The voice of reason is of the devil. You must seek God with your heart, not your mind”. “I would rather have zeal without knowledge than knowledge without zeal”.

Consequently, by the 1800s many came to take this to mean that formal education / theological training were impediments to being open to the Holy Spirit.

Establishment Protestantism’s Response: Reform. Rejected much of revivalism by promoting the Social Gospel.

Can We Learn From This?
Yes, we need to reach out to those who are marginalized or today’s revivalists will do so. Hmm.

Dr. Chacon finishes with some apologetics, largely drawn from Dr. Paul Thigpen’s book The Rapture Trap.

How to Engage Modern Day Revivalists?
In essence, the Catholic understanding of rapture is that the godly will remain with Christ at His Second Coming, while the ungodly will be taken away.

1. Establish a personal and confidential relationship with no demands for conversion.

2. Conversion to revivalism often associated with personal attachments for access to emotional lifelines, not theology.

3. Don’t argue, but respectfully share the Catholic interpretations of Scripture.

4. Provide a “safe landing” site, a supportive fellowship.

5. Never, never get ahead of the Holy Spirit.

Truth matters, so we must engage, in charity.

Dr. Rick Chacon ~ 19th Century North American Christian Fundamentalism (DIH 2008)

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