What I Saw at the Rally, Part 3: The Third Great Awakening?

by Derrick G. Jeter

Note: I have written two articles about Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally, which occurred on the National Mall on August, 28, 2010 (“What I Saw at the Rally, Part 1: A View from the Cheap Seats” and “What I Saw at the Rally, Part 2: Whose God?”). This is the third and final article, addressing the topic of whether the Restoring Honor rally will lead to a spiritual revival in America.
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A few days after the 9/28 Restoring Honor rally, Glenn Beck made the follow statement on his television program:
Something huge is happening in America. I believe it’s the third Great Awakening. George Whitefield, the first one, led to the American Revolution. The second one started with the churches and led to the freeing of slaves with Abraham Lincoln. This one I think is going to change just as much.
It is—an awakening happens when people realize the stuff that they built their life on is meaningless. And there’s corruption and everything else. And it’s nothing political. It’s spiritual in nature. [1]
Is American on the verge of a spiritual revival—one in which will be as consequential as leading to American independence and emancipation? I’ve said it before, Beck has a habit of hyperbole—and this comment certainly seems to qualify.
Personally, I long for a spiritual revival on the scale of the First and Second Great Awakenings. But did the Restoring Honor rally provide the seedbed for a Third Great Awakening? I’d like to think so, but I rather doubt it. And I doubt it because of the nature of the first two American awakenings.
Beck is right that an awakening is spiritual in nature, and not political. But where Beck errors, especially in comparison to the First and Second Great Awakenings, is that the Restoring Honor rally, while using the language of faith and God, did not call people back to biblical piety. The message of faith at the rally was too vague and confused to unify the audience around a central spiritual idea—unless that idea is American renewal, and if that becomes the goal then is runs the great risk of losing it’s spiritual umph and dissolving into a political movement, which is not an awakening but an uprising. It should also be noted that both awakenings began in the Christian church, under the leadership of Spirit-filled pastor. Neither Glenn Beck nor the Restoring Honor rally meet these criteria. But these are not the only ares in which Beck and his rally fall short of the historical tradition.
The first rumblings of an awakening in America began in 1734, in the Northamption, Massachusetts church of Calvinist preacher, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was an intellectual—and preached like an intellectual, non-emotive—but he believed it important that his congregation have a personal conversion experience. After a number of years of preaching with little to no obvious change within the lives of his parishioners, Edwards was suddenly surprised by the emotional response his sermons were having on his congregation. But more importantly, his sermons were producing marked chances in individual lives. Many in his congregation were becoming attracted to a biblical piety that they had never known in their lives.
Edwards’s awakening lasted about three years. Then George Whitefield arrived in America and his preaching fanned the smoldering embers of Edwards’s awakening into an inferno. Whitefield’s great awakening produced numerous pastors and missionaries who braved the wilds of the western frontier, preaching and teaching of the saving work of Christ’s death and resurrection. Beck was correct in observing that Whitefield’s preaching also had political consequences. As one church history wrote,
The Great Awakening . . . was the first movement that embraced the thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States. Thanks to it, a sense of commonality began developing among the various colonies. At the same time, new ideas were circulating regarding human rights and the nature of government. Those ideas, joined to the growing sense of commonality among the colonies, would produce momentous events. [2]
The “momentous events” included the American Revelation.
The Second Great Awakening began as the eighteenth century was winding down. Like the first awakening, the second awakening was pietistic in nature. But unlike the first, the second wasn’t known for its emotion. It was more serious and devout, as scores of people responded to the gospel and many more devoted their lives to Christian living. Out of the Second Great Awakening a number of societies were formed whose purpose was the spread of the gospel. The most famous of these societies were the American Bible Society, formed in 1816, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, founded in 1810. And just like the first awakening, young men went out into the frontier and held camp meetings where the gospel was preached with vim and vigor.
The characteristic of both the First and Second Great Awakenings was the centrality of the Christian message—that Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the dead three days after his death. That message, not only brought many people to faith in Christ, it also transformed the lives of many Christians, motivating them to live with a deeper commitment to their faith. And for some, that commitment led to pastoral and missionary services, as well as the formation of Christian societies intent on spreading the gospel and working for the betterment of the community.
The Restoring Honor rally, on the other hand, while positive and good, did not focus its message on the centrality of Christ—various religious traditions were represented on stage—and thus far appears not to have enflamed a deeper commitment to biblical faith across the country. But how could it, if the message of faith delivered on that day was vague and confused?
I pray the Lord would move mightily in the American church to produce a Third Great Awakening, but it’s extremely doubtful that it began on 9/28 with the Restoring Honor rally, led by a committed Mormon. This doesn’t diminish Beck’s message of restoring honor and integrity in America, or diminish the importance of the rally. But 500 thousand people gathered for a one day event—no matter how impressive and cool that was—hardly equates to a Third Great Awakening.
[1] Glenn Beck, “America’s Third Great Awakening, Fox News, September 5, 1010, http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,600802,00.html, accessed September 28, 2010.
[2] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 230.