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THE GREAT AWAKENING & REVIVALISM IN AMERICA


The Great Awakening was the name given to the evangelical religious movement which swept America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first wave began shortly after the arrival of European settlers in the early 1700's and resulted in the growth of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist Churches. The Second Great Awakening began in the last decade of the 18th century and reached its peak in the second half of the 19th century in the revivalist oratory and hymnody of camp meetings and in gatherings of the Salvation Army, the YMCA, and other Protestant affiliated sects.

Rendering of a Southern evangelist preaching
Rendering of a Southern evangelist preaching.
Revivalism exerted a profound influence not only on America's religious music, but on her language and, of course, her social conscience. The rhetoric of charismatic preachers like Jonathan Edwards, Evangeline Booth, and Henry Ward Beecher provided high drama and elicited intense emotional responses from the congregation. Beecher used the pulpit of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church to propound Abolition, universal suffrage and other reform causes. Itinerant preachers gathered huge crowds (at places like Putnam's Campground near Danbury, CT, where the young Charles Ives came) to listen to their fire and brimstone sermons, and to induce the worshippers to come forth with their own testimonies and be baptized into a born-again Christianity. The cadences of these speeches found their way into poetry from Walt Whitman to Vachel Lindsay.

Revivalist
Poetry & Song

In these revivalist services music played a significant role. Preachers used the congregational singing of hymns, psalms, and spirituals as a form of emotional bonding. As more and more of the African-American population became Christians, black and white music found a common ground in revivalist services, especially in the outdoor camp meetings which functioned as religious, social, and recreational gatherings. One of the most dynamic evangelist teams was comprised of Dwight L. Moody, a former Boston shoe salesman, and Ira David Sankey, a musician and singer. Together they took their message across America, staging revival meetings at which Moody preached and prayed and Sankey sang what came to be called Gospel songs. Other composers who contributed to revivalist music included William Bradbury, Philip Bliss, and Robert Lowry. It was Lowry's hymn AT THE RIVER which was to capture the imagination of several subsequent composers, among them Charles Ives, who incorporated the tune into CHILDREN'S DAY AT THE CAMP MEETING, and Virgil Thomson, who used it in his VARIATION ON SUNDAY SCHOOL TUNES.

Revivalism also acquired a political perspective, as fundamentalists sought to influence government to adhere to their conservative moral perspectives. One of the most dramatic clashes resulting from this thinking occurred at the 1925 Scopes Trial in which a Tennessee teacher was accused of instructing his pupils in Darwin's--not the Bible's--view of the creation story. The fiery fundamentalist orator and former Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, transforming courtroom into church, won the conviction that was later overturned on a technicality, though the Tennessee law banning Darwin remained in effect until 1967.


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