So apparently Jesus Camp isn’t a new thing. That whole going-crazy-and-speaking-in-tongues-and-hoping-your-not-gay evangelical phenomenon is like three hundred years old. In fact, it pretty much goes with the territory, a.k.a. the founding of the United Staes. It’s not a weird offshoot of Protestantism that Southerners made up one day when the summer heat and lack of North Eastern intellectuals started to finally eat away their brains.(#kidding!)
Back in the day it was called revivalism and was started as the First Great Awakening by Jonathan Edwards in Northampton in the 1740s. Northampton is more than just the most highly concentrated population of lesbians in America; it’s been a hot bed of radical belief since before the revolutionary war. Of course, radical meant religious zeal and not gay marriage… Point being, in both the First and Second Great Awakenings, waves of revivals would sweep across the country and people would spend weeks wildly praying for their salvation. There was an emphasis on ensuring that preachers were energetic and performative. Jonathan Edwards, the founder of revivalism, started in the theater in England, and carried that intensity and drama over to his preaching.
The Edwardsean style of preaching, therefore, can be seen as a clear pre-cursor to the mega-church. Broadcasting prayer and using microphones in services are not new innovation of an over-powerful religious institution. They’re merely the addition of new technology to a fairly old idea.
What’s more fascinating to consider is how good revivalism was American progress. The revival movement didn’t require any great amount of literacy or sophisticated understanding of Christianity. Instead, it preached feelings – recognizing sin in oneself and then praying for salvation. Preachers emphasized, especially around the Revolutionary War, spiritual individualism and liberation. This reached the masses, both African slaves, and white free men and women. It was within this movement, in various denominations, that the first black preachers (still slaves) were ordained. Therefore it was revivalism and evangelicalism that eventually led to a lot of the spiritual backing for slave revolts and the civil war.
The slaves were responding to the very same energy of revivalism that we see in Jesus Camp. Those uneducated masses, throwing all their collective might into creationism, fire bombing abortion clinics, de-gay-ifying their kid sand voting for George Bush, who I generally dismiss as a terrible omen for our country’s future, are reacting to the same religious zeal that has propelled our country so far forward. Revivalism, evangelical Protestantism, is more than a crazed mob. In the same way that every generation has their own prophecies of apocalypse, every generation must, too, have their own revivals. They vary, of course. They’re not always so visible as “evangelicalism.” Sometimes, for example, they come in the guise of patriotism or even, as in the 1960s, a rebellion of artists. I guess everyone needs to throw themselves into something. Transcend their own needs and work towards a greater… something. I don’t know how much it always matters what that something is as long as its external to them, bigger than them.
When you think about it that way, everyone seems so much less crazy. The Shakers, that sect of Christians who decided that reproduction was a sin (stopped having sex, and then died off #lol), are more understandable in this context. People are willing to give up their lives to feel like their reaching something better, ascending. What does that say about us? How alone are we that we’re willing to die just to be counted in? I hope I don’t sound like I’m above this. Afterall, I’m the one always writing about how I want to join the Israeli army…
Just some thoughts from my day, you precious she-bomb readers!