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Surprise! Evangelicals Were Once Radical Economic Populists Who Planted the Seeds of Our Own Struggles Against the 1%

In a new book on America's founding era popular-finance movement, William Hogeland brings us forgotten folk heroes who fought against early elites. Many were Bible-toting, end-time Christians.

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But because the right’s free-market ideology is diametrically opposed to founding evangelicals’ efforts to get government to restrain wealth and legislate equality, Christian conservatives don’t know about them, and the right goes on vainly trying to make our great founding rationalists into holy rollers. Modern liberalism can’t embrace early American economic activism either: that activism was saturated not merely with faith but with an especially illiberal kind of faith, the evangelical and millennial kind, whose calls to action are predicated not on scientific calculations for social improvement that modern liberals prize, but on spiritual warfare for transformation of the very terms of human relations, ultimately of human existence.

Today’s political liberals keep trying to press the wellknown founders, whose attitudes about religion were intellectually sophisticated, into serving as ancestors for modern American political progressivism. Meanwhile many of our real founding activists for economic equality remain obscure because they were evangelicals. The result is that we don’t know what happened in our founding.

By no means alone in either his evangelicalism or his activism, Herman Husband was nevertheless a dramatic and revealing case. In 1739, when he was fifteen, he heard George Whitefield preach. A twenty-five-year-old English superstar, Whitefield was touring America, attracting crowds outdoors and causing a sensation. In Philadelphia he preached on the courthouse steps to 8,000 people. In North East, near the Chesapeake Bay, 1,500 came, and Herman Husband was one of them. He had questions, and Whitefield’s preaching began answering them.

Only personal faith, received not through forms of worship but as direct experience, gave new spiritual birth, Whitefield said. Conversion wasn’t an idea or a practice but a feeling. Denominations legally established by colonial governments weren’t just useless to salvation but actively obstructed salvation. Only new, spontaneous, emotionally alive churches, he said, could bring about a saving inner change in people, acceptance of forgiveness of sin.

It was the Great Awakening. We often think of that phenomenon as fire and brimstone and railing against sexual pleasure. But as early as the 1720s, ministers were preaching especially hard against the greed, laziness, and materialism that they felt American society was encouraging. The Awakening was in many ways a youth movement, and in a time of xenophobia among colonies, it was the first American enthusiasm to sweep across boundaries and bring what today we think of as the country together, against establishments. In every denomination and province, established churches, called “old light” and “old side,” were condemned for spiritual deadness by “new lights” and “new sides.” Unestablished sects like Baptists, known for spontaneity and enthusiasm, gained new members. Services went on outdoors. Revival was both the style and the goal. Acquisitiveness—in some old-side Calvinists’ view a sign of virtue, even of possible grace—now looked to young Americans like lust for material luxury, sin.

Old-light ministers pushed back. They castigated what they saw as the Awakening’s preference for individualism over doctrine. Liberal theologians had been trying to get rational, Deist ideas into the churches; they condemned the Awakening’s appeal to mere feeling. Bosses were dismayed to find field hands and factory laborers dropping work to attend outdoor services. As the Awakening went on, and began losing its novelty among maturing members of the better-off classes, evangelicalism settled into working-class parts of American society. It stayed there.

In 1739, when the young Husband heard the young George Whitefield preach, the Awakening had begun to see itself as a sign of the biblical millennium. Prophesied for Christians in the Revelation of St. John and certain books of the Old Testament, the millennium involves an end time, a universal war, the last judgment of all souls, and the establishment for the saved of permanent bliss in divine love. The Great Awakening’s millennialism was at once more forgiving and more social—more American, perhaps?—than many earlier forms. The terrible last judgment depicted in classic theology, Awakening preachers began to suggest, might not be necessary. All might be brought into God’s love gradually and without horror. The end of history might be accomplished in the perfect happiness of life here on earth. Even the second coming of Christ might, in Awakening theology, be accomplished by the infusion of Christ’s redeeming love in all people. A sign would be the dissolving of distinctions between rich and poor.  From the 1740s on, evangelicals in America were calling for radical social and economic change, tantamount to millennium.