Evangelicalism did not evolve or operate in a space. It is essential to consider the ways in which members of this group participated in and changed their culture, and, conversely, to assess how its social context provided both the ideas which evangelicalism adopted or transformed and those which it actively rejected or resisted. As movements that came of age during the first half of the nineteenth century, Evangelical Protestantism can be understood most clearly in the political, economic, and religious contexts of post-revolutionary American society. Although the movement would come to effect profound changes in its society it was very much in a sense that the culture had grown ripe for its emergence. The tension between the evangelical movement and the past movements radicalism and centrism suggests that American society was still very much in transition from one era to another: the Revolution was not yet complete.
History: Causes leading to Evangelicalism
The fifty years following independence witnessed dramatic changes in the character of American society. As is the case with all periods of momentous social change, the early national period generated both optimism and unease. While the Revolution had succeeded in throwing off the British, it by no means resolved the growing nation's infrastructural, political and racial problems. Rather, in the sudden absence of imperial control, Americans of all stations were confronted with the task of structuring and preserving a viable society in a time of great uncertainty and instability, when internal political discord, unstable international allegiances and the disorienting surge of capitalist enterprise shook the foundations of tradition and security that they had long relied upon. Particularly distressing was the realization that political union did not necessarily entail cultural harmony, and that conflicts between Americans could become violent, as exampled by the party warfare of the 1790s, by such eruptions of economic discontent as Shay's Rebellion, by ethnic- and class-based urban disturbances, and by the seemingly insoluble dispute over slavery. In many ways, American society seemed to be growing more rather than less fragmented.
American society began to open new channels for energies in the culture which had previously lain dormant. In the proliferation of benevolent societies, the tempe...
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...d only take place if the self had become sufficiently alienated, through conviction of sin, from the material world. In the moment of conversion, one felt that the heart had been touched by the hand of God. Following conversion, the third stage was that of assurance of salvation, or the belief that one's sins were forgiven and that one could, after death, enter the realm of heaven and be reunited with God and with other saved souls.
The after effects of Evangelicalism have moved in other directions. Because the Evangelicals were, from the outset, intent on expanding church membership, they managed to define the daily religious life of the United States in a way that no other movement had done before, or has done since. Ever since the Second Great Awakening, the power of Evangelicalism has derived from its practical character -- its ability to distribute its message, to help guide the religious lives of its adherents, to organize its members into cohesive groups. Modern Evangelical preachers follow in their predecessors footsteps by continuing to spread the word of God -- although now they have moved beyond rural camp meetings to take advantage of the power of television.
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