The Fourth Great Awakening

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Time Period
1950  - 1980
Although somewhat controversial, the Fourth Great Awakening is said to have begun in the mid-20th century. The rise of the popular evangelist-revivalist Billy Graham gave awareness to this growing awakening, as thousands flocked to stadiums to hear Graham preach. Along with Graham, other charismatic religious leaders emerged, like Catholic radio priest Fulton Sheen, who had millions of Catholic and non-Catholic listeners alike.

In addition, a religious resurgence emerged in literature (Christianity Today, 1955), Christian liberal arts schools, parachurch organizations (Campus Crusade for Christ, 1951) and religio-political organizations (Moral Majority, 1979). The 1976 election of Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter as president and the rise of 50 million born-again Christians also may be evidence of revitalized religious interest.

If a Fourth Great Awakening did occur, it may have waned in the 1980s. Moreover, the rise of religious "nones" in the 2000s may be the proverbial "nail in the coffin" for the supposed religious revival.
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Social Movements and Religion in American History
Christians in the United States have been captivated by what has come to be termed as "great awakenings" ever since the first in the early 18th century with George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. The Second (1790s-1840s) and Third Great Awakenings (1850s-1920s) have been debated, along with the meaning behind these awakening experiences. William McLoughlin wrote about the cyclical occurrence of such spiritual awakenings in his book Revivals, Awakenings, and Reforms: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (1978). Historian Timothy L. Smith, who authored a study on the Second Great Awakening titled Revivalism and Social Reform (1957), rejected this cyclical view of "Great Awakenings" as an untenable theory.

The Fourth Great Awakening is said to have begun in the mid-20th century. The rise of famed evangelist-revivalist in Billy Graham gave this growing awakening greater popular emphasis as thousands flocked to stadiums and auditoriums and as Graham’s popularity became international. Along with Graham, there came other religious leaders whose emphasis coincided with many of Graham’s ideas. Roman Catholic priest, writer and broadcast personality Fulton Sheen brought millions of Catholics into the spiritual drama. Another Protestant spokesman was Norman Vincent Peale whose bestselling book The Power of Positive Thinking joined in the awakening. These leaders and their allies represented millions of people. Will Herberg in his 1955 book Protestant, Catholic, Jew argued that all three major religious faiths in the United States had more in common than they realized in transcendental ideas and values forming the basis of the American way of life. Roman Catholics experienced a renewal of their faith as they struggled with being understood by predominate Protestant religious movements, especially in the election of their own John F. Kennedy in 1960 as president of the United States. Jews witnessed a revival in orthodoxy, especially in a new interest in Hasidism. In addition to Graham’s popularity, there arose the Pentecostal movement that not only affected the traditional Protestants but also touched the Roman Catholic and Anglican movements.

In addition to these signs,, there arose new editorial leadership in religious publications, as well as the founding of new publications such as Christianity Today in 1955. Rising enrollment and new leadership for hundreds of accredited Christian liberal arts colleges and universities, both Catholic and Protestant, marked this era of awakening. Hundreds of Bible colleges emerged across the nation, along with a marked rise in parachurch organizations -- Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigators, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Young Life, Christian Women’s Clubs, Salvation Army.

Economic historian Robert Fogel produced a study of this awakening titled The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (2000). This awakening, Fogel argues, was driven by enthusiastic Pentecostals, Adventist and neo-fundamentalist churches, joined by Mormons, born-again Catholics and mainline Protestants. This movement was marked by a growing antipathy toward abortion and intrusive government. There also came some major changes in the political landscape with the rise of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the large megachurches and other powerful grassroots organizations. McLoughlin, in his writings, believed that the election of Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, as president was the product of the awakening and that the 50 million born-again Christians could prove to be the avant-garde of the Fourth Great Awakening. McLoughlin believed this conservative resurgence would be hard to maintain. He said in closing his essay that he agreed with Robert Bellah’s The Broken Covenant, in which he argued that in the future some form of Judeo-Christian socialism would emerge. As McLoughlin and Fogel both conclude, there is the obvious emergence of a new belief-value system.

Works Cited

Fogel, Robert W. 2000. The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

McLoughlin, William G. 1978. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Timothy L. 1960. "Historic Waves of Religious Interest in America." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 332, Religion in American Society: 9-19.
Graham, William "Billy"
Sheen, Fulton
The First Great Awakening
The Second Great Awakening
Billy Graham's Los Angeles Crusade
Billy Graham's New York Crusade
Election of John F. Kennedy
Election of Jimmy Carter
Jerry Falwell Helps Found the Moral Majority

Billy Graham Los Angeles Crusade tent interior- courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Fulton Sheen broadcasting- Wikimedia Commons

Christianity Today magazine- Flickr- photo by Jo Christian Oterhals (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Jimmy Carter campaign speech- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-09742

Dallas Bible College postcard- Flickr- photo from coltera (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Jerry Hopkins

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