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MacFarlane, Charles. 1947, Nov 6. "Girl 'Cured' Second Time By Healer, Only 'Miracle' Here," Vancouver Sun.
Religion and the Public Life

American Revival: The Persistence of Miracles

In what follows I want to trace a political theology of miracles that makes possible their circulation in U.S. revivalism. A straightforward theology—namely that God does miracles—is certainly part of the motivating belief for revivalism. But I want to trace here the political contours of revivalisms’ continuous circulation of the miraculous, well past the time that secularization theory suggested that they would give way instead to secularity, science and the enlightenment.

There’s a short Louis CK sketch about atheists. In it, the comedian maintains that while one can believe in God, one can’t really rule out the existence of God. How can a human being think that they know, he says, that “there is not [a]thing? I mean, you’re a human. You can see for a hundred yards, tops. How could you possibly know? God might be right behind you, all the time!” 

But if we’re talking about the political theology of US revivalism, there has been an important moment in which a collective of humans decided where God wouldn’t be, and that group is English Protestants and where God would not be, they decided, was in politics. Per historian of religions Robert Yelle, (what follows is a paraphrase): the idea that miracles had ceased (or “cessationism”) became dominant in English Protestantism as early as 1600. Politically, such cessationism accompanied a decline from absolute sovereignty, with which God and his chosens (Popes, Kings, Vicars, and so on) have the latitude to be capricious and unpredictable (i.e. miraculous), to instead the emergence of an orderly, rule-governed concept of sovereignty. Such an orderly, rule-following deity is reflected in the deist concept of a “watchmaker God” who, having presided over the miracle of creation, withdraws from intervening further. For early modern English Protestants in the throes of cessationism, God sat politics (and everything else) out. Cessationism is a complicated theology, to be sure, and it is elsewhere expressed in the Reformationists’ account of God’s saving powers: God himself, infinite in His powers (potentia absoluta), had decided not to do miracles or intervene in human affairs or to be capricious about whom He will save from damnation but instead God decides to be very orderly and predictable, if a bit withdrawn (potential ordinata). Yelle posits this declension from absolute and capricious powers to orderliness is part of the intellectual underpinnings of rule-ordered democracy from what preceded it: monarchy.

Everybody (English society, yes, but eventually everyone) was supposed to follow suit into this cessationistthinking. Everyone was meant to learn the cessationist gaze, if you will, in a collective process of coming to our senses about how magic and miracles cannot be part of this, our lawful (Newtonian) cosmos. A cessationist gaze is a lay-Newtonian gaze, seeing everywhere the predictability of laws in the style of gravity (a balancing recognition of quantum mechanics’ spooky action at a distance was at this point hundreds of years away.) Closely related: “Disenchantment” meant no more spiritual forces in the world, no woodland fairies, or mystical days of revelation, no divinely anointed King or Pope– but also, in a positive sense, cessationism and disenchantment make way for “enlightenment.” Hello, Descartes and Kant and government leaders who are answerable to laws. Cessationism defunds the concept of divine right for kings, it ends the idea of the pope’s being God’s sole man on earth; in its place we have a law-governed cosmos that can be a solid cosmology for legal political authority and lawful legislation.

There are other genealogies of secularity, of course, but for our purposes, this one sets us up to understand our present, trenchant polarization as one afflicted by dueling Protestantisms and will allow us to understand revivalism for the confrontational force it is in this duel.

Let’s fast forward, for time’s sake. At the turn of the 20th century, evangelicals in the US were flummoxed to learn that elite theological schools like Harvard and Yale were teaching the historical critical method of bible study. They were offended that teachers of the Bible might deny Christ’s virgin birth or resurrection– divine intervention, aka miracles. Shortly thereafter, the dawning of Darwinism in American, which depicts human beings as the descendants of monkeys and not created by God in His image, created a Protestant rift. From Pew

“The arrival of Darwinian thinking into the wider American consciousness coincided with other dramatic shifts taking place in the country’s religious landscape. From the 1890s to the 1930s, the major American Protestant denominations – which, in spite of growing doctrinal differences, had generally maintained unity on basic issues of faith – gradually split into two camps: modernist, or theologically liberal Protestantism; and evangelical, or otherwise theologically conservative, Protestantism. The American Protestant schism was caused by a number of important developments taking place at the time, including the advent of new scientific thinking, new questions about the historical accuracy of biblical accounts and a host of provocative and controversial new ideas about both the individual and society.”

In common historical takes on this period, the Scopes Monkey Trial is the arena in which these matters come to a head and get solved. Again, from Pew:

“By the early 1920s, evolution had become one of the most, if not the most, important wedge issues in this Protestant divide, in part because the debate had taken on a pedagogical dimension, with students throughout the nation now studying Darwin’s ideas in biology classes. Not surprisingly, the issue became a mainstay for Protestant evangelists, including Billy Sunday, the most popular preacher of his era. “I don’t believe the old bastard theory of evolution,” he exclaimed during a 1925 revival meeting in Memphis, Tenn. ‘I believe I am just as God Almighty made me,’ he said. But it was William Jennings Bryan, a man of politics, not the cloth, who ultimately became the leader of a full-fledged national crusade against evolution.” 

But it is a bit of a misconception to believe that Bryan, “a man of politics,” became the leader of the national crusade against evolution, as though what happened on the legal front (here: evolutionists won) was considered by all the all-important, determining front. (The organization of the Pew treatment follows this logic, repeating the notion that to win in court was to settle the matter.)

But to understand the political theology undergirding revivalism, look again at the statement about “Billy Sunday: the most popular preacher of his era,” and try to see the contest how evangelicals of the period did: the legal arena was important, sure, but got stated in faith contexts was even more important. Revivals are, for subscribers, time-spaces of maximum sacrality, far outstripping the courtroom– even the Supreme Court! (In this way, they are your average Americans; who hasn’t seen recent commentary on Supreme Court decisions that depict the court as corrupt and its judgements, empty?) To lose the Scopes Monkey Trial was not, in the evangelical imagination, to really lose. It was to lose the Court and the classroom, as territories, but not to lose the moral high ground. 

In this contest against, as they saw it, the liberal Protestants and the legal arena they captured, evangelical Christians retrenched into family politics and church spaces. There too they had been fighting liberalizing Protestants; the UMC for example was centralizing power in new urban districts and trying to discipline rank and file, largely rural adherents, into middle class styles of worship and belief. Many of these believers descended from Wesleyan pietism and revivalism– and they struck back by creating a campmeeting circuit where they could clap and sing and experience the power of God directly.

In this politicized campmeeting context, both revivalist preachers and lay people became miraculous. Healing revivalists were both men and women, and racially diverse. Maria Woodworth Etter, for example, was an older white woman who claimed powers of healing, but so did Francisco Olazábal, a Mexican Methodist minister who became Pentecostal when his wife, Macrina was herself healed. Healing revivalists of the late 19th and early 20th century traveled from town to town with an eye for winning the lost and furthering the work of building the Kingdom in a given locale. Hundreds of thousands of Americans of the period would visit healing revivals per year and tens of thousands would claim to have received one or another kind of healing.  Olazabal’s 1931 Spanish Harlem healing campaign, for example,  attracted over 100,000 people. During these early decades of the twentieth century,  it became common for evangelicals of the period to claim, not only healing, but a new power of “speaking in tongues’ ‘– a magical charism many thought enabled them to speak foreign languages like Chinese or Hindu. It’s important to note that, if the Pope and the King had been deposed– had been dispossessed of their sacred ontologies in the 16th century– suddenly everyday Americans in the early 20th, (including women and children across a wide array of ethnicities) were attending revivals and claiming that they had been baptized with miraculous gifts and powers, gifts like prophecy. Historian of American religion Jonathan Baer puts it succinctly:  “This turn [to miraculous healing] challenged Protestantism’s traditional tendency to secularize the body through the denial of post-apostolic miracles. Even more than others, incipient Pentecostals resacralized the body and rejected secular authority over it. Divine healing was the apex of this process.”   Revivalism has been the host of a social process that rejected and continues to reject cessationism and the cessationist underpinnings of secular authority.

It was, perhaps, only a matter of time (about one hundred years) before this newly miraculous tradition, American Revivalism, would anoint for itself a miraculously authorized (otherwise, completely not qualified) Presidential candidate. In articles in The Washington Post and Religion News Service, my colleague Leah Payne and I pointed to the ways that Trump appealed to charismatics and Pentecostals, heirs to America’s Pentecostal tradition. One aspect of the story between Trump and evangelicals that went under-recognized was the ease with which leaders like Paula White and Sammy Rodriguez anointed the man for the Presidential Office. (Note how, in the UK, only the Archbishop could do this, and this behind a screen–not on YouTube.) To some this might have simply looked like prayer; for the Pentecostals and charismatics who believe in divine anointing, these images transform Trump into a sacred protagonist. Not coincidentally, Trump started to be referred to as “King Cyrus” in some circles; political scientists Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge found the idea of Trump’s being anointed had grown by leaps and bounds between 2016 and 2020–from 29 to 49%.

Accordingly, evangelical and charismatic supporters of Trump have had a weakened purchase into the seriousness of the January 6 riot. They have relatively little faith in the justice system so his being found guilty in New York will matter little. (Again, I saw an article in Slate, recently, decrying the Supreme Court as hopelessly corrupt. Lack of investment in the judicial branch isn’t limited to Pentecostals and charismatics.) What is unique in American Revivalism is an explicit political theology of miracles that makes possible and desirable their continued circulation. A straightforward theology—namely that God does miracles for anyone who asks, without respect to person—is certainly part of the motivating belief for revivalism. Long past the time that secularization theory demanded that Protestant belief give way instead to secularity, science, and the enlightenment, one branch of the movement, largely an outgrowth of Methodism, simply refuses to acquire or defer to cessationist feelings or perspective. It also refuses to do politics on such secularist, cessationist terms and, at present, has protected freedoms to such religious expression. In 2016, Pentecostals’ circulation of the miraculous moved from church spaces and revival settings into the political and legal arenas of the United States; it acquired a political ambition. In 2024, Donald Trump can count on their continued support.

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Authorizing and Authenticating Revival

Debates around revival persist because of what it promises. Indeed, it could be a site of hope for evangelicals in the midst of stories about declining church membership and religious disaffiliation from younger generations. But for some who experience revival on a regular basis, frustration and disappointment might abound.

American Revival: The Persistence of Miracles

In what follows I want to trace a political theology of miracles that makes possible their circulation in U.S. revivalism. A straightforward theology—namely that God does miracles—is certainly part of the motivating belief for revivalism. But I want to trace here the political contours of revivalisms’ continuous circulation of the miraculous, well past the time that secularization theory suggested that they would give way instead to secularity, science and the enlightenment.

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