Third Great Awakening

From Academic Kids

The Third Great Awakening was a period in American history from 1886 to 1908. It is also called the Missionary Awakening.

The Awakening (one of several Great Awakenings throughout US history) began with the Haymarket Riot and the student missionary movement, rose with agrarian protest and labor violence, and climaxed in the revivalist candidacy of William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Gilded Age realism came under harsh attack from trust-blasting muckrakers, Billy Sunday evangelicals, "new woman" feminists, and chautauqua dreamers. After radicalizing and splitting the Progressive movement, the passion cooled when William Howard Taft succeeded Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.

Causes of the Third Great Awakening

After the American Civil War, the country was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Cities were packed full of poor factory laborers, the proletariat of Marxist theory. According to the ideals of the Second Great Awakening, men (and women) were improvable by their own works. Material failure was the punishment of sin. This was cold comfort to the impoverished working class.

In 1859, The Origin of Species was published, challenging the Creation account in the Bible, the foundation of traditional Christianity. Social Darwinism, a philosophy that essentially states that natural selection was also applicable to social life, developed.

In the face of this rationalistic, materialistic onslaught on traditional religion, an irrational and spiritual movement arose: Spiritualism. Although this movement was not a part of the later Third Great Awakening, its rise was a sign that the theological synthesis that developed in the wake of the Second Great Awakening was cracking.

The New Sects of the Third Great Awakening

The challenge of the Third Great Awakening was to create new belief systems in the face of accusations that the Bible was not infallible. Because of this, many of the new sects created or made popular during the Third Great Awakening were atheistic or materialistic in nature. This could be why much less attention has been paid to it, compared to the earlier First and Second Great Awakenings.

Socialism and Communism, which some consider atheistic, or at least materialistic, religions, became popular. Atheism and agnosticism themselves became popular. Secular Humanism, which is a moral atheistic/agnostic ethos, developed.

A more moderate approach, Modernist Christianity attempted to reconcile the teachings of the Bible with the new scientific theories.

The Salvation Army charity/denomination arrived in America in 1880. Although it was theologically based on the ideals of the Second Great Awakening, its concentration on the suffering of the poor was of the Third.


Age Location in History:

  • The Gilded Generation was entering elderhood. As young zealots prepared for the 1898 invasion of Cuba, virtually all of America's aging Gilded luminaries urged peace and caution. The young didn't listen to them, and chose to remember the Maine instead of Gettysburg.
  • The Progressive Generation was entering midlife. After spending half their lives adapting to a Gilded-built world, the Progressives started taking cues from the young.
  • The Missionary Generation was coming of age. "Onward Christian soldiers, rip and tear and smite/Let the gentle Jesus bless your dynamite" sang the Wobblies in 1905.
  • The Lost Generation was being born. Children of the 1890s were America's most tough-minded ever, growing up fast amid gangs, drugs, saloons, big-city immigration, and an emotional climate ranging with evangelical fervor and social reform.

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