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The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism

Author(s):Fogel, Robert William
Reviewer(s):Murray, John

Published by EH.NET (April 2003)

Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of

Egalitarianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 383 pp. $25

(hardcover), ISBN: 0-226-25662-6; $19 (paperback), ISBN: 0-226-25663-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Murray, Department of Economics, University of

Toledo.

It is probably best to think of this book as a wide-ranging, speculative

think-piece. It is not a finely honed argument for a particular explanation of

historical patterns. Instead, Robert William Fogel proposes to synthesize a

wide range of historical analyses — including much of his own work — to

accompany the historical development of social policy. On a very basic level,

Fogel emphasizes the importance of religion as a causal factor in historical

analysis, and his attempt to synthesize political, technological, and health

related issues is admirable. Sound impossibly large? It is and it isn’t. In the

end, this reader was not persuaded that there were in fact four Great

Awakenings or that the fourth was coherent enough to influence social policy.

In a way, though, that may be beside the point. I was in awe of the range of

evidence at Fogel’s command, and I found the tack of his argument engaging.

Since this book offers an explicit use of history in the service of policy

analysis, perhaps its success should be determined by whether the reader

accepts the importance of history for current policy making and if the reader

goes on to wonder how, in particular, popular understandings of what the good

life is lead to particular policies to enable more people to follow that good

life.

It might be easiest to break the book down into roughly three component parts:

the religious history, the economic history, and the policy recommendations.

The religious history, while provocative, is built on shifting sands. The

notion of Great Awakenings around which this book is organized has had a varied

career. The term, Great Awakening, is a construct of a much later period,

coined, it appears, by Joseph Tracy in his book The Great Awakening of

1841 (Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, Harvard University Press,

1990, pp. 164-165). It generally is taken to refer to revivals associated with

the 1739-42 preaching tour of the magnetic George Whitefield. But what exactly

happened to deserve the term “Awakening” is unclear. The sociologists of

religion Roger Finke and Rodney Stark illustrate in The Churching of

America (Rutgers University Press, 1992, pp. 87-108) that the success of

Whitefield’s revivals was a function of how hard his advance people worked to

stir up interest. That is, the people were not slumbering in spiritual terms

and then awakened as much as Whitefield in particular shook them awake. The

success of his labors was less due to the spiritual Zeitgeist than to

one man’s vision — much the same could be said for Charles Grandison Finney’s

preaching during the Second Great Awakening.

And here the difficulties of periodization emerge — difficulties familiar to

scholars who have struggled with the idea of identifiable cycles in history,

whether financial or religious. How do we define the beginning, the end, and

the content of an Awakening? Fogel employs William McLaughlin’s typology

(Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, University of Chicago Press, 1978),

but it is never clear to this reader what demarcated the First from the Second

Great Awakening, especially if the greatest single revival of all was the Cane

Ridge revival of 1801 in central Kentucky, right in the middle chronologically.

(Unless you count that as the beginning of the Second Great Awakening, which

some scholars do.) But whether these were cycles, bumps, or the most publicized

events in the long term, monotonic growth of American Christianity is never

quite resolved in this book.

Theological differences between the first two Awakenings seem tiny compared to

those between them and the last two Awakenings, which, it should be noted, are

not standardly recognized among religious historians. The difference between

the second and third Awakening is critical because the gap, in Fogel’s

formulation, is entirely due to a kind of secularization that is also not

resolved here. As the Awakenings cycled through their lifespan, one trend that

should be obvious is that the Third had little to do with religion, at least in

the sense of human awareness and response to God, and the Fourth seems to be

entirely concerned with what might best be called social work. Why they would

all be grouped under the rubric “Awakening” is not really clear. The religious

examples used as evidence, by the time of the Third Great Awakening, consist

largely of elite efforts at social reform conducted almost independently of the

more classically Christian questions of the first two Awakenings. The result, I

believe, is a misreading of what comprised much of American Christianity of the

late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ironically, for a book on

egalitarianism, political concerns inferred from the commentary of the

marginally Christian elite of the later nineteenth century probably did not

reflect the interests of most of those in the pews. That is not to say there

was no relation between the secularized, nominal Christianity of the elites and

political reform because there probably was, to the extent that it was those

elites who had the most political influence.

The economic history enlisted by Fogel to elaborate his argument is clearly

presented and well known to those who have kept up with the astonishing range

of his work over the last two decades. He makes entirely reasonable hypotheses

regarding the way exogenous shocks, often due to new technologies, can disrupt

ordinary politics and allow for the influence of new, reformist policy

proposals. And one source of such new proposals, he notes, are these cycles of

spiritual activities. Thus, he motivates the reader to see the importance of

his policy proposals for the present and foreseeable future by describing

research by himself, Dora Costa, and joint work by both, as suggesting much

longer life spans than we now enjoy. These additional years will likely be

lived by many who are in a position to change current policy, and so he offers

his proposals as a way to get ready for what will likely be one of those

exogenous processes that will soon change the way we all live.

A particular concern for Fogel is the political importance of egalitarianism.

Essentially, he seems to be saying, the vision of J. M. Keynes that some day

the economic problem would be solved and we could concentrate on the question

of how to be fully human, is close at hand. In average terms, income is so high

in the West that the economic problem is nearly solved — subject to problems

with distribution of that income. The question of becoming fully human, then,

is somewhat merged with the distributional question to produce the issue of

variation in the ability to deal with the human condition. That ability,

summarizes Fogel, is produced by one’s “spiritual” resources. While these are

unequally distributed now, he proposes that they should be more equally

distributed in the not too distant future. These spiritual assets seem to be

only tangentially religious. They are rather more closely akin to

pop-psychology concepts as self-esteem and to deeper issues of “resilience,”

which psychologists use to describe the ability of some people to withstand

psychic blows (unemployment, death in the family, and so on) and continue

functioning at a high level. (For a widely cited recent review, see Luthar,

Cicchetti, and Becker, “The Construct of Resilience: A Critical Evaluation and

Guidelines for Future Work,” Child Development 71 (May-June 2000),

543-562).

Let’s assume that these spiritual resources are unequally distributed, and

surely they are. Some people cope under pressure, some thrive, and others

crack. That would seem to be one of those unfairnesses of life — the

distribution of burdens in this vale of tears is not equal, either. But Fogel’s

policy recommendations to redistribute these resources are on the one hand

provocative but on the other almost certainly unworkable. If spiritual

resources are a form of human capital, we might speculate that there is no

depreciation of them over time, so that they can be accumulated and transmitted

by those who have to those who haven’t at relatively low cost. That is, in one

of Fogel’s formulations, the elderly who have some perspective on life can

volunteer to pass on to young folk who lack confidence in the future how to

accept some of their troubles, how to deal with others, and as they say, the

wisdom to know the difference. In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous would seem to be a

model for some of what Fogel proposes. This is intriguing, but if volunteer

work is to be converted into a kind of policy, why it isn’t happening already

– is this a social policy version of the twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk?

Other programs would require an expansion of government. A suggested source of

such spiritual resources is higher education. One way to even out the problem

of maldistribution is to get more young people into college. The problem here

is that a defining characteristic of the American system of higher education is

that, essentially, the bar is set so low for admissions, curriculum, and costs,

is that nearly everyone who already wants to go to college can do so. If we

already are at a Pareto optimum, I am not convinced that coaxing even more

young people away from low-skilled labor, the military, trade apprenticeships,

or general slacking into college would do much for their spiritual resources.

To take this a step further, it seems to be that the particular content of a

university education that might be expected to influence the student’s lifelong

worldview most directly and positively are the liberal arts, and it is these

subjects that marginal students tend to shy away from.

So this reader is left skeptical about the wisdom of Fogel’s particular

recommendations. The idea of spiritual resources that do not explicitly involve

religion seems to be all well and no water, and he nearly gets the critical

nature of the traditional family without explicitly advocating pro-family

policies. Still, to get to that skepticism I needed to think over some big

questions that Fogel, to his great credit, doesn’t shy away from addressing.

What do needy people need most, and what do they want? The notion of spiritual

resources may be a valuable approach to the interior psychology of particular

exterior circumstances. Why are people at the bottom rung of a rich society

there, and what can we do about it? I don’t know how to solve this problem, but

if someone asked me, I would direct him or her to Robert Fogel’s book to begin

assessing what possible approaches might look like.

John E. Murray is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of

Toledo. His articles on religion in nineteenth century America have appeared in

Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Explorations in Economic

History, and Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

(Dr. Murray graciously agreed to take on this review after the original

reviewer was unable to complete the assignment.)

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII