I write this as I sit at Groton Long Point, our tenth year anniversary since discovering this wonderful jewel in New England. Through the auspices of a kind benefactor our family has been able to retreat from pastoral ministry to renew physical and spiritual energies, but also to think. When sitting on the porch of “A House by the Sea,” a most suitable name for this lovely cottage, one may, indeed, think and think widely and, as the cool Atlantic breeze comforts your skin, think deeply, or maybe—others will have their own opinion—deeper.
Today I am to be thinking about a paper that I am going to deliver to the Evangelical Theological Society in San Francisco, in November, but I cannot stop thinking about a book I saw today, and the notions that owned me as I looked upon it. You see, we had made our usual excursion to the Book Barn, in Niantic, Connecticut—as splendid a bookshop that I have ever experienced—and my eyes fixed on the title of a volume that I have in my library, The Rise And Fall of the British Empire. This book, playing off of the title of Edward Gibbon’s masterpiece, The Rise And Fall Of Roman Empire, reminded me of the characteristics of old empires that arose and great nations that fell (which reminded my why I must acquire Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies). In this “Arab Spring” we can’t help but think of Libia and Egypt and the sand storm of change eroding the power in despotic capitols of the Middle East that once, only months ago, seemed invincible. We can all think of those sad features of an empire that has fallen: There is a surge in irresponsible spending and the consequent beaurocratical growth and insatiable hunt for more revenue to sustain the status quo; extraordinary use of military force to conserve gains or to protect against increased threats (so often, the threats may be attributed to the fact that enemies perceive a pathological weakness in the great country) and, at the same time, there are often budget cuts to the military that endangers the nation’s capacity to safeguard the Pax Romana (27 B.C.-A.D. 180) or Pax Britannica (1815–1914)—or, maybe, Pax Americana—in an unforgiving and hazardous world. One also is reminded of that one, invariable common characteristic in the fall of all the great civilizations: an internal free-fall into moral depravity, however that depravity may be manifest. But a preacher is always held to suspicion in tackling that one, so I will leave it for historians to decide. But can you tell me of anyone who talks of a moral strengthening at the very time of an empire’s fall? One may argue about the details each of these characteristics, and even add many more reasons for a full, but the larger matter is undeniable.
This is when I sat down in an old sofa between shelves. I was sobered by the notion that I could be living in such a time. I had to admit that wherever we are on the continuum of history, in our nation, few see us on the “rise” side of that equation. It was not necessary for me to chronicle the disastrous consequences of our nation when we have exchanged our godly heritage for a pot of secular stew. That was not the sense that began to simmer. History will show whether this is the last great chapter. “But of that day and hour knoweth no man...” So I immediately began to think of what I pray will be the difference between where we are and where we can be in the days to come. I, for one, would prefer Ronald Reagan‘s intuitive optimism that appeals to our better angels, and that contagious national spirit that persistently pronounces that our best days are yet to come. That would be my response in the face of such overwhelmingly depressing shelves of “rise and falls!” And my gloomy spirits began to evaporate past the dusty shelves and up to the ceiling of that book barn. Yet, if, I thought, this optimism is to be justified by reality—and I believe it is shall—then something must happen. The “something” that must happen is what happened a decade or so before the American Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation. There was, indeed, in those days, in the colonies, the presence of all of those three features that I mentioned of the decline of a civilization. There were increasing and often needless skirmishes with local Indians. There was, of course, the notorious problem with taxes from the mother country, and historical evidences of an increasingly profligate lifestyle among the colonists. Adding to all of this, there was a formality that was settling into religion. Taken together, these spreading cracks in the young society led to a combustible state. This was a great fork in the road for the young American civilization. One could imagine what would’ve happened to the idea of the American experiment had these deplorable situations not been addressed and resolved. In fact, however, mercifully, they were dealt with. The First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s must be considered a turning point in American history; the turning point that not only dealt with the problems of the society at that era, but also those activities that actually prepared a nation to be born in the decade that followed. I will grant the position, first, of those among us those who believe that this “awakening” was merely a religious excitement; some stirring of human religious sensitivities linked, perhaps, to unshakable Puritan strands of their forefathers, with all the Calvinistic guilt which some attribute to that ever-present thread in our fabric as a people; or for that matter the impressive rhetorical gifts and skills of a remarkable cadre of preachers. I will grant you that position, even if I do not believe it. I do so because I believe that you can point to even those things and still see that something happened of enormous historical result that changed the course of human affairs for the better. That I believe that the First Great Awakening was a true movement of Almighty God in the lives of the colonists, and that my belief characterized as my own unconscious attempts at making sense of a mad world, cannot repudiate the historical certainty of it, or disregard an amazingly uncommon connection between this mass spiritual awakening and the American Revolutionary war and the founding of the nation that followed. For, as the great British historian, Dr. Paul Johnson, reminded us in his History of the American People, America is a preeminent nation in the history of nations whereby one may observe, document, and point to the influences that led to her establishment. The Great Awakening, under the glorious preaching of The Rev. Jonathan Edwards at Northampton, Massachusetts and The Rev. George Whitefield of England, remain an irrefutable factor in the series of factors that led to the establishment of the United States of America. Therefore, granting even the most skeptical analysis of the higher history and lower history of this period, one cannot escape the facts: there were problems in society, there was a religious awakening in society which positively affected those problems, and there was a new nation born on the years after these remarkable events. As has been stated so succinctly,
Now to my point—a remarkably simple point to state, but an entirely supernatural point to bring about: if it happened before, it can happen again. To be explicitly Christian about the matter, if the sovereign God of redemptive history did it before, our God can do it again. Even if what we are talking about is the Puritanical-Calvinistic religious remnants at work in our national conscience, like some inexplicable but undeniable, even unwanted, hormone, then I would say, “Give me the injection!”
The situation we face may be compared to the mighty Mississippi River, making its way past Memphis and Baton Rouge, on down to its mouth below New Orleans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does its best to build levees to contain the natural desire of “Old Man River” to wind westward, but inevitably there are breaks in the levee. No matter how powerful and ingenious we may be, we cannot stop, ultimately, the terrestrial powers all around us. So, too, there are powers beyond the earthworks of our own strength and cleverness that can reroute the mighty Mississippi River-like flow of the history of time. This “Old Man River” of a civilization inclines down. The law of aging, rundown and entropy is unrelenting on our best and most ingenious claims to the future. Those who attribute natural causes to the Great Awakening will not be comforted by such nature as they look into the future. They see an inevitable demise of our nation. And if all I had to go on were the flow of history, the cause and effect of man and sin and time and nature, then, I, too, would be, of all men, most skeptical. But I am not.
Ceslaw Milosz was an atheist turned Christian. The great Polish poet who saw the unimaginable horrors of the Twentieth Century finally reconciled with the God of his childhood. He began to see, with the eyes, albeit grey eyes, of a believing poet, that there was hope. From the cold, colorless Socialist regime of his homeland, with the junk yard-high-rise-Proletariat apartment buildings that grew like poison weeds after the devastation of the War; a man began to dream in color again. Once, as was expressed in First Things in a wonderful piece about this man, Milosz was in his Roman Catholic parish in Berkeley, California, when he came face to face with the reality of hope in Christ. In his poem, “With Her,” the old poet, then in California, heard the reading of the Gospel of Mark in his home parish, and the Gospel power of that reading, about Jesus raising a little girl to life, became the hope he needed so far removed from his home. We listen as he writes:
“ A reading from the Gospel according to Mark/About a little girl to whom He said: ‘Talitha, cumi!’”
“Then,” states the article, “with an unselfconscious humility, the poet witnesses to how he has received these words. He writes, ‘This is for me. To make me rise from the dead/And repeat the hope of those who lived before me.’ Here Milosz is exactly a Christian— the Scriptural word is received as a word for him in that moment, together with all those who have believed before him.”
I like the way Diogenes Allen put it, “Jesus’ resurrection has changed everything.”
To read of the life of Reagan is to understand that this simple truth, learned in Tampico, Illinois, in the Christian Church there, was the ground of Reagan’s optimism. It should be the reason for our own. This, then, is the ground of our hope for an American renewal. This, is the reason that each of us should be driven to our knees in prayer, in repentance for our follies, our ingratitude for such bountiful blessings, and pleading for another Great Awakening.
I rose, with some struggle, from the dilapidated, old cushion, scrunched between the slumping, narrow shelves bearing multiple volumes of used Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and piles of other books on warfare, and made my way to the BookBarn’s door, which opened to a fine and mostly sunny view of a thriving garden.
Resources for Further Reading
Allen, Diogenes. Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. 1st ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Cowing, Cedric B. The Great Awakening and the American Revolution: Colonial Thought in the 18th Century The Rand McNally Series on the History of American Thought and Culture. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1971.
Davies, Norman. Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations. New York: Viking, 2012.
Edwards, Jonathan. Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New-England and the Way in Which It Ought to Be Acknowledged and Promoted, Humbly Offered to the Publick, in a Treatise on That Subject. In Five Parts; Part I. Shewing That the Work That Has of Late Been Going on in This Land, Is a Glorious Work of God. Part Ii. Shewing the Obligations That All Are under, to Acknowlege [Sic], Rejoice in and Promote This Work, and the Great Danger of the Contrary. Part Iii. Shewing in Many Instances, Wherein the Subjects, or Zealous Promoters, of This Work Have Been Injuriously Blamed. Part Iv. Shewing What Things Are to Be Corrected or Avoided, in Promoting This Work, or in Our Behaviour under It. Part V. Shewing Positively What Ought to Be Done to Promote This Work. By Jonathan Edwards, A.M. Pastor of the Church of Christ at Northampton. [Two Lines from Isaiah]. Boston: printed and sold by S. Kneeland and T. Green,, 1742. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/ECCO?c=1&stp=Author&ste=11&af=BN&ae=W029462&tiPG=1&dd=0&dc=flc&docNum=CW118695958&vrsn=1.0&srchtp=a&d4=0.33&n=10&SU=0LRF&locID=29002.
Gibbon, Edward. [the Rise and Fall of the Saracen Empire. [Being a Reprint of the 50th, 51st, 52nd Chapters of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by A. Murray.]]. [Another edition.-1873.] ed.
James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. 1st U.S. ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B. “The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz.” First Things (2004). http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/the-witness-of-czeslaw-milosz–25 [accessed August 29, 2011].
Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. 1st U.S. ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.
Kengor, Paul. God and Ronald Reagan : A Spiritual Life. 1st ed. New York: Regan Books, 2004.
Milosz, Czeslaw. New and Collected Poems 1931-2001. New York: Ecco, 2001.
Perkins, George B., and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. 2 vols. 11th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Shultz, Roger. “A Celebration of Infidels: The American Enlightenment in the Revolutionary Era.” Contra Mundum Fall, no. 1 (1991).
Tracy, Joseph. The Great Awakening a History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield. Boston: Tappan & Dennet, 1842.
 It is worth the effort to go there if you are anywhere near New Haven. You will never go to a more interesting bookstore in your life! http://www.bookbarnniantic.com/
 Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 1st U.S. ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996).
 Edward Gibbon, [the Rise and Fall of the Saracen Empire. [Being a Reprint of the 50th, 51st, 52nd Chapters of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by A. Murray.]], [Another edition.-1873.] ed.
 Pax Romana. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/447447/Pax-Romana (accessed August 26, 2011).
 It is admitted that the morality of Rome and Britain are strikingly dissimilar in their manifestations, but the impiety of sexual perversion in the one and what some may pin-point as imperialistic irreverence for the subjects of the Empire of the other are both based in a moral failure in some way. For an examination of the factors leading to national decline, see Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations (New York: Viking, 2012).
 Matthew 24:36, King James Version.
 Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, 1st U.S. ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997).
 Roger Shultz, “A Celebration of Infidels: The American Enlightenment in the Revolutionary Era,” Contra Mundum Fall, no. 1 (1991).
 Shutlz, note 10: “For the influence of the Great Awakening, particularly on the Revolution, see Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard, 1966). See also Robert Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee (Cambridge: Harvard, 1967); Ruth Bloch, Visionary Republic.” See also Jonathan Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New-England and the Way in Which It Ought to Be Acknowledged and Promoted, Humbly Offered to the Publick, in a Treatise on That Subject. In Five Parts; Part I. Shewing That the Work That Has of Late Been Going on in This Land, Is a Glorious Work of God. Part Ii. Shewing the Obligations That All Are under, to Acknowlege [Sic], Rejoice in and Promote This Work, and the Great Danger of the Contrary. Part Iii. Shewing in Many Instances, Wherein the Subjects, or Zealous Promoters, of This Work Have Been Injuriously Blamed. Part Iv. Shewing What Things Are to Be Corrected or Avoided, in Promoting This Work, or in Our Behaviour under It. Part V. Shewing Positively What Ought to Be Done to Promote This Work. By Jonathan Edwards, A.M. Pastor of the Church of Christ at Northampton. [Two Lines from Isaiah],” (Boston: printed and sold by S. Kneeland and T. Green,, 1742). http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/ECCO?c=1&stp=Author&ste=11&af=BN&ae=W029462&tiPG=1&dd=0&dc=flc&docNum=CW118695958&vrsn=1.0&srchtp=a&d4=0.33&n=10&SU=0LRF&locID=29002; Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening a History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield (Boston: Tappan & Dennet, 1842).
Cedric B. Cowing, The Great Awakening and the American Revolution: Colonial Thought in the 18th Century, The Rand Mcnally Series on the History of American Thought and Culture. (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1971).
 Even the end of this world is not for me the end, but the turning of a page to a new heaven and a new earth. Even if I see a collapse of our society on the horizon, I see yet a greater and infinitely better future just beyond it.
 Czeslaw Milosz, New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 (New York: Ecco, 2001); ibid.
 George B. Perkins and Barbara Perkins, The American Tradition in Literature, 11th ed., 2 vols. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005).
 O.S.B. Jeremy Driscoll, “The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz,” First Things (2004). http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/the-witness-of-czeslaw-milosz–25 (accessed August 29, 2011).
 Diogenes Allen, Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
 See, for example, Paul Kengor, God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life, 1st ed. (New York: Regan Books, 2004).
- Mornings in Mystic (michaelmilton.org)
- A History of Presbyterians in America (thirdmill.org)
- If we have no history, we have no future | Tristram Hunt (guardian.co.uk)
- Where Have All The Empires Gone? Gone To Graveyards Every One. When Will We Ever Learn? (archemdis.wordpress.com)
- Books: Why All Empires Come to Dust THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GREAT POWERS (time.com)
- My 2011 Top Twelve Summer Reading List: Part Two of Four (michaelmilton.org)
- I am not sure Czeslaw Milosz and I agree on hope. (wewhoareabouttodie.com)
- A Poem For Sunday (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- Jerrold Post: Why Gaddafi will fight to the end (independent.co.uk)
- What History Should be taught in British Schools ? (historyguys.wordpress.com)