From Edwards and Wesley, we receive a fixation on the will, a desire to create enclaves of piety, and a belief in the possibility of the individual’s direct experience of God. In the work of their successors, such as Charles Grandison Finney, we find latent belief in the sinlessness of the true self and an approach to revival characterized by the appearance of improvisation and spontaneity. These preachers cultivated the spirits of the multitude through results-focused experimentalism in the context of camp meetings around the country, sowing in the American character the seeds of enthusiasm that would yield strange harvests in every decade thereafter. The later 19th century saw the development of quasi- and post-Christian reform movements, fads, and pop-philosophies that would call individuals to embrace their higher selves—such as “New Thought,” which centered the will in a larger project of spiritual self-advancement through the unleashing of “the creative power of constructive thinking.”
The 20th century inherited from these enthusiastic forebears an epochal optimism. Even in times of anxiety and despair, there is a hopefulness in the American self, and this hopefulness is built upon that self’s utter reality in a world of mere appearances; though circumstances change, the self remains a firm foundation. The literary critic Harold Bloom captured something of the strangeness of this in his provocative and infuriating book The American Religion. “The soul stands apart,” he writes, “and something deeper than the soul, the Real Me or self or spark, thus is made free to be utterly alone with a God who is also quite separate and solitary, that is, a free God or God of freedom.” In essence, Bloom describes a post-Protestant Gnostic cult of the self: “The American finds God in herself or himself, but only after finding the freedom to know God by experiencing a total inward solitude.”
Bloom’s analysis hinges on a metaphysical intuition: that the self is uncreated, and it knows, rather than believes in, its own innocence and divinity. “Awareness, centered on the self, is faith for the American religion,” Bloom wrote, and this religion of the self “consistently leads to a denial of communal concern.” Christ is internalized to a point of blurred identity with the “real me.” Such are the fruits of what Bloom calls the “doctrine of experience”—an outgrowth from the taproot of religious enthusiasm. Christianity, Bloom suggests, was too cramped for the young, unbounded nation. Abandoning doctrinal encumbrances such as belief in original sin (or sometimes, belief in sin at all), an intuitive and endlessly innovative spirituality grew to meet this need.
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Wild spirits prepared the way for the coming of the Bakkers. Distinct from mainline, fundamentalist, and evangelical varieties of Protestantism—but eventually influential in all three—Pentecostalism grew out of late-19th-century Methodist holiness movements, dramatically emerging through a revival in Los Angeles that began in 1906 and lasted for a decade. With a mandate to seek out the signs and wonders attributed to Christ’s apostles in the book of Acts, Pentecostals trembled, shouted, spoke in tongues, and did much else to startle and shock the sensibilities of average Americans. Promises of dramatic spiritual and physical healing found great purchase among those in poverty, and the new enthusiasm became disreputable both for its excesses and its hard-up—and racially diverse—demographics.
If Tim Keller wants to join that company of enthusiasts, have at it.