Putnam: Is American business sparking a new ‘Great Awakening?’

by George Putnam

“American religious history produced four Great Awakenings – and now American business is sparking a fifth spiritual awakening,” Jeffrey Sonnfeld wrote the following in the Wall Street Journal on April 15.

Professor Sonnenfeld is Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies and the Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at the Yale School of Management. He is considered an authority on corporate governance.

What is he talking about?

George Putnam

A Great Awakening is a period of widespread religious revival. The Wikipedia article on Great Awakening lists the following:

  • First (c. 1730–1755)
  • Second (c. 1790–1840)
  • Third (c. 1855–1930)
  • Fourth (c. 1960–1980)

The First Great Awakening occurred before the American Revolution and affected both Britain and the Thirteen Colonies. It stressed individual piety and salvation. Preachers sought to convert people to various sects of Protestant Christianity without regard to class, race, or gender.

The Second Great Awakening occurred between the American Revolution and the Civil War. It continued the themes of the First Great Awakening and expanded westward from the original Thirteen Colonies. It was often characterized by camp meetings of thousands of people lasting several days. Closely related to the Second Great Awakening were other reform movements such as temperance, abolition, and women’s rights.

Historians mostly agree on the First and Second Great Awakenings, but not so much on the Third and Fourth so I am going to ignore them.

Vermonters played significant roles in the Second Great Awakening as historian Mark Bushnell has noted: In the 1800s, Vermont produced a profusion of prophets (VTDigger, 8/30/2020). John Humphrey Noyes was one of those prophets. He founded the Perfectionists, a sect that was active in several Vermont towns including my town of Cambridge.

Our town offices are located in the Cambridge Town Hall which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Cambridge Meetinghouse. (Photos at the link.) From the nomination form for the listing:

The Cambridge Meetinghouse was erected in 1826 as a Union Church, to be shared by Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists. This unusually early example of denominational interaction evolved in just a few years into a radical brand of anti-sectarianism which kept the church, and at times the whole town, in a state of “wild excitement,” in which “the regular labors and duties of life were broken up, and in some cases dispensed with altogether. Business was suspended.” Known in the early years as Truarism, this religious ferment came to a head in the 1840’s when members of the church calling themselves Perfectionists established a free love commune in Cambridge. By 1852, they had moved away, mostly to the famous silver-making commune at Oneida, New York, and the church’s revolutionary period ended.

The Second Great Awakening brought “wild excitement” even to my town!

The First and Second Great Awakenings occurred in the context of the Romantic movement which was a reaction to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was about reason. The Romantic movement was about emotion. (More discussion of this theme is in the Wikipedia article on Romanticism.)

We need both reason and emotion in our world and in our lives, but we should think carefully about where each belongs. In an earlier post, I wrote about classifying public life into three sectors:

  • Government
  • For-profit
  • Not-for-profit

Government based on the rule of law depends on reason. Religion is part of the not-for-profit sector and can involve emotion as noted above. We have a strong tradition in our country of separation of church and state.

What about the for-profit sector? Let’s return to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and his business CEOs.

I agree with Professor Sonnenfeld that the social justice movement in our world today can be characterized as a Great Awakening. Matthew Yglesias called it The Great Awokening (Vox, 4/1/2019). In my town there is a prominent sign saying “Believe” (see photo above). That is consistent with a religious movement.

I do not agree that CEOs are leaders in this movement. The movement for social justice began years ago in the not-for-profit sector, and gained momentum during the pandemic lockdown following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day in 2020. (The “Believe” sign in Cambridge went up after the death of George Floyd.) The CEOs that Professor Sonnenfeld writes about are now joining this movement. They are followers.

Whether CEOs are leaders or followers, is it a good thing for them to be promoters of the current movement for social justice? Professor Sonnenfeld thinks so. I am not so sure because it seems to me that the Enlightenment is working. Further discussion on that topic is for another day. My point in this post is to agree with Professor Sonnenfeld that we are in the midst of a Great Awakening.

The author is a Cambridge resident and selectboard member and publisher of The Switchel Philosopher.

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  1. Social Justice is absolutely a religious awakening. It’s a brand new religion resembling Christianity, only without any semblance of forgiveness, do unto others, the beame in your eye, turn the other cheek, or basically any of the values that made Christianity a good thing. Instead, it focuses primarily on group conflict, inherited sin, public displays of piety, and witch burning.
    The negative aspects of the Christian hegemony under which I grew up cemented a life-long rejection of religion for me, but I’d happily exchange that comfortable old slipper on my neck over the jack boot of social justice 8 days a week, given the chance.

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