The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism

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See: Fourth Great Awakening

In his book, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, published in 2000,[1] [2] historian and economist Robert William Fogel, who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1993, surveys what he discerns as cyclical interactions, throughout the course of American history, among "fervent" or "enthusiastic" religion; politics; legislative policies; advances in technology; and public interest. In the process, he presents a synthesis of American history in the domains of technological advances, consequences of those advances on social, economic, religious and political life, and on the course of egalitarianism[3] [4] [5] in America.

Fogel argues that at least three periods of surges in religious fervor and organization (he refers to them as ’awakenings’) have occurred in American history, each greatly influencing the political process and leading to major changes in legislation and governmental policies satisfying the religious fervor for particular egalitarian goals. He describes each as subsequently leading to backlash reactions that resulted in new political and legislative changes. He argues that a fourth great awakening began in the 1960s and 1970s and continues into the present (early 21st century), emphasizing a need to complete the goals of the Third Great Awakening and equitably distribute "spiritual" or "immaterial" ("non-material") resources only tangentially related to religion.

Of Fogel’s book, senior contributing editor of The Christian Century, James Wall, wrote:[6]

Drawing on William G. McLoughlin's original work, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (1978)[7] —part of a series on American religious history edited by Martin E. Marty—Fogel examines each of four religions awakenings: the better-known first (in the 1730s and 1740s) and second (from the 1790s to the 1830s), a lesser-known third (beginning in the 1890s) and a fourth (which McLoughlin dates from the early 1960s and which he projected as ending in 1990). Fogel identifies egalitarianism as the common theme and goal of all the awakenings. The first three led to material equality, first of condition and then of opportunity. The fourth marked a shift in focus to equality in matters of the mind and spirit.

A non-editorial review, this article summarizes the content of Fogel's book and reports on some of the published responses the ideas in the book elicited.

Phases of the Four Great Awakenings

One can begin to gain an understanding of the gist of Fogel’s main argument from a table shown on the publisher’s website,[8] reproduced in adapted form below.[9] The chart shows the phases of the four great awakenings, as interpreted by Fogel, including for each the dates, the phases and nature of the religious revivals, of their rising political effect, and of increasing challenge to the revival’s political program:

Phase of Religious Revival
Phase of Rising Political Effect
Phase of Increasing Challenge to Dominance of the Political Program
First Great Awakening
1730-60: Weakening of predestination doctrine; recognition that many sinners may be predestined for salvation; introduction of revival meetings emphasizing spiritual rebirth; rise of ethic of benevolence. 1760-90: Attack on British corruption; American Revolution; belief in equality of opportunity (the principle that accepted the inequality of income and other circumstances of life as natural but held that persons of low social rank could raise themselves up—by industry, perseverance, talent, and righteous behavior—to the top of the economic and social order); establishment of egalitarianism as national ethic. 1790-1830: Breakup of revolutionary coalition.
Second Great Awakening
1800-1840: Rise of belief that anyone can achieve saving grace through inner and outer struggle against sin; introduction of camp meetings and intensified levels of revivals; widespread adoption of ethic of benevolence, upsurge of millennialism. 1840-1879: Rise of single issue reform movements, each intending to contribute to making America fit for the Second Coming of Christ (these included the nativist movement, the temperance movement which was successful in prohibiting the sale of alcoholic drinks in 13 states, and the abolitionist movement that culminated in the formation of the republican party); sweeping reform agendas aimed at eliminating all barriers to equal opportunity; antislavery; attack on corruption of the South; Civil War, women's suffrage; continuation of belief in equality of opportunity. 1870-1920: Replacement of prewar evangelical leaders; Darwinism crisis; urban crisis.
Third Great Awakening
1890-1930: Shift from emphasis on personal to social sin; rise in belief that poverty is not a personal failure ('the wages of sin’) but a societal failure that can be addressed by the state; shift to more secular interpretation of the Bible and creed. 1930-1970: Attack on corruption of big business and the right; labor reforms; civil rights and women's rights movements; belief in equity of condition (principle that equality is to be achieved primarily by government programs aimed at raising wages and transferring income from rich to poor through income taxes and finance welfare programs); rise in belief that poverty is not a personal failure but a societal failure; expansion of secondary and higher education; attack on religious and racial barriers to equal opportunity (leading to later attacks on gender-based assumptions of behavior and discrimination based on sexual orientation). I970- ?: Attack on liberal reforms; defeat of Equal Rights Amendment; rise of tax revolt; rise of Christian Coalition and other political groups of the religious Right.
Fourth, and Current, Great Awakening
I960- ?: Return to sensuous religion and reassertion of experiential content of the Bible; rapid growth of the enthusiastic religions (including fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and Protestant charismatic denominations, “born-again" Catholics, Mormons); reassertion of concept of personal sin; stress on an ethic of individual responsibility, hard work, a simple life and dedication to family. 1990- ?: Attack on materialist corruption; rise of pro-life, pro-family, and media reform movements; campaign for more value-oriented school curriculum; expansion of tax revolt; attack on entitlements; return to a belief in equality of opportunity. ?
Table adapted from University of Chicago Press

The publisher’s website, [8] introduces Professor Fogel’s argument as follows:

To understand what is taking place today (2000), we need to understand the nature of the recurring political-religious cycles called "Great Awakenings." Each lasting about 100 years, Great Awakenings consist of three phases, each about a generation long…A cycle begins with a phase of religious revival, propelled by the tendency of new technological advances to outpace the human capacity to cope with ethical and practical complexities that those new technologies entail. The phase of religious revival is followed by one of rising political effect and reform, followed by a phase in which the new ethics and politics of the religious awakening come under increasing challenge and the political coalition promoted by the awakening goes into decline. These cycles overlap, the end of one cycle coinciding with the beginning of the next.

In early 2007, some historians claimed to discern a fervent religious revival of evangelicalism and Christian fundamentalism prevailing among a large segment of the United States population.[10]  Others have argued that to some extent scientific and technological advances, in particular in biology (e.g., promotion of Darwinism and evolutionary biology, embryonic stem cell research technologies, ‘morning-after pill’, etc.) fosters that revival. Advocating religious ideals, President George W. Bush opposed embryonic stem cell research, and has been accused by scientists of ignoring scientific evidence that does not accord with Administrative policy.[11]

An annotated table of contents

  Introduction: The Egalitarian Creed in America

Fogel views egalitarianism as comprising both ‘material’ egalitarianism but also ‘immaterial’, or 'spiritual', egalitarianism, the latter including such things as sense of purpose, vision of opportunity, self-esteem, sense of discipline and thirst for knowledge — resources optimally transferred to the very young. He claims that the overlapping cycles in religion and politics — the four great awakenings — reflect the struggle for egalitarianism in America, which he views as a basic creed of the American value system.

Egalitarianism is a national ethic. Or, to put it more precisely, the rise of an egalitarian ethic was one of the major factors that turned the separate American colonies into a nation and eventually led to the establishment of egalitarianism as a national creed.[1]

  The Fourth Great Awakening, the Political Realignment of the 1990s, and the Potential for Egalitarian Reform

Fogel describes the great awakenings as representing reform movements where an ethical and programmatic phase leads to political reform, both arising out of a lag between the consequences of technological change and the adjustments to that change by institutions and government. As he reads history, Fogel states that the first great awakening (beginning ca. 1730s) led to the American Revolution and the establishment of democracy. The second (beginning ca. 1800), led to the Civil War and abolition of slavery, and religion-based efforts to achieve equality of opportunity. The third (beginning ca. 1890), concerned with how to reform vice-ridden cities, with the moral implications of an amoral Darwinism, and with growing labor disputes, ultimately led to the New Deal and the Great Society and the rise of the welfare state. The fourth (beginning ca. 1960-70), led to a focus on spiritual reform.

One cannot understand current political and ethical trends, or properly forecast future economic developments, without understanding the cycles in religious feeling in American history and the social, economic, and political reform movements that they have generated.[1]

  Technological Change, Cultural Transformations, and Political Crises

Fogel describes technological change as a double-edged sword, bringing economic growth and greater material egalitarianism, but also problems: cheaper alcohol available to urban poor; cheaper ocean transportation facilitating waves of immigration and its social and economic consequences, lowering wages and raising unemployment; manufacturing economies of scale destroying small businesses; advances in medicine and surgery outpacing ethical guidelines for their implementation. First paragraph chapter:

The ethical crises, religious upsurge, and programmatic demands that heralded the opening decades of the Fourth Great Awakening were precipitated by a series of major technological breakthroughs that destabilized prevailing culture. Some of those unsettling advances were in energy production (particularly nuclear energy), information retrieval, and communications. The unprecedented extension of control of human biology, particularly in the fields of reproductive technology and organ transplantation, also provoked widespread concern. The new technological breakthroughs raised profoundly difficult ethical and practical issues, including many that had never been considered previously, such as how to dispose of large quantities of radioactive waste. Among those who worried about these issues, some became alarmed that humanity was heading toward disaster, led by corrupt or mindless scientists and business leaders.[1]

  The Triumph of the Modern Egalitarian Ethic

Fogel describes the emphasis in the third great awakening (beginning ca. 1890) as bearing on equality of life condition rather than on equality of opportunity. Part of the second great awakening: justice for native Americans, women’s rights, temperance, voting rights for women and blacks, expansion of education, income taxes, entitlement programs, restriction of immigration and child labor.

Much of this chapter is concerned with unraveling the complex interrelations between the experience of and beliefs about poverty and how they affected its definition, the explanation of its existence, and the obligations of the redeemed toward the poor.[1]

  The Egalitarian Revolution of the Twentieth Century

Fogel gives an evaluation of the egalitarian reforms of the third great awakening (ca. 1890-1960)—successes and failures of policy changes, the relationship between the rapid pace of technology and the rigidities of the political process.

This chapter assesses the extent of income redistribution that has actually taken place during the past [20th] century as well as the share of this income redistribution that can be attributed to the policies and laws promoted by disciples of the Third Great Awakening. The chapter also provides several measures of the overall welfare gains that can be attributed to the egalitarian reforms.[1]

  The Emergence of a Postmodern Egalitarian Agenda

Fogel states his view of the new agenda of the fourth great awakening (beginning ca. 1960-70): the necessity to overcome severe misallocations of immaterial resources, the problems involved, the paths to solution.

Central to the new reforms is a vast expansion of higher education and a variety of new educational forms geared to the needs of alienated young people and the elderly.[1]

  Afterword: Whither Goes Our World?

Fogel gives a prediction of a rosier economic and egalitarian future, with more complex and intense struggles, requiring "spiritual"/"immaterial"/"non-material" resources by individuals. The chapter provides detailed justifications for the predictions indicated in the following quote:

What is the nature of the world we are bequeathing to the youngsters who will inherit the twenty-first century? On the material side it is clearly a richer and healthier world than that inherited by my parents, who were born in 1898…Jobs are likely to become better paying and more flexible…Opportunities for ethnic and racial minorities are likely to increase…Women are likely to break through more and more glass ceilings…The traditional family is likely to become stronger…Major reductions in inequity among nations over the next half century are also likely…Although the world that our grandchildren will inherit will be materially richer and contain fewer environmental risks, its spiritual struggle will be more complex and more intense than those of my generation.[1]

  Acknowledgments, Appendices, Notes, References, Index

This book is based on four decades of research on the interrelations among economic growth, technological change, demographic change, and institutional change. Since the mid-1970s, the main focus of that research has been on secular trends in nutritional status, morbidity, mortality, human physiology, and the process of aging. All that I have learned about these matters is reflected in this book.[1]

An economist concerns himself with 'spiritual'/'immaterial' egalitarianism

Professor Fogel asserts that progress in material egalitarianism — the fair distribution of material wealth among Americans — has far outpaced progress in non-material egalitarianism — the fair distribution of resources such as:

  • a sense of purpose - underpinning all
  • a vision of opportunity - confidence of the possible
  • a sense of the mainstream of work and life - a reality check on the opportunities and possibilities
  • a strong family ethic - grounding personal life
  • a sense of community - grounding social life
  • the capacity to engage with diverse groups - fostering all of the above
  • an ethic of benevolence - the golden rule
  • a work ethic - putting energy to use
  • a sense of discipline - without which a work ethic useless
  • the capacity to focus and concentrate one's efforts - disciplined discipline
  • the capacity to resist the lure of hedonism - detracts from all of the above
  • the capacity for self-education - no osmosis of knowledge
  • a thirst for knowledge - needed to serve the capacity for self-education
  • an appreciation for quality - no shabby performance
  • self-esteem - to pursue one's sense of purpose

Fogel believes that equal distribution of material resources without equal distribution of those above-mentioned non-material resources means that segments of the population remain 'poor' in quality of life. Although he considers himself a "secular child" of the third great awakening, Fogel lauds both the secular and religious ideals that promote non-material, or spiritual, egalitarianism.

Although the majority of Americans, especially those over forty, find many of these resources in the ethics and creeds of their religion, there are numerous other codes of behavior and theories of life that inspire virtue and lead to success in coping with the challenges and pitfalls of modern life. Various quasi-religious organizations and movements have developed—secular humanism, civil religion, and various secular philosophies—and their nature and content are widely debated by scholars.[1]

   A physicist speaks of egalitarianism

Steven Weinberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who won the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, writes:

If any one idea can justly be called the American idea, it is that a child’s circumstances at birth should not determine the station in life that child will occupy as an adult. Americans swept away the instruments of English hereditary inequality—entails and titles of nobility—even before we had a constitution…In the decades that followed, American egalitarianism was furthered by the Homestead Act, the Civil War amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the graduated income tax, the GI Bill, and other landmarks of our history.[12]

Responses to Professor Fogel’s book

Sampling some of the responses by reviewers of Professor Fogel’s book indicates general praise for its scholarship and its wisdom in willingness to deal directly with the question of the resources needed for humans to lead a fulfilling life — one of self-realization, of realizing one's potential. Many commentators, however, disagree with critical aspects of Professor Fogel's analysis and policy recommendations.[13] [14] [15]

     • Review by Professor John Murray for EH.Net

Professor John Murray, Department of Economics at the University of Toledo and Rhodes College, and historian of religion in America, expressed skepticism regarding many of Fogel's assertions about the Great Awakenings, and questioned whether the fourth exhibited sufficient coherence to support Fogel’s theses:[13]

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…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...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.[13]

He goes on to say:

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.

In an extensive discussion Murray concludes that Fogel’s history of 19th and early 20th century religion misleads the reader. He indicates more enthusiasm for Fogel’s economic history and considers reasonable the hypotheses proposed regarding the way new technologies "can disrupt ordinary politics and allow for the influence of new, reformist policy proposals." Regarding Fogel's proposal to correct the problem of unequal distribution of non-material resources through education, Murray considers them unworkable. He admits that he himself does not know how to solve the problem, and states that "if someone asked me, I would direct him or her to Robert Fogel's book to begin assessing what possible approaches might look like."

     • Review by David Ward Miller

TLC Ministries Pastor, David Ward Miller, in his book, God At Work, criticizes Fogel’s book on religious grounds:

I find his theory would be enriched by a more concrete definition of "spiritual resources." Moreover, the avoidance of references to God, Holy Scriptures, prayer, and the relationships among self, God, and neighbor is problematic, particularly bearing in mind his linking of evangelical Christian theology to the awakenings. On the other hand, his more general definition of spirituality allows secular humanists and people of all religious traditions to find access points.[16]

Note: More reports of reviews to Fogel's book, negative, positive, and balanced, to follow....

About Robert William Fogel

To learn more about Robert William Fogel, read his not brief autobiographical sketch provided to the Nobel Foundation,[17] and his Nobel Prize lecture.[18] For an extensive but selected bibliography of works by Robert William Fogel, see a bibliography hosted by the University of Chicago website.[19]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Fogel RW. (2000) The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-25662-7 | Google Book preview | Last accessed 08-June-2011.
  2. Excerpt (23 pages) from: The Fourth Great Awakening by Robert Fogel. Milliken Institute Review (2000), Third Quarter 2000. pp. 57-80.
  3. Marshall G. (1998) egalitarianism A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford University Press.
    • A doctrine which sees equality of condition, outcome, reward, and privilege as a desirable goal of social organization. The bases for such beliefs have been religious and secular…
  4. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. (2007) egalitarianism
    • 1 : a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic rights and privileges; 2 : a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people
  5. Arneson R. (2002) Egalitarianism The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  6. Wall JM (2001) The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism.(Review) The Christian Century. 03/14/2001.
  7. McLoughlin WG. (1978) Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform Chicago History of American Religion. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-56092-2. | Google Books preview/extract.
  8. 8.0 8.1 The Phases of the Four Great Awakenings
  9. Regarding reproduction in modified form of the content of the website, the publisher writes:
    • "This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press."
  10. Phillips KP. (2006) American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in The 21st Century. Viking, New York. ISBN 067003486X
    • From publisher’s website: From Ancient Rome to the British Empire, Phillips demonstrates that every world-dominating power has been brought down by a related set of causes: a lethal combination of global over-reach, militant religion, resource problems, and ballooning debt. It is this same axis of ills that has come to define America’s political and economic identity in the past decade. Military miscalculations in the Middle East, the surge of fundamentalist religion, the staggering national debt, the costs of U.S. oil dependence—together these factors are undermining our nation’s security, solvency, and standing in the world. If left unchecked, the same forces will bring a debt-bloated, preachy, energy-starved America to its knees.”
  11. Kennedy D. (2006) The new gag rules. Science 311:917 PMID 16484455
  12. Weinberg S. (2007) Inherited Opportunity Essays: The Future Of The American Idea, The Atlantic Monthly, November
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Murray J. (2003) Review by John Murray of Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. EH.Net Economic History Services, Apr 9 2003. Last accessed 07-June-2011.
  14. Brittan S. (2000) The strange passion for equality The Spectator 16/09/2000
  15. Bostaph S. (2002) Book Review by Sam Bostaph: The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism by Robert William Fogel The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. Last accessed 08-June-2011.
    • Professor Bostaph, chair, economics department, University of Dallas
  16. Miller DW. (2007) God at work: the history and promise of the Faith at Work movement Oxford University Press. ISBN 978019531.]
  17. Fogel RW. (1993) Autobiography
  18. Fogel Rw (1993) Economic Growth, Population Theory, and Physiology: The Bearing of Long-Term Processes on the Making of Economic Policy Nobel Prize Lecture.
  19. The University of Chicago Library. (2007) Selected Bibliography for Robert W. Fogel, Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of American Institutions, Nobel Prize for Economic Science, 1993
    • Many works published before and after publication of The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, including links to published articles.