An “Appeal to Heaven” flag flown by the far-right Proud Boys in Raleigh, North Carolina, November 2020 (Anthony Crider/Wikimedia Commons)

On April 5, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump announced via Twitter that he would be streaming the Palm Sunday service at Harvest Christian Fellowship, an Evangelical megachurch in Riverside, California, run by Pastor Greg Laurie.

Laurie’s biography is a large part of his appeal. Imagine a member of the Beach Boys getting saved and forming a megachurch. Now seventy years old, he still exudes California cool: always tan and usually clad in blue jeans, denim jackets, sunglasses, and sneakers. Born in Long Beach, Laurie was raised by a single mother—a “raging alcoholic,” in Laurie’s words—who married seven times. At the age of seventeen, Laurie found God through the ministry of charismatic “hippie” preacher Lonnie Frisbee and the Jesus People Movement, which turned California hippies away from acid and sex and, during mass baptisms in the Pacific Ocean, toward Christ. Influenced deeply by the Jesus People Movement, Laurie pursued a dual calling as a pastor and an evangelist. Soon he was holding Billy Graham–style crusades in Anaheim’s Angel Stadium. Today, Laurie’s Harvest Fellowship reaches more than fifteen thousand people at four different campuses, including one in Maui.

Trump was already familiar with Laurie, who had earlier visited the White House to offer a “history” lesson to the president, Mike Pence, Ben Carson, and more than a hundred Evangelical leaders gathered for a thank-you dinner for their support during the 2016 campaign. Along with a number of Evangelical leaders and “historians,” Laurie has seized on a dubious, decades-old thesis that posits a close connection between the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution. This history is central to MAGA Evangelicalism, which sees in the former president’s movement signs of a new Great Awakening that will set the stage for another political transformation and solve the country’s countless problems.


On this pandemic Palm Sunday there was no audience at Harvest Christian Fellowship. Laurie and his team appeared before the cameras on a carefully constructed set that included a faux-brick façade covered with Laurie family photos and the Pine Tree Flag, a Revolution-era flag inscribed with the words “An Appeal to Heaven.” The flag recently generated controversy when it was reported that it flew outside Justice Alito’s house in 2023. To the uninitiated, it would be unclear what the flag has to do with Palm Sunday. Laurie sat front and center behind a fancy music stand surrounded by a worship band parked on couches and comfortable chairs. Everyone was socially distanced in an appropriate fashion. The set designers seemed to be going for a look somewhere between a white suburban middle-class living room and a hip urban coffeehouse.

After a prayer and several songs, Laurie opened up the Bible and started preaching. He quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14, a recent favorite of the Christian Right: “If my people who are called by my name shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Vice President Mike Pence often ended his coronavirus press briefings with the phrase “heal our land.” He also sometimes fused the words of this Old Testament passage with the Pledge of Allegiance. On the National Day of Prayer in May 2020, for example, he asked Americans to pray that God would “heal our land, this one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” In the summer of 2023, Evangelical presidential candidate E. W. Jackson held a “2nd Chronicles 7:14 Patriotic Rally to Secure America’s Future” in Richmond, Virginia. 

In 2016, Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore (now editor of Christianity Today) addressed the Christian Right’s misuse of this verse. “2 Chronicles 7:14 isn’t talking about America or national identity or some generic sense of ‘revival,’” Moore wrote. “To apply the verse this way, is, whatever one’s political ideology, theological liberalism.” For Moore, Evangelicals’ use of this verse is less about New Testament Christianity and more about American civil religion.

For Moore, Evangelicals’ use of this verse is less about New Testament Christianity and more about American civil religion.

Laurie and Pence seem to believe that God works through modern nation-states in much the same way that he worked through ancient Israel. In 1776, God poured out his blessing on spiritually revived colonists in the form of a new and exceptional nation. The “Creator” referenced in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence endowed those praying British colonials with unalienable rights. And God is still working his miracles in America. Many Evangelicals expect that a soon-to-come revival will bring another “new birth of freedom” to the country. If Americans will pray and seek the face of God—if they will “appeal to heaven” like the American revolutionaries did—God will foster a spiritual revival that will save individual souls from eternal damnation and reconnect the country to its Christian roots. When this happens, it will send a signal to the world that the United States is on the verge of becoming a revitalized nation, a “city upon a hill” forged in liberty and built on biblical faith. This is the Evangelical version of “Make America Great Again.”

The Pine Tree Flag hanging from the wall of Laurie’s sanctuary was, therefore, the perfect backdrop. Some historians suggest that the flag pays homage to the New Hampshire “Pine Tree Riot,” a 1772 protest against a royal law prohibiting the colony’s inhabitants from harvesting white pine trees, which the British navy needed for masts. The pine tree eventually found its way onto a banner, and in 1776, the Massachusetts General Court made it the official flag of the state navy. The words on the flag came from chapter fourteen of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690): “And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven” (italics mine). The flag appeared at Harvest Christian Fellowship as a reminder to Laurie’s audience, including the president of the United States, that America’s revolutionary patriots would not have succeeded in overthrowing the powerful British empire without God’s help.

Later in the service, Laurie lectured explicitly on revival and revolution, invoking one of the most popular preachers of the first Great Awakening:

One of our founding fathers named George—not Washington but Whitefield, an evangelist from England—preached the Gospel and thousands of colonists came to faith in Christ and it brought about moral change in a culture as a revival always does…. We were able to sow the seeds of this new nation in that receptive soil of morality based on a faith in God. I don’t think we could have done it without it…. [N]ot only are we founded with revival, we need to have another revival.

Laurie is not the only Evangelical these days making connections between the First Great Awakening and the Revolution. Texas senator Ted Cruz says that a Great Awakening is coming, and it will propel Christians into “cultural prominence.” Missouri senator Josh Hawley told activist Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition that “in every hour of this country’s danger...Christians have risen to help lead this country.... We did it in the First Great Awakening, that helped move this country toward revolution and independence.” Veteran Christian Right activist James Robison summed it up with this 2021 tweet: “In light of our current national economic crisis, political chaos and military inferiority, I can safely say our only hope of survival is revival, leading to the next Great Awakening.” And when a revival broke out earlier this year at tiny Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, MAGA evangelists, prophets, and politicians told their followers that the “outpouring” was the beginning of the long-awaited awakening that God was sending to save America. 


Did the First Great Awakening have anything to do with the Revolution? Evangelicals are not the first to think so. The thesis comes from Alan Heimert’s 1966 book Religion and the American Mind. Heimert, a Harvard English professor at the time, suggested, by way of a literary reading of eighteenth-century sermons, that Evangelical Calvinists triggered the American Revolution by preaching an egalitarian “New Birth” that taught colonists to rebel against the established authority of local clergy. First Great Awakening sermons laid the intellectual groundwork and prepared the American “soil,” to use Laurie’s word, for a radical and democratic revolution. According to Heimert, eighteenth-century liberal Christians, the opponents of the Great Awakening, were too conservative in the way they fused their political ideas with Protestant Christianity to ever invoke a revolution. He described them as the “most reluctant of rebels.” 

The initial reviews of Religion and the American Mind were harsh. The esteemed Yale historian Edmund Morgan ripped Heimert for failing to understand Evangelical sermons in their larger intellectual and social contexts. “The world [Heimert] offers us,” Morgan wrote, “has been constructed by reading beyond the lines of what men said: and what he finds beyond the so wrenched from context, and so at odds with empirical evidence, that his world...partakes more of fantasy than history.” Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn did not deny the role religion played in the American Revolution but concluded that “it is a gross simplification to believe that religion as such, or any of its doctrinal elements, had a unique political role in the Revolutionary movement.” More than thirty years later Bailyn’s student, historian Gordon Wood, wrote that Heimert’s argument in Religion and the American Mind was “too detached from the concrete and complicated world of real people.”

Anyone who traces the academic literature on this debate will come away with the impression that it was definitively settled in 1981, when historian Jon Butler published an article in the Journal of American History titled “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction.” Butler wrote that the Awakening had nothing to do with the American Revolution (and, in fact, may never have happened in the first place). He concluded that the “link between the revivals and the American Revolution is virtually non-existent” and that, with a few local exceptions, the “relationship between pre-revolutionary political change and the revival is weak everywhere.” He pointed to the twenty-five-year gap between the First Great Awakening and the Revolutionary Era and chided decorated historian Richard Bushman for comparing the impact of the Awakening on colonial life to the nationwide “campus disturbances” and “urban riots” of the 1960s.

Butler’s thesis was groundbreaking and convincing. Scholars of my generation started putting the phrase “Great Awakening” in quotation marks and citing Butler’s work on the problematic linkage between Evangelical religion and political resistance. But for all its interpretive power, Butler’s article did not deliver a knockout blow to Heimert and his disciples. Though few historians today embrace Heimert’s thesis in its totality, his spirit still hovers over academic writing on the links between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution.

Did the First Great Awakening have anything to do with the Revolution? Evangelicals are not the first to think so.

In Under the Cope of Heaven, an accessible 1986 survey of early American religion, Patricia Bonomi argued that the First Great Awakening’s spirit of “defiant” and “radical” individualism set the stage for the political events of 1776. In his Bancroft Prize–winning biography of revivalist Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden wrote that, though “in many respects…an eighteenth-century traditionalist,” Edwards was, “in American political and social terms,” “a pre-Revolutionary.” In a 1991 biography of George Whitefield, Butler’s Yale colleague Harry Stout interpreted Whitefield as the founder of American Evangelicalism and a catalyst of American liberty. Though cautious about making the connections between Evangelicalism and revolution in his 2002 book America’s God, Mark Noll nonetheless suggested that Whitefield made “the sharpest attack yet on inherited privilege in colonial America” and offered a “frank expression of popular democracy” that “probably had much to do with the rise of a similar spirit in politics later on.” Finally, Thomas Kidd’s 2014 biography of George Whitefield was subtitled “America’s Spiritual Founding Father.”


I doubt Greg Laurie has read any of these historians. The history that found its way into his sermon and White House speech came straight from “evangelical experts,” as Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson dub them in their book The Anointed. Some of these so-called “experts” dabble in academic writing, but they tend to gravitate to scholars outside the academic mainstream whose work can help them advance their agenda. Since Evangelicalism is an inherently populist and anti-intellectual movement, most born-again Christians do not trust academics and rely instead on such “experts.” When they need to know something about science, they turn to Ken Ham, host of the popular radio show Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. They get their psychology and social philosophy from James Dobson, the longtime culture warrior and founder of the lobbying organization Focus on the Family. Their political philosophy comes from sources like Fox News’s Sean Hannity, the Liberty University Standing for Freedom Center, or the Robertson School of Government at Pat Robertson’s Regent University.

And for American history, conservative Evangelicals turn to David Barton, the founder and CEO of WallBuilders, an Evangelical organization in Aledo, Texas. Barton’s understanding of the American past stands behind virtually every Evangelical attempt to promote the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. There are few historians in the country, including those at Evangelical colleges and universities, who take Barton’s work seriously, yet he continues to maintain a large following in the Evangelical community. He has strong ties to the men and women who served on Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council and offers regular tutoring sessions—both formal and informal—to Washington lawmakers.

Barton fuses history and activism just as effectively, if not more effectively, than most of the historian-activists of the academic Left. He embraces a view of cultural engagement commonly called Seven Mountains Dominionism, whose “mandate” requires Christians to “take dominion over” the “seven mountains” of culture: religion, family, education, government, media, arts and entertainment, and business. Once these mountains are conquered, and the United States is restored to the Christian nation that the founding fathers envisioned, true believers can expect the imminent return of Jesus Christ to the earth. 

The latest “evangelical expert” to connect the First Great Awakening to the American Revolution is author and right-wing radio-show host Eric Metaxas. A former Yale English major, Metaxas gained fame in 2010 when he published a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that somehow managed, through a tortuous use of evidence, to transform the German Lutheran theologian into an Evangelical Christian. Bonhoeffer scholars panned the book, but it caught fire in the Evangelical world and spent time on the New York Times bestseller list.

With his platform established, Metaxas then chose to wade into American history with If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (2016). Like Laurie, Metaxas describes Whitefield as a “spiritual founding father” of the United States. But he makes these claims without the nuance or caution of trained historians such as Thomas Kidd or the other scholars who give some credence to Heimert’s thesis. (Metaxas’s book has no citations related to his claims about the relationship between Whitefield, the Great Awakening, and the Revolution, making it difficult to track his historical and intellectual influences.) He argues that Whitefield’s eighteenth-century tours of the British American colonies united a “scattering of peoples into a single people, one that together saw the world differently than any had before and that was prepared to depart from history in a way none had ever done.” 

Metaxas argues that Whitefield preached a version of Evangelical Christianity that made political liberty and American independence possible. One almost gets the impression that the Great Awakening was less a movement of personal spiritual renewal than a political movement that birthed a nation. He spoon-feeds this stuff to his Christian Right followers every day on his radio show and through a weekly newsletter and rigorous speaking schedule. Metaxas claims he is on a mission to get a copy of If You Can Keep It into the hands of every schoolteacher in the United States.

 The belief that the First Great Awakening informed the American Revolution also undergirds the political philosophy of former Trump adviser, former Breitbart News editor, alt-right leader, and convicted criminal Steve Bannon (who was pardoned by Trump over federal fraud charges but is facing prison for defying subpoenas from Congress’s January 6 committee). Bannon is Catholic, but he often makes appearances at Evangelical events—for example, an Evangelical prayer call to petition God to reverse the results of the 2020 election and restore Trump to office. 

In virtually all his public appearances, Bannon references ideas stemming from a 1997 book by Ivy League–educated authors William Strauss and Neil Howe called The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. While this book would never get close to a university history seminar—Princeton historian Sean Wilentz called it fiction—it is celebrated in alt-right circles and some Evangelical camps. Strauss and Howe suggest that history moves through four periods of change: institutional stability, awakening, unraveling, and crisis. For example, the eighteenth-century American colonists attacked the moral complacency of their parents and grandparents through the “spiritual firestorm” of the First Great Awakening. The revival brought a transformation in personal values that enabled the “unraveling” of colonial ties with the British empire. This “Promethean burst of civic effort” then resulted in the “crisis,” the “fourth turning,” or what we call the American Revolution. Independence was followed by a period “when our institutional life” was “reconstructed from the ground up” and American culture was stabilized until the next unraveling—the Civil War. 

Neil Howe’s latest book, The Fourth Turning Is Here (2023), makes the case that the next such cycle has already arrived. Bannon often tells his audience that now is not a time for national reconciliation and bipartisanship, but a time to fight. The awakening of God’s people will lead to another “unraveling” of the culture which, in turn, will set off another major “crisis” in American life resulting, eventually, in a period of stability sustained by the Christian morality of those who ascend to political power in the midst of the crisis. Sometimes these “turnings” are explained by a mixture of Whig and providential teleology. But at other times, Strauss and Howe argue, they come about through human agency. If providence or progress does not bring about cultural unraveling and social crises, people “will invariably find a way to advance them.” Enter Steve Bannon.

Needless to say, the historiographical foundation of Strauss and Howe’s book is weak. Their understanding of the First Great Awakening and its connection to the Revolution is informed mostly by William McLoughlin’s 1978 book Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform and the introduction to Bushman’s 1970 primary source collection The Great Awakening. McLoughlin and Bushman were Butler’s primary targets in his landmark Journal of American History essay, and even scholars sympathetic to Heimert stopped citing their works forty years ago.

Bannon has said on multiple occasions that Trump is “an instrument of divine providence.” Evangelical leaders work to advance his agenda because many of them believe that Trump, despite his moral failings, is anointed by God. A quick internet search reveals that a host of Christian Right political operatives believe Trump is a divine agent of spiritual renewal and national awakening. A case in point: Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, is on the road with Eric Trump and the former president’s friend Roger Stone (a new convert to MAGA Evangelicalism) preaching to large audiences on the ReAwaken America Tour. The local pastors who show up for these events are baptizing people—literally immersing them in tubs of water—in the name of God and country. 


About ten years ago, at a major historical conference, I presented a paper framed around this longstanding debate over the influence of the First Great Awakening on the American Revolution. The respondent to my paper that day was a historian of early America who taught at an Ivy League institution. This scholar had no real interest in addressing the argument of my presentation, but he did want to make sure that I, and the audience, knew that the historical profession had moved beyond these “tired” debates. I often think of that scholar when my research leads me to Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, the WallBuilders website, or Eric Metaxas’s show on the Salem Radio Network. I think of him when radio personality Glenn Beck calls for a new Great Awakening rooted in American individualism that will upend the “communists” he believes are running the Democratic Party.

Scholars do not usually write with the culture wars directly in mind (although that is changing of late). Nor do they have any control over how their work is or might be used in public discourse. But in the case of the apparent links between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution, the Christian Right has laid claim, whether intentionally or unwittingly, to a decades-old scholarly thesis on the subject.

Historians can learn two things from the way some conservative Evangelicals have appropriated Heimert and his followers. First, their toil in the archives and the scholarship they produce always have the potential to influence public discourse. No scholarly work is irrelevant. (Just ask the historians of Ukraine, whose research, which might have once seemed arcane, helped us better understand Putin’s invasion.) Second, when activists do seize on historical scholarship, they will always do so to serve the present. Everyone is in search of a usable past, but only historians are called to make sure the past is used responsibly.

John Fea teaches history at Messiah University and is the executive editor of Current (, an online journal of commentary and opinion.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.