Chapter 2 The First Great Awakening
I The Early
II Jonathan Edwards
Lights and New Lights
V The South
VI Impact on
The prominent people of the Great Awakening:
Between 1720 and about 1760 a time of spiritual refreshment
spread throughout the American colonies. Christians were aware of
the religious term revival, but these events did not have any one
origin or style. It wasn't until the next century that Joseph
Tracy coined a title for this momentous occurrence. In 1841 he
published The Great Awakening which described the revival in New
England only. Thus the term "Great Awakening" was born.
It was characterized by intense emotional preaching and a call
for a response by the hearer. The target was not just the mind as
the earlier Puritan sermons, but the heart and especially the
sinful heart and the behavior of the unconverted. The excitement
cut across denominational lines. The Puritans and
Congregationalists in New England, the Dutch Reformed and the
Friends in the Middle Colonies, and the Presbyterians and
Baptists in the Southern colonies were all changed by the
The previous generations had been influenced by Calvinism and
especially the doctrine of election or predestination. Calvin
said that believers, the "elect," had been chosen for
salvation before the foundation of the world as Paul had written
in Ephesian. This new era of Jonathan Edwards and George
Whitefield called for a conversion experience, a new birth, born
again, and some change in the believer's lifestyle.
Arminianism appeared in the 17th Century as a controversial
doctrine in opposition to Calvinism. There was division over the
salvation issue. The struggle was over what part was God's hand
and what part was man's response. Calvin had called it
irresistible grace; Jacob Arminius introduced the principle that
salvation was for all who would believe. Salvation by faith was
nothing new after all Paul, Luther, and others had said the same
thing. Now an appeal for a dramatic conversion experience was
being made by the emotional traveling evangelists, who were
A second controversy was that the fruits of salvation by this
new birth would be seen in the believer's good works. Some
criticized Arminianism by saying that grace was being earned by
earnest aspirations, and it just a Protestant version of the
Catholic Church's accent on salvation by good works.
A future term that applies to this epoch is revivalism. The
evangelist with his songleader making an appeal for an alter call
had not appeared in Christianity yet. But, the mass outdoor rally
with an emotional message by a non-pastor calling for a personal
religious experience made the word "conversion" a
regular topic of street conversation.
The importance of some kind of personal choice during the
Great Awakening fueled the excitement. In the past the
established churches only seemed to offer a cold, formal routine
of the sermon and the sacraments. Now, people's heart were moved
to alter their talk and their walk by a "New-Birth."
The melodrama of the Great Awakening was not localized to the
American colonies. In England the ado was called the Evangelical
or Wesley revivals in the new Methodist church and in Germany
they were called Pietists. However, historian Samuel Eliot
Morison said of Northampton, Massachusetts it was "the womb
of all modern revivalism" in the Protestant churches of the
English speaking world. If this is true, then Jonathan Edwards
was most assuredly the "Great Awakener" and George
Whitefield (pronounced WHITfield) was the first great Protestant
I. The Early Stirrings
American preachers had spent a generation admonishing this age
of unbelief. The "jeremiads" tied every war and
disaster to the spiritual climate of the churches. The 1679
Boston "Reforming Synod" listed the specific
indiscretions of the so-called Christians. The calls for renewal
continued into the 18th Century. The 1727 New England earthquake
was seen as another warning. One writer exclaimed, "religion
is on the wane."
An early dawning of the awakening was in the Raritan Valley in
New Jersey. Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Calvinist and a Pietist,
arrived in 1720 to pastor the Dutch Reformed congregations in the
area. He soon began condemning his flock for being "hypocrites,
and dissemblers, and deceivers." Some responded and some
were alienated, but George Whitefield said of him, "He is a
worthy soldier of Jesus Christ, and was the beginner of the great
work which I trust the Lord is carrying on in these parts."
Another initial work was that of Gilbert Tennent, a
Presbyterian pastor at New Brunswick four miles away in New
Jersey. In 1726 he began preaching with the same strong fervor as
Frelinghuysen. His cry, "Awake, sinners" was followed
by they were all "damned, damned, damned."
He did not limit his preaching to the laymen, but he portrayed
the ministers as hypocrites too in his sermon The Danger of an
Unconverted Ministry. His text was from the "sheep not
having a shepherd" verse in the Book of Matthew.
His father William Tennent was the Presbyterian minister at
Neshaminy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He instructed his three
younger sons and fifteen others in a log cabin in their yard.
They were prepared for ministry and learned the evangelical zeal.
The school was given the name "Log College." In 1746
the alumni of the school chartered a proper college known as the
College of New Jersey now called by the more prestigious name
In New England the daybreak of the revival came to pass under
the preaching of Solomon Stoddard. He served the First Church of
Northampton his entire ministry for 60 years from 1669 until his
death in 1729. He was known as a powerful preacher, who wholly
insisted on conversion, while using the theme of judgment and
damnation. He observed that prayer and preaching brought five
"harvests" by the Holy Spirit during his ministry. When
Pastor Stoddard's health began to fail in 1727, the
Congregational Church gave the call to an associate pastor, his
grandson, named Jonathan Edwards.
II. Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards was a pastor's only son with ten sisters. He
entered Yale College at age 12 and was a very bright student. The
precocious young Edwards was convicted of his need for faith in
Christ by the I Timothy 1:17 verse about the "Omnipotent God"
His ministry began with the same soft-spoken, low key approach
that was characteristic of his Northampton career. His sermons
were full of ideas and thought provoking; they were based on
Scripture and logical. He would spend 13 to 14 hours a day
studying and writing.
Edwards considered the spiritual condition of Western
Massachusetts at a low ebb especially among the young people. He
felt that their licentiousness, lewd practices of night walking
and tavern visiting, and a lack of regard for family order was
typical of the breakdown of the family in his town.
In 1735 Pastor Edwards began a series of evangelical sermons
on justification by faith. In December a young lady with a
notorious reputation was converted, and it had a dramatic impact
on the young people. Edwards said, "The Spirit of God began
extraordinarily to set in," and that "more than 300
souls were savingly brought home to Christ, in this Town, in the
space of half a Year."
When fellow New England clergymen requested letters of
explanation about the awakening, Edwards wrote about the events
in his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. The
report went through 20 printings by1738 and was widely read in
the colonies and England. His account contained interviews with
those who had experienced changed behaviors. Also, some unusual
manifestations began to occur during his sermons with outcries,
faintings, and convulsions by those under conviction.
The revival reached a high water mark during 1740-41. His most
famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was given at
Enfield on July 8, 1741. He read the discourse with smooth clear
diction. Though it is remember as a hellfire and damnation
message, Edwards relied on the conviction of the Holy Spirit and
the guilt of each listener with such lines as: "all you that
were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from
being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether
inexperienced, light and life, are in the hands of an angry God."
The address has become a classic in high school and college
literature textbooks over the past two centuries.
In 1743 Christian History, the first specifically religious
magazine in the colonies, announced the events. The revival
historian Thomas Prince Jr. related that part of the sudden
conversions of the young people was due to the fear lingering
from the 1721 and 1729 smallpox epidemics. Prince's magazine
tried to faithfully report authentic accounts of this occurrence.
Soon the awakening spread throughout the entire thirteen colonies.
It was the first national experience and Jonathan Edwards would
be called the "Great Awakener".
In the meantime, Jonathan Edwards was dismissed by his
Northampton Church in 1750. He would only permit persons, who
made a profession of faith to the Lord's Supper. This policy
revoked his grandfather's offer of "open to all who would
come." Edwards would spend the next seven years as a
missionary to the Indians at Stockbridge. He, also, wrote
theological defenses of Calvinism. He died on 1758 as President
of Princeton. He was age 55.
Today, he is now called the greatest Christian mind America
has ever produced. He wrote over 1,000 sermons and many other
substantial works on the Bible and theology. The Jonathan and
Sarah Edwards marriage produced eleven children. By the 20th
Century they had over 1,400 descendants, who have been a fruitful
blessing on this country as missionaries, doctors, lawyers,
college presidents, senators, and governors. They have authored
over 135 books.
III. George Whitefield
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic a similar
religious stirring was occurring with the Methodists. At Oxford a
small group of students formed the "Holy Club" to
promote religion and morality. After coming to a spiritual
experience with Jesus Christ, they set England aglow with revival
fires. The most distinguished members were John and Charles
Wesley and the greatest preacher of that age George Whitefield.
As a child Whitefield worked as a waiter in the family tavern.
In college he had dreams of an acting career in the English
theater. During the Easter Week of 1735 he became in his words a
"fool for Christ." The pilgrimage would put him on a
different stage that faced perhaps ten million hearers with 18,000
The energetic "boy preacher" brought a new style of
preaching and a call for a "New Birth" in Christ. He
preached outside of the churches. It was open-air in the fields
and in the public market places. His forceful voice was able to
reach crowds estimated at 20-30,000. He had a passionate flair of
body language, heightened emotion, even tears as the crowd hung
on his every word.
His message was not complicated by logic, but it a simple
Biblical appeal like "Come, Poor, Lost Undone Sinner."
He was also the first evangelist to use the newspaper to attract
the crowds. He was quite the opposite of Jonathan Edwards in
style and message.
In 1739 Whitefield made the first of seven missionary tours to
America. Beginning in Philadelphia colossal crowds showed up to
hear his messages. He went to New York and returned to record
audiences. In Philadelphia before 8,000 listeners from the
Courthouse balcony his typical non-denominational sermon included
"Father Abraham, whom have you in heaven? Any
Episcopalians? ....... No. Any Presbyterians? ....... No. Have
you any Independents or Seceders? .......NO! Have you any
Methodists? ..NO, NO, NO! Whom have you there? ...... We don't
know those names here. All who are here are Christians..believers
in Christ men who have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the
word of His testimony."
The Great Awakening reached its pinnacle with his preaching.
He went to New England to meet Jonathan Edwards and preach 175
sermons over seventy-five days while traveling 800 miles. He kept
journals of his messages, salvations, and crowds. He enjoyed a
freedom from denominational bias and was welcomed in all pulpits
in America. This was a report of his greatest triumph.
On Sunday Sept. 14, 1740 he landed at Newport and began his
greatest and most decisive triumph a solid week of preaching at
Boston. On Thursday morning there were prayers at King's Chapel;
preaching to an overflow crowd at Brattle Street Church in the
afternoon; preaching to a vast auditory in South Church on Friday
morning, and to 5,000 people on the Common in the afternoon. He
preached on Sunday afternoon in the First (Old Brick) Church, and
afterward outside to 8,000 who could not gain entrance. On Monday
he preached to two large outdoor audiences; on Tuesday at Second
Church, Wednesday at Harvard, and on the last day, he honored the
"Great and Thursday Lecture" at First Church, where
Edwards nine years previously had made his Boston debut.
When Whitefield preached in Boston, twenty-two preachers were
converted. The crowd at the farewell sermon on the Boston Commons
was estimated at 23,000 people more than the population of Boston.
Another awesome assessment is that 80 percent of the American
people in this generation heard George Whitefield preach at least
The most famous friend that Whitefield made in America was
Benjamin Franklin. Franklin printed Whitefield's sermons in the
Pennsylvania Gazette. He admitted that Whitefield's preaching was
the only time he ever emptied the money from his pockets into the
offering. Franklin, also, boasted that his friend George
Whitefield prayed for his soul. Although they were at opposite
theological positions on Jesus Christ, Franklin was one of the
trustees, who had a building 100 feet by 70 feet erected for
Whitefield and the other itinerants to preach in. It became the
first building of the University of Pennsylvania.
The great evangelist visited America in every decade the rest
of his life. His favorite project was the Bethesda orphanage in
Georgia which he raised the equivalent of millions of dollars. He
died in 1770 at age 55, too, like Jonathan Edwards
IV. Old Lights and New Lights
The Great Awakening and the two great leaders did have critics.
Those who favored a middle course for the awakening were called
"New Lights". Some opposed the excess emotionalism in
the Great Awakening. They became known as the "Old Lights."
Among the Presbyterians the schism was called the Old Side and
the New Side. Gilbert Tennent was a leader of the New Lights and
he was joined by many of the ministers who had been trained in
his father's log college. The leading foe for the Old Lights was
Charles Chauncy of Harvard College. He opposed the "overheated
passions" generated by Whitefield, Edwards, Tennent,
Zinzendorf, and others.
Once when Whitefield returned to Boston, he saw Chauncy on the
street. Chauncy said to him, "I'm sorry to see you here
again, Mr. Whitefield." Whitefield replied to him, "And
so is the Devil."
The itinerant revival preachers emphasized instant conversions
and exhorted the New-born to devotion. Their message also accused
the ordained clergy of spiritual darkness. The "Old Lights"
accused the revivalists of preaching moral laws and practicing
It was Jonathan Edwards, who sought to find a congenial middle
ground between the two groups. In 1754 he wrote Freedom of the
Will. It was a monumental work that wrestled with the
relationship of God's love drawing men to Himself and to His
service after they become Christians. But as for Edwards, he
resolved "to cast and venture my whole soul on the Lord
Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in Him, and consecrate myself
wholly to Him."
Disregarding their differences on church government,
membership, forms of worship, communion, etc. the watershed of
the revival was faith in Jesus Christ. All men on both sides of
the dispute were sincere believers. The center of the dispute
seemed to be on how a sinner comes to faith in Christ, which is
nothing new in the history of Christianity and the same issue of
the Reformation...justification by faith.
V. The South
As the Awakening expanded revival-minded churches grew and
even the so-called "dead" churches caught fire in the
1740's. New England experienced a church growth of 50,000 new
members from the estimated 300,000 population. By 1742, 150 new
churches were started. They experienced an unusual enthusiasm
with the young people, who crowd the pews to hear the revival
preaching. The controversial James Davenport even preached a 24-hour
sermon, and persuaded a crowd in New London to burn luxury items
and books written by his enemies.
The moral climate changed. It was said that the face of Boston
was altered. In Philadelphia Ben Franklin noted in his
Autobiography, "It was wonderful to see the change soon made
in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless and
indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were
growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in
an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of
Late in the decade Virginia and North Carolina became the
cradle of the Great Awakening in the South. In 1747 Samuel
Davies, a "Log College" graduate became a leader of the
Presbyterians in Hanover County, Virginia. He made a call for
religious liberty for all denominations and even admitted Negroes
to the Lord Supper table. Samuel Morse founded the "reading
house" by inviting friends into his home to hear copies of
northern sermons which he had secured.
Revival fires spread among the Baptists in the Sandy Creek
region of Guilford County in North Carolina. In 1755 Shubal
Stearns and his brother-in-law Daniel Marshall, converts of the
Great Awakening in New England, saw the Sandy Creek church grow
from 16 to 606. Their grassroots revival preaching was more
exhilarating than that of the established churches. By 1775 the
Baptist church membership in the thirteen colonies was exceeded
by only the Congregational and Presbyterian churches. A former
Anglican Devereux Jarratt nurtured the small Methodist following
in the South. Their influence was only slight, but he set a
pattern of circuit riding lay preacher that would lay the
groundwork for future greats like Francis Asbury. Ironically the
greatest preacher for the Methodists, George Whitefield left no
church, no doctrine, and no college with his name.
The revival atmosphere in the colonies attracted missionaries
from the Old World churches since there was an immediate
opportunity to build evangelical churches. The front-runner was
the Moravian church in Georgia. Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf
became a German-speaking version of Whitefield. In the 1740's the
Moravians flocked to Nazareth and Bethlehem in Pennsylvania.
VI. The Impact on Society
Any time a revival or an awakening happened a change took
place in the believers, the Church, and the society around them.
Almost always the first impact occurred in education. The convert
was expected to read the Bible. Christians were expected to know
what they believe. Critics have maligned them as mindless,
emotion-driven, fanatics, who have gone off the deep end.
Apologetics, the defense and proofs of Christianity, are not just
for the erudite person. Even those unlearned fishermen like
Peter, James, and John became Bible scholars and authors.
The most distinct educational change from the Great Awakening
was the influence of the "log colleges." From William
Tennent's original log school one of his graduates Jonathan
Dickinson founded the first Log College. It was the College of
New Jersey later Princeton. Ironically, it was started the year
that William Tennet Sr. died 1746.
No less than 62 American colleges can be traced to the log
college pattern. These schools in particular made their entrance
requirement a salvation experience in Jesus Christ. One's stated
purpose for graduation was to propagate the gospel. Whether
training to be civic leaders, lawyers, teachers, or ministers,
these schools had a curriculum priority of full knowledge of the
The trend continued at King's College (later Columbia), which
was founded in 1754 by a former missionary of the gospel to
America Dr. Samuel Johnson. The Baptist Church founded Rhode
Island (Brown) in 1764. Dartmouth was founded for missionaries to
the Indians. In 1766 Queen's College (Rutgers) was located in New
Jersey. Every Ivy League college was founded primarily to train
clergymen, except Pennsylvania. Nevertheless their trustees,
including Benjamin Franklin, wanted the school open to "any
preacher of any religious persuasion" which was consistent
with the pluralistic tolerance of Pennsylvania.
A second impact of the Great Awakening was the heightened
social consciousness toward the Indians and Negroes. David
Brainerd became the most famous. He was engaged to Jonathan
Edwards' daughter. Brainerd visited Indians in Massachusetts,
Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. His diary and early death at age 29
made a deep impression on the people of his time.
Eleazar Wheelock established Dartmouth to train missionaries
to the Indians. The motto on their seal was "the voice of
one crying in the wilderness."
The most successful Indian missions were by the Moravians. The
work of David Zeisberger at Gnadenhutten and Schonbrunn is still
remember today. Every summer an outdoor drama "Trumpet in
the Land" at New Philadelphia, Ohio retells their witness to
Simon Girty and the Indians.
Regarding the Negro slaves one colonial writer said that the
Negroes were "strangers to Christianity and still under the
influence of pagan Africa." Only a few successes are
mentioned. John Woolman a Quaker took a stand in 1743 for
abolition of slavery. At the Quaker's Yearly Meeting he brought
it up as an issue in 1758. Samuel Hopkins of the Newport
Congregational Church took an active position against the
importation slaves which he observed at their shipyards. Mostly
the churches and their pastors did little within their
denominations about the issue and even owned slaves. The Baptists
in the South claimed some success at evangelizing the Negro souls.
Very little was written, but judging by the number of believers
among the slaves later on, there appears to have been a fine
harvest of Black souls during the Great Awakening.
The most famous attempt at social justice was the Bethesda
orphanage in Georgia which George Whitefield started in 1740.
In 1700 there were virtually no English hymns in any
Protestant church. America did not produce any great songwriters
during the Great Awakening, but they certainly benefited from
those who did. John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and John Newton of
"Amazing Grace" fame were all converted during the
revival and began the "Golden Age of Hymns.". The great
Isaac Watts wrote his hymns during this century. These greats
wrote thousands of hymns for worship.
The Great Awakening introduced the English hymns to America.
By the second half of the 18th Century they were a common part of
the Sunday worship service. The only influential American
religious music of the century came from the Negro Spirituals
that the Black slaves sang. The first hymnal of their songs was
published in 1794. Evidently, evangelism of the African-Americans
was more widespread that the historians are able to evaluate
through statistical verification.
Any renewal seems to be accompanied with a future hope of a
better world. The most obvious Biblical view ends with the
Millennium the thousand reign of Christ on earth from Revelation
Chapter 20. Speculation arose about how the event would be
ushered in. Some like Aaron Burr, Jonathan Edwards' son-in-law
and father of the Vice President, argued that a violent
destruction of evil would occur first. Others felt that a period
of love and unity would be the prelude to Christ's reign on earth.
A few, even, began setting dates on Christ's return.
When the Great Awakening started the only thing the thirteen
colonies had in common was that they were loosely tied to the
English crown. At the close the most noteworthy feature of the
event was that it was the first national experience in American
history. From New England to Georgia an inter-colonial visitation
by the Holy Spirit had touched America. In every colony a new
enthusiasm for Christianity appeared. The awakening even reached
over denominational lines; churches cooperated with each other in
a spirit of Christian brotherhood. When it was over, no one
doubted that God had moved across America.
VII The prominent people of the Great Awakening:
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) Northampton, MA Congregational
pastor known as the Great Awakener, who preached Sinners in the
hands of an Angry God.
George Whitefield (1714-1770) the greatest preacher of the
Great Awakening, who made seven missionary visits to the American
colonies. The Grand Itinerant.
John Wesley (1703-1791) founder of the Methodist church and
leader of the Evangelical Awakening in England.
Theodore Frelinghuysen (1691-1747) A Dutch Reformed minister
in New Jersey, who was one of the first revival preachers.
William Tennent (1673-1746) founded the "log college"
in Neshaminy, PA and father of four famous preaching sons
Gilbert, William Jr, John, and Charles.
Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764) early leader of the revival
preachers, who was a Presbyterian pastor in New Jersey and
Eleazer Wheelock (1711-1779) Connecticut Congregational
minister, who planned to educated and evangelize Indians. First
President of Dartmouth.
Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729) Puritan pastor for 60 years at
Northampton, MA the cradle of the Great Awakening.
Charles Chauney (1705-1787) Boston pastor & Harvard voice
for the Old Lights.
Samuel Davies (1723-1761) founder of Southern Presbyterianism
in Virginia and President of the College of New Jersey 1759-61.
Top of Page