Paul R Dienstberger
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Nation of Christians

by Paul R Dienstberger
Copyright 2000 Paul R. Dienstberger


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Chapter 2 The First Great Awakening

  • I The Early Stirrings
  • II Jonathan Edwards
  • III George Whitefield
  • IV Old Lights and New Lights
  • V The South
  • VI Impact on Society
  • VII 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 Awakening.

    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 called "itinerants."

    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 evangelist.

    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 Princeton.

    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" Jesus Christ.

    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 sermons.

    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 this cry:

    "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 one sermon.

    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 mindless enthusiasm.

    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 every street."

    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 Bible.

    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 Philadelphia.

    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.

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