People flocked to hear the controversial young revival preacher. Some came out of curiosity because they had heard accounts of people behaving strangely in the meetings. Some wanted to have some type of spiritual experience. Others came out of a genuine conviction and a desire to get right with God. The preacher was notorious for his very unorthodox style. He dramatized his message with entertaining gimmicks and gestures, leading the crowds into deep emotional bouts of laughing and crying.
People fell down under the power of the Spirit, and some were so overcome that they could not return home until the following day. Some cried out in distress and moaned loudly, while others gave loud exclamations as they were overcome with joy and relief. There were even instances of people shaking violently under a deep emotional state of conviction.
The movement was widely criticized for its excesses as some exhibitions obviously got out of control, and in its aftermath churches even split over varying views of the revival. The scene was not Toronto or Brownsville, but colonial America in the early 1700's! "And yet, the Great Awakening, with its extravagances and tragic mistakes, was to be considered one of the most potent and constructive forces in American life during the midcentury."
BACKGROUND AND CONDITIONS
The Puritans had originally come to America with the intent of establishing a reformed church and society in which Scripture would reign supreme in matters both secular and religious. They had a vision of setting up God's kingdom on earth in their colony.
In the beginning a profession of faith and evidence of personal salvation were required for one to apply for church membership. Through taxing, the population paid their tithes to the church, and anyone wishing to engage in political activity needed to obtain membership in a congregation. Church elders decided affairs concerning the government of the community as well as those affecting their congregations.
The concept of "separation of church and state" had no place in the early Puritan settlements. In fact, those of diverging religious views were often compelled to move on to settle new colonies.
With the arrival of a new generation, the Puritans' religious fervor diminished greatly. Although many people did not make any profession of faith and were wholly uninterested in conversion, they still wished to participate in politics and community affairs. The only way they could do this was to apply for church membership.
To resolve this, the church leaders drew up the Half-Way Covenant which allowed unconverted citizens to become official church members. The only restriction placed upon them was that they were required to abstain from taking communion. These nonprofessing members were allowed to participate in all other church functions including ceremonies such as baptisms and dedications. Although this provision was intended to help the church exert its influence over the unsaved, the unsaved ended up changing the church.
A historian from Connecticut described the situation:
The forms of religion were kept up, but there appeared but little of the power of it…It seems also to appear that many of the clergy, instead of clearly and powerfully preaching the doctrines of original sin, or regeneration, justification by faith alone….contented themselves with preaching a cold, unprincipled and lifeless morality.
THE DECAY OF THE CHURCH
The decay of the church had affected New England society at large. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the community had degenerated to the point that it resembled the more secular societies of Europe from which the Puritans had originally fled. The people engaged in rowdy gatherings, drinking, and parties. Many of the youth were drawn into immorality, and it was not uncommon for a girl to find herself pregnant before she was married.
Strife and contention between differing parties and communities marked the land, and people took each other to court over small matters. Many thought of the Bible as something of a formula for good luck - if one obeyed the Ten Commandments he would receive good crops, protection from the Indians, etc.
RETURN TO ENGLAND?
In addition to these prevailing conditions, many had fallen into a state of hopelessness concerning their future in the New World. Farmland was already taken up in the larger communities and to move into the frontier one would have to endure hardship and risk being attacked by Indians. The Industrial Revolution had not yet hit the colonies and means of making a living seemed difficult to find. The only other option was to return to England, the same country that the Puritans had fled from years before. Because of the general lack of opportunities, the younger generation's zeal for the Puritan way of life was greatly diminished.
BEGINNINGS OF REVIVAL: JONATHAN EDWARDS
When Jonathan Edwards took over the pastorate of the congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts, Puritanism had become a liberal life philosophy that stressed being morally self-sufficient, leading the good life, and a sort of humanistic emphasis on the works and free will of man. There was very little emphasis on the fallen-nature of man and his utter depravity and need for a savior. Jonathan Edwards convinced people of their precarious condition outside of the salvation of Christ. He stressed the sovereignty and justice of God, but he especially preached on justification by faith alone.
Many of his sermons were directed at the young people of his congregation, and they were surprisingly receptive to his message. The teens even were willing to give up partying the evening after the Sabbath so that they could meet together for prayer and Bible studies. Edwards soon started meetings for prayer and instruction in his home. He also refuted false doctrines, and supported singing in worship. This was a controversial issue among conservatives of his day, but was popular with the children and youth of his church.
In his own writing Edwards describes a remarkable visitation from God upon his congregation in 1734:
There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world. Those who were wont to be the vainest and loosest, and those who had been disposed to think and speak lightly of vital and experimental religion, were now generally subject to great awakenings. And the work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner, and increased more and more; souls did as it were come by flocks to Jesus Christ. From day to day for many months together, might be seen evident instances of sinners brought out of darkness into marvellous light, and delivered out of an horrible pit, and from the miry clay, and set upon a rock, with a new song of praise to God in their mouths.
THE MOVE OF GOD IN NORTHAMPTON AND AROUND
By 1735 the revival at Jonathan's church had peaked to the point that 300 solid new converts had been added to the church within a six-month period. People began to wonder what exactly was going on in the town of Northampton, and visitors came from miles around to witness the work of the Holy Spirit. Those who had experienced the move of God in their own lives returned to their home villages and carried the blessing with them. Parishes of Coventry, Stratford, Hebron, Tolland, Ripton, Woodbury, Bolton, Northfield, Westfield, East Windsor, Enfield, Long Meadow, Deerfield, West Springfield, Hatfield, South Hadley, Sunderland, and Suffield all experienced an outpouring of revival. Jonathan Edwards wrote of the marvelous outpouring of blessing throughout the whole county.
REVIVAL BREAKING OUT EVERYWHERE
At the same time revival was breaking out in other parts of the country in similar, but totally unconnected incidents. In his A Narrative of Surprising Conversions Edwards documents a movement occurring under Rev. Marsh in the state of Connecticut. A number of people had been saved in that area as well as in other areas under other ministers. Edwards also recorded news of winds of revival in New Jersey under the ministry of Dutch Reformed minister Theodore J. Frelinghuysen. Pennsylvania was blessed under the ministry of William Tennent. It was obvious that this was not a planned revival that centered around any person, but was a move of God which took place simultaneously in different places at the same time.
THIRST FOR REVIVAL
Although the revival at Northampton under Jonathan Edwards was a powerful one, it ended abruptly toward the end of 1735. Even so, God was not finished with His work in the American colonies. Throughout the colonies church members became discontented with dry, boring, dead religious ceremonies. They longed for a revival like the one which had been experienced in previous years by the people of Northampton. Concern among the people for the condition of their souls generated a spirit of prayer which prevailed among the church throughout New England. Into this scene stepped George Whitefield, the fiery young evangelist from England.
GEOREGE WHITEFIELD AND THE PEAK OF REVIVAL, 1740-42
In 1739 Whitefield began his tour of America preaching his evangelistic messages outdoors to large crowds in the Southern and Middle colonies. At that time his style raised some controversy because it was unorthodox for someone to preach the Word outside of a church setting. His style of preaching was different from most ministers of that time because he gave spontaneous straight evangelistic messages without the use of carefully prepared notes. His dramatic and emotional appeals drew and captured multitudes who suddenly became deeply aware of the perilous condition of their souls. His booming voice naturally carried over huge crowds, and it is estimated that as many as twenty thousand would gather at one time to hear him speak.
Even the deistic Benjamin Franklin witnessed the tremendous results Whitefield's preaching had in Philadelphia. He was surprised how Whitefield's audience "admir'd and respected him, not withstanding his ... assuring them they were naturally half beasts and half devils." He further noted:
It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.
THE FLAME LEADING ON TO EXPLOSION!
While Jonathan Edwards and his contemporaries prepared the way for the Great Awakening, George Whitefield was the one credited for bringing the flame into a full-forced explosion. Under his ministry the revival was unified from several localized movements into one all-prevailing force.
In great eagerness of heart, Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter inviting the young evangelist to Northampton. In his letter to Whitefield, Edwards described his congregation as experiencing a "sorrowfully dull and dead time" and expressed the hope that the same blessing that had accompanied the young evangelist in other communities would descend on Northampton as well. Although he had heard much criticism of Whitefield's style and the emotionalism that accompanied his meetings, Edwards reserved judgement on Whitefield until he had opportunity to see his ministry first-hand.
The young evangelist finally reached Northampton in October of 1940 and spent four days preaching to the congregation there. In one of his many writings Jonathan Edwards noted, "the congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of the sermon time ... Mr. Whitefield's sermons were suitable to the circumstances of the town."
The "sorrowfully dull and dead" congregation had once again experienced the winds of the Holy Spirit's blessing in their midst. Whitefield and Edwards both developed a love and admiration for one another, and Edwards became a strong supporter of the revival connected with the ministry of Whitefield.
After about a month of ministering in New England, Whitefield left the region, but the revival continued to increase into a turbulent force. Jonathan Edwards and other ministers traveled about preaching revival sermons throughout the area.
THE MOST FAMOUS SERMON IN AMERICAN HISTORY
The Great Awakening was characterized by terrifying messages that emphasized the fear of God and His coming judgements. An example of the preaching of this era was Jonathan Edward's most well-known sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Delivered in Enfield, Massachusetts in 1741, this is perhaps the most famous sermon in American history. In this message, the preacher used vivid imagery and forceful wording to warn the sinner of his great peril:
There are black clouds of God's wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst upon you…There is reason to think that there are many in this congregation now hearing this discourse, that will actually be the subjects of this very misery to all eternity…how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell! And it would be a wonder, if some that are now present would not be in hell in a very short time, before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons, that now sit here in some seats of this meeting house in health, and quiet and secure, should be there before tomorrow morning.
IMPACT THE LISTENERS: SECOND REFORMATION?
This preaching had an immediate effect upon the hearers. Jonathan Edwards had to pause when his discourse was interrupted by loud cries and wailing of distressed sinners. Some people even held on to the edges of their pews in fear that they would fall-off into hell.
Itinerant preachers, great crowds, strong conviction of sin, and a new emphasis on the individual and his personal salvation characterized the Great Awakening. In its wake also came a number of controversies and church splits.
Its effect was so great upon the organized church in New England that it was comparable to a second reformation:
This "new light" or "inward witness" was the key to the revival in New England. The revivalists pointed out that their fathers had left the Church of England to come to America precisely because they believed it was contrary to the Word of God to permit the unconverted to enter the church. The Awakening, they felt, was a call from God to begin a "new reformation" in New England. Thus, New Lights began separating from parish churches and organizing their own congregations using the methods of the founding fathers of New England. They signed a covenant agreeing to walk together in the ways of the Lord as a church of visible saints.
AFTERMATH OF THE REVIVAL
In the aftermath of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards became known as a great defender of the revival and consolidated its fruit with solid teaching and follow-up work. Jonathan Edwards realized from the beginning that excesses and fleshly human tendencies would accompany any great move of God. He publicly cautioned against the pitfalls of carnal displays of passion that could be disruptive and lead to spiritual pride rather than repentance and humility before God.
In his writing, The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God, Edwards declares,
"A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, or agonies of the body, or the feeling of bodily strength...And the reason is that Scripture nowhere gives us any such rule."
At the same time he also stressed that in a true work of the Holy Spirit there will always be those who do not know how to conduct themselves. Incidents of misconduct and "wildfire" and even gross behavior on the part of some individuals did not indicate that the movement was not of God. In fact, the devil often liked to distort and discredit revivals by such distractions.
EFFORTS TO SOLIDIFY THE FRUITS: CONTROVERSIES
In the aftermath of the revival, Jonathan Edwards wanted to solidify its fruit among his people. He wrote an instructional thesis called Religious Affections.
In this famous work, Edwards stirred up a great controversy by asserting that church membership should only be granted to those who make a full profession of faith and give evidence of being born again. It would be necessary for prospective members to give their testimony before the church before they would even be considered as eligible. In taking this stand, Edwards was refuting the long-standing practice of the Half-Way covenant which had been brought about by his illustrious grandfather, the Rev. Solomon Stoddard. This caused considerable division and contention in his perishes.
Throughout New England other churches were also experiencing divisions between those who supported the revival and those who opposed it. The Presbyterian Church was divided between the "New Side" men who favored the revival and the "Old Side" men who fought against it.
One prevailing controversy formed around the need for "educated" verses the need for "converted" preachers. Some emphasized the importance of learning and others emphasized the need for a genuine spiritual life in their ministers. In some cases converts from the revival found it necessary to come out from their old perishes to form their own congregation of living Christians. New Baptist congregations sprang up throughout the colonies.
RESULTS OF THE GREAT AWAKENING
Thousands of sinners throughout the colonies were brought into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. A large number of new churches were planted. Professors of faith were renewed and revived in their Christian walks, and began to live lives of deeper commitment and greater service. The change of heart among the colonists became apparent through their new concern for their fellow men. Orphanages were founded. People began to speak out against slavery.
Concern developed for the souls of the American Indians, and missionaries were sent out to reach them. Jonathan Edwards began to work among different tribes in his area. David Brainerd, a product of the times, became one of the best known missionaries to the native tribes. Brainerd's writings became well known when Jonathan Edwards published his diary after his death. To this day, many have been inspired by the young man's accounts of his work and spiritual struggles.
New colleges were founded to train ministers of the gospel. Dartmouth, for example, was intended to train Indians as missionaries to their own people. In addition, Princeton, Brown, and Rutgers were established with charters to promote the gospel. Princeton's charter includes the words, "Cursed is all learning that does not point to the cross of Jesus Christ."
The revival also helped to promote individual religious freedom based on the idea that each person was responsible for his own relationship to Christ. Churches were no longer entrenched governing structures which dictated how the colonists were to worship God. Religion was no longer a social entity, but people associated themselves with the congregation of their choice by their own free will. As such, much of Christian thinking in America to this day has been shaped by the Great Awakening of the mid eighteenth century.
Although the Great Awakening took place more than 250 years ago, we are able to gain several valuable lessons for today through study of the revival and the circumstances surrounding it:
- Ultimately, the Awakening was not created or organized by man. The early revivals often occurred simultaneously in several different isolated areas. Although God did make use of obedient men in order to fulfill His plans, the actual revival was a direct result of the Holy Spirit's working in men's lives.
- Although man alone is unable to organize a revival, he can initiate a revival through prayer and obedience to the will of God. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can bring men to repentance through conviction of sin, but we can invite Him to work in an area. Prior to the Great Awakening, churches throughout the colonies were intently praying for a spirit of repentance and revival. Their prayers initiated one of the greatest works of God that America has ever experienced.
- Repentance is an essential component of revival. Basically, revival occurs when people admit their guilt before God and ask for forgiveness, allowing God to work His will in their lives. The remarkable transformation brought about in the colonies was a direct result of widespread repentance, both among the unconverted and among those Christians who had fallen into apathetically practicing dull religion. When there is a revival, there should also be evidence of repentance and transformed lives.
- We are not able to accurately judge whether a revival is from God simply from the actions of some of those involved. Humans are still human no matter what the circumstances, and as such they are subject to poor judgement, lack of self-control, and even spiritual pride. Satan hates revival, and he will employ whatever means he can in order to discredit a move of God. Jonathan Edwards stated in Marks of the Spirit of God, "It is no sign that a work is not from the spirit of God that many who seem to be the subjects of it are guilty of a great many imprudences and irregularities in their conduct. We are to consider that the end for which God pours out His spirit is to make men holy, and not to make them politicians."
We must be open to the fact that God may work in ways that we are not accustomed to. Outdoor evangelistic meetings, singing in church, and the use of born again ministers who were not highly educated were all very controversial in 18th century Puritan America. When people were willing to rely solely on the scripture and put their preferences and traditions behind them, they were able to effectively reach the lost of America for Christ.
Hosier, Helen K. Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakener. Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing Company, 1999.
Edwards, Jonathan. Jonathan Edwards on Revival. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965.
Grussendorf, Kurt A.; Lowman, Michael R.; and Ashbaugh, Brian S. America: Land I Love. Pensacola, Florida: A Beka Book, 1994.
Shelby, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.