The Great Awakening
The Great Awakening—also known as the "First Great Awakening"—was an 18th century evangelical revival in America that would last for thirty years. It combined the Enlightenment with unsophisticated mass evangelism. When it happened, it had no name. Joseph Tracey invented the term "Great Awakening" in 1842.
The Great Awakening was not a movement coordinated by men. It was a movement of the Holy Spirit. The Great Awakening was a spiritual event that proved to be of vast historical significance. It took place in open fields and around campfires. Camp meetings would henceforth become an important part of American religious life for 200 years.
America was born a Protestant Nation. The Anglican Church had purged the Christian Faith of emotion. It presented Christianity as cerebral and ceremonial. The Great Awakening united the American People through a new commitment to a "religion of the heart," a more emotional and personal Christianity than that offered by the existing churches.
First Great Awakening
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the First Great Awakening began. As good a place as any might be a series of revival meetings held in 1719 in the Raritan Valley by Dutch Reformed minister Theodore Frelinghuysen. The emphasis was on Pietism, a German concept about how to live a personally holy life but not to worry about fine points of doctrinal disputes.
William Tennent (1673-1745), a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister, started his Log College in Pennsylvania in the 1720s. This was a primitive rural academy to provide a basic education along with "Frontier Religion." The school became known for rhetorical fireworks and rip-roaring hymn-singing. The Log College produced many prominent preachers in the American Colonies and was the prototype for Princeton College, founded in 1746.
In America, pioneers on the frontier came to represent quite a number of people. But they had no ministers to preach, or even to administer sacraments and perform marriages. Evangelists (meaning, literally, bearers of good news) held revivalist meetings that alarmed the established city ministers.
Criticism of the Great Awakening
Critics of the Great Awakening condemned the revivalist preachers for their lack of formal theological training, encouraging disrespect for established churches and their ministers, and filling churches with general disorder. Some states even passed laws against "disruptive" traveling preachers.
The Great Awakening was in a way a protest against the religious leadership of prosperous congregations in colonial cities. It promoted the idea that Americans should trust their own views rather than simply follow established elites. The sermons of self-educated preachers prompted thousands of Bible study groups. This was followed by intense religious discussions throughout America.
Many congregations split into Old Lights (traditionalists) and New Lights (revivalists). This period saw a marked growth in the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations. These new churches also criticized the established colonial practice of levying taxes to support the state churches. They defended religious freedom as a natural right that government must not restrict.
Jonathan Edwards published God Glorified in the Work of Redemption in 1731. This riveting discourse declared that the greatest treasure on earth is the happiness of spiritual transformation to be found in "the Glorious Excellences and Beauty of God." It is equally attainable by people of all stations and intellectual capacities.
In 1740, Jonathan Edwards commented on the Great Awakening: "It is not unlikely that this work of God's Spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or at least the prelude, of that glorious work of God so often foretold in Scripture, which in the progress and issue of it shall renew the world of mankind. . . . And there are many things that make it probable this work will begin in America."
Jonathan Edwards published Treatise Concerning Human Affections in 1746, which was widely read. He sought to arouse the "affections" with his preaching: "that which moves a person from neutrality or mere assent and inclines his heart to possess or reject something."
Jonathan Edwards became the first famous intellectual in American history. He was a major philosopher whose core message is that love is the essence of the religious experience. Edwards taught that God radiated his own goodness and beauty into the souls of men and women so that they became a part of Him. The heart of the message: Do good, lead useful and Godly lives, and help others do the same. His writings were soon seen to have political as well as theological applications.
George Whitefield (1714-1770) was born into a humble home. His parents managed the Bell Inn in Gloucester, England. Whitefield grew up around the family tavern and thus became quite familiar with drunks, prostitutes, pickpockets, and gamblers.
George Whitefield converted to the Christian Faith in 1735, and graduated from Oxford a year later. He was inspired by Jonathan Edwards' A Faithful Narrative (1737), which detailed conversion experiences through the revivalist method. Whitefield quickly found fame in England as a spellbinding evangelist.
In 1739, George Whitefield went to America to stoke the fires of religious fervor there. In Georgia he founded churches, charities, and orphanages. Whitefield would become the most famous preacher of the 18th century, as well as one of the most beloved men in America—the first man well known in all of the American Colonies.
George Whitefield fell in love with America after touring the colonies from Savannah to Boston in 1740. Anglican churches closed their pulpits to his radical message, and he took to preaching in markets and open fields. His nickname was The Great Itinerant.
George Whitefield drew crowds in the tens of thousands, which was widely reported in the press—making him a celebrity. Whitefield evoked an emotional response to the gospel in his hearers. He was eager to share the joy he had found in Christ.
George Whitefield had no peer when it came to spectacular rhetorical gifts. He was described as a slender man with an angelic but bold countenance. Everywhere he went, he ignited a spiritual flame. Some people fainted, wept, and shrieked. A German woman who spoke no English said she had never been so edified in her life after hearing Whitefield preach with "Flame, Clearness, and Power."
George Whitefield preached the possibility of a miraculous change in one's life through the power of the Holy Spirit. God is merciful. Anyone can be saved by repenting of their sins. They must simply change their ways and surrender their lives to Christ.
George Whitefield possessed a golden voice and tons of charisma. In the pulpit he acted out the agonies of those in hell and the joy of those in heaven. He used humor, suspense, and pathos. Never had such an eloquent, captivating preacher been heard. Even Jonathan Edwards was moved to tears by Whitefield's sermons. Whitefield usually cried himself. He was cross-eyed in a hypnotic way that transfixed his audiences.
George Whitefield proclaimed "the whole world his parish." He completed seven tours of America over thirty years. Whitefield was among the first men to preach the gospel to slaves. He preached 20 sermons a week. Many said his last sermon was his best.
Francis Asbury was born on a farm in Birmingham, England, in 1745. His parents were among the first converts of John Wesley, and raised their boy on prayer and the Bible. Reflecting on his childhood Asbury said, "I abhorred mischief and wickedness, although my mates were among the vilest of the vile for lying, swearing, fighting, and whatever else boys of their age and evil habits were likely to be guilty of." Those boys subjected him to much ridicule for his virtuous principals.
In 1771, Francis Asbury went to America after hearing John Wesley's call for Methodist preachers to go there. He became a circuit rider, and traveled non-stop on horseback for 45 years to preach at camp meetings and revivals. Asbury covered 300,000 miles during his travels, and crossed the Appalachian Mountains sixty times. He preached in every American colony but had no home to call his own and often slept outside.
Francis Asbury personally ordained over 4,000 Methodist ministers and preached more than 16,000 sermons in America. He ignored his own physical maladies. In 1798 a doctor gave Asbury a physical examination and found him to suffer from "boils, fevers, rheumatism, sore throat, weak eyes, bronchitis, asthma, toothache, ulcers, neuralgia, intestinal disorders, swollen glands, and galloping consumption."
Francis Asbury inveighed against alcohol, gambling and promiscuity. He promoted temperance, marriage, and thrift. He published scores of tracts, and founded Sunday Schools to promote literacy. Asbury insisted that Methodist chapels be plain, and congregations not become indebted to wealthy patrons.
Francis Asbury preached against the evils of slavery and ordained black clergy—including the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, "Black Harry" Hosier and Richard Allen. Women were encouraged to witness to their husbands and sons and lead Bible study groups. Methodism became a populist religion for humble people; personal, emotive, and joyful. By the time Asbury died in 1816, there were 150,000 Methodists from New England to Mississippi.
The Great Awakening prompted Evangelicals to provide food, shelter, education, and work for the poor. Preachers admonished country folk to read the Bible every day. But first they had to be taught to read. Thus, the Evangelicals began a widespread literacy program in the countryside of Colonial America.
The Evangelicals denounced slavery, and proclaimed that whites and blacks were brothers in Christ. American slaves responded in great numbers and would soon establish the first black Christian churches.
The Great Awakening attracted primarily humble men and women of modest means, which critics called "rude, ignorant, void of manners, education or good breeding." The Great Awakening produced a profound reduction in sinful activities. Gambling, horse racing, and lavish entertainments were denounced. Sabbath observance became widespread throughout America.
The world was seen as a great morality play. God is active in the world and sovereign over it. The duty of a Christian is to answer the Call of God; to make the world a better place according to His purposes. But American Evangelicals rejected the association of force with the Christian Faith, instead foreseeing freely gathered people in churches in voluntary association.
First Great Awakening
The First Great Awakening united the American Colonies for the first time. It produced a Protestant Consensus of beliefs, standards, ethics, and morality, which hitherto did not exist in America. It marked a victory for religious freedom, and was focused on progress—to explore within a Christian context the limits of human possibilities.
The First Great Awakening was the proto-revolutionary event and the formative moment in American history. It taught the colonies what they had in common, which was a great deal. As John Adams said: "The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the mind and hearts of the people: and change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations."
The First Great Awakening had a profound impact on American education. The Founding Fathers of America saw education and faith as inseparable. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: "In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other. But in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country."
The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution was a religious event, while the French Revolution was an anti-religious event.
William Ellery Channing described Christianity as "the perfection of human nature, the elevation of men into nobler things." The leading figures of the Great Awakening were deeply moved by the idea of living a life devoted to God. Many were influenced by the 1728 book by William Law: A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
The Christian Faith remained central to the lives of Americans in the 18th century. By far the largest category of material produced by American printers was sermons, religious treatises, and Bibles. Perhaps 75 percent of the American colonists participated in the Great Awakening. For most it was a highly emotional experience. It taught them that man—especially American man—has a dramatic destiny. Man born in the image of God has boundless capacities.
My sources include: A History of the American People by Paul Johnson;The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White; America: A Narrative History by George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi; and Give me Liberty!: An American History by Eric Foner.
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