Chapter 3: The Great Awakening

Protestantism in America: A Narrative History
by Jerald C. Brauer

Chapter 3: The Great Awakening

October 29, 1727, Was a quiet, crisp New England night. The bright moonlight shimmered on the trees and grass, casting eerie shadows and lighting dark recesses. Suddenly the stillness was broken by faint rumbling which grew in intensity. The earth began to shake and tremble. Women screamed, babies were awakened, men fell to their knees and prayed.

Had God come to destroy faithless New England? Just six years ago he had visited them with a terrible plague of smallpox, in which several hundred people died. Men wondered if this was not the divine wrath poured out against New England’s sins.

The earthquake spread more terror than damage. For a short time people repented of their coldness of heart, but this did not last. People no longer had the commitment of the founding fathers. They could become halfhearted church members through the Halfway Covenant. It was not unusual to find a whole New England community baptized and holding some relation to the Church. Many were invited to the Lord’s Supper in the hope that they would be converted to the Lord.

The early Puritans were familiar with the spiritual temperament which fluctuated like a barometer with each change in the weather. Their answer had always been strict discipline of those in the congregation and a renewed appeal to the covenant and to conversion. Discipline, covenant, and conversion -- these formed the arsenal with which John Cotton, and later Increase Mather, fought deadness of heart.

Like all good Puritans they stressed God’s initiative and man’s heartfelt response. God had taken the initial step in providing through his covenants an offer of salvation to man. His Word, his sacraments, and his Holy Spirit brought men to realize their election. Men had to feel their sin, their worthlessness, and God’s forgiveness.

This experience, which might be sudden or gradual, took place within the means ordained by God. So men were urged to hear God’s Word, to obey his commands, and to avail themselves of his grace. If they were of the elect, those chosen by God, they would respond in utter trust. This was conversion. The result was a new life lived in the fellowship of the saints under the strict control of the Church.

Successful periods of conversion grew infrequent. It was difficult to reach these self-satisfied New Englanders. They would respond when disease struck or when the Indians became restless, but no great outpouring of the Spirit was noticed during the first thirty years of the eighteenth century. Large numbers of unconverted men, those who had never experienced the depth of their dependence on God, were communicants in the churches. Morality was at a low stage.

In December, 1734, Jonathan Edwards preached a series of sermons that struck home in a marvelous way. His first sermon was on "Justification by Faith." In it he denied every attempt of man to base his security on his own power or choice. Either salvation was from God or it was not possible.

As his series of sermons progressed, men and women began to groan and cry out during the service. Their consciences were stricken with their unworthiness. Edwards did not leave a single loophole. God’s way with man was grounded in the very nature of things, for he was the creator and sustainer of all things. Reason and conscience both pointed to the justice of his treatment of men.

Little wonder people cried out in fear. Either they were damned eternally or they were saved. They could be saved only by God and in his way. But they had not followed his way or heeded his will as revealed in Christ Jesus! Were they all, then, damned? Apparently so -- unless they repented from their sins and turned from their evil ways. Only God could lead them to this point. They had best listen closely to God’s demands and offer.

People crowded to Edwards for advice. Hundreds were converted. A little child of four years experienced the forgiving grace of God. Jonathan Edwards was no fool, but one of the greatest intellects America has produced. He carefully guided those souls seeking comfort. He rooted out all false conversions based simply on imagination and emotions.

Soon the news of the Great Awakening spread from Northampton, Massachusetts, to other communities. Revivals spread throughout New England, sporadic and unconnected.

There had been an earlier renewal in New Jersey, but it was unconnected with that of Edwards. A German preacher, Theodore J. Frelinghuysen, had ministered among the Dutch Reformed in the 1720’s. Unlike Edwards, who always delivered a restrained, carefully reasoned sermon, Frelinghuysen was eloquent and passionate. He condemned the external, formal piety of his listeners and demanded an inward conversion of the heart which would produce the good life. So a revival spread among the Dutch Reformed and produced a cleavage in their ranks.

The Great Awakening took hold among the Presbyterians as well. Rev. William Tennent, Sr., developed a school for pastors in a log cabin at Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. Out of this "Log College" came a series of young men who preached conversion sermons in a winning way. One of the leaders in promoting the revival was Tennent’s son, Gilbert. Under the direction of the Log College men, numerous sinners were brought to a renewed commitment to God. New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania were the early centers of this Presbyterian awakening.

The man who bound the separate revival movements into a great unified effort was a young Anglican preacher, George Whitefield, who arrived in 1739. He toured the colonies, drawing vast throngs as he spoke in all the Protestant denominations or in great public gatherings. A close friend of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, he remained within the Anglican Church and promoted its evangelical wing.

One day in Philadelphia, 1739, thousands of people crowded around the courthouse steps to hear the great evangelist from England. A portly young man in his early twenties strode up the steps, turned, faced the crowd with upraised arms, and launched into his sermon. With great effectiveness he portrayed the fallen, helpless condition of man, the unspeakable love of God, the judgment of man’s reason and conscience convicting him of his failure, and God’s gracious redemption in Christ. Hundreds were in tears. Others groaned as their hearts were moved. But George Whitefield kept them well in hand.

So persuasive was George Whitefield that even Benjamin Franklin emptied his pockets in answer to an appeal for money to establish an orphanage in Georgia. He urged his friends never to go to hear Whitefield with money in their pockets. This was a high tribute from penny-wise Franklin. All Whitefield’s energies were thrown into the orphanage appeal and the Great Awakening. Everywhere he went crowds gathered from near and far. Farmers left their work and hurried to the cities. Merchants closed their shops. Once a court was postponed.

Whitefield traveled through the colonies from one end to the other. He bound together the many local revivals and made of them one great movement which swept the country. Jonathan Edwards welcomed him. The Tennents opened their churches and hearts to him. His fervent sermons, preached without manuscript, dramatically painted the picture of man’s damnation and God’s redemption. This was not essentially new to New England Puritans. There was newness, however, in the freshness and vividness with which it was said, and also in the lack of the old Puritan doctrinal exposition.

Whitefield returned to England in 1740, but he was to make five additional evangelistic tours in America. He died while on a preaching tour in 1770, and was buried under the pulpit of the Presbyterian church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Under his inspiration the first colony-wide movement took place. The Great Awakening united the colonies in one great movement.

The extension of the movement was not all for the best. It did help to unify the various Protestant groups, and to produce a common point of view. Whitefield preached in pulpits of all the major denominations. But discord as well as unity was a product of the Great Awakening. Even the common theological point of view, which cut across denominational lines, was opposed by some.

One of the first indications of disharmony was in the Presbyterian Church. For quite some time the Scotch-Irish ministers, called the "Old Side" group, had been opposed to the New England trained and Log College "New Side" Presbyterians. The Old Side said that the New Side men were not true Presbyterians, since their beliefs were not correct, and the revivals were proof of their incorrectness. The emphasis on the converted man and the method of conversion distorted good Presbyterian doctrine.

In 1740, Gilbert Tennent preached a sermon on "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry." In it he attacked those who did not emphasize the necessity of a regenerated or holy life for the ministry. "Our Lord will not make men ministers till they follow him."

But this was contrary to the Old Side orthodox view, which stressed the strict adherence to a confession of faith and argued that the presbytery, and ultimately a synod, determines the fitness of a man for the ministry on the basis of his education and doctrinal beliefs, and an external call from a congregation. But the ministry is not just another profession, argued the revivalist; it is the result of the call of God. No institution can make a man a true minister of the gospel if that man is not converted by God.

A bitter battle followed, in which the Old Side accused the revivalistic New Side of invading parishes by traveling around to preach. The revivalists retorted that the Old Side would not allow the people to hear converted pastors. So fierce was the battle that the pro-revival New Brunswick Presbytery was put out of the synod in 1741. The split remained in the Presbyterian Church until 1758. Thus disunity and dissension were also products of the Great Awakening. The Presbyterians were left with an Old Side party, opposed to revivals, and a New Side party, in favor of revivals.

In March, 1743, men were busy rushing around New London, Connecticut, knocking on doors to invite people to a special meeting. Rev. James Davenport, famous Congregational revivalist, was in town. The previous year he had traveled through New England imitating the procedures of Whitefield, but his spirit was utterly different from that of Whitefield. He would gain the right to use a pastor’s pulpit and then denounce that pastor before his congregation as an unconverted man. As he preached, his voice would grow in shrillness until it reached a vibrating singsong. Often he would close his eyes and rock back and forth as if in a trance. This was the worst side of the revival.

"Come to the wharf this afternoon and see the Lord’s will done," was the word spread through New London, Connecticut, on March 6. Mr. Davenport was holding a special service, and people were urged to bring all worldly possessions that they idolized. A great fire was to be lighted.

As a woman threw rings and a silver necklace to the flames, she cried out that they were the devil’s toys. Another flung a beautiful gown and a rich cloak onto the smoldering pile. All around men and women were chanting, singing, and praying. Mr. Davenport was pacing about, exhorting his followers to sacrifice their idolatrous love for worldly things. Suits, velvet breeches, wigs, hoods, and books -- from the pens of "unconverted " pastors -- were added to the bonfire. And into that fire went the last shreds of the spirit of unity that still bound together those opposing and those upholding revivals.

The hitherto restrained opposition now broke forth. One group of Congregational pastors produced a Testimony opposing the revivals and deploring their results. A far larger group responded by publishing a Testimony of their own, which deplored irregular practices of men such as Davenport, admitted some excesses, but upheld revivals and the Great Awakening as a gift from God.

The seat of opposition was in and around Boston under the able direction of Rev. Charles Chauncy. In 1743 he published Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England. It contained a collection of all the extravagances of the revival. Though Chauncy admitted that some good came from the Awakening, he argued, on the basis of the extreme cases, that the evil far outweighed the good.

Chauncy upheld respectability, sobriety, and reason in the Christian life. These were sufficient, for they were the best evidence that one was in a state of salvation or on the road to being saved. He was strongly suspicious of any display of the emotions in religion. After all, religion was a sensible thing and the last thing it should produce was emotional disturbance.

Chauncy was speaking for one side of Puritanism. He was the spokesman for the shrewd Yankee businessman. Puritanism had always held to the moral uprightness and reasonableness of the Christian, and by 1740 this had produced the hardheaded, respectable, rather cold and calculating merchant. His religion was a reflection of his state, and Chauncy was, in reality, defending this position.

There was another side of Puritanism which the successful Yankee businessmen and their pastors had outgrown -- the deeply stirring piety that trembled before a holy God and drove men to acts of love and mercy. Jonathan Edwards replied to Chauncy in a series of writings and reminded him that religion involved the whole man, emotions and reason.

The man in Christ, moved by the Spirit of God, has a profoundly emotional experience. Why not? Is not religion related to the very heart of man -- his will? What he wills, that he will do. But what determines what he wills? Custom? Reason? Yes, all these things. But above all, it is his whole past life, all his desires, that which he wants most of all! Only when God’s Spirit shows man the true aim of his desires and grants him a new heart and will, only then can man turn to God.

So, argued Edwards, we must expect the Spirit of God to work through such channels as the revivals. Granted the excesses, they must be overcome and guarded against, but the work must go on. The Great Awakening was a good thing misused by a few men. It should not be thrown out because of that misuse!

Jonathan Edwards not only defended the place of emotion in religion, but went far beyond and questioned what Chauncy meant by reason and a good moral life. He was convinced that Chauncy held a very shallow view of reason and morality. So he plunged deeply into a discussion of the meaning of all reality -- of the whole universe. He was one of the greatest thinkers America has ever produced. His defense of the revivals and of emotion in religion rested on a broad argument which included God and the nature of reality itself.

Chauncy never answered him. The revivalists, safe behind the defense of Edwards, went on their way, forgetting that Edwards said that religion deals with both the heart and the mind of man -- with the total man. The rejection of Edwards and the resulting divorce between reason and religion was a rejection of the spirit of earlier Puritanism. This had dire consequences for the future of American Christianity. On the other hand, Chauncy and his followers went their separate way, stressing cold, hard morality, apart from a warm piety. This was to culminate in Unitarianism.

Agitation over the revivals spread among the Baptists as well. The older Rhode Island Baptists, stressing the free will of man and standing for an educated ministry, were to be found mostly in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. They were comparatively few in number. Generally speaking, they were suspicious of the excesses of the Great Awakening.

As a result of the revivals a large number of churches were founded outside the officially recognized State-established congregations. This was particularly true in New England. These Separatists would allow preaching only by a converted ministry, and demanded that a congregation be composed only of known saints.

This was where the Baptists won new followers. What was more sensible than to limit membership only to those who as adults consciously professed their faith and were baptized? Thus a large number of Separatist congregations cut themselves off from the State-supported Congregational churches and became Baptists.

All these were revivalistic Baptist churches. They were strongly resented and opposed by the older or regular Baptists, but the future was in the hands of the Separatist group. They had to fight vigorously in New England in behalf of Roger Williams’ famous principle of separation of Church and State. Their greatest leader and organizer in the campaign was Rev. Isaac Backus, a former New England Separatist turned Baptist.

But the very opposition and dissension produced by the Great Awakening became responsible for a new life in the churches. It led to a rapid growth of the Presbyterians and the Baptists, and it led to the introduction of a new religious group, the Methodists. All was not loss!

The New England Separatist Baptists turned to the South and found a fruitful field of activity. A number of these men had come under Whitefield’s influence. Converted, they moved away from infant baptism to the necessity for adult baptism as a mark of professing faith. These men were drawn mostly from the lower classes, and they disdained education as a hindrance to the Spirit. They upheld the absolute independence of the local congregation, and they took pride in their preachers who were common laborers like the rest of the folks.

In the South, as in New England, the Baptists were persecuted by the State authorities. They were accused of disturbing the peace and of keeping people from working by turning their attention to revivals. In a way they did disturb the peace by their highly emotional and dramatic preaching, but really not enough to merit persecution on the part of the State. The real rub was that they were Baptists who held incorrect beliefs and refused to support the established Church, be it Anglican or Congregational.

Persecution and suppression only produced more Baptists and gave them the mantle of martyrs. They had a phenomenal growth in the Carolinas and in Virginia. This was the first step in the direction of Baptist predominance in the South which exists even today. It also marked them as one of the great religious groups in America.

Meanwhile the Presbyterians were having some success in the South, though largely in Virginia. Log College men visited that state and soon had large numbers attending the services. In 1748, Rev. Samuel Davies settled in Virginia and became the center of the movement. The Old Side Presbyterians sided with the established Anglican Church and attacked the New Side Presbyterians. But the revivalists won both the respect of the magistrates and the hearts of the people. They increased while their opponents decreased. It was not until 1758 that the two groups reunited.

Another fruit of the Great Awakening was the beginning of Methodism in the South, especially in Virginia. John Wesley, a close friend of Whitefield, was probably the greatest single figure in the revival of religion which swept England starting in 1740. He organized his followers into closely knit, well-disciplined groups which existed as special societies within the Church of England. Pressure was always present to break with the Anglican Church and to form a separate Methodist Church. Wesley would not hear of it.

In the 1760’s Methodist missionaries and laymen were active in New York; however, their work was marked by only average success. The real heart of American Methodism, small though it was, was to be found in the South, and it benefited from the Great Awakening.

A young Anglican pastor, Devereux Jarratt, was converted in the Presbyterian revivals, and he continued to preach revival sermons. His work, in turn, converted a number of men who later became active, often leaders, in the Methodist movement. Jarratt was strenuously opposed by many of his fellow Anglican pastors and was accused of being "a fanatic Presbyterian."

During the 1770’s he came in contact with Wesley’s men and immediately recognized them as brethren in Christ. Here were men in the Anglican Church who felt as he did. Praise God, they would perform a mighty work! Under the joint efforts of Jarratt and traveling Methodist lay preachers much of southern Virginia, and some of North Carolina, was covered by Methodist circuits. Although Jarratt refused to join them when they broke from the Anglican Church, his work was responsible for the sound and extensive activities of the Methodists in the South. But even with this activity the Methodists remained as a group within the Anglican Church, and far smaller in numbers than the three great Churches -- the Congregationalists, the Anglicans, and the Presbyterians. Even the Baptists were much larger.

In 1742, Henry Melchior Mühlenberg, a Lutheran pastor, arrived in Pennsylvania. He was trained in the famous Pietist university, Halle. The German Pietists also stressed the necessity of a conversion experience and, consequently, a strict moral life. By this time there were a number of Lutheran congregations in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Most of the Swedish Lutherans on the Delaware had been absorbed into the Anglican Church. But the others held firm, hoping for pastors. They would not use untrained men and were suspicious of the revivals.

One year previous to Mühlenberg’s arrival, Count von Zinzendorf came to America. He was the great leader of the Moravians, who were German Lutherans and Bohemian Pietists. Zinzendorf hoped to form a great united Protestant Church in which each Church would retain its individuality but unite on common essentials. He was working with a number of Lutheran churches in Pennsylvania when Mühlenberg arrived.

Mühlenberg decided at once that the greatest need of the Lutheran congregations was not for some vague union of all Protestants but for adequate pastoral care by devoted ministers. Fakes and quacks had succeeded in gaining control of the churches on the frontier because nobody was there to check their credentials.

In a heroic manner Mühlenberg set out to bind together the scattered Lutheran congregations, to give them adequate pastoral care, to preach, administer the sacraments, and to work out a common worship service. Under his leadership the first Lutheran synod, called the Ministerium of Pennsylvania, was founded in 1748.

Though Mühlenberg himself was not a revivalist, he was sympathetic to the piety of the revivalists and opened his pulpit to Whitefield. In turn he preached in German and Dutch Reformed churches and in Anglican churches. He represented the warm, personal religion of German Pietism, coupled with a strong orthodox Lutheranism which insisted on adherence to the historically formulated Lutheran doctrines. Theology was not to be ignored in favor of the emotions. This was to become a distinctive mark of Lutheranism in American Protestantism. The major problems of the Lutheran Church were those of an educated ministry and the use of a strange language, and they were to plague Lutherans for some time.

The German Reformed, like the Lutherans, had difficulty in obtaining an educated ministry. For practical reasons they co-operated with and received support from the Dutch Reformed Church of Holland. In 1746, Rev. Michael Schlatter arrived. He played the role of a Mühlenberg for the German Reformed. As did his friend in the Lutheran Church, he took a mediating position between two extreme parties -- the Pietists and the strict Confessional orthodox.

Not only did the Great Awakening account for the new status of the Presbyterians and Baptists and the arrival of the Methodists; it also resulted in a new way to reach the many unchurched. How were the thousands of indifferent people outside the Church to be brought within? At this time America had fewer church members than did any other so-called Christian nation. Revival preaching, use of the Word, sacraments, and pastoral ministry, and strict congregational discipline was the answer.

The people were ripe for a revival. Living on the frontier, their lives always in danger from Indian attacks, struggling against nature for a living, accustomed to the raw, untamed life, these people were prepared for revivalistic religion which touched the emotions. Those in the cities were just as prepared for a resurgence of the emotional side in religion.

A great ingathering of souls resulted. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 50,000 people joined the Church in New England alone. This was the pattern in the other sections. Through the revivals the Churches reached out and touched more people than at any previous time in America. Here was a method of bringing the people to God. It took for granted that men were separated from God and that they had to be born anew.

The results were astounding. A new life pulsated through the Churches. Grasped by the love of God in Christ, men poured out this love to their fellow men. As members in the great Kingdom of God, they sought to express its meaning in life around them.

Indian missions took on a new appearance. Once more young men volunteered their life’s work with the natives. Young David Brainerd poured out his zeal and energy in their behalf until he died a burned-out man in the home of Jonathan Edwards.

Eleazar Wheelock had such success that he hoped to open a college for Indians. One of the converts, Samson Occom, made a great impression in England and helped to raise funds for the institution. In 1769, Dartmouth College, named in honor of Lord Dartmouth, who helped to raise funds in England, was founded by Wheelock for the specific purpose of training Indians. Even Jonathan Edwards spent a long period of his life laboring among the Indians at the Stockbridge mission in western Massachusetts while he was producing some of his greatest theological treatises.

This new life in the Churches resulted in the establishment of a number of colleges and other institutions. Whitefield’s famous orphanage in Georgia became an inspiration for a number of similar homes for children. Out of a charitable school and academy in Pennsylvania, 1755, there emerged the University of Pennsylvania. Likewise schools such as the Anglicans’ King’s College (Columbia), 1754, and the Baptists’ College of Rhode Island (Brown), 1769, gained support from the fresh energy of the Churches.

One of America’s great universities came directly out of the Great Awakening. It was the continuation of William Tennent’s Log College as the College of New Jersey, 1746. This Presbyterian college later became Princeton University. A whole series of "Log Colleges" sprang up, and some proved to be permanent colleges. Thus the revivals produced a new spirit manifesting itself in missions and education.

One of the finest fruits of the Great Awakening was the increased opposition to slavery. Ever since the introduction of Negro slaves into Virginia in 1619, many Christians had been uneasy about the buying and selling of their fellow human beings. Others had defended it.

To the Biblical statement that in Christ "there is neither Greek nor Jew, . . . bond nor free" the reply was made that this pertains only to man’s soul, not to his external bodily condition. Slavery exists because of sin.

Students of Jonathan Edwards believed that Christian love must be shown to mankind in general. It cannot be stopped by a small limited application. Negroes and Indians were part of the great human race and should, therefore, be objects of love as much as any other being. In the 1770’s, Samuel Hopkins, one of these students. took a stand against slavery.

The real opposition to slavery, however, was carried on independently of the revivals but benefited from the atmosphere of the revivals. Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, both Quakers, devoted their lives and talents to opposing traffic in human bodies. Woolman, in particular, gave all his time and devotion to the concern of traveling around to various Quaker meetings and speaking his mind against slavery. He had a sensitive, highly spiritual personality, which on one occasion led Indians to grasp what he was saying though they could not comprehend the language he used.

The Great Awakening had changed the American religious scene. New groups forged to the front in importance. All groups had to decide for or against revivals. A new kind of leadership replaced the older leaders, and the fresh vital life pouring through the Churches expressed itself in colleges, orphanages, Indian missions, and antislavery feeling.

But most important of all was a subtle shift in emphasis. Formerly the Puritans had emphasized God’s covenant -- what he had done. This was found in Scripture and in doctrine, and a correct understanding of both was essential. This was taught and made real in the Church. But revivalism tended to stress, not so much what God had done, but how man had responded. Earlier revivalists such as Edwards and Whitefield did not make this error, but later men did.

This led to several new developments in American Christianity. So much stress was laid on the response of the believer to the love of God in Christ that there was a danger of overemphasizing man’s emotional states. The real concern was with how he felt. Did he feel guilty? Did he show this guilt so that all could see it? Was his conversion experience convincing? Did it have the proper marks? How man felt and reacted became more important than what God in Christ had done for man.

Again, the converted man came under the rule of God, the reign of Christ in God’s Kingdom. This brought him a new will, a new heart, a new knowledge of God’s will. Each man had to experience this individually and personally. Having experienced conversion, he would show it in his actions, so his actions became all-important. How was he living? Did he show God’s will in action? The really important thing was not what man believed but what he did. So the emphasis was placed on man’s activity, with less and less regard for doctrine, theology, or the Church as the chosen instrument of God.

Finally, a new shift was evident in the different way men recognized religious activities. Formerly all the Churches granted that the Church was responsible for all life -- personal and social. But now, the later revivalists saw God at work primarily in the conversion experience and in the resulting life of Christian good works. The conversion experience and its fruits were from God. But what of the rest of life? What of knowledge, of government, of economics? Did not the Church have some responsibility for these? Yes, but only through converted men can God’s will be shown in those areas. God is related only to the saved individuals. The world is essentially in sin and so is evil. Therefore only converted men really know and do what is right. Both the place of the Church and the importance of worldly activity suffered at the hands of revivalism.

What, then, happens to the Church’s mission and message to the whole of life? The Puritans knew that God’s will could never be done perfectly, but they also knew that some actions are closer to his will than others, regardless of a man’s being converted or unconverted. One could find God’s will and action in many places besides the conversion experience. One of the fruits of the Great Awakening was a surrender of the Church’s mission and message as related to the intellectual, political, and economic life of man. No longer was the old Puritan ideal of a holy commonwealth completely dedicated to God the primary goal of New England. Interest was now shifted to God’s reign in man’s heart. Meanwhile, while many remained unconverted, one could not hope for a holy commonwealth.