The Great Awakening is a name used to describe a period of time in the early to middle part of the eighteenth century in colonial America when God’s Spirit moved in a mighty and unusual way bringing renewal to churches and new birth to thousands of unbelievers. It was actually made up of a series of local revivals which were part of a larger movement of spiritual renewal that affected a large geographic area and many dimensions of colonial life in America. This awakening not only affected the religious affections of the population, but also transformed its cultural and political landscape as well. The history can be traced clearly by studying the accounts of its two most influential Christian figures of the time, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.
The spiritual climate in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was far from pious. The spiritual ideals of the original Pilgrims had been forgotten and “serious theological and moral decline had set in.” Spiritual devotion gave way to indifference, drunkenness, and debauchery. In 1704, one of the more prominent pastors of that day, Cotton Mather, described the situation well by saying, “It is confessed by all who know anything of the matter…that there is a general and horrible decay of Christianity among the professors of it…the modern Christianity is too generally but a…shadow of the ancient.”
During this same period of time, there were some small seasons of revival, or “harvests,” under the ministry of Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729), grandfather of Jonathan Edwards and pastor of the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. Stoddard was instrumental in developing what came to be the accepted method of revivals in his and future generations. Although he did believe that it was the Holy Spirit who ultimately drew people to salvation, he employed the use of powerful preaching which focused first on the threat of damnation, followed by the offer of hope in the grace of Jesus Christ. This later became the method in which his grandson, Jonathan Edwards, employed with his own preaching.
Ironically, Stoddard, along with other pastors of the late seventeenth century such as Increase Mather, also added to the problematic situation with regard to church degradation. Mather, on the one hand, had allowed a loose set of requirements for baptism which led to “halfway” members which were congregants who were baptized but not converted. On the other hand, Stoddard, whose sole focus was converting souls for Christ, employed the Lord’s Supper as a “converting ordinance,” hoping that the unbeliever would eventually be converted by including them.
In spite of these ecclesiastical misgivings, it was Stoddard who paved the way for what would come to be known as the evangelical theology of conversion which would be employed for many years to come. Later, in his memoir called A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), Jonathan Edwards said of Stoddard that he was “renowned for his gifts and grace; so he was blessed, from the beginning, with extraordinary success in his ministry in the conversion of many souls.”
While Edwards and Whitefield would later become the superstars of the Great Awakening, one cannot neglect to mention the contribution of two other very influential people in the period. T.J. Frelinghuysen (1691-1747) was a Dutch Reformed pastor in Brunswick, New Jersey, and is generally credited as being one of the primary instruments of the beginning of the First Great Awakening. Frelinghuysen was known for fearlessly preaching the new birth, often amidst ridicule and attack. He is quoted as saying, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than not to preach the truth.” The other famous revivalist was Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764) who had been encouraged by Frelinghuysen’s success. As an extremely strong orator, Tennent spoke up against ministers who were themselves unconverted. His most famous sermon was entitled, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.”
It was Jonathan Edwards, however, who became the brightest light in New England during the time. Much like John Calvin in the sixteenth century, Edwards was a scholar and had aspirations of studying and writing. His path took a much different turn, however, when his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, called him to be assistant pastor at his church in Northampton in 1727. When his grandfather died two years later, Edwards took over his pulpit.
Edwards had great concern for his flock, and despaired for their lack of piety and spiritual ignorance. He preached frequently on such themes as original sin, justification by faith, and the sovereignty of God. Edwards was simple and reserved and while he wasn’t known for his oratorical prowess, his sermons we theologically rich and carried the power of God in them.
Beginning in the winter of 1734-1735, the Spirit of God began to move mightily in his church as he preached a series of sermons on justification by faith. Revival had already been lit by Frelinghuysen and Tennent down in New Jersey, but it was Edwards who became the lightning rod for its explosion. Because of the prevailing culture of the time, the revival centered around the message that “outward morality is not enough for salvation, an inward change is necessary.”
Although Edwards was cautious about definitely pronouncing someone as “saved,” he estimated that around three hundred people were converted in the first six month period of the revival. He described the revival as truly “universal” because, in contrast to Stoddard’s smaller “harvests” which seemed to affect many more women than men, this revival affected all ages of men, women, and children. It had also crossed racial boundaries as well, as Edwards accounted, when “several Negroes…appear(ed) to have been truly born again.”
Two of Edwards’ most famous sermons were “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.” Ironically, these sermons represented a minority of the themes on which he preached, yet their impact was felt tremendously. The latter was a sermon which was based on God’s absolute sovereignty, and even though Edwards delivered it in his usual unemotional manner, the congregation responded with weeping and crying out to God for mercy.
The revival eventually spread to other neighboring towns in the region. Edwards wrote a detailed account of it in his famous work A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God which eventually was published in 1737 and was widely disseminated and read. The account is credited for contributing to the growing revival in Great Britain in 1738 and made a deep impression on the newly converted John Wesley.
Someone else who had heard of the Northampton awakening of 1734-1735 is English evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770). Although the awakening in Northampton had waned by 1736, the people of New England had hopes for a greater revival and had heard of Whitefield’s exploits in Great Britain.
In contrast to Edwards, George Whitefield was a fiery and theatrical preacher. He had no desire to be a pastor such as Edwards, but was known for his itinerant ministry. He was a man of zeal and intense spiritual passion as well as being a brilliant orator. Due to his loud and clear voice which could be heard at a great distance, he more often preferred to preach in the open air and in fields which could accommodate the sometimes tens of thousands that would come to hear him preach.
Whitefield’s fame as a preacher spread all over Britain and even to the American colonies. His preaching became extremely popular in London, Bristol, Gloucester, and Bath. In 1738 he first came to the Colonies while laboring at an orphanage in Georgia which had been abandoned by John and Charles Wesley due to their lack of success there. After exchanging letters with Edwards in 1739, Whitefield set out on a preaching tour of the Colonies, eventually making his way to New England. His tour took him to many cities throughout colonial America including Philadelphia where he drew such large crowds that Benjamin Franklin, whom he considered a personal friend, would often simply enjoy listening to his powerful oratory skills, although remaining unconverted by his message.
Wherever Whitefield traveled, revival fires re-ignited. Accompanied by William Tennant, Sr. and his son, Gilbert Tennant, Whitefield became the catalyst for the spread of the awakening to all the Middle Colonies and eventually to New England. Whitefield traveled all over New England including Boston, Roxbury, Marblehead, Newbury, Portsmouth, and as far north as York, Maine.
Eventually Whitefield made his way over to Northampton, making good on his promise to Edwards that he would visit the area. Whitefield preached against the backslidings of the people there and many came under conviction, including Edwards’ own children. Although Edwards was very moved by his preaching, when Whitefield departed Edwards preached on the need for lasting fruit and warned his congregation that Whitefield’s brand of revivalism could lead to hypocrisy.
Whitefield’s tour of the colonies continued until the fall of 1740. By the time he left for England, tens of thousands of people had been affected by his ministry. “His method of theatrical field preaching rejuvenated New England’s substantial revival tradition and captivated tens of thousands of listeners.” His preaching against unconverted ministers left no small controversy behind, however, which left the local preachers such as Gilbert Tennant to continue their work in that area.
The results of the Great Awakening were numerous. First and foremost was the number of souls that were converted to Christ which was estimated at being between 25,000 and 50,000 in New England alone. Churches of many denominations enjoyed a large increase in membership and several hundred new churches were born.
Education was also greatly affected by the Awakening. William Gilbert’s Log College eventually became Princeton University, and other major universities were also birthed in this era such as Dartmouth, Brown University, and Rutgers University. Benjamin Franklin built a hall for George Whitefield to preach in when he was in Philadelphia, and that hall eventually became the University of Pennsylvania.
The Awakening was responsible also for creating unity between the colonies since it transcended geographical and denominational barriers. This unity was instrumental in fostering suspicion of influences from Europe in general and Great Britain in particular. These feelings are believed by many to have indirectly led to the American Revolution. At the very least, they fostered the unity that was necessary for the development of a new nation.
Not all the results of the Great Awakening were positive, however. The accompanying emotionalism and excess that some pastors allowed to run rampant created schisms that to this day are not healed. One of the ways that Jonathan Edwards’ influence is felt even to this day is his literary contributions that addressed these matters. Edwards was responsible for producing the first theology for revival in works such as Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1734), Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742), and most notably, Religious Affections (1746). Through these works he helped his contemporary generation as well as future generations be able to better discern the difference between carnal religious emotionalism and the true work of the Spirit.
The United States is still experiencing the effect of the Great Awakening to this day, especially in the evangelical movement which was birthed from this move of God’s Spirit. Most of all, however, we have the history of the Great Awakening, along with the wisdom and experience that came from it, to look back on and learn from. We can compare the degradation of our own society with that of colonial New England and be moved to prayer that God would once again move in power in our day as He did then in order that many may be brought into the kingdom of God.
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Hardman, Keith J. Seasons of Refreshing: Evangelism and Revivals in America. (Grand Rapids:
Baker Books, 1994).
Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial
America. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
Lescelius, Robert H. “The Great Awakening: A Pattern Revival.” Reformation and Revival 04:3
Thornbury, John F. “Another Look at the First Great Awakening.” Reformation and Revival 04:3