December 8, 2012

The American Soul: The First Great Awakening-Part II

[continued from Part I]

There were many pastors and ministers of the Great Awakening but the first and foremost that comes to mind was Jonathan Edwards. When people think of the First Great Awakening, they most often associate Jonathan Edwards with it. What is ironic is that Edwards was not the first, he had predecessors. The Great Awakening seems to have found its beginnings in Theodore Frelinghuysen (1692-1747) in New Jersey in 1726. It is in Frelinghuysen’s church revivals that America begins to see honest revival of spiritual life among the people (Shelley 345). His work then appears to have affected Presbyterian pastors Gilbert Tennent (1703-64) and William Tennent, Jr. (1705-77) (Cairns 367, Noll-Christianity in America 101-102). All these men become impassioned communicators of the Gospel and God’s Word in the mid-Atlantic colonies (Shelley 345).

When George Whitefield (initially a leader in Methodism) arrives in the American setting he finds the foundation of revival already laid for him when he arrives in 1739. He was known for verbose preaching in open air settings since the Anglican Church had not given him a pulpit (Noll-Christianity in America 108). It was in this setting he seems to have been most effective at reaching out to people who normally did not attend church.  It was even noted that Benjamin Franklin was impressed with his ability to speak to large audiences. Similar to Jonathan Edwards he had developed a charismatic unrestrained style of preaching that spurred emotional responses (Cairns 367, Noll-Christianity in America 110, Rice 109, Shelly 346). It is in these open air sermons and preaching that we begin to see the early forerunners of the 19th and 20th century camp meetings and tent revivals (Noll-Christianity in America 127).

Along with Whitefield we must also mention John Wesley the founder of Methodism. Although both preached in revival which occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, a delineation needs to be made between Whitefield and Wesley. Whitefield was the archetypal American preacher, Wesley being Methodism’s founder was Whitefield’s counterpart in England. Wesley also borrowed the idea of open-air preaching from his American colleague. Although Wesley visited the Georgia colony between 1735 and 1737, his flock was predominantly in England (Cairn 385). Since the scope of my paper is primarily on the American aspects of the Great Awakening I defer further comment on Wesley. It should also be noted that Whitefield would eventually break with Wesleyian theologically because of the Whitefield’s Calvinistic tendencies (Noll-Christianity in America 115).

The revival then spread from the middle colonies to New England mainly through the efforts of Jonathan Edwards a Congregationalist who leaned heavily Calvinist (1703-58). Like Whitefield, his fervent pleas to his congregation had immense effect. Of particular note is Edward’s 1741 sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". So powerful was this sermon that it is still known and reiterated both in print and sometimes in pulpits today (Noll-America’s God 24, 565; Pearse 350, Rice 110).

While Jonathan Edwards carried the revival to northern colonies, people like Samuel Davies did so in the south in the Virginia area. The Baptists had their champion in that of Shubal Stearns (1706-71) and Daniel Marshall who were originally New Englanders and then became Carolinians (Cairns 368, Noll-Christianity in America 119, Pearse 358).

It is about this time (1740’s) that we begin to see the high water mark of the First Great Awakening. Within the movement itself, there appeared to be hairline fractures in the form of doctrinal divisiveness that would eventually erupt into separations. Contrary to beliefs that it is the French and Indians Wars or even the American Revolution that caused the end of the First Great Awakening, I believe it to be the division over doctrinal and orthodoxy issues that would begin to bring the First Great Awakening to its close by the end of the 1750’s. We see humans doing human things like arguing and dividing which begins to suppress the true work of the Spirit. 

We begin to see the revival itself split among people to create different factions: New England groups split between the "Old Lights" who were predominately non-Calvinist (Charles Chauncy) and the “New Lights” (Jonathan Edwards) who leaned heavily Calvinist. We will see a uniquely American and unbiblical liberal group called the Unitarians (Universalists) form from Chauncy’s group that left Congregationalism. Along the same lines another split in the revival was with the Presbyterians in the middle colonies in 1741. This split was between older ministers near Philadelphia that were adamantly opposed the licensing and ordaining of laity or untrained men to the ministry. On the other side of this, the Revivalists supported licensing of untrained men who showed unusual spiritual gifts. It is peculiar that the individualistic spirit that give rise to the First Great Awakening, a spirit what would drive things like the open air preaching would have within itself the seeds for the revival’s demise (Cairn 369, Pearse 351).

Paradoxically, from the body of this revival we will begin to see the impetus of secularized national unification in the form of democracy spurred on by biblical morality/ethics. These aforementioned qualities would be the underpinnings of the US Constitution and principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence. In essence we see the dawn of a uniquely Christian-esque America and it appears uniquely guided by the Spirit of God, at least from a Christian point of view.

Such a fragmented and disjointed revival was bound to have atypical results. Although there were doctrinal differences and denominational squabbles, it is clear that the there was a unifying element in all of these disparate aspects of the Great Awakening. It is believed that between thirty and forty thousand people were affected in New England which amounted to 15-20% of the population. Thousands more were affected in the southern and middle colonies, perhaps as many as half a million which would’ve been half the population of the American colonies (Cairns 368, Noll-Christianity in America 114). From a socio-educational standpoint we see the founding of colleges such as Princeton, King's (Columbia), Rhode Island College (Brown University), Queens College (Rutgers), and so on that would provide shepherds for the many new congregations that began to spring up among the villages and towns of the American frontier (Noll-Christianity in America 115).

We would see the initiation of missionary work among the Native Americans on a grand scale encouraged by men like Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd (1718-1747). We even see that Whitefield founded an orphanage at Bethesda near Savannah, Georgia, for which he took up collections in his meetings (Rice 112).

As aforementioned we also begin to see a rather peculiar secular effect of this spiritual revival. We see the religious underpinnings that would begin to unite the American colonies into a tightknit self-governing democratic group. A factious and often time discordant group but a unified group none the less. They would be called to unite because of secular issues the largest of which would be the French and Indian Wars of 1754-63 (approx.). The wars wouldn’t be the overriding reason for the demise of the Awakening but they would be the Coup de grĂ¢ce.

[continued and concluded in Part III] 

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