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New England's founding fathers-Bradford, Winthrop, Hooker, and Cotton - had come to America on a mission that was primarily theological in nature. But by the start of the 18th century there had developed a feeling in New England that Winthrop's original "City on a Hill" had lost its former glory, that New Englanders had become too comfortable and cornplacent and had forgotten why they had come to America in the first place. New England had run up against the same problem that a family business confronts when the third and fourth generations take the helm. Would they continue the legacy of the first two generations, or would they coast on past efforts and eventually run the business into the ground? To some Puritans, it appeared that New Englanders had become fat in their prosperity, took their many blessings for granted, and had spent the spiritual capital their ancestors had brought to Massachusetts in the 1620s and 30s.
The most obvious symptom of Massachusetts' loss of purpose was the adoption of the so-called Half-Way Covenant in 1662 by a synod of Congregationalist clergy, the object of which was to expand church membership. Previously, only the obviously regenerate souls, those who had a demonstrable conversion experience - a "new birth" - could be church members and have their children baptized. But under the Half-Way Covenant, adults who did not have a clearly discernible "work of the Spirit" could have their children baptized as well, so long as they professed an intellectual belief in the basic tenets of Reformed Christianity. They could not take part in the Lord's Supper or vote on church matters, but they were welcomed as partial members of the congregation and honest "seekers" after salvation.
This trend would be further extended in 1700 by the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, pastor of the church of Northampton, Massachusetts, who permitted all those who professed a belief in the "historical truth" of Christianity to partake in the Lord's Supper even if they were not clearly part of the "elect." He argued that it was impossible for any human to discern the sheep from the goats with certainty and that it was therefore best to let God decide. Once the unregenerate were admitted to the church, Stoddard thought, it would be possible to bring about the necessary new birth with a steady stream of compelling preaching. Stoddard was himself an excellent preacher and his church prospered tremendously under the new system. Parish after parish adopted the "Stoddard Way," and it wasn't long before almost everyone had forgotten that the Lord's Supper had once been denied to the unregenerate.
Stoddard also began making subtle changes in the structure of the church. He regarded the Congregational Way as too loose. Instead of lay rule, he shifted his church to elder rule. The Mathers-Increase and Cotton-bitterly attacked the Stoddard system, calling him the "Congregational Pope." Stoddard's ecclesiastical empire, though, would be Presbyterian rather than Roman. He envisioned congregations subsisting under a larger structure, which would be administered by synods of ministers and church representatives. Of Congregational lay rule, he would say: "We have no reason to think that Christ would entrust the government of His church with men so incapable to govern." It took a half century for this biblical pharaoh to build his kingdom, but at the end of his life he had managed to sweep the congregations of Springfield, Longmeadow, Deerfield, Hadley, Westfield, Suffleld, and others along the banks of the Connecticut River, under his dominion, with Northampton as the ecclesiastical capital. He called it the Hampshire Association, which was given legal status by adoption of the Saybrook Platform. Congregationalism in Massachusetts and Connecticut was being gradually obliterated under Stoddard in favor of a more authoritarian Presbyterian polity.
It was Stoddard's enormous popularity that enabled him to acquire so much power. He was a Harvard graduate and had written seminal theological tracts. His sermons were the most carefully crafted and eloquent in the region. But Stoddard was making the same error that Catholics and Anglicans had made by trying to pull all Christians under one roof, rather than permitting a thousand flowers to bloom. He was corrupting the federal principle so central to the Congregational Church polity. But because he was so powerful a presence, so revered by his flock, and so effective in his ministry, very few-with the exception of throwbacks such as the Mathers - thought the "Stoddard Way" a mistake.
With expansion of organization came a necessary relaxation of standards. Indeed, Stoddard opened the doors of his church to just about anyone, except the openly scandalous. He had forgotten that the source of strength of the old Congregational Way was the absence of nominal Christians. By permitting the unconverted to partake in the Lord's Supper alongside the newly born, he shattered the entire idea of the covenant and with it the internal unity of the local congregation. The result was an inevitable erosion of the pure Christian spirit that can exist only within a body of believers who are assured of where they stand with regard to salvation. Under the Stoddard system, every congregation would have to carry with it dead weight. One can sympathize with the trend. For one always wants to be hospitable, as well as rule over a huge and prosperous organization. But compromise and the subsequent tarnishing of the pristine purity of the original mission was the price.
Stoddard's open-door church policy has generally been saluted by historians as democratic and liberalizing. But, in fact, it was the opposite. Stoddard was New England's greatest autocrat. He laid the foundation for the imposition of a national church (along Presbyterian lines), which was precisely what the first Pilgrim settlers sought to escape.
Cotton Mather opposed passionately the usurping of the authority of the autonomous local church in 1701 and the subsequent bureaucratization of Christianity. In his great New England epic, Magnalia Christi Americana, Mather lamented the Stoddardian corruption of the Puritan dream, recalling the flight to America "from the depravations of Europe, to the American strand." He called the "first age" a "golden age," and said "to return to that will make a man a Protestant, and, I might add, a Puritan."
Mather saw that the institutionalization of Christianity was deadening the spiritual lives of a people. His concerns foreshadowed the emergence of Jonathan Edwards, who also saw the need to revive New England's Christian mission and reaffirm the principles of Reformed Protestant Christianity. Edwards was a key figure in American history, because it was his ministry that sparked the Great Awakening in the 1740s. He was the greatest American theologian and an excellent preacher. His mind and spiritual fervor helped permanently alter the face of American Christianity, and in many important ways repealed the legacy of Solomon Stoddard, which is made all the more interesting by the fact that Edwards was Stoddard's grandson. Edwards' sermons and preaching exploded the institutional shackles man has always sought to impose on the Holy Spirit.
Jonathan Edwards was the son of Timothy Edwards, a Harvard graduate and pastor of the parish of East Windsor, Connecticut. Jonathan's mother was Esther Stoddard, the second child of Reverend Solomon Stoddard. Esther lived until she was 98, and so was able to see the spintual earthquake her brilliant son would help bring about in the history of America. The incidents that have made Jonathan Edwards such a legend began at a very young age. He was 11 or 12 when he wrote his famous 1,000-word essay on flying spiders in which he discussed a basis for their classification and presented a theory of equilibrium explaining their ability to navigate in the air. He also hypothesized that their webs were spun from a liquid substance. At age 12, he wrote an essay on colors, in which it was clear that he had studied Newton's Opticks. But his primary interest from the start was God. As a child he fasted frequently and often went on long solitary walks in the forest where he prayed and meditated on the Almighty. His interest in science was merely a means to apprehend more profound eternal truths.
In those days, science had not yet turned against Christianity. Isaac Newton (1642-1727), one of the greatest scientific minds in the history of the West, spent much of his time trying to elucidate biblical prophecy. For him, science was an inquiry into the laws of God. Faith and knowledge, he believed, illuminate each other so profoundly that their relationship cannot be overemphasized. Theological references are scattered throughout Newton's works, and he wrote many tracts that were strictly devotional. Wherever one looks there is order and beauty in the universe, and this he thought was a cogent proof of God's existence and love for man. From a very early age, this was Jonathan Edwards' view as well. For him, the study of insects, animals, and plants was a way to obtain a glimpse of God's infinite creative powers. At age 13, Edwards entered Yale College. There he continued his study of Newton, and wrote his "Notes on Natural Science." There was little doubt that Edwards could have become one of America's greatest scientists if he had chosen that path. But he chose instead to follow his family heritage, and became a minister of the Gospel.
The key to Edwards' life and thought was his conversion at the age of 17. Such an assertion sounds strange to modern ears, since Jonathan Edwards from his earliest conscious days was pious to an extreme. According to his Personal Narrative, his new birth was the culmination of a long struggle that began during an illness that lasted many months. God seemed to be shaking the young sinner over the pit of hell. In vain, he said, he tried to throw off his evil ways and vowed to take on day and night more rigorous exercises in piety-to no avail. The despair continued for weeks and even months. But then, all at once, he felt at peace and had "a new sense of things." He could not explain the experience he felt, except that it was strangely unex pected. All the religious duties and somber rituals of prayer and devotion that he had engaged in since childhood now seemed only nominal religious expressions and had nothing whatsoever to do with true faith. No matter how hard he tried, he always found himself backsliding into sin; for he had been relying on his own futile efforts and had not placed his trust in God's power to lift him out of that fiery pit. As Edwards described it, he came to this realization when he came upon these words in Paul's letter to Timothy: "Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever" (1 Tim. 1:17).
Edwards had read these words hundreds of times before, and certainly had an intellectual grasp of their meaning. But now they seemed to open a window into eternity that he had never seen before. He was filled immediately and unexpectedly with a sensation so unusual that he had no adequate words to explain what he felt. He suddenly burst out into songs and exclamations. He longed "to be wrapt up to Him in Heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in Him forever." He had a fresh under standing of redemption, of God's love and the price Christ paid on the cross for man's evil ways. He was overwhelmed by "an inward, sweet sense of these things." He felt, as he described it, "a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all concerns of this world; and a kind of vision, or fix'd ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up by God. The sense I had of divine things would all of a sudden, as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my heart and ardor of my soul, that I knew not how to express." Edwards had been born again. The importance of this event went beyond the implications it had for his personal life; it formed the cornerstone of his theology.
After serving for a year as minister in a Scotch Presbyterian Church in New York, he returned to Yale for a time to teach. He then accepted an invitation to assist his aging grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, as minister of the church at Northampton. When Stoddard died at age 87, Edwards was elected pastor. He was only 24 years old. From there he began his relentless assault on the source of corruption of the original "errand into the wilderness." That source, he believed, was Arminianism, a "heresy" that is found in most large hierarchical religious establishments, and most acutely in the Roman and Anglican Churches. Paradoxically, Edwards' attack was also aimed, albeit indirectly, against the legacy of his grandfather, which Edwards believed had been built in part on the Arminian error.
Arminius was a Dutch Calvinist whose teachings were condemned by the Calvinist Synod of Dort in 1619. Even though Arminius believed in salvation by faith, his name came to be synonymous in Puritan minds with the belief in salvation by works. Arminius accepted the doctrine of election, but opposed orthodox Calvinism's doctrine of predestination. Man, he believed, was free to chose or reject Christ. Strict Calvinists, believing God's grace is irresistible, rejected Arminianism, be cause to suggest that man chooses God, and not the other way around, seemed to them to be the height of arrogance. This is a crude summary of the actual Arminian dispute, which focused on complicated distinctions regarding the nature of the human will, too involved to go into here. What is important, for our purposes, is what Arminius stood for in the mind of the New Englander. One Puritan wit, when asked what Arminians held, answered: "All the best benefices in England." Such devotional exercises as praying the rosary, paying bishops for indulgences, sprinkling holy water on people and building impressive cathedrals were, in the New England view, natural extensions of Arminianism to a position that one earned his entrance into Heaven.
National churches are especially susceptible to giving priority to works over faith because their major concern is the behavior of the people. When the church becomes an agency of the government, its priority becomes the fostering of good citizenship. From the point of view of the state, one's private relationship with the Almighty is of only secondary importance to outward expressions of reverence. The last thing officials of any government or church bureaucracy want is a sudden outburst of religious enthusiasm. For this reason, defenders of national church establishments favored Christian apologetics based on logic rather than emotional conversion. The major aim of the national church is to be as inclusive as possible, and so cannot demand that all its members have a dramatic St. Augustine-style conversion. The most it can require is an intellectual affirmation of the doctrinal essentials.
John Tillotson, who became Archbishop of Canterbury following the Revolution of 1688, exemplified the compromising spirit of Anglicanism. His sermons were edifying, but not demanding. He appealed to the lazy and worldly impulse in Anglican Christianity, and attacked religious enthusiasts for their unseemly behavior. There is nothing in the Gospel, said Tillotson, "that is either unsuitable to our reason, or prejudicial to our interest . . . nothing but what is easy to be understood, and is easy to be practiced by an honest and willing mind." Anglicans discouraged too much speculation, stressed the "golden rule" as a way to live, and looked askance at mysticism. Good deeds took precedence over the personal relationship between Christ and the individual. One can sympathize with the sentiment of a man like Archbishop Tillotson who desired business as usual, and who saw the sudden and violent conversion as dangerous to social order. In Edwards' view, however, this Arminian Anglican spirit of reasonable compromise and focus on outward religious forms had subverted the original Puritan spirit, and had done so in the form of Stoddardism.
One symptom of the Arminian disease that had started to infect New England was the obsession with regulations. Those who missed church service could expect to spend time in the stocks. There were laws against swearing, profane language, and drunkenness. These laws may have been practical from the standpoint of keeping order in the community. Indeed, New Englanders were model citizens. According to a report by Joseph Bennett, an English visitor in 1740, "it is a rare thing to meet with any drunken people, or to hear an oath sworn in the streets"; and in a tour of the local courts to see what crimes people were committing he saw "not a single criminal." But these encouraging social facts, in Edwards' view, had nothing to do with the individual sinner's salvation, or with his precarious walk on the precipice that separates him from safety and hell. Man will not be saved by laws, regulations, and institutions; nor will he be saved by good behavior. The Protestant position and Edwards' position was that he will be "saved by faith alone." Indeed, New England continued to acknowledge this fact out wardly, continued to use the language of their forefathers' original covenant and employed the same watchwords. But there seemed, in Edwards' view, little-felt inward comprehension.
On the surface, the Bible commonwealth of New England still appeared to be extremely pious. But Edwards maintained that New England was Christian in form only, and had lost sight of the substance of the faith. The churches had become spiritually hollow. The aims of Protestant Reformation, as he saw it, had to be reasserted, pushed farther than they had before. Jonathan Edwards devoted himself to this project with singularity of mind and purpose. He sought to take New England not back to Calvin or Luther, but all the way back to the Sermon on the Mount.
To his Northampton congregation he stressed the limitless power of God, pointing to both the terror of His infinite anger with sin and the infinite benevolence of His mercy. Edwards chose his words carefully, juxtaposing themes of joy and love with fear and wrath. This interplay of feelings helped bring out emotion in his listeners. It took time before people began to respond to Edwards' message. For seven years the Northampton congregation seemed fixed in their Arminian complacency, as Edwards' sermons produced little visible impact. But then, suddenly, the people began to stir. Citizens along the Connecticut River heard of Edwards and streamed into his church, filled the pews and crowded the aisles. His most famous sermon was delivered on July 8, 1741, entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The image he used to illustrate the sinner's predicament was the spider:
"The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire . . . You have offended him more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment: it is ascribed to nothing else that you did not go to Hell last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world after you closed your eyes to sleep; and there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into Hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending His solemn worship: yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into Hell."
Edwards' aim was to jolt his listeners with concrete pictures (rather than lecture them with arguments) into seeing their total dependency on their Creator; most people of Northampton were, of course, well aware of the theological rationale of God's covenant with man; but the old Calvinist language had become stale, worn out. Edwards wanted his congregation not merely to acknowledge the dogma intellectually, but also to experience the reality of damnation through their senses. He sought to alert-and even terrify-his people into recognizing man's complete depravity and helplessness:
"Look over your past life... How manifold have been the abominations . . . How have you not only attended to the worship, but have in the meantime been feasting your lusts, and wallowing your self in abominable uncleanness... What wicked carriage have some of you been guilty of towards your parents!... Have you not even harbored ill-will and malice towards them?... Have you not often disobeyed your parents and refused to be subject to them? . . . What revenge and malice have you been guilty of towards your neighbors! . . . What lying some of you have been guilty of."
Edwards was not being self-righteous here. He was merely making the biblical point that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). All of us, including Edwards, are guilty and, therefore, unworthy of admission to God's kingdom. He also understood that genuine conversion involved, first, the breaking down of the sinner's pride to the point at which he saw very clearly why he deserved damnation. "What must I do to be saved?" was the cry he hoped to elicit from his flock, at which point Edwards would point to the Scriptures for answers. "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as the result of works, that no one should boast" (Eph. 2:8,9). "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal hfe. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged... "(John 3:16-18, italics mine).
"It would be righteous in God forever to cast you off, and destroy you," said Edwards, "yet it would also be just in God to save you, in and through Christ." Edwards would take the sinner to the brink of despair, and then at the last moment relieve him of his anxiety and rush him to the pinnacle of ecstasy. The "gift of grace" is free; our only obligation is to accept it. This was Edwards' happy news. Angels, Edwards assured his listeners, would carry the faithful to the throne of God. Both Christ and the Father would welcome the saved soul into the heavenly family, and Jesus would lead a chorus of saints singing His praises. Such were the images Edwards employed, and the impact was momentous.
Edwards wrote about what happened in his congregation in A Faithful Narrative on the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton. Without warning, Edwards reported, "the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to... work amongst us. There were, very suddenly, one after another, five or six persons who were, to all appearance, savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner." Edwards wrote of the startling conversion of one woman "who had been one of the greatest company keepers in town." The entire congregation, he reported, was often "in tears while the Word was preached." Edwards' own home replaced the local tavern as the favorite gathering place. Those who experienced the new birth, he said, "partook of that shower of divine blessing that God rained down here and went home rejoicing." Most encouraging, in Edwards' view, was that revival did not seem to be limited to Northampton: "About the same time it began to break forth in the west part of Suffleld... It next appeared in Sunderland . . . Deerfield . . . Hatfield West Springfield... Longmeadow... Westfield... Northfield... In every place God brought his saving blessings." Edwards' Faithful Narrative rocked the Protestant world, both in America and Europe. The Great Awakening in religion had begun, and it would unleash forces that would have a lasting impact on American theology, church-life, and politics.
The essence of the revival was feverish emotion, the antithesis of man-made theological constructs and ordered church life. It took power away from theologians and church mediators, and left the naked sinner to confront the awesome power and majesty of God on his own - as alone as he would be on Judgment Day. No longer could the sinner take comfort in the rituals of the church, but needed to experience directly the new birth.
The Great Awakening in religion was such a colossal force in America because the colonists were Protestants to begin with, most of them radical dissenters. The experience of revival intensified the dissenting Protestant bias that already existed in America against the corporate church organization. Americans were always predisposed to further battering down institutional barriers that tended to impede God's access to the individual heart. Conversion, not the sacraments, saved the sinner. God, not a bishop, was the only one who could grant absolution. The personal relationship between man and Maker was what counted. To focus on anything else-whether theological abstractions or religious exercises - was a dangerous diversion.
It is difficult for today's readers to fully comprehend the power of the Great Awakening in 18th-century America, in part because religious passion is no longer so central a component of mainstream American life. If we could see television footage of the events that took place across the American countryside during the Great Awakening, first sparked by Jonathan Edwards and carried on by other revivalist preachers, the combination of the civil rights movement, campus riots, and rock festivals of the 1960s would appear mild by comparison.
Ironically, the man who came to symbolize the revival was an Anglican from England named George Whitefield. He was a friend of both John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Mter taking a degree at Oxford in 1736, he attracted an enormous following in England for his spectacular preaching on the new birth. He offended many ministers by attacking them for their lack of ardor, and was subsequently barred from most mainline pulpits. So he started preaching in open fields, and this became his trademark.
Whitefield, "the boy preacher," arrived in America in 1738 at age 19. He carried on and amplified the work started by Edwards. Whitefield was America's first traveling evangelist. He preached in hundreds of towns and villages. Edwards had the original mind and was by far the more profound thinker. But Whitefield had the voice, which, without the assistance of electronic devices, could be heard clearly by 30,000 people. One especially spellbinding sermon was delivered from the courthouse steps of Philadelphia. The mob filled Market Street and stretched down Second Street. The people of Philadelphia craned their necks out windows to hear him lambast the clergy of the standing-orders, calling them unconverted and strangers to Christ.
"Father Abraham," Whitefield asked, "Whom have you in Heaven? Any Episcopalians?"
"Any Independents or Seceders, New Sides or Old Sides, any Methodists?"
"No! No! No!"
"Whom have you there, then, Father Abraham?"
"We don't know those names here! All who have come are Christians-believers in Christ, men who have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of his testimony."1
"Oh, is that the case? Then God help me, God help us all, to forget having names and become Christians in deed and in truth." He waved his arms, made violent gestures, shouted and danced to the delight of the gathering throngs, who had grown weary of the highbrow, heavily annotated and gentlemanly styles of preachers from Harvard and Yale. During a Whitefield sermon, people would shriek, roll on the ground, dissolve into tears or run wild with religious ecstasy. Even the agnostic Scottish philosopher David Hume once said of Whitefield that it was worth traveling 20 miles to hear him. Skeptic Benjamin Franklin provided the following account of a Whitefield sermon that he attended in Philadelphia:
"I happened soon afterwards to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, so I silently resolved that he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five in gold. As he proceeded, I began to soften and concluded to give the copper; another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed and determined me to give the silver. He finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket into the collection dish, gold and all."
Franklin wrote about "the extraordinary influence of Whitefield's oratory on his hearers. It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants," he said. "It seemed as if all the world was growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street." "It's all God," said Whitefield in characteristic humility. Franklin then offered to publish Whitefield's sermons for wide distribution.
Upon Whitefield's arrival in Connecticut, a local farmer provided this account of his own reaction to the news that the spectacular English evangelist was coming to Middletown: "I was in my field at work. I dropped my tool that I had in my hand and ran home and ran through the house and bade my wife to get ready to go."
Knowing they had to travel 12 miles in one hour, the farmer saddled his horse and ran much of the way alongside while his wife rode. As he approached he saw a dark cloud on the horizon, which he first thought was fog, but then found it to be dust created by thousands of his neighbors stampeding across the countryside to hear Whitefield preach in an open pasture. After listening to the eloquent sermon, the farmer concluded: "And my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound; by God's blessing, my old foundation was broken up, and I saw my righteousness would not save me."
Whitefleld often attacked the various religious establishments which were presenting an unknown and unfelt Christ, charging that "a dead ministry will always make a dead people." When he traveled to Charleston he ran headlong into the Anglican establishment, where he faced off with Alexander Garden, the commissary to the Bishop of London. It was unheard of in that region that a traveling preacher could come into the jurisdiction of the Church of England and compete for souls. After lambasting Garden for laxity and failing to tell his parishioners about grace, Whitefield was barred from the province, and warned that if ever he returned he risked excommunication from the Anglican Church. The charges that were eventually brought against him did not at all deter Whitefield from preaching. He continued to undermine Anglican authority, as well as that of other mainline Protestant denominations.
His travels through New England were among his most dramatic. Benjamin Coleman reported that after his appearance at Harvard in 1740 the students were "full of God." According to the Reverend Thomas Prince, four weeks of Whitefield's torrent cleansed Boston. He then rode across Massachusetts, preaching at Concord, Marlborough, Sudbury, and Leicester, to the gathering throngs who, he said, "were sweetly melted." He even went to Northampton and stayed at the home of the great Jonathan Edwards, who gladly opened his pulpit to the traveling evangelist. "Dear Mr. Edwards wept during almost the whole time of the exercise," Whitefield reported in his journal. In all, he made 13 trips to America, during which he spent more than two years on ships. With Edwards, he believed that the New World had been selected by God to complete His divine mission. The Prophet Isaiah had spoken of stirrings that would occur in some remote land, which the two evangelists interpreted to mean America.
Soon other revivalist preachers imitated Whitefield's example and descended with zeal upon the various standing-order ministers, who were often distressed at the threat posed by the Awakeners to the social fabric. The revival crossed denominational boundaries and put constant pressure on established religious and governing institutions. No minister and no official was immune from verbal assaults by these "New Light" preachers. This had a leveling effect on privileged position, and as such was a powerful democratic force. Anyone could have his say. No single person, priest, class of people, or institution could be considered the sole oracle of truth. Revival and aristocracy were incompatible. Who said one needed a license or a college degree to preach the Gospel? Certainly not Jesus. Like politicians and businessmen, ministers, too, would have to compete in the marketplace.
William Tennent and a group of young ministers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey concluded that too much works-oriented Arminian thought had crept into the curriculum of Harvard and Yale. So Tennent, a close friend of Whitefield, took his followers and established Log College, which trained ministers in the fervent style of the revival. Log College was renamed the College of New Jersey, and then later again renamed Princeton, of which Jonathan Edwards became president. After William Tennent died in 1746, his son Gilbert and his associates, "burning and shining lights," as Whitefield called them, kept revival going throughout the countryside with their fiery preaching until the American Revolution.
Eleazar Wheelock was another brilliant evangelist in the Whitefield tradition and a close friend of Edwards. He attacked the lame preaching of the "Old Light" clergy with piercing invective, and in 1769 moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, to minister to the Indians. There he established Dartmouth College with the assistance of a grant from the Earl of Dartmouth, who still lived in England. Brown was founded by Baptist "New Light" preachers in 1764; Rutgers was established by itinerants of the Dutch Reformed movement in 1766. Upon Whitefield's suggestion, Franklin helped found the University of Pennsylvania, which in 1914 unveiled a monument to the powerful preacher, calling Whitefield the "inspirer and original trustee." Thus, some of the most prestigious institutions of higher-learning in America were spawned by the 18th-century revival in religion. As Whitefield put it: "Learning without piety will only render you more capable of promoting the Kingdom of the Devil."
In 1755, Separate Baptists from Connecticut traveled to North Carolina and began rolling, singing, and shouting. They denounced the Anglican clergy, endured occasional floggings and imprisonment for their efforts, but rapidly gained a following. Their influence spread into Virginia, the stronghold of the planter aristocracy. It was from this movement that Southern Christianity began to take its characteristic form. Among Whitefield's most ardent followers were black slaves; the black Gospel music so popular today came out of this revivahst tradition, started by the Great Awakening. During the 1770s the Anglican Church still held sway in Virginia, but was tottering as John Wesley's Methodists became the cutting edge in evangelism, denouncing in shrill terms planter society for spiritual complacency, Arminian theology, extravagant living, and the sin of slave-owning.
The Great Awakening was not explicitly a political movement, but it had many important political implications. It meshed well with the American trend toward democracy, and complemented the Whig political tradition of Locke, Sydney, Montesquieu, and Blackstone, who were suspicious of all governing establishments. The alliance that emerged between these extreme Protestants and the radical Whig libertarians was analogous to Cromwell's co-option of the supporters of Par liamentary supremacy in 17th-century England to triumph over royal authority. The drama of England's Puritan Revolution was about to be replayed in the colonies. Only this time, the Whig/dissenting-Protestant alliance would achieve a complete victory.
For somewhat different reasons, the Awakeners and the American Whigs were critical of all large human establishments, whether religious or political: the former because of the deadening effect religious institutions can have on faith and morals; the latter because of the deadening effect governing institutions have on the human spirit of creativity and industry. There was no contradiction between revival theology and Whig political philosophy. In fact, the two movements complemented each other beautifully. Within this interplay of libertarian political theory and fervent, some would say fanatical, brand of Christianity we begin to see the emerging characteristics of a distinctly American mind.
The key to both movements was in recognition of the sanctity of the individual. It was the individual's response to God's call that was important, not the propping up of dead religious structures; it was the state interests that were subordinate to individual rights, not individual rights that were subordinate to the state's interests. Figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had history and experience as their starting points; while preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield began with Scripture and the Holy Spirit. But both political and religious movements sought to break away from established institutions, challenge time-honored customs, and make the individual central to both the temporal and spiritual order.
When George Whitefield came to the New World for the last time in 1770, even the Episcopal churches welcomed him, as denominational barriers no longer mattered so much in America. But the sense of unity that pervaded the colonies had nothing to do with religious complacency. Quite the contrary. The true spirit of Christ had dissolved sectarian differences. America considered itself to be a nation of Christians, pure and simple, as Whitefield noted with satisfaction. "Pulpits, hearts and affections," he said, were opened to him and any preacher of whatever denomination who had a true Christian message to share. There was no longer serious discord among the various sects as there was in Europe. America still yearned for the comfort and assurance found in the Christian faith. "Congregations are larger than ever," Whitefield noted, and the crowds for him were especially huge. "His popularity exceeded all that I ever knew," reported a New England pastor. During this period, Whitefield observed, "Never was the Word received with greater eagerness than it is now."
"Works? Works? A man get to Heaven by works? I would sooner think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand!" Whitefield told an immense gathering at Exeter, on September 29, 1770. He spoke for two hours that afternoon, and then collapsed from exhaustion. The next day George Whitefield breathed his last, less than five years before an anonymous colonist fired "the shot heard round the world."
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart