Tag Archives: Great Awakening

Jonathan Edwards: America’s Greatest Mind

Image

 

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is considered by many to be the greatest mind that America has ever produced and he is certainly this country’s greatest theologian and was a leading figure in the First Great Awakening and that revival’s learned supporter and advocate.

He was born on October 5, 1703 in East Windsor, CT. His mother was a daughter of Solomon Stoddard, pastor of the famed Congregational church at Northfield, Massachusetts for fifty-seven years. He began study of Latin at six years of age under the tutorship of his father and four older sisters. Before he was 13, he had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew and he entered Yale at age 13 in 1716 and in 1720 he graduated with the highest honors (at age 17). His conversion took place around the age of 17. He stayed on for two more years at Yale to receive a Masters degrees in theology. In 1722, before age 19, he went to New York City where he preached at a small Presbyterian church for eight months. Edwards then received a call from Yale to become a tutor and he returned to Yale for two years. In 1726, he was ordained a colleague of his grandfather, Rev. Stoddard, and married Sarah Pierrepont, the following year. He then assumed full ministerial duties when Stoddard died in 1729. He would remain pastor there until 1750.

In a sermon entitled A Divine and Supernatural Light, preached in 1733, Edwards described religious knowledge as “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God.” Edwards’ all-important distinction is between a “sense” of divine truth and an “understanding” of it. The first concerns the innermost will (the heart), whereas the the second applies to rational speculation (the head). He stressed that unless the heart is affected through regenerative grace, religion is nothing more than what unregenerate man can know through natural reason. 

And religious experience on a large scale describes New England’s Great Awakening (1733-1745) which by 1735 involved not only Northampton but the whole Connecticut River Valley. Edwards saw the revival as evidence of God’s redemptive work in New England. In 1737, he published an account of the revival entitled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which was widely read in America and abroad. Notwithstanding the dramatic sermons of George Whitefield, who visited in Northampton in 1740, the most famous sermon preached during the Great Awakening if not in all of American history was Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of Angry God preached in 1741, which had a powerful effect upon its hearers. In order to make religious revivalism theologically understandable, Edwards wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741) and Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1743). 

Edwards believed that God performs saving works, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but he also stressed that vital piety, consisting of holy affections seated in the heart, requires constant self-scrutiny. His analysis of religious experience culminated in a Treatise Concerning Religious Affections published in 1746. It affirms the heart as the locus of religious experience and the integration of the transformed heart and visible acts. 

In 1750, after he had been in Northampton for 23 years, an old controversy concerning the terms of full admission in the church was revived. Edwards opposed the view and practice held by his predecessor and held on to his own views. He was shortly ejected from the pastorate preaching his Farewell Sermon on July 1, 1750.

In 1751, he became pastor at the Congregational church at Stockbridge, MA and missionary to the Housatonic Indians. His years at Stockbridge proved to be his most productive.

In 1754, he published the Freedom of the Will which was a defense of the doctrines of foreordination, original sin, and eternal punishment, a masterpiece of philosophical reasoning. Man’s natural will is free in time but his depraved moral will can only choose grace when divinely inclined. In 1757, he was elected president of Princeton College in New Jersey. Five weeks after his inauguration in 1758, at the age of fifty-six, died as a result of a smallpox inoculation. Jonathan Edwards was the outstanding Calvinist preacher and theologian of colonial New England and the founder and leader of Edwardean or New England theology. One of the brightest minds America’s ever produced, his legacy and influence continues to this day. 

George Whitefield: A Revival Phenomenon

ImageL

Local revivals were a part of American culture from the earliest colonial times. But they were always isolated affairs and rarely transcended local boundaries. But in 1739, a young preacher appeared in the colonies whose spiritual zeal was so intense and whose speaking abilities were so finely tuned that he altered the conventions of preaching and religious association. It was George Whitefield (1714-1770), a mere novice of 21 years old, who went on a preaching tour of America that created a mass sensation. 

Whitefield, an ordained minister of the Church of England, was a colleague of the Wesleys, who had showed the Wesley brothers in both preaching outdoors and traveling wherever he could to preach the message of salvation. He came to Georgia briefly in 1738 to establish an orphanage. He came back in 1739 and his dramatic and effective preaching soon made him a national celebration. His preaching tour of New England in the fall of 1740, where he addressed crowds of 8,000 nearly every day for over a month, was most likely the most sensational event in American religion. Wherever he went in the colonies-New England, New York, Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah-he left a lively interest in the Christian faith. There were hundreds for whom the big question had become “What must I do to be saved?” and others who wondered what awakened religion would do to the social fabric. Whitefield was in short a phenomenon. 

On November 23, 1740, Nathan Cole from Connecticut went to see Mr. Whitefield and he writes about the experience in his journal: “When we got to Middletown old meeting house it was said to be three or four thousand of people assembled together…I turned and looked towards the Great River and saw the ferry boats running swift backward and forward bringing over loads of people and the oars rowed nimble and quick; everything men, horses and boats seemed to be struggling for life; the land and banks over the river looked black with people and horses all along the twelve miles I saw no man at work in his field, but all seemed to be gone.”

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observed the most exact silence….I perceived that he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles of gold. As he preceded, I began to soften and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver and he finished so admirably that i emptied my pocket wholly into the collection dish gold and all.”

Whitefield indeed could preach to mass crowds and could easily be heard from the furthest reaches of a crowd numbering in excess of twenty thousand people. He had a raw power of delivery, dynamic appeal, a commanding pulpit presence and a tremendous speaking endurance. Itinerant preaching was usually a young man’s profession and most seldom lasted for more than one tour. But George Whitefield, from the time he started preaching at the age of 23 until his death 33 years later, he preached several times weekly to mass audiences. In all, he made seven preaching tours of the colonies, each of which lasted for more than a year. He preached more than 15,000 sermons. 

As a man who was unattached to any local church, Whitefield was free to cast his message in the language of the common man. He discovered what politicians would discover later on, that in a mass speaking engagement, you don’t speak down to the audience, but aim the message directly to their hearts and minds and that is exactly what Whitefield did. He won the hearts of the American populace but also had his critics, mainly in the Anglican church and the academics at Harvard and Yale. Nonetheless, unprecedented crowds numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands, appeared out of nowhere to hear the simple and dramatic message of spiritual rebirth and justification by faith alone.

In Newport, Rhode Island, October 5, 1770, Whitefield died suddenly as he hoped he always would, in the middle of a preaching tour. His influence would not cease with his death, but would continue to inspire generations of American revivalists attuned to the simple yet powerful message of the new birth. His simple dramatic presentations can still be read with profit. His sermons stand the test of time and read with remarkable clarity and contemporaneity. And no one in the colonies until George Washington would enjoy such widespread popularity and fame among the American populace. 

 

America: The Land of Dissenters

Image

 

The American Revolution followed closely on the heels of the Great Awakening. This momentous religious event contained seeds for potential social change. Now the Awakening did not cause the Revolution, but it did anticipate it in many ways including the assertion of the rights of individual in whatever social level to challenge the established authority. This country is a land of dissenters and it has been since its inception. 

The most important link with the Revolution and a much older tradition of Protestant dissent that the Awakening reinforced. This went back to Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth in the 1650s. The American colonies were populated mostly with people, especially New England Congregationalists and Scotch Irish Presbyterians, who thought of themselves as heirs to that valuable heritage. In their eyes, they were Dissenters rather than part of the powerful Anglican establishment. The Awakening intensified the dissenting tradition in America and increased their numbers. When the Revolution started, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists were almost invariably on its side.

George Marsden points out that one of the overlooked aspects of early America is its almost tribal ethnoreligious diversities. Politically, the most significant was the Scotch-Irish. During the reign of Elizabeth I, these Scots migrated to Ulster or Northern Ireland. As Scots, they disliked the English and as Presbyterians they disliked the Anglican church. During the course of the eighteenth century, they sailed in large numbers to the colonies, making up about one fourth of the population in Pennsylvania. They developed a strong animosity to the ruling Quakers, who were English and whose pacifist beliefs the gun toting Scotch-Irish saw as cowardly. They eventually brought Quaker rule to an end. Their even stronger hostility toward the English Anglicans, who were in control of the imperial government, was a major ingredient in the Revolution. Interestingly, the British sometimes referred to the American army as Presbyterian. But it was not just the Presbyterians. The Congregationalists in New England had a long and bitter history of antagonism with the Church of England. 

There was also a tradition of political dissent during the eighteenth century. The thought of English Dissenters was almost universally appropriated by the American revolutionaries. This thought first developed in the 1720s and it has been referred to as the Real Whig, or Commonwealth tradition. The commonwealth referred to the time of Puritan rule in England in the 1660s. These eighteenth century commonwealth men were heirs to this heritage because they belonged to nonconformist or dissenting denominations. 

Yet we most also recognize the importance and political implications in England of having an established church. Mirroring the practices of old Christendom, the Church of England was practically a department of the state and political power was tied to church membership. Other denominations were tolerated, but the memories of the Puritan takeover was recent enough that Anglicans were not ready to give up their political and social control. During the 1700s in England, if one were to hold public office or attend Oxford or Cambridge, one had to belong to the Church of England. 

This ties in to the most striking factor of religious dissent in the colonies was what one historian called the “Great Fear” or the fear of the American bishop. Anglicans in America operated at a considerable inconvenience by having no resident bishop by having no resident bishop since the church holds that the direct laying on of hands by a bishop was essential to ordination of clergy. Yet the same republican Americans, including many Anglicans, who opposed the new taxes for the empire were dead set against such an otherwise sensible proposal for an American bishop. They saw it as a major step toward imposing on the colonies the whole of the English hierarchical model for governing society.

Religion was a significant factor but it was not an isolated variable in the political events. Instead, the resurgence of dissenting religious heritages during the Great Awakening reinforced other ethnic and regional loyalties that contributed to the Revolution. Dissent was and is an important American tradition, whether it be religious or political. I spoke of the Whigs, they are one of the topics coming up, in particular, their view of history.