The First Great Awakening

The Need for a Revival

            There are many to be thankful that Christians are not a minority in the 21st century, from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox, to mention a few. “In 1430, only one person in one hundred was a Bible-believing Christian. Today, one in nine is. This means 600 million out of 5.7 billion people in the world are Bible-believing Christians.”[1] In fact, in the 17th century American history was almost predominantly protestant, from the Puritans in New England, Baptists and Lutherans in Rhode Island and middle territories, Presbyterians in the southern territories, and the only exceptions would be the Catholic territory in and around Maryland and the Quakers in Pennsylvania. Within 100 years there was a need for a revival. During this time people were moving away from God, becoming complacent, and as James Eckman writes, the lack of leadership and training in America. Colonies had forgotten the original reason the forefathers had in moving to America, as some tried restructuring the political relationship with the British Empire.[2] This set the stage for a great revival in the American colonies from 1726 to 1760 called the Great Awakening, and the leading men were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

Jonathan Edwards

            Jonathan Edwards was a Calvinist and an evangelical preacher. At the young age of 17 he graduated from Yale and soon after took a pastorate in Northampton, Massachusetts.  In 1737 he wrote and account of how the Spirit of God moved through the people of Northampton during the years of 1734-1735 in his book called Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Works of God. This was something different from the monotone and deadened sermons that were being preached elsewhere. This writing would catapulted Jonathan into the public limelight. In 1741 he preached a sermon titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, where he expressed the importance of the power of words in a time where sermons were read and not preached with conviction and power and during a time when emotionalism was frowned upon. Jonathan made a strong and significant defense to emotionalism being evidence of God at work in His people.[3] In 1746, in his Treatise concerning Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards asks three important questions concerning all mankind, “What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards? Or, which comes to the same thing, what is the nature of true religion? And wherein do lie the distinguishing notes of that virtue and holiness that is acceptable in the sight of God?”[4]  In Jonathan’s book, Religious Affections, he breaks down the reception of those who accepted the revival, and they deemed that it was the emotion that is the true nature of Christianity, and those who did not accept the revival, and deemed that it was reasoning that is the true nature of Christianity. Jonathan repudiated both sides and suggested that it was, in fact, both the mind and heart that defines true Christianity.[5] By 1750, Jonathan was dismissed from his pastoral duties due to his strict requirements for church, membership, and communion. Jonathan did not stop there, according to Jonathan Gibson in Themelios, “In August of 1751, following a three-month trial period in the spring of the same year, Jonathan Edwards moved to the frontier mission outpost of Stockbridge where he served for nearly seven years, just prior to his death.”[6] There as he served as a pastor and missionary he died in March 1758.

George Whitefield

            Jonathan Edwards was not alone in his quest. In 1714 George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England. By 1734-35, he began serving the wealthy students meals at Pembroke College in Oxford, where he became a student, and he became friends with John and Charles Wesley. Even though he was friends with the Wesley brothers he remained a Calvinist. Sharon Rusten reports that the Wesley brother’s piety set an example that changed George’s life. By 1735 George was convinced in need of conversion and experienced a spiritual rebirth. The next year, George was ordained as the Pastor of the Church of England.[7]

As George continued he immediately experienced success as he preached and soon he began taking his message of spiritual rebirth to anyone who would listen in England. Soon George’s passion turned from a pastor to a traveling revivalists. Daniel Reid reports that, “He seldom spent more than a day in one town or a month in any one region. The result was a total of over 7,500 sermons preached to audiences of unprecedented size that would total in the millions. Never before had English-speaking audiences heard such a charismatic speaker.”[8] As George traveled from town to town, people were astonished at his preaching ability and how he used no notes and one of those people included the famous Benjamin Franklin. Even though it is not documented that Benjamin Franklin converted he became good friends with George and published many of his sermons.

Later, the friendship that that George and John Wesley had, ended when they separated on differences in free will and predestination. Though they had their differences, they would not be separated for long as Philip Schaff states, “When Whitefield heard of the dangerous illness of Wesley, who had already written his own epitaph, he sent him an affectionate letter (Dec. 3, 1753), saying, ‘I pity myself and the Church, but not you. A radiant throne awaits you, and ere long you will enter into your Master’s joy.’”[9] John Wesley would eventually preach George’s funeral in September of 1770.

Aftermath of the Great Awakening

            If a pebble creates a small wave in the pond, the Great Awakening was a boulder thrown into the ocean with great waves running throughout history. In an environment when the church seemed dead, the Great Awakening produced amazing social effects. Suddenly the church was reminded of their duty to the widows and fatherless and that to truly love God is to love one another. John Gerstner, author of The Great Awakening states, “The German evangelicals have a word for it. They speak of Liebestatigkeiten, which literally means ‘the actions that flow from love.’”[10]

The Great Awakening sparked a missionary movement. Certainly, Jonathan Edwards had a hand in leading by example as he left his pastoral position and took his preaching to the American Indians in hopes of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Later, men like William Carey went to India and in Germany missionary groups were formed in Dresden, Langenberg, and Neuendettelslau.[11]

The Great Awakening sparked education as Rutgers, Dartmouth, Brown, and Princeton were fruits of the Awakening. As George Whitefield had an effect upon Benjamin Franklin, and the University of Pennsylvania got its momentum from Benjamin Franklin. As James H. Nichols has written, “The Awakening bore fruit in educational and evangelistic enterprises. Among the numerous academies and colleges which owe their origin to the Awakening, the best-known survivors are the Universities of Pennsylvania and Princeton …”[12]

Perhaps the greatest outcome of the Awakening came in the form of defeating Enlightenment. As John Gerstner states in his book, The Great Awakening, Enlightenment almost ended the reformation Christianity. Simply put, reason had no way of experiencing God. Even though Orthodox Christianity persevered, the end seemed to be imminent. Men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield continued to spread the Gospel in ways that could be denied as the Holy Spirit and “As E. Beyreuther has written: ‘That the Church did not sink into the abyss of the Enlightenment and that the gospel was preserved … was owing above all to the Awakening’”[13]

Conclusion

            In conclusion, this is only a drop in the ocean of Church history and many great things came from obedient men, after the reformation, that did not stand for the “norm” and went outside the box to allow the Holy Spirit to move and change, not only lives, but the outlook of the nation itself. God was moved from inside the church walls to outside into the communities and people saw the changes God had on people and it created a desire to have more and want more from the Holy Spirit. The Great Awakening was not denominational and had no interests in becoming denominational. It created an atmosphere of unity and gathered people to experience God in a way they had lost or never had before.

 


 

Bibliography

Eckman, James P. Exploring Church History. Wheaton , IL: Crossway, 2002.

Edwards, Jonathan. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections: In Three Parts. Oak Habor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996.

Gerstner, John H. The Great Awakening. Edited by Ralph G. Turnbull. Grand Rapids , MI: Baker Book House, 1967.

Gibson, Jonathan. “Jonathan Edwards: A Missionary?” Themelios 36, no. 3 (November 2011): 380.

Reid, Daniel G. Dictionary of Christianity in America. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press., 1990.

Rusten, Sharon, and Michael E. The Complete Book of When and Where in the Bible and Throughout History. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. , 2005.

Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom with a History and Critical Notes:The History of Creeds. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1878.

 


 


[1] James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 81.

[2] Ibid., 84.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections: In Three Parts … (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

[5] Ibid

[6] Jonathan Gibson, “Jonathan Edwards: A Missionary?,” Themelios, No. 3, November 2011 36 (n.d.): 380.

[7] Sharon Rusten with E. Michael, The Complete Book of When & Where in the Bible and Throughout History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2005), 298.

[8] Daniel G. Reid et al., Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

[9] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The History of Creeds, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1878), 901.

[10] John H. Gerstner, “The Great Awakening,” ed. Ralph G. Turnbull, Baker’s Dictionary of Practical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967), 155.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 154.

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