Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Great Awakening

The first sweeping wave of religious enthusiasm was primarily the work of three preachers, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), George Whitefield (1714-1770) and Samuel Davies (1723-1761). The word “enthusiasm” is particularly fitting given its original ancient Greek (enthousiasmos) and archaic English meaning, ecstasy arising from becoming possessed by a god.

Jonathan Edwards


The son of a Northampton, Mass., Congregational minister, Edwards initially studied science at Yale University, which steered him away from his contemporaries’ deism (or philosophical acceptance of a distant deity who does not intervene in human history). Instead, it led to contemplation of God in the beauty of creation. He often prayed and worshiped alone in the woods, a practice reflected in many of his early and very poetic writings.

Ordained a minister in 1727, within five years he had launched a revival in Northampton. It raised such fervor that in winter 1734 almost the entire town came to a halt. In six months 300 new members entered his church. Edwards was inspired not merely to preach more throughout his region but also to observe the dark side of the fanaticism that crept up. Fear of inevitable damnation led two members of his congregation, including his uncle, to commit suicide. Edwards scrutinized the process of conversion and wrote it up in his 1737 A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton. It became for preachers the textbook of the revival movement.

His crowning sermon was Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which he preached throughout Connecticut in 1741. In it he proclaims that “God may cast wicked men into hell at any given moment. All that wicked men may do to save themselves from Hell’s pains shall afford them nothing if they continue to reject Christ. God has never promised to save us from Hell, except for those contained in Christ through the covenant of Grace.” It is said that Edwards was interrupted repeatedly by people moaning and crying out, “What shall I do to be saved?”—the question he was after. His involvement in the Awakening ended when he accepted an appointment as president of Princeton University.

George Whitefield


The third great Methodist founder met the Wesleys while he was the equivalent of a scholarship student at Oxford, as he came from a very poor family. Like John Wesley, he was ordained in the Church of England, but instead of parish work, he took to itinerant preaching as an evangelist. In 1739, Whitefield went to Georgia where he set up the Bethesda Orphanage, the oldest in North America. His trustees disagreed with his methods and the venture almost failed until it was purchased by the Moravians. This left him free to preach, going back and forth between England and North America several times.

He had charisma, a loud voice, small stature and looked cross-eyed, which some people took as a sign of divine blessing, and effectively became an early North American celebrity. He also included slaves in his revivals and got a very favorable response from them. To promote himself he had autobiographical Journals printed that were read by tens of thousands.

Initially skeptical, Benjamin Franklin attended a Whitefield revival meeting in Philadelphia. He measured the space himself and estimated that 30,000 could hear Whitefield. Franklin was impressed with the preacher’s ability, and after the meeting he noted a “wonderful ... change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

Samuel Davies


Born in New Castle County, Del., to poor Baptists of Welsh descent, Davies was taken under the wing of a minister who eventually got him ordained a minister. He became one of the first non-Anglican ministers licensed to preach in Virginia. Among those who heard some of his early sermons was a young Patrick Henry, who years later acknowledged Davies as a model of his own oratory. A Presbyterian, Davies advanced religious and civil liberty in largely Anglican Virginia, advocating the separation of church and state that eventually found its way into the state’s charter before the U.S. Constitution.

More notably, Davies advocated educating slaves, including teaching them to read, so they could have the same access to Scripture as their masters. A classic spiritual, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in My Heart,” reportedly was composed in his church, where Davies baptized hundreds of slaves as Christians, breaking with custom by inviting them to join the congregation at the communion table and even to preach. Davies is estimated to have ministered to over a thousand black people in Virginia.

To be clear, Davies did not oppose slavery, but rather viewed slaves’ inclusion as a religious matter. He may have been influenced by the religious zeal of an enslaved man.

In a 1757 letter, Davies wrote that the man said, “I am a poor slave, brought into a strange country, where I never expect to enjoy my liberty. While I lived in my own country, I knew nothing of that Jesus I have heard you speak so much about. I lived quite careless what will become of me when I die; but I now see such a life will never do, and I come to you, Sir, that you may tell me some good things, concerning Jesus Christ, and my Duty to GOD, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done.”

This was one of the earliest efforts to evangelize the Africans kidnapped and brought to America for lifelong unpaid labor.

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