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Revival – 5 – Spiritual Conditions in America 1620-1720

What occurred among the New England Puritans between 1620 and 1660 is a remarkable story that began with a rag-tag band of beleaguered separatist Puritans (Pilgrims) that landed on the shores of a vast wilderness in 1620. By the end of that decade many of the prosperous, well-educated members of the Church of England also began immigrating to New England. Unlike the Pilgrims, they still considered themselves to be members of the Church of England, although separated from their corrupt brethren that remained in their homeland. Known as Puritans, they formed the great migration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony which by 1640 had grown to a population of twenty-six thousand. For these Protestant Puritans who strongly followed the teachings of John Calvin, religion was the beginning, center, and end of all social and political life. The Puritan adventure in their New England colony began as a theocracy, but the Massachusetts Puritans were not alone in their religious affections. Religion and religious liberty were the fundamental reasons for the founding of most of the original thirteen colonies, and nearly all were founded upon various social and religious experiments.[1]

However, none were so well organized or advanced in their religious practices as the New England colonies, particularly the Puritans of Massachusetts. Not only was New England the most studied portion of early colonial America history, the region was also the foremost center of revivalist activity prior to and at the beginning of The Great Awakening. As early as the 1670s, Puritan leaders recognized the need for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit because churches and towns were spiritually languishing and in need of corporate renewal.[2]

The seeds of the Puritans’ early spiritual decline were found in both the Catholic and Reformed churches’ practice of infant baptism. If one had not been baptized and confirmed or had been excommunicated, they were excluded from the Lord’s Table. In early New England, excommunication meant the loss of certain civil rights (e.g., voting and holding office) and could lead to punishment by the civil government. “Under such laws, the Lord’s table must be open to all who have been baptized, who have learned the creed and catechism, and have not committed any crime which a civil court would judge ‘scandalous’.” Although the bishop could require additional evidence of regeneration, this practice was rarely followed. Subject to the foregoing conditions, all young people and adults baptized as infants were considered to be members of the church in full communion.[3]

Clergymen were reluctant if not loathed to withhold participation in the Lord’s supper for to do so would inflict civil injury. Claims of wrongful denial of church membership or participation in the Lord’s supper made the clergymen liable for prosecution and, if found guilty, subject to punishment.[4] The only safe option for clergymen was to treat every one as a real convert and hope that regeneration had occurred even if no apparent change was present in the life of the professing Christian. Because of such a mindset within the clergy, their preaching was greatly restricted and diminished. As to the unconverted, they could only hope that somehow the heretofore undetected regeneration would mysteriously occur through participation in the Lord’s table.[5]

But the New England Puritans would have none of this. Irrespective of their baptism of infants, they still believed that if a man was “born again,” a change occurred which was observable by both the person and others. There was a difference in the unregenerate and regenerate in which the latter would exhibit good qualities through their thought, feeling, and conduct. All who did not give evidence of Christian piety would be considered unregenerate, and they would admit none to their communion unless considered regenerate. These beliefs were very different from those of their English cousins. So strong were these beliefs and practices that they were set forth in the preface to the Puritans’ Cambridge Platform published in 1648.[6]

Puritan church records of that time contained a list of those considered to be on the road to heaven and therefore full participants in the ordinances of the church. It also contained a list of those names who by common consent were “…to be regarded and addressed as persons in the road to hell.” Consequently, the New England clergy were not hesitant to assail their listeners with argument and entreaty aimed at prompting regeneration of those in the church known to be in a spiritually lost condition.[7]

But erosion of the high standards of the Puritan churches of New England began at the Puritans’ Synod of 1662. It was decided that the children of parents who were avowedly unregenerate and excluded from the Lord’s table could be baptized if the parents were otherwise qualified. Those other qualifications and requirements were that the parents had to have been baptized in infancy, understood the doctrine of faith and publicly confessed their assent thereunto, did not lead a scandalous life, agreed to give themselves and their children to the Lord, and submitted themselves to the government of Christ in the Church. This practice was immediately adopted over vehement protests and became the new standard for many churches.[8] This new practice was called the Halfway Covenant of 1662 and allowed New England churches to be filled with “substantial numbers of pseudo-members waiting for their conversion.”[9] Sherwood Eddy describes the inevitable outcome of this fateful decision.

There was a gradual loss of the sense of sin, and the idea of God’s sovereignty became a means of oppression by the ecclesiastical oligarchy…The children of the hardy pioneers became softer and more worldly. The unregenerate second generation was allowed to remain in the church as members though not in full communion. Thus originated the halfway covenant with a mixed membership of a more all-inclusive church that had lost the purity of a separated regenerate sect. The genteel churches turned from the difficult gospel of election and regeneration to “societies of Christians by mutual agreement” who avoided “scandalous sin.”[10] [emphasis added]

Other compromises followed. Solomon Stoddard, the pastor of the Northampton church, published a sermon in 1707 whose message stated that sanctification (to set apart, make holy) was not a necessary qualification for participation in the Lord’s supper and that “the Lord’s supper is a converting ordinance.” In other words, those desiring the full advantages of church membership, even though they did not have “a Saving Work of God’s spirit on their hearts,” were eligible to partake of the Lord’s supper. This practice at Stoddard’s Northampton Church was vigorously opposed by some, but given the general high esteem held for the prominent pastor and the general desire of many halfway covenanters to enjoy the benefits of church membership, the practice was adopted and spread extensively to churches in other parts of New England.[11]

The outworking of these practices adopted by the New England churches tended to destroy church discipline. Why should the unconverted be concerned with conversion when they are not held accountable by the church for their unregenerate heart and disobedient ways?[12] These beliefs and practices must inevitably lead to confusion as to the true meaning of conversion and thus undermine the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of the lost. Writing over 175 years ago, Joseph Tracey described the eventual course that the resulting confusion would take after the loss of a biblical understanding of conversion.

What must it teach the unconverted church member to think of himself, and of his prospects for eternity?…And what must he suppose conversion to be? Not a change by which a man begins to obey God; for he had already begun to obey him, as he supposed, and yet was unconverted. Not a change righteously required of him at every moment; for God had given him something to do before conversion, and he was doing it. He must have thought it some mysterious benefit, which God would, in his own good time, bestow on those for whom it was appointed…Being thus deceived with respect to the very nature of conversion, all his desires and prayers and labors for it would be misdirected.[13]

Stoddard and other New England pastors hoped to counteract the dangers of their beliefs on conversion and sanctification by faithfully and forcefully preaching the Word so as to compel conversion. But as Tracey so ably points out, “…in the end, the doctrines on which a church is seen to act, will prevail over those which are only uttered; and the state of feeling among the members, and ultimately the preaching itself, will conform to the theory on which the church is governed and the ordinances are administered.”[14] Put another way, doctrines which are observed and practiced will inevitably prevail over those that are merely preached.

There were a number of revivals that occurred before the recognized beginning of The Great Awakening in America. One of the first to preach the essence of true revival was Samuel Torrey, pastor of the Weymouth, Massachusetts church. Torrey may be considered the first evangelical in New England for by 1674 he had begun preaching the need for revival among pastors and congregations. Torrey emphasized the “Work of Reformation.” He believed that the churches’ would not be revived through moral efforts but only an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This would occur only when each person experienced a “Heart-reformation, or making of a new heart.” This would occur when God would pour “out [an] abundance of converting grace, and so revive and renew the work of conversion.” Torrey preached his greatest sermon on revival in 1695. In “Mans Extremity, Gods Opportunity,” Torrey preached that the sin of New Englanders had grown to such an extent that an ordinary reformation was not possible. God must unilaterally intercede, but that “We must follow God mourning…Such a mourning is the certain effect of the saving dispensation of the Spirit and converting grace.”[15]

Covenant renewals had begun occurring in the late 1600s. Typically, in covenant renewal ceremonies, pastors reminded all church members of their promises to God and to each other. Full covenant members could consider if their relationship with God was truly right. Halfway members could seek conversion and admission into full membership in the church. These ceremonies were generally followed by preaching on salvation for a period of several weeks. Samuel Willard led a covenant renewal in 1680 at Boston’s Old South Church. Early in the renewal, several children publicly embraced their responsibilities of their baptismal covenant. This sparked the whole church to go through renewal and recognition of their baptismal covenant with many becoming members in full communion.[16]

A covenant ceremony was led by Samuel Danforth Jr. in 1705 at Taunton, Massachusetts. Thomas Kidd in his book The Great Awakening – The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America gave an account of the events that occurred.

Danforth reported in February 1705 that “we are much encouraged by an unusual and amazing Impression, made by GOD’S SPIRIT on all Sorts among us, especially on the young Men and Women.” The young people had become sober as a result of the meetings and some “awful Deaths and amazing Providences.” He hoped that their sobriety was not temporary and asked for “Prayer that these Strivings of the SPIRIT, may have a saving Issue.”…“We gave Liberty to all Men and Women Kind, from sixteen Years old and upwards to act with us,” and three hundred people added their names to a list forsaking sin.” Later that month Danforth reported that he had no time for his regular pastoral duties because of his constant visits from young people seeking salvation.[17] [emphasis in original]

There were many such outpourings of the Holy Spirit in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and the frequency of these revivals grew in New England during the 1710s and 1720s. Out of these early stirrings came a renewal movement called evangelicalism that fundamentally changed many churches and denominations and helped birth the First Great Awakening. Those churches that embraced evangelicalism emphasized a revivalist style of preaching, personal conversion, personal devotion and holiness, and individual access to God which de-emphasized the importance and authority of church government.[18]

Heretofore, our emphasis has been on Puritan revivals that preceded The Great Awakening. However, in addition to the English stream of evangelicalism there were two other streams that fed the rising river of revival fervor: Scots-Irish Presbyterianism and Continental Pietism.[19]

Pietism contributed an intense focus on the heart, often in conflict with the decayed state of formal, established religion. Scots-Irish Presbyterianism supplied legions of pious immigrants, who often came expecting revival to occur…The Pietists and Presbyterians of those colonies had begun striving for awakenings well before the Grand Itinerant George Whitefield came on the scene.[20]

Pietism stressed Bible study and personal religious experience and was a reaction to formalism and intellectualism. Reformed Pietism primarily focused on heart religion and Christian practice whereas Puritanism focused on doctrinal and ecclesiastical purity.[21]

We have examined the dire circumstances and conditions that led to the various revivals throughout the American colonies prior to the beginning of The American Great Awakening during the late 1720s. In the next chapter we shall examine the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in various revivals that comprised The Great American Awakening, the course of these revivals, and their long-term consequences for both the nation and the churches therein after the revival fires had subsided.

Larry G. Johnson


[1] Sherwood Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1941), pp. 48-49, 74.
[2] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening – The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007), p. xvi.
[3] Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening – A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield, Public Domain. Facsimile edition reproduced from original documents, pp. 1-2. Originally published in Boston, Massachusetts by Tappan and Dennet, 1842.
[4] Ibid. p. 2.
[5] Ibid., p. 3.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 4.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Kidd, The Great Awakening, p. 3.
[10] Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, p. 55.
[11] Tracey, The Great Awakening, pp. 4-5.
[12] Ibid., pp. 5-6.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., p. 6.
[15] Kidd, The Great Awakening, p. 1-3.
[16] Ibid., p. 4.
[17] Ibid., pp. 4-5.
[18] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004, 2005), pp. 253, 256-257.
[19) Kidd, The Great Awakening, p. xvi.
[20] Ibid., p. 39.
[21] Ibid., p. 25.

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