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Revival – 6 – The Great Awakening in America – The Early Years

The dates of the beginning of the Great Awakening in America and its conclusion are a matter of supposition. If the long view is taken and includes the revivals in the early 1720s and concludes with the waning of the Awakening’s long-term effects on society, then The Great Awakening can be said to span from about 1720 to the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783.[1] Other historians date the Awakening as beginning with the 1735 revival in Northampton, Massachusetts, under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards and ending with the conclusion of the powerful and unprecedented season of revivals that occurred during 1740-1743.[2] A third view dates the Awakening as occurring between 1735 and 1760 which is considered by many to be the period of greatest frequency and intensity of revivals in eighteenth century America.[3]

The Great Awakening is a massive subject that covers decades and involves a host of revivals, participants, and consequences which are far beyond the scope of this book. Our purpose is to obtain a general understanding of these revivals, how they came about, what occurred during those revivals, and the long-term consequences after the revival fires had subsided. To do so we shall briefly look at some of the major revivalists of The Great Awakening, the conflicts and issues that arose between revivalists and anti-revivalists and between moderate and radical evangelicals, and the long-term consequences for the Protestant churches and the colonies both before and during the fight for independence from British rule.

Renowned revival historian J. Edwin Orr believed that The Great Awakening actually began with a revival among the Pietists in New Jersey. This revival occurred eight years earlier than the general consensus that the Awakening began in Jonathan Edward’s Puritan church at Northampton, Massachusetts, in the latter part of December 1734. The 1727 Pietist revival in New Jersey sprang from the preaching of a Dutch Reformed minister named Theodorus Frelinghuysen who arrived in New York City in the early 1720s. Through Frelinghuysen’s influence, revival spread to Scots-Irish Presbyterians under the leadership of Gilbert Tennent and then to the Baptists in Virginia.[4]

However, Thomas Kidd points to the beginning as an extraordinary series of revivals in towns along the Connecticut and Thames Rivers from 1720 to 1722. The Connecticut revival was “the first major event of the evangelical era in New England” which “…touched congregations in Windham, Preston, Franklin, Norwich, and Windsor.” One of the largest of the Connecticut revivals occurred in the Windham church during 1721 with eighty people joining the church in six months. Over the three-year course of the revivals, several hundred new members and possibly more conversions were reported. The significance of this revival has been generally forgotten because of its lack of publicity through the print media which may also account for the revival not spreading beyond its regional borders.[5]

The Tennent Brothers – Gilbert, William, Jr., John, and Charles

William Tennent, Sr. and his family left Ireland in 1718 and arrived in Philadelphia where he joined the Presbyterian Synod of that city and soon established the “Log College” in which he trained candidates for the ministry. The Log College became the well-known forerunner of the College of New Jersey which later became Princeton University. His four sons followed their father into the ministry. Gilbert and William, Jr. along with the graduates of the Log College became a powerful revivalist force in the Scots-Irish Philadelphia Presbyterian Synod of Northeast Pennsylvania and east New Jersey.[6]

While at New Brunswick, Gilbert’s work was described as one of steady success that resulted in a considerable number of conversions. At one revival on Staten Island in 1728, the Holy Spirit was “suddenly poured down upon the Assembly.” The congregation was initially passive or complacent, but after a while several fell to their knees and prayed for mercy. Others “cried out ‘both under the Impressions of Terror and Love,’ depending on their stage of conversion.” John Tennent, the third son, showed great promise as a powerful revivalist but died at young age in 1732. William, Jr. recalled that as a result of his brother John’s preaching at Freehold, several congregants began “sobbing as if their Hearts would break, but without any public Out-cry; and some have been carry’d out of the Assembly (being overcome) as if they had been dead.”[7]

During the 1730s there began a debate among the Presbyterian ministers of the Philadelphia Synod with regard to itinerancy and licensing. Disagreements arose between the pro-revivalists (“New Side”) and the anti-revivalists (“Old Side) Presbyterians. The conflict escalated in 1738-1739 over the appointment of John Rowland, a graduate of the Tennents’ Log College, by the New Brunswick Presbytery which was controlled by the Tennent camp. The Philadelphia Synod revoked Rowland’s license because of “disorderly” and “divisive” conduct. Some believed that Rowland’s preaching encouraged emotional outbreaks which “led not to solid piety but to dangerous enthusiasm.”[8]

In March 1740, the division between the two sides intensified with the publication of Gilbert Tennent’s controversial sermon, The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, in which “he called supposedly unconverted ‘hireling’ ministers just about every bad name he could use in religious company.” Tennent believed that as a result of their un-renewed Nature they preached “easy, human-centered doctrines.”[9] The conflict between the New Side and Old Side Presbyterians was a preview of the deep divisions to come between evangelicals and the leaders of the more formal, institutional wings within other Protestant denominations. Those festering divisions eventually resulted in several denominational separations at various times during the Awakening and which continued to periodically occur over the next two hundred and fifty years.

Irrespective of the conflicts between the New Side and Old Side Presbyterians, the Tennents became the “single most influential family of the revivalist movement in the Middle Colonies”[10] generally considered to be the mid-Atlantic colonies (Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York) that lay between the New England and Southern colonies.

Jonathan Edwards

Although not the first, largest, or most widespread revival of the Great Awakening, the revival led by Jonathan Edwards at Northampton in 1734-1735 is perhaps the best known and most influential revival of the Awakening. Edwards had an impressive background. He was the grandson of the venerable Solomon Stoddard who led the Northampton congregation for sixty years until his death in 1729. Born in 1703, Edwards had a brilliant mind. At Yale University he earned his B.A. in 1720 and M.A. in 1723. Already an assistant in his grandfather’s church, the twenty-six year old became the pastor of Northampton Church in 1729 upon the death of his grandfather.[11]

The young Edwards was no stranger to revivals and was taught to expect seasons of revival characterized by special outpourings of the Holy Spirit. Timothy Edwards, Jonathan’s father, pastored the East Windsor Church and had led four or five revivals before 1734-1735. Two of these revivals occurred in the 1710s and had a great influence on the young Edwards. The Northampton Church had experienced six significant “harvests” as the revivals were called under Stoddard’s tenure (1679, 1683, 1687, 1690, 1712, 1718, and 1727). The 1727 revival occurred on the occasion of a major New England earthquake. This was the first revival to be highly publicized.[12]

When Edwards took the pulpit of Northampton in 1729, the spiritual state of the young people of the congregation was a cause for concern since they would not abandon their “carousing for the holy ways of the Lord.”[13] Thomas Kidd described Edwards’ efforts to curtain the continued waywardness of the young at the Northampton Church.

In 1733 Edwards began to notice the congregation’s young people had adopted a new “flexibleness” in their attitudes toward his preaching. He insisted that they give up their “mirth and company-keeping” on Sunday evenings, and he began to see in them a willingness to comply. At the time Edwards also organized neighborhood meetings (the settlements encompassed by the Northampton congregation were far-flung) of fathers concerning the governance of their children. Surprisingly, the fathers reported that their children needed no extra chastening to get them to remain faithful to the Sabbath. The youths themselves were convinced by Edwards’ preaching.[14]

It was the occurrence of two untimely deaths of young people that broke the complacency with regard to the young Northampton congregants’ dismal spiritual state. In Pascommuck, three miles from Northampton but in Edward’s parish, a young man had fallen ill with pleurisy and died in two days. Soon thereafter a young married woman fell ill and died but only after assuring those around her of her salvation. Edwards used the shock of those deaths to encourage the distraught young people to gather into small groups for “social religion.”[15]

But preaching and gatherings for “social religion” were not the primary impetus by which the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Northampton congregation. For several years Edwards and his wife had prayed day and night for revival of their church. In the latter part of December 1734, there were five or six people who were wonderfully converted which created considerable excitement in the congregation. On the evening preceding the day the revival broke out several “Christians met and spent the whole night in prayer.”[16] Prayer was the kindling that set ablaze the Northampton revival of 1734-1735. Edwards reported the events that caused the revival to break forth.

…the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and wonderfully to work among us; and 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.

One of these converts was a young woman who had been notorious as a leader in scenes of gayety and rustic dissipation. Edwards was surprised at the account which she gave of her religious exercises, of which he had heard no report till she came to converse with him, apparently humble and penitent.[17]

Edwards was at first concerned that the conversion experience of a person with such questionable character would hinder the progress of the conversion of others. However, he was happily surprised when the news of her conversion became a great encouragement to other young people who went to talk with her and observed her remarkable transformation.[18]

Many miraculous and ecstatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit were present during the Northampton revival. These manifestations included emotional ecstasies and mysterious signs and wonders such as visions and healings. This was not unusual for these manifestations accompanied most of the major revivals that occurred during the eighteenth century. Edwards approved of emotional expressions in revivals, but he also knew the importance of balance because too much spiritual passion could lead to excess. Even though he did not understand some of the mystical experiences that occurred, Edwards did not condemn them when they were accompanied by “a great sense of the spiritual excellency of divine things.” Edwards believed that such ecstatic expressions in worship could be tested: “…did they lead the worshipper to a greater appreciation of God’s glory? Or did they encourage self-glorification?” If it was a greater appreciation of God’s glory, then “the expressions were likely to be incidental operations of the Holy Spirit in persons receptive to them because of their particular mental constitution.” He cautioned that worshippers must not “mistake the vain and imaginary for the truly spiritual.”[19] Within five years these manifestations would become the source of great conflict between the revivalists and anti-revivalists and between the moderate and more radical evangelicals.

Three hundred people were saved during the first six months of the Northampton revival including children, adults, and the elderly. Eventually, 220 families totaling 620 people were entitled to take communion at Edwards’ church which included almost all adults in the town. At the revival’s peak in March and April of 1735, an average of thirty souls were saved each week. During 1735 Edwards wrote, “The town seemed to be full of the presence of God…There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house.”[20] The revival that began at Northampton in late December 1734 spread to the north and south along the Connecticut River to thirty-two communities about evenly divided between Massachusetts and Connecticut.[21]

By mid-1735, the revival at Northampton was coming to an end, but the effects of the awakening would reverberate for centuries afterward through the medium of print. Edwards’ account of the Northampton revival was published under the title Faithful Narrative. The publisher printed an abridged version in 1736 and a full edition appeared in London in 1737. Although the Northampton revival was just one in a series of earlier revivals that began in the 1720s, Edwards account of the revival “became the model revival of evangelicalism. It dramatically heightened expectations in Britain and America for new awakenings, and it provided a framework for local pastors to use to promote revival in their own congregations.”[22]

As the revival in Northampton and the other communities to which it spread began to subside, the effects would continue on as churches remained strong in numbers and piety. In 1739, the instances of revival once again began to increase in other parts of the country and also at Northampton. The church at Newark was originally established by New Englanders. Religious life in Newark was in a low state and exhibited little evidence of godliness among its people during the 1730s. This began to change in August 1739 when a revival began among the young people and spread to the whole church body by March 1740. The church at Harvard, Massachusetts, followed the same pattern. In September 1739 there began a spiritual stirring among the people who exhibited a noticeable increase of seriousness about spiritual matters, church attendance, and attentiveness to the preaching of the Word and sanctity of the Sabbath. From that beginning until June 1741 over a hundred came into communion through a steady procession of conversions.[23]

The effects of the Northampton revival had a lasting beneficial effect on the religious and community life of its citizens. However, compared to the conditions at the close of the revival in 1735, Edwards later wrote that there had been “…a very lamentable decay of religious affections, and eagerness for prayer and social religion.” But this began to change in the spring of 1740 as the church moved toward a renewed seriousness with regard to matters concerning religion and spiritual life, especially among the young people. This move of the Holy Spirit continued until October 1741 when George Whitefield arrived at Northampton.[24]

Theology of salvation: Debating who and how one may be “born again”

Much of the theology of conversion held by Solomon Stoddard was held by his grandson Jonathan Edwards. Stoddard believed that it was through the Holy Spirit that God drew sinners to salvation. Without the Holy Spirit conversions would not take place. He also considered powerful preaching as a tool used by God to draw sinners to God. The power in this preaching was a result of the Spirit who allowed ministers to effectively preach God’s judgment. Like other revivalists, Edwards believed there would be seasons of revival in which there would be special outpourings of the Holy Spirit.[25]

Although Solomon Stoddard and his grandson held similar views on revival and the theology of conversion, Edwards would significantly differ on two points embraced by his grandfather. Recall that in the last chapter the half-way covenant emerged from the Synod of 1662 which allowed the children of parents who were avowedly unregenerate and excluded from the Lord’s table to be baptized if the parents were otherwise qualified. Stoddard agreed with the halfway covenant. In 1707, Stoddard also began preaching 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.” However, during his tenure at the Northampton Church, Edwards opposed these all-inclusive policies of his grandfather and preached that only the children of parents who were full communicant members of the church should be allowed to be baptized. This doctrinal stance was very unpopular compared to the beliefs preached by his grandfather. Edwards’ stance eventually led to his dismissal as pastor of the Northampton Church in 1750 and “signaled his own church’s bitter repudiation of his evangelical ideal of a pure church of converted saints.”[26]

The “heart religion” of evangelicalism

In Chapter 5 it was noted that first generation New England Puritans believed that a man must be “born again,” and this transformation was observable by both the person and others. They also believed there was a difference between the unregenerate and regenerate in which the latter would exhibit good qualities through their thought, feeling, and conduct. But these desired qualities are not a matter of works but flowed from a heart change which must invariably testify to the transformative power of true salvation. This was the central issue of the Reformation: justification by faith alone. And it was this same justification by faith alone that was at the core of evangelicalism’s “heart religion” which propelled the Great Awakening in America. However, there would continue to be differences with regard to the meaning of salvation and its related doctrines among the revivalists of The Great Awakening and thereafter as will be seen in the next chapter.

Before we leave the early history of The Great Awakening, we must once again clarify and better understand the core elements that precipitated the revivals. As previously discussed, revivals are necessary when the spiritual and moral conditions of the church and society at large are in various stages of decline or decay. However, it must be remembered that revival of the culture can never precede revival of the church. Revival of the culture is made possible only through the influence of a revived church (individual Christians who comprise the body of Christ). Therefore, revival is ultimately a matter of renewal of the hearts of individuals—both renewal of the hearts of the spiritually languishing Christians and the dead hearts of lost sinners.

Larry G. Johnson


[1] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening – The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. xix, 9-10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mathew Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings-Thirty Six Visitations of the Holy Spirit, (ByFaith Media, 2009, 2012), p. 27.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kidd, The Great Awakening, pp. 9-10.
[6] Ibid., pp. 31, 35.
[7] Ibid., pp. 32-33.
[8] Ibid., p. 37
[9] Ibid., pp. 59-60.
[10] Ibid., p. 31.
[11] Ibid., pp. 13-15.
[12] Ibid., pp. 6-7, 9, 10, 15.
[13] Ibid., p. 15.
[14] Ibid. p. 16.
[15] Ibid., pp. 16-17.
[16] Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings, p. 26.
[17] 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,
p. 12. Originally published in Boston, Massachusetts by Tappan and Dennet, 1842.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Kidd, The Great Awakening, pp. 19-20.
[20] Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings, p. 26.
[21] Kidd, The Great Awakening, p. 18.
[22] Ibid., pp. 21-23.
[23] Tracy, The Great Awakening, pp. 18-21.
[24] Ibid., pp. 21-22.
[25] Kidd, The Great Awakening, pp. 6-7.
[26] Ibid, p. 194.

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