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Revival – 7 – The Great Awakening in America – The Later Years

The beginnings of revivalism in New England occurred during the late 1600s to about 1720. The early years of The Great Awakening are generally considered to encompass the years from about 1720 to 1740. During both of these periods the characteristics and practices of religious revivals and revivalism grew in importance and frequency and gave birth to evangelicalism with its dramatic and powerful style of preaching, emphasis on personal conversion called the “new birth” often accompanied by outward physical manifestations, personal devotion and holiness, and justification by faith alone (individual access to God) which de-emphasized the importance and authority of church government and its leaders. In many ways the characteristics of the newly-born evangelicalism can be said to mirror many elements found in the early Reformation.

The Great Awakening matures amidst opportunities and challenges

By the end of the 1730s, revivalism in The Great Awakening was beginning to emerge from its youth, strengthen, and expand throughout the colonies. Revivalism’s developing maturity introduced many new and unforeseen opportunities and challenges to churches in the colonies. The essence of this flowering revivalism was best exemplified by the Northampton revival guided by Jonathan Edwards and the other New England revivals that arose from it. In this chapter we shall examine various facets of The Great Awakening that ultimately defined revivalism and established evangelicalism as a dominant force in America to the present day.

As discussed in Chapter 5, the call for revival in the colonies began in 1674 when Samuel Torrey, pastor of the church at Weymouth, Massachusetts, began preaching the need for revival among pastors and congregations because of the perceived general spiritual decline and loss of religious vigor among the Puritans. Torrey emphasized the “Work of Reformation.” He believed that churches would not be revived through moral efforts alone but only through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.[1]

Torrey’s “work of reformation” easily resonated in the minds of the Puritans of New England for their very presence in their new colonial homeland was the result of their efforts to revive the church and continue the work of purifying the Reformation in America which they believed could not be accomplished among the corrupted brethren in England. So revival and revivalism was a natural fit with a mindset that already existed among most colonists who sought religious freedom from the strictures of authoritarian churches and kings.

In spite of their quest for religious freedom, the colonists still considered themselves English men and women and retained much of the English social order including many of the same ecclesiastical doctrines and practices brought from their former homeland. What the religious colonists sought was spiritual reformation, not extra-biblical innovation. But as every generation of the church must realize, the outworking of reformation and revival produce to varying degrees both the good and the bad. In every revival, the church body and individual Christians must distinguish between the Holy Spirit’s wheat and the tares of sinful human nature and demonic influence.

Historian Thomas Kidd wrote that, “The Puritan colonies had once been godly showcases for the Reformation but had forgotten their first love.”[2] And it was Torrey and other early Puritan church leaders who saw revival as the necessary path for a return to that first love. Prior to 1720, revivals generally occurred in the more formal confines of established local church. Revival spread as pastors heeded the example of other churches experiencing revival and began preaching and encouraging revival in their own churches. This was generally the accepted pattern for most revivals prior to 1740. But that pattern was beginning to change even before the arrival of the “Great Itinerant” George Whitefield.

Over the course of his life Whitefield made seven trips across the dangerous and often storm-tossed North Atlantic until his death in 1770. The first voyage in 1738 was for a stay in Georgia of less than four months which was consumed mostly with efforts to establish an orphanage in Savannah. Whitefield was a larger than life figure whose cultural and religious impact on England and America and the course of their histories is incalculable. Even before he landed in America for the second time, Whitefield’s reputation as an “evangelical superstar” preceded him. Whitefield’s powerful preaching style, outreach to various denominations, focus on the new birth, and effective use of the media would energize the growing revivalist movement throughout the colonies.[3] Whitefield did not invent revivalism or evangelicalism or cause The Great Awakening in America. However, his ministry would eventually personify their essential elements as he energized and hasten their ascendance on the American scene.

“New Light” Revivalists and “Old Light” Anti-revivalists in America

There were elements of the established American churches that opposed revivalism from its very beginning. Opposition centered on several issues including the operations of the Holy Spirit particularly as concerning physical manifestations that occurred during revivals. Jonathan Edwards was the foremost apologist for the “New Lights” who favored increased numbers of converts through revivals. “Old Lights” such as Rev. Charles Chauncy of Boston’s First Church thought revivalists to be misguided sensationalists who promoted powerful, passionate preaching and demonstrative conversion experiences to the detriment of true religious growth.[4]

The essence of the divide between evangelicals and traditional clergy was a disagreement as to the path to conversion or how does one receive divine grace. For evangelicals conversion was an immediate personal experience that occurred through repentance and acceptance of God’s grace which brought one into personal relationship with Him. For the traditional clergy, the path to conversion was gradual, progressive, and subtle which occurred within the “stabilizing” influence of the local church through “rational guidance of learned ministers.” Revival preaching was acceptable to the traditionalists and established clergy, but revivalism as practiced by Whitefield and the New Lights was in their view “the great abandoning” of the true path to divine grace.[5]

Although the conflict between the Old and New Lights revolved around the theology of conversion, three subsidiary issues would draw the battle lines: the growth of unrestrained itinerancy, the subject of unconverted ministry, and disagreement over bodily manifestations resulting from revival fervor. Within the New Light wing, disagreement on these issues eventually led to Separatism between the moderate and more radical elements of revivalism.[6]

Calvinist and Arminian differences among the Revivalists

Even though Solomon Stoddard and his grandson Jonathan Edwards were staunch Calvinists, there were many aspects in their Reformed theology that were compatible with the beliefs of many emerging evangelicals who held or at least were in sympathy with an Arminian understanding of salvation. However, there were certain fundamental doctrines developed by the leaders of the Reformed churches after Calvin’s death that continued to provoke conflict with those who held Arminian beliefs.

Briefly, the two camps’ points of agreement were: humankind is in need of salvation, God alone can provide that salvation, and Christ is God’s provision for man’s need. The principle differences between Reformed and Arminian believers dealt with the role of God and humans in salvation. Those of the Arminian view disagreed with the Reformed churches’ beliefs of unconditional election by God of those he will save, limited atonement in which Christ paid the price only for the sins of the elect, irresistible grace which meant that those whom God has determined to save will inevitably come to saving faith, and perseverance of the saints, that is, all who have been chosen by God (the “elect”) will continue in the faith (once saved, always saved).[7] To summarize, Arminians agree with the Calvinist on the need for repentance and the new birth but could not accept Calvinist predestination and its other accoutrements.

It was those differences that would ultimately cause a break in the relationship of the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield. Although the Wesleys’ Methodist theology generally mirrored that of orthodox Protestantism as practiced by the Anglican Church, John Wesley rejected and openly opposed the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and election which he believed would hinder the call to repentance and conversion. In its place Wesley embraced the Arminian doctrine of freewill or freedom of choice as the means whereby people accepted Christ.[8]

The break came in 1740 when Whitefield was in America and Wesley was preaching in England. While at Bristol, Wesley was offended by certain teachings of pointedly Calvinist doctrines which Wesley assumed represented Whitefield’s view that “God arbitrarily predestined (or ‘elected’) some to salvation and some to damnation (or “reprobation’) by an irreversible decree.” Wesley struck back against this teaching by preaching on “Free Grace.” All through 1740 Wesley and Whitefield exchanged letters across the Atlantic regarding their differences. The conflict remained unresolved, and Wesley eventually published his sermon on “Free Grace.” Whitefield received a copy and sent his reply which he saw as an attack by Wesley on the New Testament doctrines of God’s sovereign grace, foreknowledge, and electing love. In late 1740 Whitefield’s reply was sent to in London to be published on Christmas Eve.[9]

By March 1741, Whitefield was back in London and went to hear Wesley preach having heard of many unkind remarks made by Whitefield since his return from Georgia. Wesley wrote of the disagreement in his Journal, “He told me, he and I preach two different gospels; and therefore, he not only would not join with, or give me the right hand of fellowship, but was resolved to publicly preach against me and my brother, wheresoever he preached at all.” There were efforts to bring the two together, a meeting was held, and other exchanges made. Over time there was a softening of the hostilities between the men, but it would be a decade before Whitefield and the Wesleys were restored to their former unity. In January 1750, Wesley wrote, “I read prayers and Mr. Whitefield preached. How wise is God in giving different talents to different preachers.” Upon the death of Whitefield in 1770 and at the request of his executors, Wesley preached a memorial sermon in London.[10]

The public break damaged the ministries of both men and diminished the cause of Christ. Wesley was a brilliant organizer and better theologian, but Whitefield was a much better preacher. Whitefield’s biographer John Pollock wrote of the consequence of the separation of once close friends and laborers in the Christ. “Two streams would therefore flow from the evangelical revival, often crossing and coalescing, instead of one mighty river watering the land.”[11]

Moderate and Radical Revivalists

Division was also occurring between the revivalists’ moderate and more radical wings. As early as 1741, some members of the clergy in Connecticut called on civil government to prevent disorders and punish offenders without trial. This was an attempt by anti-revivalists and some moderate evangelicals to stop ministers and itinerant preachers from preaching and administering the seals of the covenant “without the consent of, or in opposition to, the settled minister of the parish.” To do so would cause disorder and require punishment. In May 1742, the legislature passed “An act for regulating abuses and correcting disorders in ecclesiastical affairs.” Soon arrests were made and fines imposed on those deemed to have violated the ordinance.[12]

Almost immediately a serious riff developed between the radical itinerants and most of the established powers in Connecticut and Massachusetts including moderate evangelicals. Radical itinerant James Davenport conducted a revival at Groton, Connecticut, in the winter of 1741-1742 and then went to Long Island where he led significant revivals at two churches. With concerns about the growing complaints of excess in the revivalist movement, the moderates latched onto accounts of Davenport’s “wild enthusiasm” as being “beyond legitimate evangelical limits.” They saw Davenport a sacrificial lamb that could separate the moderates from the perceived excesses of radical itinerants. In May, Davenport returned to Connecticut where he was promptly arrested and brought to court which banished him from Connecticut for violating the newly passed provincial law that prohibited itinerants from preaching in churches without the resident pastor’s permission and outlawed all non-Connecticut itinerants.[13]

Revivals continue to increase in number in spite of the growing conflict between the Anti-revivalists, moderate evangelicals, and radicals over the legitimacy and manifestations of revivals. Between 1740 and 1742 there were enormous numbers of revivals and conversions throughout New England. By the time the great numbers and intensity of revivals began to decline following 1743, evangelicalism had become a powerful movement in its own right.[14] No longer would the evangelical spirit rise and fall with revivals. The revivalist style of preaching, emphasis on immediate and recognizable personal conversion, personal devotion and holiness, and individual access to God that characterized evangelicalism during revivals would now sustain the church in those times between periodic revivals. Originally birthed by revivalism, evangelicalism had become the incubator from which revivalism would be encouraged over the years to come.

Evangelicalism’s divergent paths

Largely due to the aggravating effects of Davenport’s abrasive tactics in confronting non-radical revivalists, the evangelical movement in New England and the Middle colonies had publicly split by March 1743. But the radicals would continue to be a serious presence through the remainder of The Great Awakening as many New Englanders eventually believed that fulfillment of radical awakenings could only be achieved by starting separate illegal congregations.[15]

New England was the epicenter of church separations during the middle and late eighteenth century. Hundreds of Separate or Separate Baptist congregations were formed, and the rallying cry for radical evangelicals was liberty of conscience. In spite of numerous laws to curtail the activities of radical itinerants and the congregations formed by them, the momentum of the continuing radical evangelical revivals was difficult to contain.[16]

The split between the Separates and the established churches aggravated the split between the moderate and radical evangelicals. However, not all radicals left their churches and became Separates, and not all Separates became Baptists. Issues that united the Separates were commitments to immediate and discernable conversions and the right of uneducated laypeople to become involved in ministry (exhortation, itineration, and ordination). Baptists rejected both infant baptism and the halfway covenant. Both Baptists and Separates would challenge the legalized monopoly of religious life held by the established Congregational churches of New England.[17]

In time only a few of the hundreds of Separatist churches that began in New England survived, and many that did survive would become Baptist. Although the New England Baptist churches had great influence on the northern colonies, their most enduring achievement was exportation of the Separate Baptist movement to the middle and southern colonies. Eventually, the Baptists along with the Methodists and Presbyterians would utterly dominate the South.[18]

Following the public break between the moderate and radical evangelicals in 1743, revivals continued to occur throughout the colonies in the 1750s, 1760s, and during the revolutionary war years. The radical evangelicals were the most vigorous and productive arm of revivalism. Its maturation in the 1760s was reflected by their efforts to articulate a radical definition of revivalism in the public square. The key tenets of this narrative were freedom of private judgement and power to establish independent churches free from the dictates of competing ecclesiastical and legislative authorities. The revivals of 1762-1765 were particularly important in continuing the radical tendencies of the evangelical movement, furthering evangelical populism, and aligning the movement with the Patriot cause in separating from Great Britain.[19]

The conflict between moderate and radical evangelicals that emerged in the 1740s continued into the 1780s. The greatest area of disagreement was with regard to manifestations of the Spirit during revivals. Thus, evangelicalism remained deeply divided between moderates and radicals at the conclusion of the Great Awakening and foreshadowed the eventual abyss separating the liberal churches and conservative evangelicals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Evangelicalism grew in spite of the conflicts between moderates and radicals which, according to Thomas Kidd, “hinted toward the contemporary global evangelical expansion that remains split between Pentecostal and non-charismatic believers.”[20]

Perhaps one of the best and most succinct descriptions of the broad panoply of The Great Awakening was written by American historian Paul Johnson.

It crossed all religious and sectarian boundaries, made light of them indeed, and turned what had been a series of European-style churches into American ones. It began the process which created an ecumenical and American type of religious devotion which affected all groups, and gave a distinctive American flavor to a wide range of denominations. This might be summed up under the following five heads: evangelical vigor, a tendency to downgrade the clergy, little stress on liturgical correctness, even less on parish boundaries, and above all an emphasis on individual experience. Its key was Revelations 21:5: “Behold, I make all things new”—which was also the text for the American experience as a whole.[21]

The influence of The Great Awakening on America’s war for independence

How do we determine the extent to which The Great Awakening influenced the character and worldview of the colonists leading up to America’s war for independence? Here we turn to the words of two distinguished American historians. Sherwood Eddy in his 1941 The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, wrote, “No country on earth was ever founded on deeper religious foundations. This was America’s priceless heritage.”[22] Eddy captured the importance of the eighteenth century American religious awakening on the Revolution and later writing of the Constitution.

Throughout the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution, the religious and the secular life of America could not be separated. The very ideals of political freedom had grown out of the principle of religious liberty of the Reformation and out of the experience of the Pilgrims, Puritans, and protesting colonists. It was in the churches of Boston and Virginia that revolutionary meetings were held. The clergy of the free, dissenting, and popular churches were preaching liberty as a religious principle. The pulpit inspired the Revolution and summoned the faithful to patriotic service and to the realization of the American Dream.[23]

In A History of the American People, Paul Johnson again distills the essence of The Great Awakening and its importance in the founding of America.

…There was a spiritual event in the first half of the 18th century in America, and it proved to be of vast significance, both in religion and politics…The Great Awakening was the proto-revolutionary event, the formative moment in American history, preceding the political drive for independence and making it possible…The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background. The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event.”[24]

Following the American Revolution (1775-1783) and efforts to form a new nation, there was a second ebb-tide of religious fervor and an increase in secularism and irreligion, especially in the decade of 1790s. America’s spiritual and moral decline threatened the survival of the new republic. The conditions that preceded this decline will be examined in the next chapter as we move toward the Second Great Awakening at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

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. 1-2.
[2] Ibid., p. 3.
[3] Ibid., p. 54.
[4] “‘Old Lights’ vs. ‘New Lights’ Debating the Great Awakening 1742-1743,” National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox. (accessed December 13, 2017).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Kidd, The Great Awakening, p. 116.
[7] “An Assemblies of God Response to Reformed Theology,” (Position Paper – Adopted by the General Presbytery in Session August 1 & 3, 2015), General Council of the Assemblies of God. (accessed December 2, 2017).
[8] B. K. Kuiper, The Church in History, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1951, 1964), p. 294.
[9] John Pollock, George Whitefield – The Evangelist, (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1973), pp. 173-175.
[10] Mathew Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings-Thirty Six Visitations of the Holy Spirit, (ByFaith Media, 2009, 2012), pp. 33-34.
[11] Pollock, George Whitefield – The Evangelist, pp. 192-193.
[12] 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. 302-304, 307-309. Originally published in Boston, Massachusetts by Tappan and Dennet, 1842.
[13] Kidd, The Great Awakening, pp. 138-141.
[14] Ibid., p. 162.
[15] Ibid., p. 155.
[16] Ibid., p. 174.
[17] Ibid., p. 188.
[18] Ibid., p. 187.
[19] Ibid., p. 268.
[20] Ibid., pp. 319, 323.
[21] Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), p. 116.
[22] Sherwood Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), p. 77.
[23] Ibid., p. 115.
[24] Johnson, A History of the American People, pp. 110, 116-117.

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