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Revival – 8 – Spiritual Conditions in America 1760-1790

Religious Revivals amid political turmoil and war

To properly understand revivals that occurred during the later years of The Great Awakening, it is important to have knowledge of the contemporary events that impacted those revivals and religious life in general from the 1760s through the end of the Revolutionary War. During the 1750s the British had awakened to the importance to the British Empire of the few American colonies that clung to the eastern edge of a vast wilderness thousands of miles across the Atlantic. This new found interest was kindled by the French and Indian War being fought on the American continent (1754-1763). Britain’s interest and involvement in the affairs of the American colonists significantly increased following the war and ended decades of salutary neglect the colonists had come to expect and enjoy. The war left the British with massive debt, high taxes at home, and a permanent army of paid soldiers in the colonies that was costly to maintain. Accordingly, the British Parliament passed a series of revenue-generating measures which unilaterally imposed on the colonies many very burdensome taxes, duties, and tariffs, the most troublesome of which was the Stamp Act of 1765.[1]

Colonial unrest aggravated by British intransigence continued over the course of the next ten years and culminated with hostilities at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 which marked the beginning of the colonists’ eight-year struggle for independence. The war officially ended in January 1783 with the signing of the Articles of Peace.[2]

Even in war life goes on and so did the colonial revivals. Of particular note was a series of revivals from 1778 to 1782 which are called the “New Light Stir.” Although several evangelical denominations were successful during the Stir, the Baptists led the way with thirty six new churches planted in New England between 1778 and 1782. Isaac Backus had been involved in revivalism since the 1740s and knew well its history. He estimated that two thousand New Englanders received believer’s baptism in 1780 alone. Regarding the New Light Stir, Backus believed that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit “spread the most extensively and the most powerfully through New England than any revival had done for near forty years,” and it “was undoubtedly a great means of saving this land from foreign invasion, and from ruin by internal corruption.”[3]

In spite of the widespread success of the revivals, tensions between the rival moderate and radical camps of evangelicalism continued as it had for forty years. One of the most pronounced developments of revivalism’s New Light Stir was the growing abandonment of Calvinism among the radicals and would become even more common in the early years of the nineteenth century. Although Congregationalism began to decline during the late eighteenth century, it would remain a significant force in northern religious life and reform movements through the end of the Civil War. Moderate Baptist and radical evangelical growth continued during the war, but the bulk of the Methodists’ amazing growth would occur after the war.[4]

Revolutionary Revival

Irrespective of the abundance of primary historical evidence to the contrary, many if not most all early historians gave little to no credit to religion’s role in fostering the American Revolution. Most present-day historians of the American Revolution generally believe that religion was substantially displaced by politics as lawyers replaced the clergy as leaders which effectively “…transformed and secularized the intellectual character of the culture.”[5] They often point to declines in church attendance, number of publications devoted to religious matters, and other such statistics regarding the health of the church. However, a thoughtful response easily brings one to the natural conclusion that these declines resulted from dislocations caused by the war. Based on the appearance of a decline of religion in the public arena during the revolution, historians have leaped to the erroneous conclusion that the American people were significantly less religious. This is a blatant misreading of the mood and character of Americans during the Revolutionary period. Protestantism in whatever form it took remained the principle means by which Americans perceived and explained the world and ordered their lives.[6]

A brief look at the growth in the number of revivals and growth in the number of churches during 1760-1790 refute the historians’ assertions that concern for religious matters and religious fervor declined during the Revolutionary period. The number of church congregations doubled between 1770 and 1790. It is true that the older churches that dominated colonial society—Anglican, Congregational, and Presbyterian—declined or failed to grow relative to other groups. The Church of England which dominated the South and the powerful Puritan churches of New England accounted for more than forty percent of all American congregations in 1760 but declined to less than twenty-five percent by 1790. However, new denominations spawned by the Great Awakening were alive, well, and growing. The Baptists grew from ninety-four congregations in 1760 to 858 by 1790. During the same time period the Methodists grew from no adherents to over seven hundred congregations which nationally rivaled the numbers of the older Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches. American historian Gordon Wood wrote that, “The revolution released more religious energy and fragmented Christendom to a greater degree than had been seen since the upheavals of seventeenth century England or perhaps since the Reformation.” Stephen A. Marini (quoted by Wood) wrote that the extent of the profound changes in religious life and substantial religious growth in America between 1760 and 1790 can be described as nothing less than a “…Revolutionary Revival.”[7]

Spiritual and moral decline in America

History has proven that significant spiritual and moral decline occur during the years of war and for protracted periods thereafter. Even as revivals flourished during the Revolutionary War years, there was a simultaneous beginning of spiritual and moral decline among the general population. This decline continued following the end of the war in 1783 and especially during the last decade of the eighteenth century. Following eight years of war, all denominations and the new nation as a whole began to feel the effects of spiritual and moral decay. Revival historian J. Edwin Orr described the conditions in America.

The Methodists were losing more members than they were gaining. The Baptists said that they had their most wintry season. The Presbyterians in general assembly deplored the nation’s ungodliness. In a typical Congregational church, the Rev. Samuel Shepherd of Lennos (Lenox), Massachusetts, in sixteen years had not taken one young person in fellowship. The Lutherans were so languishing that they discussed uniting with Episcopalians who were even worse off. The Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York…quit functioning; he had confirmed no one for so long that he decided he was out of work, so he took up other employment. The Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, wrote to the Bishop of Virginia, James Madison, that the Church “was too far gone ever to be redeemed.”…Tom Paine echoed, “Christianity will be forgotten in thirty years.”[8]

The churches had become almost totally irrelevant in curbing the nation’s downward spiral into immorality. During the last decade of the century, out of a population of five million Americans, six percent were confirmed drunkards. Crime had grown to such an extent that bank robberies were a daily occurrence and women did not go out at night for fear of assault.[9]

Christianity at the universities was just as destitute. Students at Harvard were polled, and not one Christian was found. Two admitted to being Christians at Princeton while only five members of the student body were not members of the filthy speech movement of the times. Few if any campuses escaped the denigration of Christianity and general mayhem. Anti-Christian plays were presented at Dartmouth, a Bible taken from a local church was burned in a public bonfire, students burned Nassau Hall at Princeton, and students forced the resignation of Harvard’s president. Christians on college campuses in the 1790s were so few “…that they met in secret, like a communist cell, and kept their minutes in code so that no one would know.”[10]

But America was not alone in her misery. Although the founding Americans had relied on an order that rested upon a respect for prescriptive rights and customs, the egalitarian notions of French philosophers fueled the bonfires of the French Revolution (1789-1799). The aberrant humanistic philosophies emerging from the late Renaissance and Enlightenment during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries nurtured the egalitarian notions of the French philosophers. These Enlightenment philosophies supplied the framework for the French revolutionists as they fostered societal changes based on the ethereal, imaginary, or invented “rights of man” as well as imposition of an ever increasing number of laws to address the failings of human nature. In spite of the French Revolution’s high-minded chorus of “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!”, the French reality was “monarchy, anarchy, dictatorship” all occurring in a little more than a decade.

However, across the English Channel the course of Western civilization was taking a different turn throughout the British Isles. As noted in Chapter 4, the British Great Awakening over the course of five decades beginning in 1739 had so completely transformed that the character of the nation by 1791 that some historians credit the British Awakening for preventing a revolution in Britain similar to the bloody French Revolution of 1789.[11]

In the last two decades of the eighteenth century, immense social upheavals and change throughout the Western world began to occur during the initial stages of the Industrial Revolution. However, the seeds destined to flower as the Second Worldwide Awakening were being sown by Christians in Great Britain. Recall that it was the providential publication in England during 1737 of Jonathan Edwards’ account of the revivals in American that greatly influenced two key figures of the approaching British Great Awakening—John Wesley in England and Howell Harris in Wales.[12] Forty-five years later the powerful influence of Edwards’ writings would again impact the people of the British Isles.

Jonathan Edwards believed that concerted prayers of Christians would release the power of the Holy Spirit and result in converts which would be followed by worldwide revival. In 1745 Edwards had had heard of a prayer movement for revival that had begun among several Scottish evangelical ministers. This information may have come from John Erskine, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who began corresponding with Edwards in the mid-1740s. Edwards was inspired by the information he had received and felt led to write his own thoughts on the matter and in 1746 published “An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, pursuant to Scripture Promises and Prophecies concerning the last Time.”[13]

John Sutcliffe (1752-1814) attended Bristol Baptist College from 1772 to May 1774. He became pastor of the Baptist church in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England, in 1775 where he began to earnestly study the writings of Jonathan Edwards. In the spring of 1784 John Ryland, Jr., a pastor friend, had received a copy of Edwards’ “An Humble Attempt…” from John Erskine, a Scottish Presbyterian minister. Ryland shared Edwards’ book with Sutcliffe. The book had a profound impact on Sutcliffe, Ryland, and another pastor friend Andrew Fuller. They soon enlisted sixteen other Baptist pastors to “establish monthly prayer meetings for the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit and the consequent revival of the churches of Great Britain.” By 1789 the prayer meetings among the Calvinist Baptist churches had grown considerably. Sutcliffe decided to reprint Edwards’ “An Humble Attempt…” By 1790 the prayer movement for revival had spread beyond the Calvinistic Baptist denomination and led to “copious showers of blessing” which later historians would mark as the Second Evangelical Awakening (1790-1830).[14]

But the story does not end there. The providential sequence of events beginning with Edwards’1746 treatise on praying for revival, the calls beginning in 1784 by Scottish pastors for concerted prayers, and the unfolding of the Second Great Awakening in Britain in 1790 also influenced an American pastor and allowed the new British Awakening to traverse the Atlantic to America in the late 1790s.

Isaac Backus – God’s agent for revival

Isaac Backus (1724-1806) was born into a “pure” Congregational church by which was meant that it was not part of an association of Congregational churches adhering to the Saybrook Platform. This association linked individual Connecticut congregations and provided for church discipline. Backus’ mother raised him to understand the necessity of conviction and conversion which was later reinforced by the preaching of Eleazar Wheelock and James Davenport. While “mowing alone in the field,” the young seventeen-year-old Backus experienced both conviction and conversion. He joined the Norwich, Connecticut, Congregational Church but later left in the summer of 1745 with about thirty men and a large number of women to become part of the “New Light” revivalist movement.[15] It appears that the principal dividing issues causing their departure were the relaxed standards for full membership as allowed by the Saybrook Platform and a de-emphasis on personal conversion testimonies for full membership. In other words, the Norwich church received people “to Communion who could not testify to a work of gracious conversion.”[16]

On September 27, 1746, Backus sensed a call to preach and did so the next day by “exercising the right of exhortation.” In 1748, after fourteen months of itinerant preaching in a style similar to George Whitefield, Backus was called to pastor a congregation in Middleborough, Massachusetts.[17] Backus was twenty-four when the original sixteen members signed the new church’s covenant in February. By year’s end, membership had grown to sixty-one. However, Backus continued to struggle with the issue of baptism, and by July 1751 he began preaching that he could find no scriptural basis for infant baptism. In August, he and six other members of his congregation were baptized by immersion to demonstrate their commitment to the requirement of believer’s baptism for full communion. Backus’ action threw the church into turmoil because the majority of members were opposed to believer’s baptism. Backus agreed to continue as pastor of the church under a mixed-communion plan that accepted either infant or believer’s baptism.[18]

The church struggled along for another five years, but Backus finally became convinced that infant baptism was not compatible with the requirement that a congregant must be saved by grace. In 1756, Backus and several other congregation members re-constituted the Middleborough church under a Baptist covenant of freedom of conscience and that the Lord’s Supper was only to be taken by those after profession of their faith and having been baptized by immersion. Backus eventually became the principle agent for Massachusetts Baptists’ quest for religious liberty in their struggle against power of the Congregationalists’ legalized religious monopoly. For decades after fully embracing the Baptist covenant, Backus was a tireless writer, spokesman, and defender of religious liberty through separation of church and state.[19] Here the reader must understand that the separation of church and state sought by Backus was that which would eventually be expressed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and not the aberrant modern interpretation of separation of church and state as expressed by humanistic and liberal political orthodoxy.

Isaac Backus was an enormously important figure in The Great American Awakening. His career spanned six decades beginning in the great revivals of the early 1740s. He joined the Congregationalists, became a Separatist, and then founded a Baptist church, all during the moderate and radical conflicts of the 1740s and 1750s. He was a strong advocate of revivalism and participated in numerous revivals from the 1750s through the end of the American Revolution and then into the Second Great Awakening. He was an itinerant evangelist; pastor of one church for fifty-eight years; revival historian; political activist; denominational speaker, debater, and essayist; Revolutionary War Patriot; and perhaps the most important Baptist figure of the entire Awakening. However, Backus’ most important work for the kingdom of God may have occurred after these events and during the last twelve years of his life. During this last chapter of his life which began in 1794, Backus called Christian churches throughout the spiritually struggling new nation to join the Union of Prayer and pray for revival. These prayers eventually ignited the Second Great Awakening in America and changed the course of history.

Larry G. Johnson


[1] Richard B. Morris, Encyclopedia of American History, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1953), pp. 67-73.
[2] Ibid., pp. 85, 109.
[3] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening – The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 313.
[4] Ibid., pp. 319-320.
[5] Gordon S. Wood, “Religion and the American Revolution,” New Directions in American Religious History, ed. Harry S. Stout and D. G. Hart, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 174-175.
[6] Larry G. Johnson, Ye shall be as gods: Humanism and Christianity – The Battle for Supremacy in the American Cultural Vision, (Owasso, Oklahoma: Anvil House Publishers, 2011), p. 131.
[7] Wood, “Religion and the American Revolution,” New Directions in American Religious History, pp. 185-188.
[8] J. Edwin Orr, “Prayer brought Revival,”, (accessed December 16, 2017).
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Mathew Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings-Thirty Six Visitations of the Holy Spirit, (ByFaith Media, 2009, 2012), pp. 29, 32.
[12] Kidd, The Great Awakening, pp. 22, 44.
[13] Jonathan Edwards, “An Humble Attempt to Promote Prayer for Revival,” Revival Library. (accessed December 22, 2017).
[14] Michael A. G. Haykin, “John Sutcliffe and the Concert of Prayer,” Reformation & Revival, Volume 1, Number 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 66, 68, 73-74, 82-83. (accessed December 22, 2017).
[15] Thomas J. Nettles, “Backus, Isaac (1724-1806),” Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America Volume 1, A-Z, ed. Michael McClymond, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), p. 43.
[16] Kidd, The Great Awakening, p. 182.
[17] Nettles, Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America Volume 1, A-Z, p. 43.
[18] Kidd, The Great Awakening, pp. 184-186.
[19] Nettles, Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America Volume 1, A-Z, pp. 43-44.

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