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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.

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.

Joseph – Man in the shadows

[This article was originally posted on December 19, 2014. Additional posts on “Revival” will resume in January 2018. Have a blessed Christmas.]

During my lifetime I have probably looked at dozens of nativity sets and observed many Christmas plays depicting the night of Christ’s birth. The cast of characters includes baby Jesus, Mary, the shepherds, the three wise men (who actually appeared much later in time), assorted cows, chickens, sheep, and other animals typically found in a stable. Oh yes, we must not forget Joseph. In arranging our nativity scene, Jesus is always placed at the center with Mary hovering nearby or holding the child. Inconspicuous Joseph is standing there, seemingly as an afterthought, merely because of his status as the husband of Mary. In modern parlance, Joseph was the typical wallflower, a fifth wheel, the original invisible man. Never in the spotlight, Joseph was a man who always seemed to be in the shadows.

Prior to the birth of Jesus, Joseph is mentioned only once in Luke’s first chapter, “To a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of house of David…” [Luke 1:27. RSV] In Chapter 2, Joseph is mentioned a second time when he traveled with his pregnant wife (but “who knew not a man” in the quaint phrasing of King James) from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed in accordance with the decree of Caesar Augustus. [v. 4] Joseph’s unimportance in the events surrounding Christ’s birth appears to be confirmed by the sparse mention of his name in Luke’s record of that first Christmas. He receives far less discussion than the lowly shepherds who had a remarkable encounter with an angel and a multitude of the heavenly host telling of Christ’s birth. The shepherds then hurry from the fields where they tended their flocks to the stable to find “Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” [v. 16] When the days of Mary’s purification were completed according to the Mosaic law, Joseph and Mary traveled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present the babe to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice as commanded by the law of the Lord. When Joseph and Mary presented the child to Simeon and to receive a blessing as was the custom of the law, they marveled at Simeon’s prophecy with regard to the Christ child. [v. 22-35]

We must look to Matthew’s gospel to learn a little more of Joseph. Matthew tells us that after finding Mary was pregnant, “…her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” [Matthew 1:19. RSV] But an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him he should keep Mary as his wife because the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that His name would be called Emanuel (God with us), and that He will save His people from their sins. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” [v. 24-25]

Some period of time after their return to Nazareth, wise men from the east hoping to find Him who was born king of the Jews followed his star. They found the child residing with His parents and presented their treasures to the child king. [Matthew 2:1-12. RSV] Soon thereafter an angel of the Lord appeared unto Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee with his family to Egypt. Joseph was obedient to the Lord and fled with Mary and Jesus because Herod sought to kill the baby. They stayed in Egypt until Herod’s death. [v. 13-15]

We have only one more reference to Joseph twelve years after Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph experienced every parent’s nightmare—a missing child. After a day’s journey on the way back to Nazareth following their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem where they attended the feast of the Passover, Joseph and Mary discovered that Jesus was missing. They had presumed Jesus was with their kinsfolk and acquaintances traveling with them. Returning to Jerusalem, they sought him for three days before they “…found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” [Luke 2:46-47. RSV]

It appears we have not discovered a lot of material in the scriptures to flesh-out the caricature of Joseph that most of us see as we look at our nativity sets. Yet, after a closer reading of the scriptures we gain new insights into the real flesh and blood Joseph who was far different than we have imagined. We see a man who was compassionate. He did not want to make a public spectacle of Mary because of the skepticism as to her explanation of her pregnancy. He favored a quiet divorce. But, he changed his mind after hearing from an angel from the Lord who told him not to divorce his wife. Therefore, he was obedient to God. Unlike many modern-day absent fathers, current live-in boyfriends, or uncaring stepfathers, Joseph loved and cared for his family as shown by a day’s journey back to Jerusalem and a three-day search for the missing twelve-year-old Jesus. Joseph was also a man who obeyed the laws of the land (he paid his taxes) as well as the laws of God (he took his child to the temple and presented him unto the Lord). Joseph protected his family as evidenced by their sojourn in Egypt.

Humble, compassionate, obedient to God, law-abiding, honest, concerned parent, protector, provider—all paint a picture of Joseph as a righteous (virtuous) man and loving husband and parent. What better set of adjectives could a man ask for when describing his life? However, for most people in this self-obsessed modern world, Joseph does appear to be a man whose life was lived in the shadows. But in God’s account book, a man’s worth is not measured by his popularity, bank balance, worldly success, or fame as evidenced by a pile of press clippings. When God looked at Joseph the shadows disappeared because the righteous “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” [Matthew 13:43. RSV]

Larry G. Johnson

Tis the Season for Secular Silliness

[This article was first posted on on December 13, 2013. Given the growing hostility of the majority of secular culture to all things Christian,it seems appropriate to publish it a second time.]

Holiday letter to my secular humanist friends,

The first signs of the holiday shopping season peek from store shelves in September. October’s chill warns that Halloween nears. We must select a costume that tops last year’s. November heralds that most wonderful time of the year—Black Friday. But Oh My! What shall we do with December and that highly embarrassing “other” holiday? You know the one I mean. We once masked it by calling it Xmas. But the X could be misconstrued as a cross. And a cross can be associated with you know who, and that will never do. Now we call that “other” holiday by many names such as Winter Solstice celebration, Festival of Lights, and Winter Carnival. Those are so inclusive, so democratic…so…so generic. (I almost said ecumenical, but that sounds too religious.) With these new names, the holiday season can mean whatever one wants it to mean rather than have a religious meaning crammed down our throats each December. Why must we be subjected to those old-fashioned myths and fables that have lingered for two thousand years? We have Santa Claus!

But there are still millions out there who haven’t gotten the message. They are generally backward, unintelligent, and remain culturally insensitive unlike those of us who have progressed beyond those crude expressions of faith. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to join our shining, non-offensive, tolerant, all inclusive, sensitive secular society.

You hear those sentimental Christians whining every year at this time. They are always hiding behind the Constitution which they say guarantees their religious freedom. Well of course they have religious freedom as long as they don’t flaunt it in public!

We must be ever vigilant and ready to crush any efforts to return to those bad old days. Just a couple of years ago, a group of carolers singing at various businesses in a Silver Springs, Maryland, shopping center entered a U.S. Post Office also located in the shopping center. Dressed in period costumes reminiscent of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” they were only a few words into their first carol when the vigilant and brave Post Office manager rushed into the lobby to stop the indiscretion. “You can’t do this on government property,” the angry manager shouted. He ordered them to leave immediately because there was a Post Office policy prohibiting solicitation. They attempted to explain that they were going to all the businesses in the shopping center. But he would have none of it and insisted they leave in spite of boos from the patrons waiting in line.[1] Even though there was no such policy, this Post Office manager should serve as a role model for that small minority of managers who aren’t so enlightened and have allowed caroling in their Post Offices. Fortunately, our government is filled with like-minded militant secularist bureaucrats rigorously defending society from such unauthorized merriment.

But we can never let down our guard. Just the other day the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives announced that its members would be allowed to use previously banned holiday greetings in official mailings to their constituents. Representative Candice Miller said, “I feel it is entirely appropriate for members of Congress to include a simple holiday salutation, whether it is Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and so on.[2] Shameful! How could these legislators abuse their franking privileges by including messages of Merry Christmas to thousands of their constituents? Such episodes tend to be contagious and must not be allowed to go unchallenged.

Such blatant relapses can cause others to become weak-kneed when banning Christmas from any public display or expression. One example is the Bordentown, New Jersey, Regional School District administration that had banned religious Christmas music at winter public school concerts effective as of October 18th. Less than two weeks later the superintendent backed down after national attention was focused on the school’s ban. The superintendent announced that the religious Christmas music would be allowed for now “…after reviewing additional legal considerations and advice on this matter and the expressed sentiments of the community at large…” However, she promised that, “…the school board will continue to examine the issue to determine how the policy will be handled in the future.”[3] Of course it is always wise to impose these unpopular restrictions on a low-key basis. The school administration should have imposed the restrictions banning religious Christmas music in, let’s say, March. Once policies are established and in effect for a period of time, opposition to those policies can usually be attributed to a fringe element of religious fanatics bent on imposing their religion on others and which violates our constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. It doesn’t matter that the words “separation of church and state” aren’t in the Constitution; we know the Founders really meant freedom from religion instead of freedom of religion. You see, that Constitution thing can work both ways.

Wait a minute. I must go to the door. No, it can’t be! There are carolers out there singing religious Christmas songs and indiscriminately shouting Merry Christmas right there on the public sidewalk for everyone to hear. Where’s my cell phone? Hello! 911? Send the police. No, better yet send a SWAT team. We are having a major public insurrection right here in River City in direct violation of the Constitution. Hurry! There are children in the neighborhood being exposed to this brazen criminal activity!

I must go. I think I see one of my neighbors putting a nativity scene on his front lawn. Hmmm. Would that violation fall under the city’s building code or advertising ordinance? Where’s my cell phone?

Larry G. Johnson


[1] J. P. Duffy, “Post Office Manager Throws Christmas Carolers Out into the Cold,” Family Research Council, December 12, 2011. (accessed December 10, 2013).
[2]Chris Deaton, “Victory: House members no longer prohibited from saying “Merry Christmas” in official mail,” Red Alert Politics, December 4, 2013. (accessed December 10, 2013).
[3] Billy Hallowell, “N.J. School District That Banned Christmas Music With ‘Religious Origins’ Backs Down,” The Blaze, November 6, 2013. (accessed December 10, 2013).

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.