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Saturday, August 9, 2014

America's First "Great Awakening" (Another [unedited] excerpt from our next book)

Right in between the colonial and Revolutionary period of America came what historians have dubbed the (first) “Great Awakening.” One of the principle figures of this period of spiritual revival was the brilliant and pious Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards. Born in 1703—the same year as John Wesley—to the Reverend Timothy and Esther Edwards, Jonathan showed signs of an unusually keen mind early on. He entered Yale just before he turned 13. He began his ministry at 23 alongside his maternal grandfather in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Edwards was literally born into Christian ministry. As was noted, his father was a minister, a Congregationalist to be precise. Edwards’ mother, Esther Stoddard Edwards, was the daughter of renowned Massachusetts minister Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard succeeded Eleazer Mather as pastor of the Congregationalist Church in Northampton, MA. He was a firebrand of a preacher who abhorred alcohol and extravagance. Though his theology was in conflict with many contemporary Puritan leaders, Stoddard was an extremely influential religious leader in the New England area for several decades.

Jonathan Edwards succeeded his grandfather as pastor of the church at Northampton. He would later repudiate some of his grandfather’s theological views. This cost him his pulpit as he was dismissed from the Northampton church in 1750. After this, Edwards accepted a role as pastor of a church in Stockbridge, MA. During this period Edwards was a missionary to the local Native American tribes.

Edwards was a vociferous writer as well and is recognized as one of the great intellectuals of his time. He produced such works as Freedom of the Will, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, and The Life of David Brainerd which inspired countless missionaries of the nineteenth century. In 1758 Edwards became the president on the College of New Jersey (Princeton). He died weeks later from a smallpox inoculation. Edwards was the grandfather of Aaron Burr, third Vice President of the United States.

Jonathan Edwards loved the pulpit, and according to BJU Press, was more teacher and preacher than pastor. In late 1734 and early 1735, revival broke out in Northampton. By the Summer of 1735, it ended, but the seeds for something more lasting were planted. Enter the mighty George Whitefield.

Whitefield is generally considered the “Father of the Great Awakening.” Born in England, in 1714, Whitefield was an unruly child. He described himself as, “So brutish as to hate instruction and used purposely to shun all opportunities of receiving it. I soon gave pregnant proofs of an impudent temper. Lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting, I was much addicted to, even when very young. Sometimes I used to curse, if not swear. Stealing from my mother I thought no theft at all, and used to make no scruple of taking money out of her pockets before she was up. I have frequently betrayed my trust, and have more than once spent money I took in the house in buying fruit, tarts, &c., to satisfy my sensual appetite. Numbers of Sabbaths have I broken, and generally used to behave myself very irreverently in God's sanctuary. Much money have I spent in plays, and in the common amusements of the age. Cards and reading romances were my heart's delight.”

Whitefield entered Pembroke College at Oxford at age 17. There he joined a group called the “Holy Club,” where he befriended John and Charles Wesley. John Wesley led the group, and as a result of their “methodical” ways, critics took to calling them “Methodists.” Of course, the name stuck.

Upon graduating and receiving his BA, Whitefield was ordained at 22. He began his preaching in the British towns of Bath, Bristol, and Gloucester. However, he felt the call to join General Oglethorpe’s colony in Georgia. In 1738 Whitefield left for North America. Not long after arriving in Georgia, noting the hard conditions, high death rate, and an abundance of children who had lost their parents, he conceived the idea of an orphanage.

For the rest of his life, Whitefield raised money for the orphanage. He also continued to preach. Whitefield’s message was one of salvation. This differed a bit from other Anglicans ministers at the time who emphasized religiosity and moral living. It was not long before most all of Georgia had heard of this young preacher with the booming voice and wild pulpit antics. News of Whitefield and his preaching soon spread throughout the colonies.

In 1739, after a brief return to England in hopes of securing land and funding for the orphanage in Georgia, Whitefield came back to America and would preach throughout the colonies. Jonathan Edwards invited Whitefield to preach in Northampton (Massachusetts). Whitefield’s message resonated with rich and poor, farmers and tradesmen, church-goers and sinners—virtually everyone within earshot of Whitefield (which, according to Ben Franklin, in open space, was 30,000 people!).

Whitefield was not alone. Along with Edwards, men like Isaac Backus, David Brainerd, Samuel Davies, Theodore Frelinghuysen, Jonathan Mayhew, Shubal Stearns, the Tennent brothers (Gilbert, John, William), and others implored Settlers and Indians alike to trust in Christ and Christ alone for salvation. Their message of repentance caught fire up and down the American East Coast. In the words of Brainerd, the ongoing revival was like an “irresistible force of a mighty torrent or swelling deluge.”

The fire of revival can spawn change that is felt world-wide. This was certainly the case with the first Great Awakening, for it was in the pulpits of American churches that the seeds of Revolution were sewn.

Copyright 2014, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World
tthomas@trevorgrantthomas.com

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