As I note in The Miracle and Magnificence of America, between the colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history came what historians have dubbed the (first) “Great Awakening.” The lack of passionate Christianity, along with the coinciding adoption of certain liberal interpretations of Scripture and a turn toward the secular, greatly concerned ministers such as Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Prince, and William Cooper. By the 1730s, passionate and animated pleas for the souls of the lost became widespread.
The earliest principle figure of this period of spiritual revival was the brilliant and pious Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards. Edwards succeeded his grandfather as pastor of the church at Northampton. Later he accepted a role as pastor of a church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Jonathan Edwards loved the pulpit, and according to BJU Press, he 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.
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Whitefield is generally considered “The Father of the Great Awakening.” Born in England in 1714, 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.
In 1738 Whitefield left for North America. It was not long before most 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 an 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, James Davenport, Samuel Davies, Theodore Frelinghuysen, Jonathan Mayhew, Shubal Stearns, the Tennent brothers (Gilbert, John, William), and others implored settlers and Natives 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.”
After the event at Pentecost as recorded in the Bible in Acts Chapter Two, and after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, many evangelicals of the eighteenth century considered the revival that was The Great Awakening as the third extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Such spiritual power 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 sown. The British certainly thought so, as they blamed what they derisively described as the “Black Robed Regiment” for the thirst in the Colonies for American Independence. Modern historians have noted, “There is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763.” The Great Awakening played no small role in helping to unite the American Colonies against the British.
For example, in 1750 the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, a Harvard graduate, Congregationalist minister, and pastor of West Church in Boston, published A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers. Out of this was born a sermon entitled “The Morning Gun of the American Revolution.” In this, Mayhew uses Romans 13 to justify throwing off the tyrannical yoke of England.
In 1765, Mayhew gave a powerful sermon railing against the evils of King George III’s hated Stamp Act. Mayhew declared,
The king is as much bound by his oath not to infringe on the legal rights of the people, as the people are bound to yield subjection to him. From whence it follows that as soon as the prince sets himself above the law, he loses the king in the tyrant.
According to historian Alice Mary Baldwin, joining Mayhew in leading the opposition to the Stamp Act were the Reverends Andrew Eliot, Charles Chauncey, and Samuel Cooper. George Whitefield accompanied Ben Franklin—whom he had befriended—to Parliament to protest the Act. Franklin revealed to Parliament that Americans would never willingly submit to the Stamp Act. A month later, in March of 1766, celebrating the repeal of the Act, Whitefield recorded in his journal, “Stamp Act repealed, Gloria Deo.”
John Witherspoon, Presbyterian minister, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton)—in 1776, on a national day of prayer and fasting, preached a sermon entitled The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. The sermon included the following:
There can be no true religion, till there be a discovery of your lost state by nature and practice, and an unfeigned acceptance of Christ Jesus, as he is offered in the gospel. Unhappy are they who either despise his mercy, or are ashamed of his cross. Believe it, ‘There is no salvation in any other.’ ‘There is no other name under heaven given amongst men by which we must be saved.’ …
If your cause is just, you may look with confidence to the Lord, and intreat him to plead it as his own. You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.
Preachers and teachers like Witherspoon had a profound impact in forming the United States of America. Among his students included James Madison, future U.S. President and “Father of the Constitution,” Aaron Burr, future U.S. Vice President, twelve future Continental Congress members, forty-nine U.S. representatives, twenty-eight senators, three Supreme Court justices, and a secretary of state. As America’s Schoolmaster, Noah Webster, would later note, “The learned clergy…had great influence in founding the first genuine republican governments ever formed and which, with all the faults and defects of the men and their laws, were the best republican governments on earth.”
According to historian David Barton,
When Paul Revere set off on his famous ride, it was to the home of the Rev. [Jonas] Clark in Lexington that he rode. Patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams were lodging (as they often did) with the Rev. Clark. After learning of the approaching British forces, Hancock and Adams turned to Pastor Clark and inquired of him whether the people were ready to fight. Clark unhesitatingly replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!”
As a result of this First Great Awakening, America was beginning to unite. Americans were beginning to rediscover the Covenant Way. One nation under God became the political as well as the spiritual legacy of The Great Awakening.
Contrast the faith-filled, Spirit-led American Revolution with the godless, lawless, mindless demands for “revolution!” in today’s America. Instead of revival, the mob that has burned, looted, assaulted, and killed its way through the U.S. are motivated by pure evil. They are more rotten fruit of the liberalism that’s so prevalent in much of America today. Thus, we again see that any “revolution” not born of the Spirit of God is doomed to disaster, destruction, death, and failure. In other words, the only way to real, lasting positive change in any family, community, or nation is the way of the cross.
Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor is the author of the The Miracle and Magnificence of America