The United States has known three Great Awakenings in its history. The first took place roughly between 1734 and 1750. The second, from which the Abolition movement emerged, occurred between 1800 and 1840. The third, from 1880 to 1910, brought forth the smaller Protestant denominations, many of which still exist today.
For Catholics, this preponderance of small denominations is puzzling. ‘Why?’ they ask. If you live in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, this is a justifiable question. There are Catholic churches and Protestant churches of two flavours — Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinist). There might be a few smaller American imported ones, e.g. Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, but those are sects not churches. In the United States, each Great Awakening swept up people who wanted to find a way to live holier lives. Each group that splintered from another did so in order to achieve a more perfect Christianity. Only in a few cases — which involve sects which aren’t really Christian at all — was it to escape from Biblical precepts. Most new Protestant churches added or enforced more through legalism and pietism, including dietary, recreational and clothing restrictions. So, on that note, I would kindly disabuse my Catholic readers of the notion that Protestants are after an easier life.
Many British went to the American colonies for religious freedom. Puritans were considered persona non grata in England, where the state church was recovering under the Restoration of Charles II. Cromwell’s Puritans left a nasty memory in the English psyche which still exists to this day. Mention Cromwell in England and you will have no end of Anglicans responding with, ‘witch hunts’, ‘persecution’, ‘total control’ and more. I would suggest that those Americans who wish to come here and resurrect his memory in the Church of England are on the wrong track. As far as worship and belief is concerned, I agree, but even then some Americans would wish to go too far in this area. Their best bet is in Scotland, shoring up the church there which has fallen into a laxity unknown before now.
Back to the American colonies for a quick review of the First Great Awakening. Imagine where just a century before, low-key Puritans settled the colonies. Their descendants have built up their own businesses, fortunes, farms and the like. They have survived. They have colonised. Their faith has also changed, from being God-focused to man-oriented. Colonies were known by adherence to a particular denomination, e.g. Congregationalists in New England and Anglicans in the southern colonies. As these churches became established over the years, so their forms of worship became more structured and mainstream.
Some preachers, along with their congregations, longed for a more heart-and-soul response to God. They started the First Great Awakening in an attempt to shore up conversions by making people personally feel a relationship with God. Attending Sunday services was not enough. There would have to be a stirring in the soul to bring forth what the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer calls ‘a hearty repentance’. And, so, the emotional response to God was born. Some preachers taught that when the Holy Spirit filled your heart, you writhed around in pain for your sins. You cried out because you were asking for God’s mercy.
Needless to say, this approach proved controversial. More staid clergy — known as rationalists or Old Lights — asked people to exercise discernment: were congregations responding to the rhetoric of the moment or was the Holy Spirit truly working on their souls? They also feared for the future of their established Protestant churches. The First Great Awakening started producing splinter congregations, where services relied more on experience and emotion.
The two leading lights of this period were an American born in 1703, Jonathan Edwards, whose father was a Congregationalist minister. (At left is a photo of the plaque in East Windsor, Connecticut, which I have borrowed from A Divine and Supernatural Light blog, dedicated to his writings.) Edwards attended Yale and followed in his father’s footsteps. (Also born in 1703 was an Englishman, John Wesley, who studied at Oxford and became an Anglican clergyman. Wesley would sail to the colonies to establish his particular brand of Anglicanism, which was known as Methodism. We’ll examine Wesley’s broad influence in a separate post.)
Edwards, a prolific author with his own Congregational church in Massachusetts, defended the revivalism of the first Great Awakening saying that it produced deeper conversion and repentance. Many historians today regard him as America’s most important theologian. Edwards preached an applied Calvinism, making it come alive for his congregation. He urged them to pray that God might work through them to make them regenerate and fully repentant. In addition to singing Psalms, he also started using new harmonised hymns by Isaac Watts (many of which are still sung today). Children were catechised in a more conversational way so that they understood what they were memorising.
What Edwards was doing was bridging a gap between staid Protestant practice and a relevant personal experience of God. His reputation as a religious teacher and philosopher as well as a theologian earned him the appointment as the President of the College of New Jersey in 1757. This institution later became known as Princeton. Unfortunately, soon after his inauguration the following year, he contracted smallpox and died. He left behind a widow and 11 children. His reputation often portrays him as being uncaring and severe. Yet, he loved his family deeply and took great care with the souls to whom he ministered. His balance of mind and heart in his religion was just right. Remember that we should resist the temptation to view our forebears in light of our own modernity. Jonathan Edwards left this earth a much-admired man.
Historians are divided as to whether the First Great Awakening brought about the American Revolution. Those who do believe that Edwards’s preaching and that of the Methodist George Whitefield (about whom more in a separate post) urged people to believe in an American colonial covenant with God. It was a peculiar combination of the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment combined with a sincere relationship with Him which may have given rise to the fight for independence and, subsequently, the widespread sense of American exceptionalism.
Tomorrow: Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’
For more information, see:
‘Colonial New England: An Old Order, New Awakening’ – Christian History
Jonathan Edwards resources – Christian History
First Great Awakening – Conservapedia
JEahW Day 5: A Tour of Edwards and Great Awakening Sites – A Divine and Supernatural Light