Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Great Awakening 1739-1740

The American Soul is Born Again to Revolutionary Religious Independence

© Roger Saunders

George Whitefield woke them up. Jonathon Edwards went to war for their souls. America found cause for a new spiritual freedom, inspiring the political Revolution in 1776!

Early in the 18th century America already had an eclectic religious history. One great series of events became a precursor to the coming political unity. Occurring a full 35 years before the battles of Lexington and Concord, the aftershocks of the “Great Awakening” tore open the floodgates whose waters were used for America's baptism in the Spirit of 76. Oddly enough, this torrent of religious fervor had its roots in the same soil that produced the rugged American love of Liberty.

A New Birth

The groundswell began at tiny Bell Inn in Gloucester, England when the Anglican Priest, George Whitefield, was born. George Whitefield was an inconsistent student but he had a flair for the dramatic and an unusually loud voice that some would swear they could hear two miles away. He entered Oxford University under a work-study program that allowed him to finance his education by being a servant to the upperclassmen. There, another soon to be well known itinerant preacher, Charles Wesley, loaned him a book called “The Life of God in the Soul of Man”. This book was the impetus that led Whitefield to craft his inspirational sermons about the “new birth”. It was to lead to the modern renewal of the religious concept of being “born again”. From that time forward Whitefield dedicated his life to preaching this “gospel” to whoever would listen. Thousands did, first in England, and then in every colony in America.

Individual Freedom

Although Whitefield had already preached with profound effect to thousands in Philadelphia and New York, this spiritual awakening was to explode when he made a trip to New England in the fall of 1740. He preached to thousands in Boston and spent four days at the Northampton Congregationalist church where Jonathon Edwards was the pastor. He only spent a month in New England but his message of individual responsibility to God was to sweep south from Northampton over every colony for the next year and a half. His booming voice, along with the soft-spoken tones of Jonathon Edwards, was to inspire many more “evangelists” spreading the good news of religious freedom and fervor in wave after wave through America. The effects of this awakening were consciously felt for the next decade.

Religious Hierarchy Toppled

America’s subconscious was irreversibly affected by this revival. Religion, even through the reformation, had been symbiotically linked with governmental authority. This link gave the religious hierarchy a sort of monopoly on the hearts and souls of men. An individual’s conscience was invariably overruled by the religious elite. The Great Awakening broke this religious spell and imbued these individuals who had a personal religious experience with a sense of spiritual independence and liberty. They began to feel a freedom to pursue a “personal relationship” with their God apart from the religious establishment.

A New Spiritual Power

Individuals and whole churches dissolved the spiritual bonds which connected them to the established church. They began to independently assume the power to form their own new congregational “governments”. This was one great step that lead to that giant leap in the dark when these colonists would find it “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.”


Whitefield and Wesley on the New Birth by George Whitfield and John Wesley, 1986, F. Asbury Press

A Religious History of the American People by Sydney E. Ahlstrom, 2004, Yale University Press

Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land, A History of Church and State in America by Edwin S. Gaustad, 2003, Oxford University Press

Visible Saints, The History of a Puritan Idea by Edmund S. Morgan, 1965, Cornell University Press

This article, The Great Awakening 1739-1740 is reprinted with permission from the author.


Phil Johnson said...

That's a pretty good thumbnail explanation.
"Religion, even through the reformation, had been symbiotically linked with governmental authority."
That WAS the question on which the Great Awakening appears to have put its focus. What was it that should qualify a person to be accepted into the membership of the church as a communicant--a member of the community? Eventually, it cost Jonathon Edwards his pastorate.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Saunders, your post is quite timely, especially in view of Mr. Miettinen's philosophical overview post below.

Samuel Adams, the brewer-patriot, wrote harsh words for Thomas Paine's deist tract Age of Reason.

I was struck by this phrase, which your post puts into clear context:

"The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a Scripture phrase, are fast returning to their first love. Will you excite among them the spirit of angry controversy, at a time when they are hastening to unity and peace? I am told that some of our newspapers have announced your intention to publish an additional pamphlet upon the principles of your "'Age of Reason.'"

Surely Sam Adams is speaking of this Great Awakening, and Paine's threat to it.

And further supporting Mr. Miettinen's thesis of "freedom of conscience":

Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause? We ought to think ourselves happy in the enjoyment of opinion without the danger of persecution by civil or ecclesiastical law.

[All bold is mine.]

I take Adams to mean here that Paine's complaint against religion, repeated by Jefferson as it being a "tyranny over the minds of men,"---and a complaint still voiced by anti-religionists today---is that "freedom of conscience" undercuts this very serious condemnation of religion.

If religion or religious beliefs are freely chosen, they cannot simply be waved away as illiberal, unconscientious, and the product of sheepish minds or as manipulation of the state by the "church."

The very interesting exchange between SAdams and Paine may be found here: