The First Great Awakening movement divided long-standing denominations such as the Congregational and Presbyterian churches and paved the way for a new evangelical force among Baptists and Methodists. It began with a series of revival sermons delivered by preachers who were either not associated with the mainstream churches or had left those churches. The Teaching was built on the foundations of older traditions, Puritanism, Pietism, and Presbyterianism.
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Prominent revival leaders such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield have formulated a theology of regeneration and salvation that transcends denominational boundaries and helps create a common evangelical identity. Most scholars attribute the beginning of the Great Awakening renaissance to the Northampton revival, which began at Jonathan Edwards Church in 1733. In 1734, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards began vigorously evangelizing in Northampton, where he was pastor, with sermons on justification by faith.
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was an essential and influential priest in colonial New England America. He is credited with starting the Great Awakening, and his writings provide insight into colonial thought. On October 5, 1703, the priest was born in a religious family in Connecticut, East Windsor (Pranger 2019). His father was the Reverend Timothy Edwards, and his mother, Esther, was the daughter of another Puritan priest, Solomon Stoddard (Pranger 2019). At his 13th, he was sent to Yale College, where he became very interested in science and read a lot, including the works of John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. John Locke’s philosophy has greatly influenced his future personal teachings.
Jonathan Edwards assumed the need for a personal spiritual experience of God. The priest claimed that only after God’s personal conversion could the will be diverted from human needs and directed towards honesty. To put it another way, only God’s mercy could give a human the ability to follow Him. Edwards believed in personal religious experience. From 1734 to 1735, Edwards preached a series of sermons on the justification of faith, which led to many conversations with his community (Pranger 2019). Rumors of his preaching spread throughout the area around Massachusetts and Connecticut. During the same period, itinerant ministers began a series of evangelical meetings urging people to turn from sin in the New England colonies. This form of evangelism focuses on personal salvation and a right relationship with God.
Another equally important figure in the Great Awakening movement is George Whitefield (1714–1770). Unlike Edwards, Whitefield was a British minister who moved to colonial America. He was known as the Great Wanderer because he traveled and preached in North America and Europe between 1740 and 1770 (Pranger 2019). Its revival led to many conversions, and the Great Awakening spread from North America back to the continent of Europe.
In 1740, Whitefield left Boston for a 24-day tour of New England. His original goal was to raise money for his shelter in Bethesda, but he lit sacred fires, and the ensuing revival consumed much of New England (Pranger 2019). When he returned to Boston, the crowds of his preachers grew, and his farewell sermon is believed to have attended 30,000 people. The message of revival was to return to religion, but it was a religion available to all classes, sectors, and economies.
Whitefield’s shipment of consumer goods symbolizes his immersion in a thoroughly commercialized society that provided him with the means to build a new religious discourse – the modern revival. Recent writings have shed light on how Whitefield and other evangelicals shaped the Great Awakening. One creative volume focused on Whitefield’s rhetoric and social communication innovations that challenged local differences and relationships with power.
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Teachings of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield
Jonathan Edwards’ sermons exposed the sins of ordinary people, denouncing them with deep power. During that time, the revival spread throughout New England, and through Whitefield’s ministry, it spread to the south of the continent. During massive open-air religious gatherings, the itinerant preachers, the followers of Whitfield, called themselves New Lights (Miller-Todd 2018). They accused the parish priests, the Old Lights, of spiritual darkness and denied the formalism of the official church.
Edwards’ views are remarkable for their flexibility: he distinguishes three main phases of the conversion experience. However, he does not tire of repeating that one should not deny this or that particular option just because the sequence of ordinary experience is broken or some part of it is entirely absent. Criticizing Whitfield’s actions and the New Lights aimed at destroying the traditional structure of the church, Edwards simultaneously took a vigorous defense of the Great Awakening. He defended the emotional response to the preaching of New Lights by referring to the text of the Bible (Miller-Todd 2018). Edwards was accusing the Old Lights of the formalism that stifled every movement of the soul in New England.
Edwards tried to find a kind of golden means for himself: he welcomed the Great Awakening, the preaching work of Whitfield and New Lights, psychologically justified unusual emotional outbursts. At the same time, it called for the preservation of the existing church order as a necessary condition for the coexistence of visible saints. However, the line between the two extremes, formalism, and anarchy, was unusually thin: the sectarianism of the New Lights undermined not only church order. Nevertheless, it threatened to destroy both civil peace and tranquility. The threat of hypocrisy among the neophytes carried a new danger to the formalization of religious life.
Edwards’ preaching at the time had a massive impact in Anfield, Connecticut. His style of speech was different from the traditional one: Jonathan did not shout or speak harshly but spoke in a low, emotional voice (Smith 2018). However, some sources claim that people throughout the church screamed during his preaching, asking how to escape hell and be saved (Smith 2018). Thus, the pastor’s calm interpretation led the audience to a conclusion unbearable for Christians. It cannot be denied that this matters because his sermons are read and mentioned by theologians to this day. Like Jonathan Edwards, Whitfield developed his style of preaching, distinct from the formal style of the church (Smith 2018). He also allowed his listeners to give the emotional responses that his sermon evoked in them.
Other Leaders Who Played a Lesser Role
Evangelical preachers sparked revivals from New England to New Jersey throughout the 1720s and 1730s. In the late 1720s, the minister of pietism, Jacob Frelinghuysen, inspired a revival of piety among the Dutch reformers in New York (Lambert 2018). At the same time, Presbyterian Evangelicals William and Gilbert Tennent reported revivals in churches they founded between New Jersey, New Brunswick, and Staten Island, New York (Lambert 2018). In sharing a common message, these revival evangelists remained local, private, and limited to specific geographic and denominational boundaries. Although each proclaimed the need for spiritual rebirth and the importance of divine grace in salvation, the revivals did not develop into a more significant, cohesive movement.
Evangelicalism and the First Great Awakening
Although Whitefield and Edwards disagreed on some important doctrinal issues, they nevertheless belonged in spirit to the same mainstream — evangelism. The essence of the doctrine was not to proclaim a new philosophy and a new church. It was an interdenominational phenomenon and tried to appeal to all Christians. The First Great Awakening swept all the British colonies in North America and grew parallel with the educational movement.
The First Great Awakening was characterized by the flamboyant emotional preaching style of itinerant preachers and transcended the confines of individual Protestant denominations. Itinerant Preachers emphasized the unique role of religious conversion and personal experience and called for radical changes in the way of life of the new converts (Klassen 2016). There were conflicting assessments of the unique style of preaching. Some were convinced that the presence of the Lord was evident at these meetings, and the evangelists were the greatest people, “brighter than any angel in heaven, truly God’s messengers” (Yeager 2016). At the same time, others doubted that God had moved Whitefield and Edwards. Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield greatly influenced the people who later met in Philadelphia to approve the Constitution of the United States of America.
The beginning of the Great Awakening in America was prompted by both colonial traditions and new European ideas. The movement had a significant impact on all aspects of colonial life, including ideology and politics. For the first time, the residents of the colonies, professing different religious views, experienced a general spiritual upsurge. The colonies had never seen anything like the First Great Awakening. In terms of its scale and degree of influence on society, it is a turning point in the lives of many believers. It was the first movement in American history that contributed to the creation of a single religious and partly ideological space. The 18th century turned out to be incredibly significant for the Europeans and the developing North American society.
Klassen, Ernest Eugene. 2016. Revival Preaching: With 12 Lessons from the Preaching of Jonathan Edwards during the First Great Awakening. USA: Lulu Publishing Services.
Lambert, Frank. 2018. Pedlar in Divinity. Princeton University Press.
Miller-Todd, Emily. 2018. “An Analysis of Congregational Clergy and Congregant Responses during the First Great Awakening.” International Congregational Journal 17, no. 1: 35–58.
Pranger, Gary K., ed. 2019. ORU History & Humanities Modern World. Textbooks.
Smith, John Howard. 2018. “The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers.” Church History 87, no. 2: 585–87. Web.
Yeager, Jonathan M. 2016. “The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725–1775.” Church History 85, no. 2: 389–91. Web.