A Lesson From the First Great Awakening
As you probably learned in your high school American history class, many people first came to America in the seventeenth century in search of religious freedom. But, over time, the religious zeal that originally drove people like the Pilgrims away from their homeland faded. Generations removed from the original settlers, several factors contributed to the colonists declining fervor, including an accumulation of wealth leading to spiritual complacency and the spreading of the Enlightenment’s rationalist philosophy. It was these conditions in which the First Great Awakening began to grow, eventually blossoming into a movement that spread across the thirteen colonies.
A Lack of Fervor
Before the Great Awakening, the American church had drifted into an unhealthy place. In an increasingly secular society, church membership had failed to keep pace with population growth. And many who were churchgoers had fallen into a state of “going through the motions,” with only a few experiencing real, moving faith. To combat this decline and diminishing conversions, the Halfway Covenant was adopted, allowing the children of unconverted parents to be baptized. As you can imagine, this led to a time of stagnant spirituality where the church simply served as a moral arbiter.
The Spark of Revival
Of course, not everyone was satisfied with this reality. One of the first people to ignite the sparks of revival was Solomon Stoddard, pastor of the Congregationalist Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. Stoddard leaned into the Halfway Covenant that others condemned as a way of filling his church with any and all, regardless of their spiritual standing. Despite his liberal leanings, Stoddard’s sermons stirred some congregants to conversion, effectively growing the church in Northhampton.
Revival and reformation continued as Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards, began to carry the torch. Edwards was a brilliant man, having graduated from Yale College at 17. After returning home in 1727, he became an ordained minister and an assistant to his grandfather, and upon the death of Stoddard, took over the role of pastor. Edwards was an impassioned and intense preacher but was also concerned with teaching correct doctrine. In 1734, while preaching a series of sermons on justification by faith alone, Edwards preaching ignited what is known as the Northhampton revival, which spread across Massachusetts and Connecticut and lasted three years. Edwards’s detailed his account of this event, known as one of the most influential revivals of the Great Awakening in his book, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.
The Building Movement
Edwards wasn’t the only one making progress, however. Dutch Reformed pastor Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen in New Jersey was another key figure in the movement, known to some as the father of the Great Awakening. And George Whitefield, who began preaching in America in the late 1730s, was picking up steam as well on his preaching tour, eventually preaching to crowds as large as 30,000 people.
Gilbert Tennent, influenced by both Frelinghuysen and Whitefield, embarked on successful preaching tours of his own too. Similar to Whitefiled, Tennent’s preaching produced many converts and its fair share of controversy. One sermon in particular, “On the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” which called out practicing pastors who were themselves unbelievers (a growing issue at the time), caused a significant rift in the Presbyterian Church. Revivalists like Tennent and Whitefield and their followers became known as “New Lights,” while the opposition—conservatives who were suspicious of revivals—were known as the “Old Lights.”
Much more can be said about the Great Awakening and the preachers who created the movement, but there is something to be learned from even a cursory understanding of the events. Men, who in many ways were not perfect, responded to the spiritual issues in their churches and cities with truth and action. Through their preaching, people were moved from their sinful contentment and into relationship with God, creating an impact that spread far beyond the Christian domain. If nothing else, this is an example worth imitating.