The First Great Awakening

The First Great Awakening

The eighteenth century brought about a tremendous revival throughout the colonies of America. Though there were many small localized revivals leading up to this revival, known today as the First Great Awakening, this revival left its localized beginnings and spread throughout the region. Led by great men such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Samuel Davies the Great Awakening brought about newness of life to believers. This revival took Christianity out of the intellectual sphere by bringing it back to the spirit. Changes in the way preachers taught helped to reach more individuals for Christ, and new movements of believers began to take shape. The First Great Awakening with its reach and spiritual regeneration brought the colonies closer to God than ever.

            In 1727 a great earthquake struck New England sending people running into churches looking for answers. Clergy and ministers took advantage of this opportunity to remind the populace of their need for piety and pointing to the sinful nature of the people as being the cause for this judgement.[1] Jonathan Edwards saw the beginnings of a return to piety in his own church and continued to preach the same style of message. What started as yet another call for piety became The First Great Awakening.[2] This Awakening can be considered to have started in a small town called Northampton, Massachusetts in 1734 because the preacher was uniquely qualified to reach the masses beyond his congregation.[3] This preacher was Jonathan Edwards, the minister of the local Congregational church. Up to this point, colonial Christians had begun to relegate church and Christian matters to the academic or intellectual sphere instead of keeping it in the spiritual realms.[4] In spite of the freedom allowed for the citizens to choose their own path of religion, and non-religion, many individuals became attendees of churches rather than members. They likely considered the regulations and requirements for membership to be for the academics or intellectuals instead of for all people.[5] During this period of time, revivals received significant coverage by media sources, it is likely that this fact aided the spread of the revival far beyond what one or two preachers would be able to accomplish.[6] Once the First Great Awakening revivals broke out this idea began to shift back to the spiritual realm from the intellectual.

            Jonathan Edwards was born into a spiritual family filled with ministers and leaders. One would be hard pressed to see how he could not have become a great speaker and minister. His preaching began shortly after graduating from Yale. He preached in New York and became an assistant minister in his grandfather’s church. After his grandfather’s death, at the age of 26, Edwards became the sole minister in the church.[7] Edwards, being a Calvinist, stressed that God must receive the glory due to Him in any sort of revival.[8] This idea was the foundation for his thinking on revival. Edwards preached a sermon on justification in 1733 sparking a small revival that continued to grow in popularity well into 1734.[9] This revival brought with it questions and concerns over the authenticity as many people reacted in visible and vocal emotion. Edwards had to defend this move of God in 1737 and as such wrote A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton.[10] The revival begun by Edwards led others to preach revival among the people. One of the greatest of these preachers was George Whitefield took up the task of spreading the revival throughout the rest of the colonies.

            George Whitefield was born into an impoverished family in England. He worked his way into and through schooling at Oxford as an assistant to other students. While studying at Oxford Whitefield met and became friends with the Wesley brothers and their Holy Club. Whitefield became an Anglican deacon and began preaching to all who would listen.[11] Whitefield came to the colonies in 1740 on a preaching tour that coincided with the revivals begun by Edwards. One major benefit that Whitefield experienced was his movement. Instead of speaking in one place repeatedly Whitefield moved from place to place speaking and preaching which in turn spread the revival far and wide.[12] While Edwards focused significantly on the glory of God through revival, Whitefield seems to focus on the new birth and regeneration of the believer. His idea of personal experience is emphasized throughout his sermons.[13] This emphasis seems to stem from his own personal experience of new birth. According to Applington Whitefield discusses his conversion in this way, “After a long night of desertion and temptation, the Star, which I had seen at a distance before, began to appear again, and the Day Star arose in my heart. Now did the Spirit of God take possession of my soul, and, as I humbly hope, seal me unto the day of redemption.”[14] Both of these great leaders fanned the flames of revival and brought spiritual rebirth to the colonies. Though their methods and even sermons were different, the end goal for both was to see believers strengthened in Christ.

            Though both men wanted to see believers revived they each went about reaching this goal in different ways. Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” reveals that he commonly sought to focus on the depravity of man and divine judgement. Though this revelation in and of itself does not bring about salvation, it is by Edwards the first step in salvation.[15] While Edwards focused primarily on sin and the coming judgement of God, Whitefield focused more on the new birth and regenerative ability of the Spirit of God. Whitefield constantly sought to break down the denominational barriers by pointing people back to the transformative power of God.[16] Even though these men approached the subject of salvation and conversion from different angles, they both sought to bring men and women to the point of desiring salvation. Beyond just the content of their messages and sermons Edwards and Whitefield differed in the presentation of their message. Edwards sermons were read from the pulpit off of his notes. This reading, while effective in his day, stands in stark contrast to Whitefield’s no-notes, theatrical preaching. Whitefield, during his tour of the colonies, did not always have a church or congregation to preach for and as a result often found himself preaching in the fields and streets. Whitefield’s ability to improvise a location to preach gave more people the ability to participate in a single event than that of preachers like Edwards who preached in the church buildings behind pulpits. Though their preaching styles and messages may not have been the same, God used both men to build up His Church and strengthen the colonial believers.

Other men such as Samuel Davies, David Brainard, and Gilbert Tennent aided in the spread of this revival. Each of these men contributed to the revival efforts in their own ways. Samuel Davies became one of the “New Light” ministers. The Presbyterian church was divided during the Awakening between the Old Light and the New Light. The New Light ministers and leaders saw this movement of God and pressed to continue in it while the Old Light wanted to keep to the traditionalist strict form of Presbyterianism leading to a seventeen-year schism in the church in 1741.[17] Davies was sent to Hanover, Virginia after a call for a request for a pastor. Upon arriving, he found the church in disarray due to disputes and the need for a leader.[18] His settling in Hanover would form a radiating point for the spread of Presbyterianism in the South. [19] These men in addition to Edwards and Whitefield brought the revival to the people, and the revival brought about a new movement of believers, Evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism, a movement centered on the conversion of people and their need for a relationship with God, began to spread through the colonies. The revivals and meetings that spread throughout the colonies were often accompanied with emotional outbursts, mass conversions, and visible acts of worship.[20] This spurred on the growth of evangelicalism as more and more began to see mass conversions. The idea that Christianity was not just an academic project, but a spiritual change took hold. Evidenced by the response to the revival meetings, evangelicalism spread throughout the colonies. As evangelicalism spread there was an increased desire for these types of revivals filled with conversion. However, not long into the movement and revivals opposition began to be displayed. The Old Light ministers opposed this idea as being against the traditional church structure and format.[21] Samuel Finley responded by arguing in his sermon that God often reformed the church in its dark times and that the emotional response did not disqualify the hand of God at work but rather was evidence for it.[22] Though evangelicalism started with opposition, it spread through the colonies and continues to this day.

Finally, the First Great Awakening brought about great changes to the colonies in the eighteenth century. With great preachers like Edwards and Whitefield bringing masses of people to repentance and revival came change from Christianity as academia to Christianity as a personal experience of God. The growth of evangelicalism, though opposed, has stood the test of the last couple of hundred years and remains strong today. Without the First Great Awakening, the United States of America would be a completely different place.


[1] John Howard Smith, The First Great Awakening : Redefining Religion in British America, 1725–1775, (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), 17, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/lib/liberty/reader.action?docID=1943259&ppg=1

[2] Smith, The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725–1775, 18

[3] Mark Nickens, A Survey of the History of Christianity, (Nashville: Wordsearch Academic, 2018), ch. 9, p. 111 WORDsearchBible App.

[4] Nickens, A Survey of the History of Christianity, 111

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dinu Moga, “Jonathan Edwards and His Theology of Revival”, Perichoresis 17, no. s1 (2019): 56. Accessed October 26, 2019, https://content.sciendo.com/configurable/contentpage/journals$002fperc$002f17$002fs1$002farticle-p55.xml?tab_body=pdf

[7] Nickens, A Survey of the History of Christianity, 111

[8] Dinu Moga, “Jonathan Edwards and His Theology of Revival”, 55

[9] Nickens, A Survey of the History of Christianity, 111

[10] Nickens, A Survey of the History of Christianity, 111

[11] Nickens, A Survey of the History of Christianity, 112

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rod, Applington, “George Whitefield: Revival Principles from the Preaching and Practices of a Great Revivalist” (PhD thesis, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2011), 11, https://www-tren-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/e-docs/download2.cfm?CFID=22507736&CFTOKEN=ff96e525fe138b66-6DFC05D4-163E-6956-D661A6B3D1949485

[14] Applington, “George Whitefield: Revival Principles from the Preaching and Practices of a Great Revivalist”, 4

[15] Dinu Moga, “Jonathan Edwards and His Theology of Revival”, 63

[16] Applington, “George Whitefield: Revival Principles from the Preaching and Practices of a Great Revivalist”, 28

[17] George H. Bost, “Samuel Davies, Preacher of the Great Awakening”, Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 26, no. 2 (June, 1948), Accessed October 26, 2019, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23324154

[18] Bost, “Samuel Davies, Preacher of the Great Awakening”, 81

[19] Bost, “Samuel Davies, Preacher of the Great Awakening”, 83

[20] Nickens, A Survey of the History of Christianity, 111

[21] Jonathan M. Yeager, ed. Early Evangelicalism : A Reader. (Cary: Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2013). 60, Accessed October 27, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.

[22] Yeager, Early Evangelicalism : A Reader, 60

0Shares

Leave a Reply