of the First Great Awakening
In my last posting I made a reference to the Second Great Awakening and the consequent dumbing down of American Religion with the rise of biblical fundamentalism. I want to explore this further, but to do so we need to go back to the First Great Awakening and American Revivalism in the 18th century. The First Great Awakening, an evangelical revival among English and (American) Colonial Protestants had an intellectual integrity lacking in its 19th century successor—the Second Great Awakening—and the spinoff movements that (unfortunately) stamped most American Protestantism—and now, by contagion, Catholicism—with an anti-intellectualism which is increasing undermining the foundations of Christianity in American society.
What really distinguished the First Great Awakening is the quality of the preachers who engendered it. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, and the Wesleys were all men of high culture and unparalleled education and the movement they started never deviated into the rank theological subjectivism of later American religion.
Perhaps we need to begin with the Anglican priest George Whitefield (1714-1770). Whitefield, an Englishman, had been a fellow at Pembroke College Oxford where he knew the Wesleys and, like them, had been part of the Holy Club. The Holy Club was an association of devout scholars at Christ Church, Oxford who devoted themselves to prayer, study, and works of charity among the poor and sick. It was the spiritual fountain from which Methodism—originally a movement within the Church of England—sprung. Whitefield, like the Wesleys, decided to come to the American colonies to work as a missionary. After an initial trip to Savannah Georgia to assess the needs of what he thought would be his future parish, he returned to England to be ordained. While in England raising money for a proposed orphanage in the new parish, he began preaching to large crowds. His preaching was so effective that no church was large enough to hold the assembled crowds—mostly of working class people in the factories and mines of Industrial Revolution Britain. Whitefield presented the Gospel to them in a way that spoke to their everyday lives with their frustrations, poverty, and suffering. Returning to North America in 1740 he was invited to preach up and down the colonies, again drawing huge crowds wherever he went.
While being a committed Anglican and even having a Calvinist bent in his opinions on pre-destination, Whitefield was willing to preach wherever invited and to work with Protestants of any and all sorts. He worked closely with the Moravian Brethren in Pennsylvania to establish charity work among the poor Blacks. Among Whitefield’s admirers was Benjamin Franklin who, though a Deist, was deeply impressed at the moral changes in people effected by Whitefield’s preaching. He was also amazed at Whitefield’s ability as an orator and at his intellectual skills. Franklin published a number of Whitefield’s tracts. Whitefield eventually returned to England where he was never given a church of his own, but where he continued to draw large numbers to open-air revivals. He made seven trips to America for preaching and died in Boston on the last of his missionary journeys.
Jonathan Edwards was born in East Windsor Connecticut in 1703, the son of a Puritan clergyman. He studied at Yale College (today’s University) where he showed an aptitude in a wide variety of fields, including the natural sciences. Edwards was fascinated with the discoveries of Isaac Newton and found that, unlike others whose interest in science pushed them away from religion, science to him was a demonstration of the Divine origin of Nature and Nature’s Laws. Valedictorian of his class, he went on after graduation to study Theology. After several temporary positions—some pastoring, some academic—he was ordained as minister-assistant to his grandfather who pastored the Church at Northampton Massachusetts. Both Edwards and his wife—who also came from a family of ministers—were noted for their ascetic lives and devout piety. Edwards’ grandfather died in February of 1729 and by the summer of 1733 Edwards’ preaching had triggered a revival in Northampton with several hundred new members have been converted and joined the church. Joining the church was not simply a matter of signing up and getting one’s offering-envelopes; joining the church meant committing yourself to a rigorous discipline of moral life, prayer, fasting, and study. Yet the revival spread beyond Northampton and throughout New England and even New York. Edwards standards of Christian living, however, became ever more strict and this eventually prompted his home congregation to dismiss him from the pastorate. His popularity as a preacher gained him several calls to fill pulpits from Scotland to Virginia, but he finally accepted a church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. From there he went on to the President of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. He died there in 1758 after being inoculated for Smallpox. Given his interest in scientific development, he was a strong proponent of the new vaccine and volunteered for the inoculation, but his health was not sufficiently strong for him to survive the resultant case. Edwards’ entire ministry had been marked by rigorous scholarship—philosophical, theological, scientific—and yet also stressed, and saw as compatible, a life of religious devotion.
Whitefield was Anglican, Edwards a Congregationalist, and the third voice of the First Great Awakening was Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian. Davies' family was too poor to send him on to college—unlike the Oxford educated Whitefield and the Yale educated Edwards—but he was tutored by the Reverend Samuel Blair at his academy in Faggs Manor Pennsylvania. The education must have stood him well as Davies went on to become the fourth President of Princeton. Davies was, as I noted, a Presbyterian and served dissenting (non-Anglican) congregations in Virginia, becoming the first non-Anglican clergyman to be licensed to preach in Virginia. He was known as an enthusiastic preacher and served seven churches spread out over five counties, riding from one to another on horseback. In 1753 Davies went to Great Britain where he preached more than 60 sermons. Returning to America he beat the drum in Virginia for recruits to fight the British cause in the French and Indian War and in 1759 he succeeded Jonathan Edwards as President of Princeton. He died two years later, aged only 37 years.
We will write more about John and Charles Wesley at another time, saying now only that their tenure in the American colonies was too short to have an immediate influence, though long-term they would be the most important shapers of American religion. Charles spent only one year and John two in the colonies before returning to England. They both studied at Christ Church College in Oxford with John later becoming a fellow at Lincoln College. Charles was among the organizers of “The Holy Club” at Oxford—the aforementioned society of devout scholars who wished a more intense Christian life. Upon their return to England both brothers took up open-air preaching under the tutelage of George Whitefield. Wesley’s influence will be stronger in the Second Great Awakening when his American disciples will play a significant role in American revivalism. In England, however, the Wesleys were highly influential in the revitalization of Christian living through the Methodist movement which started in “The Holy Club.”
The religious revival of the 1730’s through 1750’s gave a shot in the arm to the Congregational and Presbyterian—and to some extent, the Anglican—Churches which had over time become somewhat staid and, well, comfortable. They set a higher bar to which Christian men and women found themselves called. Discipleship could not be taken for granted and tepidity was not acceptable in matters of Christian commitment. On the other hand, the preachers were educated men, conversant with the intellectual currents of their time. They knew philosophy. They knew biblical languages. They knew the theological traditions of Calvin and the Reformers. Some, like Whitefield or the Wesleys, knew the Fathers of the Church. Some, like Edwards, were passionate about the sciences but none were opposed to any field of knowledge or learning. The anti-intellectualism of today’s Christian right would have disgusted them as much as any sin or moral decay. Indeed, they would be embarrassed by the uncouthness of many a priest and many a pastor today.
We need a revival in the Church today, a new evangelicalism but it can’t be the sort of dim-witted fundamentalism of an Andy Gipson or a Jeff Smith or even the coat-and-tie ignoramity of a Franklin Graham. For that matter we don’t need the gender-bending foppery of a Raymond Burke or a Salvatore Cordileone, much less the glass closet of a Michael Voris spinning the Gospel to their own peculiar tastes. We need intelligent people, men and women who have their feet on the ground but know both the Scriptures and our Catholic heritage—the Patristic Tradition of Augustine and Ambrose and Jerome and Chrysostom et al—to motivate us intelligently and yet with full hearts to make Christ the center of our lives. There is a golden opportunity here for a Third Great Awakening—one that calls Christians of every Church and denomination to faithful discipleship in a 21st century world.