THE 18th-CENTURY AWAKENING: A REMINDER FOR AMERICAN EVANGELICALS IN THE 1990s
By: Gerald R. McDermott
I. American evangelicals are frustrated because their attempts to transform American culture seem to have failed. After electing three presidents and sending hundreds of legislators to Washington, and despite influencing public policy with blizzards of mail and armies of lobbyists, evangelicals cannot point to a transformed America. As Charles Colson recently wrote in Christianity Today, “Belief in the Bible has declined and religious influence has been so thoroughly scrubbed from public life that any honest observer would have to regard this as a post-Christian culture. Gallup reports the most bewildering paradox: religion up, morality down…. We’ve protected our enterprises but in the process lost the culture.”
A history lesson might provide perspective. Evangelicals in America and England felt a similar frustration in 1730. They, too, had failed to reform their societies after decades of political and social effort. Preaching endlessly for moral reformation elicited boredom and contempt; reducing standards for church membership brought in more people but few conversions; and political leaders paid lipservice to evangelical religion while furthering the secularization of society.
Yet within a decade the greatest evangelical awakening since the Reformation broke out across America, England and the Continent. By the time it subsided, the political and social cultures of the
Anglo-American world had been forever changed. Christian values had left their mark on the world beyond the church.
II. The 18th-century awakening consisted of three massive revivals divided by an ocean, a sea, and thousands of miles: the “Great Awakening” in the American colonies, the English “Evangelical
Revival,” and the revival of continental Pietism under Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. But these great revivals, and even the minor awakenings they encompassed, were generally united by 10
1. Revivals were preceded by corporate prayer. Early in the century it had become an evangelical truism that revival usually followed God’s outpouring of a spirit of intercession for revival.
So in the 1720s and 1730s, after decades of feeling that true religion was dying, American and British evangelicals turned to prayer for such an anointing. The first answers seemed to come in
1734-35 with the Connecticut River Valley revivals, led by Jonathan Edwards’ congregation at Northampton, Mass. Then the same pattern appeared elsewhere. Days of fasting and prayer preceded
revivals at Gloucester, Halifax, and Middleborough, Mass. The first signs of revival at Portsmouth, N.H., and at Wrentham, Mass., appeared during fast-day services. And in August 1743 Rev.
John Sutherland in Golspie, Scotland, started three prayer groups to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A year later, revival fell. Seventy people were converted in his church alone.
The 18th-century revivals produced several networks of corporate prayer for the spiritual renewal of the world. In 1727 Zinzendorf’s Moravian community started around-the-clock watch of
corporate prayer that continued for 100 years. In 1743 Edwards, who believed that corporate prayer was more effective than the accumulated prayers of individuals, suggested that a day of
fasting and prayer for worldwide revival be observed throughout America. Edwards’ “Concert of Prayer” was implemented by Scottish churches, John Wesley and his English evangelicals, and a number of American churches on the first Tuesday of the last month of each quarter of the year.
2. Revivals had strong leaders. Evangelicals of the 18th century believed God would raise up extraordinary human beings for special times of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Jonathan Edwards
wrote in his History of the Work of Redemption that whenever true religions seemed to be on the verge of extinction, “God granted a revival and sent some angel or prophet or raised up some eminent person to be an instrument of their reformation.”
The 18th-century awakenings saw at least three such extraordinary instruments in the Anglo-American world. Jonathan Edwards was the theologian of the awakenings. In History of the Work of
Redemption, a treatise that would influence the thinking of evangelicals to the end of the 19th century, Edwards argued that the history of redemption is driven by revivals. In other words,
every major advance of the Kingdom of God on earth is signaled and brought about by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. His Religious Affections is perhaps the Christian church’s most profound manual on spiritual discernment. Although Edwards had a weak voice and was not a charismatic speaker, he held his hearers’ attention with vivid imagery (“You hang by a slender thread [over a] great furnace of wrath”) and deep insight into human experience. Others were far more powerful preachers, but Edwards’ theology of religious affections helped keep revival fires glowing for more
than a century after his death.
George Whitefield was the catalyst for the largest explosion of religion in 1740. A mere 24 years old, he preached more than 175 sermons in a 45-day whirlwind tour of Massachusetts and
Connecticut. Most of his sermons were preached to immense crowds; his farewell sermon in Boston was heard by 20,000. Before his tour was done, most people had heard him at least once and his oratorical power had already become legendary. On one occasion Whitefield came late to a meeting, so another preacher had started on “a powerful text.” The audience, however, was restless. When Whitefield arrived, the first preacher yielded immediately. According to an eyewitness, “Mr. Whitefield had scarcely spoken for a minute on the same text when the whole auditorium could be seen to be deeply moved, to be in tears, and to be wringing hands, and the sighing, weeping, and shouting of the people could be heard.” On another occasion a German woman who could not
understand English heard Whitefield preach in Philadelphia, and she was so overcome by Whitefield’s “gestures, expressions, look, and voice” that “on her return she asserted that never in all her
life had she had such a quickening, awakening, and edifying experience.”
Like Whitefield. John Wesley was an orator to the masses, but while Whitefield performed like an actor on the English stage, Wesley spoke as an Oxford scholar and gentleman. But unlike
Whitefield, Wesley was an administrative genius. He organized a huge, tightly disciplined hierarchy of small groups called “class meetings” for testimonies, prayer and spiritual encouragement.
These kept alive his vision long after his death. In addition, Wesley was indefatigable. By his death he had traveled, mostly on horseback, the equivalent of 10 times around the world.
3. Revivals were sparked and sustained by the preaching of Reformation doctrines. Revival preachers in the 18th century explicitly denounced “legalistic” and “rationalist” preaching that
taught “mere morality.” In contrast, they emphasized justification by faith in the atoning death of Christ. Wesley taught the absolute necessity of the New Birth, and George Whitefield
borrowed from the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, their emphasis on faith alone as the prerequisite for salvation.
Terror was preached before grace by ministers in the Connecticut Valley. They were sons of thunder as well as sons of consolation. In the 1720s, following the lead of Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, revivalists were already preaching the terrors of damnation as a prelude to the glorious offer of free grace. Edwards reported that his sermon, “The Justice of God in the
Damnation of Sinners,” was his most effective tool in the 1734-35 harvest of souls. The sermon was an exposition of Romans 3:19 — “That every mouth be stopped” — and explained that “it would be just with God forever to reject and cast off mere natural men.” If a sinner received grace, therefore, it was an unmerited act of God’s love.
4. Revivalists preached the Reformation message in a new and powerful manner. They recognized that their audiences’ principal problem was a stubborn will, not ignorance. (This message had been preached by Lutheran and Reformed ministers since the 16th century.) Therefore they sought not to impart new information, but to stimulate to action. They were determined to challenge their hearers to respond. Since, they believed, conversion was a transformation of the heart, they spoke with a fervor aimed at softening, even breaking, their audiences hardness of heart.
Whitefield was the most effective of this new breed of preachers. If they were fervent, he was positively passionate. As Harry S. Stout says, Whitefield preached as though there were no tomorrow.
A contemporary reported, “Sometimes he exceedingly wept, stamped loudly and passionately, and was frequently so overcome, that, for a few seconds, you would suspect he never would recover; and when he did, required some little time to compose himself.” After Whitefield preached at Northampton, Edwards’ wife, Sarah, wrote, “It is wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible. I have seen upwards of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence, broken only by an occasional half-suppressed sob.” Edwards also wept during Whitefield’s sermon.
To enhance the emotional power of their preaching@, evangelical ministers climbed into the pulpit with few notes. They thought that the less they relied on notes, the more easily they could
respond to the Spirit’s suggestions and their audience’s needs. Edwards wrote out his sermons word for word for the first 13 years of his pulpit ministry. After the outbreak of the Great Awakening,
however, he used only spare outlines for notes. Whitefield usually preached without any notes at all.
5. Revivalists preached at non-traditional times in non-traditional places. Whitefield used times outside of the Conventional religious times, and preached in spaces that drew crowds. Wesley preached in jails to prisoners, in inns to wayfarers, and on vessels to passengers crossing to Ireland. He started preaching outdoors to enormous crowds, between 2,000 and 20,000 at a time, only after Edwards’ account of the Northampton revival convinced him of the possibility of mass revivals. Once he preached to hundreds while standing on his father’s tombstone because he was refused admission to the adjoining church. Presbyterian revivals both in Scotland and the Middle Colonies often climaxed in huge open-air communion services.
6. Revivalists thought music was important. New ways of singing, by note and in parts, contributed to the emotionalism of 18th-century revivals. Many evangelicals noticed the power of music to
stir religious feeling and promote revival. In his account of the Northampton revival, Edwards wrote that “no part of the public worship has commonly had such an effect on [the people of
Northampton] as singing God’s praises.” Edwards concluded that singing should be frequent in worship services because of music’s power to arouse religious affections.
7. Revival leaders often faced fierce opposition. On several occasions rioters climbed into trees behind Whitefield’s pulpit to “shamefully expose” themselves or urinate in his direction. Wesley
often had rocks thrown at him, and was sometimes mobbed and beaten by gangs incited by jealous parsons or squires. Edwards was hounded by liberal detractors in the press. His own church ejected him from its pulpit, in part because of the high evangelical standards to which he called its members. As a result, Edwards spent most of the last eight years of his life exiled to a lonely
mission church on the frontier.
8. Revival accounts helped spread revival. Edwards and the church in Northampton were inspired and perhaps influenced by news of the revival in Holland and Germany. News of the Great Awakening in America deeply affected Christians in Cambuslang, Scotland. Elizabeth Jackson, a young, unmarried servant woman, said that after hearing her minister “read some papers relating to the Success of the Gospel abroad; I was greatly affected at the thought that so many were getting good, and I was getting None.” In mid-November 1741 Rev. Nicholas Gilman of Durham, N.H., began reading aloud daily to his parishioners from Edwards’ revival account and his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” By early December a revival had begun in Gilman’s church.
Whitefield’s Journals had a similar effect.
But if some clergymen were responsible for first sharing the news, it was the laity who took the message and ran to their neighbors. Unlike awakenings in previous centuries, the 18th-century
awakening was propelled primarily by laymen, not clergymen. Even Edwards, the awakening’s first great leader, said the momentum came from below, especially young people, whose “lay testifyings” produced a “great noise” that was heard throughout the region.
9. The revivalists believed the Holy Spirit’s presence would be palpably manifest. Edwards believed that the Spirit could be discerned, that he moved a congregation “by a mighty invisible
power,” and he sometimes caused a “visible commotion.”
There were plenty of such instances in the 18th-century awakenings. During an extemporaneous lecture in 1741, for example, a Scottish minister asked, “Where is the fruit of my poor labours
among this People?” At this some of his parishioners cried out “in the most public Manner, of their lost and undone condition, saying, They now saw Hell open for them, and heard the shrieks of
the Damned! and expressed their agony not only in words, but by clapping their hands, beating their breasts, terrible shakings, frequent faintings and convulsions; the Minister often calling out
to them, Not to stifle or smother the Convictions, but encouraged them.” At a communion service during the next year in Scotland attended by some 30,000, “some of both sexes, and all ages, from the stoutest man to the tenderest child,” wrote a participant, “shake and tremble, and a few fall down as dead.”
10. Revivals usually resulted in concern for the poor and unfortunate. Zinzendorf’s Moravians cared for the sick, established schools and provided for the aged, widows, and orphans. Edwards taught the Christian’s duty to be charitable to the poor — the pre-eminent test of true religion, as important as prayer or church attendance. No commandment, he said, was laid down in the Bible in stronger terms. A time of revival was the time when this duty ought especially to be preached. He recommended that every church keep a large fund for this purpose. On his deathbed he ordered that any money that would have been used for his funeral be channeled instead to the poor.
Whitefield spent much of his career establishing and then single-handedly supporting a large orphanage in Georgia. Although he owned slaves, the great evangelist nevertheless was one of the
slaves’ greatest champions. In a day when many Americans doubted whether slaves had souls, Whitefield did more than anyone else to bring them the Christian faith. Wesley attacked slavery, worked to curb alcoholism among the poor, and urged fair prices, a living wage, and honest, healthy employment for all.
III. The 18th-century evangelical experience contains some lessons for American evangelicals in the 1990s. It shows that genuine spiritual renewal, if sufficiently deep and powerful, can do more
to transform culture than political action can. We should not be surprised that we have been able to accomplish so little after expending so much money and so much energy. Were we directed and
empowered by the Holy Spirit? Have we forgotten the power of the simple gospel?
A renewal cannot be engineered by a committee or even a team of preachers. If the 18th-century evangelicals were right, revival comes only by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. We can do
nothing to ensure such a work, but we can, and should, join with others to pray for an outpouring of the Spirit of God.
Cal Thomas is right: the answer lies not in a resuscitated Moral Majority, but in having preachers attract “new members to a life, a cause, and a kingdom not of this world.” We should not retreat
from this world’s struggles for peace and justice, but neither should we forget that it is “‘not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit,’ says the Lord.”
(The above material appeared in the December 14, 1992 issue of National and International Religion Report.)
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