Elliot Murphy and Matt O’Sullivan
Professor Don Westblade
Religion 319, Section 01
26 September 2013
Three Threads of History and Thought Towards Awakening and Revolution
In studying the decade spanning between 1730 and 1740, one will encounter a flurry of religious and political change within the American Colonies. Sentiments and ministers from abroad crossed the Atlantic to cultivate what they saw as promising ground for a revival unlike anything the colonies had yet experienced. Within the colonies, there existed no shortage of men eager to initiate renewal and rebirth. Alongside the religious climate, political exemptions granted to dissenting religious sects rapidly added diversity to a once monopolized Puritan society. Although many events rocked this decade, these occurrences each impacted the others, leading to three general threads of historical thought and change. These threads are: the initial revivals in the colonies and the subsequent awakening, the political and cultural shifts in North America, and the revival taking place in England.
Thread #1: The Ripples of Revival in the Colonies
- May 30, 1733—Samuel Wigglesworth delivers An Essay for Reviving Religion in Boston: Wigglesworth’s sermon served as the annual election sermon delivered before the Massachusetts legislature. Election sermons traditionally followed the jeremiad format and thus consisted of political recommendations for the legislature and warnings against religious backsliding for the people. Wigglesworth, however, took a different approach and redirected his audience’s focus inward (Heimert and Miller 3). He acknowledged that the people of New England had “a goodly exterior Form of Religion . . . [and that their] Doctrine, Worship and Sacraments are Orthodox, Scriptural and Divine,” but he lamented that “these things are but the Remains of what we Once might show” (Essay 4). Highlighting Christ’s teachings for Nicodemus, Wigglesworth emphasized the idea of the new birth. That is, instead of “lab[oring] to build up a Shell, to form a [mere Carcass] of Godliness . . . void of Internal Vital Principles,” he exhorted preachers to “Travail in Birth with [their congregations] until Christ be formed in them, and they are become holy in Heart, as well as blameless in Life” (7). Wigglesworth’s sermon and emphasis on the new birth exemplify the blossoming evangelical spirit of the decade and embody the theological ideas that would go on to drive the awakenings in both the colonies and England.
- 1734-35—The Connecticut River Valley Awakening: As early as 1731, Edwards began to notice some inclinations amongst the New Englanders that would later serve as fertile ground for a revival (Marsden 150). It was not until April 1734, however, that any substantive revival began. In that month, the death of a young unconverted boy served as a springboard for the beginning of the revival in Northampton. Pointing to the boy’s unforeseen death, Edwards exhorted the youth of the town to abandon their pursuit of earthly pleasure and to seek instead the true happiness that is found in God. His tactics worked, and as Marsden writes, “By fall the awakening had spread and was transforming the youth culture of Northampton” (155). Stout notes that although ministers in the previous decade—such as Solomon Stoddard—witnessed revivals in their congregations, the revivals that began in Northampton were of a different nature in two respects. First, the Northampton revival was more regional than the earlier local revivals, spreading to more than thirty towns in the Connecticut River Valley (194). Additionally, “local ministers were not the prime movers. Instead . . . the primary momentum was generated from beneath, among people,” especially the youth. As the momentum grew, the revival spread, and as Edwards summarized, “From day to day, for many months together, might be seen evident instances of sinners brought out of darkness into marvelous light, and delivered out of an horrible pit, and from the miry day, and set upon a rock, with a new song of praise to God in their mouths” (Narrative 348). Edwards estimated that the awakening ultimately reached more than 300 people in Northampton alone (350). Unlike previous revivals, this one saw a universality amongst those it reached, “affecting all sorts, sober and vicious, high and low, rich and poor, wise and unwise,” even young and old (349). Additionally, the number of men converted was nearly equal to the number of women converted. Nevertheless, the revival’s momentum lurched from the tracks on June 1, 1735, when Joseph Hawley II committed suicide (Marsden 163). His death shocked the people of Northampton and reminded them of “the reality of Satan” (167). Edwards focused his preaching on reminding his congregation that Satan was indeed a real, malicious figure at work in the world who would do whatever he could to derail any advances in the spread of the gospel. The revivals did not fan into flame again until the very end of the decade when news that George Whitefield was traveling through the colonies reached the region.
- 1735—Gilbert Tennent publishes A Solemn Warning to the Secure World, From the God of Terrible Majesty, Or, the Presumptuous Sinner Detected, his Pleas Consider’d, and his Doom Display’d: Gilbert Tennent became the foremost leader of the revivals in the Presbyterian churches of the middle colonies. Gilbert’s father, William Tennent, founded the Log College, which trained many eighteenth-century revivalist preachers, including Gilbert and several of his other sons. Like his father before him, Gilbert embraced the notion that the distinguishing mark of a Christian was the heartfelt practice of Christian piety (Coalter 6-9). Thus, he argued that a Christian could not simply offer rational assent to doctrine and practices but that conversion was a work of the Holy Spirit in the heart that then spilled over into practice. The best way for a sinner to arrive at conversion, believed Gilbert, was through preaching about the “terrors” of sin in order to pierce the thick shell of self-righteousness that averted a sinner’s eyes from his need for grace. Gilbert’s call for such an affectionate, heartfelt style of preaching would go on to fuel much of the revival spirit in the middle colonies. Similar to the eventual divide between Old Lights and New Lights in New England, Gilbert’s views clashed with the subscriptionists—the current majority of Presbyterian pastors and theologians—who “advocated a formally defined structure and theology for their church with subscription as the first step toward that goal” (31).
- 1737—A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God is published in England: The several-year hiatus after the Connecticut River Valley Awakening gave Edwards time to reflect on the recent events. The result of his reflections—the Faithful Narrative—quickly became the most influential work published in the 1730s. It contained many accounts of experiences of God’s grace and mercy. The two chief accounts were from Phoebe Bartlett—who was four years old at the time of her conversion—and Abigail Hutchinson (Marsden 249). The work was first published in London in 1737. It not only brought Edwards international recognition but also served to inspire and influence revivals “in both Scotland and England” (173). For example, John Wesley looked to the Narrative as a model for him to emulate with the revivals in England. In 1738, the Narrative was published in Boston accompanied by the written support of six local ministers who all affirmed the truth and accuracy of Edwards’ work (Gaustad 22). The Narrative ultimately served as a snapshot of the new birth and vital piety doctrine and revival spirit in action, which in turn, served as a common reference point for revivalists around the world.
- September 1738—Gilbert Tennent and the New Brunswick Presbytery clash with the Synod over ecclesiastical policies: Earlier in 1738, the Synod—which was dominated by a subscriptionist majority—passed two acts that strengthened the policies and guidelines for itinerancy and for the examination of new pastors. Tennent and the New Brunswick Presbytery—which was composed of preachers who agreed with Tennent’s revivalist tendencies—ordained John Rowland shortly after both acts were passed but they did not comply with the procedures outlined in the examination act. Moreover, just after his ordination, Rowland met resistance when he attempted to answer a call from a church in the Philadelphia Presbytery. The Presbytery raised charges against him based on both the itinerancy and examination acts and “declared [his] licensing invalid and ruled him guilty of intrusion” (Coalter 51). At the May Synod meeting in the following year, the New Brunswick Presbytery petitioned for presbytery autonomy in matters of ordination but failed to overturn the previous Synod decisions. Instead, “the Synod revoked Rowland’s membership and admonished his presbytery for acting improperly” (54). The conflict revealed and sharpened a growing divide between the subscriptionists, with their strict “standards for ministerial certification,” and the revivalists, with their belief that experimental piety served as the best standard for both ordination and conversion in general. The rift would lead to a schism in 1741 and the revivalists, led particularly by Tennent, found much-needed support in George Whitefield when he arrived at the end of the year. Whitefield’s arrival sparked the beginning of the Great Awakening at the tail end of 1739 and into 1740.
Thread #2: Political Events
- In the shadow of the Great Awakening, many transformations began to take place within the American colonies during the 1730’s. Baptist, Quaker and Anglican dissenters in Massachusetts and Connecticut received many concessions from the Puritan assemblies and general courts, laying groundwork for the freedom of conscience and separation of church and state. Georgia came into existence under the philanthropic and ambitious James Oglethorpe, giving the colonies a buffer from the Spaniards in the south, and the generation that would lead America to independence breathed their first.
- In 1732, Englishman James Oglethorpe petitioned for and received permission to begin the colony of Georgia. His vision was one of reform, allowing prison inmates and the poor to travel to the new world to start again. British parliament and authorities saw the colony as a fitting buffer state between the hostile Spaniards and the colonists of the north (Elliott, 237). Indeed, the buffer proved necessary when the War of Jenkins Ear broke out in 1739. Between 1739-1741 General Oglethorpe led both Indians and colonists against the Spanish in Florida. The general and also the political dictator eventually led a siege against St. Augustine that ended in failure. Oglethorpe’s authoritarian leadership of the colony kept the colony from failing entirely, but his subjects portrayed their leader critically in a pamphlet titled: “A True and Historical Narrative of the Colony of Georgia: A Dedication to His Excellency General Oglethorpe.” In the Great Awakening, both John Wesley and George Whitefield journeyed to Georgia, revealing its growing presence and importance on the continent. Whitefield even started an orphanage in the sprouting colony during his first visit to the colonies in 1738 (Marsden, 204).
- As Oglethorpe led his colonists to and through the New World, many of those that would lead America to independence entered the world. George Washington was born in 1732; his successor, John Adams, came three years later in 1735; Robert Morris joined them in 1734; and John Rutledge in 1739. Many other figures find themselves on the list. One founder, however, had been around quite some time. Benjamin Franklin was 26 when Washington was born, and the entrepreneurial printer began publishing the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac the same year.
- Printing: Franklin pioneered printing in America, a trade that played a significant role in the Great Awakening and the American Revolution. The end of the 1730’s brought about a surge in the printing industry in America. Between 1739 and 1741, the number of prints would increase by 85% in the colonies (Taylor, 347). The rapid expansion provided ministers uniformity and awareness to the doctrines and happenings of the Great Awakening (348). Whitefield himself masterfully used printing to excite the colonists before his visit (Marsden, 204).
- Dissension, Exemption and Freedom of Conscience: Georgia, the Founders and Printing all transformed or later would transform the political and cultural landscape of Colonial America, but equal to these was the religious toleration acts that emerged within New England. Baptists, Quakers, and Anglicans received sweeping exemptions from colonial ministerial taxes throughout the 1720’s and 1730’s, setting a standard that allowed dissenting religious opinions to co-exist within the New England settlements. The movement was, however, a town-by-town, county-by-county adaption (McLoughlin, 235). By the end of the 1730’s, exemptions were in place that would remain until the Revolution, thereby cracking the hold of church by the Puritan state and also establishing precedence for the separation of Church and State.
- Massachusetts: In 1731 Quakers received a sweeping exemption from poll, real and personal estate taxes that supported the Congregational ministers within their township (235). In Attleborough, Massachusetts exemptions were granted as early as 1725 to Quakers, but the exemption did not included Baptists or Anglicans. The new governor of Massachusetts, Jonathan Belcher, sought to broaden the religious toleration within the colonies. In 1731 Belcher helped convince the Massachusetts general assembly to provide full tax exemption for Quakers, but not for the Church of England or Baptists, whom he distrusted (McLoughlin, 233). The exemption solved problems that existed in earlier acts, such as the failed endeavor of sending detailed lists to the constables of Baptist and Quaker church members. It also solved the “five mile rule” that stated only those within five miles of the township could receive tax benefits (235). The governor revealed his liberal viewpoints in a letter to his friend: “…for I have no opinion of those stingy narrow notions of Christianity which reigned too much in the first beginnings of this country” (234). Although seemingly hostile to religion, the governor would later support the Great Awakening, and even befriend George Whitefield (Marsden, 202).
- In 1734, the Massachusetts General Court granted angry Baptists similar exemptions to those granted the Quakers in 1731. Exemptions laws were already in place since 1728 for Baptists in the New England area, but these provided limited and often disputed tax exemptions while also failing to identify true dissenters from those looking for a tax break. To grant further exemptions to a growing sect revealed the increasingly lenient tendencies of New England leaders. The aggressive Baptists played an agent’s role in the plot to break the hold by Puritans on New England religion. William McLoughlin argues, “The Breakdown of the closed Puritan society in thought and practice which took place between 1680 and 1740 can hardly be attributed principally to the efforts of the Baptists, but certainly they played a significant part in it” (McLoughlin, 238).
- In 1735, the quickly growing Anglican Church in Massachusetts received exemptions similar to those of Baptists and Quakers, allowing the Church to quickly set its Anglo-roots deep in the American soil (240).
- Connecticut: In Connecticut, the development of Religious liberty began as early as 1708 in Connecticut, with laws tolerating Anglicans and Baptists (McLoughlin, 270). The majority of exemption acts, however, were enacted in the 1720’s and 30’s. In 1729, Anglicans, Baptists and Quakers received basic exemption laws from the Connecticut General Court. In 1734, Baptists formally appealed to the General Court in order to “free us absolutly from paying menesterial taxes (273).” The movement worked.
- Political Shifts Conclusion: The exemptions granted in Massachusetts and Connecticut provided the new dissenters an opportunity to grow while not suffering under the requirements of paying their own ministers as well as those in the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches. By 1735, twelve Baptist Churches existed in Massachusetts, six of which started between 1730 and 1740. Three churches existed in Connecticut. One of which started in 1733 (McLoughlin, 276). In the same way, Anglicans grew in the colonies. By 1743, fourteen Anglican congregations existed in Connecticut compared to the two that existed in 1731 (276). Taken together, these political changes marked a step towards the separation of Church and State, threatening also the Congregational and Presbyterian monopolies on churches.
Thread #3: The Early Revivals in England
- 1733—George Whitefield meets John and Charles Wesley and joins the Holy Club. The friendship between these three men becomes one the most important friendships of the decade and had tremendous influence on both the English and the American awakenings. In fact, all three men eventually travelled to America. Whitefield first met the Wesley brothers in the Holy Club, a group of Oxford University students that met in order to devote themselves to the common practice of religious duties and charitable service. Their activities included devotions, fasts, and visits to the local poor houses. According to Dallimore, “This programme of endeavour, aided by these works of charity, they believed, somehow ministered towards the salvation of their souls” (68). All three men grew in their faith and began to develop their theologies in the context of this initial group. Moreover, the early seeds of Methodism, which emphasized strict and organized religious devotion and caring for the needy, were sown in this group.
- October 1735—John and Charles Wesley sail for Georgia and arrive on February 6, 1736: Both Wesleys hoped to lead the ministerial efforts in Georgia but met setbacks along the way. After struggling with illness, Charles returned to England in the summer of 1736, but John remained in Georgia until early 1738. During his stay, he shared the gospel with the colonists, local Indians, and even some African-American slaves. Nevertheless, his personality clashed with the colonists and he fled the colony to escape charges raised against him after some of his decisions met fierce opposition. It must be noted, however, that John’s struggles in Georgia drove him to fervently pursue holiness and grow in his faith back in England. Additionally, the time both Wesleys spent in Georgia also facilitated George Whitefield’s rise in prominence as a world-renowned preacher. During the Wesleys’ absence in England, Whitefield was thrust into the center of the events that would launch the English revivals. As he began to preach in London and the surrounding regions, thousands of people flocked to his sermons. As his audiences grew in these early years of ministry, Whitefield rose in prominence and cultivated his skill as a preacher, which, in turn, prepared him to serve as one of the biggest catalysts of the First Great Awakening in America.
- 1738—George Whitefield travels to America for the first time: Early in 1738, Whitefield set sail from London with five other young men to assist him with his ministry in Georgia. As Whitefield’s ship prepared to leave the harbor, John Wesley’s ship returned from Georgia. Although Wesley returned from a trip that did not meet his expectations, Whitefield found much success in Georgia. General Oglethorpe, the leader of the colony, suggested Whitefield take the reigns on raising funds for the construction of an orphan house. Having already met much success in the colony, Whitefield enthusiastically embraced the idea and returned to London on November 30, 1738, to begin raising the funds.
- 1738—Several milestones in John Wesley’s spiritual development: When he returned to England, John Wesley found a spiritual leader in Peter Böhler, a Moravian. For years, Wesley had undergone a long struggle with doubt and weakness of faith. Böhler “convinced [Wesley] that the deficiency [in his faith] was not one of degree . . . but plain unbelief” (Heitzenrater 77). Böhler instructed Wesley in the Moravian doctrine that faith is a deeply personal experience and that it results in an “instantaneous conversion” (78). Although convinced of such doctrine, Wesley did not have his own experience of assurance until May 24, 1738, at Aldersgate. As Wesley continued to hammer out his beliefs after his conversion experience, he read a copy of Jonathan Edwards’ A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God on October 10, 1738. Wesley wholeheartedly believed that the Holy Spirit was at work in New England and he hoped to galvanize similar revivals in England. In March 1739 George Whitefield asked Wesley to take over the ministry in Bristol (98). Although he first viewed Whitefield’s practice of field preaching with wary eyes, Wesley soon found himself drawing huge crowds as well, and in Bristol he began to see the first ripples of the English Revivals and eventual rise of Methodism that burst forth in the 1740s.
- April 1739—John Wesley preaches “Free Grace,” his sermon against the doctrine of predestination: This sermon became a dividing wedge between Wesley and Whitefield. Although both men were identified as leaders in the rising Methodist movement, Wesley ascribed to Arminian doctrines on salvation whereas Whitefield remained a supporter of the Calvinist doctrines of the Church of England. In this sermon, Wesley argued that predestination blasphemed God and made him out to be of worse nature than the devil. Indeed, addressing Satan himself, Wesley cried:
Hearest thou not, that God hath taken thy work out of thy hands; and that he doeth it much more effectually? . . . Thou canst only entice; but his unchangeable decrees, to leave thousands of souls in death, compels them to continue in sin, till they drop into everlasting burnings. (VII.4)
Although he rejected the notions of irresistible grace and limited atonement, Wesley did not maintain that grace depended on the merits or works of men but rather that “it is free for ALL, as well as IN ALL” (I). Firmly convinced of his position, Wesley quickly had the sermon published, which in turn created public tension between him and Whitefield. Although Whitefield staunchly disagreed with Wesley’s newly proclaimed position, he did not cease supporting Wesley’s efforts in the budding revival (Dallimore 316). For all their doctrinal differences, Wesley and Whitefield were, in fact, united by their shared belief in the new birth. Indeed, at the time, Methodism was not yet a distinct denomination but “was simply a term that designated an adherence to evangelical doctrine and a fervent manner of life” (Dallimore 382).
- Summer 1739—George Whitefield meets opposition from the Church of England just before he returns to America: Less than a week before Whitefield set sail for his return trip to America, Dr. Edmund Gibson, the Bishop of London, published A Pastoral Letter by Way of Caution against Lukewarmness on the One Hand and Enthusiasm on the Other. Gibson’s pamphlet illustrated the growing division between the Church of England and the revivalists. Whitefield still viewed himself as a member of the Church of England. He believed his theology was that of the Church’s Articles. Thus, he quickly wrote An Answer to the Bishop of London’s Pastoral Letter, defending his doctrine and ministry, and then departed for America. He landed at Lewes, Delaware, on October 10, 1739 (413), and began his itinerant ministry that would go on to fan the Great Awakening into a blaze. One must note, however, that Whitefield’s clash with the established clergy in England mirrors the growing rift between what would become known as the Old Lights and the New Lights in New England. On both sides of the Atlantic, an evangelical spirit driven by the doctrine of the new birth was coming into its own as an alternate position in theology against the more rationalistic and authoritarian positions of earlier generations.
Ripples of revival began changing the religious landscape of the American Colonies throughout the 1730’s. Ministers believed a major outpouring of the Spirit of God was soon at hand and urged their congregations to seek a spiritual rebirth into the grace of God. Political shifts also rocked the Colonies as toleration acts became established statutes in New England, and the frameworks for the revolution were being set. England’s awakenings and religious leaders stoked the fires of revivalism in their nation and in the colonies, and helped ignite the First Great Awakening.
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