18th Century Theology
Calm Before the Storm
The 1730s were a period of preparation as the necessary pieces were moved into place for the explosion of the Great Awakening in the late 1730’s and early 1740s. During this period, the major players of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, and Jon Edward, were all developing into leaders who could handle the dramatic results of the sudden awakening of their parishioners. This decade saw the education and ordination of both the Wesley brothers and Whitefield as well as the placement of Jon Edwards into the pulpit. During this period hearts were sown and the reaping began in Northampton. Most of the decade stands as the calm before the breaking of one of the largest storms American religion ever experiences.
In 1730, John Wesley had just returned to Oxford University as a tutor and started the “Holy Club” which included members of almost every college and focused on reading the Bible and praying together. During this time, Charles was the first one to be labeled derisively as a Methodist, but this name soon became a badge of honor among the group. Despite running this club and heavily affecting men like Whitefield along the way, John and Charles did not experience their true conversions until 1738. Charles was the first to experience this conversion and he described it saying “…God chased away the darkness of my unbelief.” He then wrote a hymn expressing his joy at conversion which ends “No condemnation now I dread, Jesus, and all in Him, is mine: Alive in Him, my living Head, And clothed in righteousness Divine, Bold I approach th’ eternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.” After this point, Wesley devoted his life to missionary work and preaching. In 1739, John Wesley followed Whitefield’s example and began open air preaching due to his disagreements with local pastors and lack of room in buildings.
Whitefield’s journey towards his incredible ministry began under the tutelage of John Wesley at Oxford. In 1734, Whitefield came to Oxford at the age of 19 and joined John Wesley’s Holy Club. Charles Wesley shook his view of Christianity as a church experience and changed his focus to the individual and personal experience. In 1736 at the very young age of 23, Whitefield graduated from Oxford and was ordained as an Anglican Minister. His sermons enflamed his listeners and he very quickly became a popular speaker in his area. Over the next year, Whitefield received multiple letters from the Wesley brothers who had made a missionary trip to the Georgia and were seeing amazing growth in their ministry. At this point, Whitefield began feeling a strong call towards America. Soon after receiving a letter in 1737, Whitefield decided it was finally time and began making preparations for his trip. It took eight months for him to arrange the journey but once it was ready he sailed for Georgia. During his first trip to America in 1738, Whitefield didn’t make a very large impact. He preached a couple of sermons and scouted out the land for the Orphanage he wanted to open but besides that he had a very quiet journey. After the journey, Whitefield returned to England and began raising support. Whitefield’s second journey to America, one year later, was a very different experience. Upon his return, Whitefield arrived unannounced but his presence was made known very quickly.
When Whitefield returned to America, he began the first of his Awakening tours that would make him the most well known man in the American Colonies. His open air preaching captivated his audience and led thousands to Christ. He drew the largest crowds America had ever seen. As Dr. Morgan stated “Under his moving orations the Great Awakening burst forth in all its power and flamboyancy.” This journey through the colonies cemented Whitefield’s place in American History and was the peak of the Great Awakening.
During the same period, while Whitefield and the Wesleys were preparing for their work, Jonathon Edwards was watching the awakening unfold before his eyes. In 1737, Edwards published “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God” which was his attempt to take a scientific approach to the Awakening and provide proof of the reality of the work. Jonathan had seen a radical change in his community that surprised him greatly, especially the growth among the youth. In his work, Edwards describe this phenomenon saying “At the latter end of the year 1733, there appeared a very unusual flexibleness, and yielding to advice, in our young people.” Many people were converting and revival was stirring in all his parishioners, but what surprised him most was the willingness of the youth to listen to their elders. The youth had taken to staying out late and “frolicking” which in Edward’s mind were dangerous and indecent propositions. Suddenly, the youth were open to going from their classes to Bible studies and spending their free time in groups with only members of their own sex. This was a sign to Edwards that God was moving in Northampton. Besides the occurrences with the youth, Edwards saw the power of the God working throughout his region. He described it saying, “This work seemed to be at its greatest height in this town... At that time, God’s work in the conversion of souls was carried on amongst us in so wonderful a manner, that, so far as I can judge, it appears to have been at the rate, at least, of four persons in a day; or near thirty in a week, take one with another, for five or six weeks together. When God in so remarkable a manner took the work into his own hands, there was as much done in a day or two as at ordinary times, with all endeavors that men can use, and with such a blessing as we commonly have, is done in a year.” Jon Edwards was watching the beginning of the Great Awakening and the fervor that began in Northampton spread throughout the rest of the nation.
The 1730s was a decade of preparation. Many of the leaders of the Awakening were developed from young and foolish students to the wise and inspiring men who led a revival that changed the culture of American religion forever. It also saw the beginning of the Awakening itself in the ministry of Jon Edwards in Northampton and George Whitefield’s second journey to America. It set the stage for the Awakening that would continue in the early 1740s.
Edwards, Jonathan. "Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One." - Christian Classics Ethereal Library. June 1, 2005. Accessed October 4, 2015.
Green, Roger. "1738 John & Charles Wesley Experience Conversions." 1738 John & Charles Wesley Experience Conversions. October 1, 1990. Accessed October 4, 2015.
Morgan, David. "George Whitefield and the Great Awakening in the Carolinas and Georgia, 1739-1740." The Georgia Historical Quarterly 54, no. 4 (1970): 517-39.
N/A “John Wesley and the 18th Century World” Christian History Institute Issue 2, 1983.
 N/A Christian History Institute Issue 2, John Wesley and the 18th Century World, 1983.
 Green, Roger. "1738 John & Charles Wesley Experience Conversions." 1738 John & Charles Wesley Experience Conversions. October 1, 1990. Accessed October 4, 2015.
 Morgan, David. "George Whitefield and the Great Awakening in the Carolinas and Georgia, 1739-1740." The Georgia Historical Quarterly 54, no. 4 (1970): 518
 IBID, 519
 IBID, 522
 Edwards, Jonathan. "Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One." - Christian Classics Ethereal Library. June 1, 2005. Accessed October 4, 2015.