A Historical and Theological Analysis of the 1740s
Ethan Richards and Clay Ward
February 15th, 2021
The 1740s are marked most distinctly from other decades in the eighteenth century by the religious movement called “The Great Awakening.” Taking place following the Enlightenment, a cultural movement towards the dependency of man’s mental faculties to better understand the world around them, the Great Awakening was a time period wrought with an increase in the state of one’s own soul. Though the Great Awakening started in the late 1730s, there were still many events associated with the movement that would primarily take place in the early to mid-forties that would shape societies’ outlook on the historical period. The end and response to the movement would ultimately occur in the later forties, as many theologians and enlightenment thinkers would question its legitimacy. The events of the movement would also bring to the forefront many denominational disputes that would eventually bring forth splits. From Benjamin Franklin to Charles Chauncy, this Analysis will seek to give a larger picture to the Great Awakening’s effects on American religious history.
To give background to many of the happenings of the forties, it is necessary to give a brief timeline of George Whitefield, as he had a lasting impact on many of the churches that he came across, regardless of denomination, and set the tone for the Great Awakening as a whole. Whitefield—an Anglican minister from England—would end up traveling to America several times for extended preaching tours. He began in Georgia, where he devoted himself to preaching and establishing an orphanage. When he returned in 1740, “his reputation proceeded him.” His second time in America, he toured from Georgia to New York, preaching to thousands along the way. Despite his Anglican ordination, he was invited to preach at Congregational, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches, thus establishing his reputation as an ecumenical, indiscriminate preacher of the Gospel.
His preaching style was similar to that of Jonathan Edwards, in that his sermons were incredibly worrisome for the unrepentant and called for a true turning of the heart for the sake of salvation. An example of his effect on others can be seen in an account of Whitefield’s impact on Benjamin Franklin, in which Franklin attended one of Whitefield’s outdoor sermons. In it, Franklin mentions how skillful of a speaker Whitefield was. Franklin mentions that he had, “resolved he [Whitefield] should get nothing from me… Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that, and determined me to give the silver.” Franklin, a deist, had decided not to donate to Whitefield’s cause and ministry, yet the minister’s speaking ability was so profound that even the hardest hearts were struck. Whitefield’s sermons were gripping, eliciting vigorous reactions from crowds. While these were common at his sermons, these reactions would not be given a title until 1746, when Jonathan Edwards would write a treatise on how to distinguish emotional reactions from those legitimate renewals of the heart (which he would dub “Affections”).
The dynamic preaching of George Whitefield, while representative of the Great Awakening, is also a symptom of the ecclesiastical and cultural landscape of Old and New England. The colonies of New England, after over one hundred years of settlement, had by this time established their distinct regions and cultures, matched by a diversity of church traditions that interacted with one another. New England, the inheritance of the Puritans, was dominantly Congregational in its ecclesiology, while Virginia continued in the Anglican tradition of the motherland, with its bishops and government. Throughout the colonies were also pockets of Presbyterians who, when added together, ranked with Congregationalism and Anglicanism as one of America’s largest denominations.
This diversity of denominations, however, was by no means solely theological. Unlike contemporary America, 1740s Anglo-American society was deeply intertwined with the beliefs and practices of the Christian church. In England, the church and the state directly influenced each other; and, in New England, to be a member of society was often synonymous with being a member of the church. On both sides of the Atlantic, civil participation hinged upon church membership, thereby lowering the standards of true membership. As a result, Great Awakening historian F.L. Chapell observes that, “we find at this the three leading denominations of Protestantism ignored vital piety in their church order.”
The World’s response to the Great Awakening and George Whitefield’s preaching was largely one of admiration and awe. However, there was also skepticism from those of the enlightenment and those of the “Old Lights”. Some—like New England minister Charles Chauncy—considered the “Affections” an emotional over-reaction unrelated to the state of one’s soul. This skepticism would not be helped by men like James Davenport, a Puritan preacher ￼￼ The “Old Lights” did not believe that these new conversions were true, and they felt that the emotional affections were not genuine. They saw men like James Davenport as not truly guiding hearts, or even working for an evil purpose. Charles Chauncy is considered one of the biggest critics of the Great Awakening. In 1742, Chauncy wrote what is called, “Enthusiasm, Described and Cautioned Against”, in which he says,
“But in nothing does the enthusiasm of these persons discover itself more, than in the disregard they express to the Dictates of reason. They are above the force of argument, beyond conviction from a calm and sober address to their understandings.”
Chauncy was worried about creating new Davenports who did not understand the scriptures and did not appreciate the things that reason can tell us about God. This is not to say that Chauncy disagreed with the sermons of men like Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards; but he worried that the reactions and conversions of the crowds were merely experiential. According to Chauncy, faith is not something that can be founded without reason.
Jonathan Edwards—on the side of the “New Lights”—was a proponent in favor of the Great Awakening and its revivals. During the forties, in response to Chauncy’s works, Edwards wrote The Distinguishing Marks of The Works of the Spirit of God (1741), Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742), and Treatise on the  (1746).￼ While he was still in favor of the revivals by the end of his “discussion” with Chauncy on these matters, he conceded that Chauncy had some genuine concerns. Ultimately, Edwards concluded that, while it is difficult to determine Great Awakening.
The disagreements on the revivals, however, were not limited to Chauncy and Edwards alone. This inter-denominational dispute about the Affections would be the catalyst to different splits in denominations throughout America. While the Puritans were already struggling with the Half-way covenant, and how they should give societal rights to those who may not be official members of the church, the Presbyterians had to deal with the split that took place in the 40s, which was also related to an ongoing argument within the Synod. Since the early 1720s, the Presbyterians had been arguing on how to discipline and maintain order and good practice within the synod and presbyteries. Throughout the development of this issue was an underlying struggle of how orthodox or experimental ministers could enter and remain in the synod. Those who were often more in favor of experimentalism over doctrinal orthodoxy felt that “The Log College” and New England Men had all the legislative authority, seeing as they were educating new ministers, while the British judiciary was pushing against revivalism. Although the synod tried to convene peacefully in 1741, a new synod began in 1745 for the revivalists called the “New York Synod”. In short, the Great Awakening was not only a revival of the religious life of the common man, but also the herald of much denominational change. While all of this was happening with the Presbyterians, there were similar situations taking place in several other denominations.
Mark Noll goes into depth explaining the different theological splits within America during the forties, and he even breaks it down into different regions as well. While the southern colonies (mostly Baptist and what would become the Methodist Church) experienced a pushback from a formalized form of worship with the coming of George Whitefield, the New England colonies saw a major split into four different ecclesiastical traditions: those who followed the libertarian themes of revival and moved away from the church and state environment (also mostly Baptists); those who wanted to retain the “traditional ties between church and state”; those who did not like the disruption of the traditional church; and those Congregationalists who held “disdain for the intemperate enthusiasm of the common people”. Charles Chauncy was one of the leading writers of the time period that reflected the views of the last group of people mentioned. Many disputes, such as the dispute of whether or not to separate church and state, were merely firewood to feed the blaze. Much of the groundwork for the separation between church and state would be laid during the Great Awakening.
What the American Religious Landscape is left with after the forties is a lot of good intentions, but also a lot of fundamental questions about the very nature of piety. Although the Great Awakening was a source of cultural unification, many historians argue that this interpretation “fails to take seriously the divisiveness of the revival, particularly as it affected American Presbyterians.” They would say that while the Great Awakening had many good intentions, and brought the attendance numbers up for Sunday services, it may have left denominations in much more of a mess than in repair. Others, however, would say that there were so many true conversions that any denominational disputes were minor when compared to the rejoicing that must have been taking place in heaven. A large part of religion in the twenty-first century is that there are so many coexistent religious beliefs and sects that are all separated from the state. This is due largely to the disputes and splits that took place during this time period. There is also a larger focus in many churches today on the “Affections”, and a biblical emotional connection with God that can be traced back to this time period.
In considering the decade of the 1740s, it is difficult to overestimate the impact of the Great Awakening on colonial American culture and religion. In fact, many historians make the case that the Awakening has not ended, and that it continues to manifest itself in American evangelicalism today. The message of the New Birth, combined with a tradition of itinerant preaching, remain hallmarks of American Christianity; and it was preacher-theologians like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennent who paved the way for this tradition of revivalism. Indeed, both the church and culture at large owe much of their heritage and community to the Great Awakening of the 1740s, rooted in the faithfulness of men with a zeal for God and love for an unconverted world.
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 Norman B. Gribbs, Lee W. Gribbs, The Life and Thought of Charles Chauncy (1705-1787) (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2011) 20.
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 John Fea, “In Search of Unity: Presbyterians in the Wake of the First Great Awakening,” The Journal of Presbyterian History 86, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2008): 53-60, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23338196.