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The First Great Awakening

WE HEAR THE CRY OF REVIVAL. Prophetic words of harvest continue to come and focused prayer is increasing. In 2004, the Lord spoke to me about the coming revival showing massive fruit almost too large to handle. As Tom Jones says, “If we truly expect the Lord to come, we will prepare for His arrival.” One way we can prepare is to become familiar with past revivals, understanding that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The First Great Awakening is one such model of renewal—times of spiritual refreshing when awareness of God is heightened and religion inspires change. The season of American revival from 1739 to 1743 brought widespread transformation to individuals and society through personal encounters with God’s manifest presence. However, renewal was not neat and orderly but astonishing and revolutionary. As revival stirred, individuals faced eternity; churches awoke from lethargy; colonies united; social barriers relaxed; and controversy exploded. Charles Chauncy, one of the revival’s greatest critics wrote, “Some think the country was never in such a happy state on a religious account, others that it was never in a worse state.”

When we look at the controversies and the fruit of The First Great Awakening, we see the results of renewal are worth the mess it brings.

Many today are tempted to be discouraged over the state of our society, but we can be encouraged to know this is nothing new to periods of revival. Jonathan Edwards declared the 1730s “a far more degenerate time…than ever before.” While the temptation is to be discouraged at the current state of affairs, history shows God can use even hard times for good (Rom 8:28). Eternity became real, and the community fully engaged in revival. Sunday services and home groups were marked with enthusiastic singing, visions, healing, and laughter. Visitors carried word of the revival home, causing revival to spread to an additional thirty-two communities in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In Northampton alone, three hundred people converted within six months. This number would make any modern church happy, but even more astounding is this number almost doubled the church and engaged most of the town. Imagine revival hitting your town to such an extent that no family is left untouched.

In his book A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, Edwards explains that the revival subsided in 1735 after several suicide attempts shook the community. Despite the challenges, Edwards continued to pursue the work of God. At the same time the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were experiencing their own precursors of revival. But it would take the arrival of George Whitefield in 1739 to stir the fires of revival to their full height.

The ground was prepared for the work of the Great Awakening’s most celebrated preacher George Whitefield. Whitefield, an Anglican minister and former stage actor, preached on the necessity of being born again using imagery to engage the emotions rather than just the intellect. His reputation as a powerful speaker preceded his travels. Through print media, news of the revival including Whitefield’s itinerary spread throughout the colonies. These shared reports and experiences generated a common experience and sense of national identity. It was during this time that newspapers began to refer to “the American colonies”.

Testimony of the revival also spread by word of mouth. Sarah Edwards wrote to a friend about Whitfield, “He is a born orator…[with a] deep-toned, yet clear and melodious, voice. It is [a] perfect music… I have seen upwards of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence, broken only by an occasional half-suppressed sob. Our mechanics shut up their shops, and the day-labourers throw down their tools, to go and hear him preach, and few return unaffected. He speaks from a heart all aglow with love and pours out a torrent of eloquence which is almost irresistible.”

Have you ever seen something so capture a community that stores close in the middle of the work day in order to share an experience? I traveled in Brazil during the World Cup. Busy streets and shops suddenly fell silent as the community gathered around the national sport. How much more profound is it when a community experiences God? Imagine a consumer focused society forsaking personal gain for a shared experience of a powerful God. It has happened before, and it will happen again.

Not only will we experience the glory, but we may also experience similar challenges. During Whitefield’s first tour, newspaper reports presented the movement as “powerful, extensive and generally positive”. However, after his departure in 1741, the articles shifted from reports of powerful meetings to letters debating the validity of the movement. Controversy sells papers and there was plenty to be had. Key issues were discussed: emotionalism and enthusiasm, lay and itinerant preaching, church splits and unorthodox ordinations, and the divisiveness of some revivalists. Articles presented the revival as “controversial, irrational and dangerous”, reporting suicides, murders, fights, and riots. Some critics brought forth charges of people exhibiting “strange behaviors such as barking like dogs and foaming or fainting”, while others shared rumors of the burning of bibles in neighboring communities.

A 1742 anonymous tract compared the revivalists to the notorious “French Prophets” and cautioned “they have a strange fire working in them.” In a letter to England, liberal Congregationalist Chauncy whose “rational” theology led to American Unitarianism, denied reports “of a most glorious work of grace going on in America”. Instead, he described the meetings as noisy and confusing: “Houses of worship were scarce emptied night or day for a week together, and unheard of instances of supposed religion were carried on in them, some were praying, some exhorting, some singing, some clapping their hands, some laughing, some crying, some shrieking and roaring out it was a vain thing to argue with them, to show them the indecency of such behavior; and whoever indeed made an attempt this way, might be sure beforehand of being called an opposer of the Spirit and a child of the devil.”

Not only did critics object to the indecent behavior, but social barriers were ignored and marginalized were given a voice. Lay ministers including the uneducated and nonwhite were ordained. Women and minorities served as deacons or elders. Native Americans, African Americans, women, and children were permitted to exhort mixed assemblies when ministers recognized the presence of the Holy Spirit on them. Some ministers led crowds singing through the streets. Others affirmed the right of congregants to question their pastors. It was considered simply indecent.

Anglican missionary Charles Brockwell expressed such concerns in a letter home: “Men, women, children and servants are now becom[ing] (as they phrase it) exhorters. Their behavior is indeed as shocking; as uncommon: their groans, cries, screams, and agonies…ridiculous and frantic gestures…some leaping, some laughing, some singing, some clapping one another upon the back, etc.”

As the criticisms came forth, public opinion of the revival began to shift. Some revivalists were radical and divisive, publicly questioning the salvation of other pastors. James Davenport, known as “the Awakening’s bad boy”, and Gilbert Tennent were two such ministers. Though each of them later repented, much damage was done to the movement. Whitefield himself caused problems through the printing of his journal articles. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “I am of the opinion if he had never written anything, he would have left behind him a much more numerous and important sect, and his reputation might in that case have been still growing, even after his death.”

Other revivalists were more moderate. Edwards rose up as a defender of the revival. His challenge was to counter flamboyant methods and convince conservatives that a genuine move of God existed in the midst of extremes. With the latter in mind, Edwards delivered a sermon at Yale College in which he explained, “That there are some counterfeits, is no argument that nothing is true: such things are always expected in a time of reformation.” Though Edwards “firmly endorsed the role of the affections in revival”, he tried to bring balance to the movement. He expected valid experiences to result in glorification of God rather than self. Revivalists ultimately looked for the “transformation of a sinner into a humbled, loving saint.”

Revival not only changed the sinner, but whole communities were transformed. Benjamin Franklin, a deist observer of the events, recounted, “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families on every street.”

Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, and Methodists worked together desiring to experience God and see their communities transformed…

Church attendance and holiness increased. Entire communities such as Northampton and Franklin’s town were changed. In addition, the shared common experience caused the emergence of an American identity and destiny. Established authorities were questioned and the marginalized empowered. Men preached of religious freedom and laid a foundation for natural freedom. Ideas of freedom and intrinsic personal value saturated this pre-revolutionary war society.

While America was united, numerous church divisions provided a source of concern. Heated debates and church splits were frequently seen in colonial newspapers. Though some denominations experienced church splits, the newly formed Baptists and Methodists flourished under the new evangelical movement. However, “no denomination entirely escaped the divisive effects of the Great Awakening”.

While divisions occurred, the revival also brought unity across denominational lines as churches received the message that religion is a matter of the heart and should be experienced. Internationally, ministries in America, Scotland and England united in mass prayer. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, and Methodists worked together desiring to experience God and see their communities transformed. Recognizing the need for education to bring about this change, colleges were established and opportunities for learning presented to the marginalized. Churches drew together through shared values and experiences.

In addition to the transformation of society and foundation of movements, the Great Awakening contributed a legacy of renewal. Print media and the prevalence of correspondence have left us a well-documented trail. Edwards’ personal experience and balanced defense of the move of the Spirit continue to provide healthy guidelines for discerning a work of God. Understanding past revivals, the victories and tragedies, may allow us to maintain momentum in the coming revival.

The events of the First Great Awakening allow us to see what God can do in a nation, and what it looks like when He does. Awakenings may be messy, glorious, intense, full of conflict, and disruptive to the social order. Unlike the critics of the 1740s, we have the advantage of observing the long-term fruit of the Great Awakening. When the church begins to shake, we must not fear the mess, but look to history and consider the advice of Gamaliel: “Keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39).

Action Point: A Harvard student during the Great Awakening in the 1700s wrote, “There is a great and glorious work of the Spirit of God among us.” That is my prayer for our nation and for the world. Right now let’s agree to engage the Spirit of God for revival, asking for a quickening visitation of His people, touching our hearts and deepening His work of grace in our lives. We want to be a community saturated with God!

A good declaration to make over us this week: “God has restored His Own people to repentance, faith and obedience. We will experience more times of refreshing in greater ways in the presence of the Lord. We will be awakened to our true nature and purpose, and see an extraordinary movement of the Holy Spirit produce extraordinary results—including an unprecedented number in the conversion of sinners.”

P.S. Sometimes looking back brings fresh inspiration for what’s ahead. Looking back at the First Great Awakening, I’m reminded that God has greater things for us moving forward. What are you crying out for in this season? What is God calling you to lay down? What is he calling you to pick up? We are gathering in August for a new conference we’re calling Greater Things. This event is meant to pull us all forward into the next thing God has for each of us. If you’re resonating with this message, check out the conference at Greater Things →

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