Puritanism's retreat left a spiritual vacuum in New England. Old line Puritanism retreated into isolation turning in upon itself. In time the modern stereotype of the Connecticut Yankee resulted. Because religion became a personal thing, the stereotype of the Yankee was that of a cold and impersonal individual. The cold impersonal exterior of the "Yankee" usually hid a warm heart. In time, though, much New England religion headed towards Universalism and Arian Unitarianism (Socinianism).
Still other Puritans moved towards Presbyterianism. Our interest here focuses on the Presbyterians.
I. Presbyterians in America
England's Act of Toleration in 1689 promoted Presbyterian growth. Presbyterianism made itself a force in England during the English Civil War in spite of its minority status. As New England's religious conditions worsened, Presbyterian polity became increasingly attractive. A few Presbyterian colonists worked their influence throughout the colonies. By 1700, twelve Presbyterian congregations existed in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and South Carolina. By 1722, Presbyterian churches spread into New Jersey and Connecticut.
The Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia organized in 1716 and, by 1745, enough congregations existed in Massachusetts to form the Synod of Boston.
Early Presbyterianism depended on other educational institutions to prepare their ministry. Future Presbyterian preachers often studied at Harvard and Yale Colleges. Since these ministers did not demand ordination by ecclesiastical bishops, they could begin preaching right after their studies ended. Presbyterians strongly believed in an educated ministry but the need for preachers outstripped their recruits to the major colleges. For a time, then, Presbyterians depended on British or Puritan preachers.
William Tennant, a native of Ireland and a University of Edinburgh graduate, saw the need for a trained Presbyterian ministry throughout the colonies. He organized a school at Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, to facilitate this training. Called the "Log College" because its first facility was a simple log cabin, the school's campus consisted of 50 acres supplied by James Logan, one of Tennant's cousins. The "Log College" educated and sent out some of Presbyterianism's most effective preachers. Some of these preachers established other "Log Colleges" setting a pattern for frontier ministerial education. By the end of the 1700s, Presbyterians established an even 100 educational institutions, some of which still exist.
II. Backgrounds of the "Great" Awakening
During the early colonial period, church membership was only for the few. In Virginia it encompassed the gentry, the landed minority. In New England it included only those who were "proven saints." People asked for church membership. When a person became a church member, he also became a citizen of the colony with all of the rights accompanying citizenship. Once the Act of Toleration took effect citizenship and church membership were no longer synonymous.
One factor, so far unmentioned, is the fact that many colonists came from England's, or Europe's, lower economic classes. These colonists came to America, not for religious freedom, but for opportunity! Such men pushed religion into the background so they could continue their pursuit for material prosperity.
All things considered, religious commitment waned throughout the colonies. Such decline hit hardest in New England. Increase Mather, a Puritan preacher, said in 1678:
Clear, sound conversions are not frequent. Many of the rising generations are profane Drunkards, Swearers, Licentious and scoffers at the power of Godliness.
A glance at sermon titles over several years reveals the clergy's concerns:
In 1700 Samuel Willard preached, "The Perils of the Times Displayed."
In 1711 Stephen Buckingham preached, "The Unreasonableness and Danger of a People's Renouncing their Subjection to God."
In 1730 William Russell preached, "The Decay of Love to God in Churches, Offensive and Dangerous."
Certainly religious commitment and conviction hit bottom.
III. An "Explosion of Faith"?
Revivals first broke out in the middle colonies, particularly in New Jersey, where a Dutch Reformed preacher, Theodore J. Frelinghuysen, preached a pietistic message. Pietism originated in Europe among the Germans in the mid-1600s under the leadership of Jacob Spener and August Hermann Franke. Tired of the coldness of doctrinal preaching which left life untouched, these men relegated doctrine to second place and substituted subjective feelings for the objective nature of God's word.
Frelinghuysen, educated in Pietism, settled in New Jersey's Raritan Valley in 1720. Rough folk with little interest in anything save outward religious conformity populated the region. They simply sought to preserve their Dutch church as a landmark to their national heritage. These colonists did not want a religion which challenged their commitment or emotions. Frelinghuysen preached an inner religion which he contrasted with their satisfaction with externals. Older members soon became offended with his preaching. Younger members found themselves attracted to him.
Controversy hit nearly every Dutch Reformed congregation in the colonies. It even influenced churches back in Holland in time. Frelinghuysen continued his efforts until he even reached his detractors.
Revival spread from the Dutch Reformed Churches to the Presbyterians. "Log College" graduates picked up the revival fervor and preached it. Log College graduates possessed strong evangelistic zeal anyway, so they easily identified with the revival efforts. Throughout the 1730s, Presbyterian revival blazed and increased.
Wherever revivalism went it caused division. Revival preachers traveled into areas where other preachers shepherded local congregations. Resentment followed! "Conservative" preachers criticized revivalists for their emotionalism and the agitations revivalism caused. Presbyterians and the remaining Puritans experienced serious division. The Presbyterians divided into "New Light" and "Old Light" factions. The former favored revivalism, the latter did not.
Jonathan Edwards greatly aided revival efforts in New England. Edwards was not a revival preacher in the usual sense but he did promote and sympathize with the revivalists. When Edwards spoke from his Northampton, Massachusetts, pulpit, he did not speak extemporaneously as did most revivalists. He took whole manuscripts into the pulpit with him. Nearsighted, he held the manuscript so near his face that it hid him from view. He developed his sermonic themes thoroughly and listeners had to listen carefully to catch his meaning. He did not preach emotionally but he did preach revival themes. He also attacked doctrines of "easy salvation" which had afflicted New England Puritanism since the formation of the Half-Way Covenant. Listeners got his point. One woman said of a sermon where he named the community's sins, "It seemed as though he were walking up and down the village street, pointing his accusing finger 'at one house after another, unearthing secret sins and holding them up for all to see.'" His most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," was so intense that listeners said it was as if he had opened the pit of Hell so one could smell the smoke and brimstone.
The Northampton revival began in 1734 and reached 300 converts in just three months. Crowds pressed into the building until it could no longer hold them.
In September 1740, George Whitefield arrived from England to carry the revival to new heights. Whitefield had no formal ministerial education, but many knew of his oratorical skills. Those who heard him said he could bring tears to an audience's eyes by simply pronouncing the word, "Mesopotamia!" One contemporary actor lamented that he could not even say, "OH!" like Whitefield. As Whitefield traveled up and down the Atlantic seaboard, thousands flocked to hear him. Benjamin Franklin and other notables heard him.
Like any well known preacher, Whitefield had those who both cursed him and praised him. Harvard College's faculty published a series of complaints against Whitefield. During his first visit to Harvard, Whitefield said the "darkness on campus was almost felt." Harvard's faculty reacted negatively to his claims to direct leadership by the Holy Spirit, his censoriousness, his reputed dishonesty and his "enthusiasm." Benjamin Franklin, however, had much good to say of him.
The religious awakening spread over all the colonies with almost uniform effectiveness. Thousands came to Christ and churches grew rapidly. The revival hit almost all southern churches. In the north the revival seemed limited to Congregationalists in New England, to the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the middle colonies.
IV. Results of the "Great" Awakening
The Awakening renewed interest in missionary work. David Brainerd is probably the best known missionary of the period. His work among the American Indian has been well documented.
The awakening proved to be both unitive and divisive. The revivals transcended colonial and denominational barriers like nothing else. Theological differences ebbed away and more practical questions occupied much time. Churches rejected theoretical religious approaches. The colonies soon owned a common religious experience, one that prepared the way for the common identification necessary for a successful revolution.
The awakening elevated the common man by giving him a self-authenticating religious experience. Religion now extended far beyond the wealthy, as in Virginia, or the church member, as in New England. All men could find "religion."
The awakening also hastened the separation of church and state. Emphasis on a personal conversion meant individuals could find salvation. A specific church or state recognized body had nothing to do with it. Since revivalism came out of many churches it seemed to indicate the acceptability of pluralism.
Theologically, the awakening led to an emphasis on the subjective. Just how far this went depended on the evangelist. Almost without exception, the revival made experience the definitive factor in faith. Jonathan Edwards, however, said he would "rather have one word, one sentence from the Word of God, behind his conversion than all the theologians of the last 1,000 years giving him an interpretation of his experience." Edwards certainly was not normative.
The awakening led to an increased emphasis on piety and spirituality. Much of our modern understanding of piety or spirituality comes from this period and the influence of later Holiness movements rather than God's Word. The awakening tended to improve the colonial moral conditions temporarily.
Reactions to the awakening pushed many normally orthodox believers into strongly anti-Calvinistic positions. "New Lights" and "Old Lights" referred to pro- and anti-revivalists in most denominations. The "Old Lights" valued education while the "New Lights" tended to discount it. As a result, the "Old Lights" gravitated towards Universalism.
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