The preacher's monotone voice filled the church in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the brilliant Jonathan Edwards spoke, he kept his eyes focused on the back wall of the church. Gently, Edwards' words began to sink into the hearts of the assembly, and although his method of speaking lacked enthusiasm, his words were powerful. Revival followed.
During the 1730s, the church in Northampton felt the stirring of the Holy Spirit, moving them from their lukewarm apathy to an awakening of their souls. Delivering his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," on July 8, 1741, in Enfield, Connecticut, Edwards helped spread the revival. A great commotion swept over the people and they began wailing, crying, and screeching loudly. Frequently Edwards asked the congregation to control themselves so he might finish his sermon. As a result of his preaching and the work of the Spirit, lives began to change and complete towns were transformed.
The event that has become known as the Great Awakening actually began years earlier in the 1720s. And, although the most significant years were from 1740-1742, the revival continued until the 1760s.
Many of the early colonists had come to the new world to enjoy religious freedom, but as the land became tamed and prosperous they no longer relied on God for their daily bread. Wealth brought complacency toward God. As a result, church membership dropped. Wishing to make it easier to increase church attendance, the religious leaders had instituted the Halfway Covenant, which allowed membership without a public testimony of conversion. The churches were now attended largely by people who lacked a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sadly, many of the ministers themselves did not know Christ and therefore could not lead their flocks to the true Shepherd. Then, suddenly, the Spirit of God awoke as though from an intense slumber and began to touch the population of the colonies. People from all walks of life, from poor farmers to rich merchants, began experiencing renewal and rebirth.
The faith and prayers of the righteous leaders was the foundation of the Great Awakening. Before a meeting, George Whitefield would spend hours--and sometimes all night--bathing an event in prayers. Fervent church members kept the fires of revival going through their genuine petitions for God's intervention in the lives of their communities.
The early rays of the Great Awakening began with Theodore Frelinghuysen of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey. Through his ministry the hearts of his church members were changed. It was the young people who responded first and experienced the regeneration of becoming new creations. They in turn spread the message to their elders. Thus began the first spark of the Great Awakening.
There were many powerful preachers during this era. Among them was Gilbert Tennent. Years before, his father, William, brought his family from Ireland to New England because of religious persecution. Soon the elder Mr. Tennent and his family became members of the Presbyterian Church. Wanting his sons to join the ministry, he opened a college at Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. At the Log College (called that because it was built of logs), he taught his sons and other pupils Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. After college, Gilbert spread revival through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Other influential men helped expand the reach of the Great Awakening. Samuel Davies, a preacher and hymn writer (he penned Great God of Wonders and Lord, I am Thine, Entirely Thine) carried the holy banner into Virginia. Bravely David Brainerd preached to the Indians and settlers in the backwoods of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Virginia and Georgia enjoyed the work of Daniel Marshall, and North Carolina was changed through the efforts of the Baptist preacher Shubal Stearns.
The most prominent theologian of the Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards. Not a powerful speaker, Edwards still managed to spread the revival. From his brilliant mind he constructed one of the most impressive sermons ever preached. He also wrote many books and pamphlets describing the events he saw in his own church. The only son in a family of eleven children, Edwards was born on October 10, 1703. At the young age of thirteen he entered Yale (not unusual during that era of history) and graduated in 1723. Four years later Jonathan married the remarkable and virtuous Sarah Pierpont. Faithfully Sarah helped Edwards in his ministry and personal endeavors. In 1727, Edwards became the assistant minister at the Northampton church. When his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, died, Jonathan became the minister and served in that church for nearly twenty-four years. He spoke boldly against the Halfway Covenant. Since many of the members who promoted the Halfway Covenant were merchants (or river gods, as Edwards called them), they were able to make most of the decisions for the community, thus giving them the power over the rest of the populace. Edwards did much to help alleviate the tyrannical practices that followed.
While Edwards was the most prominent theologian of the time, by far the most influential and famous evangelist of the Great Awakening was George Whitefield. He was born in England and educated at Oxford, where he met and became friends with John and Charles Wesley. During his spare time at college he visited the poor and those in prison. On June 20, 1736, at the age of twenty-two, he became an ordained minister. God blessed him with an amazing ministry, and wherever he spoke revival accompanied him. At the Wesley brothers' request, he joined them in Georgia to continue his ministry. After a few months he returned to England and again reached thousands through his preaching. He became well-known in both the Colonies and Great Britain. His preaching spread revival and new birth to the hearts of those who listened. Unfortunately, many ministers became jealous of his God-given ability. In Bristol, the churches refused to allow him the use of their buildings. Undeterred, Whitefield preached outside On more than on occasion he addressed 30,000 people. He spoke persuasively with a loud, commanding, and pleasant voice. With weighty emotion and dramatic power Whitefield presented the gospel message to the masses, spreading the light of Christ with vigor and enthusiasm. He also united the independent movements of the Great Awaking and bound the separate colonies into a unit. Breaking through denominational boundaries he once said, "Father Abraham, whom have you in heaven? Any Episcopalians? No! Any Presbyterians? No! Any Independents or Methodist? No, no, no! Whom have you there, then Father Abraham? We don't know those names here! All who are here are Christians--believers in Christ, men who have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of his testimony. Oh, is that the case? Then God help me, God help us all, to forget having names and to become Christians in deed and in truth!" During his life he made seven tours of the colonies and preached 18,000 sermons! There was hardly a portion of the colonies that did not feel his influence and love.
The significant working of God during the Great Awakening was far-reaching. Truly converted members now filled the pews. In New England, during the time from 1740 to 1742, memberships increased from 25,000 to 50,000. Hundreds of new churches were formed to accommodate the growth in church-goers. For the first time the individual colonies had a commonality with the other colonies. They were joined under the banner of Christ. Clearly their unity gave them strength to face the impending danger of war with England. Not only did the Great Awakening unite the colonies religiously but also politically. After being freed from inner sin, the colonists also sought freedom from external tyrants. The motto of the Revolutionary War was, "No King but King Jesus!"
May God once again bring about a revival that will awaken our nation to our need for Him.
Study Questions and Follow up Research
• Who were the leading preachers of the Great Awakening?
• What years did the revival take place?
• Pretend you are at the church in Enfield the day Edwards preached his famous sermon and write a letter to a friend or family member sharing your thoughts on the address.
• Pray for revival. Prayer played an important part in the Great Awakening. As Jonathan Edwards said, "Prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life." Now more than ever before this country needs revival. Prayer is powerful and necessary for any revival.
• Read the chapter, A Sunburst of Light, in The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel.
Amy Puetz, a homeschool graduate, loves history, sewing, and working as a computer graphic artist for her company A to Z Designs. She is also the author of the exciting book Costumes with Character. Visit her website at http://www.AmyPuetz.com. She makes her home in Wright, Wyoming.
This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec '06 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more details, visit http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com