The Great Awakening

While Europe was undergoing its Age of Reason and intellectual enlightenment, the New World was experiencing its own revival, otherwise known as “The Great Awakening”—an evangelical movement that whirled its way throughout the New World. Many historians claim its effects are comparable to the upheaval caused by such major events as the French Revolution. However, this revolution was more of a spiritual development that took place over a period of years. Here are some of the beliefs of most evangelical movements:

  • Jesus died for the sins of humankind.

  • Christ died to redeem humankind from its innate sinful nature.

  • The scriptures are the inspired word of God and the absolute authority governing all earthly affairs.

  • The church is the eternal body of Christ with a congregation of believers.

Life in the colonies was not easy, and sickness and death were everywhere. There were insects and fevers, animal attacks, floods, and poor nutrition. The colonists not only needed strong community leadership and doctors, but they need spiritual healing as well. In fact many of the ministers were community leaders and doctors. Unlike in their homelands, where public preaching was commonly outlawed, America offered a whole new world of evangelic opportunity to the colonists.

Preachers began to travel from region to region spreading Christian doctrine and keeping the people alive in terms of their religious fervor. They taught their congregations that in such perilous times it was imperative to be concerned with salvation. Without the forgiveness of God, they would preach, a soul could be damned to eternity. So spiritual food became as significant as the food they ate and the clothes they put on their backs.

As the population of the country grew, so did the fear of religious apathy. It was time to hit the road and reach as many people as possible so that they did not stray from God. The preachers took to the towns, to the streets, to the village greens. At first, they may have simply offered a diversion from the stress and boredom of the work-weary colonists, but those who really listened became divinely inspired. The personal awakening of the individual en-masse is what comprised the Great Awakening as an era in American history. The end result was powerful—pushing America toward a greater sense of national awareness and pride, which spurred its citizens toward the American Revolution.

Like Puritanism, evangelicalism wasn't so much a religion as a movement. The Puritans were focused on politics in the New World, trying to create a holy commonwealth that would allow the Puritans the control over community that they so desired.

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) is said to be one of the most influential forces behind the Great Awakening. He was born in 1703 in Windsor, Connecticut. He was one of eleven children. From the time he was a boy he was interested in science and spirituality, and he would study them both. He studied theology at Yale University, and, in 1727, joined his grandfather's Christian ministry in Massachusetts. When his grandfather died, John took over the congregation. He was said to have a monotone voice, lacking the vocal passion of many contemporary evangelists of his time. But he was a popular minister, nonetheless, because despite a lackluster presentation, his message came through loud and clear and spread throughout the country.

Edwards was able to combine his knowledge of philosophy and science with his strong devotion to faith, and successfully convey the resulting message to his congregation. He preached predestination and the dependence of a human being upon God's divine grace. He was a firm believer that grace alone would lead humankind to salvation.

In 1734, Edwards held a religious revival in Northampton, Massachusetts, which brought the Great Awakening to the New England region of the country. The revival resulted in the conversion of hundreds of people. But despite its success and Edwards' growing popularity, his congregation members found him to be far too staunch in his leadership, and expelled him from the congregation in 1750.

Edwards moved on to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he cared for a Native American mission and preached to a small, white congregation. In 1754, he completed The Freedom of Will, which discussed the many arguments involving determinism. In 1757, he was asked to be president of what is now Princeton University in New Jersey. Edwards died just a few months later from a smallpox vaccine, which actually gave him the disease instead of protecting him from it. Edwards and his wife had eleven children, and he spent an hour a night teaching them religious doctrine.

Determinism is a philosophical theory that opposes the doctrine of free will. Those who espouse determinism believe that a human being's existence is based on pre-existing circumstances.

Historians have called Edwards the “last of the New England Calvinists.” His focus on the personal relationship with God and the revival in Northampton led to the Great Awakening and is widely believed to have led to the growth and development of evangelical revivalism.

The Tennent Family

The Tennent family was Presbyterian and had settled in the region of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In an effort to put some fire in the bellies of the local congregations, William Tennent and his son Gilbert traversed the countryside and preached against religious complacency. The Presbyterian Church leaders were not pleased because the Tennents' words came across as an attack on orthodox doctrine and their style was positively irreligious.

But the congregations did not have the same reaction. The Tennents' words were so terrifying that they were causing people to cry and wail and break down into fits and seizures. The Tennents and later the likes of George Whitefield were awakening sleepy-eyed colonial churches, encouraging enthusiasm and conversions that would take hold and form the future of American religion.

William Tennent opened a school in a log cabin in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, which later would be known as “The Log College.” Tennent taught his students to preach with the passion of the evangelist, and many became revivalist preachers during the Great Awakening.

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