Between the colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history came what historians have dubbed the (first) “Great Awakening.” The lack of passionate Christianity, along with the coinciding adoption of certain liberal interpretations of Scripture and a turn toward the secular, greatly concerned ministers such as Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Prince, and William Cooper.
By the 1730s, passionate and animated pleas for the souls of lost colonials became widespread. A common refrain was soon heard throughout the colonies: “God was an angry judge, and humans were sinners!”
The earliest principle figure of this period of spiritual revival was the brilliant and pious Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was literally born into Christian ministry. His father was a Congregationalist minister, and his mother, Esther Stoddard Edwards, was the daughter of renowned Massachusetts minister Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard succeeded Eleazer Mather as pastor of the Congregationalist Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was a firebrand of a preacher who abhorred alcohol and extravagance.
Though his theology was in conflict with many contemporary Puritan leaders, Stoddard was an extremely influential religious leader in the New England area for several decades. Jonathan Edwards succeeded his grandfather as pastor of the church at Northampton. Edwards was a prolific writer as well and is recognized as one of the great intellectuals of his time. He produced such works as Freedom of the Will, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, and The Life of David Brainerd, which inspired countless missionaries of the nineteenth century.
Jonathan Edwards loved the pulpit, and according to BJU Press, was more teacher and preacher than pastor. In late 1734 and early 1735, revival broke out in Northampton. By the summer of 1735, it ended, but the seeds for something more lasting were planted. Enter the mighty George Whitefield. Whitefield is generally considered the “Father of the Great Awakening.” Born in England in 1714, Whitefield entered Pembroke College at Oxford at age 17. There he joined a group called the “Holy Club,” where he befriended John and Charles Wesley. John Wesley led the group, and as a result of their “methodical” ways, critics took to calling them “Methodists.” Of course, the name stuck.
Upon graduating and receiving his BA, Whitefield was ordained at 22. He began his preaching in the British towns of Bath, Bristol, and Gloucester. However, he felt the call to join General Oglethorpe’s colony in Georgia. In 1738 Whitefield left for North America. Not long after arriving in Georgia, noting the hard conditions, high death rate, and an abundance of children who had lost their parents, he conceived the idea of an orphanage. For the rest of his life, Whitefield raised money for the orphanage.
He also continued to preach. Whitefield’s message was one of salvation, a message which differed a bit from other Anglican ministers at the time who emphasized religiosity and moral living. It was not long before most of Georgia had heard of this young preacher with the booming voice and wild pulpit antics. News of Whitefield and his preaching soon spread throughout the colonies.
In 1739, after a brief return to England in hopes of securing land and funding for the orphanage in Georgia, Whitefield came back to America and would preach throughout the colonies. Jonathan Edwards invited Whitefield to preach in Northampton, Massachusetts. Whitefield’s message resonated with rich and poor, farmers and tradesmen, churchgoers and sinners -- virtually everyone within earshot of Whitefield, which, according to Ben Franklin, in open space, was 30,000 people!
Whitefield was not alone. Along with Edwards, men like Isaac Backus, David Brainerd, James Davenport, Samuel Davies, Theodore Frelinghuysen, Jonathan Mayhew, Shubal Stearns, the Tennent brothers (Gilbert, John, William), and others implored settlers and Natives alike to trust in Christ and Christ alone for salvation. Their message of repentance caught fire up and down the American East Coast. In the words of Brainerd, the ongoing revival was like an “irresistible force of a mighty torrent or swelling deluge.”
As a result of this first Great Awakening, geographical barriers became no more significant than denominational ones. The country was beginning to unite, in more ways than one. In addition to preaching sin and salvation, the Great Awakening played no small role in helping to unite the American Colonies against the British, for it was in the pulpits of American churches that the seeds of Revolution were sown. The British certainly thought this to be the case, as they blamed what they derisively described as the “Black Robed Regiment” for the thirst in the Colonies for American Independence. Modern historians have noted, “There is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763.”
For example, in 1750 the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, a Harvard graduate, Congregationalist minister, and pastor of West Church in Boston, published A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers. Out of this was born a sermon entitled “The Morning Gun of the American Revolution.” In this, Mayhew uses Romans 13 to justify throwing off the tyrannical yoke of England.
In 1765, Mayhew gave a powerful sermon railing against the evils of King George III’s hated Stamp Act. Mayhew declared,
The king is as much bound by his oath not to infringe on the legal rights of the people, as the people are bound to yield subjection to him. From whence it follows that as soon as the prince sets himself above the law, he loses the king in the tyrant.
According to historian Alice Mary Baldwin, joining Mayhew in leading the opposition to the Stamp Act were the Reverends Andrew Eliot, Charles Chauncey, and Samuel Cooper. George Whitefield accompanied Ben Franklin -- whom he had befriended -- to Parliament to protest the Act. Franklin revealed to Parliament that Americans would never willingly submit to the Stamp Act. A month later, in March of 1766, celebrating the repeal of the act, Whitefield recorded in his journal, “Stamp Act repealed, Gloria Deo.”
It wasn’t only the ministers of the Great Awakening who were the priestly patriots lighting the fire for the American Revolution. Men like prominent Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon were also instrumental. Witherspoon -- a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) -- in 1776, on a national day of prayer and fasting, preached a sermon titled The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. The sermon included the following:
There can be no true religion, till there be a discovery of your lost state by nature and practice, and an unfeigned acceptance of Christ Jesus, as he is offered in the gospel. Unhappy are they who either despise his mercy, or are ashamed of his cross. Believe it, “There is no salvation in any other. There is no other name under heaven given amongst men by which we must be saved.”…If your cause is just, you may look with confidence to the Lord, and intreat him to plead it as his own. You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.
Witherspoon was a mentor to many of America’s founders and helped to educate many future leaders of the young United States of America. Among his students included James Madison, future U.S. President and “Father of the Constitution,” Aaron Burr, future U.S. Vice President, twelve future Continental Congress members, forty-nine U.S. representatives, twenty-eight senators, three Supreme Court justices, and a secretary of state.
As America’s Schoolmaster, Noah Webster, would later note, “The learned clergy… had great influence in founding the first genuine republican governments ever formed and which, with all the faults and defects of the men and their laws, were the best republican governments on earth.” In other words, “One nation under God” became the political as well as the spiritual legacy of the powerful preaching so prevalent in 18th century America. The ministry of these faithful men not only brought salvation and hope, but also helped bring rise to the greatest nation in the history of humanity.
Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor is the author of the The Miracle and Magnificence of America