The Puritan pilgrims that had come over from England had ventured to American shores in attempt to establish “pure” churches. They failed to create “New Jerusalem” but succeeded in creating a society that embraced Christianity. Within two generations of their arrival, zeal for purity in religion and for the law of God eventually produced hypocritical legalism and rigid formalism. By the end of the seventeenth century, many of the institutional churches in New England had a form of godliness, yet were empty of spiritual power. Their love for God and others had grown cold, while their fear of “worldliness” soon became manic. The hysteria came to a head during the 1692-1693 Salem Witch Trials, where twenty people were executed for supposedly practicing witchcraft.
While obviously a low point in the history of America, it was indicative of the spiritual temperature of the New England people.
Jonathan Edwards Unseats an Ungodly Practice
Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703, in the midst of spiritual decline. In the decade prior to his birth, only 5-10% of New Englanders were attending church regularly.1 However, men like Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, worked tirelessly to bring about spiritual revival in the people.
Small town churches like Northampton revered their local pastors as leaders in the public square. Pastors had a spiritual and moral clout that was unique among other leaders and the people yielded their lives under their oversight. Solomon Stoddard was nicknamed “the Pope of the Connecticut Valley”2 and had become a local legend in the frontier towns of western Massachusetts. Stoddard had “broadened the standards for full church membership to all adults who professed the doctrines of the church, submitted to its discipline, and promised to attempt to live morally.”3 Further, he kept alive the old Puritan “half-way covenant”—a concession for young children of unbelieving parents who had not yet made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, but were granted the privilege of baptism in hopes that they would one day become true believers. Jonathan Edwards, who would take over when his grandfather died in 1729, was not as eager to cater to such provisions.
Instead of simply maintaining the status quo, Edwards dug in his heels, preaching and praying for genuine conversion and for godliness. He was after hearts, not memberships. Many youth in the Northampton church were engaged in sinful behavior and Edwards found himself pleading with them for their eternal salvation. He would begin preaching for spiritual revival, which would break out in December 1734. By the spring, the whole town was enraptured with nothing but spiritual things, and Edwards himself noticed a change in the attitudes and behaviors of the townspeople. In Northampton, a town of a thousand people, as many as 300 made professions of saving faith in Jesus Christ within a six-month period!4 Such widespread revival was not limited to Northampton alone. According to Edwards himself, thirty-two communities experienced awakening during 1734-1735.5
The phenomenon was so unparalleled, Edwards took to writing an account of the awakenings in New England. Prominent Boston pastor Benjamin Colman sent the letter overseas to famous pastor and hymn-writer Isaac Watts in London. Eventually, a fuller draft of the letter would be published in 1737 titled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. This exciting work chronicling the New England awakenings would find its way into the hands of John and Charles Wesley, as well as the famous itinerant preacher George Whitefield.
The Vibrant Ministry of George Whitefield
By 1738, Whitefield was making plans to visit America to take part in God’s amazing work. He was already drawing crowds by the thousands in England, and the anticipation of his arrival overseas was at a fever pitch. After visiting Savannah, Georgia in 1738, he arrived for a second time in Philadelphia in the fall of 1739. During his preaching tours up and down the eastern seaboard, Whitefield received a letter from Jonathan Edwards, eager to have him visit Northampton on his way back up. Whitefield obliged and the two met for the first time on October 17, 1740.
People flocked by the thousands to hear George Whitefield preach. It’s been said that Whitefield “preached like a lion… [with] force and vehemence and passion”.6 Even as Whitefield preached at Northampton, Edwards himself sat in the front, weeping as he listened. Whitefield had a way about him by which he stirred the affections of his hearer. George Marsden notes “seldom did he preach a sermon in which he did not weep and reduce multitudes to tears.”7 And while many critics wondered about the lasting effects of his preaching, Edwards was careful to note a substantial change in the Northampton residents who had sat under Whitefield’s preaching.8 In fact, in the wake of Whitefield’s departure in October 1740, Edwards would evaluate the movement, testing it against the Word of God. He would bear witness to the authenticity of the Great Awakening in his 1741 work The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.
The Continuous Awakening
By Edwards’ own account, he believed that the Great Awakening had reached its peak by January 1742. Out of a population of 300,000 in New England, it’s believed that between 25,000 and 50,000 new members were added to the churches at the height of the Awakening.9 In some cases, revival preachers had pressed for revival with various tactics, taking a more radical approach. Historian Thomas Kidd notes, “By March 1743, the evangelical movement in New England and the Middle Colonies had publicly split between the radicals and moderates”.10 Generally, it has been believed that the Great Awakening ended somewhere in the mid-1740s, and in most parts of the country, it had.
Even after the revival fires had died down in the larger Northeast cities, it was the frontier towns in northern New England that continued to experience revival. Starting in 1762, “a number of New England’s formerly radical evangelical churches witnessed another round of awakenings.”11 This revival, known as “the Seacoast Revival” seemed to last until 1765. These revivals prove that the Great Awakening lasted beyond the 1740s. After 1760, the nation was undergoing a dramatic shift as religion was now beginning to play a major role in public life.12
It is also generally believed that Christianity had suffered greatly during the time of the American Revolution and thus necessitating the Second Great Awakening, but Kidd notes that there were even post-Revolutionary revivals going on in New Hampshire and Maine! He writes that “Calvinist Baptist revivals proceeded in Loudon, Barrington, Gilmanton, and Madbury.”13 S.M. Houghton cites that between 1798 and 1803, more than 150 New England churches were experiencing revival.14 Even with the larger movement dying down and the itinerant preachers gone, the faithful pastors of the small towns of New England still stirred up their congregations with the Word of God.
However, New England would experience a work of God in the nineteenth century that would set the world aflame…
Note: This article has been written in preparation for the upcoming release of Reviving New England.
- Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 163. ↩
- Stephen J. Nichols, “Jonathan Edwards: His Life and Legacy” eds. John Piper & Justin Taylor, A God Entranced Vision of All Things. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 39. ↩
- George M. Marsden, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 36. ↩
- Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. (New Haven: Yale, 2007), 19. ↩
- Kidd, The Great Awakening, 18. ↩
- John Gillies quoted in Steven J. Lawson, The Evangelistic Zeal of George Whitefield. (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2013), 100. ↩
- George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 206. ↩
- Kidd, The Great Awakening, 87. ↩
- B.K. Kuiper, The Church in History. (reprinted; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 345. ↩
- Kidd, The Great Awakening, 155. ↩
- Ibid., 267-268. ↩
- Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 158. ↩
- Kidd, The Great Awakening, 315. ↩
- S.M. Houghton, Sketches in Church History. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), 210. ↩