Religion II: The Great Awakening
Would anything I could do or suffer, influence your hearts, I think I could bear to pluck out my eyes, or even to lay down my life for your sakes. Or was I sure to prevail on you by importunity, I could continue my discourse till midnight, I would wrestle with you even till the morning watch, as Jacob did with the angel, and would not go away till I had overcome. But such power belongeth only unto the Lord, I can only invite . . .
Rev. George Whitefield, sermon delivered in Philadelphia, ca. 1742
I came to a church crowded with people; the church-yard was full likewise, and a number of people were even mounted on ladders, looking in at the windows. . . When I got into the church I saw this pious man exhorting the people with the greatest fervour and earnestness, and sweating as much as I ever did while in slavery on Montserrat beach. I was very much struck and impressed with this . . .
It is not hyperbole to describe George Whitefield, the English clergyman who riveted colonists with his dramatic evangelical preaching, as a star celebrity. In our day he would have appeared on the covers of People and Time and been interviewed on 60 Minutes and Good Morning, America. He was the "Grand Itinerant," the traveling preacher with no home church (a troublesome point for American clergy) who toured the colonies seven times from the 1730s to the 1760s, delivering open-air sermons that left his huge audiences spellbound, penitent, and with souls "awakened" (thus the term "Great Awakening").
Olaudah Equiano, on observing a Whitefield sermon in Philadelphia, 1766
His core question was that of all evangelicals—What must I do to be saved?—and his answer conformed with the prevalent Calvinist doctrine of predestination: that one's eternal fate (salvation or damnation) was determined by God before creation and manifested by a conversion experience, i.e., repentance and "rebirth." Where the evangelicals parted with traditional clergy was about the path to conversion: how one received God's divine grace. Evangelicals depicted a sudden, intense, and overpowering experience, achieved through one's direct personal relationship with God. Traditional clergy preached a more gradual and subtle conversion experience, achieved within the church through the rational guidance of learned ministers. To the critics, revivalism was a "great abandoning"—of the true path to godliness, of the clergy's role as interpreters of God's will, and of the stabilizing influence of the home church.
To an extent, the Great Awakening was a response to the unsettling implications of scientific inquiry and Enlightenment philosophy, aggravating the tension between evangelical and rationalist Christians (see #1: Religion and Reason). In Europe and America, writes historian Christine Heyrman, "a new Age of Faith rose to counter the currents of the Age of Enlightenment, to reaffirm the view that being truly religious meant trusting the heart rather than the head, prizing feeling more than thinking, and relying on biblical revelation rather than human reason."1 (See "The First Great Awakening" in Divining America: Religion in American History, in TeacherServe from the National Humanities Center). Here we examine these theological disputes spurred by the Great Awakening. For its widespread social and political manifestations, see Theme II: PEOPLES, #6, Diversity.
As you read, consider the influence of the Great Awakening on the later revolutionary period. Revivalism was more egalitarian and independent, it is argued, its diverse audiences gathered in open fields instead of in denominational churches led by authoritarian clergy. Yet anointing the Great Awakening as a "rehearsal" for the Revolution is going too far, say many historians, for its effects were not pervasive or longlasting, and its immediate outcome was a lessening of religious, not political, encumbrance. Literary scholar Robert Ferguson captures this point: "A divided clergy, the people's growing capacity to resist both sides, the sheer variety of religious practice, and the ideological basis of evangelical impulses generate an assumption of freedom in religious affairs that will gradually configure similar feelings in politics."3 Remember his phrase—"an assumption of freedom"—as you progress through this section and the entire theme, IDEAS. (14 pages.)
- Whitefield revivals described. Let us first experience Whitefield's preaching vicariously. Among the millions of people who heard Whitefield (pronounced whit-field) in America were the farmer Nathan Cole, the enslaved African Olaudah Equiano, and Benjamin Franklin, who supported his campaign for an orphanage in Georgia and credited him with the improved moral behavior of common Philadelphians.2 What most impresses Cole, Equiano, and Franklin about Whitefield's preaching? What troubles them?
- - Nathan Cole, unpublished memoir completed by 1765, published 1897, ed. George Leon Walker; excerpt.
- - Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Vol. II, 1789, p. 5.
- - Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, publ. 1771-1788, Ch. 10, excerpt.
- Clergymen debate revivalism. Revivalist preaching was not new to the colonies, but revivalism as a mass phenomenon arrived with Rev. Whitefield. The established clergy split on its merits, at times rancorously. "New Lights" such as Jonathan Edwards and Gilbert Tennent (revivalist preachers themselves) heralded the renewal of faith and the increase in church membership (especially among men and young people) and defended the transformative effect of emotion in religious experience (while encouraging some preachers to moderate their oratorical excesses). To "Old Lights" such as Charles Chauncy, revivalists were ill-guided exhorters offering sensationalist theater as religious experience. Here we read two Boston Puritan clergymen, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Chauncy, debate whether the Great Awakening served the "true Interest of Religion." What aspects of revivalism merit the praise of "New Lights" and the censure of "Old Lights"? Identify the religious and secular issues that divide these ministers.
- - Rev. Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New-England, treatise, 1742, excerpts.
- - Rev. Charles Chauncy, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New-England, treatise, 1743, excerpts.
- Poets laud and fault revivalists. Laymen often fashioned their responses to public events as poems to be read in literary clubs, sent to newspapers, or published as pamphlets. Here we read two laudatory poems on George Whitefield, one published anonymously during his first American tour and the second written by Phillis Wheatley after his death in 1770. The third poem is a scathing call to repentance by Sarah Parsons Moorhead, directed at the evangelist James Davenport whose fanatic excesses led to his censure and deportation (back to New York) by the Connecticut colonial assembly. How does expressing one's opinion in verse rather than prose affect its delivery? its reception?
- - "Juventus," "WHITEFIELD! That Great, that pleasing Name" (first line), untitled poem, New-York Weekly Journal, 26 November 1739.
- - Phillis Wheatley, "An Elegiac Poem on the Death of That Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned Mr. George Whitefield," 1771.
- - Sarah Parsons Moorhead, "To the Reverend Mr. James Davenport," poem, 1742, excerpts.
- Overall, what impressions do you have of the Great Awakening from these readings?
- Has your perception of eighteenth-century revivalism changed from these readings? How?
- Summarize the main arguments for and against the revivalists' (1) religious message, (2) influence on believers, and (3) influence on church and society.
- Compare the three laymen's eyewitness accounts of Whitefield revivals (Cole, Equiano, and Franklin). What most impresses them about Whitefield's preaching? What troubles them?
- Why does Franklin support Whitefield's orphanage and publish his American sermons, even though he and Whitefield "had no religious connection"?
- What aspects of revivalism merit the praise of "New Lights" and the censure of "Old Lights"?
- To what extent were their disagreements theological? To what extent were they social and political?
- Construct a dialogue between the "New Light" Jonathan Edwards and the "Old Light" Charles Chauncy. Include the intersections of their beliefs as well as their differences.
- Research Whitefield's responses to his critics and include him in your dialogue (see Supplemental Sites below.)
- What most troubles Rev. Charles Chauncy and poet Sarah Parsons Moorhead about the excesses of revivalist preachers?
- Compare the two poems lauding Whitefield by "Juventus" and Phillis Wheatley. How do they use verse to praise his personal attributes, his evangelical power, and his legacy?
- How does expressing one's opinion in verse rather than prose affect its delivery? its reception? Convert one of the poems to prose: how do its message and impact change?
- To what extent, in your opinion, was the Great Awakening a rejection of rationalism as a path to the knowledge of God? What kind of primary documents would you need to pursue this hypothesis?
- To what extent was the conflict over revivalism about power and influence? (Do not minimize the religious sincerity of the opponents when considering this question; the dispute was not just a turf war.)
- To what extent did the Great Awakening stimulate notions of equality and liberty? (Historians warn us not to overdo this connection, but apply Prof. Ferguson's idea of the "assumption of freedom" and see where it takes you.)
- If you have addressed all these questions, go back and read your answers in #3. Will you make any changes? Why?
|Benjamin Franklin on Whitefield: || 3
|Nathan Cole on Whitefield: || 2
|Olaudah Equiano on Whitefield: || 1 (see p. 5 of narrative, Vol. II)
|Clergymen debate revivalism: || 5
|Poets laud and fault revivalists: || 3
|TOTAL ||14 pages
Religion in Eighteenth-Century America, in Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, from the Library of Congress
Essays with teaching guidance in Divining America: Religion and the National Culture, in TeacherServe from the National Humanities Center
The First Great Awakening, lecture by Terry Matthews, Wake Forest University
Sermons of George Whitefield, in The Anglican Library, from Rev. Dr. Robert S. Munday, Nashotah House Theological Seminary
Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening in Colonial America, overview from the Constitutional Rights Foundation
The Jonathan Edwards Center
, Yale University
1 Christine Heyrman, "The First Great Awakening," in Divining America: Religion in American History, in TeacherServe from the National Humanities Center, 1997; at nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/grawaken.htm.
2 Alan S. Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2001), p. 348.
3 Robert Ferguson, The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1994; paper ed., Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 56-57.
- Rev. George Whitefield, detail of engraving captioned "Parrawankaw [and] Dr. Squintum," London, 1769. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, #LC-USZ62-45684.
- Rev. Jonathan Edwards; uncited illustration captioned "Rev. Jona. Edwards," New York Public Library, Print Collection, #1227704. Permission pending.
- Rev. Charles Chauncy, portrait engraving captioned "Second President of Harvard College," n.d., New York Public Library, #1215377. Permission pending.
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