In 1734, Northampton village in the colony of Massachusetts experienced a remarkable revival that became the catalyst for revivals throughout the Colonies and in England, Scotland and Germany. By the early 1740s, revival events dominated Colonial newspaper headlines from Boston to Charleston. They reported on itinerant preachers thundering out messages of eternal damnation and salvation to frightened, wailing and repentant crowds on city streets, in parks and at meetinghouses.
This series of revivals was later dubbed the “Great Awakening.” Some considered it a “mighty work of God” equal to the Holy Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost and an echo of the Protestant Reformation.
Edwards and Whitefield
Northampton’s pastor was Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), one of Colonial America’s best-known theologians. Deeply involved in the Great Awakening from beginning to end, he preached, promoted and defended revival events through his many writings and contacts with other evangelicals. In 1736 he wrote “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.” This article soon became a popular book relating how hundreds of Northampton citizens and people in surrounding communities had been converted and saved. It became a script for spotting, staging and reporting revivals throughout Colonial America.
The young evangelical preacher George Whitefield (1714-1770), known as the “Great Itinerant,” provided the Great Awakening with its strongest momentum. The most notable of his three evangelistic tours through the Colonies lasted between November 1739 and January 1741. During one month crowds of 8,000 or more heard Whitefield speak nearly every day. An estimated 20,000 listened to his sermons in Philadelphia and Boston. “That tour may have been the most sensational event in the history of American religion,” observed Mark A. Noll, professor of history at Wheaton College.
Jonathan Edwards’ July 8, 1741, sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is a famous example of Great Awakening hell-fire and brimstone preaching. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire,” Edwards warned his frightened congregation.
He defended this kind of “scare tactic” as necessary to wake up unconverted people from their spiritual lethargy. Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in a 1713 sermon had said: “The misery of many Men is that they do not fear Hell…so they take a great liberty to Sin…. If they were afraid of Hell, they would be afraid of Sin.”
Revival sermons caused people in the audience to weep and scream in a frenzy. This rampant emotionalism was at the heart of a bitter dispute between “Old Lights” and “New Lights.” Charles Chauncy, pastor of the First Church in Boston, Massachusetts, was one of the revival’s most ardent critics. His sermon “Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against” was an attack on the revivalists’ manipulation of listeners’ emotions.
To counter Antirevivalist arguments and to defend the authenticity of conversions, Edwards wrote “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God” in 1741. He sincerely believed that the Great Awakening was a “work of God” and had resulted in many genuine conversions. While admitting that excesses had occurred, he defended the Colonies-wide revival as a special outpouring of the Spirit.
As suddenly as it began, the Great Awakening began to weaken. In a December 12, 1743, letter, Jonathan Edwards complained to Thomas Prince that a “very lamentable decay of religious affections” was beginning to creep back into Colonial society. By 1749, the Church had returned to “its ordinary State.” According to Gilbert Tennent, another revivalist, the Great Awakening was dead.