THE FIRST GREAT AWAKENING
REVIVAL IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
The Great Awakening of the Eighteenth Century, called in the British Isles, the Evangelical Revival, is one of the most glorious and significant events in the history of the church. Arnold Dallimore, in his monumental and fascinating biography of the great George Whitefield, writes, “In the sense of a spiritual movement this mighty work of God deserves a place in Christian thought alongside the Reformation, and as an evangelical revival it must be considered the greatest since the Apostles.”
In this and the following articles I can but introduce you to it hoping that it will not only stimulate you to read further but – even more urgently and importantly – to call upon Almighty God as did the prophet of old:
Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy (Hab 3:2).
THE STATE OF THE CHURCH AND THE STATE OF THE COUNTRIES
PRIOR TO THE REVIVAL
Statesmen were, for the most part, unbelievers in any kind of Christianity, and were noted for grossly immoral lives. Drunkenness and foul talk was considered no detriment to Prime Minister Walpole; and Prime Minister, the Duke of Grafton, appeared openly at the theater with his mistress. Lord Chesterfield wrote letters to his son teaching him the art of seduction, considered a part of polite education. The joke among the upper classes was to submit a Bill in Parliament taking the “not” out of the Ten Commandments, and inserting it into the Apostles’ Creed.
The common people were gripped by the “gin craze,” and one in six houses in London was a distillery. Everyone went in fear of the drunken mob – Sir Mob, as they called themselves – who would rampage through the streets burning and pillaging, and who would without hesitation gouge out the eyes of any victim unfortunate enough to be found in their path.
The stage was noted for its obscenity. Entertainment consisted largely of cruel sports, such as bear-baiting and cock-fighting. Cruelty to children was appalling, as was cruelty to the insane. Slums were indescribable. Parents sold their children into brothels. The people wallowed in wretchedness, drunkenness, misery, and crime.
The authorities seemed helpless in the face of these problems. Reports were written, debated, and shelved. Laws were enacted which could not be enforced. Others were enforced brutally. One hundred and sixty offenses were punishable by death. There were permanent scaffolds at Tyburn and Kennington, where huge crowds gathered every day to watch the hangings. The prisons were wretched. Open sewers from the town usually ran through the middle of the prison. One jailer took his dog with him to protect himself from the rats; the rats ate the dog. When history records that Evangelical Christians were thrown into jail, these were the conditions which they had to endure. Women were hanged for stealing trivial items to feed their fatherless children or for passing counterfeit money. They did not even know what counterfeit money was.
The scholars of the Church, and of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were, for the most part, Deists. They believed in God only as the “First Cause” who had left the universe to run itself according to fixed laws, rather like a clockwork machine. The Deist has no place for miracles, for a Virgin Birth, or for the Resurrection. They did not say that God does not exist, but that he is irrelevant so far as everyday living is concerned. As today, they believed in “Intelligent Design” but not much else.
The church was, for the most part, spiritually dead. It is reported that when Queen Caroline lay dying no one could be found who could pray with her. Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, suggested to her daughter, the Princess, that they send for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Said Walpole, “Pray, Madam, let this farce be played out. The Archbishop will do it very well. You may bid him be as short as he will. It will do the Queen no hurt, no more than any good, and it will satisfy all the good and wise fools who call us atheists if we do not profess to be as great fools as they.”
There was a profusion of Bibles, but many of the clergy could not even read. There was preaching of a sort, but Sir William Blackstone, the jurist, went from church to church to hear every clergyman of note in London and reported that he “did not hear a single discourse that had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero,” and further that “it was impossible to discover if the preacher were a follower of Confucius, Mohammed, or Buddha.”
Here and there, in the general darkness, were some good and Godly people. Hospitals and Charity Schools were founded to help the poor; as was the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK). Groups of young men formed themselves into “Societies” with the purpose of studying the Bible, praying and reaching out in good works to those in desperate need. One such Society was at the University of Oxford. They were few in number and were ridiculed by fellow students as “The Holy Club.” Because they lived according to a method (rising early, studying the Bible, visiting those awful prisons, and so on) they were consequently also nicknamed Methodists. This Society is very significant in our story and we shall return to it later.
Notwithstanding these good efforts things seemed to go from bad to worse; the only hope for the nation lay in a mighty outpouring of the Spirit of God in revival. Some faithful people were crying to God for just such a visitation. When God intends to do a great work he usually begins by moving someone, or some group of people to pray. So it was in eighteenth century England.
In America the situation was somewhat different because the Colonies had frequently been settled by religious and devout people seeking freedom: freedom of conscience, of religion, of worship, and from persecution. At least this was the case in New England, which was largely Congregational and in the Middle Colonies, which were of mixed denomination – Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationals (or Independents), and Baptists. It was also true of Maryland, which was largely Roman Catholic. It was not quite so true in the South which was predominantly Episcopalian.
Strangely (in view of the above) some of these denominations were established by law, church attendance was compulsory, and the people had to pay taxes to support the church. Political office could only be held by those who were church members. It is not, however, possible to legislate faith and so various devices were arranged to allow people into the church even though they had not yet been converted. One was called the Half-Way Covenant. This was available to anyone who did not live an openly scandalous life and who would at least give assent to the Confessions of Faith of the church. This led to an unconverted membership, and, in some cases, to an unconverted ministry. Gradually, though having an outward respectability and religiosity, the church became more and more formal, and more and more impotent.
In 1701 Increase Mather wrote, “Oh, New England, New England, tremble, for the glory is going. It is gradually departing;” and in 1702 he further said, “You that are aged and can remember what New England was fifty years ago, that saw these churches in their first glory, is there not a sad decay and diminution of that glory! How is the gold become dim!” Twenty years later he wrote again, “Oh, degenerate New England, what art thou come to this day? How are those sins become common in thee which once were not so much heard of in this land?” Samuel Blair, a pastor of the day at Faggs Manor, Pennsylvania, said that “religion lay, as it were, dying and ready to expire its last breath of life in the visible church.” According to another contemporary it was a “…dead and barren time. Conversions were few and dubious.”
THEN GOD BEGAN TO WORK.
He began to work on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time, in different places at once, some of them totally disconnected with each other, and, at first, without any knowledge of one another.
In short: IT WAS THE DAY OF HIS POWER.
1735 – A REMARKABLE YEAR
THE YEAR 1735 IN AMERICA
One of the places where unusual events were happening was a small town in Massachusetts called Northampton. The minister there, Jonathan Edwards, was seeing an extraordinary awakening in his Congregational Church.
JONATHAN EDWARDS was born on October 5, 1703. He was the son of a preacher at East Windsor and showed amazing gifts first as a child, and then as a teenage student; gifts as a philosopher, scientist, and theologian. Though both his father and grandfather had trained at Harvard, the first college in the United States; because it had departed from its evangelical charter Jonathan trained at Yale, the new school in New Haven. Edwards had ten sisters, each over six feet tall. (Just imagine that. Phew!)
After being gloriously converted he began to preach. He was called to the ministry and went, first as assistant and then as successor, to his grandfather’s church at Northampton. His grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, had been the pastor there for fifty seven years during which time he had seen five mini-revivals in his church which he designated “harvests”, and he passed on to his grandson an earnest desire to long for, pray for, and preach for, further Divine visitations.
In 1727 Jonathan Edwards married the beautiful and spiritual seventeen-year old Sarah Pierpoint, and they would have three sons and eight daughters. Edwards would rise at four (summer) or five (winter) and spend, if he could, as much as thirteen hours in his study. His wife, however, always had access to him and there must have been many days when he did not spend anything like that time in the study because the Edwards= were remarkably hospitable. Young ministers and students would simply announce that they were going to Northampton to stay for a few weeks (!) with Mr. Edwards. Upon arriving on the doorstep they were always welcomed, living with and learning from this great preacher.
In 1734 there were two deaths which had a profound effect on the community. One was that of a prominent young man who took sick with pleurisy and within two days had died. The other was that of a young woman who was converted shortly before her death and, in the days which remained to her before she died, movingly pleaded with all who visited her to get right with God and make sure of their salvation.
Edwards preached a series of sermons on Justification by Faith that moved the people, and in 1735 there was a great outpouring of the Spirit of God, with many, many, in his congregation being wonderfully saved. Here follows his own account of it,
The town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought unto them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands. The goings of God were then seen in His sanctuary, God’s day was a delight, and his tabernacles were amiable. Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive in God’s service, everyone earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth; the assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors.
The population of Northampton was about eleven hundred people. Three hundred were converted in six months. At its peak, thirty converts per week for six weeks. The Awakening spread beyond Northampton, and about one hundred other towns of New England were affected. At the urging of fellow ministers Edwards was persuaded to write and publish an account which he entitled, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, and the Surrounding Towns and Villages. It went through three editions and twenty printings by 1739, was widely distributed in the American Colonies and Britain, and brought encouragement and hope to many who were crying to God for a similar visitation. Edwards was to write and publish many more works. Most notable in this period was “Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God,” which is still a standard work when considering whether a revival is true or false.
THE MIDDLE COLONIES
Elsewhere in the United States things were happening in that same year, 1735. Edwards went to meet William Tennent, Jnr., and Tennent told him that they, too, had been seeing remarkable outpourings of the Spirit of God in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. His father, William Tennent, Snr, had come over to America, a Scotch-Irish immigrant, had become a Presbyterian pastor, and had begun to see great blessing attending his ministry in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Because of certain difficulties with regard to the training of ministers, he had started his own college, set up on his farm at Neshaminy Creek, twenty miles north of Philadelphia, largely for the training of his four sons. It was nicknamed by his detractors the “Log College.” Another “Log College” which also did stalwart work was set up by the previously mentioned Rev Samuel Blair of Faggs Manor.
There were also Dutch Reformed people in New Jersey who had been seeing many converts. Especially blessed was the vigorous evangelistic ministry of Theodore Jacob Frelinghuysen. So incensed were some of the dead and formal ministers that this evangelist/pastor preached to church members that they must be born again, they sent a 246 page “Complaint” to denominational headquarters in Amsterdam. But with God FOR him, who could prevail AGAINST him, and not only were the unchurched saved but nominal members as well as elders and deacons came to see their lost condition and turned in faith to Christ.
THE YEAR 1735 IN ENGLAND
In 1735, that ‘Year of Grace’, a young man of seventeen-years of age was walking down Cheapside in London when suddenly he became deeply convicted of sin. For two years he was in the pit of despondency and despair until on September 6, 1737, he found peace with God. His name was John Cennick, and he became a great evangelist.
In 1735, a haughty young Anglican curate, aged twenty two, took his congregation to hear a well-known preacher. The preacher watched him swagger in and prayed for him openly and directly by name, that he would be converted, that he would one day preach to thousands, and that he would be the means of the salvation of multitudes. Daniel Rowland was converted and became perhaps the greatest preacher that Wales ever produced.
On Palm Sunday of that same year, Howell Harris, a twenty-one year old schoolmaster in Wales, went to church in Towgar. He was only interested in gambling, sport, drinking, gossiping, and girls. The Reverend Price Davies, who was the preacher for the day, urged the people to prepare for the forthcoming sacrament, and he said, “You say that you are not fit to come to the sacrament, and I say to you that if you are not fit to come to the Table you are not fit to pray; and if you are not fit to pray you are not fit to live; and if you are not fit to live you are not fit to die.”
Howell Harris went away in an agony of soul. He could not get those words out of his mind. He confessed to his friend, Joe Saunders that he was under great conviction and fear of dying. He confessed it also to his enemy, Evans, the weaver. On Whit Monday he found peace. Howell Harris became a great preacher of the Revival. Because the authorities would not ordain him, and would not have him to preach in their churches, he began to preach outdoors leading the way which others would follow.
In 1735 also, there was a student at Oxford reading a book. His name was George Whitefield. He was working his way through Pembroke College serving the rich students. He had been born in 1714 in the Bell Inn at Gloucester, and his father had died when he was two years old. He was the youngest of seven children, so although he was a bright boy he had to drop out of school in order to help his mother to try to keep the Inn going. Eventually his friends found a way for him to go to Oxford.
He was earnest about his soul. He joined the Holy Club and was given (by his friend Charles Wesley) a little book entitled, The Life of God in the Soul of Man. It was written by Henry Scougal, a professor of theology at Aberdeen University in the previous century, who had died aged only twenty- eight. Little of note has come down to us that Scougal did save writing that little book, but it was the means of leading George Whitefield to Jesus Christ.
Whitefield wrote in his Journal,
God showed me that I must be born again or be damned. I learned that a man may go to church, say his prayers, receive the sacrament, and yet not be a Christian. …I thus addressed the God of Heaven and Earth, “Lord, if I am not a Christian, or if I am not a real one, for Jesus Christ’s sake show me what Christianity is, that I may not be damned at last.” God soon showed me.
Thus in 1735 the man who, in the opinion of many, was the greatest preacher of all time, George Whitefield, was brought to personal faith in Jesus Christ. He was ordained the following year and when he preached his first sermon in Gloucester there were complaints made to the Bishop that he had driven fifteen people mad. The good Bishop said that he hoped that such madness would last until the following Lord’s Day. The church in Gloucester, England, where Whitefield preached his first sermon, St. Mary de Crypt, is still standing. In 2010 I had the privilege of visiting that church, and standing in the pulpit from which the sermon was delivered.
There was another seeker at Oxford in 1735, also a member of the Holy Club, in fact, the leader of it. His name was John Wesley, and he was a tutor at Lincoln College. Tutors were then called – and still are – Fellows. He also was reading voraciously trying to find the truth of the Gospel and peace with God. He was different from Whitefield. For one thing he was older. He was born in the same year as Jonathan Edwards, 1703, and was the son of the Rector of Epworth, Reverend Samuel Wesley, a very high Anglican, and Susannah Wesley, a very remarkable mother. She, earlier in life, had fallen foul of some very extreme Hyper-Calvinists, and as a result she pumped into her family of nineteen children a fear of anything that might be remotely Calvinistic.
In 1725 John Wesley was ordained to the ministry of the Gospel having had an acute sense of destiny because, at the age of six, he had been rescued in the nick of time from the blazing rectory at Epworth. He was the seventeenth child of the nineteen. In 1735 his father died and he was strongly urged to inherit the Epworth living, but he refused it and decided instead to go, at the request of the Governor, General James Oglethorpe, as a missionary to Georgia, a new colony. This was to be a crucial decision and very significant for the Revival we are considering. So was the ocean crossing with his newly ordained brother Charles, for on board also were a group of Moravian missionaries who had likewise been led to go to Georgia.
Thus 1735 proved to be a momentous year in the Divine Plan.
When John Wesley set sail for Georgia he did not know Christ in his heart – and he knew he didn’t. He wrote in his Journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but who shall convert me? I went to America to convert others, but was never converted myself to God.”
On the boat across the Atlantic there was a most terrible storm. The mainsail split and everyone thought they would die. Wesley was greatly afraid. He was not able to give any comfort to the other passengers because he, himself, was of all of them the most afraid. There were, however, a group of twenty six people aboard who had come from Herrnhut in Saxony. These were the Moravian missionaries, descendants of the little group of persecuted followers of John Hus who had asked Count Zinzendorf if they could set up a community on his estate. They did so and it was called, the Lord’s Protection, Herrnhut. In 1727 they began a twenty-four hour prayer meeting (which was sustained for one hundred years) and in a period of five years they sent out fifty missionaries, about half of them being on this boat going to Georgia. They were not afraid to die. In fact they sang praises to God and ministered to the other passengers.
Like many before, and since, John Wesley desired to have what they possessed. He was learning what we all need to learn that it is sadly possible to be moral, philanthropic, self-sacrificing, religious, devout, orthodox, and even ordained, and yet be lost and without a personal, saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. He returned to England in 1738, considering himself to have been a failure as a missionary. He began to consult with the Moravians in London. On May 24, 1738, he went to Evensong in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the late afternoon, and then in the evening he went “unwillingly” to a Society meeting in Aldersgate Street. A man was reading from Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and, Wesley wrote:
About a quarter before nine while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation. An assurance was given to me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me.
Wesley interrupted the reading, rose and testified, and they all rejoiced with him. They trooped off to see his brother, Charles, in bed with influenza, only to find that he had received assurance of salvation three days before and had already begun to write the hymns of which he was to write over four thousand. They sang one of them. It may have been “And can it be…”, but even if it was not there is no better hymn of Charles Wesley to describe his conversion experience. It has been sung down through the years by Christians of many denominations on both sides of the Atlantic. The words are printed at the end of this article together with audio of the hymn as it was sung by the congregation at Lansdowne Baptist Church during my time as the pastor of that church.
Meanwhile Whitefield was preaching in Bristol with great effect. He also had been for a time to Georgia in connection with an orphanage he hoped to establish, and had returned to England to try to raise some money for it. He had heard about the miners of Kingswood, a place just outside of the city of Bristol, in the west of England. These miners lived in dreadful poverty. They, like the London mob, would sometimes in their frustration and drunkenness rampage through the streets of Bristol, pillaging, raping, and destroying. Helpless, the police allowed these miners to spend their fury and then return to their hovels at Kingswood. There was no church there and (it seemed) nobody cared for them either socially or spiritually.
Whitefield had not only heard about these miners, but also about how Howell Harris had been preaching in the open air – what they called “field preaching” – in Wales. He corresponded with him about it. He then heard that a clergyman of his own Anglican denomination called Mr. Morgan had preached to the miners of Kingswood, and had visited them in their homes expressing his concern for them. This “unknown”, therefore, led the way for Whitefield. Isn’t that so often the case in the purposes and workings of God? The most faithful are not always the most famous.
Whitefield determined that he would also go and preach there. In February 17, 1739, dressed in his Anglican robes, his wig powdered and with his preaching tabs neatly in place, he headed for the spot – Hanham Mount – where Morgan had preached. It was the coldest day in living memory. He first visited the houses inviting the people to come and hear him. Out of curiosity about two hundred of them gathered to see this strange sight.
Having preached (appropriately) from Matt 5:1-3 he announced that he would be there again the following Wednesday. This time two thousand gathered. He said that he would be back on the Saturday, and five thousand gathered. On the Sunday there were ten thousand. He preached with all his eloquence the unsearchable forgiveness of Jesus Christ to the vilest offender, the love of Jesus Christ to the poorest wretch, and he wrote thus:
Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of Jesus who was a friend of publicans and came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. The first discovery of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by their tears which plentifully fell down their black cheeks.
He was kept there for hours dealing with those seeking his help and his prayers. He needed assistance. He wrote to John Wesley in London and said, “Come. Come. The fire is kindled in the country and shall never be put out.” And so it was. Every Sunday he or Wesley would preach at Hanham Mount or nearby Rose Green, and there would be twenty thousand who would gather to hear them, farmers as well as colliers.
Soon the churches were closed to them. They were branded as “enthusiasts” and “fanatics.” People – it continued to be alleged – went mad in their meetings! It was considered preposterous to tell baptized Episcopalians that they needed to be “born again.” They began to preach in the open air in London; at Moorfields, Mayfair, Hampstead, and Kennington. In London it has been estimated that on some occasions there were forty thousand gathered to hear Whitefield. These were probably the largest audiences in the history of mankind to listen to an un-assisted, un-amplified human voice. Little wonder he was often called “The Trumpet Voice.”
Let it not be thought that these meetings were easy. These open spaces were fairgrounds to which people flocked for entertainment and pleasure, much of it depraved. Whitefield reports of a meeting at Moorfields, “…several little boys and girls were fond of sitting round me on the pulpit while I preached, and handing to me the people’s notes, though they were often pelted with eggs, dirt, &c, thrown at me…Every time I was struck they turned up their weeping little eyes, and seemed to wish they could receive the blows for me.”
Many times the evangelists went in grave danger of their lives…
The hymn “And can it be…”
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eyes diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Charles Wesley, 1707-88
George Whitefield and the Revival in America
Whitefield made his second visit to the United States landing at Lewes, Delaware, on October 30, 1739. He had been in correspondence with some Scottish brethren who loved the Lord and loved the “Doctrines of Grace,” among them being Ralph Erskine. Whitefield had been reading his Bible, and reading the Puritans, and by the time he landed at Lewes he was convinced of what is known as “Reformed” or “Calvinist” theology. This was to be the source of problems between himself and the Wesley brothers. It is worth noting that, contrary to what some people think, the more he became convinced that salvation had more to do with God’s good will than man’s free will, the more earnest he became to seek and save the lost. (As did Edwards, Carey, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones and many others.)
Whitefield found Philadelphia truly a city of brotherly love in the reception given to him. After arriving on a Friday night, November 2, 1739, he recorded in his Journal that he “read prayers and assisted at the Church of England on Sunday, made the acquaintance of the Presbyterian and Baptist ministers on Monday, preached in the Church of England on Tuesday, and dined with Thomas Penn, the Quaker (son of William), on Wednesday.” On Thursday evening he held his first open air service. Though it was late autumn and the days were getting cold he preached from the Courthouse stairs to about six thousand people. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday it was filled with hearers, about eight thousand each time; and of the Friday meeting he reports, “Before I came all was hushed exceedingly quiet. The night was clear but not cold. Lights were in most of the windows all around us for a considerable distance. People did not seem weary of standing, nor was I weary of speaking. The Lord endued me with power from on high. My heart was enlarged and warmed with Divine love and my soul was so carried out in prayer that I thought I could have continued my discourse all night.”
From Philadelphia Whitefield went on to New York. He was forbidden to preach in the Church of England, but was invited by Doctor Pemberton at the Wall Street Presbyterian Church to preach. After that he preached in the open air. Upon returning to Philadelphia he struck up a friendship with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was, as we all know, a very enterprising printer and he recognized that there was money to be made out of printing the sermons of Whitefield and others. Whitefield merely says, “A printer told me he might have sold a thousand sermons if he had them. I therefore gave him two extemporary discourses to be published.” Franklin, however, describes Whitefield’s ministry at some length saying:
In 1739 there arrived among us the Reverend Mr. Whitefield. He was at first permitted to preach in some of the churches but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refused him their pulpits and he was obliged to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous and it was a matter of speculation with me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admired and respected him notwithstanding his common abuse of them by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils.
It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion it seemed as if all the world were growing religious so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing Psalms sung in different families on every street. He had a loud and clear voice and articulated his words and his sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his audiences, however numerous, observed the most exact silence.
He preached one evening from the top of the Court House steps in the middle of Market Street and on the west side of Second Street which crosses it at right angles. Both streets were filled with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market Street I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard by retiring backwards down the street towards the river, and I found his voice distinct until I came near to Front Street when some noise in that street obscured it.
Imagining then a semi-circle of which my distance should be the radius and that it were filled with auditors to each of whom I allowed two square feet I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconciled me to the newspaper accounts of his having preached to twenty five thousand people in the fields.
Franklin and Whitefield were friends, but there is no record that Franklin was ever converted. He said, “Mr. Whitefield used to pray for my conversion, but he never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death.”
George Whitefield spent the rest of 1739 and 1740 in America traveling back and forth between the Eastern States and Savannah Georgia, where he hoped to build the orphanage. Sometimes he traveled – dangerously, slowly, and (unusually for those times) – overland. Consequently though he had miles of wilderness to traverse it also gave him opportunities to preach as he traveled. Of interest to me are his visits to my “home State” of Delaware where he preached in Wilmington, Newcastle and Whiteclay Creek. When I pastored in Wilmington, Delaware, June and I often spent happy hours on our rest day searching for “sacred sites” associated with the ministries of Whitefield, the Tennents, Samuel Blair and others. Of the last he wrote, “The weather was rainy but upwards of ten thousand people were assembled…I preached from a tent erected by Mr William Tennent…I continued my discourse for an hour and a half, after which we went into a log house nearby, took a morsel of bread and warmed ourselves. I preached a second time from the same place. My body was weak.”
It was a great joy for Whitefield to link up with other leaders whom God was using in the Great Awakening – the Tennents and Frelinghuysen for example – and to visit the Log Colleges at Neshaminy and Faggs Manor. His greatest joy, however, was when at last he visited New England and especially Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Having landed at – and preached in – Newport, Rhode Island, Whitefield first made his way to Boston preaching as he went. He was met by the Governor who throughout his stay entertained him with great respect transporting him hither and thither in his own coach. He preached in any church that would invite him. His own denomination, however, again rejected him. His offense? Preaching the necessity of the new birth to baptized communicant members, calling ministers of Dissenting churches (Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent etc) “true ministers of Jesus Christ”, and for “enthusiasm.” He preached in the homes of aristocracy, in the
Almshouse, to a congregation of African Americans and to children. There were daily meetings in the open air, the final gathering drawing (according to a contemporary newspaper report), “at a moderate computation”, twenty-three thousand people to Boston Common. You will recall that Whitefield was just twenty-six years old.
He stayed a few days with the Edwards’ and preached so movingly four times to the Northampton church that Edwards reported, “The congregation was extraordinarily melted by each sermon, almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of the time…there was a great alteration in the town.” G.W. noted that the minister also wept throughout. Jonathan and Sarah asked their guest to address their eleven children and Whitefield reported later that they had such a happy home that it made him long, as he put it, “for a daughter of Abraham” for himself.
Unquestionably God had endued the “Trumpet Voice” with a remarkable vocal instrument and oratorical talent to match. Lest some should think this explains it all, I should tell you that his physical presence was anything but appealing. His eyes were crossed in a very marked way and he was nicknamed by the press “Dr. Squintum.” He was the constant butt of cartoonists and comedians. An obscene play was even written and staged in London lampooning him.
Whitefield and Edwards had very different styles of preaching. The theologian of Northampton preached (until 1741) from a full closely-written manuscript, hardly moving at the lectern, and with few physical gestures. If he looked up at all it was to “fix his eyes on the bell-rope.” Yet his words penetrated like arrows. Whitefield preached without notes and was all emotion, drama, and pathos, frequently weeping. The famous actor David Garrick declared he would give a hundred guineas to be able to say “Oh,” like Whitefield who, he further declared, could move an audience to tears or to joy simply by the way he pronounced “Mesopotamia.”
Wesley – the methodical Englishman – was different again. He was only five feet three inches tall, disdained the wig – allowing his dark, wavy hair to grow long and hang shoulder length – wore gown and tabs, and preached standing on a chair or table. His strong carefully articulated voice could be heard clearly for at least one hundred yards and, though less dramatic than Whitefield, he also preached simply, powerfully, and from his heart, the Gospel of Redeeming Love.
We do well to remember that God is pleased to use different methods and different personalities, having ordained such distinctives to serve his great and glorious purposes.
THE FINAL MINISTRY OF EDWARDS, WHITEFIELD, AND WESLEY
How I wish we had space to follow these three great men as they continued to lead the Revival. And not only these three but the countless other heroes, men and women, whom God so mightily used in America, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Holland, Germany, and elsewhere. A few remarks must suffice. First about:
JONATHAN EDWARDS Although it seems hardly believable, Edwards was voted out of his church in 1750. This was because, believing that standards were going down, he wished to change the long-standing tradition established by his grandfather and to restrict the Lord’s Table to those who had joined the church through a credible profession of faith.
How hard it must have been for this Godly couple, after twenty-three years of faithful and fruitful ministry, to be sent packing with seven (at that point) dependent children. But the Divine Hand was over-ruling it all. Though some “friends” deserted them, others – even as far as from Scotland – sent support. In 1751 he was called to a ministry at a frontier settlement called Stockbridge, on the borders of Massachusetts and New York, preaching to the few settlers and the Housatonic and Mohawk Indians.
Some thought it almost an exile but it proved to be a blessing in disguise. Here Edwards had more time to write, and probably his greatest works were written during that period. One thinks, for example, of Paul writing his inspired Epistles from a Roman prison (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon and the Pastorals) and John Bunyan writing his great works such as The Pilgrim’s Progress during his twelve years in Bedford jail. In 1758 he reluctantly accepted an appointment as President of Princeton but he died shortly afterwards following a smallpox vaccination. He was fifty four.
Theologian R.C.Sproul writes, “Hearers in Edward’s congregation were treated to a vivid and intense proclamation of the Glory of God.”
Modern historian Mark Noll’s description of Jonathan Edwards is, “… (He) was a theologian overwhelmed by the majesty and the splendor of the divine. The major themes of his theology are the greatness and glory of God, the utter dependence of sinful humanity for salvation, and the ethereal beauty of the life of holiness.”
(May I ask my pastor readers: What are the major themes of your theology and what do you emphasize to your people? When you leave them what will they remember, of you and of your teaching?)
To Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones the Puritans were the Alps, Luther and Calvin were the Himalayas, but Jonathan Edwards was Mount Everest.
WHITEFIELD preached forty to sixty hours each week throughout his life, some eighteen thousand sermons. He went twice to Ireland, fifteen times to Scotland, and seven times to the United States. He died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1770, and is buried there. He was fifty six.
For all their differences Wesley and Whitefield always had a great respect for one another; Wesley, the Arminian; Whitefield, the Calvinist. God in his sovereignty used them both mightily. That is what God does in revival. Wesley preached at his friend’s memorial service in London and said, “Did ever the world know since the Apostles such a soul winner as George Whitefield?” When one of Whitefield’s devoted followers once asked him – disapproving of Wesley’s Arminianism, “Do you think we shall see Mr. Wesley in Heaven?”
“No, Madam, I do not” replied Whitefield, to the lady’s obvious gratification. He continued however, “He will be so near the Throne and we at such a distance it is doubtful if we shall get a sight of him.”
WESLEY, who had thought saving souls almost a sin if not done in a church, rode two hundred and fifty thousand miles on horseback to preach in the open air, a distance equal to ten circuits of the world along the equator.
When challenged, as an Anglican, as to the location of his parish, he said, “All the world is my parish,” He preached forty-two thousand sermons, and died on March 2, 1791 at the age of eighty-eight years. The last sermon that he preached, just a few days before his death, was on the text, “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found” (Isa 55:6).
THE RESULTS OF THE AWAKENING
The Awakening completely changed the face of both Britain and America.
New Life in The Church
Revival by very definition begins with renewal of the Church. The Christian church came to see that the “new birth” is necessary for a true conversion: that intellectual orthodoxy, infant baptism, or even formal church membership is not enough. Ministers, of all people, must be converted men. Since then the faithful preaching of the Gospel has always included the heart-cry of this Revival, “You must be born again.” New members must give credible evidence of that regenerating experience by their trust in Christ and Christ alone for salvation and their desire to follow after holiness of life. (Only in our own day has this been watered down to the barest profession of faith, if that.) The Christian life did not stop at conversion; that was but the beginning. John Wesley – organizing genius that he was – gathered all who professed experiential faith into Societies, sub-divided into Class Meetings, where members would exchange testimonies of the Lord’s continued activity in their daily lives, share their problems and pray. These formed the structure of the Methodist Church after Wesley’s death.
Worship everywhere breathed new life as the Awakening was carried along by new songs. The hymns of Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton, William Cowper, Augustus Toplady, Thomas Olivers, John Cennick, James Montgomery, and many others, gave to the church an abiding heritage. They were not only poets but theologians who wrote hymns full of the Glory of God, of Bible truth, and full of Christ. To this writer it is tragic that many Evangelical churches in this present day sing so few, if any, of these great hymns. I confess that I am not impressed by most of what is offered in their place.
Not everyone welcomed the Revival and the denominations divided on the question of the acceptance or the rejection of it. Among the Presbyterians it was “New Side” or “Old Side.” Among the Congregationalists it was “New Lights” or “Old Lights.” The “Separated Baptists” were for the revival, and the “Regular Baptists” were against it.
Those blessed by the Revival and supportive of it thus found warm fellowship with those of other denominations which previously they would have shunned. Baptists spoke of Jonathan Edwards as “our Edwards” though he was a Congregationalist. They shared in a Communion Service led by the Episcopalian Whitefield whom they loved. George Whitefield insisted on preaching for all denominations and did much to unite them together.
While preaching on one occasion from the balcony of the Court House in Philadelphia, Whitefield looked up toward Heaven and cried:
‘Father Abraham, whom do you have in Heaven? Any Episcopalians?’
‘Have you any Independents or Baptists?’
‘Have you any Methodists there?’
‘No! No! No!’
‘Then whom have you there?’
‘We don’t know those names here. All who are here are Christians – believers in Christ – those who have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.’
New Life in Church Growth
In America and in Britain the churches saw remarkable increases. Typical would be the report of a Boston minister, Rev Thomas Prince, following the 1740 visit of George Whitefield. After first reporting the previous decline Prince wrote:
And now was such a time as we never knew. The Rev Mr Cooper was wont to say, that more came to him in one week in deep concern about their souls, than in the whole twenty-four years of his preceding ministry. I can also say the same as to the numbers who repaired to me. Mr Cooper has had about six hundred persons in three months; and Mr Webb has had in the same space above a thousand.
Following the Great Awakening in New England one hundred and fifty new churches were added to the Congregationalists, and the Baptists grew from twenty one churches to seventy nine. Numbers of converts added to the churches are variously assessed. The most conservative estimate is twenty-five thousand, while others estimate fifty-thousand. Out of a population numbering three hundred and fifty thousand this represents, at a minimum, seven percent of the population. By today’s figures that would be at least one million new Christians, just in the five New England States. Don’t you think it would be wonderful to see that?
There were also great increases in the Middle Colonies. For example, between 1740 and 1760 the Presbyterians ordained fifty-five new ministers yet forty churches in Pennsylvania and Delaware still needed pastors.
In the South, Samuel Davies was the first non-Anglican church leader. He was an indefatigable evangelist as well as writing some superb hymns. Though he was Presbyterian the foundation was also laid for the enormous Baptist and Methodist expansion which was to come later.
Because of emotional phenomena and occasional excesses there are those who think that revivals are just an excuse for fanaticism accompanied by wild, mindless ravings and grotesque antics. Those are characteristic more of the false than the true. In actual fact there is a close relationship between true revivals and education. Whitefield and the Wesleys were graduates of Oxford University and Jonathan Edwards was a graduate of Yale. Furthermore he was a life-long student not only of theology but of science, especially the researches of Isaac Newton – and of philosophy, especially the writings of John Locke. In the opinion of many Edwards was the greatest thinker that America has ever produced. Harvard Professor Perry Miller reveals his antipathy to the Gospel when he writes of Whitefield, “a more repulsive individual never influenced history but his voice could reach thousands and set them wailing for their sins,” (!) yet he estimates Edwards as “the greatest philosopher-theologian ever to grace the American scene.”
As a result of the Great Awakening new colleges were founded.
The Log College led to the founding of Princeton University. Reverend Ebenezer Wheelock’s determination to educate Samson Occum, a converted Indian, led to the founding of Dartmouth College. Brown was founded by Baptists in Rhode Island, and Rutgers (formerly Queens) by the Dutch Reformed. The University of Pennsylvania also came out of the revival and the friendship of Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield. A statue of Whitefield still graces the Quadrangle of the University.
Evangelism and Missions
The leaders and preachers of the Revival took the Gospel to all segments of Society. In Britain the Countess of Huntingdon sponsored frequent drawing room meetings when Whitefield, Wesley, and others could challenge her aristocratic friends with the message of the new birth. We have seen how Whitefield was effective among similar groups in the American Colonies. Yet these same preachers went out, as did their Lord and Savior, to the common people. The black slaves loved Whitefield and when he died Phillis Wheatley, an emancipated slave and America’s first published black poet, penned her first poem as a tribute to the evangelist.
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refin’d
Inflame the heart and captivate the mind
The greatest gift that even God can give,
He freely offer’d to the numerous throng,
That on his lips with list’ning pleasure hung
“Take him ye Africans, he longs for you,
Impartial Savior is his title due;
Washed in the fountain of redeeming blood,
You shall be Sons and Kings, and Priests to God.
What had been derisively called “field preaching” and regarded with suspicion as beneath the orthodox and the educated now became acceptable – at least to Evangelicals – and even recognized as fulfilling both the commission and the example of our Lord.
Vigorous missionary enterprise, which was to come to full flower after the Second Awakening at the end of the century, was born out of this revival. For example, Jonathan Edwards edited the Journal of David Brainerd, missionary to Native American Indians, which became a spiritual classic. Among many affected by reading it was Henry Martyn who went to India with the words, “Let me burn out for God.”
When the salt regains its savor and the light its radiance all society is blessed. The social effects on both sides of the Atlantic were so extensive and profound that space severely limits us in this brief work. Many secular historians are ready to agree that it was the Evangelical
Awakening in the time of Whitefield and the Wesleys that probably saved England from an experience such as they had in France in the French Revolution. It is worth repeating Wesley’s description of the change in the Kingswood miners, it being typical of the sort of changes which
happened everywhere. Just eight months after the outbreak of the revival Wesley wrote:
The scene is already changed. Kingswood does not now, as a year ago, resound with cursing and blasphemy. It is no more filled with drunkenness and uncleanness, and the idle diversions that naturally lead thereto. It is no longer full of wars and fightings, of clamor and bitterness, of wrath and envyings. Peace and love are there. Great numbers of the people are mild, gentle, and easy to be entreated. They do not cry, neither strive, and rarely is their voice to be heard in the streets, or indeed in their own wood, unless they are at their usual evening diversion – singing praise to God their Savior.
Wesley described the slave trade as “execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England and of human nature” and urged William Wilberforce to “go in the Name of God…till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away.” Work among the poor and the orphans, along with reform of prisons and treatment of the insane, literature movements, and the starting of Sunday Schools, all came from the Revival.
The Great Awakening was America’s first national event, and George Whitefield her first national figure, uniting the American colonies like nothing had before. Fellowship became not only inter-denominational but inter-colonial. Liberty of conscience led to the cry for other liberties; and freedom from the tyranny of established churches led to the demand for freedom from the tyranny of a far off King and Parliament. It is ironical that as the Great Awakening saved England from a revolution, so it may well have prepared America to undertake one!
Why do we look back into history and concern ourselves with these events?
Because we are urged to do so in the Bible. God frequently called Israel’s attention to the great things he had done in their past commanding them to “remember.” The Passover was to be an annual reminder of their Divine deliverance and the Stones of Gilgal a monumental one of their entry into the Promised Land. Even the Ten Commandments begin with the reminder, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery…”
In calling our attention to his great and mighty works our Lord’s intention is not to cause us to despair in our present circumstances or dampen our joy because (say) only one sinner repents. Quite the opposite. Why, every saved sinner is of infinite worth. Conversely, however, every lost soul is an eternal tragedy. Hearing then of these outpourings of God’s power in days gone by should spur us on to even more faithfulness in prayer, preaching, reformation and evangelism, invigorated by faith that God will hear us and bless us again with a mighty visitation.
We should also remember: Edwards, Whitefield, Wesley, Freylinghuysen, the Tennents, Davies, and the others did not say to themselves, “Ah, God is giving us a Revival, therefore we will go to the lost with the Gospel.” They went out as they had been told to do by their Savior and as they did so God came down. So – as we shall continue to see – it has always been and always will be.
We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days long ago….Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love (Psalm 44:1 & 26).
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the desert. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him (Psalm 126:4-6).
This material was originally printed in 1990, and has been revised and updated for this website.