« Prev Chapter XI. The Great Awakening. Next »

CHAPTER XI.

THE GREAT AWAKENING.

IT was not wholly dark in American Christendom before the dawn of the Great Awakening. The censoriousness which was the besetting sin of the evangelists in that great religious movement, the rhetorical temptation to glorify the revival by intensifying the contrast with the antecedent condition, and the exaggerated revivalism ever since so prevalent in the American church,—the tendency to consider religion as consisting mainly in, scenes and periods of special fervor, and the intervals between as so much void space and waste time,—all these have combined to deepen the dark tints in which the former state is set before us in history.

The power of godliness was manifest in the earlier days by many infallible signs, not excluding those “times of refreshing” in which the simultaneous earnestness of many souls compels the general attention. Even in Northampton, where the doctrine of the venerable Stoddard as to the conditions of communion has been thought to be the low-water mark of church vitality, not less than five such “harvest seasons” were within recent memory. It was to this parish in a country town on the frontier of civilization, but the most important in Massachusetts outside of Boston, that there came, in the year 1727, to serve as colleague to his aged grandfather, Pastor Stoddard, a young man whose 156wonderful intellectual and spiritual gifts had from his childhood awakened the pious hopes of all who had known him, and who was destined in his future career to be recognized as the most illustrious of the saints and doctors of the American church. The authentic facts of the boyhood of Jonathan Edwards read like the myths that adorn the legendary Lives of the Saints. As an undergraduate of Yale College, before the age of seventeen, his reflections on the mysteries of God, and the universe, and the human mind, were such as even yet command the attention and respect of students of philosophy. He remained at New Haven two years after graduation, for the further study of theology, and then spent eight months in charge of the newly organized Presbyterian church in New York.100100   Of how little relative importance was this charge may be judged from the fact that a quarter-century later, when the famous Joseph Bellamy was invited to it from his tiny parish of Bethlem, Conn., the council called to advise in the case judged that the interests of Bethlem were too important to be sacrificed to the demands of New York. After this he spent two years as tutor at Yale,—“one of the pillar tutors, and the glory of the college,”—at the critical period after the defection of Rector Cutler to the Church of England.101101   See the altogether admirable monograph of Professor A. V. G. Allen on “Jonathan Edwards,” p. 23. From this position he was called in 1726, at the age of twenty-three, to the church at Northampton. There he was ordained February 15, 1727, and thither a few months later he brought his “espoused saint,” Sarah Pierpont, consummate flower of Puritan womanhood, thenceforth the companion not only of his pastoral cares and sorrows, but of his seraphic contemplations of divine things.

The intensely earnest sermons, the holy life, and the loving prayers of one of the greatest preachers in the history of the church were not long in bearing abundant fruit. In a time of spiritual and moral depression, when 157 the world, the flesh, and the devil seemed to be gaining against the gospel, sometime in the year 1733 signs began to be visible of yielding to the power of God’s Word. The frivolous or wanton frolics of the youth began to be exchanged for meetings for religious conference. The pastor was encouraged to renewed tenderness and solemnity in his preaching. His themes were justification by faith, the awfulness of God’s justice, the excellency of Christ, the duty of pressing into the kingdom of God. Presently a young woman, a leader in the village gayeties, became “serious, giving evidence,” even to the severe judgment of Edwards, “of a heart truly broken and sanctified.” A general seriousness began to spread over the whole town. Hardly a single person, old or young, but felt concerned about eternal things. According to Edwards’s “Narrative”:

“The work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town, so that in the spring and summer, anno 1735, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God. It was never so full of love, nor so full 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 the account of salvation’s being brought unto them; parents rejoicing over their children as being 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, every one 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. Our 158public praises were then greatly enlivened; God was then served in our psalmody in some measure in the beauty of holiness.”

The crucial test of the divineness of the work was given when the people presented themselves before the Lord with a solemn act of thanksgiving for his great goodness and his gracious presence in the town of Northampton, with publicly recorded vows to renounce their evil ways and put away their abominations from before his eyes. They solemnly promise thenceforth, in all dealings with their neighbor, to be governed by the rules of honesty, justice, and uprightness; not to overreach or defraud him, nor anywise to injure him, whether willfully or through want of care; to regard not only their own interest, but his; particularly, to be faithful in the payment of just debts; in the case of past wrongs against any, never to rest till they have made full reparation; to refrain from evil speaking, and from everything that feeds a spirit of bitterness; to do nothing in a spirit of revenge; not to be led by private or partisan interest into any course hurtful to the interests of Christ’s kingdom; particularly, in public affairs, not to allow ambition or partisanship to lead them counter to the interest of true religion. Those who are young promise to allow themselves in no diversions that would hinder a devout spirit, and to avoid everything that tends to lasciviousness, and which will not be approved by the infinitely pure and holy eye of God. Finally, they consecrate themselves watchfully to perform the relative duties of parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, masters, mistresses, and servants.

So great a work as this could not be hid. The whole region of the Connecticut Valley, in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and neighboring regions felt the influence of it. The fame of it went abroad. A letter of Edwards’s in 159reply to inquiries from his friend, Dr. Colman, of Boston, was forwarded to Dr. Watts and Dr. Guise, of London, and by them published under the title of “Narrative of Surprising Conversions.” A copy of the little book was carried in his pocket for wayside reading on a walk from London to Oxford by John Wesley, in the year 1738. Not yet in the course of his work had he “seen it on this fashion,” and he writes in his journal: “Surely this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Both in this narrative and in a later work on “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God,” one cannot but admire the divine gift of a calm wisdom with which Edwards had been endowed as if for this exigency. He is never dazzled by the incidents of the work, nor distracted by them from the essence of it. His argument for the divineness of the work is not founded on the unusual or extraordinary character of it, nor on the impressive bodily effects sometimes attending it, such as tears, groans, outcries, convulsions, or faintings, nor on visions or ecstasies or “impressions.” What he claims is that the work may be divine, notwithstanding the presence of these incidents.102102   Allen, “Jonathan Edwards,” pp. 164-174. It was doubtless owing to the firm and judicious guidance of such a pastor that the intense religious fervor of this first awakening at Northampton was marked by so much of sobriety and order. In later years, in other regions, and under the influence of preachers not of greater earnestness, but of less wisdom and discretion, there were habitual scenes of extravagant and senseless enthusiasm, which make the closing pages of this chapter of church history painfully instructive.

It is not difficult to understand how one of the first places at a distance to feel the kindling example of Northampton should be the neighborhood of Newark. To this 160region, planted, as we have seen, with so strong a stock from New England, from old England, and from Scotland, came, in 1708, a youth of twenty years, Jonathan Dickinson, a native of the historic little town of Hatfield, next neighbor to Northampton. He was pastor at Elizabeth, but his influence and activity extended through all that part of New Jersey, and he became easily the leader of the rapidly growing communion of Presbyterian churches in that province, and the opponent, in the interest of Christian liberty and sincerity, of rigid terms of subscription, demanded by men of little faith. There is a great career before him; but that which concerns the present topic is his account of what took place “sometime in August, 1739 (the summer before Mr. Whitefield came first into these parts), when there was a remarkable revival at Newark. . . . This revival of religion was chiefly observable among the younger people, till the following March, when the whole town in general was brought under an uncommon concern about their eternal interests, and the congregation appeared universally affected under some sermons that were then preached to them.”

Like scenes of spiritual quickening were witnessed that same season in other parts of New Jersey but special interest attaches to the report from New Londonderry, Penn., where a Scotch-Irish community received as its pastor, in the spring of 1740, Samuel Blair, a native of Ireland, trained in the Log College of William Tennent. He describes the people, at his first knowledge of them, as sunk in a religious torpor, ignorance, and indifference. The first sign of vitality was observed in March, 1740, during the pastor’s absence, when, under an alarming sermon from a neighbor minister:

“There was a visible- appearance of much soul-concern 161among the hearers; so that some burst out with an audible noise into bitter crying, a thing not known in these parts before. . . . The first sermon I preached after my return to them was from Matthew vi. 33: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.’ After opening up and explaining the parts of the text, when in the improvement I came to press the injunction in the text upon the unconverted and ungodly, and offered this as one reason among others why they should now first of all seek the kingdom and righteousness of God, viz., that they had neglected too long to do so already, this consideration seemed to come and cut like a sword upon several in the congregation; so that while I was speaking upon it they could no longer contain, but burst out in the most bitter mourning. I desired them as much as possible to restrain themselves from making any noise that would hinder themselves or others from hearing what was spoken; and often afterward I had occasion to repeat the same counsel. I still advised people to endeavor to moderate and bound their passions, but not so as to resist and stifle their convictions. The number of the awakened increased very fast. Frequently under sermons there were some newly convicted and brought into deep distress of soul about their perishing estate. Our Sabbath assemblies soon became vastly large, many people from almost all parts around inclining very much to come where there was such appearance of the divine power and presence. I think there was scarcely a sermon or lecture preached here through that whole summer but there were manifest evidences of impressions on the hearers, and many times the impressions were very great and general. Several would be overcome and fainting; others deeply sobbing, hardly able to contain; others crying in a most dolorous manner; many others more silently weeping, and a solemn concern appearing in the countenances of many others. And sometimes the soul-exercises of some (though comparatively but very few) would so far affect their bodies as to occasion some strange, unusual bodily motions. I had opportunities of speaking particularly 162with a great many of those who afforded such outward tokens of inward soul-concern in the time of public worship and hearing of the Word. Indeed, many came to me of themselves, in their distress, for private instruction and counsel; and I found, so far as I can remember, that with by far the greater part their apparent concern in public was not just a transient qualm of conscience or merely a floating commotion of the affections, but a rational, fixed conviction of their dangerous, perishing estate. . . .

“In some time many of the convinced and distressed afforded very hopeful, satisfying evidence that the Lord had brought them to true closure with Jesus Christ, and that their distresses and fears had been in a great measure removed in a right gospel way, by believing in the Son of God. Several of them had very remarkable and sweet deliverances this way. It was very agreeable to hear their accounts how that when they were in the deepest perplexity and darkness, distress and difficulty, seeking God as poor, condemned, hell-deserving sinners, the scene of recovering grace through a Redeemer has been opened to their understandings with a surprising beauty and glory, so that they were enabled to believe in Christ with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”103103   Joseph Tracy, “The Great Awakening,” chap. ii. This work, of acknowledged value and authority, is on the list of the Congregational Board of Publication. It is much to be regretted that the Board does not publish it as well as announce it. A new edition of it, under the hand of a competent editor, with a good index, would be a useful service to history.

The experience of Gilbert Tennent at New Brunswick had no connection with the first awakening at Northampton, but had important relations with later events. He was the eldest of the four sons whom William Tennent, the Episcopalian minister from Ireland, had brought with him to America and educated at his Log College. In 1727 he became pastor of a church at New Brunswick, where he was much impressed with what he saw of the results of 163the work of the Rev. Theodore Frelinghuysen, who for seven years had been pastor of a neighboring Dutch church. The example and fraternal counsel of this good man made him sensible of the fruitlessness of his own work, and moved him to more earnest prayers and labors. Having been brought low with sickness, he prayed to God to grant him one half-year more in which to “endeavor to promote his kingdom with all my might at all adventures.” Being raised up from sickness, he devoted himself to earnest personal labors with individuals and to renewed faithfulness in the pulpit, “which method was sealed by the Holy Spirit in the conviction and conversion of a considerable number of persons, at various times and in different places, in that part of, the country, as appeared by their acquaintance with experimental religion and good conversation.” This bit of pastoral history, in which is nothing startling or prodigious, was at least five years previous to the “Surprising Conversions” at Northampton. There must have been generally throughout the country a preparedness for the Great Awakening.

It was in that year (1735) in which the town of Northampton was all ablaze with the glory of its first revival under Edwards that George Whitefield, first among the members of Wesley’s “Holy Club” at Oxford, attained to that “sense of the divine love” from which he was wont to date his conversion. In May, 1738, when the last reflections from the Northampton revival had faded out from all around the horizon, the young clergyman, whose first efforts as a preacher in pulpits of the Church of England had astonished all hearers by the power of his eloquence, arrived at Savannah, urged by the importunity of the Wesleys to take up the work in Georgia in which they had so conspicuously failed. He entered eagerly into 164the sanguine schemes for the advantage of the young colony, and especially into the scheme for building and endowing an orphan-house in just that corner of the earth where there was less need of such an institution than anywhere else. After three months’ stay he started on his return to England to seek priest’s orders for himself, and funds for the orphans that might be expected sometime in Georgia. He was successful in both his errands. He was ordained; he collected more than one thousand pounds for the orphan-house; and being detained in the kingdom by an embargo, he began that course of evangelistic preaching which continued on either side of the ocean until his death, and which is without a parallel in church history. His incomparable eloquence thronged the parish churches, until the churches were closed against him, and the Bishop of London warned the people against him in a pastoral letter. Then he went out into the open fields, in the service, as he said, of him “who had a mountain for his pulpit, and the heavens for his sounding-board, and who, when his gospel was refused by the Jews, sent his servants into the highways and hedges.” Multitudes of every rank thronged him; but especially the heathenized and embruted colliers near Bristol listened to the unknown gospel, and their awakened feelings were revealed to the preacher by his observing the white gutters made by the tears that ran down their grimy faces. At last the embargo was raised, and committing his work to Wesley, whom he had drawn into field-preaching, he sailed in August, 1739, for Philadelphia, on his way to Georgia. His fame had gone before him, and the desire to hear him was universal. The churches would not contain the throngs. It was long remembered how, on those summer evenings, he would take his stand in the balcony of the old court-house in Market Street, and how every syllable from his wonderful 165voice would be heard aboard the river-craft moored at the foot of the street, four hundred feet away.

At New York the Episcopal church was closed against him, but the pastor of the Presbyterian church, Mr. Pemberton, from Boston, made him welcome, and the fields were free to him and his hearers. On the way to New York and back, the tireless man preached at every town. At New Brunswick he saw and heard with profound admiration Gilbert Tennent, thenceforth his friend and yokefellow.

Seeing the solemn eagerness of the people everywhere to hear him, he determined to make the journey to Savannah by land, and again he turned the long journey into a campaign of preaching. Arriving at Savannah in January, 1740, he laid the foundation of his orphan-house, “Bethesda,” and in March was again on his way northward on a tour of preaching and solicitation of funds. Touching at Charleston, where the bishop’s commissary, Dr. Garden, was at open controversy with him, he preached five times and received seventy pounds for his charitable work. Landing at New Castle on a Sunday morning, he preached morning and evening. Monday morning he preached at Wilmington to a vast assemblage. Tuesday evening he preached on Society Hill, in Philadelphia, “to about eight thousand,” and at the same place Wednesday morning and evening. Then once more he made the tour to New York and back, preaching at every halting-place. A contemporary newspaper contains the following item:

“New Castle, May 15th. This evening Mr. Whitefield went on board his sloop here in order to sail for Georgia. On Sunday he preached twice in Philadelphia, and in the evening, when he preached his farewell sermon, it is supposed he had twenty thousand hearers. On Monday he preached at Darby and Chester; on Tuesday at Wilmington and Whiteclay Creek; on Wednesday, twice at Nottingham; 166on Thursday at Fog’s Manor and New Castle. The congregations were much increased since his being here last. The presence of God was much seen in the assemblies, especially at Nottingham and Fog’s Manor, where the people were under such deep soul-distress that their cries almost drowned his voice. He has collected in this and the neighboring provinces about four hundred and fifty pounds sterling for his orphans in Georgia.”

Into the feeble but rapidly growing presbyteries and the one synod of the American Presbyterian Church the revival had brought, not peace, but a sword. The collision was inevitable between the fervor and unrestrained zeal of the evangelists and the sense of order and decorum, and of the importance of organization and method, into which men are trained in the ministry of an established church. No man, even at this day, can read the “standards” of the Presbyterian Church without seeing that they have had to be strained to admit those “revival methods” which ever since the days of Whitefield have prevailed in that body. The conflict that arose was not unlike that which from the beginning of New England history had subsisted between Separatist and Nationalist. In the Presbyterian conflict, as so often in religious controversies, disciplinary and doctrinal questions were complicated with a difference of race. The “Old Side” was the Scotch and Irish party; the “New Side” was the New England party, to which many of the old-country ministers adhered. For successive years the mutual opposition had shown itself in the synod; and in 1740, at the synod meeting at Philadelphia, soon after the departure of Whitefield, the real gravamen of the controversy appeared, in the implied and even express impeachment of the spiritual character of the Old Side ministers. The impeachment had been implied in the coming of the evangelists uninvited into other men’s 167parishes, as if these were mission ground. And now it was expressed in papers read before the synod by Blair and Gilbert Tennent. The action of the synod went so far toward sustaining the men of the New Side as to repeal the rule restraining ministers from preaching outside of their own parishes, and as to put on record a thanksgiving for the work of God in the land. Through all the days of the synod’s meeting, daily throngs on Society Hill were addressed by the Tennents and other “hot gospelers” of the revival, and churches and private houses were resounding with revival hymns and exhortations. Already the preaching and printing of Gilbert Tennent’s “Nottingham Sermon” had made further fellowship between the two parties for the time impossible. The sermon flagrantly illustrated the worst characteristic of the revivalists—their censoriousness. It was a violent invective on “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” which so favorable a critic as Dr. Alexander has characterized as “one of the most severely abusive sermons which was ever penned.” The answer to it came in a form that might have been expected. At the opening of the synod of 1741 a solemn protestation was presented containing an indictment in seven grave counts against the men of the New Side, and declaring them to “have at present no right to sit and vote as members of this synod, and that if they should sit and vote, the doings of the synod would be of no force or obligation.” The protestation was adopted by the synod by a bare majority of a small attendance. The presbytery of New Brunswick found itself exscinded by this short and easy process of discipline; the presbytery of New York joined with it in organizing a new synod, and the schism was complete.

It is needless further to follow in detail the amazing career of Whitefield, “posting o’er land and ocean without 168rest,” and attended at every movement by such storms of religious agitation as have been already described. In August, 1740, he made his first visit to New England. He met with a cordial welcome. At Boston all pulpits were opened to him, and churches were thronged with eager and excited hearers.104104   The critical historian has the unusual satisfaction, at this point, of finding a gauge by which to discount the large round numbers given in Whitefield’s journal. He speaks of preaching in the Old South Church to six thousand persons. The now venerable building had at that time a seating capacity of about twelve hundred. Making the largest allowance for standing-room, we may estimate his actual audience at two thousand. Whitefield was an honest man, but sixty-six per cent. is not too large a discount to make from his figures; his estimates of spiritual effect from his labor are liable to a similar deduction. He preached on the common in the open air, and the crowds were doubled. All the surrounding towns, and the coast eastward to Maine, and the interior as far as Northampton, and the Connecticut towns along the road to New York, were wonderfully aroused by the preaching, which, according to the testimony of two nations and all grades of society, must have been of unequaled power over the feelings. Not only the clergy, including the few Church of England missionaries, but the colleges and the magistrates delighted to honor him. Belcher, the royal governor at Boston, fairly slobbered over him, with tears and embraces and kisses; and the devout Governor Talcott, at New Haven, gave God thanks, after listening to the great preacher, “for such refreshings on the way to our rest.” So he was sped on his way back to the South.

Relieved thus of the glamor of his presence, the New England people began, some of them, to recognize in what an earthen vessel their treasure had been borne. Already, in his earlier youth, when his vast powers had been suddenly revealed to him and to the world, he had had wise counsel from such men as Watts and Doddridge against some of his perils. Watts warned him against his superstition 169of trusting to “impressions” assumed to be divine; and Doddridge pronounced him “an honest man, but weak, and a little intoxicated with popularity.”105105   Tracy, “Great Awakening,” p. 51. But no human strength could stand against the adulation that everywhere attended him. His vain conceit was continually betraying him into indiscretions, which he was ever quick to expiate by humble acknowledgment. At Northampton he was deeply impressed with the beauty of holiness in Edwards and his wife; and he listened with deference to the cautions of that wise counselor against his faith in “impressions” and against his censorious judgments of other men as “unconverted”; but it seemed to the pastor that his guest “liked him not so well for opposing these things.”

The faults of Whitefield were intensified to a hateful degree in some of his associates and followers. Leaving Boston, he sent, to succeed to his work, Gilbert Tennent, then glowing with the heat of his noted Nottingham sermon on “An Unconverted Ministry.” At once men’s minds began to be divided. On the one hand, so wise and sober a critic as Thomas Prince, listening with severe attention, gave his strong and unreserved approval to the preaching and demeanor of Tennent.106106   Ibid., pp. 114-120. At the other extreme, we have such testimony as this from Dr. Timothy Cutler, the former rector of Yale College, now the Episcopalian minister of Boston:

“It would be an endless attempt to describe that scene of confusion and disturbance occasioned by him [White-field]: the division of families, neighborhoods, and towns, the contrariety of husbands and wives, the undutifulness of children and servants, the quarrels among teachers, the disorders of the night, the intermission of labor and business, 170the neglect of husbandry and of gathering the harvest. . . . In many conventicles and places of rendezvous there has been checkered work indeed, several preaching and several exhorting and praying at the same time, the rest crying or laughing, yelping, sprawling, fainting, and this revel maintained in some places many days and nights together without intermission; and then there were the blessed outpourings of the Spirit! . . . After him came one Tennent, a monster! impudent and noisy, and told them they were all damn’d, damn’d, damn’d; this charmed them, and in the most dreadful winter I ever saw people wallowed in the snow night and day for the benefit of his beastly brayings, and many ended their days under these fatigues. Both of them carried more money out of these parts than the poor could be thankful for.”107107   Letter of September 24, 1743, quoted in McConnell, “American Episcopal Church,” p. 142, note.

This is in a tone of bitter sectarian railing. But, after all, the main allegations in it are sustained by the ample evidence produced by Dr. Charles Chauncy, pastor of the First Church in Boston, in his serious and weighty volume of “Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England,” published in 1743, as he sincerely says, “to serve the interests of Christ’s kingdom,” and “faithfully pointing out the things of a bad and dangerous tendency in the late and present religious appearance in the land,” Dr. Chauncy was doubtless included in the sweeping denunciation of the Christian ministry in general as “unconverted,” “Pharisees,” “hypocrites.” And yet it does not appear in historical evidence that Chauncy was not every whit as good a Christian as Tennent or Whitefield.

The excesses of the revival went on from bad to worse. They culminated, at last, in the frenzy of poor James Davenport, great-grandson of the venerable founder of New Haven, who, under the control of “impressions” and 171 “impulses” and texts of Scripture “borne in upon his mind,” abandoned his Long Island parish, a true allotrioepiscopos, to thrust himself uninvited into the parishes of other ministers, denouncing the pastor as “unconverted” and adjuring the people to desert both pastor and church. Like some other self-appointed itinerants and exhorters of the time, he seemed. bent upon schism, as if this were the great end of preaching. Being invited to New London to assist in organizing a Separatist church, he “published the messages which he said he received from the Spirit in dreams and otherwise, importing the great necessity of mortification and contempt of the world; and made them believe that they must put away from them everything that they delighted in, to avoid the heinous sin of idolatry—that wigs, cloaks and breeches, hoods, gowns, rings, jewels, and necklaces, must be all brought together into one heap into his chamber, that they might by his solemn decree be committed to the flames.” On the Sabbath afternoon the pile was publicly burned amid songs and shouts. In the pile were many favorite books of devotion, including works of Flavel, Beveridge, Henry, and like venerated names, and the sentence was announced with a loud voice, “that the smoke of the torments of such of the authors of the above-said books as died in the same belief as when they set them out was now ascending in hell, in like manner as they saw the smoke of these books arise.”108108   Chauncy, “Seasonable Thoughts,” pp. 230-423. The public fever and delirium was passing its crisis. A little more than a year from this time, Davenport, who had been treated by his brethren with much forbearance and had twice been released from public process as non compos mentis, recovered his reason at the same time with his bodily health, and published an unreserved and affectionate acknowledgment of the wrong that he had done 172under the influence of a spirit of delusion which he had mistaken for the Spirit of truth. Those who had gone furthest with him in his excesses returned to a more sober and brotherly mind, and soon no visible trace remained of the wild storm of enthusiasm that had swept over New England, except a few languishing schisms in country towns of Connecticut.

As in the middle colonies, the revival had brought division in New England. But, after the New England fashion, it was division merely into ways of thinking, not into sects. Central in the agitated scene is the calm figure of Edwards, uniting the faith and zeal of an apostle with the acuteness of a philosopher, and applying the exquisite powers of his intellect to discriminate between a divine work and its human or Satanic admixtures, and between true and spurious religious affections. He won the blessing of the peacemaker. When half a generation had passed there had not ceased, indeed, to be differences of opinion, but there was none left to defend the wild extravagances which the very authors of them lamented, and there was none to deny, in face of the rich and enduring fruits of the revival, that the power of God had been present in it. In the twenty years ending in 1760 the number of the New England churches had been increased by one hundred and fifty.109109   Tracy, “Great Awakening,” p, 389.

In the middle colonies there had been like progress. The Presbyterian ministry had increased from forty-five to more than a hundred; and the increase had been wholly on the “New Side.” An early move of the conservative party, to require a degree from a British or a New England college as a condition of license to preach, was promptly recognized as intended to exclude the fervid students from the Log College. It was met by the organization 173of Princeton College, whose influence, more New Englandish than New England, directed by a succession of illustrious Yale graduates in full sympathy with the advanced theology of the revival, was counted on to withstand the more cautious orthodoxy of Yale. In this and other ways the Presbyterian schism fell out to the furtherance of the gospel.

In Virginia the quickening was as when the wind breathed in the valley of dry bones. The story of Samuel Morris and his unconscious mission, although authentic fact, belongs with the very romance of evangelism.110110   See the autobiographical narrative in Tracy, p. 377. White-field and “One-eyed Robinson,” and at last Samuel Davies, came to his aid. The deadly exclusiveness of the inert Virginia establishment was broken up, and the gospel had free course. The Presbyterian Church, which had at first been looked on as an exotic sect that might be tolerated out on the western frontier, after a brief struggle with the Act of Uniformity maintained its right to live and struck vigorous root in the soil. The effect of the Awakening was felt in the establishment itself. Devereux Jarratt, a convert of the revival, went to England for ordination, and returned to labor for the resuscitation of the Episcopal Church in his native State. “To him, and such as he, the first workings of the renewed energy of the church in Virginia are to be traced.”111111   Tiffany, “Protestant Episcopal Church,” p. 45.

An even more important result of the Awakening was the swift and wide extension of Baptist principles and churches. This was altogether logical. The revival had come, not so much in the spirit and power of Elijah, turning to each other the hearts of fathers and of children, as in the spirit of Ezekiel, the preacher of individual responsibility and duty. The temper of the revival was wholly 174congenial with the strong individualism of the Baptist churches. The Separatist churches formed in New England by the withdrawal of revival enthusiasts from the parish churches in many instances became Baptist. Cases of individual conversion to Baptist views were frequent, and the earnestness with which the new opinion was held approved itself not only by debating and proselyting, but by strenuous and useful evangelizing. Especially at the South, from Virginia to Georgia, the new preachers, entering into the labors of the annoyed and persecuted pioneers of their communion, won multitudes of converts to the Christian faith, from the neglected populations, both black and white, and gave to the Baptist churches a lasting preeminence in numbers among the churches of the South.

Throughout the country the effect of this vigorous propagation of rival sects openly, in the face of whatever there was of church establishment, settled this point: that the law of American States, by whomsoever administered, must sooner or later be the law of liberty and equality among the various religious communions. In the southern colonies, the empty shell of a church establishment had crumbled on contact with the serious earnestness of the young congregations gathered by the Presbyterian and Baptist evangelists. In New England, where establishment was in the form of an attempt by the people of the commonwealth to confirm the people of each town in the maintenance of common worship according to their conscience and judgment, the “standing order” had solid strength; but when it was attempted by public authority to curb the liberty of a considerable minority conscientiously intent on secession, the reins were ready to break. It soon came to be recognized that the only preeminence the parish churches could permanently hold was that of being “servants of all.”

175

With equal and unlimited liberty, was to follow, as a prevailing characteristic of American Christianity, a large diversity of organization. Not only that men disagreeing in their convictions of truth would be enrolled in different bodies, but that men holding the same views, in the same statement of them, would feel free to go apart from one another, and stay apart. There was not even to be any one generally predominating organization from which minor ones should be reckoned as dissenting. One after another the organizations which should be tempted by some period of exceptional growth and prosperity to pretend to a hegemony among the churches—Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist—would meet with some set-back as inexorable as “the law of nature that prevents the trees from growing up into the sky.”

By a curious paradox, the same spiritual agitation which deepened the divisions of the American church aroused in the colonies the consciousness of a national religious unity. We have already seen that in the period before the Awakening the sole organ of fellowship reaching through the whole chain of the British colonies was the correspondence of the Quaker meetings and missionaries. In the glow of the revival the continent awoke to the consciousness of a common spiritual life. Ranging the continent literally from Georgia to Maine, with all his weaknesses and indiscretions, and with his incomparable eloquence, welcomed by every sect, yet refusing an exclusive allegiance to any, Whitefield exercised a true apostolate, bearing daily the care of all the churches, and becoming a messenger of mutual fellowship not only between the ends of the continent, but between the Christians of two hemispheres. Remote churches exchanged offices of service. Tennent came from New Jersey to labor in New England; Dickinson and Burr and Edwards were the gift of the northern 176colonies to the college at Princeton. The quickened sense of a common religious life and duty and destiny was no small part of the preparation for the birth of the future nation.

Whether for good or for evil, the few years from 1740 to 1750 were destined to impress upon the American church in its various orders, for a hundred years to come, the character of Methodism.112112   “The Great Awakening . . . terminated the Puritan and inaugurated the Pietist or Methodist age of American church history” (Thompson, “Presbyterian Churches in the United States,” p. 34). It is not unnecessary to remark that the word “Methodist” is not used in the narrow sense of “Wesleyan.”

In New England, the idea, into which the first pastors had been trained by their experience as parish ministers in the English established church, of the parochial church holding correlative rights and duties toward the community in all its families, succumbed at last, after a hundred years of more or less conscious antagonism, to the incompatible principle, adopted from the Separatists of Plymouth, of the church formed according to elective affinity by the “social compact” of persons of the age of discretion who could give account to themselves and to one another of the conscious act and experience of conversion. This view, subject to important mitigations or aggravations in actual administration, held almost unquestioned dominance in the New England churches until boldly challenged by Horace Bushnell, in his “epoch-making” volume on “Christian Nurture” (1846), as a departure from the orthodoxy of the fathers.

In the Presbyterian Church, revivalism as a principle of church life had to contend with rules distinctly articulated in its constitutional documents. So exclusively does the Westminster institute contemplate the church as an established parish that its “Directory for Worship” contains 177no provision for so abnormal an incident as the baptism of an adult, and all baptized children growing up and not being of scandalous life are to be welcomed to the Lord’s Supper. It proves the immense power of the Awakening, that this rigid and powerful organization, of a people tenacious of its traditions to the point of obstinacy, should have swung so completely free at this point, not only of its long-settled usages, but of the distinct letter of its standards.

The Episcopal Church of the colonies was almost forced into an attitude of opposition to the revival. The unspeakable folly of the English bishops in denouncing and silencing the most effective preachers in the national church had betrayed Whitefield into his most easily besetting sin, that of censorious judgment, and his sweeping counter-denunciations of the Episcopalian clergy in general as unconverted closed to him many hearts and pulpits that at first had been hospitably open to him. Being human, they came into open antagonism to him and to the revival. From the protest against extravagance and disorder, it was a short and perilously easy step to the rejection of religious fervor and earnestness. The influence of the mother church of that dreary period and the influence of the official rings around every royal governor were all too potent in the same direction. The Propagation Society’s missionaries boasted, with reason, of large accessions of proselytes alienated from other churches by their distaste for the methods of the revival. The effect on the Episcopal Church itself was in some respects unhappy. It “lowered a spiritual temperature already too low,”113113   Unpublished lectures of the Rev. W. G. Andrews on “The Evangelical Revival of 1740 and American Episcopalians.” It is much to be hoped that these valuable studies of the critical period of American church history may not long remain unpublished. and weakened the moral influence of the church, and the value of its 178testimony to important principles which there were few besides efficiently to represent—the duty of the church not to disown or shut out those of little faith, and the church’s duty toward its children. Never in the history of the church have the Lord’s husbandmen shown a fiercer zeal for rooting up tares, regardless of damage to the wheat, than was shown by the preachers of the Awakening. Never was there a wider application of the reproach against those who, instead of preaching to men that they should be converted and become as little children, preach to children that they must be converted and become like grown folks.114114   This sharp antithesis is quoted at second hand from Charles Kingsley. The stories of little children frightened into screaming, and then dragged (at four years of age, says Jonathan Edwards) through the agitating vicissitudes of a “revival experience,” occupy some of the most pathetic, not to say tragical, pages of the history of the Awakening. The attitude of the Episcopal Church at that period was not altogether admirable; but it is nothing to its dishonor that it bore the reproach of being a friend of publicans and sinners, and offered itself as a refugium peccatorum, thus holding many in some sort of relation to the kingdom of Christ who would otherwise have lapsed into sheer infidelity.

In all this the Episcopal Church was affected by the Awakening only by way of reaction. But it owes a debt to the direct influence of the Awakening which it has not always been careful to acknowledge. We have already seen that the requickening of the asphyxiated church of Virginia was part of the great revival, and this character remains impressed on that church to this day. The best of those traits by which the American Episcopal Church is distinguished from the Church of England, as, for instance, the greater purity of the ministry and of the membership, are family traits of the revival churches; the most venerated of its early bishops, White and Griswold, 179bore the same family likeness; and the “Evangelical party,” for a time so influential in its counsels, was a tardy and mild afterglow from the setting of the Great Awakening.115115   McConnell, pp. 144-146; W. G. Andrews, Lecture III.

An incident of the revival, failing which it would have lacked an essential token of the presence of the Spirit of Christ, was the kindling of zeal for communicating the gospel to the ignorant, the neglected, and the heathen. Among the first-fruits of Whitefield’s preaching at the South was a practical movement among the planters for the instruction of their slaves—devotees, most of them, of the most abject fetich-worship of their native continent. Of the evangelists and pastors most active in the revival, there were few, either North or South, whose letters or journals do not report the drawing into the churches of large numbers of negroes and Indians, whose daily lives witnessed to the sincerity of their profession of repentance and Christian faith. The Indian population of the southeastern corner of Connecticut with such accord received the gospel at the hands of the evangelists that heathenism seemed extinct among them.116116   Tracy, pp. 187-192.

Among the first trophies of the revival at Norwich was a Mohegan boy named Samson Occum. Wheelock, pastor at Lebanon, one of the most ardent of the revival preachers, took him into his family as a student. This was the beginning of that school for the training of Indian preachers which, endowed in part with funds gathered by Occum in England, grew at last into Dartmouth College. The choicest spiritual gifts at the disposal of the church were freely spent on the missions. Whitefield visited the school and the field, and sped Kirkland on his way to the Oneidas. Edwards, leaving Northampton in sorrow of heart, gave 180his incomparable powers to the work of the gospel among the Stockbridge Indians until summoned thence to the presidency of Princeton College. When Brainerd fainted under his burden, it was William Tennent who went out into the wilderness to carry on the work of harvest. But the great gift of the American church to the cause of missions was the gift of David Brainerd himself. His life was the typical missionary’s life—the scattering of precious seed with tears, the heart-sickness of hope deferred, at last the rejoicing of the harvest-home. His early death enrolled him in the canon of the saints of modern Christendom. The story of his life and death, written by Jonathan Edwards out of that fatherly love with which he had tended the young man’s latest days and hours, may not have been an unmixed blessing to the church. The long-protracted introspections, the cherished forebodings and misgivings, as if doubt was to be cultivated as a Christian virtue, may not have been an altogether wholesome example for general imitation. But think what the story of that short life has wrought! To how many hearts it has been an inspiration to self-sacrifice and devotion to the service of God in the service of man, we cannot know. Along one line its influence can be partly traced. The “Life of David Brainerd” made Henry Martyn a missionary to the heathen. As spiritual father to Henry Martyn, Brainerd may be reckoned, in no unimportant sense, to be the father of modern missions to the heathen.

181
« Prev Chapter XI. The Great Awakening. Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version





Advertisements



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |