Friday, November 29, 2013

The Leaders, the Message, and the Results of the First Great Awakening





The Leaders, the Message and the Results of
the Great Awakening



























25 November 2013






            The pendulum of history is always moving; empires rise and fall, science continues to adapt to the ever new theory, political thought moves from one point to another.  Can one be surprised that there have been changes and movement in the area of the Church as well?  In the 16th century there was a call for reform of doctrine and theology.  The 17th century brought about the “Age of Enlightenment” and the persuasion of reason, and the 18th century brought about “The Great Awakening”.  Like the previous events before it the First Great Awakening brought forth a needed message and results that still impact the Church and society today.

            Through the course of the Reformation, and after it, there was great division among the various religious groups.  There was still great debate regarding the sacraments of the Church, Baptism and Communion, and how they should be ministered and the message that was conveyed.  The debate among those who held to Calvinism and Arminianism raged on.  As nations began to define themselves based on their preferred Christian Sect many started persecuting those of other sects.  Due to this practice Justo Gonzalez points out how many began to look to reason as they felt the debates of doctrine and theology only resulted in “quarrels and prejudice”.[1] This view lead to the preeminence of reason over religion, and many in Europe were swept away by this way of thought.  Enlightenment and reason manifested itself in different ways trough rationalism and through spiritualism. 

            One of the consequences of reason was the prevalence of skepticism.  Skepticism began to spread, and the view of reason permeated into not only Europe, but the colonies as well.  The most prevalent form of enlightenment; however, was not through a denial of God, but through a view of God as the cosmic clock-maker who wound up the universe and then let it go its own course.  This view is most commonly known as Deism.  As Enlightenment was a response to the dogma and religious intolerance, so it too received an answer. 

The greatest challenge to the skepticism of the Enlightenment, however, did not come from learned treatise or reasoned debates.  Rather, it came from a great spiritual renewal that stemmed the tide of unbelief and brought true revival to God’s church.[2]


As one examines the message and result of the First Great Awakening, and why it served as an answer to the skepticism of Enlightenment it is necessary to first look to some of the key players, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards.

            George Whitefield is considered as one of the most well-known evangelists among American and European theologians.[3]  Whitefield was a close associate of both John and Charles Wesley having met them while at Oxford as a fellow member of a group of young men Charles had gathered which was soon called the “Holy Club”.[4]  Unlike John Wesley, Whitefield was fairly emotional in his preaching, and also insisted on preaching not just in the Church, but in the public square as well.  This caused some consternation between Wesley and him.

            George Whitefield had several strengths that lead to his reputation.  First, Whitefield believed very strongly in using the tools of the World to propagate his message.[5]  His use of the printing press is one of the aspects that makes Whitefield’s ministry unique above most of the other preachers of the Great Awakening.  As early as 1737 Whitefield had made bold use of the press in England and formulated his use of the “print to preach” strategy.[6]

            Another strength of Whitefield was his ability to transcend sectarianism and to work among the various sects, which Lambert believes lead to a new religion.[7]  As Whitefield prepared to travel to the colonies in 1739 he sent various writings to the leading Churchman of the colonies, Benjamin Coleman, Jonathan Edwards, and others.  In addition, Whitefield sent reports of his ministry activity in England to the colonies to familiarize people with him and his work prior to his arrival

            Jonathan Edwards was another significant individual in the First Great Awakening.  Edwards was brought up in a very pious home the only son of his parents.  He came from two generations of pastors; his father, Timothy Edwards, and his maternal grandfather Solomon Stoddard.[8]  Although raised in a pious home he struggled greatly with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty into his college.  Caldwell and Sweeney point out that in 1721 as he was meditating on 1 Timothy 1:17 Jonathan Edwards came under “delightful conviction” and the sovereignty of God became his comfort.[9]

            As Edwards went on to complete his MA at Yale, he became an avid student and began writing various treatises.  In the 1720’s he wrote “Resolutions”, which is still taught today by modern day theologians such as the late Dr. Howard Hendrix.  During the 1720s Edwards served as a tutor, and pastored briefly in New York, and then Connecticut.[10]  In 1727 Edwards was married, and began apprenticing under Solomon Stoddard in Northhampton until Stoddard’s death in 1729.[11]

            From 1729 until 1734 Edwards faithfully served as the sole minister of the Northampton Church.  His sermons were well delivered and resulted in some responses, but for the most part there was nothing spectacular.  Gonzalez notes that in 1734 something happened that was different, numerous individuals began to respond to Edwards’ message.  Some responded with great emotional outpouring, but many responded with what appeared to be a genuine change of life.[12] This change was a result of the message.  At the heart of this change was the message Edwards and Whitefield proclaimed; a point this paper will now examine.

            One of the main focuses of the Reformation had been to bring the Church back under the authority of Sola Scriptura.  As a result the main issues addressed were not necessarily issues of the heart, but issues of doctrine, theology, and orthodoxy.  As the Nations began to identify themselves as both a nation and a religious sect, so the people identified themselves based on the same criteria.  Although adept theologians and evangelists, Edwards and Whitefield did not focus on as much of the mind as they did the heart. 

            According to Charles Hambrick Stowe “Seventeenth-century New England Puritans had presented salvation as a process unfolding over a period of months in which sinners moved through successive stages from initial contrition to final conversion.”[13]  George Whitefield however, conveyed a message of immediate new birth.[14]  This was a part of the message the Whitefield and Edwards proclaimed, immediate salvation.

            One of Whitefield’s most well publicized and well known sermons is “The Marks of the New Birth”.  In this sermon Whitefield addressed both the converted and unconverted with a message of examination.  In the beginning of his sermon Whitefield address the feeling that many believers might have had of resistance to having their fruits examined.[15]  In this sermon, Whitefield seeks to deal with those who were raised by the Church teaching them that unless they become as children they will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.[16]

            In 1739 Jonathan Edwards had allowed George Whitefield to preach before his congregation. According to Gonzalez, Edwards wept at the preaching of Whitefield, and this sermon reignited a movement that was beginning to falter.[17]  As a result of the impact Whitefield had during his travels through the colonies, and because of concern of the message not reaching some areas, “clergy had banded together to stoke the fires of revival by instituting a series of weekday services”.[18]

            On July 8, 1741, Edward’s came before the people of Enfield and preached what is considered one of the greatest sermons in American history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”[19]  Edwards took a different approach then Whitefield, but there were aspects of the messages that were similar, primarily the immediate need of salvation.  In the beginning of his sermon Edwards proclaimed: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”[20]  Much of Edwards message focus on the sovereignty of God, and the wrath of God, but like Whitefield Edwards pointed to how Christ had “thrown the door of mercy wide open, and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners.”[21]

            Through the message of sin and the encouragement of examining the heart the First Great Awakening occurred.  There were various facets of results in regards to the First Great Awakening, some which were immediate, some short-term, and some still have an impact today.  The last portion of this paper will examine some of the results. 

            There was both negative and positive short term results of the First Great Awakening.  In the 1740’s Thomas Prince put together a newspaper to report on the First Great Awakening.  Dr. Timothy Gloege provided an examination of this work of Prince, “Christian History”, and although he does not view this favorably, his insight provides some ideas as to the negative results of the First Great Awakening.  According to Gloege, Prince was concerned with what appeared to be a social order breakdown.[22]  In addition, as he attempted to promote the effects of revival, he was challenged by those who were antirevivalists, such as Thomas Fleet.[23]

            Another negative result of the First Great Awakening impacted Jonathan Edwards.  His grandfather had a philosophy of open communion for all who wanted to participate regardless of profession of faith.  During his time as Pastor in Northampton, Stoddard held a belief that communion was a “converting ordinance” which was a belief entrenched in two generations of Northhamptonites.[24] Edwards became convinced, through Scripture, that communion was only to be partaken by those who had been born again as evidenced in their lives.  In 1750 Edwards publically opposed Stoddard’s position which resulted in his dismissal from Northampton.[25]

            Although there were some negative results related to a struggle for power and authority there were also positive short-term results.  First, Gonzalez points out the political consequences that were fairly immediate as the First Great Awakening “was the first to embrace all of the thirteen colonies”.[26]  Secondly, the First Great Awakening lead to many people coming forward in professions of faith, including 97 who had joined the Church at the delivery of Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.[27] Finally, what had started out as impacting individual segments of the Church was united through the work of men like George Whitefield.[28]

            Some of the long term results of the First Great Awakening can be seen in Evangelists such as Billy Graham, who in 1964 preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in one of his crusades.  The teaching and doctrines of Whitefield and Edwards still impact various Churches today, and although there is some separation, there is still a unity between those who hold to orthodox beliefs that can work together to preach the Word of God. 

            In conclusion the men, message, and results impacted the time of the First Great Awakening, and still impact the Church today.  As conservative theologians turn to Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield they gain a high view of God and His word.  The message of the First Great Awakening is desperately needed today, a call to identify ourselves not through the knowledge we have of Christ in our heads, but to have Christ in our hearts.  The foundation the evangelical Church of America has today owes much to the First Great Awakening.




Works Cited

Caldwell, R.W. III, and D.A. Sweeney. "Edwards, Jonathan." In Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, edited by Timothy Larsen, 201-5. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003.


Dockery, David S., ed. Holman Bible Handbook. Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 1992.


Edwards, Jonathan. "Sermon II: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." In Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 2, (with a Memoir by Sereno E. Dwight), 7-12. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974.


Gloege, Timothy E. W. "The Trouble with Christian History: Thomas Prince's “Great Awakening”." Church History 82, no. 01 (March 2013): 125-65. Accessed November 23, 2013.


Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Rev. ed. Vol. 2, the Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperOne, 2010.


Lambert, Frank. "The Great Awakening as Artifact: George Whitefield and the Construction of Intercolonial Revival, 1739-1745." Church History 60, no. 2 (June 1, 1991): 223-46. Accessed November 23, 2013.


Noll, Mark A. "Whitefield, George." In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed, edited by Walter A. Elwell, 1273. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.


Turley, Stephen Richard. "Awakened to the Holy: 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' in Ritualized Context." Christianity and Literature 57, no. 4 (Summer 2008): 507-30. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.


Whitefield, George. “The Mark of the New Birth”. Spiritual Life. (Accessed

          November 24, 2013)


Winiarski, Douglas L. "Jonathan Edward, Enthusiast? Radical Revivalism and the Great Awakening in the  Connecticut Valley." Church History 74, no. 4 (December, 2005): 683-739. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, the Story of Christianity. rev. ed., vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 174.
[2] David S. Dockery, ed., Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 1992), 873.
[3] Mark A. Noll, “Whitefield, George,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1273.
[4] Gonzalez, 267.
[5] Frank Lambert, “The Great Awakening as Artifact: George Whitefield and the Construction of Intercolonial Revival, 1739-1745”, Church History 60, no. 2 (June 1, 1991): 224, accessed November 23, 2013,
[6] Lambert, 224.
[7] Lambert, 224.
[8] R.W. Caldwell III and D.A. Sweeney, “Edwards, Jonathan,” in Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, ed. Timothy Larsen (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 201.
[9] Caldwell and Sweeney, 201.
[10] Caldwell and Sweeney, 201.
[11] Caldwell and Sweeney, 202.
[12] Gonzalez, 288.
[13] Charles E. Hambrick Stowe, “The Practice of Piety Puritan Devotional Discipline in Seventeenth Century New England”: pp. 54-90, quoted in Frank Lambert, “The Great Awakening as Artifact: George Whitefield and the Construction of Intercolonial Revival, 1739-1745”. Church History, 1991.
[14] Lambert, 226.
[15] George Whitefield, “The Marks of the New Birth”, Spiritual Life, (retrieved November 24, 2013)
[16] Whitefield.
[17] Gonzalez, 289.
[18] Stephen Richard Turley, "Awakened to the Holy: 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' in Ritualized Context", Christianity and Literature 57, no. 4 (Summer 2008): 507-30, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
[19] Turley, 507.
[20] “Sermon II: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, (with a Memoir by Sereno E. Dwight) (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 7-12.
[21] Edwards, 11.
[22] Timothy E. W. Gloege, “The Trouble with Christian History: Thomas Prince's “Great Awakening””, Church History 82, no. 01 (March 2013): 125-65, accessed November 23, 2013,
[23] Gloege, 138.
[24] Caldwell and Sweeney, 203.
[25] Ibid, 204.
[26] Gonzalez, 290.
[27] Douglas L. Winiarski, “Jonathan Edward, Enthusiast? Radical Revivalism and the Great Awakening in the Connecticut Valley”, Church History 74, no. 4 (December, 2005): 683-739, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
[28] Lambert, 223.

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