The Great Awakening
- Wednesday, February 07, 2007
The preacher's monotone voice filled the church in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the brilliant Jonathan Edwards spoke, he kept his eyes focused on the back wall of the church. Gently, Edwards' words began to sink into the hearts of the assembly, and although his method of speaking lacked enthusiasm, his words were powerful. Revival followed.
During the 1730s, the church in Northampton felt the stirring of the Holy Spirit, moving them from their lukewarm apathy to an awakening of their souls. Delivering his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," on July 8, 1741, in Enfield, Connecticut, Edwards helped spread the revival. A great commotion swept over the people and they began wailing, crying, and screeching loudly. Frequently Edwards asked the congregation to control themselves so he might finish his sermon. As a result of his preaching and the work of the Spirit, lives began to change and complete towns were transformed.
The event that has become known as the Great Awakening actually began years earlier in the 1720s. And, although the most significant years were from 1740-1742, the revival continued until the 1760s.
Many of the early colonists had come to the new world to enjoy religious freedom, but as the land became tamed and prosperous they no longer relied on God for their daily bread. Wealth brought complacency toward God. As a result, church membership dropped. Wishing to make it easier to increase church attendance, the religious leaders had instituted the Halfway Covenant, which allowed membership without a public testimony of conversion. The churches were now attended largely by people who lacked a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sadly, many of the ministers themselves did not know Christ and therefore could not lead their flocks to the true Shepherd. Then, suddenly, the Spirit of God awoke as though from an intense slumber and began to touch the population of the colonies. People from all walks of life, from poor farmers to rich merchants, began experiencing renewal and rebirth.
The faith and prayers of the righteous leaders was the foundation of the Great Awakening. Before a meeting, George Whitefield would spend hours--and sometimes all night--bathing an event in prayers. Fervent church members kept the fires of revival going through their genuine petitions for God's intervention in the lives of their communities.
The early rays of the Great Awakening began with Theodore Frelinghuysen of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey. Through his ministry the hearts of his church members were changed. It was the young people who responded first and experienced the regeneration of becoming new creations. They in turn spread the message to their elders. Thus began the first spark of the Great Awakening.
There were many powerful preachers during this era. Among them was Gilbert Tennent. Years before, his father, William, brought his family from Ireland to New England because of religious persecution. Soon the elder Mr. Tennent and his family became members of the Presbyterian Church. Wanting his sons to join the ministry, he opened a college at Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. At the Log College (called that because it was built of logs), he taught his sons and other pupils Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. After college, Gilbert spread revival through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Other influential men helped expand the reach of the Great Awakening. Samuel Davies, a preacher and hymn writer (he penned Great God of Wonders and Lord, I am Thine, Entirely Thine) carried the holy banner into Virginia. Bravely David Brainerd preached to the Indians and settlers in the backwoods of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Virginia and Georgia enjoyed the work of Daniel Marshall, and North Carolina was changed through the efforts of the Baptist preacher Shubal Stearns.
The most prominent theologian of the Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards. Not a powerful speaker, Edwards still managed to spread the revival. From his brilliant mind he constructed one of the most impressive sermons ever preached. He also wrote many books and pamphlets describing the events he saw in his own church. The only son in a family of eleven children, Edwards was born on October 10, 1703. At the young age of thirteen he entered Yale (not unusual during that era of history) and graduated in 1723. Four years later Jonathan married the remarkable and virtuous Sarah Pierpont. Faithfully Sarah helped Edwards in his ministry and personal endeavors. In 1727, Edwards became the assistant minister at the Northampton church. When his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, died, Jonathan became the minister and served in that church for nearly twenty-four years. He spoke boldly against the Halfway Covenant. Since many of the members who promoted the Halfway Covenant were merchants (or river gods, as Edwards called them), they were able to make most of the decisions for the community, thus giving them the power over the rest of the populace. Edwards did much to help alleviate the tyrannical practices that followed.
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