A revival occurred in the early 1700s that brought a generation back to church, raising regular church attendance from a 60% level to above 90% throughout the American colonies. Since the establishment of the first colonies, the church had always played an important role in shaping opinions and behavior in society, and when it came time to decide on independence from England, the church again played a critical role. Had The First Great Awakening not occurred, religious influence would have been diminished to such an extent that the independence movement might not have succeeded. Even with the influence of the church and other prominent pro-independence figures, there was still about 30% of the population that wanted to remain under the English government.
By the early 1700’s, there had been two to three generations of people born in America. Those generations had, by and large, not experienced the hardships that the first settlers had. As often happens with generations that go through hardship, they desire to spare subsequent generations from that same experience. They are also more inclined to be lenient when it comes to social and religious requirements. As a result, these later generations were not attending church which, in most colonies in New England, was a requirement. Instead of attending religious services, those younger people were hanging out at the local pub and fraternizing with members of the opposite sex.
In hopes of at least getting the “kids” to attend services, the congregation modified the requirements for membership in the church, eliminating the need for a public testimony (provided they accepted and agreed to follow the creed of the church), and allowing the younger generation to be baptized and to take communion. Their children could also be baptized, but they could not take communion.
In 1734, a minister named Jonathan Edwards began preaching in a small town in western Massachusetts. He preached against the concept of halfway conversion and focused on the grace and mercy of God and His salvation message. He also preached that unless there was a true conversion experience, a testimony, people had not truly accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and thus they remained unsaved.
His sermons finally had an influence in the spring of the following year. He had preached his now famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, and true converts started providing their public testimony. The numbers swelled and the small church in Northampton began receiving attendees from the surrounding villages and towns, all coming to hear Edwards preach and to provide their testimony.
News of Edwards’ revival spread to England, and George Whitfield began preaching a similar message among the Anglican congregations in England and Scotland. Whitfield was a charismatic preacher, having been trained as an actor before becoming a minister. His flamboyant style pleased the congregations, but was not well received among the established clergy. Eventually, he was unable to find a church that would allow him to preach, so he took to the public parks and open fields, gathering large crowds.
In 1740, he was invited to come to America and preach. He was enthusiastically received in Boston and began traveling up and down the east coast of America, mainly preaching outdoors or wherever he could find a venue. He continued his work up until the day he died in 1770. During that time, he preached more the 18,000 sermons and his work resulted in thousands of conversions. In New England alone, the estimates were that 15% of the population either returned to regular church attendance or accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior for the first time.
Join me again as we explore God in America.
Like much of American history being taught today, the exceptional nature of America has been distorted. In recent years that exceptionalism has come to mean that we, as Americans, feel “superior” to other nation and that we look down on them. The truth is that American exceptionalism has to do with the founding of the country and the unique nature of the foundational principles that created the structure of our government. It also can be traced to our strong Christian social foundation which enabled us to enjoy the blessings which God bestowed upon us (at least for the first 250 years).
When the European settlers first came to America, in the 1600’s, they had a unique opportunity to start with a “clean slate” regarding how they would conduct their social, political and governmental affairs. They took advantage of the clean slate to create a society founded on Christian democratic principles. They had come from countries that did not want them. They were mostly religious minorities who were, at best, being shut out of the established religious order, or worse, they were being persecuted for their faith. They were also able to throw off the social and governmental structures of the old countries and establish their own.
The Pilgrims came to America in 1620, having been shunned by the Church of England and even the Puritans in England. The Pilgrims came from their home-in-exile in the Netherlands and landed in Plymouth. On their perilous journey they drew up the Mayflower Compact which laid out the Christian democratic principles under which they would govern themselves. They and other settlers who came after them drew up similar documents of self-government. Even though each colony had a Royal Charter which spelled out how the colonists would conduct their affairs with respect to England, and most of the colonies had Royal Governors appointed by the King, they still had the freedom to set up their own legislature, religious practices and a society based on equality.
The early settlers benefited from the “benign neglect” of the English government (at least until the mid 1700s). By and large, England was only interested in receiving a steady supply of the rich natural and agricultural resources that the colonies were providing. The settlers also benefited from the fact that a one-way trip to America took anywhere from six to eight weeks. Additionally, the political situation in Europe and England left the King of England with more pressing issues to which he needed to attend.
America grew and prospered, while turmoil and civil unrest plagued England and Europe. This unrest was actually a benefit to America because the economic success and the freedoms that the country enjoyed became known in the countries where war and civil unrest made the lives of the ordinary people very difficult. The result was a steady stream of immigrants to America who had virtually unlimited land on which they could settle. The newly arrived settlers were greeted by a Christian society with a strong work ethic and were they were free to pursue their own dreams. They also had the opportunity to become land owners, which was a rare thing in Europe giving them a source of income and social equality they had not known.
It is this beginning in America which makes us an exceptional country. The settlers were all seeking a place where they could be free. But that freedom was wrapped in Christian principles which required a strong moral framework. The moral framework was found in the Scripture by which the settlers lived and which enabled them to receive the benefits God had for them in this land of new beginnings.
As we go forward, this series will continue to explore the roots of God in America and our freedoms. Join me, won’t you?
Many Americans today are uninformed or even misinformed about the truth of our nation’s history. Is the American educational system teaching an altered view of American history, or has it been altogether rewritten?
For centuries, the American people were taught about the now forgotten heroes and moral foundations upon which this country was founded. But in recent years, a new version of history has assaulted the spiritual fiber of our nation, leaving the truth of our founding eliminated and forgotten. What happens to a society that forgets the truth of its own past and what are the consequences when they do? Do we agree that “those who forget the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them”?
America’s founding is unique among most nations in that we can pinpoint our beginnings and we know who those fist settlers were, why they came, and how they chose to establish a country. The story of America’s founding is one of a people who left their homeland in Europe and began with a “clean slate” to found what has become the greatest nation on earth.
The principles upon which the country was founded were spelled out the Declaration of Independence and the structure of government was created in the Constitution. The content of these two documents were, at that time, unique in human history. No other nation on earth had stated in its foundation that man’s rights come from God and the government derived its power only from the consent of the governed.
It is these truths, along with the truth about the strong Christian faith of the men who authored these documents, that have been virtually written out of the history text books of today and have been silenced in the classrooms and the public square. It is up to Christians in America to learn the truth of our founding and teach it to our children and grandchildren.
Fortunately, the materials revealing the truth are even more available than they ever have before. The thousands of pages of books, pamphlets, newspaper articles, sermons, speeches and official records have been preserved and are available. The reason so much of what was written was available to be preserved is because the Founders knew that what they were doing was unique in human history and that they wanted future generations to be able to “look back” and understand what they believed and why they did and said what they did. Their forethought was for our benefit, that if we should “go astray” that we could return to our “roots” through their words.
For those who are interested, I will be teaching an 11-part weekly class on the subject of God and the Founding of America spanning the period from the settling of the colonies in the early 1600’s thru the creation of our founding documents and the post-Revolutionary era. The class will begin Tuesday evening, April 25, at 6:30 at Family Worship Center. Additional blog posts will include summaries of the material presented during these classes.