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.Tags: american colonies, religion in america, religious pilgrims, the first great awakening, the great awakening