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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER IX |THE GREAT AWAKENING.|

The Development Of Religious Liberty In Connecticut by M. Louise Greene, Ph. D.

CHAPTER IX |THE GREAT AWAKENING.|

Wake, awake, for night is flying:
The watchmen on the heights are crying,
Awake, Jerusalem, arise! -- Advent Hymn.

The opposition of Episcopalian, Quaker, and Baptist to the Connecticut Establishment, if measured by ultimate results, was important and far-reaching. But it was dwarfed almost to insignificance, so feeble was it, so confined its area, when compared to that opposition which, thirty-five years after the Saybrook Synod and a dozen years after the exemption of the dissenters, sprang up within the bosom of the Congregational church itself, as a protest against civil enactments concerning religion. This protest was a direct result of the moral and spiritual renascence that occurred in New England and that became known as the |Great Awakening.| History in all times and countries shows a periodicity of religious activity and depression. It would sometimes seem as if these periodic outbreaks of religious aspirations were but the last device of self-seeking, -- were but attempts to find consolation for life's hardships and to secure happiness hereafter. Fortunately such selfish motives are transmuted in the search for larger ethical and spiritual conceptions. An enlarged insight into the possibilities of living tends to slough off selfishness and to make more habitual the occasional, and often involuntary, response to Christlike deeds and ideals. But so ingrained is our earthly nature that, in communities as in nations, periods alternate with periods, and the pendulum swings from laxity to morality, from apathy to piety, gradually shortening its arc. So in Connecticut, numbers of her towns from time to time had been roused to greater interest in religion before the spiritual cyclone of the great revival, or |Great Awakening,| swept through the land in 1740 and the two following years. The earlier and local revivals were generally due to some special calamity, as sickness, failure of harvest, ill-fortune in war, or some unusual occurrence in nature, such as an earthquake or comet, with the familiar interpretation that Jehovah was angry with the sins of his people. Sometimes, however, the zeal of a devoted minister would kindle counter sparks among his people. Such a minister was the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, who mentions five notable revivals, or |harvests,|[a] as he calls them, during his sixty years of ministry in the Northampton church. A few other New England towns had similar revivals, but they were brief and rare.

Notwithstanding these occasional local |stirrings of the heart,| at the beginning of the second quarter of the eighteenth century a cold, formal piety was frequently the covering of indifferent living and of a smug, complacent Christianity, wherein the letter killed and the spirit did not give life. This was true all over New England, and elsewhere. Nor was this deadness confined to the colonies alone, for the Wesleys were soon to stir the sluggish current of English religious life. In New England, the older clergymen, like the Mathers of Massachusetts, conservative men, whose memories or traditions were of the golden age of Puritanism, had long bemoaned the loss of religious interest, the inability of reforming synods to create permanent improvement, and the helplessness of ecclesiastical councils or of civil enactments to rouse the people from the real |decay of piety in the land,| and from their indifference to the immorality that was increasing among them. This indifference grew in Connecticut after the Saybrook Platform had laid a firm hold upon the churches. Its discipline created a tendency, on the one hand, to hard and narrow ecclesiasticism, and, on the other, to careless living on the part of those who were satisfied with a mere formal acceptance of the principles of religion and with the bare acknowledgment of the right of the churches to their members' obedience.[b]

It is a great mistake [writes Jonathan Edwards] if any one imagines that all these external performances (owning the covenant, accepting the sacraments, observing the Sabbath and attending the ministry), are of the nature of a profession of anything that belongs to saving grace, as they are commonly used and
understood.... People are taught that they may use them all, and not so much as make any pretence to the least degree of sanctifying grace; and this is the established custom. So they are used and so they are understood.... It is not unusual ... for persons, at the same time they come into the church and pretend to own the covenant, freely to declare to their neighbors, that they have no imagination that they have any true faith in Christ or love to Him.

The General Court, relieved from the oversight of the churches, had bent itself to preserving the colony's charter rights from its enemies abroad, and to the material interests involved in a conservative, wise, and energetic home development. The people's thoughts were with the Court more than with the clergy, who had fallen from a healthy enthusiasm in their profession into a sort of spiritual deadness and dull acceptance of circumstances. As a sort of corollary to Stoddard's teaching that the Lord's Supper was itself a means toward attaining salvation, it followed that clergymen, though they felt no special call to their ministry, were nevertheless believed to be worthy of their office. The older theology of New England had tended to morbid introspection. Stoddard, in avoiding that danger, had thrown the doors of the Church too widely open, and the result was a gradual undermining of its spiritual power. The continued acceptance of the Half-Way Covenant, |laxative rather than astringent in its nature,| helped to produce a low estimate of religion. The tenderness that the Cambridge Platform had encouraged towards |the weakest measure of faith| had broadened into such laxity that, in many cases, ministers were willing to receive accounts of conversions which had been written to order for the applicants for church membership. The Church, moreover, had come directly under the control of politics, a condition never conducive to its purity. The law of 1717, |for the better ordering and regulating parishes or societies,| had made the minister the choice of the majority of the townsmen who were voters. This reversed the early condition of the town, merged by membership into the church, to a church merged into the town. There was still another factor, often the last and least willingly recognized in times of religious excitement, namely, the commercial depression throughout the country, resulting from years of a fluctuating currency. This depression contributed largely to the revival movement, and helped to spread the enthusiasm of the Great Awakening. Connecticut's currency had been freer from inflation than that of other New England colonies. But her paper money experiments in the years from 1714 to 1749 grew more and more demoralizing. Up to 1740, Connecticut had issued L156,000 in paper currency. At the time of the Great Awakening she had still outstanding L39,000 for which the colony was responsible. Of this, all but L6000 had been covered by special taxation. There still remained, however, about L33,000 which had been lent to the various counties. Taxation was heavy, wages low and prices high, and there was not a man in the colony who did not feel the effect of the rapidly depreciating currency. This general depression fell upon a generation of New Englanders whose minds no longer dwelt preeminently upon religious matters, but who were, on the contrary, preeminently commercial in their interests.

Such were the general conditions throughout New England and such the low state of religion in Connecticut, when, in the Northampton church, Solomon Stoddard's grandson, the great Jonathan Edwards, in December, 1734, preached the sermons which created the initial wave of a great religious movement. This religious revival spread slowly through generally lax New England, and through the no less lax Jerseys, and through the backwoods settlements of Pennsylvania, until it finally swept the southern colonies. At the time, 1738, the Rev. George Whitefield was preaching in Carolina, and acceptably so to his superior, Alexander Garden, the Episcopal commissary to that colony. Touched by the enthusiasm of the onflowing religious movement, Whitefield's zeal and consequent radicalism, as he swayed toward the Congregational teaching and practices, soon put him in disfavor with his fellow Churchmen. Such disfavor only raised the priest still higher in the opinion of the dissenters, and they flocked to hear his eloquent sermons. Whitefield soon decided to return to England. There he encountered the great revival movement which was being conducted, principally by the Wesleys, and he at once threw himself into the work. Meanwhile, he had conceived a plan for a home for orphans in Georgia, and, a little later, he determined upon a visit to New England in its behalf. Upon his arrival in Boston in 1740, the Rev. George Whitefield was welcomed with open arms. Great honor was paid him. Crowds flocked to hear him, and he was sped with money and good-will throughout New England as he journeyed, preaching the gospel, and seeking alms for the southern orphanage. His advent coincided in time with the reviving interest in religion, especially in Connecticut. Interest over the revival of 1735 had centred on that colony the eyes of the whole non-liturgical English-speaking world. Whitefield's preaching was to this awakening religious enthusiasm as match to tinder.

The religious passion, kindled in 1735 by Edwards, and hardly less by his devoted and spiritually-minded wife, had in Connecticut swept over Windsor, East Windsor, Coventry, Lebanon, Durham, Stratford, Ripton, New Haven, Guilford, Mansfield, Tolland, Hebron, Bolton, Preston, Groton, and Woodbury. The period of this first |harvest| was short. The revival had swept onward, and indifference seemed once more to settle down upon the land. But the news of the revival in Connecticut had reached England through letters of Dr. Benjamin Coleman of Boston. His account of it had created so much interest that Jonathan Edwards was persuaded to write for English readers his |Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.| Editions of this book appeared in 1737-38 in both England and America, and all Anglo-Saxon non-prelatical circles pored over the account of the recent revival in Connecticut. Religious enthusiasm revived, and was roused to a high pitch by Whitefield's itinerant preaching, as well as by that of Jonathan Edwards, and by the visit to New England of the Rev. Gilbert Tennant, one of two brothers who had created widespread interest by their revival work in New Jersey. A religious furor, almost mania, spread through New England, and the |Great Awakening| came in earnest.

The Rev. George Whitefield reached Newport, Rhode Island, in September, 1740. Crowds flocked to hear him during his brief visit there. In October, he proceeded to Boston, where he preached to enthusiastic audiences, including all the high dignitaries of Church and State. During his ten days' sojourn in the city, no praise was too fulsome, no honor too great. Whitefield next went to Northampton, drawn by his desire to visit Edwards. After a week of conference with the great divine, Whitefield passed on through Connecticut, preaching as he went, and devoted the rest of the year to itinerating through the other colonies. Already his popularity had been too much for him, and he frequently took it upon himself to upbraid, in no measured terms, the settled ministry for lack of earnestness in their calling and lack of Christian character. This visit of Whitefield was followed by one from the Rev. Gilbert Tennant, who arrived in Boston in December, and spent his time, until the following March, preaching in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Tennant was also outspoken in his denunciations, and both men, while sometimes justified in their criticisms, were frequently hasty and censorious in their judgments of those who differed from them.

Ministers throughout New England were quick to support or to oppose the revival movement, and a goodly number of them, as itinerants, took up the evangelical work. Dr. Colman and Dr. Sewall of Boston, Jonathan Edwards and Dr. Bellamy of Connecticut, were among the most influential divines to support the Great Awakening, -- to call the revival by the name by which it was to go down in
history. Unfortunately, among the aroused people, there were many who pressed their zeal beyond the reverent bounds set by these leaders. The religious enthusiasm rushed into wild ecstasies during the preaching of the almost fanatic Rev. James Davenport of Southold, and of those itinerant preachers who, ignorant and carried away by emotions beyond their control, attempted to follow his example.

During this religious fever there were times when all business was suspended. Whole communities gave themselves up to conversion and to passing through the three or more distinct stages of religious experience which Jonathan Edwards, as well as the more ignorant itinerants, accepted as signs of the Lord's compassion. Briefly stated, these stages were, first, a heart-rending misery over one's sinfulness; a state of complete submissiveness, expressing itself in those days of intense belief both in heaven and in a most realistic hell, as complete willingness |to be saved or damned,|[c] whichever the Lord in his great wisdom saw would fit best into His eternal scheme. Finally, there was the blessed state of ecstatic happiness, when it was borne in upon one that he or she was, indeed, one of the few of |God's elect.| The revival meetings were marked by shouting, sobbing, sometimes by fainting, or by bodily contortions. All these, in the fever of excitement, were believed by many persons to be special marks of supernatural power, and, if they followed the words of some ignorant and rash exhorter, they were even more likely to be considered tokens of divine favor, -- illustrations of God's choice of the simple and lowly to confound the wisdom of the world. The strong emotional character of the religious meetings of our southern negroes, as well as their frequent sentimental rather than practical or moral expression of religion, has been credited in large measure to the hold over them which this great religious revival of the eighteenth century gained, when its enthusiasm rolled over the southern colonies. Be that as it may, any adequate appreciation of the frequent daily occurrences in New England during the Great Awakening would be best realized by one of this twentieth century were it possible to form a composite picture, having the unbridled emotionalism of our negro camp-meetings superimposed upon the solid respectability and grave reasonableness of the men of that earlier day. As the lines of one and the other constituent of this composite picture blend, the momentary feeling of impatience and disgust vanishes in a wave of compassion as the irresistible earnestness and the pitiless logic of those days press, for recognition, and we realize the awful sufferings of many an ignorant or sensitive soul. It was not until the religious revival had passed its height that the people began to realize the folly and dangers of the hysteria that had accompanied it. It was not until long afterward that many of its characteristics, which had been interpreted as supernatural signs, were known and understood, and correctly diagnosticated as outward evidence of physical and nervous exhaustion.

Such, outwardly, were the marked features of the Great Awakening. Yet its incentives to noble living were great and lasting. Its immediate results were a revolt against conventional religion, a division into ecclesiastical parties, and a great schism within the Establishment, which, before the breach was healed, had improved the quality of religion in every meeting-house and chapel in the land and broadened the conception of religious liberty throughout the colony.

FOOTNOTES:

[a] At Northampton in 1680, 1684, 1697, 1713, and 1719.

[b] As early even as 1711, the Hartford North Association suggested some reformation in the Half-Way Covenant practice because it noted that persons, lax in life, were being admitted under its terms of church membership.

[c] This |to be saved or damned| was, later, a marked characteristic of Hokinsianism, or the teaching of the Rev. Samuel Hopkins, 1723-1813.

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