[b]Revivals under Whitefield[/b]
The first general revival of religion in this country realized most perfectly the strict meaning of the word. It was a quickening again; it was the Spirit of God calling to newness of life those who once had lived. The beginning of it is usually put at 1740. In truth, it antedates that period by several years. A glance at the religious condition of the country will prepare us to understand its character and extent. A single phrase may outline it: Formalism as opposed to vital Godliness. Puritan severity had yielded to the gradual encroachment of an all-pervading worldliness. Between the Church and the world the line had grown so shadowy as to be almost invisible.
Conversion was not necessary to church-membership-a work of grace in the heart not at all essential to an approach to the communion table, and not at all times to be insisted on as a qualification even for preaching the gospel. Writes Samuel Blair, the venerable President of Princeton College, "Religion lay, as it were, dying and ready to expire its last breath of life in this part of the visible Church." Edwards says, "Many seemed to be awakened with the fear that God was about to withdraw from the land." Joseph Tracy, in his admirable work on "The Great Awakening," says, "Such had been the downward progress in New England. Revivals had become less frequent and powerful. There were many in the churches, and some even in the ministry, who were lingering among the supposed preliminaries to conversion.
The difference between the church and the world was vanishing away. Church discipline was neglected, and a growing laxness of morals was invading the churches. And yet never, perhaps, had the expectation of reaching heaven at last been more general, or more confident. Occasional revivals had interrupted this downward progress, and the preaching of sound doctrine had retarded it in many places, especially at Northampton, but even there it had gone on, and the hold of truth on the conscience of men was sadly diminished. The young were abandoning themselves to frivolity, and to amusements of dangerous tendency, and party spirit was producing its natural fruit of evil among the old."
There was one man who perceived the extent of time peril to which the church was exposed by this general lapse from experimental religion, and who also understood that only the truth in its majesty and severity could break the deadly lethargy, which had seized upon the conscience. Jonathan Edwards determined to meet the danger with the unsheathed sword of the Spirit. With keenest insight he saw that the worst of the spiritual trouble of the land was, in somewhat different form, what was the malady under which religion lay dying just before the Reformation.
It was the denial of the necessity of regeneration and personal faith in Christ as the sinner's only hope. Luther had unveiled the truth of justification by faith alone, and it flashed light over a continent of darkness. To him it was the article of a standing or falling church. To Edwards came a like opportunity, and God honored him to be the preacher of this doctrine at a time when it was well-nigh as sorely needed as in the sixteenth century, and when it also required the highest moral courage to proclaim it.
In 1734 Edwards preached that remarkable series of sermons on "Justification by Faith," which shook the whole community with the truth that in his relations with God the sinner can rely on no outer support of morality, or church fellowship, but only on the atoning work of Christ. The effect of these and following sermons was to strip away false hopes, to enrage some, to humble and convict others, but generally to awaken the public mind to the sharpest questioning and the closest sifting of religious grounds and hopes.
The Holy Spirit owned the truth. In December of that year, Edwards says: "The Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and wonderfully to work among us." Remarkable conversions followed one after the other; the report of the work at Northampton spread through the neighboring towns in which many were awakened and brought to repentance. In half a year Edwards hoped that more than three hundred were converted in Northampton. His account of the experience of the converts is important to our purpose. He notes among those who were awakened, first a conviction of the justice of God in their condemnation, a sense of their own exceeding sinfulness and the vileness of all their performances.
This was followed by unexpected quietness and composure, and often a conclusion within themselves that they would lie at God's feet and await His time. This was followed, sooner or later, by "some comfortable and sweet view of a merciful God, of a sufficient Redeemer, of some great and joyful things of the gospel." "There is wrought in them a repose of soul in God through Christ, a secret disposition to love him and to hope for blessing in this way. And yet they have no imagination that they are now converted. They know not that the sweet complacence they feel in the mercy and complete salvation of God, as it includes pardon and sanctification, and is held forth to them only through Christ, is a true receiving of this mercy, or a plain evidence of their receiving it.''
A few years before this there was a revival of considerable power in Freehold, N. J., under the ministry of the Tennents. In 1735 "Mr. Gilbert Tennent brought some overtures into synod with respect to trials of candidates both for the ministry and for the Lord's Table." He was moved to this by the custom into which the low state of religion had led the church, of not only receiving people to the Lord's Table without any evidence of a change of heart. But even ordaining ministers without any strict examination as to their "experience of a work of sanctifying grace in their hearts." The response of the synod was, however, explicit on the last of these points, and it was one of the signs of the general religious awakening for which God's Spirit was preparing the way.
Prominent among those early revivals, the one among the Scotch Irish Presbyterians of New Londonderry, Pa., deserves special mention, less for the extent of it than for the insight it gives us into the spiritual tendencies of the times. Samuel Blair gives an interesting account of the state of religion at that time. He speaks of the presence everywhere of the external forms of religion, but also a lamentable ignorance of the main essentials of true, practical religion. "The necessity of being first in Christ by a vital union and in a justified state before our religious services can be well-pleasing and acceptable to God, was very little understood or thought of. But the common notion seemed to be that if people were aiming to be in the way of duty as well as they could, as they imagined, there was no reason to be much afraid."
In the spring of 1740 the Spirit was poured out on his congregation in Londonderry in an eminent manner. He had prepared the way for it during the previous winter, by most searching preaching of the nature of sin, the breadth of divine law and the necessity of conversion. Many were brought into great distress of soul; "some burst out with an audible noise into bitter crying." During the whole summer every sermon produced wonderful impressions on the hearers. The effect of these impressions he thus describes: "Several would be overcome and fainting, others sobbing, hardly able to contain, others crying in a most dolorous manner, many others more silently weeping, and a solemn concern appearing in the countenances of many others.
And sometimes the soul exercises of some (though comparatively but very few) would so far affect their bodies as to occasion some strange, unusual bodily motions." The joy and peace that followed after were usually as deep as the distress that had gone before. Afterwards, he relates that those who were under slight impressions lost them again, and fell into their former carelessness and stupidity. But many gave increasing evidence of a firm and saving change.
In 1739 and '40 there were also marked signs of revival in New Brunswick and Newark, N. J., Harvard, Mass., and other places. The long, dark night was drawing to a close. The day was near at hand. Among ministers there was longing for better experience in their own hearts, better fruit in their work. Among the people there was a deepening sense of the unworthy character of their Christian life, the often-unscriptural nature of their hope and experience. God was dealing with his church and through it with the formative period of our national history. There were great perils before our land; times of trial both national and religious. A struggle was coming that would try men's souls. Infidelity was getting ready to make brilliant bids for the controlling thought of the country. The Lord was about to lift up a standard against it.
George Whitefield was born in the Bell Inn, Gloucester, England, on the 16th day of Dec. 1714 (old style). His father was a wine merchant in Bristol, and afterward an innkeeper, and died when George was only two years of age. During the lad's early years he had fair opportunities for an education-at fifteen being proficient in Latin-and astonishing his associates by his speeches and dramatic performances at the public examinations. He seems to have been born a preacher, for in early years he used to "play minister," composing sermons and spending much time in the study of the Bible.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon