Project Canterbury

History of the American Episcopal Church 1600­1915

By the Reverend S. D. McConnell, D.D., D.C.L., LL. D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1934.
London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1934.

Part First. The English Church in the Colonies

Chapter XIII. The "Great Awakening"

Jonathan Edwards; the "Revival" at Northampton; Edwards's theory of "conversion"; "bodily exercises"; spread of the movement; the "jerks" meets Whitefield; attitude of Churchmen; the reaction; effect upon American religion; the Church's position; how affected by the movement.

In 1735 Jonathan Edwards was pastor of the Puritan church of Northampton, Massachusetts. [Allen: Life of Jonathan Edwards, pp. 133, 248. Tracy: The Great Awakening, Boston, 1845, passim.] Young man as he was, he was already famous. When a mere child, he knew Greek and Hebrew. When a lad, he pondered deeply upon "fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute." In his beautiful body dwelt the fairest of souls, and the subtlest of understandings. His sweet young wife had also dreamed dreams and seen visions. A pair of mystics, enthusiasts, poets, and theologians, they journeyed hand in hand to his first parish at Northampton. He began his ministry at the time when the lament was heard on every hand that pure religion was perishing from off the face of the earth. The lament was not without cause. A distinct relaxation of religious life had already set in, and was as marked in New England as elsewhere in the colonies. "It began as soon as it was evident that the unique experiment of the Puritan fathers was over, when the theocracy which had inspired such enthusiasm was hastening to its downfall. It was as if God had turned away from favoring an enterprise which had His glory in view as its sole object and justification." [Allen: p. 53.] The fierce religionism of the early Puritan life could not be sustained. In a century it had burned itself out. A revolt against its hard and exacting spirit had already spread. Only the shell of it remained. The strong, if unlovely, life which had tenanted it was dying. Its remaining energy was wasting itself in theological quarrels barren of permanent result. [e. g., the " Half-way Covenant."] Meanwhile, carelessness of religion and looseness of living were rife. Edwards's deeply religious spirit was profoundly moved by the situation when he came to realize it. Believing, as he did with all his being, in the inborn helplessness of all men to do or think any good thing, in a heaven whose ravishing beauty his poetic eye could see, and a hell whose blackness and torment were to him a very present fact, his preaching assumed a tone which had not before been heard. His great store of theology furnished him with matter, his poetic instinct enabled him to set it in colors which men could not help but see, his psychologic skill qualified him to find a lodgement for his words in the heart and imagination of every hearer. Such sermons as his had never been heard. From preaching to his people once on Sunday, he came to preaching thrice. Then they came in crowds to hear him on a weekday as well. Then he preached every day. Then all business was gradually laid aside, and the people asked, "Brethren, what must I do to be saved?" All human concerns fell into insignificance before the great question in the presence of which the whole community sat down in despair.

The peculiar answer which Edwards gave to this question has profoundly affected the religious life of America, shaped the fortunes of the Church, and yet dominates the Christian life of the land. Before his time both Churchman and Puritan had conceived of religion as an outward life. It was obedience to a law or set of laws. It consisted of moral and religious conduct. The two parties had differed profoundly and often as to what particular action or class of actions were bounden on a Christian, but they had been at one in the assumption that religion is a question of right living. [Roger Williams had been banished for teaching that it is an inward experience.]

Edwards taught that it was a question of right feeling. His theory has passed into the popular mind and is yet dominant. He replied to the eager questionings of his Northampton people that "conversion" is a drama which must perforce be played out consciously in each individual soul. Its characteristic stages were, first, a profound and awful sense of sin, guilt, helplessness, fear of God's wrath, dread of dire penalty, an internal agony which might border close upon madness; second, a period more or less prolonged of doubtfulness, hope alternated with despair, glimpses of God's mercy only to be obscured by the vapors rising from a corrupt heart; third, a sudden and conscious emergence into a haven of sweet peace, a serene and heavenly frame, a sense of pardoned sin and acceptance with God. He and his gracious wife, children of God from the womb, persuaded themselves that they had passed through this sequence of experiences. He watched over his inquirers, and led them with infinite skill through its stages,--preserving the while the curious attitude of a scientific observer of the phenomena,--and helped them to find peace for their souls.

His peculiar doctrine of salvation possesses singular fascination for the populace. It is capable of being put to an immediate test. It is less burdensome and exacting than it is to confront with a definite Christian purpose the complex and contradictory experiences of human life.

The revival quickly passed beyond the bounds of the Northampton parish, but by the time it had done so it had taken on another peculiarity even more striking. In the spiritual agony through which awakened souls were passing daily, the bodies of some began to show a strange sympathy. Men fell prostrate upon the earth and lay writhing, they lost temporarily the power of speech, their limbs moved rhythmically, heaven and hell became visible to their fixed and staring eyes. This new phenomenon for the moment staggered Edwards, but he soon satisfied himself that it came from God. Why should not the body sympathize with the soul? It was but the outward sign of the inward and invisible grace at work. He at once encouraged and tried to regulate the strange manifestation. The outbreak of this new phenomenon attracted fresh attention to the movement. It began to spread. Sober and godly men set themselves against it in vain. Such opposition is always but halfhearted, from fear lest haply one be found fighting against God. Deerfield, Springfield, and far-away New Haven were "awakened." Churchmen and the more conservative Presbyterians stood aloof from the movement, [Briggs: American Presbyterian, pp. 251­2.] but the latter, after a long stand against "enthusiasnn," succumbed. The movement gathered strength and impetus as it spread. Gilbert and William Tennent became its leaders in New Jersey. It swept in the Scotch Presbyterians in the back settlements of Pennsylvania. It worked down the valleys of Virginia, and drew in the multitudes of lapsed and indifferent Churchmen. It climbed the mountains into Tennessee and Kentucky. It found a welcome among the mystical German sects, and touched the mercurial Welsh Churchmen among the foothills of the Alleghenies. As it moved on through its seventy years' course its distinctive features became more and more marked. Strangest of all, they ceased to excite surprise, and came to be accepted as the ordinary concomitants of religion. An eye-witness narrates [Tracy: Great Awakening, p. 222.] that "a hundred and fifty of the congregation were so affected with violent spasmodic contractions of the muscles, jerking their heads quickly from side to side, frequently throwing their persons upon the ground, where they floundered like live fish. I have seen all denominations of religion exercised the same way,--gentleman and lady, black and white, young and old, without exception. I have passed a meeting house about which the undergrowth had been cut away, leaving a hundred saplings standing breast-high, for the people to hold on to when they should have the jerks. I observed that when they had held on by them they had kicked up the earth as a horse does when stamping flies." Not only converts were so seized, but those who came to mock as well as these who came to pray. Sometimes it took grotesque and ludicrous forms. Some turned unseemly somersaults in the air; others leaped and yelled as the devil in departing rended them; and once a pack of men were found barking up a tree where they had "treed the devil." [McMaster: History of the People of the United States, vol. ii. p. 580.]

When the movement reached Georgia it came in contact with the Church of England in the person of George Whitefield. In response to Wesley's cry for aid, Whitefield had come out to Oglethorpe's colony as missionary to the Indians. Few men were ever less fitted for that duty. Wisdom, patience, caution, the qualities which the missionary to the heathen needs, Whitefield had none of. Half-educated, impetuous, self-conscious, ignorant of himself, impatient of law, but with a burning religious zeal, and a power of popular eloquence as great as was ever given to mortal man, he was fitted to become the champion of the "Great Awakening." Laying aside all his plans and work, and disregarding all authority, he took up the burden of Jonathan Edwards's prophecy. Bearing Whitefield on its crest, a reflex wave of enthusiasm swept back northward, upturning Church order, sweeping some into the kingdom and leaving others stranded at its ebb, until the two prophets met in Edwards's parsonage in little Northampton. Whitefield's presence was a stumbling stone and a rock of offence. He was a clergyman of the Church of England. With but very few exceptions, his brethren had held aloof from or definitely opposed the movement. Its root principle seemed to them to be both false and dangerous. Whitefield assailed them savagely, as his successors have often done since, for their bearing toward "this gracious work of God." "Unconverted men;" "without vital piety;" "pagans;" "dumb dogs that will not bark," were the best words he had for them. He ostentatiously turned his back upon his fellows, and became the hero of the revivalists. The Puritan clergy made much of his zeal, contrasting it with the cold morality of the Church to the latter's great discredit. Churchmen either openly defended their position or waited for the reaction which was sure to come. It carne even sooner than they had expected. The disorders which arise from the prevalence of a religion of the emotions divorced from the ordinances of the Church and the sanctions of the conscience soon made themselves seen. [The Rev. Timothy Cutler writes from Boston, September 24, 1743: "Whitefield has plagued us with a witness, especially his friends and followers, who themselves are like to be battered to pieces by that battering ram they had provided against our Church here. It would be an endless attempt to describe that scene of confusion and disturbance occasioned by him,--the division of families, neighborhoods, and towns, the contrariety of husbands and wives, the undutifulness of children and servants, the quarrels among teachers, the disorders of the night, the intermission of labor and business, the neglect of husbandry and of gathering the harvest. Our presses are forever teeming with books, and our women with bastards, though regeneration and conversion is the whole cry. The teachers have, many of them, left their particular cures, and strolled about the country. Some have been ordained by them Evangelizers, and had their Armor-bearers and Exhorters; and in many conventicles and places of rendezvous there has been checkered work, indeed, several preaching, and several exhorting and praying at the same time, the rest crying or laughing, yelping, sprawling, fainting, and this revel maintained in some places many days and nights together, without intermission; and then there were the blessed outpourings of the Spirit!

"When Mr. Whitefield first arrived here the whole town was alarmed. He made his first visit to church on a Friday, and conversed first with many of our clergy together, belied them, me especially, when he had done. Being not invited into our pulpits, the Dissenters were highly pleased, and engrossed him; and immediately the bells rung, and all hands went to lecture; and this show kept on all the while he was here.

"After him came one Tennent, a monster! impudent and noisy, and told them they were all damn'd, damnn'd, damnn'd; this charmed them, and in the most dreadful winter I ever saw, people wallowed in the snow night and day for the benefit of his beastly brayings; and many ended their days under these fatigues. Both of them carried more money out of these parts than the poor could be thankful for.

"All this turned to the growth of the Church in many places, and its reputation universally; and it suffers no otherwise than as religion in general does, and that is sadly enough."] The "travelling preachers" who swarmed in New England brought such confusion into even the "Established Order" that the Puritan ministers themselves could not endure it. Whitefield turned away in dudgeon from the gentle rebuke of Edwards for his ill-tempered zeal, returned to England, and exercised his wonderful gifts, held in order by the tight hand of the Countess of Huntingdon. Edwards found the hearts of his owns converts and parishioners turned against him. They whom he had carried through the crisis of their religious experiences refused longer to listen to him. Disappointed and heartbroken, he turned his steps away from his beloved Northampton, to his new home among the savage Indians.

The effect of the movement upon the religious life of America cannot be overestimated. It obliterated the old ecclesiastical divisions, and drew a new line of cleavage. It set and fixed the Church in that position which she still holds in American Protestantism. She was thrust by it involuntarily into that place which has proven her stronghold. There have been in this country since the "Great Awakening," and chiefly as its result, two radically distinct conceptions of Christianity. According to one theory it is primarily an experience, following in the main that which Edwards first fastened upon the popular mind. It appeals to consciousness. It devises machinery to awake the emotions. When they flag it has whips to stimulate them anew. It has the "Pilgrim's Progress" for its hornbook. Christian, the pilgrim, is the type of the truly converted man. It makes little of Sacraments. It empties them of their grace, and finds their rationale as a system of mnemonics. It distinguishes sharply between religion and morality. It uses faith as a word representing not the thing believed, but only the act of believing. It speaks its mind unconsciously in Moody and Sankey's hymns.

For the other theory the Church stands as the best accredited representative. This has for its starting point not the adult, but the Christian child. It assumes it to be a child of God. It leans on Christian nurture. It looks upon the Church as the hospitable home in which all have a right; a right not contingent upon the passage through a conventional experience. It looks upon the Sacraments not as the marks and badges of a pious life already attained, but as the means of attainment thereto. It makes little of experiences. It is distrustful of spiritual cataclysms. It thinks that religious life to be most healthy which is least self-conscious. It refuses to distinguish between religion and morality, deeming them the same in essence.

For all this the Church has stood since the middle of the last century. The two contrasted conceptions of personal religion, of course, did not begin at that date. But the effect of the Great Awakening was to bring out their contrast before the popular sense, and to fix the Church's place as the representative of the latter. Her growth has always been most rapid in those communities where the rival theory has most completely run its course. But she has not remained uninfluenced by it. Much of the real religious life which was present in the movement passed into her possession. It has saved her from being hard and mechanical. The Evangelical movement which came two generations afterwards brought into her ministry men who accepted Edwards's theory wholly, preached it, lived by it, championed it, faulted the Church for not accepting it outright, were as great and as good as any prophets who have ever delivered their message from her pulpits. But as a school they passed away and left the Church in the same attitude in which they found her. The spirit of the Great Awakening speaks in some of the Church's hymns, modifies her practice in deciding upon the fitness of candidates for Confirmation, leads her often to adopt a popular phraseology which does not mean the same from her lips that it does from others; but, upon the whole, her ideal of the Christian life has remained unchanged.

Here is to be found the secret of her steady growth at the expense of American Protestantism. The Episcopal Church is the only one which constantly gains from others, and seldom loses to them. They who lose, in their chagrin, often charge her with holding a low and easily attained standard of religious life. This is not the explanation. Her accessions are from those whose religious life is highest and deepest, but whose spiritual experience refuses to fit itself to the mould into which it is attempted to cast it. These, who seek righteousness of life, and are tortured as Edwards's poor people were through their feelings, seek the Church as the home of reasonable religion. [It would be an interesting study to trace the effect of the Great Awakening upon the negro race in America. There is good reason to believe that their peculiar type of emotional religiousness, divorced from the sanctions of conscience, is due to this movement, which for the first time brought within their reach a conception of Christianity which fitted itself to their peculiar race temperament. There does not seem to be any evidence of their characteristic type of religion previous to this time. Since then it has dominated them as a people.]

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