In 1739 [there] arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches; but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refus'd him their pulpits, and he was oblig'd to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admir'd and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils. It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street. -- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
So began Franklin's account of his dealings with the Rev. George Whitefield. Franklin was, as he pointed out himself, an impartial witness to Whitefield's ministry. "He us'd, indeed, sometimes to pray for my conversion," Franklin wrote, "but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death."
What happened in Philadelphia happened almost everywhere Whitefield preached. Here is an account from a Boston minister on the effect there of Whitefield's preaching, along with that of the Rev. Gilbert Tennent:
"After Mr. Whitefield left, the Rev. Gilbert Tennent came, and he seemed to have as deep an acquaintance with the experimental part of religion, as any I ever conversed with, and his preaching was as rousing and searching as I ever heard. He aimed directly at the hearts and consciences of his hearers. His aim was to lay open the delusions of sinners, and show them their numerous hypocritical shifts, and drive them out of every deceitful refuge. From the terrible convictions he had passed through in his own soul, he had such a lively view of the divine Majesty, and of the strictness, spirituality, extent, and justice of his law, that the terrors of God seemed to rise fresh in his mind, when he displayed and brandished them in the eyes of unreconciled sinners.
"I do not recollect any crying out, or falling down, or fainting, either under Mr. Whitefield's or Mr Tennent's preaching; and though terrible preaching may strongly work on the animal passions, and frighten the hearers, rouse the soul, and prepare the way for terrible convictions, yet those mere animal terrors are quite different things from such convictions as were wrought in many hundreds by Mr. Tennent's searching ministry; and such was the ease of those many scores, in several of the congregations as well as mine, who came to me and others for direction under them. It was such a time as we never knew. Mr. Cooper was wont to say, that more came to him in one week, in deep concern about their souls, than in the whole twenty-four years of his preceding ministry. He had about six hundred different persons visit him in three months' time; and Mr. Webb informs me he has had, in the same space, above a thousand. . . . their cases represented were, a blind mind, a vile and hard heart; some under great temptations; some in concern for their souls; some in great distress of mind for fear of being unconverted, others for fear they had been all along building on a righteousness of their own; some for a long time, even for several months, under these convictions; some fearing lest the Holy Spirit should withdraw; others having quenched his operations, were in great distress lest he should leave them for ever.
"Within six months, to the end of January, 1741, there were scores joined to our communicants, the greater part of whom gave a particular account of the work of the Spirit of God on their souls and effectual calling, as is described in the Westminster Assembly's Shorter Catechism. Mr. Webb, senior pastor of the New North, informs me that of admissions to full communion of those hopefully wrought upon in this day of grace, about one hundred and sixty joined his church, of which one hundred and two joined from January, 1741, to 1742, and many more give good evidence of grace. In this year, 1741, the very face of the town seemed to be strangely altered. Some who had not been here since the fall before, have told me of their great surprise at the change in the general look and carriage of the people, as soon as they landed. One of our worthy gentlemen informed me that whereas, when he used with others on Saturday evening to visit the taverns in order to clear them of their town inhabitants, they were wont to find many there, and meet with much trouble to get them away, he now found them empty of all but lodgers. Thus successfully did the divine work go on in town, without any lisp, as I remember, of a separation, either in this town or province, for about a year and a half after Mr. Whitefield left us." -- Rev. Thomas Prince, Jr., as quoted in Heman Humphrey, Revival Sketches (1859)
This outpouring of religious fervor came to be called "The Great Awakening." Nor was Whitefield the only laborer in the vineyard. Several years earlier a youthful Congregational minister in Northampton, Massachusetts named Jonathan Edwards preached a series of sermons which led to hundreds of people becoming swept up in an intense religous experience. It was America's first revival. There would be another in Northampton and its environs in the early 1740s, touched off by Whitefield's visit to the community. Numerous other ministers followed Edwards', Tennent's and Whitefield's lead.
George Whitefield preaching, from a contemporary woodcut
A contemporary engraving mocking George Whitefield's preaching
In the early 1740s British evangelist George Whitefield brought the "Methodist" message of John Wesley to the colonies. Thousands flocked to his sermons, became convinced of their own sinfulness, and eagerly accepted the grace of salvation Whitefield assured them their Savior held out to them. Whitefield was joined in the field by scores of lesser known preachers who, nonetheless, enjoyed comparable success. Other ministers, dubbed "Old Lights," charged that the conversions owed less to grace than to hysteria. This was the "Great Awakening." What were the roots of this stirring, controversial, and influential event?
Most American colonies had "established" churches, i.e., a denomination recognized as the official church of the colony and supported by public funds. In New England (save for Rhode Island) this was the Congregational Church. In New York and the southern colonies it was the Church of England. Dissenters, those who did not belong to the established church, often had no church of their own. Others were merely nominal members of the established church. They supported it with their taxes but felt no sense of belonging.
This "coldness" was perhaps most striking in New England. Unlike the Church of England, the Congregational churches initially did not admit all comers to membership. Instead, as befit Puritans, candidates for membership had to demonstrate to a committee of elders not only that they held to orthodox beliefs but that they had experienced "conversion." This was a process, often lasting for months or even years, during which the individual came to acknowledge his or her own sinfulness, the futility of any human effort to effect salvation, and the helplessness of "the sinner in the hands of an angry God," to use Jonathan Edward's famous phrase. This realization plunged the individual into a kind of despair in which he or she finally renounced any and all efforts to save themselves. In the depths of despond the sinner suddenly experienced a sense of light, frequently described as blinding, as well as a sense of being lifted up. This was the moment of conversion, a deep sense of one's own salvation, a gift freely given by a generous God.
Puritans had adopted this standard for membership precisely to keep those not among the "elect" out of their churches. But, when they established colonies in New England and made Congregationalism the established church, they encountered the opposite problem. What were they to do about those who had not experienced conversion? There was no Church of England to accept them. Many such were the children of the original Puritans or their grandchildren. It would not do for them to remain "unchurched." The answer, in most of New England, was the "Half-Way Covenant," a compromise which admitted to membership but not to communion those whose lives were respectable but who did not qualify for full membership. Many found the compromise unsatisfying, including Jonathan Edwards' grandfather who had preceeded him as the minister in Northampton. He had maintained that the conversion experience was not a prerequisite for communion and had therefore admitted any who wished to participate. He had also enjoyed far more success than most of his contemporaries in bringing parishioners to a heartfelt sense of their own sinfulness and then on through the other steps to conversion. Edwards would build upon this success in ways which surprised him as much as any. Indeed, he called his history A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.
This is an extraordinarily important source for understanding the Awakening, but it provides a challenge to the historian. The "work" in Northampton is far more fully documented than the Awakening elsewhere. But Northampton was by no means a typical colonial town, not even for western Massachusetts. As noted above, the parish there had never adopted the "Half-Way Covenant." It had a tradition of "harvests," periods of intense religious concern during which several dozen parishioners might experience conversion. It also had Jonathan Edwards, the foremost religous thinker of the age and a supremely gifted preacher, as its minister. Because Edwards documented the "surprising work of God" with such meticulousness and subjected it to such searching theological and psychological analysis, his Narrative is a case study without rival. And that is the challenge: To what extent can one extrapolate from this one case to the Great Awakening as a whole? Edwards began with some background information:
The town of Northampton is of about 82 years standing, and has now about 200 families; which mostly dwell more compactly together than any town of such a size in these parts of the country. This probably has been an occasion, that both our corruptions and reformations have been, from time to time, the more swiftly propagated from one to another through the town. Take the town in general, and so far as I can judge, they are as rational and intelligent a people as most I have been acquainted with. Many of them have been noted for religion; and particularly remarkable for their distinct knowledge in things that relate to heart religion, and Christian experience, and their great regards thereto.
I am the third minister who has been settled in the town. The Rev. Mr. Eleazer Mather, who was the first, was ordained in July, 1669. He was one whose heart was much in his work, and abundant in labors for the good of precious souls. He had the high esteem and great love for his people, and was blessed with no small success. The Rev. Mr. Stoddard who succeeded him, came first to the town the November after his death; but was not ordained till September 11, 1672, and died February 11, 1728-9. So that he continued in the work of the ministry here, from his first coming to town, near 60 years. And as he was eminent and renowned for his gifts and grace; so he was blessed, from the beginning, with extraordinary success in his ministry, in the conversion of many souls. He had five harvests, as he called them. The first was about 57 years ago; the second about 53; the third about 40; the fourth about 24; the fifth and last about 18 years ago. Some of these times were much more remarkable than others, and the ingathering of souls more plentiful. Those about 53, and 40, and 24 years ago, were much greater than either the first or the last: but in each of them, I have heard my grandfather say, the greater part of the young people in the town, seemed to be mainly concerned for their eternal salvation.
After the last of these, came a far more degenerate time (at least among the young people), I suppose, than ever before. Mr. Stoddard, indeed, had the comfort, before he died, of seeing a time where there were no small appearances of a divine work among some, and a considerable ingathering of souls, even after I was settled with him in the ministry, which was about two years before his death; and I have reason to bless God for the great advantage I had by it. In these two years there were nearly twenty that Mr. Stoddard hoped to be savingly converted; but there was nothing of any general awakening. The greater part seemed to be at that time very insensible of the things of religion, and engaged in other cares and pursuits. Just after my grandfather's death, it seemed to be a time of extraordinary dullness in religion. Licentiousness for some years prevailed among the youth of the town; there were many of them very much addicted to night-walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices, wherein some, by their example, exceedingly corrupted others. It was their manner very frequently to get together, in conventions of both sexes for mirth and jollity, which they called frolics; and they would often spend the greater part of the night in them, without regard to any order in the families they belonged to: and indeed family government did too much fail in the town. It was become very customary with many of our young people to be indecent in their carriage at meeting, which doubtless would not have prevailed in such a degree, had it not been that my grandfather, through his great age (though he retained his powers surprisingly to the last), was not so able to observe them. There had also long prevailed in the town a spirit of contention between two parties, into which they had for many years been divided; by which they maintained a jealousy one of the other, and were prepared to oppose one another in all public affairs.
But in two or three years after Mr. Stoddard's death, there began to be a sensible amendment to these evils. The young people showed more of a disposition to hearken to counsel, and by degrees left off their frolics; they grew observably more decent in their attendance on the public worship, and there were more who manifested a religious concern than there used to be.
At the latter end of the year 1733, there appeared a very unusual flexibleness, and yielding to advice, in our young people. It had been too long their manner to make the evening after the sabbath, [It must be noted, that it has never been our manner, to observe the evening that follows the sabbath, but that which precedes it, as part of the holy time], and after our public lecture, to be especially the times of their mirth, and company-keeping. But a sermon was now preached on the sabbath before the lecture, to show the evil tendency of the practice, and to persuade them to reform it; and it was urged on heads of families that it should be a thing agreed upon among them, to govern their families, and keep their children at home, at these times. It was also more privately moved, that they should meet together the next day, in their several neighborhoods, to know each other's minds; which was accordingly done, and the notion complied with throughout the town. But parents found little or no occasion for the exercise of government in the case. The young people declared themselves convinced by what they had heard from the pulpit, and were willing of themselves to comply with the counsel that had been given: and it was immediately, and, I suppose, almost universally, complied with; and there was a thorough reformation of these disorders thenceforward, which has continued ever since.
Presently after this, there began to appear a remarkable religious concern at a little village belonging to the congregation called Pascommuck, where a few families were settled, at about three miles distance from the main body of the town. At this place, a number of persons seemed to be savingly wrought upon. In the April following, anno 1734, there happened a very sudden and awful death of a young man in the bloom of his youth; who being violently seized with a pleurisy, and taken immediately very delirious, died in about two days; which (together with what was preached publicly on that occasion) much affected many young people. This was followed with another death of a young married woman, who had been considerably exercised in mind, about the salvation of her soul, before she was ill, and was in great distress in the beginning of her illness; but seemed to have satisfying evidences of God's mercy to her, before her death; so that she died very full of comfort, in a most earnest and moving manner warning and counselling others. This seemed to contribute to render solemn the spirits of many young persons; and there began evidently to appear more of a religious concern on people's minds.
In the fall of the year I proposed it to the young people, that they should agree among themselves to spend the evenings after lectures in social religion, and to that end divide themselves into several companies to meet in various parts of the town; which was accordingly done, and those meetings have been since continued, and the example imitated by elder people. This was followed with the death of an elderly person, which was attended with many unusual circumstances, by which many were much moved and affected.
About this time began the great noise, in this part of the country, about Arminianism [the belief in human agency in salvation], which seemed to appear with a very threatening aspect upon the interest of religion here. The friends of vital piety trembled for fear of the issue; but it seemed, contrary to their fear, strongly to be overruled for the promoting of religion. Many who looked on themselves as in a Christless condition, seemed to be awakened by it, with fear that God was about to withdraw from the land, and that we should be given up to heterodoxy and corrupt principles; and that then their opportunity for obtaining salvation would be past. Many who were brought a little to doubt about the truth of the doctrines they had hitherto been taught, seemed to have a kind of trembling fear with their doubts, lest they should be led into bypaths, to their eternal undoing; and they seemed, with much concern and engagedness of mind, to inquire what was indeed the way in which they must come to be accepted with God. There were some things said publicly on that occasion, concerning justification [i.e., salvation] by faith alone.
Although great fault was found with meddling with the controversy in the pulpit, by such a person, and at that time -- and though it was ridiculed by many elsewhere -- yet it proved a word spoken in season here; and was most evidently attended with a very remarkable blessing of heaven to the souls of the people in this town. They received thence a general satisfaction, with respect to the main thing in question, which they had been in trembling doubts and concern about; and their minds were engaged the more earnestly to seek that they might come to be accepted of God, and saved in the way of the gospel, which had been made evident to them to be the true and only way. And then it was, in the latter part of December, that the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us; and there were very suddenly, one after another, five or six persons, who were to all appearances savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner.
Particularly, I was surprised with relation of a young woman, who had been one of the greatest company-keepers in the whole town. When she came to me, I had never heard that she was become in any wise serious, but by the conversation I then had with her, it appeared to me, that what she gave an account of, was a glorious work of God's infinite power and sovereign grace; and that God had given her a new heart, truly broken and sanctified. I could not then doubt of it, and have seen much in my acquaintance with her since to confirm it.
Though the work was glorious, yet I was filled with concern about the effect it might have upon others. I was ready to conclude (though too rashly), that some would be hardened by it in carelessness and looseness of life; and would take occasion from it to open their mouths in reproaches of religion. But the event was the reverse, to a wonderful degree. God made it, I suppose, the greatest occasion of awakening to others, of any thing that ever came to pass in the town. I have had abundant opportunity to know the effect it had, by my private conversation with many. The news of it seemed to be almost like a flash of lightning, upon the hearts of young people, all over the town, and upon many others. Those persons amongst us, who used to be farthest from seriousness, and that I most feared would make an ill improvement of it, seemed to be awakened with it. Many went to talk with her, concerning what she had met with; and what appeared in her seemed to be to the satisfaction of all that did so.
Presently upon this, a great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and the eternal world, became universal in all parts of the town, and among persons of all degrees, and all ages. The noise amongst the dry bones waxed louder and louder; all other talk but about spiritual and eternal things, was soon thrown by; all the conversation, in all companies and upon all occasions, was upon these things only, unless so much as was necessary for people carrying on their ordinary secular business. Other discourse than of the things of religion would scarcely be tolerated in any company. The minds of people were wonderfully taken off from the world, it was treated amongst us as a thing of very little consequence. They seemed to follow their worldly business, more as a part of their duty, than from any disposition they had to it; the temptation now seemed to lie on that hand, to neglect worldly affairs too much, and to spend too much time in the immediate exercise of religion. This was exceedingly misrepresented by reports that were spread in distant parts of the land, as though the people here had wholly thrown by all worldly business, and betook themselves entirely to reading and praying, and such like religious exercises.
But although people did not ordinarily neglect their worldly business, yet religion was with all sorts the great concern, and the world was a thing only by the bye. The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and every one appeared pressing into it. The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid, it appeared in their very countenances. It then was a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell; and what persons' minds were intent upon, was to escape for their lives, and to fly from wrath to come. All would eagerly lay hold of opportunities for their souls, and were wont very often to meet together in private houses, for religious purposes: and such meetings when appointed were greatly thronged.
There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world. Those who were wont to be the vainest and loosest, and those who had been disposed to think and speak lightly of vital and experimental religion, were now generally subject to great awakenings. And the work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner, and increased more and more; souls did as it were come by flocks to Jesus Christ. From day to day for many months together, might be seen evident instances of sinners brought out of darkness into marvellous light, and delivered out of an horrible pit, and from the miry clay, and set upon a rock, with a new song of praise to God in their mouths.
This work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town: so that in the spring and summer following, anno 1735, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God's presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought to them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands. The doings of God were then seen in His sanctuary, God's day was a delight, and His tabernacles were amiable. Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive in God's service, every one earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth; the assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors.
Our public praises were then greatly enlivened; God was then served in our psalmody, in some measure, in the beauty of holiness. It has been observable, that there has been scarce any part of divine worship, wherein good men amongst us have had grace so drawn forth, and their hearts so lifted up in the ways of God, as in singing His praises. Our congregation excelled all that ever I knew in the external part of the duty before, the men generally carrying regularly, and well, three parts of music, and the women a part by themselves; but now they were evidently wont to sing with unusual elevation of heart and voice, which made the duty pleasant indeed.
In all companies, on other days, on whatever occasions persons met together, Christ was to be heard of, and seen in the midst of them. Our young people, when they met, were wont to spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ, the glory of the way of salvation, the wonderful, free, and sovereign grace of God, His glorious work in the conversion of a soul, the truth and certainty of the great things of God's word, the sweetness of the views of His perfections, etc. And even at weddings, which formerly were mere occasions of mirth and jollity, there was now no discourse of any thing but religion, and no appearance of any but spiritual mirth. Those amongst us who had been formerly converted, were greatly enlivened, and renewed with fresh and extraordinary incomes of the Spirit of God; though some much more than others, according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Many who before had labored under difficulties about their own state, had now their doubts removed by more satisfying experience, and more clear discoveries of God's love.
When this work first appeared and was so extraordinarily carried on amongst us in the winter, others round about us seemed not to know what to make of it. Many scoffed at and ridiculed it; and some compared what we called conversion, to certain distempers. But it was very observable of many, who occasionally came amongst us from abroad with disregardful hearts, that what they saw here cured them of such a temper of mind. Strangers were generally surprised to find things so much beyond what they had heard, and were wont to tell others that the state of the town could not be conceived of by those who had not seen it. The notice that was taken of it by the people who came to town on occasion of the court that sat here in the beginning of March, was very observable. And those who came from the neighborhood to our public lectures were for the most part remarkably affected. Many who came to town, on one occasion or other, had their consciences smitten, and awakened; and went home with wounded hearts, and with those impressions that never wore off till they had hopefully a saving issue; and those who before had serious thoughts, had their awakenings and convictions greatly increased. There were many instances of persons who came from abroad on visits, or on business, who had not been long here, before, to all appearances, they were savingly wrought upon, and partook of that shower of divine blessing which God rained down here, and went home rejoicing; till at length the same work began evidently to appear and prevail in several other towns in the county.
Stop and Consider:
- The Northampton revival was, Edwards claimed, a "work of God." Nonetheless, he carefully detailed all of the circumstances and events which he thought contributed to it. How did he explain the impact upon others of the examples of the first to experience conversion?
- How did Edwards describe his own efforts to promote God's work? What, specifically, did he do?
- What was daily life like in Northampton once the revival was in full swing?
Because so many came to visit Northampton, because some became critics (soon to be called "Old Lights") who saw the hand of Satan in the excitements occasioned by the revival there, because others became admirers (soon to be called "New Lights") who resolved to emulate Edwards' methods and, they hoped, his success, events at Northampton exercised an enormous influence. Further, Edwards' writings became required reading for all who hoped to promote revivals. In them they could find not only detailed descriptions of what Edwards had done in his own ministry, they could find profound theological and psychological reflections on what it all meant.
If Edwards cast a giant shadow, so did George Whitefield (pictured at left). He came to America to spread the movement John Wesley had launched within the Church of England. Called "Methodists" by their critics, Wesley, Whitefield, and their disciples downplayed the importance of liturgy and ritual in favor of the immediate experience of salvation. Edwards had maintained a strenuous balance between intellectual exploration and piety. With Whitefield, this balance of head and heart tilted decisively towards the heart. In 1859 revivalist Heman Humphrey wrote:
It is questionable whether any preacher since the days of the apostles has done so much, in a degenerate age, to rouse the churches, and "turn back their captivity" from dead formalism, latitudinarian indifference, and erroneous proclivities, and to bring them into the old paths in which their Puritan fathers walked, both on this side and beyond the sea. From the commencement of his extraordinary career, like a flaming seraph as it were, he passed from city to city, and from land to land, having the everlasting gospel to preach; attracting the gaze of thousands wherever he went, swaying uncounted multitudes by his fervid and matchless eloquence, and beyond all peradventure, bringing great numbers, on both sides of the ocean, to the foot of the cross.
Whitefield was, Franklin noted, the greatest speaker of the age. Franklin, although a non-believer, never missed an opportunity to hear his preach. Even he, skeptic that he was, could not resist the power of Whitefield's oratory. He told the story of consulting with Whitefield over an orphanage the minister intended to establish in Georgia. Whitefield refused his advice, and Franklin accordingly resolved not to make a contribution:
I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham'd of that, and determin'd me to give the silver; and he finish'd so admirably, that I empty'd my pocket wholly into the collector's dish, gold and all. At this sermon there was also one of our club, who, being of my sentiments respecting the building in Georgia, and suspecting a collection might be intended, had, by precaution, emptied his pockets before he came from home. Towards the conclusion of the discourse, however, he felt a strong desire to give, and apply'd to a neighbour, who stood near him, to borrow some money for the purpose. The application was unfortunately [made] to perhaps the only man in the company who had the firmness not to be affected by the preacher. His answer was, At any other time, Friend Hopkinson, I would lend to thee freely; but not now, for thee seems to be out of thy right senses.
Franklin also offered a fascinating description of Whitefield's vocal range and power:
He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observ'd the most exact silence. He preach'd one evening from the top of the Court-house steps, which are in the middle of Market-street, and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles. Both streets were fill'd with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market-street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street towards the river; and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur'd it. Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill'd with auditors, to each of whom I allow'd two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconcil'd me to the newspaper accounts of his having preach'd to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the ancient histories of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.
Franklin alone of the thousands who gathered to hear Whitefield preach spent the time conducting a scientific experiment to determine how many could hear him. The others came seeking salvation. Here is another account of the effect he produced:
Christian History: Containing Accounts of the Propagation and Revival of Religion in England Scotland and America.
Saturday February 4. 1743, 4. No. 49.
Revival of Religion at Portsmouth the chief Town in the Province of New-Hampshire in New-England, about sixty four Miles North North Eastward of Boston: In a Letter from the Rev. Mr. William Shurtleff, Pastor of the 2nd Church in Portsmouth, to the late Rev. Mr. Cooper.
Indeed the great Earthquake in the Year 1727, that puts the whole Country into such a Surprize, was a Means of awakening a great many here: and as to some, there is Reason to think the Impressions have remaind; but as to the bigger Part, it was not long before they evidently wore off, and before they fell into their former sleepy and secure State; and this has been generally the Case till of late.
Mr. Whitefields coming among us, and also Mr. [Gilbert] Tennents, was I am perswaded blesd of God; and their Preaching made instrumental of putting a great many upon shaking off their heavy Slumbers: and how reproachfully soever any may speak of them, and their Itinerancy; I must needs look upon their Travelling this Way as a favourable Providence, and that for which we owe abundant Thanksgivings to the GOD of all Grace.
As there had been for some Time a growing Concern among us, as to Things of a religious Nature, and a remarkable Work of GODs Grace going on in many Parts of the Land; the Ministers of this, and some other of the neighbouring Towns agreed upon observing a monthly Fast, in our respective Congregations, to seek for the like Blessing. When the Solemnity was attended in this Town, which was on Wednesday November 25th 1741; as soon as the Afternoon Service was ended, One cried out in a Transport of Joy, and Others discoverd a great deal of Distress. The People did not care to disperse; insomuch that there was another Sermon in the Evening; and a great Number of them, and some of the Ministers with them stayd till it was late in the Place of public Worship. The next Day a Sermon was again preachd in Public, and had an unusual Efficacy upon the Hearers. The Day after we had two, or three Exercises, and the Congregation great Part of it continued together till late at Night.
This Friday was the most remarkable Day that was ever known among us. The whole Congregation seemd deeply affected: And there was such a general Out-cry, in some from a distressing Sight of their Sins, and in others from a joyful Sense of the Love of CHRIST; that could not but put a great many in Mind of the Appearing of the SON of MAN, and of the different Exclamations that shall be heard from the Inhabitants of the World when they shall see Him coming in the Clouds of Heaven, in Power, and great Glory.
And here, upon my making mention of this solemn and awful Event, I am led to relate a Circumstance; which tho but small and inconsiderable in itself, seemd to be over-ruld by GOD to serve great and good Purposes; and upon this Account may be worthy of Notice.
Late in the Evening of the same Day, before the Body of the People had left the Place of publick Worship; the Chimney of an House that stood near to it happening to take Fire and blaze out to an uncommon Degree: upon the sudden Appearance of the Light breaking in at the several Windows, there was a Cry made, that CHRIST was coming to Judgment: Which being really believd by a great many, some that were not before so much affected as others, were put into the deepest Distress, and great Numbers had their Convictions hereby strengthned and confirmed.
I am not so unacquainted with the World as to be insensible with how much Derision such a Relation as this is likely to be entertained by a great many of the Humourists of the Age. But, I think this a Thing little to be regarded: Tho I wish to GOD that such Persons might be brought, for their own sakes, to think more of this great and terrible Day of the LORD; and that they would consider, if the Apprehension of its Approach be so very startling to a carnal World, how vast would be their Horror and Amazement when it shall actually arrive. This would be of good Use to check their Disposition to ridicule, to restrain them from their vain and wicked Jestings, and from a great many Things which if indulgd must needs add to their Terror in that Day. And however distasteful the relating such low Occurrences, may be to some nice and curious Palates now, I make no doubt but Things of a like Nature will afford an infinite Satisfaction to the saints hereafter: that it will give them a vast, and inconceivable Pleasure, when they get to Heaven, to have the Beauty of DIVINE PROVIDENCE laid open to their View; To hear and see how some Events that are seemingly insignificant, and appear perfectly casual, have been orderd out in infinite Wisdom, and made subservient to very great, and excellent Designs: and how a bare Imagination, and mistaken Apprehension of Things has been so far set home, and made such Impressions upon a great many, as to be a Means of their saving Conversion to GOD.
But to return from this Digression, which I have been led further into, than I was aware of.
As I was calld abroad upon the Day next ensuing what I last mentioned, it was suprizing to observe the Seriousness that appeard in the Face of almost every one I occasionally met with: and it seemd as if there was hardly any such Thing as entring into a House in which there was not some poor wounded and distressd Soul; and where there was not a greater or less Degree of Concern in all belonging to it, as to their spiritual and eternal State. It was very affecting to be calld into one Family after another, as I was going along the Street, and entreated not to leave them till Prayer had been solemnly offerd up to GOD on their Behalf. A divine Power was then so plainly to be seen in what had come to pass among us, that there was hardly any that dare openly and expresly deny it. As for those who thro their own prevailing Corruptions, or the Insinuations and Persuasions of others soon grew into a Dislike of it, and have since gone so far as to pronounce the whole of it a Scene of Enthusiasm, and to look upon all as a Delusion; their very Countenance and Behaviour then plainly spoke the awful Apprehensions they were under of its being from GOD.
As we had Preaching for some Time upon every Day; so we were greatly obligd to several of the neighbouring Minister, who readily granted us their Assistance, till prevented by Indisposition of Body, or till the State of their own Flocks requird them at Home.
But that such as have ever read the Acts of the Apostles, that have there seen the Apostle PETERs Hearers so many of them, prickd at the Heart, and heard them saying in the Agony of their Souls, Men and Brethren, what shall we do? and that have seen the Roman Governor trembling in the Manner that he did under the preaching of the Apostle PAUL his Prisoner; or that any who have read the well-attested Accounts of this Nature that are related by the credible Author of the fulfilling of the Scripture; or that have so much as seen a poor Sinner deeply Distressed under the Burden of his Guilt; should think it strange, and even a Thing incredible, for any to be put under such a Commotion of Soul under the Ministry of the Word, as not to be able to forbear making a publick Discovery of it; has sometimes filld me with Surprize.
And yet I am sensible that some well disposed Persons have been stumbled at Things of this Kind. I know an Instance of this Nature, in one of our own Church; a Person of a good Capacity, and of considerable Reading and Knowledge in Divine Things, who for some Time entertaind latent Prejudices against the late religious Commotions, more particularly on Account of Persons speaking out in Publick, and could not be perswaded but that they might easily avoid it, till Experience taught him to the contrary. Upon the Morning of a Sabbath, a Day when the Sacrament of the Lords Supper was to be administred; just at the close of his secret Devotions, (as he afterwards told me) he had his Sins discoverd to him in such a Manner as they never were before, and an uncommon Darkness and Horror fell upon him. In this sorrowful and distressd State, he went to the House of GOD. When the Celebration of the Sacrament came on, he had considerable Reasonings in his Mind concerning his Tarrying, and at length concluded to stay, but could not prevail with himself to receive. As soon as the Administration was over, he could no longer forbear speaking in the Grief and Bitterness of his Soul, and breathd out his Complaints to GOD in such a Manner as drew Tears from almost every Person present; and has sometimes since been constraind to break out into some short Expressions. He was under a great deal of Concern for his Soul while Young, and put upon an early Reformation of his Life: He has deservedly had the Character of being strictly just in his Dealings, and has been a constant and steddy Observer of the Duties of divine Worship, in his Closet, in his Family, and in Publick: But has been convincd that he has built too much upon these Things, and never till of late had the corrupt Fountain of his own Heart Sufficiently laid open to his View. And from what he has now seen of himself, he has declared to me, that tho he has sometimes been in some Measure affected with the unkind and cruel Usage of the blessed JESUS, and not been without some sort of Indignation against his Opposers, Persecutors, and Murderers; that yet if he had livd in their Day, and been of the same Temper of Mind that he was when this Work fist began among us, he is perswaded, he should have approvd of them, if not made one among them.
We are not without Instances of other Professors who have been put off from their former Foundation; and Others who if their Hearts were before right with GOD, have been greatly quickend, and make more fervent in Spirit, serving the LORD.
But a great Part of those that have been remarkably wrought upon, are such as before had very little if any Thing of the Form and Appearance of Religion: and among these the divine Sovereignty has been very illustriously displayd. Some of those whom we trust are savingly brought home, are such as have wanderd far from GOD. Some that have been very ignorant, and unthinking Persons, and some very young. They many of them, upon their first being brought under Conviction, manifested a deep Sense of their original, as well as actual Sins; complained sadly of the Wickedness of their Hearts, and bewaild their Sin in rejecting and making light of a SAVIOUR. There have been some Instances of young Persons that have spoken feelingly of these Things, who have seemd to have had but little humane Instruction, and seldom to have been where such things have been the Subjects of Discourse.
As was at first feard and expected, it must be confessd that so it has happened to some that were brought under a serious Concern for their Souls, that they have fallen off from their good Beginnings, and are the same Persons that they were before: and there are others who continuing under Convictions, seem to have proceeded no further. But here is a considerable Number who are exhibiting all the Evidence that can be expected, of a real Conversion to GOD.
Summary: The Great Awakening had profound religious, social, and cultural effects. Hundreds of thousands experienced "conversion." They flocked to established churches, but they also sometimes bitterly criticized the settled ministers of those churches as "cold" or "formalistic." Gilbert Tennent, for example, frequently denounced his critics among the clergy as "unconverted." Some among the converts in the Middle and Southern colonies followed Wesley and Whitefield out of the Church of England into the new Methodist Church. Others, across all the colonies, joined the Baptist Church. It was, theologically, far different from Methodism but shared the emphasis upon the direct experience of salvation. Both were religions of the "heart." So, even as the Awakening intensified the influence of religion on people's lives, it also contributed to the fragmentation of the churches. This would be true of the "Second Great Awakening" of the 1830s and 1840s as well. Millions would flock to hear celebrated preachers -- the most famous was Charles Granison Finney -- and would experience conversion. Many then joined already existing churches, but large numbers moved into new religious sects.
The Great Awakening set other patterns as well. One was to dissolve the intense individualism at the heart of the Protestant experience. Conversion had been something the individual sought. The sinner prayed alone, contemplated his or her guilt in solitude. He or she often did consult the local minister, but in the privacy of his study. The individual would then go off to ponder his words. The Awakening made conversion social. The sinner became alive to his or her sins as a member of a congregation. The example of others, often a visible and audible example as they cried out or fell to the floor, exercised a powerful influence. As Edwards noted, those previously unawakened wanted to have the same experience of those being saved before their very eyes.
Conversion also speeded up. No longer would it routinely be a matter of months or years. Instead the immense power of the "new means" accelerated the conversion process. During the Great Awakening it became a matter of weeks. A century later it would be a matter of days or even hours.
Reflect and Respond:
- How did the Rev. Mr. William Shurtleff, Pastor of the 2nd Church in Portsmouth, interpret the circumstance of "the Chimney of an House that stood near to it [the church] happening to take Fire and blaze out to an uncommon Degree"?
- He realized that, in telling of the fire, "with how much Derision such a Relation as this is likely to be entertained by a great many of the Humourists of the Age." Why then did he include this "small and inconsiderable" circumstance"?
- What, according to the sources here, were the signs of a genuine conversion?
- What dangers did those seeking salvation face, according to these sources?