The Great Awakening occurred in the years preceding the American Revolution and coincided with the Methodist Revival in England. Both events had a huge impact on American Christianity, but to understand them, we have to talk a little about 18th Century Christianity as it existed beforehand.
The dominant religions in the US were all Calvinist. Puritans had settled much of New England. Some had adopted believer baptism and so had become Baptists, but they remained strictly Calvinistic. The Church of England was the established church in some states, and was predominantly Calvinistic at the time. Scotch settlers brought Presbyterianism with them. French Huguenots came to the Colonies fleeing persecution, and they were also strict Calvinists.
There were, of course, Catholics, Lutherans, Quakers, Jews, and others, but most were Calvinists of one sort or the other.
Now, Calvinism had its own internal disputes, and one was whether there is any point in doing evangelism. After all, if God elected only certain people to salvation, and if that election is irresistible, what’s the point of risking life and health as a missionary? Others, of course, saw mission work as part of the means by which God would draw the elect to him.
Christian denominations have a tendency to cycle between a dry intellectualism, emphasizing correct doctrinal understanding — and piety, emphasizing personal experience and holiness. The intellectual climate of the day was driven by the Enlightenment and a desire to escape the religious passions that drove many to flee European persecution. That is, the Colonies, like England, were in the intellectual part of the cycle. Christianity was about being regular in church attendance and adhering to the right positions — which were being endless argued by the religious authorities.
Of course, Europe and the US were both also facing a time of great skepticism about Christianity. Many American intellectuals read the French philosophers who challenged the claims of Christianity, leading men such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to be Deists.
Meanwhile, the American frontier areas were not well served by the established churches. People were widespread and the churches were accustomed to serving their members through a parish priest in a tightly clustered village. As Americans spread Westward, the old model of a located priest sitting in a building didn’t work.
As a result, the Colonies were becoming increasingly immoral and unchurched. Out-of-wedlock births were on the rise, and the old Puritan ways were being rejected by the young.
In England, the dominant religion was the official state church, the Church of England. The Puritans were still around, but persecutions had largely ended. As in the Colonies, the mood of the day was to reduce Christianity to regular Sunday attendance, a bad sermon, and adherence to the right creed. The clergy debated the fine points of Calvinism endlessly, but the common people had little interest in Christianity and their lives were increasingly unaffected by their religion.
In 1729 John Wesley, his brother Charles, George Whitefield, and others were seminary students, and they formed a league, known as the Methodists. Wesley described their group —
6. They were all zealous members of the Church of England; not only tenacious of all her doctrines, so far as they knew them, but of all her discipline, to the minutest circumstance. They were likewise zealous observers of all the University Statutes, and that for conscience’ sake. But they observed neither these nor anything else any further than they conceived it was bound upon them by their one book, the Bible; it being their one desire and design to be downright Bible-Christians; taking the Bible, as interpreted by the primitive Church and our own, for their whole and sole rule.
7. The one charge then advanced against them was, that they were “righteous overmuch;” that they were abundantly too scrupulous, and too strict, carrying things to great extremes: In particular, that they laid too much stress upon the Rubrics and Canons of the Church; that they insisted too much on observing the Statutes of the University; and that they took the Scriptures in too strict and literal a sense; so that if they were right, few indeed would be saved.
Wesley became a powerful preacher, an although ordained by the Church of England, began preaching to the common people in outdoor meetings. He felt the Church had left the common people behind, becoming more concerned with internal disputes than the souls of its members.
Wesley’s preaching differed from the preaching of the day in several respects.
Meantime, they began to be convinced, that “by grace we are saved through faith;” that justification by faith was the doctrine of the Church, as well as of the Bible. As soon as they believed, they spake; salvation by faith being now their standing topic. Indeed this implied three things:
(1.) That men are all, by nature, “dead in sin,” and, consequently, “children of wrath.”
(2.) That they are “justified by faith alone.”
(3.) That faith produces inward and outward holiness: And these points they insisted on day and night. In a short time they became popular Preachers. The congregations were large wherever they preached.
Wesley had become Arminian in this theology. In classic Arminian theology, men cannot come to God unless empowered by the Spirit, but the Spirit works on the heart as the word is preached. For those enabled by the Spirit to believe, the decision to believe is a matter of free will.
But while Wesley taught “faith alone,” unlike some Calvinists (not all), he insisted that his converts demonstrate their faith through holy living, and he demanded a very high level of discipline and accountability. As he believed Christians could fall away, he saw the need to establish a system that would encourage them in their walk of faith.
Wesley therefore urged his followers to participate in small group meetings at which they would ask each other the following questions:
1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
3. Do I confidentially pass onto another what was told me in confidence?
4. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work , or habits?
5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
6. Did the Bible live in me today?
7. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
8. Am I enjoying prayer?
9. When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
10. Do I pray about the money I spend?
11. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
12. Do I disobey God in anything?
13. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
14. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
15. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
16. How do I spend my spare time?
17. Am I proud?
18. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisee who despised the publican?
19. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I going to do about it?
20. Do I grumble and complain constantly?
21. Is Christ real to me?
Wesley also had his followers participate in love feasts — covered dish meals — at which they shared testimonies.
In short, we see Wesley as the forerunner of much of current American evangelicalism. His small groups were accountability groups. He insisted that Christianity be as much about being a part of the body as individual salvation, and he saw God as active in the lives of his followers, and thus encouraged disciples to share their experiences with God.
In addition to John Wesley’s dramatic re-thinking of what church should be, his brother Charles wrote over 5,500 new hymns, in an age when many church leaders insisted that only the Psalms be sung. Our hymnbooks are still filled with his music —
- “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” (Lyrics)
- “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (Lyrics)
- “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” (Lyrics)
- “Come, O Thou Traveler unknown” (Lyrics)
- “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” (Lyrics)
- “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise” (Lyrics)
- “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” (Lyrics)
- “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” (Lyrics)
- “Jesus, The Name High Over All” (Lyrics)
- “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” (Lyrics)
- “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (Lyrics)
- “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (Lyrics)
- “Rejoice, the Lord is King” (Lyrics)
- “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (Lyrics)
- “Ye Servants of God” (Lyrics)
John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield traveled England and the Colonies preaching to large outdoor assemblies, and brought about transformative revivals. Whitefield in particular traveled throughout the Colonies preaching to large crowds.
Interestingly, Ben Franklin, although not a believer, was so taken with Whitefield’s preaching that he supported him financially as we as by publishing his sermons in his paper. Franklin was a fan because Whitefield insisted that a convert’s salvation be shown through a changed life, which was evidently a greatly needed teaching in those days.
Now, Wesley believed that becoming a Christian required repentance, and repentance requires understanding the depth of ones sins. Therefore, to be saved, one must come to mourn one’s sins against God. This led to the revival practice of the “mourners bench,” where potential converts were urged to come forward, sit on the bench, and mourn their sins against God.
Some revival preachers found that converts would not only begin to cry but some would even run around or laugh hysterically. Indeed, many sought to encourage their audience to these sorts of behaviors because many of the Methodists taught an “experimental religion,” using “experimental” as we’d say “experiential.” That is, you aren’t saved until you feel God’s grace in your heart. Thus, for Calvinists such as Whitefield, the mourners bench became the anxious bench as listeners anxiously awaited God’s response to their penitence.
In England, Wesley saw Methodism as a movement within the Church of England, but after his death, it became a distinct denomination. After the American Revolution, Wesley considered it essential that the American Methodists separate from the Church of England because of the ill feelings many Americans had for all things British. He therefore ordained bishops to head the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.
It would be a mistake to omit the work of Jonathan Edwards’ revival preaching among the Puritans. Edwards was a Puritan preacher and a strict Calvinist. But he also preached hell-fire-and-brimstone sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Contemporary reports declare his delivery dry, but he was understood by many as encouraging decisions for Jesus, and many were converted — perhaps more by the influence of his written sermons than through his personal preaching.
The Republican Methodists
Methodism inherited from the Church of England the doctrine of apostolic succession, but many American Methodists were upset to see their denomination organized along monarchical lines. They wanted a more democratic church — like the Presbyterian Church. And so James O’Kelly and other left to found the Republican Methodist Church.
Trouble soon infiltrated the ranks of the new group. I pointed out that O’Kelly strongly favored infant baptism. William Guirey, another of the group’s preachers, took it that immersion alone constituted Scriptural baptism. The Republican Methodists divided over the issue. The immersionists became known as Christians while the rest were denominated O’Kellyites.
The immersionist faction later organized the Virginia Christian Conference. They then discovered the New England Christians and united with them in 1811. Slavery divided this union in 1854. After the Civil War the Guirey and O’Kelly factions of Republican Methodism reunited. In 1890, reunification with the New England Christians took place taking the name The Christian Convention in the United States. The Christian Convention then united with Congregationalism in 1931 to form the Congregational-Christian Church. In the 1950s this denomination united with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ.
Through the working out of all these combinations protest occurred. Congregations often remained outside the union efforts. Some of these congregations later became part of the Restoration Movement. Rice Haggard moved to Kentucky and identified with the Kentucky Christian Movement led by Barton Warren Stone.
The result of the Great Awakening was profound —
The work of Whitefield, Edwards, and others in the Colonies was explicitly cross-denominational. He was known to announce that there’d be no Methodists in heaven — or Presbyterians — only Christians.
The Awakening led to a greater sense among the Colonies that they were a single people, as denominational lines dissolved and people crossed colonial lines to preach revivals.
The Awakening weakened ties to England because it weakened ties to the Church of England.
The Awakening led to greater commitment to personal holiness.
The Awakening helped the nation resist the atheism prevailing in France, and the Deistic tendencies within the Enlightenment.
The Awakening essentially invented American evangelicalism, marked by —
* Missionary activity
* Revivalism, “going forward,” hellfire and brimstone preaching
* Arminianism or else a Calvinism that encourages evangelism
* Small groups
* Vital congregational life
* Covered dish dinners
* A love for hymnody — that is, an escape from the dour music of the Anglican Church (personal opinion) and the psalmody of many very conservative Calvinistic churches.
And you can’t help but notice the roots of the Restoration Movement —
* The desire to be a Bible-only church in early Methodism
* An insistence on believer baptism, found originally among the Baptists but now spreading among the Methodists
* A rejection of 5-point Calvinism in favor of the ability of the believer to choose to believe and so be saved.