A revival is one of those things that's best understood in hindsight. While it's long been recognized that colonial America did experience a slew of revivals, we can learn many great lessons to this day, and Thomas Kidd's The Great Awakening" helps us do just that. Now, let's look at some of the people who played significant roles in those revivals and what conclusions we might make.
George Whitefield played an integral role in the Great Awakening of the 1740’s. Part of his enormous influence stemmed from his willingness to partner with churches of other denominations. Whitefield began an itinerant ministry of preaching in Philadelphia. His preaching often condemned the worldly practices he perceived among his hearers and the unspiritual lives of their ministers. The “new birth” was the focus of his evangelistic message.
Samuel Blair, a Pennsylvanian minister, encouraged his church to refrain from emotional excesses during worship but never at the expense of true conversion. He understood the extremes: “cold passivity” and “overheated emotions” were both to be avoided. Blair believed that while rationality was a good guide for judging excesses, it was not irrational to have emotional outburst at the conviction of sin.
Other preachers focused on ordained clergy as the recipient of their ministries. One such preacher was Gilbert Tennant, author of The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry. Tennant sought to encourage laypeople, many of whom were younger, to make sure their ministers were truly converted, or their own salvation was questionable. Kidd notes again how revival of an area often began among young people.
George Whitefield preached many times at Josiah Smith’s church in South Carolina, and Smith would be a strong resource and ally. Smith tried to promote a moderate view of Whitefield to the public. However, Whitfield began to articulate positions at odds with the mainstream, mainly the corruption of the Anglican church and the mistreatment of slaves.
Whitefield had become a sort of celebrity by his use of new print media and outdoor field preaching. He worked with local pastors to advertise his upcoming travels in order to garner a crowd. Many of his sermons continued to deal with the issue of “unconverted ministers,” and Jonathon Edwards urged Whitefield to use more tact when dealing with these kind of issues. Other issues common to his preaching were matters of race. While evangelicals of the time were ready to preach to African American, few were willing to form an abolitionist message yet.
Daniel Rogers made a concerted effort to reach both African American and Native Americans. Tennent’s preaching also significantly impacted women and young people. Several young people were affected by a fast and Lord’s Supper organized by ministers Henry Messenger and Elias Haven in 1741. The revivals that followed were noted to have relatively few emotional outbursts. Conservative ministers continued to raise concerns about emotional excesses, but the likes of Daniel Rogers continued to preach and espouse a new radicalism. Others believed that “unrestrained emotionalism could easily lead to sexual anarchy if left unchecked."
Excessive emotionalism, “bodily agitations and vocal outbursts” continued to describe the revivals. Moderates like Edwards proposed that the apostles of the first century gave the church the means for proving a true work of God. He noted many similarities between the apostolic period and the current age of revivals. Edwards penned The Distinguishing Marks in order to help ministers think through these issues. In his defense of the revivals he warned critics that to “slander the late work of God could meet with divine retribution."
Ministers like James Davenport and Andrew Croswell continued radical revival preaching. Croswell openly critiqued ministers he thought were unconverted. Davenport was accused of antinomianism (the notion that the Mosaic law has been abolished and Christians have complete freedom to live as they see fit). Both were also thought to be suffering from physical or mental conditions. Davenport was finally arrested on the charge of slander (by local ministers). The Connecticut General Assembly requested that that Davenport never return. In response, he burned books on the Sabbath in public by authors who offended him. This resulted in ministers forming Separatist churches as a way of being able to stay true to their radical leanings.
Edwards continued to hold the moderate line and remained convinced that, amidst the chaos of radicals, the revivals still brought about good. This manifested itself mainly in the belief that this period was about to give way to the millennium. Many ministers believed like Edwards in that there was more good than ill, even from the radicals.
Possibly up to ninety ministers gathered together to finally form a statement on the excesses of revivalism. The result was The Testimony and Advice of an Assembly of Pastors. This document promoted revivals while warning the radicals “to contain their excesses.” With support from moderates, radicals like Davenport began to see themselves as moderates and retracted many previous statements.
“Liberty of conscience” was the cry of this period. Many understood liberty of conscience as the fundamental principle on American religion. Hundreds of Separate churches were formed, many due to a sense of corruption, opposition to revivals, and support for the ministry of laypeople.
Elisha Paine and Isaac Backus were at the forefront of the Separate movement. In the same way that rejecting the established church’s authority subverted good order, the Separatists were now arguing whether or not the baptism of infants was a good practice. Men like Backus went back-and-forth between support and rejection of infant baptism, but he finally landed on believer’s baptism. He was then baptized. Along with difference views on baptism came difference views on conversion-focused, or regenerate, church membership.
It takes all kinds. God used such a wide variety of dispositions to lead his people through revival. And we shouldn't ignore the parts of history that are uncomfortable, but neither should we impose contemporary philosophies on people who, 300 years ago, would not have thought like we do.
These people, ministers and lay people alike, teach us a couple of things:
1. We should always be ready for revival, and
2. We should always be ready to test revival.
Jonathan Edwards was a great mind who also knew great emotions. His other published personal writings give examples of his sitting on his horse, weeping at the beauty of the earth and worshiping the God who created and sustains it. But he also knew that not every sentiment is led by the Spirit, and they must be tested.
Every time God shakes the earth, what stands firm rises above all that blows away. We live in a time when God has shaken us. And the church will continue to stand firm. As we look around to see a shaken world, we see in even more glorious ways the splendor of the church. Amidst all of this, Christ's people stand firm in the gospel.
Can we expect revival today?