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Do you know who coined the phrase, “of the people, by the people, and for the people?”  In 1384, John Wycliffe wrote in the prologue to his translation of the Bible, “This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.”  The concepts of self-government, and consent of the governed by means of a democratic republic over people guided by the scriptures were excellent and biblical, but when placed in the hands of sinners, problems are sure to erupt…and they did.

As we fast-forward into the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, approximately three to four generations after the founding generation, we can see the cracks in the foundation forming, and not just in Puritan New England, but also in Virginia.

At this time, there are two main church powers in the colonies:

  1. Puritan Congregational churches continued to spread across New England:
    1. The “established” churches in New England
    2. Supported by tax-payer dollars
    3. Doing the work typically associated with government today like establishing schools, caring for the sick and needy, serving as judges, etc.
    4. Intolerant of dissident beliefs
  2. The Anglican Church grew in the more central and southern colonies, including Virginia:
    1. In some cases, were considered the “state-church” for a colony (ex. a 1624 law required all Virginians to be members of the Church of England).
    2. Supported by tax dollars
    3. All government officials had to be affiliated with it.
    4. Allowed dissenters but controlled, restricted, and licensed them. Non-Anglican congregations had to notify the government that they were dissenters.

Both the Puritan Congregational churches and the Church of England in the colonies were dry and waning in influence because of their own diminished personal piety and the intense competition they had with the almighty dollar.

The two main reasons for the demise of the colonial church are:

  1. Personal prosperity led to less godly living.
  2. Compromise within the church weakened religious commitment

Let’s explore both in more depth:

  1. Personal prosperity led to less godly living: “Emphasis upon economic success, political developments, and rational thought pre-empted concerns for the soul and instilled a confidence in salvation despite a laxity of morals. Individual morals declined as Puritans within the community turned increasingly to the belief that preparation for heaven was easily managed and therefore less important, to justify their participation in secular affairs.”

11 “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God by failing to keep His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes which I am commanding you today; 12 otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, and you build good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and your flocks increase, and your silver and gold increase, and everything that you have increases, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; . . . you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ . . . 19 And it shall come about, if you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and serve and worship them, I testify against you today that you will certainly perish. 20 Like the nations that the Lord eliminates from you, so you shall perish, because you would not listen to the voice of the Lord your God.” (Deut. 8:11-20)

  1. Compromise within the church weakened religious commitment: To compensate for the decline in piety, which began as early as the 1650’s, and to insure a steady, growing congregation, the Congregational Churches of Connecticut and Massachusetts adopted the Halfway Covenant in 1662, which ultimately led to further degeneration of Puritan influence. It really split the Puritans, known more often as “Congregationalists” in later years.  Increase Mather was the original John Kerry – he was against it before he was for it. He ended up being an influencer who wrote it out and promoted it.  However, it was not universally embraced.  Preacher Charles Chauncy opposed it; he would later become the President of Harvard!

What is the Halfway Covenant?

Prior to 1662, membership in the church required `regeneration’ and credible testimony of a specific conversion experience. The church baptized the second generation of Puritans as infants with the assumption that they would be converted later in life. As politics and economics superseded religion, however, the second generation of Puritans failed to experience an outward conversion. This second and unsaved generation began having children.  What was the church to do?  Baptize the children of unregenerate parents?

All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and another generation rose up after them who did not know the Lord, nor even the work which He had done for Israel. 11 Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord… (Judges 2:10-11)

To sustain the population of the congregation, the church adopted the Halfway Covenant, which allowed the children of unregenerate Puritans (in other words, the third generation) to be baptized but forbade them to partake of the Lord’s Supper and denied them suffrage. Isolating the third generation of Puritans from the traditional means of receiving God’s grace, this Covenant furthered the degeneration of the church. In 1690, Solomon Stoddard, two-time graduate of Harvard, and now pastor of the church in Northampton, Massachusetts, eliminated the Halfway Covenant and allowed the non-regenerate or “halfway members” of the church, to receive Communion.

Stoddard believed in extending full Communion to all to assure the continued existence of the church.  Although the churches of the Connecticut Valley soon followed his example, the second and third generations of Puritans failed to demonstrate the same devotion and discipline that the original Puritans had practiced. John Whiting of Hartford expressed this sentiment and the need for revival in an election sermon of 1686, saying:

“Is there not too visible and general a declension; are we not turned (and that quickly too) out of the way wherein our fathers walked?…A rain of righteousness and soaking showers of converting, sanctifying grace sent from heaven will do the business for us, and indeed, nothing else.”

But wait, it gets worse!  Allowing unregenerate members leads to hiring unregenerate pastors. Unregenerate pastors make bad decisions for a flock.

To restore discipline to the churches of Connecticut, a group of ministers and laymen, selected by the General Court, drafted the Saybrook Platform, fifteen “Articles for the Administration of Church Discipline.” The Saybrook Platform established control over the churches, calling for consociations in each county to oversee major ecclesiastical decisions such as ordinations, installations, and dismissals of Congregational ministers. The elimination of local power and the establishment of a hierarchy within the church contradicted the Puritan belief in the autonomy of the congregation, a belief which had stimulated both their rejection of the Anglican Church in the early 1600’s. Attempting to unify the churches and establish moral discipline among the unregenerate, the Saybrook Platform created bitter controversies and caused divisions throughout the colony.

Conditions worsened into the 1710’s and beyond.  Jonathan Dickinson of New Jersey described the state of the church there: ‘Religion was in a very low state, professors generally dead and lifeless, and the body of our people careless, carnal and secure.’ In Pennsylvania Rev. Samuel Blair stated, ‘Religion lay as it were dying, and ready to expire its last breath of life in this part of the visible church.’

In the 1730’s the tide began to turn.  Jonathan Edwards saw revival in his area and George Whitefield was seeing large conversions in Old England.  In response to Whitefield’s success in arousing sinners and instilling a concern for salvation, the Eastern Consociation of the County of Fairfield Connecticut met on October 7, 1740 and voted to invite Whitefield to preach in several towns within their district. Acknowledging that “…the Life and Power of Godliness in [these] Parts is generally sunk to a Degree very lamentable,” the Consociation requested that Whitefield share his ministry provided he did not denounce unconverted ministers or demand contributions for his orphan house in Georgia.


The Great Awakening Begins!

George Whitefield

This new spiritual renewal began with people like the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield in England and crossed over to the American Colonies during the first half of the 18th Century. Unlike the somber, largely Puritan spirituality of the early 1700s, this revivalism ushered in by the Awakening allowed people to express their emotions more overtly in order to feel a greater intimacy with God.

Powerful preaching gave listeners a sense of their deep need of salvation by Jesus Christ. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made Christianity intensely personal to the average person by fostering a deep sense of spiritual conviction and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality.

Participants in both England and the colonies became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used this new style of preaching were generally called “new lights”, while the preachers who remained unemotional were referred to as “old lights.”

Old England sees revival

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, the Church of England was established as the reigning church of the country. Other religions, such as Catholicism, Judaism, and Puritanism, were subsequently suppressed.  From a political perspective, this led to stability since everyone now practiced the same religion. But instead of being a positive driving force for religious belief in general, it created complacency and spiritual “dryness” among believers. Religion became something of a pastime in which people would “go through the motions” during religious services without deeply-felt convictions of the heart and soul. It was only after some decades of this kind of complacency in both England and the American colonies that the spiritual “revival” of the Great Awakening came about.[1]

In England in the early 1700’s, Charles and John Wesley underwent personal transformations from mere nominal participation in their religion to an active, vibrant faith that is evident through good works.  From this revival spawned Methodism which led to the conversion of thousands and social reforms that changed the very culture of the country.  The Wesley’s built a movement on the simple belief that “good works are the inseparable properties of living faith, even as warmth and light are the inseparable properties of the sun.”[2]

New England sees revival

No one can pinpoint the exact date the Great Awakening started in America, but the preacher often considered to be at “the tip of the spear” of this movement is a Dutch immigrant reformer/preacher by the name of Theodore Frelinghuysen.  He served as pastor for four churches in the Raritan Valley of New Jersey, passionately preaching the need for true, inner religion rather than mere outward performance of religious duties. He called for personal conversion and high standards of personal conduct.  This guy was on fire for the Lord.  He had seven children – five boys and two girls.  All five boys became ministers and both daughters married ministers.

Frelinghuysen stressed tangible religious experiences. He trained young men for the clergy, often ordaining them without permission. He was fiercely evangelistic and autonomous. His preaching aimed to convince people of the need to examine their lives in order to ascertain the validity of their salvation.

Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. (2 Cor. 13:5)

He adapted his training and preaching style from the Netherlands to match the raw frontier culture of New Jersey. He attempted to ingrain within the listener a deep conviction of sin. As a preacher, he was very blunt and classified his audiences into two basic categories: regenerate and unregenerate.

The churches in New Jersey that called him from the old country to serve as their preacher were sorely disappointed in him.  One member of his congregation described it this way: “We welcomed him with joy and love, in the hope that his service would be for our edification. But alas! to our great sorrow, we, soon, and increasingly found that the result was very different. His denunciations uttered against all of us from the pulpit . . . and on all occasions, to the effect that we were all unconverted . . . were severe and bitter.”

Frelinghuysen became most famous (or infamous) for his “fencing the table”, or preventing people from full participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  He sought not only to purify the sacrament but also to alert his parishioners to the importance of holy living as evidence of salvation. He practiced church discipline against members of his flock who violated the commandments in order to stress the need for self-inspection of their lives for holy living. If they failed to see either their sinful hearts or if they could not point to righteous acts of fruit demonstrating salvation, they stood in need of conversion. Few acts incited such anger for the Colonial citizens as did Frelinghuysen’s “fencing the table.”

Surely his approach did not work, right?  On the contrary, his churches grew, and in the thirty years of his ministry, his influence spread through the men he trained for ministry. He spearheaded the creation of a college in New Jersey.  His efforts led to the charter in 1766 of Queen’s College in New Brunswick, now Rutgers University.

Meanwhile, in the middle colonies, the seeds of revival came to full fruition in the 1730’s and 1740’s under the leadership of William and Gilbert Tennent. William was born in Ireland and educated at the University of Edinburgh. He immigrated to New York and served as a Presbyterian minister and educator.  In Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, he built a log house in which he established the school that became known as the Log College. The purpose of the Log College was to train students both evangelical zeal and Presbyterian doctrine. Three of his sons, including Gilbert, attended the Log College. Between 1726-1746, William trained nearly twenty young men who went on to become revivalist leaders and establish spiritual training schools along the frontier.  The Log College eventually became Princeton.

Meanwhile, remember Solomon Stoddard who took the Halfway Covenant all the way to allowing unsaved people join the church, receive the Lord’s Supper, and vote like full-fledged church members? Fast forward approximately forty years later and his grandson is now preaching in the same church. Jonathan Edwards was a brilliant mind and a gifted writer.  In the 1730’s, he preached a series of powerful sermons on ‘Justification by Faith.’ Edwards later recorded his impressions of the spiritual awakening that took place:

Jonathan Edwards preaching

“This work of God, as…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 was never 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 unto them… More than 300 Souls were savingly brought home to Christ, in this Town, in the Space of half a year.”[3]

This revival soon spread to surrounding towns and eventually covered most of Connecticut and western Massachusetts.  It was near the height of the Great Awakening that he preached his famous sermon, from Deut. 32:35 at Enfield, Connecticut. Here are some excerpts:

In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works towards them, remained (as verse 28) void of counsel, having no understanding in them. Under all the cultivations of heaven, they brought forth bitter and poisonous fruit… The expression I have chosen for my text, “Their foot shall slide in due time,” seems to imply the following things, relating to the punishment and destruction to which these wicked Israelites were exposed… the reason why they are now fallen already, and do not fall now, is only that God’s appointed time is not come. For it is said, that when that due time, or appointed time comes, their foot shall slide. Then they shall be left to fall, as they are inclined by their own weight. God will not hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go; and then, at that very instant, they shall fall into destruction; as he that stands on such slippery declining ground, on the edge of a pit, he cannot stand alone, when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost.  The observation from the words that I would now insist upon is this. “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.

Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a fallen rock. Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation: Let every one fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.”

Old England comes to New England

George Whitefield began in England preaching to large crowds around 1737. He then came over to the United States as a national celebrity who attracted large crowds here, too.  His arrival was welcomed by the likes of Thomas Foxcroft, who was concerned with the cold rationalism of the day and was pleased with Whitefield’s counter-message. Regarding Whitefield, Foxcroft said in a sermon, “We have in a fresh Instance seen this Pauline Spirit and Doctrine remarkably exemplify’d among us. We have seen a Preacher of Righteousness, fervent in Spirit, teaching diligently the Things of the Lord.” Not until George Washington would another person be embraced with such adulation and universal popularity across America as George Whitefield.

In 1739-40, Whitefield preached to many, spreading the Great Awakening from New England to Georgia, among rich and poor, educated and illiterate, and in the back-country as well as in seaboard towns and cities.  Like the Wesleys, he declared the whole world his “parish” and appealed to the passions of his listeners, powerfully sketching the boundless joy of salvation and the horrors of damnation.  Whitefield had no formal ministerial education, but he had great oratory skills.

Like any well known preacher, Whitefield had those who both cursed him and praised him. Harvard College’s faculty published a series of complaints against Whitefield. During his first visit to Harvard, Whitefield said the “darkness on campus was almost felt.” Harvard’s faculty reacted negatively to his claims to direct leadership by the Holy Spirit, his censoriousness (being critical), his reputed dishonesty and his “enthusiasm” (undisciplined religious fervor).  The student body, however, was deeply influenced by him and revival swept the dormitories. At Harvard it was reported that “The College is entirely changed. The students are full of God.”

The Great Awakening reached its height in New England between 1740-1742. During the fall of 1740, Whitefield preached every day in New England for six weeks to daily crowds of up to 8,000 people. Whitefield’s farewell sermon on the Boston Common drew 23,000 people — more than Boston’s entire population.

The Southern colonies see revival

The revival spread into the Southern Colonies and can be traced to the 1743 visit of William Robinson, a graduate of the Log College, to Hanover County in Virginia. Robinson found a group of laymen lead by Samuel Morris, who, having heard of the revival occurring to the north, were studying Whitefield’s sermons, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Luther’s commentaries.  A deep religious concern and revival began to spread throughout the region.

Meanwhile from 1748-1759 the Presbyterian revival in Virginia and the Carolinas centered around another preacher named Samuel Davies. Davies was a graduate of one of the daughter schools of the Log College and a “New Side” Presbyterian.  Davies possessed the unusual gift of appealing to people of widely varied culture and intelligence.  As a revivalist, Davies preached “as a dying man to dying men.”[4]

What Did the Great Awakening Contribute to America?

  • Colonial and denominational barriers were broken down. The colonies shared a more common faith.
  • Religion became accessible to every man, even the poor and illiterate could find God. It was no longer limited to the wealthy, educated, and influential.
  • An increase in missionary endeavors, especially to the Indians.
  • It brought Christianity to African slaves.
  • Bible study increased; people began holding home Bible studies. People were less dependent on church leadership for interpretation and application.
  • Since the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members, it changed their rituals, their piety and their self awareness.
  • It spawned an increase in piety and spirituality. Morality was emphasized.
  • A national fear of Roman Catholicism increased with its hierarchy, authoritarianism, papal claims of being God’s ultimately authority on earth, and the cold, dry, ceremonial nature of the worship. The Pope was viewed as enemy, and nothing unifies a people like a common enemy.
  • New colleges were created to train “new light” preachers: Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton (formerly William Tennent’s Log College then The College of New Jersey). Of all these schools, Princeton probably played the largest role in shaping colonial leaders. One-sixth of the members of the Constitutional Convention were Princeton alumni.[5] Key Great Awakening figures such as Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Davies eventually became presidents of Princeton.
  • The Awakening’s biggest significance was the way it prepared America for its War of Independence. In the decades before the war, revivalism taught people that they could be bold when confronting religious authority, and that when churches weren’t living up to the believers’ expectations, the people could break off and form new ones. Through the Awakening, the Colonists realized that religious power resided in their own hands, rather than in the hands of the Church of England, or any other religious authority. After a generation or two passed with this kind of mindset, the Colonists came to realize that political power did not reside in the hands of the English monarch, but in their own will for self-governance (consider the wording of the Declaration of Independence). By 1775, even though the Colonists did not all share the same theological beliefs, they did share a common vision of freedom from British control. Thus, the Great Awakening brought about a climate which made the American Revolution possible.[6]

It was not to any church that the signers of the Declaration of Independence appealed to, but directly to the “Supreme Judge of the World”. It was through the revivalism of the first half of the Eighteenth Century that the colonists were finally able to step out from under the protectorate of the established Christian churches and assert religious control over their own nation’s destiny.

That the religious spirit of the colonists was a necessary component to the drive for independence is confirmed in the sentiments of those who lived during the period of fighting. As British statesman William Knox noted about the American drive for independence, “Every man being thus allowed to be his own Pope, he becomes disposed to wish to become his own King.”

The Black-Robed Regiment

These revivalist preachers themselves and their disciples filled the pulpits and continued the spiritual rebirth for years. In those days, before the government’s restriction against political speech in non-profit organizations, clergy often addressed current events, elections, and political issues in their sermons.  They believed that faith should influence and shape all aspects of life whether in the life of an individual, family, community, or nation.  In the years of the Great Awakening and after, pulpits rang with sermons promoting liberty, and opposing unjust treatment of the colonists by the Crown.

The Black Robed Regiment was the name the British placed on the courageous and patriotic American clergy during the founding era (a back-handed reference to the robes they wore).  Significantly, the British blamed the Black Robed Regiment for American independence, and rightfully so, for modern historians have noted that “there is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763.”[7]

John Adams rejoiced that “the pulpits have thundered” and specifically identified several ministers as being among the “characters the most conspicuous, the most ardent, and influential” in the “awakening and a revival of American principles and feelings” that led to American independence. [8]

Even as early as 1687, Rev. John Wise was preaching that “taxation without representation is tyranny,” the “consent of the governed was the basis for government,” and that “every man must be acknowledged equal to every man.”[9]  In 1772 with the Revolution on the horizon, two of Wise’s works were reprinted by leading patriots and the Sons of Liberty to refresh America’s understanding of the core Biblical principles of government.

Christian clergy largely defined America’s unique political theory and even defended it in military combat, but they were also leaders in the national legislative councils in order to help implement what they had conceived and birthed.

The culture that resulted from the Great Awakening impacted the entire nation.  Not everyone was saved nor even professed agreement with a church or denomination, but everyone recognized the wisdom and authority of the Bible, understood Judeo-Christian ethics, knew the stories of the Old Testament and the teachings of Christ. Americans were biblically literate and church attendance was expected.  The Bible was the main textbook in schools, and colleges were founded primarily for the purpose of training men for ministry.

The heroes of the revolutionary generation were raised in this environment.  All of them, simply by being raised in this time period, were manifestations of it. It shaped their character, beliefs, and ethics.  They, in return, shaped a newly conceived nation.  Popular scholarship seeks to downplay the Christian faith of the founders, calling them “deists.”  The evidence paints a far different picture of devout, godly men, seeking God’s help and thanking Him for victories and wisdom during the revolutionary years.


[2] Tom Minnery, Why You Can’t Stay Silent, (Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 2001), p. 29

[3] Jonathan Edwards, The Jonathan Edwards Reader (Yale Nota Bene) (Yale University, New Haven, 2003), p. 63.

[4] William Warren Sweet, Religion in Colonial America, Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., New York, 1965, p. 296-298.

[5] John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987, p. 83

[6] Ibid.

[7] Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958), p. 170.

[8] John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1850), Vol. X, p. 284, to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818. See also John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1856), Vol. X, pp. 271-272, letter to William Wirt, January 5, 1818.

[9] David Barton,