Great Awakening

During his early years at Northampton, Edwards focused his preaching particularly on the youth and young adult members of his congregation, and he instilled this group with a sense of yearning for a more personal, individualized religious experience. Before Stoddard’s death, the Northampton church had undergone what he had described as several seasons of revival; therefore, his grandson found a fertile field when, in late 1734 and early 1735, he undertook the preaching of a series of sermons on the topic of justification by faith. In response, the Northampton church underwent a remarkable period of spiritual self-examination and renewal, and many emotional conversions occurred. While confusion and some dissent among the older parishioners greeted Edwards’s early efforts, word of the transformation of the Northampton congregation quickly spread. The news and similar activity soon spread, first to Suffield, South Hadley, and Hatfield, Massachusetts, then to East Windsor, Lebanon, and New Haven, Connecticut. It ran through the Connecticut River Valley and to the Long Island Sound. At the same time, itinerant preachers were spreading a similar evangelistic message of personal spiritual accountability throughout New England. While such a fever pitch of emotion understandably could not last forever, a genuine sense of expectancy spread throughout the colonies in response to this evangelistic fervor. The belief that a meaningful spiritual life could only be coerced from the colonists by means of jeremiadic preaching that is, a listing of all of the benefits offered by a divine Providence, followed by a longer list of all the colonists’ shortcomings, accompanied by a recitation of evils to come unless the people changed their sinful ways was supplanted by evangelism, or literally, the good news of personal salvation, which would lead to an individual’s right relationship with God. For a time, evangelism and itinerant preaching became something of a cottage industry in colonial America. Many of the long-established churches in New England decried the presence of evangelists, questioning their sincerity and the efficacy of their preaching. Others were disturbed by the lack of decorum and propriety they believed such charismatic preaching induced. Many questioned the actual value of conversions experienced in the heat of emotion and disorder, arguing instead that true recognition of God’s work within a sinner’s heart could only come through long reflection, prayer, and assistance by a respectable minister of the established church hierarchy. In many communities, laws were passed banning itinerants the right to assemble makeshift congregations at revival meetings or, in some cases, even to enter a community unless the itinerant preacher had been invited by a licensed minister of an established congregation. The dangers of the Great Awakening seemed clear to mainline churches. They saw that emotional and charismatic preaching offered an interesting change from the daily routine of difficult settlement life and that it was also a powerful draw for those who had regularly attended the established churches in a region. Congregational Church ministers were quick to apprehend the possibility: not only might their pews become permanently vacant because former members would decide to abandon their church homes for this new, entertaining preaching, but their collection plates might well become similarly depleted. Interestingly, Jonathan Edwards shared some of his fellow ministers’ concerns; still, he was reluctant to completely discount the value of revivalistic religion, pointing out that the more intense forms of worship might be needed to reach some particularly unrepentant sinners’ hearts and that many lives were being permanently changed for the good in the wake of such evangelism.

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