History of American Presbyterianism

Lesson 2

The Great Awakening is the term for an extended “revival” of religion in the American colonies that occurred during the 1730’s and 1740’s.

It commenced in 1730 in Freehold, N.J. in the congregation of Rev. John Tennant.

The revival quickly spread and seemed attended by many genuine conversions and marked by many true spiritual blessings. Great numbers attended public worship, religion became a general topic of discussion, and many resorted to reading the Bible.

It was termed a “revival” because all sides agreed that at the time the state of religion was considered low, at least by the standards of the day, and as compared to prior generations.

There was however no evidence of doctrinal error, at least in the Presbyterian Church (although Arminianism was growing rapidly in New England), and both sides in the ensuing controversies were subscriptionists, and sound Calvinists.

Rather religion was felt to be somewhat cold and formal and lacking in fervency, zeal, and other manifestations of experimental religion.

By the late 1730’s had spread to other NJ towns such as Lawrence, Hopewell, Amwell, New Brunswick (Frelinghuysen of the Dutch Reformed Church), Elizabeth, and Newark. The revival spread south to Virginia and into the Carolinas and Georgia (Whitfield’s ministry), and was already concurrent in New England.

Whitfield, an Episcopal minister from England, was by then preaching in the colonies as well. He preached in NJ and then in Philadelphia for the better part of year (1739-40). He preached twice a day daily and 3-4 times on the Sabbath. At first the Episcopal clergy welcomed him but soon chilled to his evangelical fervor and closed their pulpits to him and he commenced outdoor preaching.

By this time many unusual occurrences and unnatural disturbances were routinely attendant upon the revival. People broke down and wept, they cried out, they fainted, they convulsed, they screamed, they claimed visions of hell swallowing them up, or of God, or of Christ. People fell senseless, or fell into a trance, sometimes for as long as 24 hours. Others who had made a profession at first now either openly backslid or became spiritually arrogant and so secure in their pretended faith they abandoned the means of grace. Many were filled with spiritual “pride, a false and rash zeal and censoriousness”.

It is interesting to note that the rise of the Methodists and the Wesleyan revivals in England, and revivals in Scotland were going on in the British Isles at the same time and were attended with many of the same disturbances as those on these shores.

Results of the Revival

The earlier estimates were that tens of thousands of persons were genuinely converted to Christianity. Doubtless many thousands were. However it is the mature judgment of many that the majority of the conversions were ultimately determined to be spurious. Jonathan Edwards himself says, “…that only a small portion proved to be genuine”.

Edwards own experience after the revival had burned itself out was not conducive to positive reflections. Although the revival had been the strongest in his area, and although he had been one of the chief ministers advocating the revival, yet in the four years after it subsided, from 1744-1748 not a single new member was added to his church. When in 1749 he stated that persons should not be admitted to the Lord’s supper unless they could give a credible profession of faith, the town went into an uproar, he was defamed and reviled, the church was scorned and mocked, and the members voted to cast him out of the church as their pastor, and to make sure that he left town they filed false criminal charges against him. This was the action of almost the entire church, a church that had figured so prominently in the revival.

After the revival subsided the state of religion rapidly declined so that the universal testimony of godly men was that it was far worse than that before the revival commenced. A coldness and deadness settled in from which the churches for the most part never recovered.

After the revivals doctrinal errors came in like a flood. Edwards complains of daily propagation of “Arminianism, Arianism, and even Socinianism, to the detriment of the doctrines of grace”. He also complains elsewhere that Arminianism and Pelagianism have made great progress in New England, that the Church of England there had tripled in size, and that the state of the churches is one of turmoil, dissension, schism, and confusion. Other godly divines particularly in New England complained of the host of errors of the New Divinity propagated by the converts and the ministers generated by the revival. Hodge notes that where the revival was most extensive was exactly those places where religion afterward most declined and where error was most prevalent and aggravated.

Hodge’s Analysis

Hodge maintained that the extraordinary manifestations of the revival were the work of man and not of the Holy Spirit. He attributes them to the excessive oratory of the overzealous revivalists preaching the terrors of the law and the judgments of God in a manner that was without precedent, and so working on the emotions of the people that they were precipitated into fits of weeping, crying out, convulsions etc. When these were encouraged there was a systematic nervous propagation of these manifestations throughout the assembled masses so that scores of persons were overcome. He notes that similar effects had been obtained by fanatic orators of both Roman Catholic and Moslem persuasion, where the truth of God was not proclaimed, and God’s Spirit was not presumed to have been present. He notes that when these symptoms were attributed to the work of God they caused many, including the persons themselves, to come under the delusion that they had actually been objects of divine grace, when they had only been objects of the orator’s art. He also noted that where they were discouraged and viewed as marring the work of God they disappeared and where they were encouraged they proliferated.

He notes that tested by its fruits the revival was seriously found wanting. He explains the schism that it caused in the churches due to the fact that the defenders of the revival concentrated only the good aspects of what was transpiring and in their enthusiasm were blinded to the problems that were accompanying their ministries. He noted that the opponents of the revival were not ungodly men resisting the work of God but merely those men, who aware of the serious disorders accompanying the work and their disastrous effects on the churches, were attempting to protect the churches from these ill effects.


The Great Awakening started off as a genuine revival occasioned by a remarkable response to sound preaching by Calvinistic ministers. It degenerated into wild outbreaks of neo-Pentecostal, charismatic disorders. The fallacy of attributing these disorders to the operation of the Holy Spirit led to their encouragement, to hosts of spurious conversions, and to anarchy, confusion, schism, and error in the churches. When these wild outbreaks finally burned out the people were immune to the attractions of the ordinary means of grace and the churches settled down to a coldness and decline that persisted for many decades.