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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Nineteen


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 26, 2015)

The First Great Awakening

Like today, during the First Great Awakening the Colonists were establishing themselves in the midst of religious and political turmoil. While many replacement theology embracing Christians viewed the Americas as "the New Zion" (and themselves as the anointed inheritors of the Covenant of Avraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses), believing that God intended to establish His Messianic Kingdom in the New World, others viewed the Americas as a haven from the religious dictates and authoritarian abuses of the Old World. Organized religion was the last thing this latter group wanted. In fledgling America this period was generally known as the First Great Awakening (note 19). Also like today, the general public was fiercely divided on the role religion should play in society. Today the majority are leaning toward the Secular but then most favored a religious direction. It was this fiery debate that led to the Awakening.

This First Great Awakening began in the Dutch Reformed Churches of New Jersey circa 1726. It soon spread to the Presbyterian and Congregationalist communities. The Awakening finally reached its zenith in New England in the 1740's. It produced influential thinkers such as Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), John Locke (1632-1704), John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitfield (1714-1770). These religious reformers and their peers opposed the high level of emotionalism that was typical of the emerging religious revivalism of the day (RE 9).

Meanwhile, itinerant preachers such as the Reverends Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Davies, Eleazar Wheelock, Samuel Finley and others traveled throughout the thirteen colonies expounding emotionally charged "American Protestantism." Such preachers incited a new brand of religion that was born of American experiences and it was quickly catching on (RNA 10; RAR 63).

Famed theologian Jonathan Edwards (October 5, 1703 – March 22, 1758) proclaimed the Awakening to be a "surprising work of God." He enthusiastically proclaimed that "Jesus has flung the door of mercy open so that all could enter." While not promoting a state religion, such leaders did expect Christian (by which they meant Protestant) unity would do away with the historic divisions (especially Catholicism). They sought not a nationally mandated (top down) religion but rather a grass roots awakening that would arise from the repentant hearts of the masses.

During this period, the fatherhood aspect of the Christian God was more strongly emphasized (partly in opposition to the Pope as Papa). As the anointed of New Zion the Colonists believed they had been granted a clean slate. They regarded themselves as His special children (as "spiritual Israel") with unprecedented access to 'the Throne of His Glory'. These restored children of God fully expected that He would lead them if they obeyed and punish them for any sins they allowed. As a result 'submission of the stubborn human will' became an important concept and the religious life of the day reflected this. What the European Church (both Catholic and Anglican/Protestant) had sought to promote by force of law, inquisition, and fear, the American Church hoped to achieve through the preaching of Hellfire and damnation, repentance, peer pressure and the advancement of the Word (i.e. their interpretations of the New Testament). Personal holiness in all things came to typify the Puritan revival that occurred within and spurred the First Great Awakening (RAR 45-49).

According to E.S. Gaustad, "the founding of the Separates and the Separate Baptists was the most conspicuous institutional effect of the [first] Great Awakening in New England." It was by no means the only one however. By 1755, there were over 125 Separate (aka Strict Congregationalist) churches in New England. By 1776 over 70 autonomous Separate Baptist Churches existed. Later came the Universalists, the Unitarians, Free Will Baptists, Shakers and Quakers, the New Light Theologies (later organized as Edwardsianism, Hopkinsianism, and Consistent Calvinism), etc. (RAR 60-72). The general consensus of these movements was fundamentally Calvinist, but this Old World theology of predestination was now being challenged and redefined (more on this below).

John Calvin was one of the primary 16th Century Reformers and a gifted debater and theologian. His teachings had a profound influence on the Reformed Christian Movement. The distinctive teaching of Calvinism is the doctrine of predestination. This Christian belief holds that before the foundations of the heavens and the earth God had already chosen those people who would be 'saved' or 'lost'. The teaching is not that God in His foreknowledge knew which people would choose to accept salvation (available to all as is commonly believed today among Christians), but rather that God chose whom He would redeem and whom He would not. Those He did not choose for salvation are damned to suffer eternal torment in Hell no matter what they do. Those He chose to redeem are 'saved' regardless of what they do.

As in other areas of life, the dawning American religion demanded personal accountability and limitless human potential. It was believed during this period that as an American one could do or become anything one desired if only one was willing to apply oneself. Because of this American-born conviction, Calvinism was not as popular here as it was in Europe. Most American Christians today do not understand the doctrine of predestination nor its dark implications for those who believe in self-determination and personal salvation. Calvinism denies both.

The First Great Awakening sparked the conviction that God is willing to 'save' anyone who truly repents (note 20). To do otherwise, it was argued, would be un-American. For the ministers of the Awakening, America was the tool through which God would establishment the millennia reign of Christ (RAR 98) (note 21). That demanded a commitment to self determination, the willing embrace of the Christian Gospel, and a lot of self sacrifice. Calvinism simply would not do.

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Be the Blessing you were created to be
And
Don't let the perfect defeat the good


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