Historical Events: The First Great Awakening

George Whiteman preaching

The First Great Awakening was a spiritual revival which began as early as the 1720s in England and the Colonies, continuing on to as late as the 1760s. The movement is primarily recognized as having taken place in the 1730s and 1740s. Prominent figures in the First Great Awakening included George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards, among others. The First Great Awakening was critical to inoculating English communities from the devastating ideas of the proto-communist French Revolution which led to the Reign of Terror and ultimately, communism itself in the centuries to come. The First Great Awakening was also instrumental in preparing the Colonies to unite against the British crown under the word of God and birth the new nation of the United States.

Fall From Grace

The Enlightenment brought the world out of medieval times and into the Renaissance Era. Scientific discoveries and advancements in technology led to dramatic improvements in quality of life. Material conditions had never been better. This was the end Middle Ages and the beginning of the Age of Reason. It was a tremendous triumph for Humanity, but as with many things, it was taken too far. Excesses and complacency led humans astray once more, and people began to turn away from God as they put their faith in science as the be-all-end-all. This set the stage for the wars to come, but not all would be cast into the fire. There were a few brave souls who went against the excesses of the fleshy world and turned back to the Bible just before judgement swept across the globe, saving many others in their efforts.

Awakening in England

In England, John Wesley was born in 1703 to a large Christian family. His house was burned down by an anti-Christian mob when he was young, but he was saved from the fire and went on to continue studying scripture. He attended Oxford university and started the “Holy Club” with his brother. Wesley became a preacher and sailed to Georgia on a mission to convert the Native Americans to the word of God. Meeting little success at the time, he returned to England and attended a Moravian meeting in which a Lutheran commentary was being read. Wesley experienced a change in himself upon contemplating the words on how faith and complete trust in Christ is a force for personal renewal. After this, John Wesley traveled around the British Isles preaching the message he had received of salvation through Christ’s word alone. While he was shunned by many churches for preaching a personal relationship with God instead of an indirect relationship through the church leader, Wesley nevertheless drew large crowds speaking outside churches and in open fields.

John Wesley
A painting of John Wesley by the painter, George Romney.

Meanwhile, George Whitefield was also coming up as a prominent figure of the First Great Awakening in England. Whitefield was born in 1714 and lived a non-believer’s life during his youth. Whitefield noted that when he was young, he was a vile and foul individual who reveled in worldly pleasures. However, Whitefield attended Oxford and became a member of Wesley’s Holy Club. With this, his own personal awakening began and he wrote that one night in 1735 he awoke and cried out for salvation from the burdens of sin he felt weighing so heavily upon him. From that moment forward, he was a changed man, becoming an Anglican priest the following year. He then traveled to Georgia and founded an orphanage before returning to England to preach there again. However, Whitefield also found many of the old guard of the church shunning him and closing their doors to him, forbidding him from preaching to their congregations. Nevertheless, Whitefield drew even larger crowds for his sermons outdoors and in massive fields.

George Whitefield
A painting of George Whitefield by the painter, Joseph Badger which shows Whitefield’s cross-eyed vision.
Unification of the Colonies

The British Colonies were deeply divided among their different denominations. They squabbled over doctrinal differences in how they interpreted the Bible, and this prevented them from uniting as one Christian nation. However, Jonathan Edwards was born in 1704 and would become a uniting force for the budding American Colonies. Edwards attended Yale and became an assistant minister in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts under his grandfather. When his grandfather died, Edwards had to step up and take over as the only minister of the then second-largest church in the Colonies. He handled this position so well he was called upon to deliver a lecture at a commencement ceremony at Harvard in 1731. He preached his famous sermon, “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption” to a crowd far older and more experienced than he.

Jonathan Edwards
A portrait of Jonathan Edwards

Edwards continued to preach in Northampton, and there was a change which occurred in the surrounding towns. Edwards chronicled this mass of conversions in his book, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton and in the Neighboring Towns. Around this time, Wesley and Whitefield were doing their corresponding work in the mother country. They continued for some time, and Edwards gave one of his most famous sermons in 1741 after another preacher fell ill and he was called upon to fill the spot. That sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in which the crowd notably became hysterical and cried out at numerous times throughout Edwards’ sermon. When the crowd became too loud, he patiently waited for them to calm back down before continuing.

New Lights and Old Lights

As mentioned, many of the old guard of the church who had become accustomed to the intermediary relationship they served between God and their followers were perturbed by the urging of men like Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards for people to read the Bible themselves and form a personal relationship with God. Whitefield and Wesley were the target of numerous assassination attempts, none of which succeeded. Those who wished to stop the spiritual revival became known as the “Old Lights,” and those who wished to foster the awakening in the people were known as the “New Lights.” Many were inspired to abandon their different denominations and unify as Christians under one God after hearing the sermons of the New Lights. This was true even among the diverse and distinct Colonies.

George Whiteman preaching
An undated engraving of George Whiteman preaching sourced from Encyclopedia Britannica

Even Benjamin Franklin, who was a notorious skeptic of the Christianity, was moved by one of Whitefield’s sermons in Philadelphia. Ben Franklin noted that following the preaching of the New Lights, it was as if life had returned to the towns which had fallen silent. People could be seen once again filled with joy and a renewed sense of purpose in places where it seemed hope was fading. The Colonies, which previously viewed themselves as distinct entities with little in common, began to unite under one banner, as one people. After that, they began to demand the freedom and liberty from the British crown which they felt was promised to them by God. One motto of the American Revolution rebuking King George III which swept across the new nation exclaimed, “No King but King Jesus.”

A Storm Sweeps the Earth

Many today may assume what is now known as “World War I” was the first world war ever seen on Earth. I would argue this is not so accurate. World War I – referred to as the “Great War” at the time – is referred to as such due to World War II being seen as a continuation of the Great War with a 10-year armistice. However, there have been several world wars beyond those of the 20th century. One such world war was the series of conflicts known as the Napoleonic Wars. This world war was incredibly complex, but was at least in part precipitated by Britain’s tensions with France, as well as the infamous French Revolution giving rise to a brutal, expansionist French state.

As mentioned, the First Great Awakening had the obvious influence of unifying the American Colonies under one banner and reigniting the passion for obedience to God among the newly formed American people. The Declaration of Independence asserted the God-given rights of the people which were being infringed upon by the British crown, and that the people would stand for it no longer. However, one protective factor of the First Great Awakening which is less mentioned is how it safeguarded the people of England against the kind of radical secularism which took root in France. This fervent rebellion against God led to the Reign of Terror among the French people, and the ideas spawned from this movement eventually gave birth to revolutionary communism, resulting in tremendous losses of life over the centuries which continue to this day.

Even though the British lost control of the American Colonies, they arose triumphant in the Napoleonic Wars and regained significant influence over the globe once more. This stopped the French proto-communists from taking over the globe, even though their ideas would spread and later give rise to the Soviet Union. The British population was also spared from the kind of ruthless self-depopulation which characterized the proto-communist French Revolution. Of course, the Napoleonic Wars are a story of their own worth telling, though that is a tale for another time. For the time being, the world was spared complete oblivion due in no small part to the First Great Awakening.

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Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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