In his treatise, Religious Affections, Edwards argues, against Chauncy, that true religion consists not merely of a “notional” understanding and cognitive acquiescence to truth, but of a “sense of the heart” in which lively and vigorous affections of love and delight and joy and peace and yearning are in evidence. Such affections, said Edwards, may be accompanied by physiological phenomena, but the presence of the latter was no sure proof of the reality of the former.
In a previous article I spoke of the first wave of the First Great Awakening, a revival that fell upon New England in 1734-36. Today we turn our attention to the second wave of the Spirit’s work and the events that can generally be dated 1740-42.
(1) Historians have typically traced the revival’s beginning to the visit to America of George Whitefield (1714-71), known as “The Grand Itinerant.” Whitefield arrived in the fall of 1740 and “set all New England aflame with a revival compared to which the Valley awakening of 1734-35 was but a brush fire” (C. C. Goen, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, The Great Awakening [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972], 48).
After preaching to thousands all along the Atlantic coast, Whitefield arrived in Edwards’ Northampton in mid-October. After one Sunday morning sermon in Edwards’ church, Whitefield wrote in his diary that “Good Mr. Edwards wept during the whole time of exercise. The people were equally affected; and, in the afternoon, the power increased yet more” (Ibid., 49). Sarah Edwards was equally impressed. In a letter to her brother, the Rev. James Pierrepont of New Haven, she said:
“It is wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible. I have seen upward of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence, broken only by an occasional half-suppressed sob. He impresses the ignorant, and not less the educated and refined . . . our mechanics shut up their shops, and the day-labourers throw down their tools to go and hear him preach, and few return unaffected. . . . Many, very many persons in Northampton date the beginning of new thoughts, new desires, new purposes and a new life, from the day they heard him preach of Christ” (Cited in Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century [Westchester: Crossway Books, 1990], 89-90).
Benjamin Franklin, although an unbeliever, regarded Whitefield to be his friend, and said this of his oratorical gift:
“He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories observed the most perfect silence. . . . By hearing him often, I came to distinguish easily between sermons newly composed and those which he had often preached in the course of his travels. His delivery of the latter was so improved by frequent repetition, that every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of the voice, was so perfectly well turned and well placed, that, without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse” (Gaustad, 29).
According to Goen, “by the time he passed from Connecticut into New York, his journal showed that he had spent 45 days, visited 40 towns, and delivered 97 sermons and exhortations” (49). Whitefield set sail for England on January 16, 1741, after 14 1/2 months of preaching in America. He returned for a brief visit in the fall of 1744.
(2) Whitefield was far from the only participant in this awakening. One must also mention Gilbert Tennent (1703-64), leader of the Presbyterian revival in the middle Colonies. Goen reports that “after Tennent passed through eastern Connecticut, emotional outbursts in time of worship became common. Preachers sometimes had to stop in mid-sermon, as ‘weeping, sighs and sobs’ mingled with cries of distress: ‘Alas! I’m undone; I’m undone! O, my sins! How they prey upon my vitals! What will become of me? How shall I escape the damnation of hell, who have spent away a golden opportunity under Gospel light, in vanity?’” (51). Visions and trances, evidently, were commonplace. Chief among Tennent’s messages was his belief that most ministers of the day were unconverted. Needless to say, this didn’t fare well with the established clergy of New England!
(3) Yet another preacher, of a decidedly different disposition, was James Davenport (1716-57). Davenport was labeled an “enthusiast” and was in many ways responsible for those excesses that Edwards believed led to the end of the revival. The word “enthusiasm”, as Goen defines it, “is belief in God’s immediate inspiration or possession, leading often to claims of divine authority” (62).
Davenport was at one point banned from speaking in Boston pulpits. In a printed declaration, fourteen Boston pastors censured him for leaning too much on “sudden Impulses,” rashly judging other ministers as unconverted, “going with his Friends singing thro’ the Streets and High-Ways,” and encouraging “private Brethren to pray and exhort.” They pronounced him “deeply tinctur’d with a Spirit of Enthusiasm” (cited by Thomas Kidd, The Great Awakening, 144).
Davenport was temporarily incarcerated by leading opponents of the revival on the assumption that he was mentally unstable. Although Edwards denounced his extremes, they became somewhat friendly following Davenport’s repentance and restoration to ministry. In late summer of 1744 Davenport issued his Confession and Retractions in which he acknowledged the fanaticism that had brought reproach on the revival. “On the whole,” notes Kidd, “it was a sincere but limited confession” (165).
(4) Opposition to the awakening was fierce and persistent. It was led by Charles Chauncy (1705-87), pastor of Boston’s most influential church. Chauncy was the acknowledged leader of the “Old Lights”, those who “vilified the whole revival as ‘the effect of enthusiastic heat’” (63). Chauncy and his supporters typically preferred the time-honored traditions of the established order of religion in New England and opposed the new measures introduced by the revivalists. For them, conversion was principally a transformation in one’s intellectual convictions. The Christian life, therefore, together with any alleged encounter with the Spirit, must be reasonable, courteous, and not given to visible or vocal displays of emotion.