By Karen Thompson
Second in a Four-Part Series
The First of Many Moves of God for America
This is the second post in a four-part series on America’s First Great Awakening. As I shared in the first post, people of prayer have long been aware of the coming of another Great Awakening in America… and not just in America, but all over the world. God is about to do something extraordinary on the earth. This won’t be the first extraordinary move of God in America. Throughout America’s existence, God has sent His power to America on a consistent basis to stir up and keep His fire burning. After America’s First Great Awakening in the 18th century, there came a Second Great Awakening beginning around 1790 which gained momentum by 1800 and then declined after 1820. Next, historians say America’s Third Great Awakening took place in the late 1850s up to 1900. Then in 1906, there came the Azusa Street Revival which took place in Los Angeles, California and lasted until 1915. This revival was the thrust of the Pentecostal movement. Then in the 1950s, America experienced a powerful evangelical and healing revival. After that came the Jesus People Movement in the late 1960s and early 70s which began among the hippies on the West Coast and subsided by the late 80s. At the same time as the Jesus People Movement, there came a teaching emphasis on faith in God and His Word. And now here we are, awaiting His next Great Awakening for America. Many are confident this next great move of God will be the final work on the earth before Jesus’ Second Coming! For now, let’s continue our study of America’s First Great Awakening.
Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts
America’s First Great Awakening in the 13 colonies began in Northampton, Massachusetts in the Congregational Church pastored by Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards was an important figure in this powerful move of God. He was born on October 5, 1703, to Timothy Edwards, a minister at East Windsor, Connecticut. He attended Yale College at the young age of 13. After his graduation, he studied theology for two years. In February 15, 1727, he assisted his maternal grandfather Rev. Solomon Stoddard in his Congregational church in Northampton. His wife was Sarah Pierpont, daughter of James Pierpont, who was head founder of Yale College. Her mother was the great-granddaughter of Thomas Hooker, an important British colonial clergyman.
When Solomon Stoddard died on February 11, 1729, he left his grandson, Jonathan, in charge of the church, one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the colony. At just 26 years old, a youth himself, he became the leader of what would be called America’s first youth movement.
How the Awakening Began
Jonathan wrote about the state of affairs of the youth right before the Great Awakening. He said the youth were not interested in religion, describing it as there being a “dullness of religion.” They had other interests, which he described as “licentious.” They were addicted to “night walking, frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices.” Some, he said, by their examples, had corrupted others. “It was their manner very frequently to get together, in conventions of both sexes for mirth and jollity, which they called frolics; and they would often spend the greater part of the night in them.”
It started in 1734 when the deaths of two young people greatly affected the youth. A young man became ill with pleurisy, and within two days, he died in the “bloom of his youth.” That death was quickly followed by the death of a young married woman. After these deaths, Jonathan Edwards began to minister to the young people in their distress. He proposed to the young people “that they should agree among themselves to spend the evenings after lectures in social religion.” After the lecture, they would divide into cell groups meeting in various parts of the community. Then toward the end of December, the Holy Spirit began to manifest His power on them in extraordinary ways. Jonathan wrote, “There were very suddenly, one after another, five or six persons, who were to all appearances savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner.”
The conversion of one of the youth had a very great influence on all the others. A young woman, whom Jonathan referred to as a “great company keeper,” became born again. By the context of his writings, it is apparent that being called a “great company keeper” was not a compliment, but instead, referred to a promiscuous lifestyle. In modern vernacular, she was a “party girl.” After talking with her, Jonathan had determined that her conversion was sincere and that “God had given her a new heart, truly broken and sanctified.”
Her conversion shocked the community. He said, “The news of it seemed to be almost like a flash of lightning, upon the hearts of young people, all over the town, and upon many others.” Her conversion, he said, was “the greatest occasion of awakening to others.” The most hardened young people that seemed to have no interest in God or religion seemed to be awakened by her conversion. Many flocked to her, wanting to hear of her experience. They all came away satisfied that her experience was genuine. She was a changed person.
Soon the whole community was consumed with what God was doing among them. Jonathan said everywhere you went, all anyone wanted to talk about were spiritual things. He said, “All the conversation, in all companies, and upon all occasions was upon these things only.” He said the only time anyone talked about something other than religion was out of necessity in dealing with their ordinary secular business. In fact, nobody wanted to talk about anything else other than religion.
They were so enthusiastic about spiritual things that they didn’t wait for church to get together, but met during the week in their homes. Whenever someone had a meeting in their private home, it was always “greatly thronged.” By 1735 came, Jonathan said, “The town seemed to be full of the presence of God; it never was so full of love, nor of joy. There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought to them.”
Each time when any of them got together to lift up Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit would descend upon them. There would be tears when the Word was taught. People would weep, some with sorrow and some with joy and love. And there was always much worship and singing taking place with an “unusual elevation of heart and voice.”
The Effect on the Surrounding Communities
Northampton’s neighboring communities soon heard what was happening spiritually at Northampton. Unfortunately, what was being conveyed about Northampton to the surrounding communities was misrepresented and exaggerated. They were told the people were so occupied with religion that they were not tending to their daily affairs and were instead spending all their time praying. People were saying, “The people here had wholly thrown by all worldly business, and betook themselves entirely to reading and praying, and such like religious exercises.”
As with every move of God, there were scoffers who ridiculed and made light of what was happening. People from other communities heard what was happening at Northampton and came to check it out, often with “critical and dismissive hearts.” But once the scoffers came into their midst, their minds were soon changed. Jonathan said, “Strangers were generally surprised to find things so much beyond what they had heard, and were wont to tell others that the state of the town could not be conceived of by those who had not seen it.”
Many people from other communities that came to their meetings were excited about what God was doing. Jonathan said, they “had their consciences smitten, and awakened. … There were many instances of persons who came from abroad on visits, or on business, who had not been long here, before, to all appearances, they were savingly wrought upon, and partook of that shower of divine blessing which God rained down here, and went home rejoicing.”
The awakening spread to the neighboring towns: South-Hadley, Suffield, Sunderland, Deerfield, Hatfield, West-Springfield, Long Meadow, Enfield, Westfield, Northfield. The same outpouring of the Holy Spirit that was happening at Northampton was taking place in these communities as well. Later, they discovered other communities farther away that didn’t know what was happening in Northampton were also experiencing an awakening of their own! God was doing a work in the colonies!
In the beginning, the bulk of conversions were young people. But soon the older people got involved. There were so many people that were converted to Christianity that it changed the general makeup of the town. The taverns closed for lack of customers. Instead, everybody began hanging out at the pastor’s home. There was no more fighting or gossiping. Jonathan said, “Every day seemed in many respects like a Sabbath day.” In just six months, nearly 300 of 1,100 youths became Christians.
Opposition to the Awakening
There has never been a move of God where it was not met with criticism from the religious community. Due to the religious fervor and the “bodily effects” of the people when the Holy Spirit came upon them, many criticized the young Jonathan Edwards saying he had “led his flock into fanaticism” and was promoting disorder in the church. What they were complaining about were the physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit experienced by the people during the meetings. Many of the congregants would experience great joy or weeping, physical trembling, outcries, visions, trances, and falling out under the power of God (or as they referred to it, fainting).
So bitter were the accusations that Edwards decided to write about the awakening to explain and defend what was happening. He wrote, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.” In his writings, he explained that when the power of the Spirit came upon people, it would manifest physically in different ways. These bodily effects, he said, were merely manifestations of what happens when the Holy Spirit came upon bodies of clay. The true work of God, he explained, was the changes that took place in the hearts and minds of the people. He described people as being “filled with new sweetnesses and delights; there seems to express an inward ardor and burning of heart, like to which they never experienced before … There are new appetites, and a new kind of breathings and pantings of heart, and groanings that cannot be uttered…” He also talked about those who used to be “very rough in their temper and manners, seemed to be remarkably softened and sweetened. And some have had their souls exceedingly filled, and overwhelmed with light, love, and comfort…” Unfortunately, no matter how well Edwards explained what was happening, he was unable to assuage the critics of the Awakening.
The Trance Experience
With regard to the “bodily physical effects,” I thought it would be enlightening to read one such account. It’s from a book called “John Wesley’s Journal,” a journal he kept for 55 years. It’s filled with all manner of interesting information. One of the most interesting things Wesley wrote about is the “trance experience.” He recorded the experiences of three women who had all experienced what they referred to as a “trance.” Wesley noted that the women’s experiences were all the same with regard to three specific things. The trance came upon them unexpectedly, without notice. During the trance, all their senses were suspended. When they “went away” (their expression), they were in “another world, knowing nothing of what was done or said by all that were round about them.” And lastly, all three said the trance happened when they were filled full with the love of God.
One afternoon, he was told that a 15-year-old girl named Alice had fallen into a trance at five in the afternoon. He went to where she was to observe her. He described the expression on her face as being full of love. He made quick hand gestures in front of her face to see if she would respond. She didn’t flinch. Her senses were suspended, making her unaware of his presence.
He sat patiently, observing her. Sometimes her lips would move but no sound would come out. After half an hour passed, her expression changed to concern and distress. She burst into tears and said, “Dear Lord, they will be damned.” A few minutes later, her countenance changed back to love and joy. At 6:30, she became distressed again and began to weep saying, “Dear Lord, they will go to hell. The world will go to hell!” Moments later she said, “Cry aloud! Spare not!” Shortly after, she stopped weeping and became composed, expressing joy and peace. Lastly, she cried out, “Give God the glory.” At 7 p.m., she came out of the trance. Wesley immediately interviewed her while the experience was fresh. The following is their conversation.
He asked her, “Where have you been?”
She said, “I’ve been with my Savior.”
“In heaven or on earth?”
“I cannot tell, but I was in glory,” she replied.
“Why then did you cry?”
She explained, “Not for myself but for the world, for I saw they were on the brink of hell.”
Wesley asked, “Whom did you desire to give the glory to God?”
“Ministers that cry aloud to the world, else they will be proud. And then God will leave them, and they will lose their own souls,” she explained.
The revival that was happening in the 13 colonies in America was also taking place in England. One of the leading promoters of the Great Awakening in England (or as they called it, the Evangelical Revival) was George Whitefield. Several of the leaders of the Great Awakening in the colonies helped arranged a 15-month preaching tour for George Whitefield in the colonies. He was the most popular speaker of his time, where tens of thousands came to hear him preach. That’s for the next post!
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