America’s First Great Awakening

The series on the prophet Zechariah’s prophecy on Alexander the Great has come to an end. That means it’s time, once again, for a palette cleanser, to mark the end of one series and prepare you for the next series to begin. The last three palette cleansers have focused on America’s First Great Awakening. So far we’ve learned how the Great Awakening in America started at Jonathan Edward’s Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1734. Then we learned how George Whitefield helped to spread the Great Awakening throughout the 13 colonies. In this post, we’re going to examine how God used America’s First Great Awakening to begin a great transformation of the Church—a transformation that would mold and shape the Church in America to become a beautiful vessel fit for His use. To that end, He began a great pruning of the Church to rid her of undesirable culture and traditions that was hindering the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

America’s First Great Awakening

By Karen Thompson
Fourth in a Five-Part Series

John Wesley: The Lord’s Pruning Instrument

There were many detrimental things in the Church that needed pruning. One of the Lord’s pruning instruments was John Wesley. Wesley was born June 17, 1703 in Epworth, England. He was educated at Oxford and ordained into the Anglican ministry. He and his brother, Charles, founded a society called the “holy club” of which their friend, George Whitefield, was a member. They developed a method in which they could lead holy lives; this led to them being called “Methodists.” Wesley and Whitefield would go on to found the Methodist Church. Wesley really didn’t have anything to do with the Great Awakening in America. He spent a short time in Savannah, Georgia as the parish priest before Whitefield came in America. Things didn’t go well for Wesley so he went back to England.

I want to talk about how the Lord used John Wesley to help rid the Church of harmful culture and traditions through his newly founded Methodist Church that was growing and thriving in America. I found in a used bookstore an amazing book entitled, “John Wesley’s Journal.” It contains the most significant excerpts from his actual journal that he kept for 55 years. With regard to culture and tradition, it is filled with all sorts of information that sheds light on different aspects of the Great Awakening.

The Culture Within the Church

Now let’s talk about the prevailing culture within the Church at the time. In order to be a minister, you had to have a high degree in education from universities like Harvard or Yale. Only ordained ministers were allowed to preach and minister. To everyone else, the pulpit was closed. What is interesting is that the established clergy was part of the upper class in society. Clergymen enjoyed a high level of esteem and privilege in their communities. They were greatly respected. In fact, to be a minister was so desirable that many of the men that were in the clergy weren’t even born again! Most of their congregants didn’t notice because many of them were not born again either! It might surprise you to know that the “born again” message wasn’t preached in the churches. At that time, it was taught that “right living” would get you into heaven. George Whitefield often criticized the established clergy because they only taught “the shell and shadow of religion” and did not think the new birth experience was necessary! Whitefield spoke about them generally as having a “lack of zeal.”

The Established Clergy Disapproved of the Awakening

There has never been a move of God where it was not met with criticism from the religious community. The established clergy was angrily opposed to the Awakening meetings and wanted them shut down. They had a whole litany of things they didn’t like, but their complaints all stemmed from a fear that their place in society was being threatened. In their view, the way the revivalist preachers were conducting ministry was lowering church standards, “breaking down respect for betters.” Their complaint was that the revivalist ministers threatened their place in society, threatened the esteem they enjoyed in the community. It didn’t matter to them that God was moving on people in a powerful way or that so many were being converted to Christianity. It was apparent their overriding concern was for themselves, what they would lose.

In the revivalist meetings, the presence of God would fall upon the people which resulted in the people experiencing great joy or weeping, physical trembling, outcries, visions, trances, and falling out under the power of God (or as they referred to it, fainting). Due to the religious fervor and the “bodily effects” the people experienced when the Holy Spirit came upon them, many of the clergy criticized the revivalist meetings saying they were creating fanaticism and disorder in the church. They didn’t like what they called emotionalism that was being demonstrated in the meetings.

The division between the established clergy and the revivalist ministers was reflected in the names they called each other. The established clergymen referred to their services as “high church” and the services of the revivalist preachers as “low church.” The revivalist preachers called themselves the “new lights” and the established disapproving ministers as “old lights.”

A Great Cultural Pruning

Just like one would prune a tree, the Lord began to prune undesirable culture and traditions from the Church. Just like the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day, the old lights were steeped in culture and tradition. Things were done a certain way and if you did not follow suit to the way things were done, you were “out of God’s will.”

Let’s first talk about what I think is their most unusual tradition. At that time, the established ministers read their sermons. What’s more, they even read their prayers! Even though I view it as strange, it was considered the norm and acceptable to read both sermons and prayers. The revivalists criticized the sermons of the old lights as dry recitations of Bible theology. The revivalists, or new lights, didn’t read their sermons or their prayers. The old lights referred to how the revivalists preached as “extemporaneous” preaching. The word extemporaneous means “done, spoken, performed, etc., without special advance preparation; impromptu; 2. previously planned but delivered with the help of few or no notes; 3. speaking or performing with little or no advance preparation.” The revivalists prepared their messages and then committed them to memory, using notes to assist them. This resulted in livelier messages.

In Wesley’s journal, he recorded a conversation he had with a man who wanted to convince Wesley to stop praying “extemporaneously.” This custom of reading sermons and prayers was so entrenched that a man approached Wesley after hearing him pray and begged him “not to leave the church.” Leaving the church, to him, was to pray extemporaneously. He insisted that the right way to pray was to read his prayer. He explained, “I will prove to a demonstration to be no prayer at all. For you cannot do two things at once. But thinking how to pray and praying are two things. Therefore, you cannot both think and pray at once.” Wesley countered his logic by using the same illustration. “Reading a prayer is not prayer,” he said. “For example, you cannot do two things at once. But reading and praying are two things. Therefore you cannot both read and pray at once.”

The revivalist preachers both preached and prayed extemporaneously, and the crowds that flocked to hear the revivalists made extemporaneous preaching popular. As a result, the tradition of reading sermons and reading prayers began to go by the wayside.

Field Preaching

Another thing the old lights disapproved of was preaching outdoors in a field. They felt it was a terrible lowering of standards. It was indecent. The preaching of God’s Word should be delivered in a proper building, sanctified for His work. In other words, a church. Actually, the truth of the matter is that the new lights would have preferred to preach in a church building as well, but men like Whitefield and others were forced to preach in the fields because of the large crowds that came to hear them. There were no buildings large enough to accommodate the crowds that came. They had to hold meetings outdoors.

For Wesley, he too was forced to preach outdoors in England. None of the old lights would let him preach in their churches because they didn’t approve of the new birth message. So even though Wesley was highly educated and ordained, they refused to allow him to preach in their churches for fear he would preach “you must be born again.” Whitefield told Wesley, “If they won’t let you preach in their churches, do as I do and preach outdoors in the field.” It’s just what Wesley began to do. When he was criticized by the old lights for field preaching, he recorded his response to them in his journal: “I wonder at those who still talk so loud of the indecency of field preaching. The highest indecency is in St. Paul’s church when a considerable part of the congregation are asleep or talking or looking about not minding a word the preacher says. On the other hand, there is the highest decency in a churchyard or field, when the whole congregation behave and look as if they saw the Judge of all and heard him speaking from heaven.” Wesley reminded them that Jesus preached outside as well. If it was good enough for Jesus, then who were they to disapprove.

Tradition and Culture Dictated That Only Clergy Could Minister

The culture and religious tradition of that time was that only men who were highly educated and ordained could minister. I realized how serious they were about that when I read Jonathan Edwards, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.” Because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there was a lot of criticism coming Edward’s way from other churches. They accused his services of being disorderly and fanatical, so he wrote “A Faithful Narrative…” as a way to explain that what was happening in his church was a true work of God.

There is a section in “A Faithful Narrative” where Edwards talked about a couple instances when Satan tried to interfere with the work God was doing. You’ll be surprised to learn what he considered to be Satan’s interference. There was a man who Edwards said was “led away with strange enthusiastic delusions.” I was flabbergasted when I read what Edwards described as this man’s delusion.

Edwards said the incident that made the “greatest noise in the country was the conduct of a man … whose delusion was that he thought himself divinely instructed to direct a poor man in melancholy and despairing circumstances to say certain words in prayer to God as recorded in Psalms 116:4 for his relief.” (Psalms 116:4 says, “Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.”) This so-called “delusional” man claimed that God spoke to him to go pray with a man who was depressed and then share a scripture with him.

Oh my goodness!

That is what Edwards was calling a delusion! The man’s delusion was to think God would tell him, a non-clergy, to go minister to someone. That’s how strongly they believed that only the clergy could preach and minister. To think otherwise was delusion.

There was more to the man’s “delusion.” Edwards said the man “exceedingly rejoiced” and was “elevated with the extraordinary work carried on in this part of the country.” The man believed God told him “it was the beginning of the glorious times of the church spoken of the Holy Ghost” and “that many in these times should be endued with extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost.” Edwards said this, too, was a delusion!

Everyone that knew this man all said he was pious. Edwards reassured the readers of his missive that the man had “no apprehensions that any besides ministers would have such gifts.” If there were any gifts to be given by God, He would only give them to ministers, not laymen. Edwards “corrected” the delusional man and reassured everyone that the man had since repented of his delusions saying, “But he since exceedingly laments the dishonor he has done to God, and the wound he has given religion in it, and has lain low before God and man for it.”

It’s obvious the Lord ministered to the man a revelation about the glorious church spoken about in Ephesians 5:27: “That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle….” And the reference to the extraordinary gifts he gave to men is in chapter four: “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. … And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:8, 12).

My pastor explains that the gifts of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers were for “the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry.” He says these five-fold ministry gifts were meant to perfect (meaning to mature) the saints for the work of the ministry. He says his job is to train up his congregation so “they” can go out and minister to people in their own environments. He said, “Most people think being called to the ministry is the only way you can serve God. But my responsibility is to perfect you, so that you can go out and do the work of the ministry. You’re the one that takes the Gospel message out there in the world, in the workplace, wherever you are.” He said whether you’re a cab driver, a lawyer, a doctor, or whatever, God will use you in whatever environment you are in to minister the Gospel of salvation to those around you.

It was obvious this man Edward’s talked about did not have delusions. God truly had instructed him to go minister to a depressed man. And the revelation he received about the Church coming into the age of the glorious church where God gave gifts unto men was also genuine. It saddened me to read the man was made to feel he was delusional when, in fact, he had received a beautiful revelation from the Lord.

Just because no one believed or received this man’s revelation about the glorious Church didn’t prevent it from coming to pass. In fact, his revelation that many in the church would be endowed with extraordinary gifts would come to pass immediately. George Whitefield was the first manifestation of an extraordinary ministry gift being in operation. Whitefield was America’s first mass evangelist—the manifestation of one of the gifts of the Spirit listed in Ephesians! There were many, many extraordinary ministry gifts to follow after him.

The Birth of the Lay Ministry

God used the Awakening revivalists like Wesley and others to destroy the tradition that only ordained clergymen could minister. During the Awakening, Wesley was overwhelmed with all the work that needed to be done. The greatest bulk of preaching rested upon him. His solution was to use lay preachers to help him. This upset the established clergy. They complained that Wesley was lowering the standards of the church when he used uneducated, non-ordained men to minister. Their complaints didn’t stop Wesley. In fact, as Wesley’s Methodist groups kept growing and expanding, there was a bigger demand for people to lead them. This opened the door for women and African Americans to be raised from their low social status and begin to “exhort religious gatherings.” By the year 1771, Wesley allowed women to become Methodist preachers. Religious tradition and the culture of the day was being shattered.

All of these changes made the established clergy outraged. But they had no authority over the revivalist ministers and could not stop what they were doing. They saw their high and lofty ministerial positions being brought low, and in their eyes, made common. Their ways of ministry were coming to an end and they were helpless to stop it.

But it was all the plan of God. Like a mighty river running through the colonies, the Spirit of the Lord brought forth great change. In the Great Awakening, the Lord began to tear down religious traditions that blocked the message of Christianity from spreading. He opened the door for all believers to minister and share the Gospel as laymen. He brought to the forefront the message of the new birth, bringing forth true conversions.

God has a powerful end time plan for the Church in America. From her very beginning, God has set her on a course to be perfected for a specific place in time… for a specific call and responsibility. We must ask ourselves, when the river begins to flow through the land again, will we stand on the banks of the river… or will we jump in and flow with the Holy Ghost?

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