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Christian History & BiographySpiritual Awakenings in North America
Issue 23 | 1989


 ARTICLE TOOLS

God's Wonderful Working
The first Great Awakening in New England & the Middle Colonies

Decades before the Revolution that gave birth to the United States, a different kind of revolution born of God’s Spirit swept the land.

New England

When Rev. Solomon Stoddard died in 1729 at 86 years, his grandson, Jonathan Edwards, who had been his assistant for two years, became pastor of the Congregational Church of Northampton, Massachusetts. His congregation could not have guessed that one day their tall, mild new minister would be called one of the best minds America has ever produced, and her greatest Christian thinker. He also would prepare the soil for a great spiritual harvest in New England in their day.

Jonathan Edwards & God’s Surprising Work

In 1734, Rev. Edwards began to stress evangelism from his Northampton pulpit with a series of sermons on Justification by Faith. No immediate effects became apparent, but after some time, in December 1734 “The Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and wonderfully to work among us…

Soon the town was enveloped in spiritual concern. Edwards wrote about these events in his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. He referred to the awakening as a work of God:

This Work of God, as … the Number of true Saints multiplied, soon made a glorious Alteration in the Town; so that in the spring and summer following, Anno 1735, the Town seemed to be full of the Presence of God; it was never so full of Love, nor of Joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. 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 unto them.… … More than 300 Souls were savingly brought home to Christ, in this Town, in the Space of half a Year.… I hope that by far the greater Part of persons in this Town, above sixteen Years of age, are such as have the saving Knowledge of Jesus Christ.


Other pastors began to promote the awakening, and it spread to over twenty communities in western Massachusetts and Connecticut, lingering for a few years in some villages. Observers who came to Northampton and were impressed touched off further revivals when they returned to their own churches to tell what they had witnessed. While there had been awakenings here and there in New England previously, never had so many towns and churches been involved at once.

Preacher & Reporter

Edwards not only promoted the awakening, but kept a careful written account of his observations. He noted that many people who came under conviction initially were concerned over their sinful behavior, but gradually they began to see that their greatest problem was internal—a sinful heart.

The Faithful Narrative was published in London and Boston, and went through twenty printings by 1738, thus giving it a wide readership and popularity. As New Englanders read it and inched towards the Great Awakening of 1740 and beyond, they gradually divided into three groups:

those who were opposed to anything but the usual expressions of worship, and who regarded emotional excesses as harmful to religion. The members of this group were called the “Old Lights.” One of the champion Old Lights was a Boston minister named Charles Chauncy;

those who were naturally inclined to excesses of emotionalism, such as the preacher James Davenport, who later drew criticism upon the Great Awakening by his wild behavior;

and those who tried to be open-minded and steer a middle course between the two above extremes. This group, called the “New Lights,” was much larger than that of the opponents of awakening. They saw in awakening much to be thankful for, and felt that excesses were not a necessary aspect of a work of God.


Edwards became the leader of this moderate group. Throughout New England there were many other pastors also who recognized that awakening was the logical answer to their preaching against the current spiritual slump.

The Great Awakener

The colonies’ craving for news of awakenings was not confined to the happenings at Northampton. The events taking place in the Middle Colonies were becoming known in New England also.

Even more publicity was being given to the activities the English “Methodist” evangelist George Whitefield in England and the Southern Colonies. In Boston, the press advertised Whitefield’s works and reported his movements in anticipation of his coming visit to New England. A book about Whitefield published in Boston included a preface invoking the blessing of God upon Whitefield to the end that “his purposed coming to us may be with as full a Blessing the Gospel of Christ as other places have experienc’d, only more so, by God’s Grace.”

Jonathan Edwards had plowed the ground by favorably preparing New England with his Faithful Narrative, but it was the powerful preaching of George Whitefield that brought the Great Awakening springing to life.

Whitefield preached from Maine to Connecticut during the period 14 September to 29 October 1740. As the historian Edwin Gaustad wrote, he “came, bristling, crackling, and thundering” to an area “electrified with expectancy.” He preached first in Newport, Rhode Island, and then left for Boston, where the News-Letter reported:

Last Thursday Evening the Rev’d Mr. Whitefield arrived from Rhode Island, being met on the Road and conducted to Town by several Gentlemen. The next Day in the Forenoon he attended Prayers in the King’s Chappel, and in the Afternoon he preach’d to a vast Congregation in the Rev’d Dr. Colman’s Meeting-House. The next Day he preach’d in the Forenoon at the South Church to a Crowded Audience, and in the Afternoon to about 5000 People on the Common: and Lord’s Day in the afternoon having preach’d to a great Number of People at the Old Brick Church, the House not being large enough to hold those that crowded to hear him, when the Exercise was over, He went and preached in the Field, to at least 8000 Persons.…

Both Minister & People Wept

For over a month Whitefield preached along the New England coast, through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, as far north as York, Maine. On Sunday evening, 12 October 1740, his farewell sermon in Boston was heard by an estimated 20,000 persons! Turning westward, he preached across central Massachusetts and on Friday, 17 October 1740, he arrived in Northampton. Here he met Edwards, and preached four times in his church.

Edwards and his family impressed Whitefield, as he recorded in his personal Journal:

Friday, October 17 … Mr. Edwards is a solid, excellent Christian, but, at present, weak in body. I think I have not seen his fellow in all New England. When I came into his pulpit … to remind them of their former experiences, and how zealous and lively they were at that time, both minister and people wept much.

Sunday, October 19. Felt great satisfaction in being at the house of Mr. Edwards. A sweeter couple I have not yet seen. Their children were not dressed in silks and satins, but plain, as become the children of those who, in all things, ought to be examples of Christian simplicity. Mrs. Edwards is adorned with a meek and quiet spirit; she talked solidly of the things of God, and seemed to be such a help meet for her husband, that she caused me to renew those prayers, which, for some months, I have put up to God, that He would be pleased to send me a daughter of Abraham to be my wife.


Leaving Northampton and New England on his way south, Whitefield met Gilbert Tennent on Staten Island, New York, and urged him to make a preaching tour of New England similar to the one he had just completed, “to blow up the divine fire lately kindled there.” Tennent arrived in Boston in December 1740, and proved as popular to many as Whitefield had been. The Awakening continued to blossom.

Judgment & Mercy

Back on the frontier at Northampton, Edwards, in response to invitations, was traveling outside his parish to bring the New Light message. At Enfield, Connecticut he preached his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God on 8 July 1741.

Edwards has often been portrayed as a hell-fire and brimstone preacher because of this sermon. Unfortunately, most people only think of this one sermon when they think of Edwards. But, as the historian Sydney Ahlstrom pointed out, Edwards, who wrote over 1,000 sermons, wrote less than a dozen of this type.

Rather than gleefully picturing the doom of sinners, as English teachers often have portrayed him, Edwards would shudder to think that any of his hearers might not heed his warnings about eternal damnation:

O Sinner! Consider the danger you are in! ’Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath … !


Some revival preachers showed little tolerance for human frailty; they believed that if audiences remained calm under fiery preaching, it indicated a lack of concern. They thought emotional outbursts indicated a supernatural moving within souls.

Edwards could not accept this: “Great effects on the body certainly are no sure evidences.… ” His preaching, he determined, was to appeal to the mind, and not to encourage outbursts of emotion. He was by all accounts never a spellbinding speaker, and he did not wish to be. All of his sermons were delivered in the same calm fashion—but with penetrating force.

When the congregation at Enfield could not control themselves as they listened to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and Edwards could not be heard for the commotion, he stopped and requested that they be quiet to hear the rest of the sermon, and refrain from weeping and crying out!


A leading opponent of the First Great Awakening, Rev. Charles Chauncy of Boston. When George Whitefield returned to Boston for a second time, he and Chauncy met by chance on the street. Chauncy said, “I’m sorry to see you here again, Mr. Whitefield.” Whitefield returned the compliment saying, “And so is the Devil.”

Advice & Warnings

The Great Awakening was then at its zenith, and Edwards at the peak of his fame. In 1741 he received an invitation to speak at Yale College, and some there wondered if he would scorch them with a sermon similar to the one he had preached at Enfield. But Edwards went to Yale to make converts of a different type: he wanted to turn his hearers away from the danger of indifference toward the Awakening.

In his address on The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, his aim was to show that the Awakening was from God. He argued that similar things were happening in many places, though various evangelists with different methods were involved. He attacked those who opposed the revival: “Let us all be hence warned, by no means to oppose or do any Thing, in the least to clog or hinder that Work that has lately been carried on in this Land, but on the contrary, to do our utmost to promote it.”

Silence was “a secret Kind of Opposition, that really tends to hinder the Work,” he said: “Such silent Ministers stand in the Way of the Work of God; as Christ said, ‘He that is not with us is against us.’ ”

He warned that the Awakening’s opponents would increase, for Satan’s forces always stand ready to undermine God’s work. Those in favor of the revival must “give diligent Heed to themselves to avoid all Errors and Misconduct, and whatsoever may darken and obscure the Work, and give Occasion to those that stand ready to reproach it.”

And he was right, for there were some who went too far, and by their fanatical behavior invited the criticism from enemies of the awakening. He was aware of these problems, but insisted that it was a mistake to judge and condemn the Awakening because of some unfortunate side-effects, without “distinguishing the Good from the Bad.”

Both Christians and non-Christians made the mistake of expecting too much from those who were awakened: “When any profess to have received Light … from Heaven … many are ready to expect that now they [should] appear like Angels.… ”

The Threshold of the Millennium

Edwards threw an entirely different light upon the revival than its critics. He thought that, despite the fact that the Puritan Fathers’ dream of a nation ruled by God and his Law had not yet come true, Jehovah might now be using the Awakening as the last ingathering of the elect before the end time.

It is not unlikely that this Work of God’s Spirit, so extraordinary and wonderful, is the Dawning, or at least a Prelude of that glorious Work of God, so often foretold in Scripture, which, in the Progress and Issue of it, shall renew the World of Mankind … And there are many things that make it probable that this Work will begin in America.

Edwards’s enthusiasm for the Awakening was fired by his vision of hope for the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. He believed that the Great Awakening could be the doorway to the Messianic Kingdom, the Millennial period foretold in Isaiah and Revelation 20, during which the redeemed of God “Lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” It is not surprising that he felt this way, for all over New England a remarkable transformation was taking place.

The Middle Colonies

The First Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies—in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and Maryland—grew from the seeds planted by Theodore Frelinghuysen, and from the work of an Irish immigrant minister in Pennsylvania, whose simple desire was to provide a local school for the training of pastors. These little fires were fanned into great flames by the work of the Great Awakening’s traveling lightning rod, George Whitefield. Whitefield, you will recall, was the fireball who set things ablaze in New England also.

School of the Prophets

In the early 18th Century many areas of America were without a pastor. In the Middle Colonies, few men could be found to come and serve, and the few who did respond sometimes proved unfit for the harsh and demanding conditions of what was then the frontier. Then there was the problem of training men for the ministry; the closest schools were in Connecticut or Virginia. Something had to be done.

To solve this problem, the Rev. William Tennent of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, an exceptional scholar who had been trained in Edinburgh, Scotland, decided that he would train young men for the ministry himself. Tennent had accepted a call from some small congregations in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1727. A few years later he built a log building on his farm property for use as a school. In time this school came to be mockingly called the “Log College” by those who opposed Tennent and his pupils.


He came to serve the Scotch-Irish immigrants who were beginning to settle in the farming areas north and west of Philadelphia. Tennent’s wife was Catherine Kennedy of County Down, Ireland, the daughter of a well-known Presbyterian pastor. They had five children. After arriving in America William Tennent left the Church of Ireland, and was accepted into the Presbyterian Church.

By 1734, four young men who had been William Tennent’s pupils had been ordained as Presbyterian ministers; three of them, Gilbert, John, and William, Jr., were Rev. Tennent’s sons. Gilbert Tennent, the eldest son, went on to attend Yale College. After his ordination in 1726, he was called to serve a congregation in New Brunswick, New Jersey—the same area where Theodore J. Frelinghuysen was minister to the Dutch population.

Gilbert Tennent became an avid student of the methods and preaching of Frelinghuysen, and discovered that though the two were from different backgrounds and denominations, they were quite compatible in their beliefs. Frelinghuysen taught Gilbert Tennent much about evangelism, and about the pastoral care of a congregation.

The New Lights

During these years a group was gathering around the Tennents that others soon referred to as “New Lights.” In time Gilbert Tennent emerged as the natural leader of this group. He devoted his energies to the furthering of an evangelistic ministry among the Presbyterians, while his father continued to add numbers to the New Light forces through his college in the country. Before William Tennent Sr.’s work was done he had trained over twenty men for the ministry—a considerable force in those days.

The aggressive evangelistic preaching. and the personal pastoral approach of the New Light ministers made them very popular—more popular than most of the Old Light preachers, whose sermons were usually dry and tedious moral lectures. This soon became a source of irritation between the Old and New Lights. Because of the growing animosity, at a meeting of clergy in 1738, the Old Lights tried to restrict men trained by William Tennent, Sr. in his Log College from entering the ministry.

An Episcopal Lightning Rod

While these Old and New Lights were fighting among themselves, the evangelist George Whitefield arrived in the Middle Colonies, coming ashore at Lewes, Delaware, on 30 October 1739. Whitefield claimed that he had stopped only to pick up supplies for an orphanage he planned to build in Georgia.

Arriving in Philadelphia, he was invited to preach in a Church of England pulpit, and he immediately agreed. Surely he had not planned on an evangelistic tour through the Middle Colonies, and at this time he probably knew little of the awakenings in New Jersey and New England.

Soon William Tennent Sr. appeared, probably to ask Whitefield to assist in the revival begun by the Log College men. For them, his coming seemed like a great opportunity. Nothing imaginable could possibly have created the great public interest that George Whitefield did. In Philadelphia his dramatic preaching was a sensation, even capturing the amazement of Benjamin Franklin, who became his life-long friend and admirer.

Whitefield caused such a stir that soon the fighting among the Old and New Light groups took a back seat, and diverse groups such as Moravians, Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists were benefiting from the spiritual renewal, and were setting aside differences and cooperating.

Whitefield’s success in Philadelphia was overwhelming. William Tennent Sr. wanted to see a continuation of this awakening to great multitudes, without opposition from local clergy, who might not like an outsider such as Whitefield coming into their areas. (In those days, clergymen did not venture into other ministers’ parishes without invitations.) On November 12 Whitefield left Philadelphia for New Jersey, preaching at Burlington and then at Gilbert Tennent’s church in New Brunswick, before reaching New York on November 14. When the Anglican official denied him a church to speak in, a Presbyterian pastor invited him to preach in his pulpit. He also preached outdoors to large crowds. Gilbert Tennent, who had accompanied him to New York, also took part in the preaching. Whitefield was impressed with Tennent:

[I] never heard such [a] searching sermon. He convinced me more and more that we can preach the Gospel of Christ no further than we have experienced the power of it in our own hearts.… Hypocrites must either soon be converted or enraged at his preaching. He is a son of thunder, and does not fear the faces of men.


After leaving New York, they traveled to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, where Whitefield preached from the pulpit of Rev. Jonathan Dickinson’s church “to upwards of seven hundred people.… ” Leaving there, Gilbert Tennent took Whitefield on a tour of the “Presbyterian awakening” in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where Whitefield met Theodore Frelinghuysen.

Whitefield was much taken with all that he saw, and with the pastors who had begun the work some years back. “They are now looked upon as enthusiasts and madmen, and treated as such by those who know not God, and are ignorant of the hidden life of Jesus Christ in their hearts.” Gilbert also took Whitefield to his father’s rustic Log College, and the English evangelist, a graduate of Oxford University, was impressed. Gilbert Tennent had won the mightiest preacher in Christendom to his cause, and this preacher recognized that these were not ordinary men either, and that he might learn from them.

Whitefield returned to Philadelphia and, after preaching there and at Germantown, at last returned to his original intention to visit his orphanage in Georgia. His month-long visit in the Middle Colonies had spurred the revivalists there to greater efforts, fanned the awakening in New Jersey, and started one in the Philadelphia area. It also had greatly encouraged him in his calling as an evangelist.

Whitefield spent the summer of 1740 in Georgia, and then sailed to Newport, Rhode Island, arriving in September. After a tour of New England he returned to New Jersey. Gilbert Tennent had spent the late summer and early autumn on a two months’ journey through Maryland, Delaware, and southern New Jersey, and had met with great success there in extending the awakening.


Tennent’s Church, Tennent, New Jersey. William Tennent, Jr. became the pastor of this church in 1733. George Whitefield preached here in 1740. David Brainerd, a colonial missionary to the Indians, served Communion to Indian converts at this church in 1746.

An Awakened Interest in Good Education

As the Awakening was passing, the energies of the New Light clergy could be directed toward following up on the numbers of the “awakened” who were adding new power to the churches. To care for the new members and the territories opening to them, the New Lights desperately needed more churches and pastors to staff them.

In 1744 the Log College closed its doors, and the need for a college for training ministers in the Middle Colonies was again pressing. With the death of William Tennent, Sr. in 1746, one of the great influences in colonial education passed from the scene.

The two New England colleges, Harvard and Yale, were now controlled by men who had turned against the Awakening. On 22 October 1746, Rev. Jonathan Dickinson was appointed president of a new college to meet temporarily in his Elizabethtown, New Jersey, parsonage. When Dickinson died after only five months, Rev. Aaron Burr became president of the young College of New Jersey (eventually to become Princeton University). President Burr, father of the famous politician by the same name, died of the “nervous fever” in 1757 and was succeeded by his father-in-law, Rev. Jonathan Edwards, of New England fame. Edwards held the post for only a few months: he died as a result of a smallpox vaccination on 22 March 1758. The Awakening had lost a great spokesman, but his influence would live on, through his writings, and his descendants.





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