Revival and Renewal
Revival and Renewal
Great Awakening. One of the most important developments in eighteenth-century American religion was the emergence of a widespread religious revival, or awakening, as it was called by the people of the time. Periods of intense religious feeling, marked by large numbers of people joining churches or renewing their ties to their religious groups, were a feature of American religion almost from the beginning of English settlement. The ministry of John Cotton is said to have sparked such a period of renewal among Boston’s Puritan settlers as early as 1633. About a hundred years later a series of revivals swept through all of Britain’s American colonies and had a lasting influence. These revivals of the 1730s and 1740s came to be known as the first Great Awakening. They were supported in part by the work of George Whitefield, an English minister who visited America seven times between 1738 and 1770. Whitefield was an itinerant preacher. He had no settled parish in America but traveled from place to place, drawing huge crowds to his highly emotional message of Christian renewal. Whitefield was a model for a new kind of American minister, one not tied to any one community. Such men were able to take the spark of renewal from one place to another. The specific message they preached might vary a great deal from town to town, especially as such men were not under the constraints a community could place on their settled minister. Although the Great Awakening declined after 1745, it never disappeared, even during the years of the American Revolution. Revivalism was a permanent feature of American religion.
Revival Meetings. There were important common themes in the faith that emerged from the revival meetings, whether in the North or South, in the cities or on the frontier. Revivalists preached a great deal about the spirit and tried to bring their listeners to an awareness of God’s presence in their lives. They preached about sin and tried to awaken the congregants to their own sinfulness and the need for repentance. They wanted to bring people to a “new birth” by getting them to acknowledge their inability to earn their salvation and accept the gift of God’s grace, which was the only way to heaven. Revivalists often got the response they wanted, as people emotionally embraced a new life during long church meetings attended by neighbors from miles around. In this setting the emotions of one convert could feed those of the sinners sitting nearby and bring them along to Christ also. Ecstatic behavior was common, as people felt the spirit moving within them, leading them to faint or cry out. The revivals of the revolutionary period were not as large or as carefully organized as the huge camp meetings of the early 1800s, nor were the emotional outpourings as intense. These earlier efforts paved the way for one of the most characteristic features of American Protestantism, as the personal experience of renewal through conversion to Christ became a common sight across America from the 1740s onward.
Jonathan Edwards. The leader of the revivals in New England was Jonathan Edwards, the minister of the church in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1726 to 1750. Edwards was a major intellectual figure, trained at Yale College in the latest theology and philosophy. His sermons were learned, and his thinking was complicated. Yet he had the ability to reach the masses. His vivid descriptions of hell enthralled his listeners, and he kept their attention as he described the intense emotional reaction to God’s grace that he considered to be the basis of true religious experience. His listeners followed where he led, and his preaching and that of his associates brought hundreds of new members into the churches of the Connecticut River valley in the 1740s. From 1750 to 1758 he moved to an Indian mission in Stockbridge on the Massachusetts frontier. There he produced a series of books that developed a theology that backed up the experience of grace and renewal that his preaching had prompted in the pews of his church. These books described in great detail the feelings associated with true religion and attributed them to God’s powerful love breaking in to the world of the human sinners. Edwards argued that these experiences should draw people out of the world and they should begin their lives anew with a “new birth in the spirit.” He gave special attention to the idea of human free will, which was gaining greater acceptance by the 1750s but which ran against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Edwards argued that humans could make free choices, but only within a world created and ordered by God. In that world, because of original sin, human choices did not have the total freedom that God’s own choices would enjoy, and humans would always be sinful by nature. Only God, the original creator, could break humans out of the cycle of sin. Edwards argued forcefully that the only godly choice was acceptance of grace, if God saw fit to offer it, which in practice meant rejecting sin at every opportunity. This kind of submission to God’s power, as realized in human experience, was the heart of the revivalistic religion that gained adherents throughout the revolutionary period.
REVIVALS AND SOCIAL CONFLICT
The revivals sparked conflicts that marked other social divisions, as backcountry revivalists challenged the power and style of the elites who looked down on the behavior of upstart evangelicals. In Virginia, James Ireland, a young man of genteel origins, had to give up dancing and other forms of polite social intercourse when he experienced the revival in the late 1760s. His friends tried to persuade him to abandon his new religious feelings and attend a ball. Ireland’s record of the encounter suggests two very different cultures uneasily existing side by side. Ireland wrote that
When I viewed [my friend] riding up, I never beheld such a display of pride in any man,... arising from his deportment, attitude and jesture; he rode a lofty elegant horse...his countenance appeared to me as bold and daring as satan himself, and with a commanding authority [he] called upon me, if I were there to come out, which I accordingly did, with a fearful and timorous heart. But O! how quickly can God level pride.... For no sooner did he behold my disconsolate looks, emaciated countenance and solemn aspect, than he...was riveted to the beast he rode on.... As soon as he could articulate a little his eyes fixed upon me, and his first address was this; ‘In the name of the Lord, what is the matter with you?’”
The emotions of the revival were strong enough that they sometimes spilled over into violence. This 1771 diary entry records an attack by Anglican gentry on a Baptist meeting in Virginia:
Brother Walker Informed us...[that] about 2 Weeks ago on the Sabbath day Down in Caroline County he Introduced the Worship of God by Singing.... While he was Singing the Parson of the Parish [who had ridden up with his clerk, the sheriff, and some others] would Keep Running the End of his Horsewhip in [Waller’s] Mouth, Laying his Whip across the Hym Book, &c. When done Singing [Waller] proceeded to Prayer. In it he was Violently Jerked off of the Stage, [they] Caught him by the Back part of his Neck, Beat his head against the ground, some Times up Sometimes down, they Carried him through a Gate that stood some Considerable Distance, where a Gentleman Give him... Twenty Lashes with his Horse Whip.... Then Brother Waller was Released, Went Back Singing praise to God, Mounted the Stage & Preached with a Great Deal of Liberty.
Source: Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), pp. 161–163.
Aftermath. In the 1750s and 1760s the mass experience of revivalism was not as common as it had been during the heyday of the early revivals. Yet this kind of emotional religion remained the ideal for many Christians. People joined churches while under the sway of heartfelt pain at their own sinfulness and offered complete submission to God. Only through God’s grace, as exemplified in the Bible’s account of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, could humans be saved and have hope of reaching heaven. Revivalism was not a simple phenomenon, however, as later experience showed. One important consequence of the revivals was social disorder. In the revolutionary era in New England this was marked by dissension among many Protestants who had formerly worshiped together and in many cases by the actual division of churches. These divisions could mean bitter disputes. North Stonington, Connecticut, is an example of how divisive the revival experience could be. The minister there, Joseph Fish, had supported the revivals in the 1740s, although quickly regretted it when part of his congregation left in 1746. Fish did not abandon revivalistic preaching, but he continued to lose members. In 1765 there was another defection, and this time a new Baptist congregation was the result. Fish estimated then that some two-thirds of his people had separated and joined the new groups and that many of those still left were also inclined to extreme ideas about the need for purity in the church and so were likely to separate as well. Fish was dismayed at the freedom people felt to challenge the traditional social order in this way even though they did so for God. He quoted one man who left as saying to the pastor, “My God commanded me to go from you, and I know it, and that is all my reason.” In addition to rifts in congregations, many ministers were troubled by more-general attacks. Radical revivalists argued that only a truly converted minister could bring others to Christ and criticized ministers who were not fully supportive of the revivals as unfit for the pulpit. This was shocking in a period when service to the church was a highly regarded profession. Divisions among the clergy and laity led to serious splits, and by the end of the Revolution, New England Congregationalism had split into
liberal, moderate, and revivalistic wings. Some of this social disruption was productive, however. The revival experience made many people more willing to think in new ways about questions of behavior and justice, to question authority, and to value the freedom of religious expression. In these ways the revivals contributed significantly to the larger revolutionary spirit of the age.
Theological Tensions. In addition to social problems revivalism posed difficult intellectual problems. Although the basis of revivalistic religion was complete submission to God’s almighty power, the experience of submission was intensely individual. Each convert to Christ had to come to his or her particular awareness of his of her sinfulness and make a free decision in his or her heart to come to God and reject sin. This individualism was not always compatible with the mass experience of revivals that produced each person’s special reaction and feelings. Further, the emphasis on the free acceptance of God’s grace brought another complication. From the days of the first American Puritans ministers taught that humans did not earn their salvation. Rather it was a gift from God, who had decided at the beginning of time who would be saved. This doctrine was called predestination. Nothing humans could do really affected whether they went to heaven, although the Bible insisted that all humans should obey moral laws such as the Ten Commandments and so behave as if they deserved heaven. The revivalists’ stress on the free acceptance of grace in the emotions of the conversion experience opened the door to some new thinking about this doctrine. Slowly the notion that humans had free will and could effectively choose faith came to be more widely accepted. If so, they could be said to earn their salvation by this act of faith, if not technically by their good deeds. This was a challenge to older beliefs, which no revivalist minister was willing to acknowledge. Whitefield and other revivalists always insisted that they were strict Calvinists. Whatever they said, people heard them differently and found themselves comfortable with a faith that affirmed the ability of humans to affect their fate. This kind of faith seemed natural to Americans, who were accustomed to overcoming hardship and fending for themselves in a harsh world. The result was a reinterpretation of the Calvinist beliefs that were the basis for much American Protestantism in the colonial period. The process did not reach its full flowering until the coming of a second period of revivals in the 1820s. But the seeds were laid in the revolutionary era for a revolution in the relations of Americans to God as well as to King George.
Presbyterians. In the Middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania the revivals were led by the Presbyterians. Presbyterians differed from most other early American Protestants only in the ways they organized their church, not in matters of belief or practice. Presbyterian churches were governed by a hierarchy of regional bodies called presbyteries, synods, and assemblies. These bodies were composed of ministers and church elders who set policies for the entire church and settled disputes. Thus, Presbyterian congregations were not fully independent as were Baptist and Congregational churches of the time. More-centralized control did not prevent the disruptions of the revivals from affecting the Presbyterians. Gilbert Tennent, hailing from New Jersey, was the leading Presbyterian revivalist and after Edwards and Whitefield, the best-known figure of the movement across the colonies. The preaching of Tennent and his supporters stressed the immediate experience of grace, as did the New England revivals, and this touched off a fight with other Presbyterians more concerned with standardizing beliefs in the church. Revivalist “New Side” Presbyterians were ejected from the Synod of Philadelphia by their “Old Side” rivals in 1741 and joined the Synod of New York in 1745. The schism in American Presbyterianism lasted until 1758, when the enormous growth of the New Side allowed for the reunion of New York and Philadelphia on revivalistic terms. Division threatened the Presbyterians several more times during the revolutionary era, but with this base of agreement, they were poised for the rapid growth they experienced on the Western frontier in the years after the war ended.
Scots-Irish Religion. The growth of revivalistic Presbyterianism was fueled in part by the emigration of Protestants from northern Ireland, called the Scots-Irish, because many had come to Ireland from Scotland in the seventeenth century. Some fifty thousand Scots-Irish arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1770s. These people were especially attuned to the emotional religion of the revival, coming from a strong Calvinist background, and conditions in the Appalachian frontier where they settled were ideal for the revival’s success. Living at great distances from each other and isolated from most churches and other social institutions, the itinerant revivalist was the only kind of minister most saw. They also drew on the Presbyterian tradition of the yearly administration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or the love feast, as it was sometimes called. Held in the late summer or the early fall, these sacramental occasions became chances for far-flung neighbors to meet, socialize, settle differences, and renew their faith. A typical example was led by Reverend John Cuthbertson on the Pennsylvania frontier from 13 August to 17 August 1761. Hundreds of people gathered from the surrounding countryside, and Cuthbertson spent the rest of the year serving as an itinerant minister. They stayed in tents and heard Cuthbertson preach during the first two days, fasting at the same time. At the end of the second day those who felt renewed in the spirit received tokens, small pieces of lead that would admit them to the communion feast the next day. The third day those with tokens would sit at tables where they would receive the sacramental bread and wine while the others gathered around this group and shared in the preaching, prayer, and hymn singing. The fourth day was marked with more sermons and hymns and the departure for home. This ritual was an opportunity to bring a season of renewal into the rhythms of life and became a model for the huge revival meetings on the nineteenth-century frontier.
New Divinity. Just as the New Side Presbyterians consolidated their power and ended the schism with their antirevivalist Old School rivals, the College of New Jersey, the intellectual center of revivalism, called Edwards away from New England to be its president. Edwards accepted and looked forward to a new field of influence, but he died from a smallpox inoculation within a month of assuming the post in March 1758. He left behind a group of his students, who carried revivalism forward through the revolutionary period and became known as New Divinity men, as they shaped a revivalistic theology for a new nation. Two leaders of the New Divinity were Joseph Bellamy of Connecticut and Samuel Hopkins of Rhode Island. Both of these men had been students of Edwards and had fully supported the revivals. As the Great Awakening faded, however, they tried to develop new ways of thinking about it that would move it forward. Both emphasized God’s absolute power and the need for humans to submit to it, in hope of redemption from sin. They also emphasized moral behavior, not as something that would earn salvation but as something that flowed from the experience of God’s grace. They differed on this point from the liberal rationalists who had opposed the emotionalism of the revivals. Those men, such as Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew, had also emphasized morality but saw it as something rational humans ought to do for their own sake rather than for the glory of God. Their views flowed from their belief that humans had free will and could choose their fate. The New Divinity men disagreed, but as part of their own sense of God’s presence in the world, worked tirelessly to make the world a more moral place. Many of them, such as Bellamy, supported the independence movement in the 1770s, as they became convinced that England’s government was unjust and should be resisted.
Disinterested Benevolence. Samuel Hopkins, minister in Newport, Rhode Island, took up an even more radical stand, based on his hope for a better world. He was one of the first ministers to speak out against slavery, urging his people to put aside their commercial interests in favor of doing God’s will. In his many writings Hopkins developed the idea of “disinterested benevolence,” which was the heart of the New Divinity. He argued that truly godly people aspired to be completely disinterested in the things of this world and behaved well only for the sake of honoring God. They even should be willing to be damned, if God ordained it, since even that would honor God by being part of the world he had ordered. These seem like difficult ideas to accept, but the New Divinity men were concerned with expressing the glory of God’s power in every possible way. This was the central theme of the evangelical form of Protestantism that was accepted by the vast majority of Americans in the nineteenth century.
Southern Revivals. Revivalism lasted longer in the Southern colonies, persisting well into the 1770s and with even more-significant social effects. The Southern frontier was thinly settled during this period, with few established churches. Frequent military conflicts during the Seven Years’ War and the Revolution made life there
IMPRESSIONS OF WHITEFIELD
George Whitefield, the great itinerant minister, traveled the length of the colonies in his seven trips to America between 1739 and 1770. He was the first person to be well known throughout America and succeeded in bringing probably thousands of individuals to Christ through his powerfully emotional preaching. Many early Americans recorded their impressions of Whitefield. One was Olaudah Equiano, an African slave. In his autobiography he remembered hearing Whitefield when their paths overlapped in Savannah, Georgia, in 1765:
I came to a church crowded with people; the church-yard was full likewise, and a number of people were even mounted on ladders, looking in at the windows. I thought this a strange sight, as I had never seen churches, either in England or the West Indies, crowded in this manner before. I therefore made bold to ask some people the meaning of all this, and they told me that the Rev. George Whitefield was preaching. I had often heard of this gentleman, and had wished to see and hear him; but I had never before had an opportunity. I now therefore resolved to gratify myself with the sight, and pressed in amidst the multitude. When I got into the church I saw this pious man exhorting the people with the greatest fervour and earnestness, and sweating as much as ever I did while in slavery on Montserrat beach. I was very much struck and impressed with this; I thought it strange I had never seen divines exert themselves in this manner before, and was no longer at a loss to account for the thin congregations they preached to.
In a different vein Benjamin Franklin was also moved by his encounter with Whitefield in Philadelphia in the 1740s while Whitefield was raising money for an orphanage he wanted to build in Georgia. Franklin wrote that he
happened soon after to attend one of his Sermons, in the Course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a Collection, & I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my Pocket a Handful of Copper Money, three or four silver Dollars, and five Pistoles in Gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the Coppers. Another Stroke of his Oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the Silver; & he finish’d so admirably, that I empty’d my Pocket wholly into the Collector’s Dish, Gold and all. At this Sermon there was also one of our Club, who being of my sentiments respecting the Building in Georgia, and suspecting a Collection might be intended, had by Precaution emptied his Pockets before he came from home; towards the Conclusion of the Discourse however, he felt a strong Desire to give, and apply’d to a Neighbour who stood near him to borrow some Money for the Purpose. The Application was unfortunately to perhaps the only Man in the Company who had the firmness not to be affected by the Preacher. His Answer was, At any other time, Friend Hopkinson, I would lend to thee freely; but not now; for thee seems to be out of thy right senses.
Sources: Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 132;
Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography, edited by Louis Masur (Boston: Bedford Books, 1993), pp. 108–109.
even more precarious. Over the period all the major Protestant groups sent ministers into this area, in what was essentially a missionary effort to the settlers there. These preachers brought with them the styles of the revivals of the Northern colonies, and their form of evangelical religion prevailed in the area. In some respects this minimized the differences among the Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and even Anglicans who crossed paths in the backcountry, although religious conflicts were present there too, within these groups as well as between them. Presbyterians often led the way, for example, with the ministry of Samuel Davies, one of the best-known figures in early Southern revivalism. Davies centered his work in Hanover County, just west of the more-settled Tidewater region of Virginia, but traveled throughout the colony reaching people of all kinds. From the early 1750s Davies’s work represented a serious challenge to the Anglican Church, whose authorities worried about people being drawn away to Davies’s more enthusiastic faith. That challenge led to a long debate in Virginia about religious toleration, a difficult issue in this colony, where the Anglican Church was sponsored by the government and supported with taxes. Davies carried the day on this issue in 1755, with the help of the English courts, which upheld the rights of non-Anglican or dissenting ministers to preach and form new congregations in the colonies. This small step was a symbol of one of the most significant contributions of revivalism, which often challenged more-established religious authority and ended up encouraging greater diversity of religious practice and belief. It was also a sign of the strength of the common folk, who in this case successfully resisted the power of the Anglican gentry and took a first step at establishing a more democratic society. Davies claimed the right to preach mainly because the people wanted to hear him, and he addressed their needs directly in a way that Anglican priests never did. Instead of abstract theological sermons, for example, he talked to his listeners clearly about their lives and their relationships with God. He taught people the rules for living a godly life and offered an alternative to the gentry culture that controlled Southern life in the 1750s. Davies and other evangelical preachers replaced social hierarchies with distinctions based on religious commitment, potentially turning the world upside down. In the South the work of the revival began with the Presbyterians but was taken up in the 1760s by the Baptists and the revival wing of Anglicanism, which became the separate Methodist church after the Revolution.
PHILLIS WHEATLEY ON WHITEFIELD’S DEATH
Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa and spent most of her short life as a slave in Boston. She became a literary wonder when her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London in 1773. The poems were quite conventional, but that they were written at all amazed her readers. Despite her circumstances, Wheatley had managed to learn to read and write and had mastered poetic forms and could even read Latin. Few white women could match her accomplishments. She had also become a deeply committed Christian, under the influence of her owners, the Wheatleys. One of her most famous poems was “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770.” It suggests both Wheatley’s own spiritual life as well as the huge influence of the English preacher in America.
Hail, happy saint, on thine immortal throne,
Possessed of glory, life, and bliss unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy sermons in unequaled accents flowed,
And every bosom with devotion glowed;
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refined
Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.
He freely offered to the numerous throng,
That on his lips with listening pleasure hung.
‘Take Him, ye wretched, for your only good,
Take Him my dear Americans,’ he said,
‘Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
Ye preachers, take Him for your joyful theme;
Take Him my dear Americans,’ he said,
‘Be your complaints on His kind bosom laid:
Take Him, ye Africans, He longs for you,
Impartial Savior is His title due:
Washed in the fountain of redeeming blood,
You shall be son, and kings, and priests to God.’
Yet let us view him in the eternal skies,
Let every heart to this bright vision rise;
While the tomb safe retains its sacred trust,
Till life divine re-animates his dust.
Source: The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, edited by Julian D. Mason Jr. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), pp. 9–10.
Pietism. Another element contributing to the revivalistic Protestantism that emerged in the revolutionary era was pietism. Pietism might best be described as an emphasis within traditional Christianity on intense spiritual experiences and on the importance of sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. These were obviously basic ideas behind the revivals across the colonies, which also focused on the heartfelt experience of religion, but in the Middle colonies especially they took on characteristic forms thanks to the influence of a number of German immigrant groups. These are the people remembered today as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and throughout the 1700s they streamed into the backcountry of Pennsylvania and from there moved north and south along the Appalachian frontier. This area became a home to many sects, including the Mennonites, the Dunkers, the Schwenckfelders, and the Moravians. Pietists stressed purity and fidelity to the ideals of the first Christians, as represented in the Bible and revealed through the action of the Holy Spirit. These ideas led them in some cases to reach out to other people to convince them of the need for reform and in other cases to withdraw from the world and its sinful ways. The Moravians, led by founder Count Nicholaus Ludwig Zinzendorf, were the most important of the pietistic sects. Moravians had an intense devotion to the passion and suffering of Christ. They brought with them a spiritualism that had a social dimension, as the Holy Spirit prompted them to work to reform the world around them from within. Their pioneering missionary efforts to Native Americans were one manifestation of this. Another was their communalism, and many Moravians and pietists lived in small utopian communities, where they tried to realize the kingdom of God on earth. The most famous of these in the revolutionary era was the Ephrata Community, founded by Dunker Conrad Beissel. Ephrata residents sought spiritual purity by setting up a monastic economy, segregating the sexes, and worshipping on Saturday rather than Sunday. Ephrata folded after Beissel’s death but was a model for hundreds of religious utopian ventures of the nineteenth century. Pietists offered other kinds of idealism as well. The Swedish scientist, philosopher, and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, whose writings were beginning to be known in America in the 1770s and 1780s, drew heavily on the pietistic tradition in developing his own theories that exploration of the material world could lead to awareness of higher, spiritual truths and even a self-conscious dwelling in the spiritual realm. Swedenborg was later an important influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism. Emerson was no Protestant revivalist, but his interest in these related ideas shows how important they were to American culture as a whole. These were all movements aimed at spiritual renewal, and it was a fine line between renewal along orthodox Christian lines and renewal of a more radical sort, made possible by the reliance on the spirit. In their revolutionary-era efforts pietists were yet another representation of the power of an awakened religious spirit.
Transatlantic Revivals. An important aspect of the revivalism that developed in revolutionary-era America was that it was an international event. The influence of German pietists was one example of this. Whitefield was another, more important one. Whitefield’s trips throughout the colonies in the revolutionary period brought him into contact with ministers of all types. Many of these remained in touch with him after he left their towns. Whitefield also had a wide circle of friends in Britain, and he was an initial point of contact for many transatlantic friendships. During the 1740s and well into the 1750s Scotland was swept by revivals much like those in the American colonies. News reports of awakenings in both areas found their way rapidly back and forth across the ocean. Whitefield himself often served as an evangelical mailman, taking trunkloads of letters and reports to England or America for circulation or sometimes publication, especially in the newly formed evangelical newspapers. These letters were often the basis for sermons designed to prompt further revivals. Many other ministers participated as well, including Edwards, John Erskine of Scotland, and Isaac Watts, the famous English hymnist. These people not only shared news of awakenings and related events but also tried to experience the revival through their letters. They used their correspondence to organize “concerts of prayer” where people on both sides of the ocean would set specific times each week and several days a year when they would join in fasting and prayer together in an effort to approximate the feeling of a universal Christian church. This arrangement continued from the 1740s into the 1760s and was revived after the end of the Revolution. During the war years the communications networks that began by transmitting religious news continued to function, now sending political and military news as well. This system of disseminating information was an important help in connecting people during these unsettled years, whether they favored or opposed independence.
Whitefield’s Death. Whitefield died in the small town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, on 30 September 1770 in the midst of his seventh trip to Britain’s colonies. His death was widely noted, but he was not praised universally. It brought his critics forward in a way that demonstrated again how revivalism not only renewed American Protestantism but also divided it. The clearest sign of this came with the burial of Whitefield’s body. The funeral was reportedly attended by thousands of spectators. Moderates and liberals such as Stiles found this hard to believe, given how small and remote Newburyport was, and in any case thought it an unseemly display of emotion. Even more seriously they considered the emphasis on Whitefield as a saintly figure akin to superstition or to Roman Catholicism’s veneration for its saints. As the years passed there was even more basis for this criticism. In 1775 an army chaplain and a group of officers including Benedict Arnold entered Whitefield’s tomb to view his body. They commented upon its state of decomposition and passed around the clerical collar and wristbands for closer examination. This viewing of the body happened repeatedly into the early nineteenth century by Christians desiring closer contact with the minister most closely associated with the origins of the revival. Ironically, as critics claimed, honoring a man this way contradicted the focus on God which Whitefield had preached so relentlessly. It also suggested how traditional beliefs in saints and superstitions survived not only the coming of Protestantism but also the renewal of purity that the revivals of the revolutionary period successfully prompted. Revivalism was indeed a complex force in American culture.
Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990);
Edwin S. Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (New York: Harper, 1957);
Wesley M. Gewehr, The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740–1790 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1930);
C. C. Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740–1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962);
William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978);
Susan O’Brien, “A Transatlantic Community of Saints: The Great Awakening and the First Evangelical Network, 1735–1755,” American Historical Review, 91 (1986): 811–832;
Leigh Schmidt, Holy Fairs (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989);
Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1991);
Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949).