This is clearly the longest blog I’ve ever posted. It’s excerpted from my sermon at The Donelson Fellowship on July 3, 2011, as we celebrated America’s Day of Independence. I feel it’s important enough to post here. I hope you find it informative and encouraging.
Revive Us Again!
The Great Awakening and the Declaration of Independence
Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You? — Psalm 85:6
This is the weekend Americans celebrate as the birthday of our nation—the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. It’s one of the most remarkable stories in all of history. But there is a backstory to it, and in my message today I’d like to share with you the spiritual backdrop that set the stage for the founding of the United States of America—an event known in history as The Great Awakening. And I want to tell you this story because, first, it’s encouraging to know this aspect of our national history; and second, because we need another Great Awakening in our own day and for our own generation.
Get in your mind the year 1727. Christianity was at low tide in the Colonies. Ministers were alarmed, and many of them warned that the church was dying and that the cause of Christ was being marginalized in society. Pastors were preaching to empty pews. There was little interest in spiritual matters. It’s very much like that today—a very secularized society. But the winds of revival were beginning to blow.
In 1727, there was a North Carolina preacher named Paul Palmer who began preaching for souls in areas along the northern North Carolina coast. People were saved and churches were started under his ministry—and this is actually the beginning of the Free Will Baptist movement in America.
At the same time there was a German Pietistic minister in New Jersey who began preaching on the need for an inner transformation through the agency of Jesus Christ in the human heart. His name was Theodore J. Frelinghuysen. Revival seemed to accompany his ministry. Some people credit him as being the spark that actually ignited the Great Awakening.
But there was also Presbyterian pastor named Gilbert Tennent who had an impacting ministry. As a young man, Tennent had been trained in his father’s Bible College and accepted a call to start a Presbyterian church in central New Jersey. But he contracted some illness and became deathly sick. Everyone expected him to die, and he himself was in anguish. His greatest concern is that he had done so little for the Lord, and he earnestly prayed that God would give him one-half year to promote the kingdom of Christ with all his might. He recovered and became a firebrand for the Lord like a man who was consumed for the holiness and mercy and grace of God. He particularly challenged his fellow ministers to make sure they themselves were saved before seeking to win others to the Lord.
So during this time, the breezes of awakening were beginning to blow. And then in 1727, some unusual phenomena swept over the Colonies. During that summer, all of New England suffered from blistering heat and a prolonged drought. Wells dried up and crops withered. There was much lightening and thunder, but no rain. Some of these thunderstorms were so severe that people were left trembling, but still no rain. And then in the middle of September, a devastating storm arose in the Atlantic and came on shore. It wrecked ships in the harbors, uprooted trees, and blew away hundreds of bales of hay that farmers had stacked in their fields. That was followed by an unexpected wave of frigid weather and an early snow. All in all, it was a time of distressing and unusual weather patterns.
And then something else happened. On Sunday night, November 18, 1727, people all across the Northeast went to bed as normal and they were almost asleep—many were sound asleep—when, twenty minutes before eleven, a terrific flash of strange light seemed to split the ground and a sudden roar awakened people as if giant cannons were being fired from every direction. Houses rocked. Church bells rang. Doors flew open. Dishes came crashing out of cupboards. Chimneys tumbled down. Cellars caved in. It was a terrific earthquake. It lasted about two minutes, and then, at eleven o’clock, there came a powerful aftershock.
People hurriedly dressed and by midnight tremendous crowds had gathered around church buildings all across the Northern Colonies. Preachers counseled and comforted, and some gave impromptu sermons warning of judgment. Entire towns spent the night in prayer and supplication. There were additional aftershocks at three o’clock and five o’clock. But the next morning the sun came up, it was a beautiful day, and pretty soon the spiritual effects of the earthquake had worn off. Everything returned to business as usual. And devout Christians were disappointed that there seemed to be no lasting spiritual impression from the jolts and warnings of the summer and fall of 1727. Nevertheless some breezes of revival were continuing to blow.
And one breeze was felt that very year—1727—when a man named Jonathan Edwards was ordained as a minister in Northampton, Massachusetts, a town of 200 families about 80 miles west of Boston. Edwards began serving as assistant pastor to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who was a great Christian scholar and preacher. That same year Jonathan married the love of his life, Sarah, who was an exceedingly sweet and godly young woman. In time, Grandfather Stoddard passed away and Jonathan Edwards became the pastor of the church in Northampton.
A few years passed, and in 1733, an awakening seemed to touch Edwards’ ministry and a revival broke out. Within six months, 300 people had been saved and joined the church. Edwards later wrote a pamphlet about this revival under the title, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.” It’s a classic in American church history. I want to take the unusual step of reading to you a portion of this booklet this morning. It dates from the 1700s, so the style of writing is a little stiff for modern ears. But in his booklet, Edwards described in a sort of timeless way the awakening that began to break out in his church. He began his narrative by describing the spiritual lethargy that had previously come over his little town and its young people.
Just after my grandfather’s death, it seemed to be a time of extraordinary dullness in religion. Licentiousness [immorality] for some years prevailed among the youth of the town; there were many of them very much addicted to night-walking [staying out late getting into trouble at all hours], and frequenting the tavern [drinking and drunkenness], and lewd practices, wherein some, by their example, exceedingly corrupted others….
But then a change began to occur, a spiritual awakening in the early 1730s, and it took hold with considerable force. People came under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and the whole town was affected. Edwards described how people became greatly burdened for their souls, and they realized how dreadful it was to live “in danger every day of dropping into hell.” People felt inwardly compelled to “escape for their lives and to fly from the wrath to come.” He continued:
There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world….
The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner, and increased more and more…. From day to day for many months together might be seen evident instances of sinners brought out of darkness into marvelous light, and delivered out of an horrible pit, and from the miry clay, and set upon a rock, with a new song of praise to God in their mouths.
This work of God as it was carried on and 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 never was 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 to them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands. The doings of God were then seen in His sanctuary, God’s day was a delight, and His tabernacles were amiable.
Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive in God’s service, every one earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth; the assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the Word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors.
Our public praises were then greatly enlivened; God was then served in our psalmody, in some measure, in the beauty of holiness… in singing His praises….
Our young people, when they met, were wont to spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ, the glory of the way of salvation, the wonderful, free, and sovereign grace of God, His glorious work in the conversion of a soul, the truth and certainty of the great things of God’s Word….
When this work first appeared and was so extraordinarily carried on amongst us in the winter, others round about us seemed not to know what to make of it. Many scoffed at and ridiculed it; and some compared what we called conversion, to certain distempers. But it was very observable of many, who occasionally came amongst us from abroad with disregardful hearts, that what they saw here cured them of such a temper of mind. 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 who came to town, on one occasion or other, had their consciences smitten, and awakened; and went home with wounded hearts, and with those impressions that never wore off till they (were hopefully saved themselves)…. There were many instances of persons who came… on visits or on business, who had not been long here, before, to all appearances, they were (saved) and partook of that shower of divine blessing which God rained down here, and went home rejoicing; till at length the same work began evidently to appear and prevail in several other towns in the county….
This seems to have been a very extraordinary dispensation of providence; God has in many respects gone… beyond His usual and ordinary way. The work in this town, and others about us, has been extraordinary….
That was in the winter of 1733/1734. At the very same time on the British Isles something similar has happening. God was dealing with a teenager at Oxford University named George Whitefield, who had come in contact with two brothers, John and Charles Wesley. Whitefield was powerfully converted and he quickly started preaching; and his sermons jolted England like a trumpet blast. So in England, the Wesleyan Revival broke out at the same time the Great Awakening was occurring in the Colonies.
Jonathan Edwards stayed in the Colonies and the Wesleys stayed in England; but George Whitefield went back and forth across the Atlantic, spreading revival on two continents. Of all the preachers you could ever have wanted to hear in the entire sweep of Christian history, none of them is more intriguing than George Whitefield. He was a young man with such a clear and commanding voice that he could be heard a mile away without amplification. He would stand on a platform or on a gravestone and start preaching, and everyone would leave their work or play and come to listen until thousands upon thousands were hanging onto every word. Benjamin Franklin was astonished at him and at his powers of persuasion.
So in 1740, both Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield and a host of other revivalists and evangelists were preaching in New England and throughout the Northeast and stirring up revival.
And then a most extraordinary thing happened. In 1741, Jonathan Edwards was invited to preach one Sunday in Enfield, Connecticut. He was there as a guest preacher. As was his custom when preaching in another pulpit, he preached a sermon he had recently preached in his own church. And the message he chose for that day was from Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.”
In his sermon, Edwards said that the Israelites, despite all God’s mercies and grace to them, were so devoid of goodness that they stood always in danger of judgment, as when one stands on a slippery place and is in constant danger of slipping down an incline and falling off a cliff. He quoted a verse in Psalm 73 about standing in a slippery place, and he warned that all those who are godless are standing in a slippery place and are in constant danger at any moment of losing their footing and falling into the chasms of hell. He warned that the devil is waiting for them, and they have nothing to hold on to. The sinfulness of our own hearts is like a great weight, pulling us, tugging at us, and will at any moment send us careening down the slide and into the gulf of hell itself to face the wrath of God unless we turn in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ.
That’s a message we need today. Our friends and family and fellow countrymen are standing on a slippery slope—as slippery as ice—in constant danger of losing their footing and sliding down the edge and plunging into the eternal chasm of hell. They must grasp the nail-scarred hand that is reaching out to them. That was Jonathan Edward’s message, as it is ours.
Now, we don’t know how much of his sermon Jonathan Edwards actually preached that day because he was interrupted by a commotion in the congregation. People began to groan and scream and grip the pews and slide into the floor. One man who was there, Rev. Stephen Williams, recorded the scene in his diary, saying:
We went to Mr. Reynolds and dined, and then went over to Enfield, where we met dear Mr. Edwards, of North Hampton, who preached a most awakening sermon from these words Deuteronomy 32:35 and before the sermon was done there was a great moaning and crying out, ‘What shall I do to be saved? Oh, I am going to hell! Oh what shall I do for a Christ?’ &c., &c., until the minister was obliged to desist. The screeches and cries were pitiful and agonizing. And after some time of waiting the Congregation were [sic] stilled so that a prayer was made by Mr. Williams, and after that we descended from the Pulpit & discoursed with the people, some in one place and some in another. And an amazing and astonishing power of God was seen, and several souls were happily wrought upon that night…
This is typically understood to be the moment when the breezes of the Great Awakening turned into a hurricane that swept over the Thirteen Colonies. Thousands of people all across the land were saved and started going to church. New churches were built everywhere. Morals were reformed. And many denominations started colleges for the training of their young people, especially those entering the ministry, who were being saved and inflamed during the Great Awakening.
- The Presbyterians started Princeton.
- A group of nondenominational Christians began the University of Pennsylvania.
- The Anglicans began Columbia University.
- The Baptists started Brown University.
- The Dutch Reformed started Rutgers.
- The Congregationalists started Dartmouth.
Missionaries were sent out, such as David Brainerd, America’s famous young missionary to Native Americans. The Great Awakening changed the moral and educational directions of our country; and it also affected our politics.
The Great Awakening stirred up a great spirit of unity and a passion for religious liberty. In Massachusetts, a Baptist preacher named Isaac Backus, who had been converted during the Great Awakening, began articulating a strong conviction about the separation of Church and State—that the government should not be institutionalized in a church, as was the case in Europe. He proclaimed that the church should have freedom from governmental control, and everyone should have freedom to worship as they pleased. A spirit of independency arose based on the concept of the priesthood of the believer, and a vision began to emerge of what this nation could be.
The revival of Christianity in the middle of the 1700s set the set the stage for the founders of our nation to write these words on July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
In large measure, it was the Great Awakening that gave the founders of the United States of America the unity, the enthusiasm, the spiritual stamina, the zeal for religious liberty, and the Judeo-Christian morality upon which to build a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
So now here we are all these years later and we’ve come full circle back to the secularization and moral decline of the 1720s. I think it’s high time for another Great Awakening. I think it’s time to hold up the cross of Jesus Christ to sinners in the hands of an angry God, to tell them of the nail-pierced hand reaching out to them on their slippery slope. I think it’s time to pray with the Psalmist: “Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You.”
And if you don’t know Christ today, you’re the one on the slippery slope and sooner or later you feet will slide. Jesus is holding out a nail-pierced hand to you. He died and rose again to forgive your sins and give everlasting life. See Him on the cliff top. See Him in the pathway. As an old song puts it, you can reach out to Jesus; He’s reaching out to you.
Excerpted from Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.
Quoted by Alden Freeman in Memorial to Captain Thomas Abbey (East Orange, NJ: The Abbey Printshop, 1917) 144.