The Robert J. Morgan Podcast | Episode 3: The Great Awakening (Transcript)

The Great Awakening

Hello, this is Robert J. Morgan talking about my book 100 Bible Verses That Made America. Trying to explain American history without its Bible is like the city of Washington without the monuments. Had there been no Bible, there would be no America as we know it. Many revisionist historians are trying to erase the Bible’s influence on American history, but no eraser on earth can truly do that. The story is too deeply embedded and too amazingly wonderful.

A Spiritual Revival

During the 1700s, Christianity in the American Colonies and throughout Europe was threatened by the rising tide of skepticism, French rationalism, and the so-called Age of Reason. In many churches, the fire of enthusiasm went out, and congregations were simply going through the motions of their faith as attendance dropped and fervor waned. Just when the work of the Kingdom was a low eb in America, Britain, and Germany, a series of incredible revivals swept over the land. The Holy Spirit moved to revive His church and His work in the midst of the years. On the British Isles, it was the Wesleyan Revival, because its most prominent leaders were the brothers John and Charles Wesley. And throughout the American Colonies, the revival became known as the Great Awakening.

Before it spread into a prairie fire that swept over all the colonies, the Great Awakening began with some hotspots—local revivals here and there. The first were seen in New Jersey under the preaching of a man named Theodore Jacobus Frelinghuysen.

Another key figure was Rev. William Tennent, Sr., came to America from Ireland in 1716, and settled near Philadelphia. He purchased a hundred acres of land and built a log school for the training of pastors. The students, which included his sons, studied by day and took up lodging in the neighborhood at night. Tennent’s wife, Catherine, cared for the boys like sons. This rough building became the first Presbyterian seminary in America and the log cabin became a bonfire for the Great Awakening.

Speaking Softly and Simply

A third man was Jonathan Edwards, who was the pastor of a church in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards was a brilliant man—today’s he’s recognized as the premier Christian theologian in American history—and even as a child he was fluent in English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. His church and the area around it showed signs of great revival in the 1730s. His best-known moment came on Sunday, July 8, 1741, while ministering in tiny Enfield, Connecticut.  A group of women had spent the previous night praying for revival.  When Edwards rose to speak, he quietly announced that his text was Deuteronomy 32:35, “…their foot shall slide in due time.”  This “hellfire and brimstone” approach was somewhat a departure for Edwards. Of his 1000 written sermons, less than a dozen are of this type. 

Edwards neither gestured nor raised his voice.  He spoke softly and simply, warning the unconverted that they were dangling over hell like a spider over the fire. O sinner!  consider the fearful danger.  The unconverted are now walking over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that it will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen.

Edwards’ voice was suddenly lost amid cries and commotion from the crowd.  He paused, appealing for calm. Then he concluded:  Let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.  The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation.  Let every one fly out of Sodom.

Strong men held to pews and posts, feeling they were sliding into hell.  Others shook uncontrollably and rolled on the floor. Throughout the night cries of men and women were heard throughout the village, begging God to save them.  500 were converted that evening, sparking a revival that swept thousands into the kingdom.  

But these three men—Frelinghuysen, Tennant, and Edwards—didn’t become the best-known figure of the Great Awakening. That distinction goes to a British preacher named George Whitefield.

America’s Spiritual Founding Father

George Whitefield became a Christian while attending Oxford in 1735.  He became part of the Wesleyan Revival on the British Isles, but he made repeated trips to the Colonies and became a sensation. Whitefield’s sermons were electric.  His vivid imagination, prodigious memory, powerful voice, and ardent sincerity mesmerized listeners. He could be heard a mile away, and his voice was so rich that British actor David Garrick said, “I would give 100 guineas if I could say ‘O’ like Mr. Whitefield.”

Whitefield, a young man in his early 20s, toured the American colonies, sparking the Great Awakening and bringing multitudes to Christ. His sermon in Boston drew the largest crowd that had ever gathered in America — 23,000 people, more than Boston’s entire population.  During his lifetime he preached over 18,000 times to millions of listeners, and he has been called the greatest evangelist in history, save for Paul.

He set the Colonies on fire. Eighty percent of the population of America heard him, usually in the open air. His crowds numbered thousands and his voice was commanding, though he had only the air for amplification. He was America’s first celebrity, the most famous person in the Colonies before George Washington, and he has been called “American’s Spiritual Founding Father.”

Whitefield’s 1739-1740 tour of the Colonies began in Philadelphia and coincided with the high tide of the Great Awakening. He generated audiences like none had ever seen before—often exceeding the population of the cities he visited, and a spirit of revival radiated from his ministry for miles in all directions.

Nathan Cole, a farmer in Connecticut, described Whitefield’s visit to his area on October 23, 1740.

The Rumble of Horses

(I heard) of his preaching at Philadelphia, like one of the old apostles, and many thousands flocking after him to hear the Gospel; and great numbers were converted to Christ; I felt the Spirit of God drawing me by conviction; I longed to see and hear him and wished he would come this way…. 

Then one morning all on a sudden about 8 or 9 o’clock, there came a messenger and said Mr. Whitefield…is to preach at Middletown this at 10 o’clock. I was in my field at work. I dropped my tool…and ran home and ran through my house and bid my wife get ready quick and to go and hear Mr. Whitefield…. I ran to my pasture for my horse with all my might fearing I should be too late to hear him. I brought my horse and soon mounted and took my wife up and went forward as fast as I thought the horse could bear; and when my horse would begin to be out of breath, I would get down and put my wife on the saddle and bid her ride as fast as she could…and so I would run until I was out of breath… as if we were fleeing for our lives, all the while fearing we should be too late to hear the sermon; for we had twelve miles to ride…. 

And when we came within about half a mile of the road that comes down from Hartford…I saw before me a cloud or fog rising…. I heard a noise something like a low rumbling thunder and presently found it was the rumbling of horses coming down the road… a steady stream of horses and their riders…all of a lather and foam and sweat…. Every horse seemed to go with all his might to carry his rider to hear news from heaven for the saving of their souls. It made me tremble…. 

My wife said, “Law, our clothes will be all spoiled; see how they look,” for they were so covered with dust… There was a great multitude it was said to be 3 or 4000 people assembled together; we got from our horses and shook off our dust… I turned and looked toward the Great River and saw the ferry boats running swift forward and backward, bringing over loads of people… The land and banks over the river looked black with people and horses…. 

Authority From A Great God

When I saw Mr. Whitefield come upon the (platform), he looked almost angelical—a young, slim, slender youth before some thousands of people and with a bold, undaunted countenance, and my hearing how God was with him everywhere as he came along, it solemnized my mind and put me into a trembling fear before he began to preach; for he looked as if he was clothed with authority from the great God… 

The sermon resulted in Nathan Cole’s conversion, and in the conversion of hundreds of others. 

George Whitefield’s repeated visits to America between 1738 and1770 led thousands to Christ. The Great Awakening united the Colonies in a way that transcended regional differences, infused the land with spiritual liberty, populated their pulpits with clergymen proclaiming freedom, and laid a moral foundation for the American Revolution. Modern historians don’t admit it, but, as one of them said: “The success of the First great Awakening was nothing less than an American declaration of intellectual independence from Europe that made the American Revolution not only possible, but also inevitable.”

The preachers spawned by the Great Awakening later became the preachers of the Gospel of liberty, and John Adams said: “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”