Example in Church History
Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes;
and I will keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish gain!
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.
— Psalm 119:33-37 ESV
Optional fuller reading: Psalm 119:1-176
“The Great Awakening” is the title commonly assigned to the great move of God’s Spirit that impacted England and the American colonies between 1725 and 1745. This awakening is considered “great,” not merely because of its impact on people and nations. Some later revivals would have a more substantial global reach. This first revival was so “great” largely because it was a first. In no former awakening of the Church had God’s reviving power been so markedly and simultaneously evidenced out around the world.
Just as the first book of the Bible, Genesis, is important to the whole of God’s Word because it contains the roots of every major biblical teaching, so did this first great awakening contain the ingredients that would be necessary for every subsequent spiritual awakening. The centerpiece of the 18th century Great Awakening was the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. Without biblical foundations, no revival can be sustained for long.
The three central figures in The Great Awakening were John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. We have already noted that John Wesley has been regarded as the architect of The Great Awakening. Through his keen organizational skills, he built on the experience of his childhood and of the Holiness Club at Oxford, creating cells of committed disciples around England and eventually in America. He trained a network of leaders to shepherd these groups and he wrote prodigiously to fertilize the growing work of God with biblical truth.
George Whitefield was more of an orator than an organizer. He helped to foster and spread revival through his passionate and persuasive preaching. He developed much of his spiritual fervency, with John Wesley, in his Oxford experience through the Holiness Club. Whitefield’s mix of enthusiasm and eloquence quickly set him apart from other preachers and he was in great demand in England in his early 20s. Overflow crowds attended his sermons. After a trip to America, he took his preaching to the fields where he could reach greater numbers of people.
Whitefield crossed the Atlantic seven times, and over 34 years he preached an estimated 18,000 messages through nearly every town in England, Scotland, and Wales, and up and down the American colonies. Benjamin Franklin befriended the revivalist and used the newspaper to publicize his sermons. Sometimes the crowds attending George’s preaching swelled to 20,000 or more and hearers responded with weeping and repentance, sometimes falling to the ground as if slain. In the words of J. C. Ryle, “His hearers were taken by surprise and carried by storm.”
In the autumn of 1740, Whitefield came to Northampton, New England, and finally met the man he so respected, Jonathan Edwards. Both men shared a Calvinistic approach to Scripture, Edwards was distinguished by his profound scholarship. He is recognized as one of America’s greatest intellectuals. He read his lengthy sermons in a monotone voice. It was the content of his messages and writings that stirred his Congregationalist congregation and that helped to spread the revival fires in England. Edwards fostered a biblical understanding God’s surprising works that would be necessary for The Great Awakening to continue and expand.
Great God of reviving power, you see and know how affixed we Americans are to the Internet and television. If a Whitefield came through town, we might not be interested enough to arise from our couches. If an Edwards wrote books today, we would likely not be interested in reading his books to glean insights for our lives. We have compromised diligence with negligence. We want Christianity light. Do what it takes, Lord, to stir us up. Awaken in us once again a passion for your Word.
- Drawing from 2 Timothy 2:14-15 and 4:1-5, tell why a right understanding and teaching of Scripture the essential foundation for spiritual awakening.
- Success is often more difficult than failure. Pride can swell the head, making it difficult to stay on one’s feet. One key to The Great Awakening was leadership that remained humble and useful to God through a right understanding of the Word of God. From Romans 12:1-3, what advice might you give to a person who senses God’s call to foster and lead revival?
- When we read summary statements about movements such as “The Great Awakening,” it is easy to glamorize the high points and to overlook the persecution and hardships faced by those who led and experienced God’s revival. Leaders suffered. Churches split. God’s work advanced through fiery trials. So it has always been. Read 1 Peter 4:12-19 and list commands, promises and insights from this text.