Review: The Great Awakening

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The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and WhitfieldJoseph Tracy. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2019 (first published 1842).

Summary: A reprint of the first comprehensive history of the English and colonial revivals of the late 1730’s and early 1740’s, focusing in New England and upon the work of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

In New England in the 1730’s, if one had been baptized in infancy into the church, had given assent to its doctrines and led a life without scandalous behavior, this was sufficient to receive communion, even if one could not give an account of God’s saving work, or “regeneration” in one’s life. Regeneration is the idea of passing from being dead in one’s sins to spiritually alive in Christ through a gracious work of God’s Spirit. One passes from deep concern and dread concerning one’s state to great consolation as one knows one’s sins forgiven through Christ and that one is now alive in Christ and able under God’s grace of living a life pleasing to God.

Due to this state of affairs, men even entered the ministry without such an experience of the grace of God. It was sometimes the case that in an affluent household of several sons, one of these took a church position, in part to relieve stretched family finances. As Jonathan Edwards, and others began to address this issue of the “unconverted” within the church, a great revival broke out. It began with many being greatly troubled about the state of their souls. Edwards urged people to trust not in their good acts but to resign themselves to God, hoping in the work of Christ to be accepted by God. There were no “anxious benches” or altar calls of the later revivals. The belief was that God would come in God’s time to whom God would, to save, and God did. Many reported experiencing great comfort and consolation in God’s grace, and there was a new liveliness of holy living and service in the lives of many of these.

Joseph Tracy was a Congregational minister who lived from 1798 to 1874. This work by Tracy represents the first comprehensive history of the Great Awakening, particularly focusing on the events of 1740-42, when this awakening was at its peak. What he does is feature the two major figures of the revival, Edwards and Whitefield, and reports of revivals in various parts of the American colonies (with one chapter on Whitefield in England). This is a valuable historical document because Tracy cites many primary source reports written at, or shortly after the time of the Revival. many of these accounts repeat occurrences along the pattern of great concern, an experience of consoling grace, and transformation of behavior following.

The reports also recount the controversies that arise which include the following:

  • Excesses of emotion, faintings, other bodily manifestations. Quickly, wise leaders like Edwards grasped that these are not definitive signs of awakening grace, which is most evident in the amended life of converts. They are neither necessary nor conclusive of conversion, and may be either genuine adjuncts or spurious in nature.
  • Declarations that ministers were “unconverted.” While there were unconverted ministers, and a legitimate concern for the state of their souls, some revivalists made sweeping, summary and public statements about the unconverted character of particular ministers which often did not go down well.
  • Itineracy. A number followed the example of Whitefield in going from town to town preaching rather than confining their ministry to a particular place. This was not a problem when a minister longing for the benefit of his people invited a guest to preach, but this courtesy was not always observed, and open-air preaching circumvented the need for such invitations, but amount to “sheep stealing” in the eyes of local ministers.
  • Exhorters. These were unordained enthusiasts who arose particularly out of the concern that existing ministers were unconverted.
  • Excesses or errors on the part of revivalists. This was most noteworthy in the case of Rev. James Davenport, who made wholesale judgments against ministers, acted more by “impulses” of the Spirit that scriptural warrant, and gathered numerous informal assemblies in homes and public places.

Tracy recounts all of this through reports, public statements of individuals and church bodies, and other documents of the time. Some of this can be heavy going if one is reading straight through but it is a trove of insight second only to Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections on the nature of spiritual awakenings, and the controversies, excesses and errors that may arise amid a genuine work of God.

He also shows the efforts of some, no doubt looking at the excesses and errors, and perhaps stinging from questions about their own spiritual state, to thwart the efforts of the preachers of the Awakening. We see the maturation of a Whitefield, who is able to acknowledge errors while not relenting in what he sees to be a God-given ministry, or Edwards, whose careful reflection and pastoral leadership addresses problems, and then offers a record of abiding value.

If you bog down amid the various accounts, don’t turn from this book without reading the final chapter on “The Results.” Tracy believed that as many as 50,000 were converted, and that the transformation of so many substantively affected the character of the colonies at the time of the War for Independence. It led to a renewed concern for the spiritual qualifications of the minister, fostered mission efforts, laid a basis for religious liberties, and led to the establishment of Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and Princeton.

I hear a renewed hunger for revival and awakening in many circles. The value of a book like this is to give theological substance, as well as practical warnings, that may prove useful should God be so gracious as to grant this work in his churches in our day. This history also warns us of the temptations of pride and censoriousness for preachers in the center of such movements, most evident in the ministry of Davenport. Banner of Truth Trust is to be applauded in bringing this classic work of history of the Awakening of 1740 to a new generation, who hopefully will benefit from the experience of those who have gone before.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

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