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Roots of Evangelical Worship: Early American Revival

Along with German Pietism, revival in early America contributed to what would become distinctive Evangelical worship. American democracy itself had both positive and negative effects for Christianity and its worship. On the positive side, the new world provided freedom for the new colonists to worship according to their convictions rather than state mandate, which is why many groups that affirmed the regulative principle made their way to the American colonies.

Worship in the American colonies, dominated by Puritans and Separatists that had fled England, was characterized by simple, Scripture-regulated worship that included Scripture reading, prayer, a sermon, and psalm singing. Negatively, true piety began quickly to wane, especially by the eighteenth century. Several factors account for this: First, growing influence of Enlightenment rationalism led to an institutionalized religion in America not much different from what had occurred in Europe. This also led, second, to theological liberalism in both institutions of higher learning (such as Harvard after 1701) and among churches. Third, churches in New England began to accept into membership anyone who could affirm an orthodox creed and basic life morality, without necessitating a testimony of personal conversion (known as the “Half-Way Covenant”), filling the churches with unregenerate members. Fourth, freedom and individualism in America, combined with the increased unregenerate condition of many of its citizens, gave rise to growing worldliness and, eventually, lack of church attendance altogether.

Likely the greatest theologian America has ever produced, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) lived and ministered just as the significant philosophical and theological shifts of the Enlightenment were beginning to impact culture, the church, and Christian worship. Pastoring a Congregationalist church in Northampton, Massachusetts, Edwards recognized the sad condition of true Christian piety in New England:

Licentiousness for some years prevailed among the youth of the town; they were many of them very much addicted to night walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices, wherein some, by their example, exceedingly corrupted others. It was their manner very frequently to get together in conventions of both sexes for mirth and jollity, which were called frolics; and they would often spend the greater part of the night in them, without regard to any order in the families they belonged to; and indeed family government did too much fail in the town. . . . There had also long prevailed . . . a spirit of contention between two parties, into which they had for many years been divided; by which they maintained a jealousy one of the other, and were prepared to oppose one another in all public affairs.1

In response, he ended unregenerate church membership in his congregation and began to faithfully preach the gospel. His goal was to lead the people

to a conviction of their absolute dependence on [God’s] sovereign power and grace, and an universal necessity of a mediator. This has been effected by leading them more and more to a sense of their exceeding wickedness and guiltiness in his sight; their pollution, and the insufficiency of their own righteousness; that they can in no wise help themselves, and that God would be wholly just and righteous in rejected them and all that they do, and in casing them off forever.2

His vivid preaching, delivered monotone from a manuscript, produced beginning in 1734 what he would later call a “surprising work of God”: “The Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and wonderfully to work among us; and there were very suddenly, one after another, five or six persons, who were, to all appearances, savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner.”3 This same kind of work of the Spirit began to spread to other towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut over the next months and years.

After Edwards published in 1737 his first account of the revival, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God,” George Whitefield (1714–1770) came from England in 1740 to begin a tour of preaching in the colonies. Unlike Edwards, Whitefield was known for dramatic, emotional preaching. Newspapers all along New England began to promote Whitefield’s meetings, and vast crowds gathered in churches and outdoor meetings to hear him, many of them affected visibly by his preaching. He eventually made his way to Northampton, where he spent time with Edwards, who, while very complimentary of Whitefield, counseled him to be careful with sensationalism and enthusiasms. Sarah Edwards wrote of Whitefield, “He makes less of doctrines than our American preachers generally do and aims at affecting the heart.”4

The vast number of conversions taking place in churches in the American colonies between 1730 and 1740, sometimes accompanied by intense physical responses, led to two extremes. On the one hand, some Christian leaders considered the physical responses as the defining characteristic of the awakening and thus sought to recreate such experiences through means to stir up emotion. A prime example of this was New York Presbyterian minister, James Davenport (1716–1757), whose services became characterized by irregularity and disorder, “his hands extended, his head thrown back, and his eyes staring up to heaven, attended with so much disorder, that they looked more like a company of Bacchanalians [worshipers of Bacchus, Roman god of drunken revelry] after a bad frolic, than sober Christians who had been worshiping God” (Boston Evening-Post, July 5, 1742).5

Other leaders rejected the validity of the awakening altogether because they saw what was happening as merely excesses of emotionalism, such as Charles Chauncy in his 1743 Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England. Chauncy was an Enlightenment rationalist through and through who considered theology to be the “handmaid to reason,” valued natural theology over revealed theology, and argued that the revival was a work of over-zealous fanatics, an assertion he substantiated by appealing to the emotional excesses and disorder. But even theological conservative “Old Light” Calvinists opposed what they considered the “extremism” of the revival.

Both of these responses came as a result of the newly growing secular understanding of “emotion,” and Edwards rejected both. His reply was to emphasize the distinction between religious affections and physical responses, defining religion as consisting in the affections, which may or may not manifest themselves in external feelings or expression. Edwards argued,

The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same, and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word that in the ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination, but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more over powered, and less in its own command.6

He insisted that, while physical expression, excitement, and intensity may result from the Holy Spirit’s convicting work, they are in actuality “signs of nothing”—they neither define nor disprove true revival. Rather, the only way to measure true conversion or any other spiritual experience is over time, examining whether a person perseveres and grows in the Christian faith.

Some time after the awakening, Edwards noted that the more genuine conversions were those, not necessarily accompanied by intense physical externals, but those characterized by “greater solemnity and greater humility and self-distrust, and greater engagedness after holy living and perseverance.”7 In fact, Edwards admitted that he should have been more careful during the time, many of the conversions that were actually resting on the emotional experience later proven to be false.

This period of revival America would soon prove to be a tipping point for what evangelical Christians came to expect as characteristic of spiritual experience, including in worship.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, 1737, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), 1:347. []
  2. Jonathan Edwards, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737),” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), 351. []
  3. Ibid., 348. []
  4. Quoted in Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, 50465th edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 126–27. []
  5. Quoted in Edwin Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1957), 39. []
  6. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections, 1746, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:98. []
  7. Ibid., 16:125. []

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