In 1734, Jonathan Edwards noticed that something distinct and strange had happened in his Northampton community. This “Surprising Work of God”
became known as “The First Great Awakening.” While Edwards was preaching one Sunday about what he saw as the sins of the town’s youth, the
congregation suddenly became emotional and penitent and sought forgiveness for their sins. Without discarding his belief in God’s sovereignty, Edwards
understood this phenomenon as God’s special work, affecting this generation. The emotion seemed to be necessary for people to have confidence in
their salvation, although Edwards did not think that conversion stood alone on emotional demonstrations. He stressed that a change of mind was not the
same as a change of heart, which implied deep feeling, a new direction for one’s life. He concluded that one experiences both a mental and an emotional
change in conversion.
To complement Edwards’s unusual experience in Northampton, other ministers who related more to the common people became popular. England’s
George Whitefield, an Anglican minister, attracted large audiences in the South and New England. He preached the possibility and necessity of individual
conversion for anyone with faith in God. Those who heard Whitefield praised him for his sermons’ common language, his extemporaneous prayers, and
his ability to establish strong rapport with his audiences.
In the Middle colonies, William Tennent Sr. and his four sons popularized the message of individual conversion by faith. A Scotsman, Tennent came to
Pennsylvania and opened a one-room schoolhouse called the Log College in 1730. His son Gilbert’s most famous sermon, “The Danger of an
Unconverted Ministry” specifically addressed the question of who was best qualified to interpret biblical truth. For the Tennents, only the converted
minister, regardless of education, had the necessary qualification to interpret the Bible.
Emotional demonstrations during these revivalistic services prompted a disagreement between the “Old Lights” and “New Lights.” The New Lights, such as
Edwards, Whitefield, and the Tennents, accepted the combination of faith and emotion as authentic conversion experiences in those who changed their
lives. The more traditional Old Lights rejected these emotional conversions as shallow in commitment and without enough substance to sustain the faith.
Charles Chauncy of Boston’s First Church represented the Old Lights’ rational position, which primarily focused on “understanding” and strict clerical
control over congregations. Edwards responded that the interconnections of thought and emotion were such that neither existed without the other. But
even Edwards admitted that it was easier for converts to talk like saints than to act like saints.
The First Great Awakening brought Christianity to many Americans who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to hear they could decide for
themselves whether or not to become a Christian. It also raised questions about the qualifications for the ministry. One had to ask what level of education
ministers really needed and whether the experience of conversion alone was enough. This upheaval over ministerial authority received more attention as
different denominations gained more members.
From the 1740s on, the role of the minister as the authoritarian figure in the colonies depended on what denomination people selected as the home for
their religious faith. Ministers also contributed to the ideas and emotions that fueled the Revolutionary War.
In 1750, even before Great Britain tightened its control over colonial trade, Jonathan Mayhew, pastor of Boston’s affluent West Church, proclaimed the
duty of resisting a tyrannical government in his sermon “Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission.” He called upon Christians everywhere to stand up
for justice when it was in jeopardy. If governments existed for the purpose of protecting the rights and future of the people, then nothing good could result
from a government that demanded its citizens submit when that government ruled in a way that was not best for the people.
In 1770, other ministers denounced the Boston Massacre, when British soldiers fired into a crowd, killing five colonists. One minister, John Lathrop of Old
North Church, pronounced God’s condemnation of this murder and characterized it as akin to that of Cain murdering his brother Abel, as written in
Genesis 3:10. Ministers felt obligated not to ignore this act of treachery and proclaimed that if Britain did not change its policies of violence, then it should
not rule these colonies.
James A. Denton
See also: Bible; Christ and Christianity; God; Great Awakening; Religion (Chronology); Religion (Essay); Sermons.
Ahlstrom, Sydney. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972.
Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. New England’s Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Butler, Jon. Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Gaustad, Edwin, and Leigh Schmidt. The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today. Rev. ed. San Francisco:
Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.
Smith, John E., Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema, eds. A Jonathan Edwards Reader. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
Stout, Harry S. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Each of the major colonial powers England, France, and Spain saw in North America a prime opportunity to spread Christianity. In fact, Christianity
became one of the tools of conquest in some parts of the Americas.
The ways in which each nation went about spreading the Christian faith varied dramatically. Accordingly, native peoples responded to European
missionaries in different, culturally specific ways. Occasionally, tribes in close proximity to European settlements accepted missionaries as a way to lessen
the impact of colonization on their communities. Other groups resisted missionaries’ efforts from the outset, and some Native Americans incorporated
aspects of Christianity into their own worldviews.