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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Great Awakening

By John Gorham Palfrey (1796–1881)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1796. Died at Cambridge, Mass., 1881. A Compendious History of New England. 1866–73.]

A PORTION of the people of New England deplored the departure of what was in their estimation a sort of golden age. Thoughtful and religious men looked back to the time when sublime efforts of adventure and sacrifice had attested the religious earnestness of their fathers, and, comparing it with their own day of absorption in secular interests, of relaxation in ecclesiastical discipline, and of imputed laxness of manners, they mourned that the ancient glory had been dimmed. The contrast made a standing topic of the election sermons preached before the government from year to year, from the time of John Norton down. When military movements miscarried, when harvests failed, when epidemic sickness brought alarm and sorrow, when an earthquake spread consternation, they interpreted the calamity or the portent as a sign of God’s displeasure against their backsliding, and appointed fasts to deprecate his wrath, or resorted to the more solemn expedient of convoking synods to ascertain the conditions of reconciliation to the offended Majesty of Heaven.

That religion, so sickly, might be reinvigorated was the constant hope and aim of numbers of reflecting persons. From time to time there would be reports of remarkable success attending the labors of one or another devoted minister. Among such Mr. Solomon Stoddard was distinguished. In his ministry of nearly sixty years at Northampton, “he had five harvests, as he called them;” that is, there were five different times at which a large number of persons professed religious convictions, and attached themselves to his church. An earthquake which traversed a considerable part of inhabited New England was interpreted as a Providential admonition, and the ministers of various places, of Boston especially, availed themselves of the terror which it inspired as an instrument of religious effect. The shock was felt just before midnight. “On the next morning a very full assembly met at the North Church [Cotton Mather’s] for the proper exercises on so extraordinary an occasion. At five in the evening a crowded concourse assembled at the Old Church [Dr. Chauncy’s], and multitudes, unable to get in, immediately flowed to the South [Mr. Prince’s], and in a few minutes filled that also…. At Lieutenant-Governor Dummer’s motion … a day of extraordinary fasting and prayer was kept in all the churches in Boston…. The ministers endeavored to set in with this extraordinary and awakening work of God in nature, and to preach his word in the most awakening manner;” and “in all the congregations many seemed to be awakened and reformed.” But it was not till after the time of the political lull in Governor Belcher’s administration, that in any quarter a religious movement took place of sufficient importance to attract wide attention.

Stoddard was succeeded as minister of Northampton by Jonathan Edwards, his grandson. In Edwards’s judgment the people were suffering from want of a sufficiently distinct and earnest presentation of Calvinistic doctrine. He preached vehemently on “Justification by Faith” and “God’s Absolute Sovereignty.” Some of his friends were displeased, not by his doctrine, but by his exciting inferences from it, and would have discouraged him. But with an unimpassioned obstinacy he went on, and soon saw cause to rejoice in the fruit of his labors. “The spirit of God,” he writes, “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 appearance savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner…. A great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and the eternal world became universal in all parts of the town, and among persons of all degrees and all ages; the noise among the dry bones waxed louder and louder; all other talk but about spiritual and eternal things was soon thrown by…. Other discourse than of the things of religion would scarcely be tolerated in any company…. There was scarcely a single person in the town, either old or young, that was left unconcerned; so that, in the spring and summer following, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God; it never was so full of love, nor so full of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then.”

The people of the towns about “seemed not to know what to make of it; and there were many that scoffed at and ridiculed it, and some compared what was called conversion to certain distempers.” But a session of the Supreme Court at Northampton brought numbers of people together there, and “those that came from the neighborhood were for the most part remarkably affected. Many … went home with wounded hearts, and with those impressions that never wore off till they had hopefully a saving issue…. The same work began evidently to appear and prevail in several other towns in the county.” South Hadley, Hadley, Suffield, Sunderland, Deerfield, Hatfield, Springfield, West Springfield, Longmeadow, Northfield, besides many towns in Connecticut, caught the sympathy, and made their large contributions of converts,—as large, Edwards thought, in proportion to their population, as Northampton. Of his own town he wrote: “I hope that more than three hundred souls were savingly brought home to Christ in the space of half a year; how many more I don’t guess, and about the same number of males as females. I hope that by far the greater part of persons in the town above sixteen years of age were such as had the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and so, by what I heard, I suppose it is in some other places…. So far as I, by looking back, can judge from the particular acquaintance I have had with souls in this work, it appears to me probable to have been at the rate, at least, of four persons in a day, or near thirty in a week, take one with another, for five or six weeks together.” About six hundred and twenty came to his communion-table, being nearly all the adults of his congregation. At one communion service a hundred new participants presented themselves; at another, eighty. Among his converts, ten were above sixty years of age, and two above seventy; “near thirty were to appearance so wrought upon, between ten and fourteen years of age; and two between nine and ten, and one of about four years of age.”

The excitement, which in Massachusetts had been confined to towns on or near Connecticut River, ceased after about six months. Dr. Colman, of Boston, sent some account of it to England, and, in pursuance of a request from his correspondents there, obtained from Edwards a detailed description in a long letter, which was published in London by Dr. Watts and Dr. Guise, and from which the facts related above have been taken. The ministers of Boston kept the subject before the public mind. They circulated an edition of Dr. Edwards’s letter, and several sermons, which were considered to have been serviceable in the recent movement. Dr. Colman did more. He sent an invitation to George Whitefield to visit New England, and in conjunction with his colleague, William Cooper, prepared a reception for him by publishing a sermon full of laudation of his gifts and graces by Josiah Smith, of South Carolina, prefaced by a eulogistic memoir of their own. Whitefield was now twenty-six years old. A year before he had been ordained a priest of the Church of England. He was at this time on his second visit to America, where his principal business had been the establishing of a hospital for orphans in General Oglethorpe’s recently constituted colony of Georgia.

The marvellous preacher was received in New England with flattering honors. From Charleston, in South Carolina, he came by water to Newport, arriving at that place with the advantage of a favorable change of wind, which, as well as the offer of a hospitable lodging presently made to him by a stranger, he thought to be due to his prayers. In three days he preached six times at Newport to large assemblies. Four miles from Boston he was met on his way by “the governor’s son and several other gentlemen,” who had come out to conduct him to that place. On the following day he “was visited by several gentlemen and ministers, and went to the governor’s with Esquire Willard, Secretary of the Province, a man fearing God;” after which he “preached to about four thousand people in Dr. Colman’s meeting-house, and, as he afterwards was told by several, with great success.” The next day he “preached in the morning with much freedom and power to about six thousand hearers, in the Reverend Dr. Sewall’s meeting-house,” and afterwards on the Common to about eight thousand, and again at night to a company which crowded his lodgings. Then came a Sunday, when he had an audience of “about fifteen thousand,” not far from three-quarters of the whole population of the town.

Whitefield remained ten days in Boston, exerting his prodigious powers of oratory with the same success as had attended them elsewhere. Crowds, listening to him, were dissolved in tears, and “cried out under the word like persons that were really hungering and thirsting after righteousness.” Then he made a journey of a week to the eastward as far as York, preaching to great congregations in all the principal towns on the way. “Though,” he writes, “I had rode a hundred and seventy-eight miles, and preached sixteen times, I trust, to the great benefit of thousands, yet I was not in the least wearied or fatigued.” At Hampton he addressed “some thousands in the open air,” but “not with so much freedom as usual. The wind was almost too high for him. Some, though not many, were affected.” At Portsmouth he had “preached to a polite auditory, and so very unconcerned that he began to question whether he had been preaching to rational or brute creatures.” But in a second trial, on his way back, he subdued them, and recovered his self-satisfaction. “Instead of preaching to dead stocks, I had now reason to believe I was preaching to living men. People began to melt soon after I began to pray, and the power increased more and more during the whole sermon. The word seemed to pierce through and through.” This success put him in condition, and he “hastened after dinner to Hampton, and preached to some thousands of people with a good deal of life and power.” The last day of a week passed at Boston, where he had spoken two or three times every day, he “went with the governor in his coach to the Common, where he preached his farewell sermon to near thirty thousand people.” “I have observed,” he records, “that I have had greater power than ordinary whenever the governor has been at public worship; a sign this, I hope, that the Most High intends to set him at his right hand.”…

“With the common mixture of remaining infirmities and corruptions,” things went on most satisfactorily for a year and a half after Whitefield’s appearance in Boston, at the end of which time the movement “unexpectedly came to an unhappy period.” James Davenport, minister of Southhold, on Long Island, was a person peculiarly esteemed by Whitefield and Tennent and their circle. His temperament was intensely enthusiastic, and the spirit of the times intoxicated him. What he heard, before they had met, of Whitefield’s successes wrought him up to an unselfish frenzy of emulation. He is said to have begun by addressing his congregation in a discourse nearly twenty-four hours long, an exertion which brought on a brain fever. He promised to cure a sick woman by praying, and when she died he pronounced that to be her recovery. He hesitated to preach beyond the limits of his own parish till he understood himself to be instructed to that effect by opening his Bible at the passage where Jonathan and his armor-bearer are related to have assailed the Philistine camp. Thus encouraged, he went to the neighboring town of Easthampton, wading up to his knees in snow, and had the satisfaction there of making twenty converts. In New York and New Jersey he heard from Whitefield himself of the recent successes of the great preacher in Massachusetts. He went in Whitefield’s train to Philadelphia, but in the following summer he returned to the North, and at Stonington, in Connecticut, is said to have “convicted” nearly a hundred persons in a single sermon, and registered about that number of converts in a week. He even stepped across the border of Rhode Island, and flattered himself that he had some harvest from that rugged soil.

Davenport’s doctrine was conceited and exclusive. He went about the towns telling the people in one and another of them that they were imperilling their souls by listening to an unconverted minister. He waited on the ministers, as he journeyed, asking them for a recital of their religious experience, which, if his request were granted, he often found unsatisfactory, and denounced them accordingly, as well as when they declined to gratify his curiosity. The credit of being esteemed by Whitefield was for a time an advantage to him, but he presumed upon it, and gave extreme provocation….

After an absence of four years, Whitefield came a second time to New England, arriving by sea at York, in Maine. In the divided state of opinion, his reception was less flattering than it had been before, nor are such triumphs as he had once won of a nature to be repeated in the same field. Proceeding southward, he was detained at Portsmouth two or three weeks by illness, and scarcely appeared abroad except once, when he was borne from the pulpit so exhausted that fears were entertained for his life. Thence he came to Boston, where he preached in several of the churches. At Dr. Colman’s request, he administered the communion in the church in Brattle Street. This occasioned much complaint, on the alleged ground that Whitefield was in orders in the Church of England. The newspapers began to assail him, carrying their animosity so far as to charge him with dishonest use of the funds collected by him for his orphan house. Two associations of ministers in Essex County united in a published rebuke to the Boston ministers for inviting him to their pulpits. The Faculty of Harvard College (then under the Presidency of Edward Holyoke) published their testimony against him….

Whitefield was sore beset. In letters to various friends, he expressed more diffidence than might have been expected from a young man who had drunk so deeply into the intoxication of popular applause. “Wild fire,” he wrote, “will necessarily blend itself with the pure fire that comes from God’s altar…. It broke out and spread itself by the instrumentality of many good souls, who, mistaking fancy for faith and imagination for revelation, were guilty of great imprudence…. Some unguarded expressions, in the heat of less experienced youth, I certainly did drop. I was too precipitate in hearkening to and publishing private information, and, Peter-like, cut off too many ears.” The tone of the defences which he judged it necessary to make was generally forbearing, and sometimes even self-distrustful. Continuing to affirm the integrity of his purpose, and the usefulness of his labors, he allowed that he had been “too unguarded” in his censures of ministers. He assured the Faculty of Harvard College of his “sorrow that he had published his private informations, though from credible persons, concerning the Colleges, to the world.” He justified his “itinerancy” by the example of Knox and other reformers. He protested that he had “no intention of setting up a party for himself, or to stir up people against their pastors.”

The flame which had burned so fiercely had consumed its fuel. It was going out, and would not be rekindled. Whitefield soon left Massachusetts, after some journeys to towns at the eastward. He was still followed by admirers, but the former tokens of his power were not repeated. Another excitement, presently to be mentioned, of a different character, had taken possession of the public mind. He came to Boston again for a short time in the summer, and again at different times in later years, ending his days at the neighboring town of Newburyport, where is pointed out the place of his burial, beneath the pulpit of his friend and fellow-laborer, Jonathan Parsons. But his first achievements were far the greatest. There was not enough in him of other attractions to compensate entirely for the loss of the charm of novelty. He continued to make wonderful exhibitions of oratorical power, but the subtle influences, which through the sympathy of an audience surrender it helpless to an orator’s control, did not combine to aid him to the same degree, after the strain of the first experiment.

As to the character and results of the paroxysm which has been described, it would be impossible to pronounce a judgment on a question which once agitated the mind of New England to its depths, and is still from time to time revived, without assuming an attitude of religious partisanship, which is not that of the historian. According to different estimates of favorable judges, the converts made in New England during the Great Awakening amounted to twenty-five thousand, or to double that number. The sober historian of Connecticut placed the number at thirty or forty thousand. The supposed number of twenty-five thousand new communicants has been thought not to represent sufficiently the number of new Christians, inasmuch as, under the fresh impressions made upon their minds, many communicants became convinced that they had been hitherto unregenerate persons.