The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

V. Philosophers and Divines, 1720–1789

§ 2. The Whitefield Controversy

Meanwhile, the second group, the men of feeling, came into action. Received as allies, they turned out to be anything but a help to the cause. After the religious revival and the great awakening of 1734, Edwards the logician became, in a measure, Edwards the enthusiast. But calling in the aid of evangelists like George Whitefield carried sensibility beyond the limits of sense. To argue against the Arminians that, because of irresistible grace, men lack all native moral power, was to make men altogether passive in conversion and to run the risk of being carried away in a flood of feeling. So while Edwards warmed up his system by his writings on the Religious Affections, Whitefield had to be cautioned by the Connecticut divine for his too great dependence upon impulse. Brought in as anally, Whitefield thus became an unconscious underminer of high Calvinism. It was one thing to preach irresistible grace; it was another to lack the restraining grace of common sense.

It was this lack which brought in the third group, those who sought the test of intellect. Agreeing with the Arminians as to the importance of the will, and opposing the enthusiasts for their extravagance of feeling, they had behind them the whole weight of the age of reason. But here a paradox appears. While, in general, our eighteenth-century thought went through the three phases of the conventional classification of man’s powers, the development of that thought was anything but conventional. Before the problems of the will and of the feelings could be determined by the orderly processes of reason, the controversy was complicated by the irruption of a foreign force. George Whitefield was the disturber of the peace, and through him the question of morals lapsed into a question of manners. It was not denied that the evangelist did some good. The fault lay in the way in which he did it. Against this inspired son of a tavern keeper the New England clergy united in using the adjective “low” and naturally, as leaders of provincial society, they damned anything that was low. This staid and proper body, priding themselves upon dignity in deportment and rationality in religion, were, moreover, outraged at the conduct of an itinerant preacher who held forth in fields and barns and preferred emotional tests to cool conviction. New England now saw revealed the old struggle between masses and classes, between town and gown. Against the enthusiasts and ranters the clergy and the college authorities were speedily arrayed.