Revivals and Awakenings.
For this class, you will be reading Allitt, Major Problems, chapter 4. In this handout, I offer the following questions as a means of helping you approach the material, and draw out themes that we will be discussing in class.
We think of the eighteenth century as the time of the Enlightenment, a time of scientific progress, rationalism, and a general triumph of reason. Right in the middle of all this, though, America experienced – and was defined by – a Great Awakening that was profoundly anti-rational. In this class, we will be tracing the history of revivalism and the whole phenomenon of “born again” Christianity from its origins in late seventeenth century Germany through British Methodism and the American awakening, and subsequent manifestations such as the second Great Awakening of 1798.
Revival movements follow a standard narrative that almost has a mythological quality. What are the features of such stories? How are the myths imposed on the actual history?
The revivalists claimed that they were taking Christianity back to its ancient origins. In fact, many of their ideas were radically new, and historically recent. How did the revivals innovate? Think of the whole idea of being “born again”, of field preaching and preaching to the masses.
Look especially at the conversion of Nathan Cole on pp 95-99, which we will be examining in some detail. In different ways, accounts like this have become a staple of American life, right up to the present. What strikes you about it?
Assume for the sake of argument that we do not see these experiences in religious terms, how might we understand them, in terms of the social, psychological or economic pressures of the time? What kinds of societies produce revivals of this kind? Read the secular historical analysis by Patricia Bonomi on pp 111-117. Was the Great Awakening a kind of class war in disguise?
What were the implications of revivalism for traditional religious authorities? For the status of clergy and educated leaders?
What were the implications for maintaining and defending orthodoxy? For the definition of the church?
What were the implications of revivalism for traditional social outsiders, such as women, young adults, for ethnic minorities, even for slaves?
How did revivalism affect or develop individualism? Note how the stress on withdrawal and sectarianism threatens to split any or all denominations, present and future.
What Biblical authorities did revivals especially draw on?
What were the political implications of revivalism? Was it a kind of social or political revolution in disguise?
What kinds of society or community were most vulnerable to revivalism? See the account by Jonathan Edwards on pp 92-95.
What movements – churches or denominations – are the major heirs of the Great Awakening and its subsequent manifestations?
Look at the account of Whitefield’s tours on pp 114-115, his superstar presence. How could a religious leader have an impact like this? Do any modern parallels come to mind?
Looking at contemporary preaching, we hear what an amazing and even revolutionary impact it had – see especially the impact of Whitefield’s preaching on pp 95-99. Yet in many ways, the ideas expressed in these sermons seem startling, even revolting, to modern sensibilities. What does this observation suggest about how religious sensibilities have changed over time? To illustrate this, I want you to read one of the greatest of American sermons, Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God by Jonathan Edwards, which you can find at many internet sites, including http://www.ccel.org/e/edwards/sermons/sinners.html or http://www.jesus-is-lord.com/sinners.htm . How does this strike us? What does it say about the appeal of Christianity in the eighteenth century?
IF you have any great interest in contemporary preaching, you can find a major selection of Whitefield’s works at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/whitefield/sermons.htm - though I certainly don’t insist that you get into this in any detail! It’s an immense source.
Why did so many contemporaries criticize or oppose the revivals? What were they afraid of? Who was likely to oppose the revivalists? What groups or institutions?
Why did revivalism so often run into conflict with traditional Calvinist thought?
While the revivals were attracting so much attention, more rational forms of religion were also growing –see the account of Ben Franklin on pp 100-101
How did different religious groups respond to the crisis of the American Revolution? What are the familiar Christian assumptions about attitudes towards authority, or to taking up arms? See the three documents presented here on pages 102-109, respectively by a revolutionary, a conservative, and a pacifist. How convincing are they in placing their respective arguments in the Christian and Biblical tradition? Have their views been shaped at all by the religious upsurge and revivalism of the previous half-century?
Stephen Marini has an essay entitled “How the Revolution Stimulated New Religious Movements” (pp 118-125). So how did it? What were the movements? How have the kind of ideas they produced flourished in later American history?
Some additional notes and materials:
One of the classic “born again” experiences is that of John Wesley in 1738:
“I Felt My Heart Strangely Warmed”
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be faith; for where is thy joy?” Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation; but that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth, them according to the counsels of His own will.
After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.
A classic (and very critical) account of the Great Awakening is found in the writings of Charles Chauncy from the 1740s – you can find the text at
In addition, these are two accounts of a great camp meeting revival of the sort that became so popular from 1798 onwards. Read them and tell me what you think about what is happening. What particularly strikes you about these events? Can you think of other events – modern or historical, religious or secular – that resemble them?
In his autobiography Barton W. Stone, an outstanding revivalist in the first half of the nineteenth century, described camp meetings as he experienced them: “The bodily agitations or exercises, attending the excitement in the beginning of this century, were various, and called by various names;—as, the falling exercise—the jerks—the dancing exercise—the barking exercise—the laughing and singing exercises, etc.—The falling exercise was very common among all classes, the saints and sinners of every age and of every grade, from the philosopher to the clown. The subject of this exercise would, generally, with a piercing scream, fall like a log on the floor, earth, or mud, and appear as dead. Of thousands of similar cases, I will mention one.
“At a meeting, two . . . young ladies, sisters, were standing together attending to the exercises and preaching at the same time. Instantly they both fell, with a shriek of distress, and lay for more than an hour apparently in a lifeless state. Their mother, a pious Baptist, was in great distress, fearing they would not revive. At length they began to exhibit symptoms of life, by crying fervently for mercy, and then relapsed into the same death-like state, with an awful gloom on their countenances. After awhile, the gloom on the face of one was succeeded by a heavenly smile, and she cried out, ‘precious Jesus,’ and rose up and spoke of the love of God—the preciousness of Jesus, and of the glory of the gospel, to the surrounding crowd, in language almost superhuman, and pathetically exhorted all to repentance. In a little while after, the other sister was similarly exercised. From that time they became remarkably pious members of the church.
“I have seen very many pious persons fall in the same way, from a sense of the danger of their unconverted children, brothers, or sisters, of their neighbors, and of the sinful world. I have heard them agonizing in tears and strong crying for mercy to be shown to sinners, and speaking like angels to all around.
“The jerks cannot be so easily described. Sometimes the subject of the jerks would be affected in some one member of the body, and sometimes in the whole system. When the head alone was affected, it would be jerked backward and forward, or from side to side, so quickly that the features of the face could not be distinguished. When the whole system was affected, I have seen the person stand in one place, and jerk backward and forward in quick succession, their head nearly touching the floor behind and before. All classes, saints and sinners, the strong as well as the weak, were thus affected. I have inquired of those thus affected. They could not account for it; but some have told me that those were among the happiest seasons of their lives. I have seen some wicked persons thus affected, and all the time cursing the jerks, while they were thrown to the earth with violence. Though so awful to behold, I do not remember that any one of the thousands I have seen ever sustained an injury in body. This was as strange as the exercise itself.
“The dancing exercise. This generally began with the jerks, and was peculiar to professors of religion. The subject, after jerking awhile, began to dance, and then the jerks would ease. Such dancing was indeed heavenly to the spectators; there was nothing in it like levity, nor calculated to excite levity in the beholders. The smile of heaven shone on the countenance of the subject, and assimilated [sic] to angels appeared the whole person. Sometimes the motion was quick and sometimes slow. Thus they continued to move forward and backward in the same track or alley till nature seemed exhausted, and they would fall prostrate on the floor or earth, unless caught by those standing by. While thus exercised, I have heard their solemn praises and prayers ascending to God.
“The barking exercise (as opposers contemptuously called it) was nothing but the jerks. A person affected with the jerks, especially in his head, would often make a grunt, or bark, if you please, from the suddenness of the jerk. This name of barking seems to have had its origin from an old Presbyterian preacher of East Tennessee. He had gone into the woods for private devotion, and was seized with the jerks. Standing near a sapling, he caught hold of it, to prevent his falling, and as his head jerked back, he uttered a grunt or kind of noise similar to a bark, his face being turned upwards. Some wag discovered him in this position, and reported that he found him barking up a tree.
“The laughing exercise was frequent, confined solely with the religious. It was a loud, hearty laughter, but one sui generis; it excited laughter in none else. The subject appeared rapturously solemn, and his laughter excited solemnity in saints and sinners. It is truly indescribable.
“The running exercise was nothing more than that persons feeling something of these bodily agitations, through fear attempted to run away, and thus escape from them; but it commonly happened that they ran not far, before they fell, or became so greatly agitated that they could proceed no farther. I knew a young physician of a celebrated family, who came some distance to a big meeting to see the strange things he had heard of. He and a young lady had sportively agreed to watch over, and take care of each other, if either should fall. At length the physician felt something very uncommon, and started from the congregation to run into the woods; he was discovered running as for life, but did not proceed far till he fell down, and there lay till he submitted to the Lord, and afterwards became a zealous member of the church. Such cases were common.
“I shall close . . . with the singing exercise. This is more unaccountable than anything else I ever saw. The subject in a very happy state of mind would sing most melodiously, not from the mouth or nose, but entirely in the breast, the sounds issuing thence. Such music silenced everything, and attracted the attention of all. It was most heavenly. None could ever be tired of hearing it. . . .
“Thus have I [Barton Stone] given a brief account of the wonderful things that appeared in the great excitement in the beginning of this century [the 19th]. That there were many eccentricities, and much fanaticism in this excitement, was acknowledged by its warmest advocates; indeed it would have been a wonder, if such things had not appeared, in the circumstances of that time. Yet the good effects were seen and acknowledged in every neighborhood, and among the different sects it silenced contention, and promoted unity for awhile; and these blessed effects would have continued, had not men put forth their unhallowed hands to hold up their tottering ark, mistaking it for the ark of God.”—
Rhodes Thompson, ed., Voices From Cane Ridge (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1954), pp. 69-72.
Peter Cartwright describes the Cane Ridge Revival in His Autobiography
"The power of God was wonderfully displayed; scores of sinners fell under the preaching,like men slain in mighty battle; Christians shouted aloud for joy." (p. 38)
"I have seen more than a hundred sinners fall like dead men under one powerful sermon, and I have seen and heard more than five hundred Christians all shouting aloud the high praises of God at once; and I will venture to assert that many happy thousands were awakened and converted to God at these camp meetings. Some sinners mocked, some of the old dry professors opposed, some of the old starched Presbyterian preachers preached against these exercises, but still the work went on and spread almost in every direction, gathering additional force, until our country seemed all coming home to God" (p. 43).
"Just in the midst of our controversies on the subject of the powerful exercises among the people under preaching, a new exercise broke out among us, called the jerks, which was overwhelming in its effects upon the bodies and minds of the people. No matter whether they were saints or sinners, they would be taken under a warm song or sermon and seized with a convulsive jerking all over, which they could not by any possibility avoid, and the more they resisted, the more they jerked. If they would not strive against it and pray in good earnest, the jerking would usually abate. I have seen more than five hundred persons jerking at one time in my large congregations. Most usually, persons taken with the jerks, to obtain relief, as they said, would rise up and dance. Some would run, but could not get away. Some would resist; on such the jerks were generally very severe.
"To see those proud young gentlemen and young ladies, dressed in their silks, jewelry, and prunella, from top to toe, take the jerks, would often excite my risibilities. The first jerk or so, you would see their fine bonnets, caps, and combs fly; and so sudden would be the jerking of the head that their long loose hair would crack almost as loud as a wagoner's whip" (p. 45).
"I always looked upon the jerks as a judgment sent from God, first, to bring sinners to repentance; and, secondly, to show professors that God would work with or without means, and that he could work over and above means, and do whatsoever seemeth to him good, to the glory of his grace and the salvation of the world.
"There is no doubt in my mind that with weak-minded, ignorant, and superstitious persons, there was a great deal of sympathetic feeling with many that claimed to be under the influence of this jerking exercise [i.e. mere human emotion]; and yet, with many, it was perfectly involuntary. It was, on all occasions, my practice to recommend fervent prayer as a remedy, and it almost universally proved an effective antidote" (p. 46).
"There were many other strange and wild exercises into which the subjects of this revival fell; such, for instance, as what was called the running, jumping, barking exercise. The Methodist preachers generally preached against this extravagant wildness. I did it uniformly in my little ministrations, and sometimes gave great offense; but I feared no consequences when I felt my awful responsibilities to God" (p. 46).