The Evangelical Awakening

from A History of Preaching
by F. R. Webber

The period of spiritual deadness that marked the closing decades of the seventeenth century and the first three or four decades of the eighteenth was followed by a remarkable era known as the Evangelical Awakening. Like many significant epochs in Church History, it made its appearance almost simultaneously in several countries, and in its earliest stages it appeared to be several independent movements. However, it was a widespread reaction against generations of spiritual exhaustion.

As early as the year 1720, Theodore J. Frelinghuysen began to bear vehement witness against the spiritual deadness that he had found among the settlers in central new Jersey, in America. In 1726 William Tennent, an Irishman, founded the famous “Log College” at Neshaminy, twenty miles north of Philadelphia, where he trained men to range through the central American colonies and cry out against the religious indifference of their time. Among the men whom he trained were his own sons, Gilbert, William, Charles and John. In 1734 Jonathan Edwards began his noteworthy work at Northampton, Massachusetts, which was to spread throughout the northeastern colonies. At almost the same time a great spiritual awakening became apparent in two distinct parts of Wales, and Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland were the men identified with it at its outset.

The awakening in England proper had its origin in 1739, when George Whitefield, a young Anglican clergyman, began his outdoor preaching at Kingswood Common, near Bristol. It was several months later that John Wesley, another young Anglican clergyman, was able to overcome his dislike for outdoor preaching and to unite with Whitefield in the work that had been started. In 1742 the awakening of religious interest appeared in Scotland. At Cambuslang, at Kilsyth and elsewhere, enormous gatherings of people actually stood all night in the open air to hear the urgent preaching of James Robe, William McCulloch and later of George Whitefield.

The Evangelical Awakening has been called a revival, but it was not a revival in the American sense of the term. Carefully organized evangelistic campaigns, with professional evangelists, highly emotional preaching and appeals for instant decisions, were common enough at the beginning of the twentieth century, but these were but refinements of the old fashioned American camp-meeting rather than of the technique of Wesley and Whitefield. The Wesleyan movement was a natural reaction to generations of spiritual torpor, and was not a campaign planned after the manner of an American revival.

“It was an age of a shallow and confidant Deism,” declares Principal Fitchett, “a Deism exultant and militant, served by wit and humour as well as defended by logic. It had captured literature; it coloured the general imagination; it stained the common speech; it sat enthroned in the place of Christian faith. Now Deism of any type is morally impotent,” Principal Fitchett continues, “and Deism of the eighteenth century type is nothing but a little patch of uncertain quicksand set in a black sea of atheism. It does not deny God’s existence, but it cancels Him out as a force in human life. It breaks the golden ladder of revelation betwixt Heaven and earth. It leaves the Bible discredited, duty a guess, Heaven a freak of the uncharted imagination, and God a vague and far-off shadow. Men were left by it to climb into a shadowy Heaven on some frail ladder of human logic. And while in those sad days there was this obscuring mist of Deism outside the churches, inside them there was a mist almost as evil and dense. Open and confessed Arianism had captured almost completely the dissenting Churches; and an unconscious and practical Arianism reigned, in spite of its Articles, in the Anglican Church. The sense of sin was faint; and with it had grown faint, too, the doctrine of a divine and redeeming Christ.”

English Deism, German Rationalism and Scottish Moderatism are essentially the same in spirit, for they all tend to exalt human reason and ignore divine revelation. All students of the history of preaching are agreed that evangelical truth is seldom proclaimed from the pulpit when Deism, Rationalism or Moderatism flourish. The great doctrines of Redemptive Christianity are not necessarily attacked: they are merely set aside, and a preaching of outward morality is always characteristic of such periods. Dr. Thomas Chalmers preached the sermon at the funeral of Dr. Andrew M. Thomson, the great foe of Rationalism; and in his sermon he called attention to the fact that Rationalism causes men to make light of evangelical truth, to look upon the preaching of sin and grace as vulgar, and to substitute a purely secular morality, the ethics of philosophy and the speculations of natural theology for the great facts of man’s sinful nature and his salvation solely through the merits of Jesus Christ.

These recurring cycles, when the message of the pulpit degenerates into sleepy lectures on good behavior, man’s attitude toward his fellow man, and his reactions to that uncertain thing which our own generation calls “Life,” are generally followed by a marked reaction. At times when the light of evangelical truth seems all but extinguished, the Lord raises up witnesses, and the great truths of Redemptive Christianity are heard once more. The common people, starving because of the poor husks of a mere natural morality upon which they have been fed, flock to hear the declarations of the reformers, and almost overnight a great awakening of spiritual zeal is under way. This history of preaching has followed just this pattern again and again, whether in the days of the Old Testament prophets, whether in the days of our Lord, His forerunner and His Apostles, or throughout the centuries that have followed. . . .

At the time of the Evangelical Awakening, outdoor preaching became an effective method of missionary work. Such preaching was not a novelty in Britain, for many a sermon had been preached at St. Paul’s Cross and elsewhere by such men as Coverdale, Grindall, Scory, Jewell, Sandys and Sampson, while large congregations assembled on the moors or more often in the secluded glens, to hear the words of their spiritual leaders. However, the people of Britain had all but forgotten these things, and when Whitefield and Wesley began to preach in the open fields, there was much opposition at first. The clergy of the old order were horrified, and at once called meetings and decided by resolution that the parish church is a consecrated building, set apart from all secular buildings as God’s house. To preach in the open air, or in a private home, or in any building other than the parish church, was not only disorderly, but it was a form of disorder that must be dealt with. The great majority of the bishops agreed fully with this position. Even the people themselves, ready as they were to hear Whitefield and Wesley, were somewhat confused at first. Habits fix themselves with peculiar tenacity upon the Christian congregation. Congregations accustomed to sing their hymns without the aid of a musical instrument, have often risen in indignant revolt when an organ was introduced. Congregations accustomed to sing the Psalms often refuse to read them responsively, and vice versa. Thus it was when Wesley and Whitefield began to preach in the fields. While vast congregations assembled to hear them, yet many opposed the idea at the outset; and any biography of John Wesley or George Whitefield will disclose many instances when these field preachers were pelted with sticks and stones, driven out of towns, and even threatened with imprisonment. There were riots in England and Scotland, in Wales and in America. . . .

In all such awakenings of religious zeal, it is a noteworthy fact that the leaders of the movement are not satisfied to preach once or twice a week. They itinerate from village to village, and preach two or three times each day, seven days a week. During his lifetime John Wesley preached 42,000 sermons; while George Whitefield preached 18,000 sermons during his comparatively short career of 34 years in office. It was not at all unusual for a single sermon to attain a length of two to three hours. So great was the spiritual thirst of the people that they stood for hours in the open air, regardless of the weather, and history records the fact that they often followed the itinerant preacher to his next preaching station.

John Wesley’s method was simple. He entered a town on horseback, often without previous announcement. After donning his black robe and white bands, he took his stand at the market cross (known in America as the public square), and attracted attention by singing a hymn. As soon as a crowd gathered he began to preach, and continued for an hour or more. George Whitefield often visited carnivals, fairs and public executions. Selecting a convenient spot where many people could assemble, he preached for one, two or more hours. Executions of criminals were postponed on several occasions in order that all might hear Whitefield. Both Wesley and Whitefield had voices of great range and power, and Whitefield was a man of exceptional dramatic ability, able to describe incidents from the Bible or from daily life in a manner that often brought forth exclamations from his hearers. Wesley rarely resorted to the dramatic, nor was he partial to the use of illustrations. Both of them discouraged noisy demonstrations, and cautioned their associates to do likewise; nevertheless they preached the Law with severity, and the terror-stricken people often sobbed audibly, fainted, or exhibited other evidences of agitation. The enemies of the Evangelical Awakening spread exaggerated reports of these incidents, and described the outdoor services of the Wesleyans as disorderly gatherings. It must not be assumed that the Methodist leaders sought to create emotional pandemonium. After sober thought Ryle comes to the conclusion that “they preached fervently and directly. They cast aside that dull, cold, heavy, lifeless mode of delivery which had long made sermons a very proverb for dullness. They proclaimed the words of faith with faith, and the story of life with life.” Wesley and Whitefield remained in the Church of England throughout their lives, and the pulpit decorum that is traditional among the Anglicans would not permit them to engage in levity or smartness of expression. Their preaching was lively, but always serious. . . .

The printed sermons of the great leaders of the Evangelical Awakening, and of their able associates, are not remarkable. Most of the sermons that exist today could easily be delivered in half an hour, while it is a matter of record that these men usually preached for an hour or more. Their printed sermons seem to be but the dry bones about which they fashioned a vigorous body of living speech. Very few of the great pulpit orators, whose words electrified multitudes, have been able to animate their printed sermons with living fire. The oratory of Dr. Chalmers often brought great congregations to their feet in incredulous admiration, yet his printed sermons are dry. The same may be said of Dr. John Kennedy of Dingwall, that prince of Highland preachers, as well as of many others. Wesley, Whitefield, Fletcher, Coke, Nelson, and others of their generation, were men whose most effective work was done by means of living speech, rather than with the pen and the inkstand. . . .

The preachers of the Evangelical Awakening “came to close grips” with their hearers, and with a spirit of utmost urgency. They made their congregations realize that they were dying men and women, and facing a terrible eternity unless they repented of their sins and fled for refuge to the foot of the Cross. They may have been unclear in regard to the objective side of justification, and in regard to the means of grace, yet they understood enough of the basic truth of the plan of salvation to awaken in their hearers a terrible realization of their lost condition. After generations of spiritual deadness, one is not surprised to hear of men and women weeping aloud and fainting, under the urgent appeals of the preachers of the Evangelical Awakening. “It may be laid down as a principle established by fact,” writes one of Wesley’s early biographers, “that whenever a zealous and faithful ministry is raised up after a long spiritual death, the early efforts of that ministry are not only powerful, but often attended with extraordinary circumstances; nor are such extraordinary circumstances necessarily extravagancies because they are not common.” People wept, and some cried aloud to the Lord for mercy when the preaching of the Law brought terror to their souls; and when the joyous promises of the Gospel were proclaimed, and the sermon ended, many lifted their voices in joyous hymns of praise.

As the Evangelical Awakening grew in strength, Wesley’s talent for organization asserted itself. He was not willing to mount his horse and ride away, allowing his hearers to drift back into their old ways of living. By means of intricate organization of ordained clergymen and lay preachers, groups of awakened people were organized throughout Britain and America. They met frequently, encouraged one another in their new-found spiritual life, and John Wesley assumed personal supervision of all these groups, as one who must give an account for their souls. He insisted that they remain within the Church of England and act as a leaven among the people of an indifferent generation. George Whitefield died in America in 1770, and for the next twenty-one years John Wesley was the sole leader of the movement, although he was fortunate in having many capable fellow laborers, and among these, John Fletcher was one of the most faithful. When Wesley died in 1791, his followers numbered 76,000 in Britain alone, and they were served by some 300 preachers. Eighty years after his death, Wesley’s followers had increased to no less than 12,000,000. Not many years after his death they formed a separate denomination, and so many chapels did they build that in Cornwall, for example, one is hardly ever out of sight of a Methodist place of worship. . . .

The effect of the Awakening upon preaching was most significant. Here one is obliged to depend somewhat upon the records of men who actually heard the sermons of Whitefield, Wesley and their associates. Fortunately there is ample source material, ranging from the written accounts of people in the humblest walks of life to the records of Benjamin Franklin and other men of sober judgment. All agree that the British Isles and the American colonies were stirred to such an extent that religion was the chief topic of interest. An open air service drew enormous congregations, and Benjamin Franklin, with his characteristic thoroughness, calculated with care the number of people in some of these great outdoor gatherings. Religion was discussed everywhere. Groups of people engaged in discussions on market day, knots of men and women gathered on the corners of village streets, and lingered long in the churchyards on Sunday. The sermons of the great leaders, and of less prominent men, were reviewed again and again during the week, and every point was discussed carefully by the people. One of the curious by-products of the Awakening was a sudden interest in shorthand. Men and women studied shorthand in order that they might take down the sermons that were stirring the English-speaking countries. This had happened once before in Scotland, and it made its appearance once more in all countries where the influence of the Awakening was felt. It was not at all unusual to see men with a portable inkwell strapped about them, and a quill pen thrust over an ear, hastening to join the throng assembling on the village green. Some of the printed sermons of George Whitefield are the notes taken down in shorthand by these volunteer reporters, and their value depends upon the degree of education of the scribe, and his knowledge of shorthand. Obviously they transcribed them into longhand in their own way, and usually without the benefit of editing on the part of the preacher. All too often they fall short of the actual spoken words. Even where the actual manuscripts of the famous preachers exist, they are likely to be what Broadus calls “mere preparations, which in free delivery were so filled out with the thoughts suggested in the course of living speech, and so transfigured and glorified by enkindled imagination, as to be utterly different from the dull, cold thing that here lies before us–more different than the blazing meteor from the dark, metallic stone that lies half buried in the earth.”

The preaching of the eighteenth century took on new life. The dull, involved, intricate sermon outlines with their “doctrines, observations and uses” gave way gradually to more natural modes of disposition. No longer was animation in the pulpit denounced as fanaticism, as had been the case during the dreary years of the Period of Apathy. Congregations took on new life everywhere. The half empty churches were filled, the decaying stone walls and leaky roofs were repaired, the spider’s webs which had long hung in festoons from the roof trusses were removed, and even the physical appearances of the church buildings and their surrounding churchyards gave indication outwardly of the awakening of interest; for a decaying church building too often is but the external expression of a lack of interest in the preaching of the Word, for which churches are built.

Even more important than these things was the awakening of interest in evangelical truth. . . . The Period of Apathy was a long era of decline, when evangelical truth had almost vanished. Deism ruled in England, rationalistic thinking in Germany, Moderatism in Scotland and boasting skepticism in the American colonies. Clergymen of the slothful sort preached dull sermons on conventional morality, based upon human reason. Clergymen who considered themselves spiritually-minded preached a form of morality based upon the authority of God’s Word. Both classes of preachers erred, for they failed to declare that “Christ died for our offences and rose again for our justification,” and “We have redemption in His blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” The leaders of the Evangelical Awakening laid upmost stress upon just these truths that had been neglected by others for so long. Their theology was incomplete, and they fell into the error of synergism now and then, for their early religious training had been in the arid age of doctrinal decay. Nevertheless, from their study of the Scriptures they became convinced of the truth that Christ died for our offences, that He rose again for our justification, and that we have redemption in His blood. These fundamental truths were impressed upon their hearers again and again.

The revolution that took place in all countries where English was spoken is a proof of the power of evangelical preaching. The new form of sermon, with its emphasis upon man’s sin and his redemption through the Lord Jesus, became the rule rather than the rare exception. . . . In America the Great Awakening, as it is called, swept through the colonies and its effects were felt for a century. It burned itself out in the wild fanaticism of the frontier camp-meetings, and reasserted itself once more in a manner somewhat more dignified in the revivals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.