1st Great Awakening: America, Revival and Revivalism


Charles Grandison Finney is a key figure mentioned whenever revival is discussed. Students of Revival still devour his works as a key method of understanding the process of Revival. There is no doubt that the ministry of this man had and has great effect however it is important to understand the background. It is important to bring some balance to the interpretation of history.

Asahel Nettleton, during his time, was a figure of equivalent stature. However today, where mentioned, is often portrayed as the wicked enemy of Revival.

Thornbury in "God sent Revival" writes

"To modern students of revivalism in America, he [Nettleton] is generally known as an antagonist of Finney, who is credited with being the "Father of Modern evangelism". All serious studies of American Church History devote some place to his ministry, but few credit him with contributing much to the evolution of religion. He is considered part of a bygone age and culture, a kind of roadblock in the path of progress." p227

This underplaying of Nettleton to the star of Finney is a result of the change in the way revival is seen between the first and second great awakenings.

The term revival came into vogue in the 1740's - ie the midst of the first great awakening. It was used only ocaisionally before then, however the general understanding of revival was well known before then (cf Murray Revival and Revivalism p19)

Jonathan Edwards described periods when:

The work of God is carried on with greater speed and swiftness, and there are often instances of sudden conversions at such a time. So it was in the apostle's days, when there was a time of the most extraordinary pouring out of the Spirit that ever was! How quick and sudden were conversion in those days... So it is in some degree when there is an extraordinary pouring out of the Spirit of God; more or less so, in proportion to the greatness of that effusion (quoted in Murray p20)

Revival, in the first great awakening, was seen as something God did, a greater annointing, a greater work of the Spirit, a greater moving on the people convicting of Sin. Whitefield described 1739-1740 'as an earnest of future and more plentiful effusions of God's Spirit in these parts.' (ibid)

Note they were emphasising two things - a continuity with normal ministry and an increase in response. In their normal ministries they saw the move of God in bringing people to salvation. However when revival came, the same efforts that had brought a trickle then brought a flood.

This definition of Revival very much revolves around evangelism. The effect of revival was to bring sinners into knowledge of their God. A revival of Religion implied that those outside the church would begin to take the church seriously.

It is also important to realise the theology of conversion in the churches of the American first great awakening. They were true calvinists in that a person could only become a christian through the working of the Spirit. The person had to be changed, regenerated, reborn. The decision of the person, the praying of the sinner's prayer, coming out the front had no effect without the action of the Spirit.

They talked of the hopefully converted - who knew whether the Spirit had truly worked regeneration in a person's life unless you could see the fruit of the change of life. Just as no-one could cause conversion, no one could cause revival. Indeed, they noted:

The different success of the same means of grace, in different periods of the church, sufficiently shews the necessity of gracious influences to render them efficacious...it is not by power, nor by might, but by the Spirit of the Lord of Hosts that the interests of Religion are carried on, Zech 4:6. Our own experience and observation furnish us with many instances in which this great truth has been exemplified. Sometimes the reading of a sermon has been the means of awakening careless sinners, when at other times the most solemn and argumentative preaching has been in vain. Sometimes we have seen a number of sinners thoroughly awakened, and brought to seek the Lord in earnest; while another number, under the very same sermon, and who seemed as open to conviction as the former, or perhaps more so, have remained secure and thoughtless, as usual. And whence could this difference arise, but from special grace? We have seen persons struck to the heart with those doctrines which they had heard a hundred times without any effect (Davies quoted in Murray p22)

There was no difference in their activity but a difference in the activity of God. There was no way of causing or even predicting these special graces. It was God's grace that began and carried through revival - the unmerited favour of God. As such was rare and precious

Whitefield wrote to a friend in 1749:

"I should be glad to hear of a revival at Cambuslang, but, dear Sir, you have already seen such things as are seldom seen above once in a century" (Quoted Murray p23)

Further Murray suggests that the key to revival was not a restoration of the spiritual Gifts - this really had no place in their model - "Thus Davies and his brethren repudiated the idea..." (p23) Rather "they brought salvation to large numbers of the lost and gave christians a greater conception of the glory of their redeemer" (p23)

In this model, an increase in love for Christ and a love for souls is more than adequate proof of revival.

Davies, an American minister of the time, wrote:

Because he loves him he longs for the full enjoyment of him... Because Christ is precious to him, his interests are so too, and he longs to see his kingdom flourish, and all men fired with his love. Because he loves him, he loves his ordinances; loves to hear, because it is the word of Jesus; loves to pray, because it is maintaining intercourse with Jesus; loves to sit at his table, because it is a memorial of Jesus; and loves his people because they love Jesus. (Murray p24)

The proof of revival is thus an increase in the christian fruits - grace, love and caring. Especially love for Christ. They would be fervent in spirit and express the love of God

Love is naturally productive of Love; it scatters heavenly sparks around, and these kindle the gentle flame where they fall... Let a minister of Christ ascend the sacred desk, with a heart glowing with the love of souls, and what an amiable, engaging figure does he make... Love gives a smooth, though sharp edge to his address. Love animates his persuasions and exhortations. Love breaths through his invitations and renders them irresistible. Love brightens the evidence of conviction and sweetly forces it upon unwilling minds...(Murray p25)

This love was demonstrated in three directions - a love for God, a love for souls and finally a love for the brethren. There was no place for what Murray describes as a narrow party spirit. Denominational interests have no place in the heart of the christian when the Spirit is on the move.

However because of the activity of the minister's of God, there could be nothing other than some contention due to jealousy and misunderstanding. The two main churches at this time were the Church of England and the Presbyterians. The Presbyterians were those who were involved in revivals. The names of the major players I have concentrated on in the first great awakening were Samuel Davies, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd.

Jonathan Edwards was the leading theologian of the period. Whitefield was an Englishman and the greatest calvinist preacher of the time. A close friend of Wesley, completely different in theology. Davies was a well known minister of the time and Brainerd was an evangelist to the indians. Under his ministry a great revival started. Though to read Brainerd's journal you would think that he spent most of his time depressed.

One of the more radical of the players was a man by the name of Davenport. He was an itinerant minister who succeeded in splitting most of the churches in which he preached. His first effort was to preach to his congregation continuously for 24 hours before collapsing in exhaustion. A few people were saved and the die was set.

Davenport was also well known as the man who could tell immediatly whether a person was saved or not. The elect he addressed as brother or sister, the rest he addressed as neighbor or Mr and Mrs. Needless to say, most who opposed him were mere neighbors

In 1741 he held a series of meetings in Stonington. The Minister of Stonington had seen revival in his ministry. Davenport, it seems, decided that Fish, the minister, was spiritually dead and proceeded to undermine his ministry. Fish seems to have resented this uninvited interloper and soon there was real rivalry between the two men. Soon the church polarised around the two men and a split was inevitable. Davenport calling on his supporters to leave the church.

Shortly after 91 members of the church left to form a new church with their families and friends of around 400, Davenport left for other parts. Other members left for other denominations or no church at all. The bad feeling persisted until Asahel Nettleton visited the area in the early 1800s. This process was repeated as Davenport gained a reputation as a fanatic and divider of churches, referring to ministers as the unsaved leading their congregations to hell.(cf Thornbury p48ff)

Other ministers were not so reckless. For this discussion it is important to understand their method of working. When we think of evangelistic meetings we think of a camp meeting liturgy. You sing some songs, have some prayers, some bible readings and then you preach. After preaching, you have some form of alter call to allow people to make a response to the conviction that the Spirit has brought. You then may pray for them individually or as some do, lead them all in the sinners' prayer. If you are intent on building your church, you might also get their names and addresses on membership cards. Then you may have some kind of followup.

This was totally alien to their method of working. The form of service may have been the same but there was no way in which sinners could gain salvation. They couldn't become a christian simply by saying a prayer and coming out the front, rather they had to travail under the conviction of sin. Then God may deign to extend his grace to them so that they could come through into salvation.

The aim of the preacher was to awaken the sinner to an understanding of their situation. If the conviction of God came upon the congregation then the preacher met privately with any to further instruct them. If there were a great many, the preacher may organise separate tarrying meetings - a kind of salvation assembly line. Until the sinner received God given peace, forgiveness and knowledge of salvation they were not saved. In fact, those who felt themselves saved were referred to as hopefully converted. As Thornbury writes:

"The great voices that called men to God during this period such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent saw thousands converted, but they first made their professions of faith in private, as they counselled with pastors who discussed with them their experiences." (Thornbury p200)

Wherever there is revival there is sure to be controversy. With the activities of Davenport, it was easy to see that there would be considerable concern about the activities of the revival. Just as the men who were in leadership during the revival were prone to the same failings as anyone, the revival exhibited similar mixed results and effects.

One point of controversy, that seems general in every revival, is the manifestations of the activity of the Spirit. In this revival, on the one side, accepting of manifestations, was Edwards, Tennent and Whitefield and on the other Charles Chauncy.

Pratney describes the activity in a single service that Edwards led. Chauncy describes another:

The meeting was carried on with what appeared to me great confusion; some screaming out in distress and anguish; some praying; others singing; some again jumping up and down the house, while others were exhorting; some lying along on the floor, and others walking and talking: the whole with a very great noise, to be heard at a mile's distance, and continued almost the whole night. (riss p3)

This kind of activity within meetings was too much the same stamp as Davenport. It was to much the enthusiast, too much of the flesh, as such there was no difference between Davenport and the others. Davenport insisted that bodily manifestations MUST accompany any true conversion to Christ.

Edwards position though was that manifestations were neither here nor there. It is the change in people's lives that is important - a new discipleship, love for God, the outworking of christian maturity:

A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, load outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength. . . . It is no argument that a work is not of the Spirit of God that some who are the subjects of it have been in a kind of ecstasy, wherein they have been carried beyond themselves, and have had their minds transported into a train of strong and pleasing . . . visions, as though they were rapt up even to heaven, and there saw glorious sights. I have been acquainted with some such instances, and I see no need of bringing in the help of the devil into the account that we give of these things. (riss fproph p2)

There were also manifestations in the ministry of Whitefield:

[In Derby, outside of Philadelphia,] he had not spoken long before he perceived numbers melting; as he proceeded the influence increased, till at last, both in the morning and afternoon, thousands cried out, so that they almost drowned his voice. 'Oh, what strong crying and tears,' he says, 'were shed and poured forth after the dear Lord Jesus! Some fainted, and when they had got a little strength, they would hear and faint again. Others cried out in a manner almost as if they were in the sharpest agonies of death. And after I had finished my last discourse, I myself was so overpowered with a sense of God's love, that it almost took away my life. . . .'(riss fproph p5)

On the other side of the ocean the Wesleys had long experienced these type of manifestations in their ministries:

Journal on July 7, 1739:

I had an opportunity to talk with him of those outward signs which had so often accompanied the inward work of God. I found his objections were chiefly grounded on gross misrepresentations of matter of fact. But the next day he had an opportunity of informing himself better: for no sooner had he begun (in the application of his sermon) to invite all sinners to believe in Christ, than four persons sunk down close to him, almost in the same moment. One of them lay without either sense or motion; a second trembled exceeding; the third had strong convulsions all over his body, but made no noise, unless by groans; the fourth, equally convulsed, called upon God, with strong cries and tears. From this time, I trust, we shall all suffer God to carry on His own work in the way that pleaseth Him. (riss wesley1 p1)

The activities of the Moravian missionaries were however too much even for Wesley:

Molther set forth his views in extravagant language, which soon filled Wesley with horror. . . . Four times a week, in broken English, he preached to growing crowds. At first he [Wesley] was utterly shocked by what he saw. "The first time I entered the meeting," he says, "I was alarmed and almost terror-stricken at hearing their sighing and groaning, their whining and howling, which strange proceeding they call the demonstration of the Spirit and of power."

(J. E. Hutton, in A HISTORY OF THE MORAVIAN CHURCH, 2d ed. (London, Moravian Publication Office, 1909) quoted in Riss wesley1 p 2)

Even Holy laughter was known - one of the key marks of the Toronto Blessing:

In the evening such a spirit of laughter was among us that many were much offended. But the attention of all was fixed on poor Lucretia Smith, whom we all know to be no dissembler. . . . Most of our brethren and sisters were now fully convinced that those who were under this strange temptation could not help it. Only Elizabeth Brown and Anne Holton were of another mind, being still sure any one might help laughing if she would. This they declared to many on Thursday; but on Friday the 23rd God suffered Satan to teach them better. Both of them were suddenly seized in the same manner as the rest, and laughed whether they would or no, almost without ceasing. Thus they continued for two days, a spectacle to all; and were then, upon prayer made for them, delivered in a moment (John Wesley's JOURNAL, June 21, 1740 quoted in Riss wesley1 p2)

Wesley in this case attributed the laughter to Satan, however others were not so sure:

In 1749, George Lavington wrote:

Though I am not convinced that these fits of laughing are to be ascribed to satan, I entirely agree with Mr. Wesley, that they are involuntary and unavoidable, and don't in the least question the facts. Physical writers tell us, that laughing-fits are one species of a delirium, attending on some distempers and particularly on the hypochondria, or spleen (the principal ingredient of enthusiasm) called by some the organ of laughter, whence laughing people are said to vent their spleen.(Riss Wesley1 p3)

The activities of the Spirit have a tendency to cause questioning.

The first great awakening thus died a with a wimper. The controversies over Davenport and manifestations left churches split. In the popular mind of the day, the big hero was of course Chauncy who opposed all manifestations. The revival only truly died though once God ceased moving in that way. In this case very abruptly. While the great awakening in the US was over by around 1745, the methodist revival under Wesley continued in Britain.

What are the key aspects of Revival that come out of the first great awakening:

1) Revival is the sovereign moving of God

2) Revival is a greater blessing of the normal ministry of the Church

3) Manifestations may or may not follow the moving of the Spirit

4) The key to recognising both the moving of the Spirit and Salvation is the change in people's lives.

5) every revival is mixed - some things are of God and others not. Small wonder that Satan will be very active where the Spirit of God is if only to bring the work of the Spirit into disrepute.

Discussion Questions:

1) What are the differences between our understanding of salvation and those of the first great awakening?

2) What are the good points and bad points of each position?

3) What are the differences between their understanding of revival and ours?

4) What do their understandings add that are positive to ours?

5) How do you deal with the kind of controversies recounted above?


This essay was developed as a lecture and so the references are not as good as they should be. As far as I am aware the material was based on the following :

"The Manifestations Throughout History" St. Louis CATCH THE FIRE Conference, May 3-6, 1995 by Richard M. Riss (From Rohn Price WWW Blessing Page),

"Revival and Revivalism" by Iain H. Murray (The Banner of Truth Trust 1994)

"God Sent Revival" J.F. Thornbury (Evangelical Press 1977)