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The event that has become known as the Great Awakening actually began years earlier in the 1720s. And, although the most significant years were from 1740-1742, the revival continued until the 1760s.
What was the Great Awakening? Know the Facts & Summary

Many of the early Puritans and pilgrims arrived in America with a fervent faith and vision for establishing a godly nation. Within a century the ardor had cooled. The children of the original immigrants were more concerned with increasing wealth and comfortable living than furthering the Kingdom of God. The same spiritual malaise could be found throughout the American colonies. The philosophical rationalism of the Enlightenment was spreading its influence among the educated classes; others were preoccupied with the things of this world.

When Theodore Frelinghuysen, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, came to begin his pastoral world in New Jersey during the 1720’s, he was shocked by the deadness of the churches in America. He preached the need for conversion, a profound, life-changing commitment to Christ, not simply perfunctory participation in religious duties. Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent was heavily influenced by Frelinghuysen and brought revival to his denomination. Tennent believed the deadness of the churches was in part due to so many pastors having never been converted themselves. His book On the Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry caused quite a stir!

Origins of the Great Awakening

The event that has become known as the Great Awakening actually began years earlier in the 1720s. And, although the most significant years were from 1740-1742, the revival continued until the 1760s.

Many of the early colonists had come to the new world to enjoy religious freedom, but as the land became tamed and prosperous they no longer relied on God for their daily bread. Wealth brought complacency toward God. As a result, church membership dropped. Wishing to make it easier to increase church attendance, the religious leaders had instituted the Halfway Covenant, which allowed membership without a public testimony of conversion. The churches were now attended largely by people who lacked a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sadly, many of the ministers themselves did not know Christ and therefore could not lead their flocks to the true Shepherd. Then, suddenly, the Spirit of God awoke as though from an intense slumber and began to touch the population of the colonies. People from all walks of life, from poor farmers to rich merchants, began experiencing renewal and rebirth.

The faith and prayers of the righteous leaders were the foundation of the Great Awakening. Before a meeting, George Whitefield would spend hours–and sometimes all night–bathing an event in prayers. Fervent church members kept the fires of revival going through their genuine petitions for God’s intervention in the lives of their communities.

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George Whitefield drew up a list in his diary of those actions by which he would judge himself each day. There were fifteen items, and the first three concerned his prayer life…

The first one read: ‘Have I been fervent in private prayer?’

…The second was: ‘Have I used stated hours of prayer?’

Whitefield’s diary shows that his ‘stated hours of prayer’ were in the morning, at midday and at night. And he kept to these times, as a minimum, with strict discipline.”

Brian H. EdwardsRevival! A People Saturated With God, 76.

Image result for george whitefield prayer

“What! Get to heaven on your own strength? Why, you might as well try to climb to the moon on a rope of sand!”

“It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher.”

“Believers keep up and maintain their walk with God by secret prayer. The spirit of grace is always accompanied with the spirit of supplication. It is the very breath of the new creature, the fan of the divine life, whereby the spark of holy fire, kindled in the soul by God, is not only kept in, but raised into a flame.”

“Whole days and WEEKS have I spent prostrate on the ground in silent or vocal prayer.”   

~ George Whitfield

George Whitefield (head).jpg

This year evangelicals around the world are rightly remembering the tercentenary of the birth of the transatlantic evangelist George Whitefield. However, in most of the commemorations, another anniversary is in risk of being overlooked. Howell Harris, who with Daniel Rowland and William Williams Pantycelyn led the evangelical revival in Wales, was also born in 1714.

Situated on the western side of the British Isles, with England along one border and the Irish Sea on the other, Wales has long been overshadowed by its much larger and more powerful eastern neighbor. Ever since the Victorian compilers of the Encyclopedia Britannica included as their entry for Wales, “See England,” Welsh historians have struggled to make their voices heard outside their own country. Few know that Wales has its own distinct spiritual story.

Harris was born at Trefeca, a small village near Brecon in southeast Wales. While working as a schoolmaster for Griffith Jones, Harris experienced a profound evangelical conversion. That experience, during Easter 1735, was soon eclipsed by what he called his “baptism of fire.” He recorded his experience recorded in minute detail in a diary he began to keep during these months. He continued to write it for the rest of his life: almost 280 diaries survive—a unique, often excruciatingly honest account of Harris’s inner life.

Almost immediately after his conversion, Harris began to visit his neighbors, reading to them from godly books. He was driven, he wrote in his diary, by “some insatiable desires after the salvation of poor sinners; my heart longed for their being convinced of their sins and misery.” Before long he had stopped reading from other people’s books and begun preaching himself, or what he preferred to call “exhorting.” By 1736 he had organized his first group of converts into a small seidau (“societies”), what we would call cell groups, and within a few years he had established a network of more than 50 such groups throughout southeast Wales.

Unknown to Harris, Daniel Rowland was undergoing a similar conversion experience at the same time. An Anglican curate at Llangeitho, a small west Wales village, Rowland was transformed, and he was soon attracting larger than average congregations when he preached in his parish church and the surrounding area. In 1737 Harris and Rowland met for the first time and began pooling their resources, effectively creating the Welsh Methodist revival. At this first meeting they shared their thoughts on their reading of Jonathan Edwards’s recently published account of the 1735 Northampton revival, and Harris excitedly declared, “Surely the time here now is like New England!”

Partnership with Whitefield 

Soon, others joined the Welsh revival. Some sympathetic dissenting ministers were drawn in, and with the addition of Howell Davies and William Williams, the latter converted while listening to Harris preach from the top of a gravestone, the four Anglican leaders of the revival were all in place. At the end of 1738, Harris received an unexpected letter from George Whitefield, written as he was traveling back from the American colonies. Harris replied with a letter packed full of details about the revival underway in Wales, and within a couple of months, Whitefield was in Wales witnessing events for himself. Wales, he said, was a “noble soil for Christianity,” and the Welsh seemed “much readier to receive the gospel” than the English. Impressed with Harris, Whitefield jealously wished “to catch some of his fire.” Before long he was preaching regularly in the open air just like his new friend.

So impressed was Whitefield with Harris that he took him back to London, where Harris stayed for the next few months. Whitefield taught him basic Calvinist theology, plying him with Puritan books, while Harris made the acquaintance of the Wesley brothers and some of the leading Moravians, all at that time still held together in fragile unity at Fetter Lane. It was the start of a new pattern; for much of the 1740s Harris divided his time roughly equally between Wales and England. In England he played an enormously influential role, not least acting as a peacemaker as the various factions of the English revival—Wesleyan, Calvinist, and Moravian—began to fragment.

Flaws Surface

Harris was especially skilled as an organizer. As the initial fervor of the revival in Wales began to wane in the early 1740s, Harris devised an organizational structure to manage the 70 societies that had been established in south Wales by that point. It marked the height of Harris’s influence as he formally linked Welsh Methodism to the English Calvinistic Methodist movement, which had come into being following the division between Whitefield and John Wesley over predestination in 1741. Whitefield was appointed moderator of English and Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, and Harris was “General Superintendent or Father of all the work in Wales,” effectively Whitefield’s deputy. It was a well organized and rigorously managed movement, Presbyterian in all but name, and for a time it proved to be a realistic alternative to the Wesleyan Methodist movement. Harris was its chief architect.

Harris took on the heavy burden of the leadership of English Calvinistic Methodism, especially while Whitefield traveled to America between 1744 and 1748. Yet he was not able to prevent its fragmentation, and soon there was also disquiet about Harris himself. By the end of the 1740s he had been traveling incessantly for more than a decade, preaching numerous times a day and shouldering the burden of the English and Welsh revivals. He was close to complete exhaustion and breakdown. And he was sounding more and more like a Moravian, using almost erotic language about the blood and wounds of the crucified Christ, and confusing language about the Trinity. He began referring to the death of God at Calvary.

Relations in Wales were also under increasing strain. Harris and Rowland had always been rivals, and Harris labored under a sense of inferiority because he was not an ordained clergyman. To compensate, Harris claimed primacy in the movement. At times his working relationship with Daniel Rowland reached a breaking point. The final crisis arrived in 1749 when Harris became friendly with Sidney Griffith, the estranged wife of a squire from Caernarvonshire in north Wales. Confiding in his diary that God had revealed to him the imminent death of his wife, clearing the way for his marriage to Griffith, Harris began to invest her with prophetic gifts and insight. With rude songs being sung about him in parts of Wales, Harris began bringing Griffith to Methodist Association meetings, demanding that she be given a place of special prominence. At that point a parting of the ways was inevitable. Whitefield was the first to act, dismissing Harris from the Tabernacle Society in January 1750. Rowland, with the assistance of William Williams, kept the majority of the movement under his control, while Harris with a small group of his most devoted followers retreated to his home at Trefeca.

Awakening Wanes and Waxes 

Without Harris the Welsh revival experienced a temporary hiatus. The 1750s were quieter for Harris. Reconciled to his longsuffering wife, Anne, after the death of Griffith in 1752, Harris devoted himself to rebuilding his home at Trefeca and creating a religious community similar to that founded by August Herman Francke at Halle in Germany. Called Y Teulu (“The Family”), it included about 100 of “Harris’s people” at any given time, all living a highly regulated and disciplined life under Harris’s ever-watchful eye. The site included a large house, chapel, orchards, bakery, print shop, and various workshops. Harris’s innovative experiments in agricultural improvement earned him election as an honorary member of the Breconshire Agricultural Society in 1756. During the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) he joined the county militia and traveled throughout much of East Anglia as a recruiting agent for the Protestant struggle against Catholic France.

Harris’s reintegration into the Welsh revival followed the outbreak of another wave of revival in Wales in 1762. This revival, centred on Llangeitho and sparked by the publication of a new hymnbook by William Williams, was more powerful than the revival of 25 years earlier. For a time the old camaraderie between Harris and Rowland returned, but in reality the Welsh Methodist movement had moved on without Harris. It was now under Rowland and Williams’s control; Harris was a shadow of his former self. There were a number of important developments in these years, however, which owed much to his efforts; Wesley, Whitefield, and the Countess of Huntingdon began to revisit Wales once again. Harris worked closely with the countess on the founding of a college to train Calvinistic Methodist preachers at Trefeca in the late 1760s.

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 by Alvin Reid

Should We Pray for Revival?

When do you think the following observations were made?

  • Ministers today seem more concerned with political power in society than spiritual fervency in the church, while pop culture contributes to the moral decay among the youth.
  • While marked by an increasing ethnic diversity and various religious beliefs, the nation’s established religious groups –– particularly Protestants –– demonstrate a sterile spirituality. One pastor bemoans the obsession with gambling and rudeness, while churches are attended at convenience.
  • College campuses teem with students chasing after the latest philosophies, the more unbiblical the better. The more educated a person you find, the less likely you are to discover a Christian. Meanwhile, churches are filled with people who listen to pastors preach then contradict the sermon by the way they live.

You may think these descriptions came from the blog of some concerned Christian commenting on our time. But the first one comes from Great Britain just before the preaching of John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and others who were used by God to lead a great revival there. The second comes from the American colonies prior to the First Great Awakening. The final came around 1800, with college campuses in the newly formed United States influenced by Voltaire, Rousseau, and others, at the dawn of the Second Great Awakening.

Ours is not the first generation to recognize the spiritual declension among us, or to see the need for God to awaken his church and touch our land. From the saints of the Old Testament to leaders in our time, prayer for revival has marked believers who understand the need for the Spirit surpasses our ability and intelligence.

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“Whole days and WEEKS have I spent prostrate on the ground in silent or vocal prayer.” (George Whitfield)

You know what I hate? Showing up to preach on a topic, only to discover that the people inviting me know way more about the subject than I do. So when I showed up for a meeting recently and one of the pastors told me he was doing his doctoral thesis on the sermons of George Whitefield, one of the foremost revivalists of the First Great Awakening, I started looking for the exits!

Then the pastor asked me if I would help him by analyzing ten of Whitefield’s sermons. That sounded like a lot of analysis, but I did have a vacation coming up (one can’t drink lattes and soak up rays ALL day), so I agreed. Then I had to go home and tell my wife that Whitefield was coming with us on vacation!

Rediscovering a Legend

Whitefield was probably the greatest preacher of his generation, with a voice so powerful he could be heard in the open air by 30,000 people. Newspapers called him “the marvel of his age,” and he is thought to have preached 18,000 times to about 10 million people during his ministry—an astonishing number before modern travel or communications.

The power of Whitefield’s oratory was so great that David Garrick, the most famous actor in Britain, said he would “give a hundred guineas if I could only say ‘Oh!’ like Mr. Whitefield.” And the ever practical Benjamin Franklin said he refused to even bring his wallet when he went to hear Whitefield speak, because he always ended up emptying its contents under Whitefield’s spell.

Yet what amazed me about reading Whitefield is the relative simplicity of his themes and the confrontational nature of his content. Whitefield does not read like a man interested in pleasing crowds or wowing followers. In fact, rediscovering Whitefield was a rediscovery of the message God used to turn Britain and the American Colonies back to Himself in wide-scale revival.

The ABCs of Revival Preaching

1. Aim for the heart.
Whitefield relentlessly sought to redefine Christianity as a matter of the heart. In his view, knowledge of the truth could never substitute for experience of the truth. He attacked the false securities of his age—religion, church attendance, self-made morality—with laser-beam precision and white-hot intensity. He simply wouldn’t stop increasing the intensity until the root condition of his listeners was laid bare.

In essence, Whitefield’s probing was concentrated in one question: “Why do you think you are a Christian?” And the answer had to be more than mere belief in Christ and His power to forgive sins. Whitefield was looking for signs of an entirely new inward disposition that come from being made a new creation indwelled by the Holy Spirit:

“Regeneration is … the very hinge on which the salvation of each of us turns…. To be in him [is] not only by an outward profession, but by an inward change and purity of heart, and cohabitation of his Holy Spirit.”

“He is a true Christian who is one inwardly…. We must be so altered as to the qualities and tempers of our minds, that we entirely forget what manner of persons we once were…. Christianity requires a thorough, real inward change of heart.”

“What delight can the most harmonious music afford a deaf man; or what pleasure the most excellent picture give a blind one? Can a tasteless palate relish the richest dainties, or a filthy swine be pleased with the finest garden of flowers?”

2. Brokenness before joy. Whitefield was crystal clear on the relationship between law and gospel. While he knew that the law had no power to transform, he also knew that Christ would be no remedy to those who saw no need for healing. Whitefield thus sought to wound before he healed, to pierce before he comforted. This perhaps more than anything else was the secret to Whitefield’s impact on his listeners:

“What a pity is it that modern preachers attend no more to the method those took who were first inspired by the Holy Ghost in preaching Jesus Christ! … Ministers would then learn first to sow and then to reap. They would endeavor to plough up the fallow ground, and thereby prepare the people for God’s raining down blessings upon them. Thus Peter preached when under a divine influence…. He charged the audience, though many of them were learned and high and great, with having been the murderers of the Son of God.”

“We can give them no comfort, until we find they are made sick of sin, and made willing to embrace an offered Jesus.”

3. Call for a response. Once Whitefield was convinced that his audience had been disabused of their excuses and deceptions, no one “drew the net” like he did! In fact, large sections of each of his sermons consisted of a clear presentation of Jesus Christ, accompanied by intense appeals for repentance and faith. He often called this “closing with Christ.”

What sets Whitefield apart in this regard is how personally he seemed to take responsibility for the listener’s response. At times, he literally pled with his audience to respond as if his own peace and well-being were wrapped up with theirs. He often told them that he wished he could take their place in hell, if necessary, in order for them to experience the freedom and delights of salvation. And the crazy thing is, I think he actually meant it.

Whitefield’s pathos for souls was the single greatest point of conviction to me, because it made me realize how little I care for people:

“O, Christless sinners, I am distressed for you! … For whither would you flee, if death should find you naked? Harden no longer your hearts, but open them wide, and let the King of glory enter in; believe me, I am willing to go to prison or death for you; but I am not willing to go to heaven without you!”

“Come away my dear brethren; fly, fly, fly for your lives to Jesus Christ! Fly to a bleeding God, fly to a throne of grace; and beg of God to break your hearts, beg of God to convince you of your original sin, beg of God to convince you of your self-righteousness—beg of God to give you faith, and to enable you to close with Jesus Christ.”

“Hitherto I have been preaching only the law; but behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy. If I have wounded you, be not afraid; behold, I now bring a remedy for all your wounds…. If you truly believe on Jesus Christ, you shall receive the quickening Spirit promised in the text, and be restored to the glorious liberty of the sons of God; I say, if you believe on Jesus Christ.”

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners…. [He] died a painful, cursed, ignominious death; and by his obedience and by his death wrought out an everlasting righteousness for them. So that now, whoever believes on the Lord Jesus Christ … there is no condemnation for him. This is, in a few words, the Gospel.”

Whitefield Still Speaks

For those in revival ministry, Whitefield is a model of the timeless truths that God has blessed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. While the style of ministry may change to fit the shifting tides of culture, revival preaching will always include an emphasis on inward change, conviction of sin, and the necessity of responding to Christ.

For those who would like to read Whitefield for yourself, click here. But to capture the flavor of what it must have been like to hear Whitefield for yourself, check out actor Max McLean’s audio reenactment of one of Whitefield’s sermons (click here).

July 2020