February 3, 2011

The First Great Awakening - American Christianity Writings

*This is the first of a series of writings related to my American Christian history class that I will be writing this semester.

The First Great Awakening

George Whitefield spontaneously preaches to the masses, no meeting house necessary.

Every once in a while, you will be walking down the street and you’ll see some crazy homeless who starts yelling randomly “I’m Jesus God! I’m gonna’ save us all!” He will invariably yell some other crazy sounding blather your way and you will try to ignore him and go on your way.

Soon thereafter though, a smarter, not so crazy looking guy will show up on the news claiming that is indeed “The spirit that is in me is the same spirit that was in Jesus of Nazareth.” He is energetic about his opinion and seems to make a good case for his teachings. Everywhere this man travels and speaks, thousands rally to him to listen to what he has to say. He teaches that Sin no longer exists as it was taken away in Christ. People can do whatever they want and still be saved. There is a liberating feeling of Grace from their normal oppressive clergy, who insist that we must have faith, be Christ-like, or any other number of things that make their lives difficult.

One person will hear this man speak, be totally enthralled by his appealing nature, and cheer and holler for him believing that he is indeed the new embodiment of God. Another person will be appalled at the crazy radical teachings, yea, even the moral depravity of the man. While at the same time cannot deny that some people who were previously unreligious, at very least, now have some sort of belief in God.

Clearly, however, these teachings and moral inconspicuousness cannot be tolerated. We speak out against this crazy man and encourage those who have been drawn in by his enthusiasm to come back into the fold of Christ’s true doctrine. Maybe they will even reform their meeting a little to be more entertaining so that people won’t be drawn in unwittingly.

Such is the circumstance around the First Great Awakening.

As George Whitefield travelled around the country, preaching where he felt like preaching, and teaching how he felt like teaching, people loved his style. He taught of personal salvation without the need for a clergy. We see through his journals that he truly believed in this new philosophy and his thoughts were constantly harrowed up to the thoughts of Christ, Jesus, our Lord. However, as I read through these journals, there was an overwhelming sense of… Pride? He was very conscious of how popular he was, and he reveled in it. He loved teaching in front of large groups. He was always very careful to thank the Lord in these cases, as to not seem too pious. But the feeling still remains in his writings.

On the other hand, the established churches of the day didn’t know how to respond at first. After the initial teachings they noticed that the actions and morality of the society had not improved one whit, although there were a few more Christians than there were before. What they did notice was a stronger feeling of contention among the people. Those who criticized the strange fits, indecent whopping and hollering, as well as boisterous laughter that came as a result of this “Awakening” were immediately pinned as not having the Holy Spirit. This did not bode well for the pastors of the day who simply saw people acting crazier than ever before. The new teachings of self-realized salvation and emotional exuberations were at odds with the established doctrine and rituals that had been established. It felt like the breakdown as society as they knew it. Anarchy, as it were. It could not be tolerated. Honestly, I think they were a bit scared of the new teachings. If I had lived back then, I’d have agreed with Pickering and Chauncey.

Those who were caught up, however, felt that they had begun to be passionate and emotional for the first time about God. They felt nothing from the stuffy old preachers and for the first times in their lives, they believed they felt God blasting his way into their lives with hurricane force. People began learning and studying for themselves more often, rather than on relying on the pastor for guidance. People were no longer pre-destined to be saved, but could actively participate in their own salvation. They felt good about doing good works.

All in all, these two viewpoints were essentially at odds with each other at a very base level. There wasn’t any easy to incorporate the two ideas together. It seems they tried to be civil and polite to each other at times, such as they would to other preachers they knew, but eventually the differences got the better of the two groups and lines needed to be drawn.

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