Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: The first Great Awakening

Editor’s note: Third in a series.
A variety of motives caused Europeans to hazard crossing the Atlantic Ocean to settle in America 300 years ago. For some, it was a desire for adventure, for others, riches. 
Still others came for what they believed was a higher purpose. They were called “Pilgrims” or “Puritans.” “Pilgrims,” for their religious beliefs had caused them to become aliens in their native land; “Puritans,” for they desired to cleanse themselves of the corruption of the old world and its institutions. They sought a place apart, which they mistakenly took to be a wilderness, where they could settle and establish a religious commonwealth. They settled in Plymouth in 1620, and Massachusetts Bay in 1629. In time their religious passions cooled, their interests became worldly. Some became entirely secular, although never without feelings of remorse and even an occasional longing for the world they had lost, for its comfort and assurance and order. Still others, who continued dutifully to practice their religion, were beset with feelings of guilt for having failed to maintain a religion pure and robust. Thus the stage was set for a spontaneous renewal, a great awakening.
Actually, there were two Great Awakenings in American history. The first began in the 1730s and was confined mostly to New England. The second began a half-century later, as the 18th century neared its close and after the colonies had gained their independence. It arose in northern New England, and in Western New York, in what came to be known as the Burned-over district, and from there it spread to the Middle West. Both have a proper place in the American intellectual tradition. Their legacy is considerable.
In 1737 Jonathan Edwards (1703–58), who was the minister of what is now known as the first Congregational Church of Northampton, Mass., published “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.” It is a remarkable work; dispassionate in its tone, almost clinical in its manner of describing the changes taking place in his community. To his mind the spontaneity of changes taking place in Northampton was evidence that it was the work of God. Humanly speaking, the changes were “surprising;” but, as it is said, sub specie aeternitatis, that is, from the standpoint of eternity, all this was foreordained, it was providential.
At the outset, Edwards perceived a “degradation of morals,” especially among the youth, who “were many of them very much addicted to night-walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices, wherein some, by their example exceedingly corrupted others.” He attributed this to a breakdown of the moral authority of the family. With the awakening came a decisive change in attitudes, an increase or heightening of the moral and religious sensibilities not only of the youth, but of all generations. It was as though the world had been transformed around them; their selfish interests gave way to a concern for the welfare of others; youths became receptive to moral guidance; overall, there was a growing concern about the welfare of one’s soul, as though the fear of God had been rekindled in their minds and was about to restore their souls.
However, rekindling the fear of God had negative as well as positive affects. On the one hand it led some to alter they way of life, and some would experience a renewal that would sustain them for the rest of their lives, whilst others relapsed and returned to their former wicked ways. Still others, as though caught in between, were afflicted by doubt, and haunted by irrational fears and terrifying delusions; they suffered psychosomatic illnesses, despair, which in one instance at least, led to suicide. Edwards somberly describes the travails of these victims of the Great Awakening, who were well known to him; the suicide was his uncle. 
Moreover, as a minister of the Gospel, Edwards was a leading proponent of these terrors. His sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” delivered in 1741, is proof of it. It vividly represents the terror of the Great Awakening and the dread that it evoked. One person who heard it reported that even before he ended his sermon “there went up a great moaning & crying out throughout the whole congregation: Oh, what Shall I do to be Saved; Oh, I am going to Hell … The Shrieks & Cries were piercing & Amazing.”
“Sinners…” has been studied for its literary and rhetorical character, and for its psychological insight. I will focus on the latter, for it fits the theme of this series. A careful reading of it reveals its profound psychological depth.
It was common in classical reformed preaching that the preacher begin by announcing his text, from the Bible. Edwards announced as his text Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.” It was supposed to describe the fate of the unrighteous. He took it as a metaphor of life; it is as though the path of life were a trek across a slippery slope; below is the abyss of Hell; therefore we must tread our way with care, for our foot could slip at any moment. Only God could provide safe passage a cross the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23). But, there was the additional fear that any moment God might cause our foot to slip if one were not one of God’s elect. The power was in God’s hand. Indeed, from eternity God had willed who would be saved and who would be lost, everyone’s fate had already been decided; and it could happen at any time, which added to the pilgrim’s anxiety, for all have sinned. What gives this sermon such great power is just this psychological uncertainty. Life’s journey is dangerous; our foot could slip at any moment; and what if our fate has already been decided? God help us. But what if it is the will of God that we should fall? Then there may be no help at all.
But Edwards was not all doom and gloom. To be continued.
Postscript: A representative selection of the writings of Jonathan Edwards, including those referred to in this essay, may be found in “A Jonathan Edwards Reader,” edited by John E. Smith and others, published by Yale University Press, in paperback. It illustrates the full range of Edwards’ thought, more of which will follow in the next essay. Visit your local bookshop. 

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