Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: I -- By: Randall Balmer

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 38:0 (NA 2006)
Article: Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: I
Author: Randall Balmer

Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: I

The Age of Revivals and the First Amendment

Randall Balmer*

With the possible exception of the Second Great Awakening, no event in American religious history was more formative than the First Great Awakening, a massive revival of religion that swept through the Atlantic colonies in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. The Great Awakening reconfigured religious life in the colonies, and it introduced to American society a peculiar strain of evangelicalism that remains America’s folk religion to this day. The Great Awakening featured such itinerant preachers as James Davenport, Gilbert Tennent, George Whitefield, and Andrew Crosswell, who articulated their evangelical message to receptive audiences, and it also showcased the intellectual gifts of Jonathan Edwards, who emerged as the principal theologian and apologist for the revival.

Edwards was a grandson of the estimable Solomon Stoddard, known (not affectionately) to Puritans in Boston as the “pope of the Connecticut Valley.” Edwards’s father, Timothy Edwards, was also a Congregational minister, and young Jonathan, a precocious and intellectually curious child, prepared to take up the family business. He graduated from Yale College at the age of seventeen and studied an additional two years to study theology. After a brief and unremarkable stint as pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in New York City, Edwards returned to Yale as tutor in 1723, serving effectively as head of the institution in the confusing aftermath of the Anglican Apostasy, when the rector of the Congregationalist school, Timothy Cutler, and several tutors converted to the Church of England.

Edwards stayed at Yale for two years before accepting a call as assistant pastor to Stoddard, his grandfather, in Northampton, Massachusetts, and then succeeded to the pulpit at Stoddard’s death in 1729. As early as the 1690s, contemporaneous with accounts from Gulliam Bertholf, a Pietist preacher in New Jersey, Stoddard had been reporting “harvests” among his congregations, by which he meant stirrings of religious revival. Stoddard’s detractors in Boston were skeptical, in part because they didn’t care for Stoddard’s theological innovations regarding the Lord’s Supper, which he treated as a converting ordinance and not one reserved to those who were demonstrably regenerate.

During the winter of 1734–1735, a revival of religion swept through Northampton, during Edwards’s tenure as pastor. Three hundred people were added to the congregation, and religion, according to Edwards, became the dominant topic of conversation among the townspeople. After the revival ...

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