Interpreting the Great Awakening -- By: John F. Thornbury

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 01:2 (Spring 1992)
Article: Interpreting the Great Awakening
Author: John F. Thornbury


Interpreting the Great Awakening

John F. Thornbury

In his poem, “The Preacher” (written in 1859), John Greenleaf Whittier describes the wistful feelings he had when observing from a distance the spire of the church under which George Whitefield was buried. The piece, written over one hundred years after the Great Awakening in New England, captures graphically the contrast between the glorious conditions that characterized Whitefield’s preaching and the “flood of sin” that had set in like the “tide from the harbour bar” during Whittier’s day.

Long shall the traveller strain his eye
From the railroad car as it plunges by,
And the vanishing town behind him search
For the slender spire of the Whitefield Church,
And feel for one moment the ghosts of trade,
And fashion and folly and pleasure laid,
By the thought of that life of pure intent,
That voice of warning yet eloquent,
Of one on the errands of angels sent. 1

I recently visited the same spot celebrated by the nineteenth century poet, the Old South Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Like Whittier, I had feelings of regret, not only that there seems to be no great voice like Whitefield in the world today, but even more significantly, that we do not see the Holy Spirit convicting and converting sinners on such a wide scale now. We cannot, of course, bring back the past, nor should we even try. Still, studying the great works of God in history, even visiting the tombs of the saints, can be a profitable exercise if it turns us to God in prayer for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the modern world.

Although it is difficult at times to sort out reality from exaggerations (or other distortions) in the revival phenomena of the day, there is certainly enough evidence to convince anyone that during the awakening era God worked

supernaturally both in Great Britain and in America. During these glorious days the realities of the eternal world were keenly felt. Sinners were brought under powerful conviction for sin and were converted by the thousands. The saints of God rejoiced. Churches doubled, tripled, and quadrupled overnight. An impartial observer had to be impressed with the moral and spiritual changes which were taking place. George Baxter, president of Washington Academy (now Washington and Lee University), visited Kentucky during the height of the Second Great Awakening and wrote to Archibald Alexander, “I found Kentucky the most moral place I had ever been in ... a religious awe seemed to pervade the country.” 2 During the awakenings infidel ...

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