Passing from the public consciousness is America’s religious heritage. That is a shame, for a couple of reasons. One, Americans should be aware that the Christian faith has played an incredibly important part of our founding and our development as a people. Through every step of America’s progress, Christian faith has been there, providing guidance and sustenance.
For example, the 1730s to1740s was a time of great revival in the Protestant world, on this side of the Atlantic and the other side as well. England, Scotland, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic colonies were all experiencing spiritual renewal.
One of the earliest revivals took place among the Dutch immigrants in New Jersey. Guiliam Bertholf, was a farmer, barrel maker, and a lay reader in his church. He felt the call and took up preaching, winning many followers to Christ. (Liberty, Equality, Power, 105)
William Tennent, Sr. was a Presbyterian minister. Seeing the need for more evangelists trained with a revival mind set, he established a school in Pennsylvania. It became known as the “Log College,” and it was dedicated to training evangelical ministers.
Evangelical in this context refers to “A style of Christian ministry that includes much zeal and enthusiasm. Evangelical ministers emphasized personal conversion and faith rather than religious ritual.” (Liberty, Equality, Power, 106). Tennent sent his trained ministers to other congregations, even other presbyteries. But, this angered the Synod, the governing body of the Presbyterian church. Most of their ministers emphasized orthodoxy, that is, correct practice and ritual, over personal conversion experience. Tennent emphasized just the opposite, causing considerable friction.
In 1740 Gilbert Tennent, William’s son, preached a sermon entitled, The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry. Gilbert denounced those preachers who emphasize ritual over conversion and piety. He accused such preachers of leading their listeners to hell. His attack led to the church splitting, and Gilbert started his own Synod of New York.
In New England Solomon Stoddard led six revivals between 1670 and 1729. Stoddard was the grandfather of the great revival preacher, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards kicked off a revival in 1734 that electrified Connecticut. His sermon, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God” (1737) described a revival as an emotional response to God’s Word that brought sudden conversions to dozens of people. His most famous sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In his “Sinners” sermon, Edwards described in vivid detail the awful destiny of the unconverted who refused to follow God. He described their fate much like that of a spider that is caught by a little boy, tied to a string and held menacingly over the flames. Such a cruel fate awaited those who refused God’s goodness and mercy.
Jonathan Edwards was reportedly near sighted and had to hold his manuscript close to his face. He couldn’t look his audience in the eye and establish rapport with them. He stood and read, with his face covered by the pages of his notes. Yet, so vivid were his descriptions and so compelling was his message, that audience members reportedly screamed and fell to the floor. Edwards sparked a religious movement that swept New England and went to other parts of the Colonies.
A great result of his work is countless numbers of people were made to reassess their lives in light of the Gospel.
Jonathan Edwards and these other early preachers in our history helped to form and shape the moral conscience of America, something we might benefit from even today.