I mentioned yesterday that America is losing awareness of its religious heritage. That is a shame, because 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 right there, providing guidance and sustenance.
A second reason it is a shame is because our religious history is so interesting, even a bit humorous at times.
George Whitefield was a British actor who became a preacher. He followed the great British preacher, John Wesley, to Georgia where he started an orphanage. Whitefiled then returned to England to preach and raise money for the children back in Georgia. His sermons spoke of the “new birth,” emphasizing the necessity of a religious conversion. Other ministers and churches banned him, so he preached in open fields. (Liberty, Equality, Power, 106)
In 1739 Whitefield returned to America where thousands heard him preach. Preached in Philadephia, NYC, Chesapeake colonies, SC. Benjamin Franklin went out to hear him in Philadelphia, intrigued by what he heard about Whitefield’s booming voice. He was impressed, and estimated that Whitefield’s voice was so powerful an audience 30,000 could hear him. In 1740 he toured New England. Whitefield drew upon his acting skills, imitating Christ on the cross. He was so effective t hat when he shed tears for sinners, his audience wept with him. When he condemned sinners in the audience, they fell to the ground in agony.
Other preachers tried to follow Whitefield’s style. A South Carolina preacher named Hugh Bryan began preaching to his slaves. In 1742 he declared slavery a sin. He also proclaimed himself a modern Moses and tried to part the Savannah River to lead the slaves to freedom in Georgia. Unfortunately there was some kind of mishap and Moses, I mean, Hugh Bryan, almost drowned. He later confessed he had been deluded. Due to some over-the-top performances like this Evangelicalism was discredited in the south for years, but it took root among African Americans.
Another notable preacher of the 18 century was Gilbert Tennent. Gilbert practiced a “Holy Laughter,” apparently mimicking what he imagined to be the laughter of God at sinners stumbling into hell. In imitation of John the Baptist he grew his hair long and wore a long robe and sandals. He also declared himself the new John the Baptist.
James Davenport, a successor to Gilbert Tennet, would act out a wrestling scenario with Satan. Davenport would wrestle Satan back into hell. He started an outdoor school to train ministers, encouraged book burning, and once threw his pants into the fire, declaring them a mark of vanity. They may have been, but the perception of the times is they were also a mark of modesty, and the lack of them was considered immodesty. Davenport was arrested and declared insane. He later repented. (Liberty, Equality, Power, 107)
These are some of the sensational stories of our religious past, and maybe some we are not so proud of. That’s ok. I’m sure we all also have some eccentric aunts or uncles in our family tree, but we recognize they are still part of who and what we are.
Some of our early preachers may be like those aunts or uncles, but they still factor in our tree. Their attempts to preach the Gospel as they understood it at the time convicted thousands of listeners and kept America on the high moral road. We can be comfortable acknowledging them. And we can pray that God will continue to send us men and women who are equally committed to preaching the Gospel forcefully and energetically in our time.