Friday, November 25, 2005

Re-examining the Great Awakening

Pick up any Presbyterian history book, and they will all say the same thing about the Great Awakening. Praise on top of praises. Edwards, Whitefield, and the Tennent family will be set on pedestals. Now, depending on how conservative your book, you will find differing reactions to the Second Great Awakening.

Far be it from me to disagree with history, but I think we ought to be careful before proclaiming the First Great Awakening such a success. I shall briefly argue that pro-Awakening side, the New Side, was actually wrong and did much damage to the church, and the anti-Awakening side, the Old Side, stood forth for orthodoxy, and suffered for it.

First, the pro-Awakeners instituted the conversion narrative as a pre-requisite for membership in churches. This practice has no biblical foundation, and was unknown in the churches of America at that time, even in congregational New England. The narrative is still used in many Presbyterian churches today, although today it is mainly a rubber stamp procedure. A candidate for membership tells everyone when they came to know the Lord, their own conversion narrative, and then the elders decide if it is credible or not. The Old Side simply asked for a profession of faith (ie. what you believe, not how you came to believe it), and then both sides did require living out the beliefs as members.

Second, the New Side instituted the ‘Terrors of the Law’ as a method of gaining or winning souls to Christ. This was a technique of preaching pointedly to the sins of the people and describing the terrors of hell, in order to prepare the way for the gospel. This was often done in one on one conversations as well. The New Side believed in putting people under great distress before giving them the relief of salvation in Christ to make sure they truly knew their sin. This lead to wild outbreaks of screaming and ranting and wailing and disruptive outbursts that Edwards speaks of in his books, and the type of outbursts condemned in the Second Great Awakening by many, and today lauded by Pentecostals as proof of divine power. The Old Side, of course, stood against such things believing God could save on a message of love, mercy, giving, or law, and could even do it without such a period of distress (by the way the period of distress is often what the New Side wanted to hear in the conversion narrative).

Third, the New Side, unintentionally I believe, destroyed the model of the local pastor being the primary source of religious authority. George Whitefield was the first modern evangelist. He had no congregation, and traveled to America 7 times. He visited all 13 colonies. Other New Side leaders followed his example. Gilbert Tennent did tours through New England. John Wesley tried his hand at it in America. James Davenport did it so much that he was brought on trial for neglecting his home church (it was a civil crime in New England), but found mentally incompetent to stand trial. The New Side Presbytery licensed people to be evangelists. This made people begin to look for the mega-evangelist as the authority, and not the local minister. This was partly because of the heavy abuse that the local minister often took from men like Whitefield and Tennent. Whitefield was not allowed into any pulpits in Philadelphia because he had abused the local clergy so much, but his fans built him a church. The Old Side wanted rigid rules about not preaching out of bounds and gaining permission before entering another man’s pulpit on account of how often the New Side men preached in pulpits without permission, which of course introduced division into many churches. This is one of the main ways the Awakening spread.

I hope that one can see now how the Great Awakening laid the foundation for the Second Great Awakening. In fact, it is basically a logical outgrowth. The Second Great Awakening took the model of the First Awakening, expanded it a little here and there, and out came the Second Great Awakening. The arguments over the Second Great Awakening are not the same as the arguments over the First Awakening. The Old School (anit-Second Awakening) are simply the New Side (pro-First) who did not want the minor expansions the New School (pro-Second Awakening) had added. I think it is about time that historians take a dimmer view of both the First and the Second Great Awakenings and start to recognize the still demonized Old Side anti-Awakening party as true defenders of the faith.

5 Comments:

neocovenanter said...

You raise an excellent point. C. Hodge in his Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America goes to great lengths to convince his readers of the orthodoxy of the new-siders, but it reads like a polemic against the new school.

Personally I have never had anything remotely similar to a conversion experience. I was born into a Christian home of Christian parents, who on my mother's side of the family can trace membership in presbyterian churches back as far as our family history goes.

I am however an evil, wicked, and vile sinner and I trust alone in Jesus Christ for salvation. Only on the merits of Christ's active obedience and his suffering and death to pay the penalty for my sins, am I acceptable to God. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, but fully a man, body and soul, in two distinct natures, and one person forever.

I am living evidence of the irresistible grace of God. The Holy Spirit will work when and how He pleases according the to the will of God, and not according to the preconceived notions of men.

God is very merciful.

A credible profession of faith does not need any inclusion on how one came to Christ, but a solid communication of who Jesus is and what He did for him.

The who Christ is, includes who God is as creator and sustainer, Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, and the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, including and especially confessor's own sin.

The pastor's preaching in the church, does not need to be revivalist, but on the other hand must include the all requirements of the Gospel, including emphasis on how sin is much worse than we realize and the justice of God in punishing sinners for all eternity as well as the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

Do you think that the Federal Vision is partly an overreaction to insidious new-side/new-school practices? A problem for the F.V. is that regardless that one might never remember a time without faith in Christ, that doesn't mean his own good works (done by God's Spirit as they may be) are any less filthy rags in God's sight and leave one inappropriately dressed for the marriage supper of the lamb. Unless one put on the righteousness of Christ in His active obedience they shall be cast out into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Bud said...

Have you seen Inventing the Great Awakening by Frank Lambert? Not a perfect book, but a good one with a perspective that needs considered.

A great many preachers and congregations have been abused by ministers who thought they were called to preach the sermon that would produce a new "awakening."

Faithfulness, not pyrotechnics, is what is needed.

Andrew McIntyre said...

I am no revivalist by any stretch of the theological imagination, but I am not sure I fully agree that causing a bit of discomfort is not a good, biblical use of the Law. In fact, I believe this is its primary purpose. While orthodoxy is a prize to be cherished and rigorously maintained, we must also avoid complacency. I guess I see merit on both sides of the debate.

Andrew

Lee said...

Neocovenanter,
I would have to consider it more, but I do not see any connection between the New Side/New School and the Federal Vision. I think a lot of problems can be traced back to the New Side/New School practices, but Federal Vision is not one of them.

Bud,
I have not yet read that book. Thanks for the recommendation.

Andy,
I do not think that the Old Side would be against preaching the law in such a way that caused discomfort, but they are against the over use of it. And I think they would always suggest holding out grace so that ones hearers are not left in the troubled state. Let me give you an anecdote from Gilbert Tennent’s life to illustrate how the New Side viewed the law.

Gilbert’s younger brother William had slipped into a deep coma, which doctors thought he would not recover. An even younger brother John, then began to examine his own soul. He saw that he was a sinner unfit for a holy God, and began to tell Gilbert about his apprehension that his wretched estate would end him up in hell, and how truly sorry for his sins he was now that he understood God in his holiness. Gilbert did not offer him hope of salvation in Christ, but instead reminded him of many other sins that John did not bring up. Gilbert did this for several days until he realized John was sincere in his repentance. Then Gilbert comforted John with the hope of Christ. That is what they meant to create with the ‘Terrors of the Law’ both in preaching and in personal witnessing.

neocovenanter said...

That's a relief, (I think). Did you mean that the F.V. is a problem that can't be connected to OS/NS, or the F.V isn't a problem and isn't connected to the OS/NS?

One would hope the former and not the latter.

FWIW, I don't really see it that way myself it was worthy of a hour or two's thought (I'm a slow thinker). I myself see the F.V. warping off covenant theology in that the proponents of the F.V arer so focused on union with Christ they loose sight of the alien righteousness in His active obedience imputed to believers, to the point of denying it and trusting in their own good works. Similiarly, the Modernists were so focused on doing the work of the "kingdom of God" originally prompted by their post-millenialism that they totaly lost sight of Christ himself, and instead of his kingdom they were detemined to have their own.