King’s Survey: Reviving Jesus

In which we see a teacher place faith in history

George Whitefield

—So what’s on the menu for today, Mr. K.?

I thought we’d do some more God stuff, Sadie.

—We do a lot of that.

I know.

—Why is that?

—Because he likes God.

—Is Jonah right, Mr. K.? We do it because you like it?

In part, yes.

—Is that kosher, ha ha?

What do you think, Sadie?

—I don’t what I think. I mean, I don’t mind God talk. But I’m wondering what the rules are for this kind of thing.

Well, if you did mind, you probably wouldn’t tell me. Which is why I try to pay attention to the silences, even as I try to go about doing my job by my lights. Actually, I’m kind of flattered you feel comfortable enough to even raise the question.

—Well, it’s not like he tries to convert us or anything. And we’re talking about stuff that happened hundreds of years ago.

—Yeah, except that he’s in love with that Puritan woman, Anne Bradstreet.

Yes, Adam, that’s true. (And yes, Ethan, that’s true too.) It’s also true that another U.S. history teacher is less likely than I am to talk about this stuff. It reflects my bias. If all goes well, you’ll take another American history course in college and you’ll have a moment when you think, “Huh. Mr. King didn’t talk about this at all.” Besides, you’re going to forget most of what you learn here anyway.

—That’s depressing.

Why is that, Kylie?

—Because it makes me wonder why we bother.


—Practice for what? Practice forgetting?

Practice with learning. And then with forgetting and remembering. But practice first and foremost with thinking. In order to think well, though, you need some good information. I’m trying to give you that. The information is a prelude to thinking things through. But before we do more of that let me get to the topic at hand, which tends to get buried these days in the history textbooks. It’s an event known as the First Great Awakening. (As its name implies, there were other awakenings, too. We’ll get to them later.)

In the simplest terms, the First Great Awakening was a huge religious revival that’s swept England and North America in the middle decades of the 1700s.

—Why then?

I don’t have a good answer for that, Sadie. Partly that’s a matter of my ignorance. And partly that’s a matter of historical process as somewhat mysterious. All disciplines come up against these kinds of barriers. And yet it’s those barriers that make those disciplines interesting.

—Like pi.

Yeah, like pi, I guess. Anyway, one major element of the First Great Awakening in British North America is the rise of new Protestant denominations, notably the Methodists and the Baptists, which are growing very rapidly, often at the expense of older ones. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the theology here, but as their name suggests, the Methodists are arguing for a more demanding, back-to-basics approach to their faith. The Baptists reject an idea, which had become widespread even in demanding Puritan churches, that children could be accepted as church members, since they couldn’t really understand what that meant—the ritual of baptism needs to be much more authentic experience, which is why it has to happen when you’re an adult, not when you’re an infant. The boundaries between these sects aren’t necessarily hard and fast (Rhode Island, for example, is both a bastion of Puritanism and the cradle of the Baptist church of the United States), and there are also branches within them. For example, some Baptists believe that whether or not you’re headed to heaven or hell is something God already knows before you were born. Baptists and others who believe this are known as “hard shell.” Others emphasize the degree to which salvation was as choiceone that required a serious, deliberate profession of faith. These believers are known as “soft shell.”

—What’s the point of believing if you’re already damned to hell?

See, Ethan, that’s the problem. You’re thinking in terms of “points.” Like your salvation is a transaction you can execute. Blech. That’s so … Catholic.

—But why bang your head against the wall if you’re already damned?

—But you don’t know that, Ethan. God knows, but you don’t.

Sadie’s right, Ethan. Besides, don’t you want to think you’re saved? Isn’t thinking you’re might not be in itself a bad sign?

—He doesn’t care. He just wants to party.

Well, then, Chris, we’ll just have to pray for his soul. Anyway, The key thing about the Methodists, Baptists, and churches like them is their openness: they welcome new members. And that often includes black people as well as white ones, though racism hardly disappears. (There are also class accents involved, as suggested by an old joke: an Anglican is a Presbyterian with a trust fund; a Presbyterian is a Methodist with a college degree, and a Methodist is a Baptist with shoes.) The style of the Methodists and Baptist services is more informal, and more emotional. That applies in particular to their preachers.

Which brings up another new aspect in this First Great Awakening: the emergence of the touring preachers, the most famous of whom, like the legendary George Whitefield, are the rock stars of their time, drawing huge crowds of adoring fans. Many of the people who show up for the revival meetings are true believers; others are curious onlookers with greater or lesser degrees of openness to their message. Whitefield, slightly cross-eyed, is positively mesmerizing. One unlikelyand thus quite famoustestimonial of his spellbinding power comes from Benjamin Franklin, who checked out a Whitefield event when the preacher came to Franklin’s hometown of Philadelphia, suspecting he was a charlatan. Franklin had money in his pocket, and over the course of Whitefield’s sermon gradually softened, figuring he would surrender a few coins. By the time he had finished, Franklin confessed “I had emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.” (He and Whitefield subsequently became friends; Franklin was an incorrigible collector when it came to friendsas long as you didn’t try to get too close.)

Actually, the people who were least likely to like this new breed of preachers were the old breed of preachers. There were two big reasons for this. The first, and perhaps most important, is that they were regarded as poachers. In many respects, being a minister is an insecure profession. It rarely pays well (and when it does it’s often in barter, which is not particularly helpful if you’re drowning in butter but could really use a horse), and you’ve often got to tread carefully when it comes to criticizing the people who are directly or indirectly paying your salary. Having an outsider come to town is at best a distraction and at worst a threat. To make matters worse, many of preachers of this newer breed, who call themselves “New Lights,” challenge what they regard as the listlessness of the Old Lights. Sure, the minister of your town might have a fancy degree from Harvard or William or Mary. But does a living spirit really dwell within? Has your leader really given convincing testimony of his own salvation? A famous sermon of the time warned of “the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” It’s simple, such people said: your heart was more important than your head. Some ministers, like the now-legendary Jonathan Edwardsa genius who bridged science and religion as well as Old and New Lightstried to find a middle ground. But he was kicked out of his church in Massachusetts by his congregation, and settled for working at Princeton a few years his death in 1758.

We can’t dwell too long on this. But I do want to call your attention to what’s at stake here: we’re talking about a challenge to authority. It’s a challenge that takes multiple forms: a challenge to religious authority, intellectual authority, and social authority. An open competition that’s was taking place in full view of ordinary people, and one that’s raising basic questions about who should be followed and why.

—I think I can see where this is going.

Good, Ethan. Hold that thought. Even if you’ll soon see that the situation is a little more complicated than you think.

Next: Revolutionary Condescension


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