THE 1st GREAT AWAKENING AND CONTEMPORARY WITNESS
No event is more paradigmatic for Evangelical identity than the First great Awakening of the 18th century. We’ve forgotten some of its lessons. Remembering them will be important if we desire to be fully faithful cultural and intellectual witnesses for Christ in the 21st century.
The religious situation in the early 18th century reminds one a lot of today. Deism (parallel to our theological Liberalism) ruled the established church (compare our mainline denominations) and the conservatives were in small dissenting churches marginalized and arguing with each other. Parallel to our drug culture you had gin creating a permanent underclass in the slums of the cities. (The English have always been great beer drinkers, but the more powerful distilled liquors were a new thing to them.) In the place of our abortion industry you had the slave trade–both dependent on the ability to arbitrarily dehumanize a segment of the human race.
Biblical Christianity had less of a voice then than it does now. And yet, seemingly out of nowhere came the First Great Awakening. We should not be discouraged to the point of giving up. God is not constrained to save by many or by few. Things look bad now, but they looked worse then. The same God is still on the throne.
Why was the First Great Awakening such a life-changing and world-changing revival? It combined a new emphasis on conversion as a personal and life-changing experience with an equally strong emphasis on the objectivity of Christian truth and the consequent importance of the life of the mind. We are familiar with that first emphasis: John Wesley found his “heart strangely warmed” as he listened to Luther’s commentary on Galatians, and felt the assurance that “my sins, even mine” had been forgiven. The other second emphasis has been forgotten. But Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer, wrote a textbook on logic. Robert Raikes started the Sunday School movement to teach literacy to inner-city kids. And Wesley edited a 50-volume Christian Library, books he recommended that every Christian read (even poor and uneducated ones), that included Milton’s Paradise Lost. Their teachings stress the importance that emotional reactions be subordinate to and flow from clear biblical exposition.
These emphases have since been separated. If we want to see another revival like that one, we had best get them back together.
It is inevitable that the church will be influenced by the culture that surrounds it, for good and for ill. What we should look for is evidence of integrity that comes from the power of the Gospel. When the leaders of the First Great Awakening emphasized what they called “heart religion” it was a counter-cultural move, because their society was afraid of passion; and they combined it with a strong emphasis on the life of the mind. That took insight and courage. To focus almost exclusively on emotional responses when you are surrounded by a culture awash in subjectivism is a very different thing. It is neither insightful nor courageous, and the “heart religion” it produces will be an anemic shadow of what our ancestors knew.
To be faithful witnesses with insight and courage in our own day is what we at Lantern Hollow Press want to do!
To read more of Dr. Williams’ analysis (and poetry!) check out the Lantern Hollow Press store on this website. To have him speak to your church or school, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted on June 9, 2014, in Christianity, Donald Williams, History, Lantern Hollow Press, Theology and tagged First Great Awakening, Isaac Watts, John Wesley, Revival, Robert Raikes, Witness. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.