Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Against a prevailing view that eighteenth-century Americans had not perpetuated the first settlers’ passionate commitment to their faith, scholars now identify a high level of religious energy in colonies after 1700. According to one expert, religion was in the “ascension rather than the declension”; another sees a “rising vitality in religious life” from 1700 onward; a third finds religion in many parts of the colonies in a state of “feverish growth.” Figures on church attendance and church formation support these opinions. Between 1700 and 1740, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the population attended churches, which were being built at a headlong pace.
Toward mid-century the country experienced its first major religious revival. The Great Awakening swept the English-speaking world, as religious energy vibrated between England, Wales, Scotland and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. In America, the Awakening signaled the advent of an encompassing evangelicalism–the belief that the essence of religious experience was the “new birth,” inspired by the preaching of the Word. It invigorated even as it divided churches. The supporters of the Awakening and its evangelical thrust–Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists–became the largest American Protestant denominations by the first decades of the nineteenth century. Opponents of the Awakening or those split by it–Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists–were left behind.
Another religious movement that was the antithesis of evangelicalism made its appearance in the eighteenth century. Deism, which emphasized morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, found advocates among upper-class Americans. Conspicuous among them were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Deists, never more than “a minority within a minority,” were submerged by evangelicalism in the nineteenth century.
The Appearance of Eighteenth-Century Churches
Churches in eighteenth-century America came in all sizes and shapes, from the plain, modest buildings in newly settled rural areas to elegant edifices in the prosperous cities on the eastern seaboard. Churches reflected the customs and traditions as well as the wealth and social status of the denominations that built them. Hence, a new Anglican Church in rural Goose Creek, South Carolina, was fitted out with an impressive wood-carved pulpit, while a fledgling Baptist Church in rural Virginia had only the bare essentials. German churches contained features unknown in English ones.
An Early Episcopal Church
St. James Church, built in South Carolina’s oldest Anglican parish outside of Charleston, is thought to have been constructed between 1711 and 1719 during the rectorate of the Reverend Francis le Jau, a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.
Growth of the Eighteenth-Century Church
The growth of the American church in the eighteenth century can be illustrated by changes in city skylines over the course of the century. These three views of New York City in 1690, 1730, and 1771 display the increased number of the city’s churches. An empty vista in 1690 had become a forest of eighteen steeples by 1771. Clearly discernable in the 1730 engraving are (from left to right) the spires of Trinity Church (Anglican), the Lutheran Church, the “new” Dutch Reformed Church, the French Protestant Church (Huguenots), City Hall, the “old” Dutch Reformed Church, the Secretary’s Office and the church in Fort George.
Christ Church, Philadelphia
Christ Church of Philadelphia is an example of how colonial American congregations, once they became well established and prosperous, built magnificent churches to glorify God. Enlarged and remodelled, the Christ Church building was completed in 1744. A steeple was added ten years later. Contemporaries were in awe of the finished house of worship, one remarking that “it was the handsomest structure of the kind that I ever saw in any part of the world; uniting in the peculiar features of that species of architecture, the most elegant variety of forms, with the most chaste simplicity of combination.”
A Rural Baptist Church
The South Quay Baptist Church (top) was founded in 1775, although it was not formally “organized” until ten years later.
The difference between the interior of the rural Mount Shiloh Baptist Church and its Anglican counterpart, St. James Church, reveals much about the differences between the denominations that worshiped in each structure.
Colonial Baptist Church
Believed to be the first Baptist church in America, the Providence congregation, founded by Roger Williams, was organized in 1639. The meeting house, shown here, was constructed in 1774-1775 from plans by architect Joseph Brown, after a design by James Gibbs. This church shows that some colonial Baptists had no compunctions about erecting imposing church buildings.
Lutheran Church Services
This view of the interior of a Lutheran Church by Pennsylvania folk artist Lewis Miller (1796-1882) reveals features–wall paintings of great figures of the modern and early church–which would have been absent from English Protestant churches of the time. Notice the homey interruptions to worship in early America such as the sexton chasing a dog out of the sanctuary and a member stoking a stove.
“Deism” is a loosely used term that describes the views of certain English and continental thinkers. These views attracted a following in Europe toward the latter part of the seventeenth century and gained a small but influential number of adherents in America in the late eighteenth century. Deism stressed morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, often viewing him as nothing more than a “sublime” teacher of morality.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are usually considered the leading American deists. There is no doubt that they subscribed to the deist credo that all religious claims were to be subjected to the scrutiny of reason. “Call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion,” Jefferson advised. Other founders of the American republic, including George Washington, are frequently identified as deists, although the evidence supporting such judgments is often thin. Deists in the United States never amounted to more than a small percentage of an evangelical population.
A Deist Tract
John Toland (1670-1722) was a leading English deist whose works, challenging the mysteries at the heart of orthodox Christian belief, found an audience in the American colonies.
A famous political philosopher to whose views on the formation of governments most Americans subscribed, John Locke (1632-1704) wrote profoundly important treatises on religion. His letters on toleration became a bible to many in the eighteenth century, who were still contending against the old theories of religious uniformity. Locke also argued for the “reasonableness” of Christianity but rejected the efforts of Toland and other deists to claim him as their spiritual mentor.
Bolingbroke’s Influence on Thomas Jefferson
Lord Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), an English deist, was a lifelong favorite of Jefferson. In his Literary Commonplace Book, a volume compiled mostly in the 1760s, Jefferson copied extracts from various authors, transcribing from Bolingbroke some 10,000 words, six times as much as from any other author and forty percent of the whole volume. Young Jefferson was particularly partial to Bolingbroke’s observations on religion and morality.
Thomas Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book
In this part of his Literary Commonplace Book, Thomas Jefferson copied from Bolingbroke’s Works, a passage unfavorably comparing New Testament ethics to those of the “antient heathen moralists of Tully, of Seneca, of Epictetus [which] would be more full, more entire, more coherent, and more clearly deduced from unquestionable principles of knowledge.”
The Emergence of American Evangelicalism: The Great Awakening
Evangelicalism is difficult to date and to define. In 1531, at the beginning of the Reformation, Sir Thomas More referred to religious adversaries as “Evaungelicalles.” Scholars have argued that, as a self-conscious movement, evangelicalism did not arise until the mid-seventeenth century, perhaps not until the Great Awakening itself. The fundamental premise of evangelicalism is the conversion of individuals from a state of sin to a “new birth” through preaching of the Word.
The first generation of New England Puritans required that church members undergo a conversion experience that they could describe publicly. Their successors were not as successful in reaping harvests of redeemed souls. During the first decades of the eighteenth century in the Connecticut River Valley a series of local “awakenings” began. By the 1730s they had spread into what was interpreted as a general outpouring of the Spirit that bathed the American colonies, England, Wales, and Scotland. In mass open-air revivals powerful preachers like George Whitefield brought thousands of souls to the new birth. The Great Awakening, which had spent its force in New England by the mid-1740s, split the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches into supporters–called “New Lights” and “New Side”–and opponents–the “Old Lights” and “Old Side.” Many New England New Lights became Separate Baptists. Together with New Side Presbyterians (eventually reunited on their own terms with the Old Side) they carried the Great Awakening into the southern colonies, igniting a series of the revivals that lasted well into the nineteenth century.
One of the great evangelists of all time, George Whitefield (1714-1770) was ordained in the Church of England, with which he was constantly at odds. Whitefield became a sensation throughout England, preaching to huge audiences. In 1738 he made the first of seven visits to the America, where he gained such popular stature that he was compared to George Washington.
Whitefield’s preaching tour of the colonies, from 1739 to 1741, was the high-water mark of the Great Awakening there. A sermon in Boston attracted as many as 30,000 people. Whitefield’s success has been attributed to his resonant voice, theatrical presentation, emotional stimulation, message simplification and clever exploitation of emerging advertising techniques. Some have compared him to modern televangelists.
Preaching in the Field
George Whitefield used this collapsible field pulpit for open-air preaching because the doors of many churches were closed to him. The first recorded use of the pulpit was at Moorsfield, England, April 9, 1742, where Whitefield preached to a crowd estimated at “twenty or thirty thousand people.” Members of the audience who had come to the park for more frivolous pursuits showered the evangelist with “stones, rotten eggs and pieces of dead cat” Nothing daunted, and he won many converts. It is estimated that Whitefield preached two thousand sermons from his field pulpit.
Whitefield on the New Birth
The “new birth,” prescribed by Christ for Nicodemus (John 3:1-8), was the term evangelicalism used for the conversion experience.
For George Whitefield and other evangelical preachers the new birth was essential to Christian life, even though, as Whitefield admitted, “how this glorious Change is wrought in the Soul cannot easily be explained.”
George Whitefield acquired many enemies, who assailed evangelicalism as a distortion of the gospel and attacked him and his followers for alleged moral failings. The evangelist endured many jibes at his eye disease; hence the epithet “Dr. Squintum.” This satire shows an imp pouring inspiration in Whitefield’s ear while a grotesque Fame, listening on the other side through an ear trumpet, makes accusations on two counts that have dogged revivalists to the present day: sex and avarice. The Devil, raking in money below the podium, and the caption raise charges that Whitefield was enriching himself by his ministry. At the lower left, Whitefield’s followers proposition a prostitute, reflecting the line in the caption that “their Hearts to lewd Whoring extend.”
Whitefield’s death and burial at Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1770 made a deep impression on Americans from all walks of life. Among the eulogies composed for Whitefield was one from an unexpected source: a poem by a seventeen-year-old Boston slave, Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784), who had only been in the colonies for nine years. Freed by her owners, Phillis Wheatley continued her literary career and was acclaimed as the “African poetess.”
Jonathan Edwards (1703-17) was the most important American preacher during the Great Awakening. A revival in his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, 1734-1735, was considered a harbinger of the Awakening which unfolded a few years later. Edwards was more than an effective evangelical preacher, however. He was the principal intellectual interpreter of, and apologist for, the Awakening. He wrote analytical descriptions of the revival, placing it in a larger theological context.
Edwards was a world-class theologian, writing some of the most original and important treatises ever produced by an American. He died of smallpox in 1758, shortly after becoming president of Princeton.
The Revival of Northampton
Jonathan Edwards’s( account of a revival in his own church at Northampton, Massachusetts, and in neighboring churches in the Connecticut Valley was considered a portent of major spiritual developments throughout the British Empire. Consequently, his Narrative was first published in London in 1737 with an introduction by two leading English evangelical ministers, Isaac Watts, the famous hymnist, and John Guyse. In their introduction the two divines said that “never did we hear or read, since the first Ages of Christianity, any Event of this Kind so surprising as the present Narrative hath set before us.”
Perhaps Jonathan Edward’s only writing familiar to most modern audiences, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was not representative of his vast theological output, which contains some of the most learned and profound religious works ever written by an American. Like most evangelical preachers during the Great Awakening, Edwards employed the fear of divine punishment to bring his audiences to repentance. However, it is a distortion of his and his colleagues’ messages and characters to dismiss them as mere “hellfire” preachers.
The publication by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, of extracts from Jonathan Edwards’s Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God illustrates the trans-Atlantic character of the Great Awakening. The leaders communicated with each other, profited from each others’ publications and were in some cases personal acquaintances.
Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764) was the Presbyterian leader of the Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies. Upon George Whitefield’s departure from the colonies in 1741, he deputized his friend Tennent to come from New Jersey to New England to “blow up the divine fire lately kindled there.” Despite being ridiculed as “an awkward and ridiculous Ape of Whitefield,” Tennent managed to keep the revival going until 1742.
Criticism of Other Ministers
This famous sermon, which Gilbert Tennent preached at Nottingham, Pennsylvania, in 1740, was characteristic of the polemics in which both the friends and enemies of the Great Awakening indulged. Tennent lashed ministerial opponents who had reservations about the theology of the new birth as “Pharisee-Shepherds” who “with the Craft of Foxes . . . did not forget to breathe the Cruelty of Wolves in a malicious Aspersing of the Person of Christ.”
Fundraising for Princeton
From the Great Awakening onward, evangelical Christians have founded colleges to train a ministry to deliver their message. The College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) was founded in 1746 by New Side Presbyterian sympathizers. This fundraising brochure for the infant college was prepared in 1764 by the New Side stalwart, Samuel Blair. “Aula Nassovica,” the Latinized version of Nassau Hall, was the principal building of the College of New Jersey in 1764.
Samuel Davies (1723-1761) was the spearhead of the efforts of New Side Presbyterians to evangelize Virginia and the South. Establishing himself in Hanover County, Virginia, in the 1740s, Davies was so successful in converting members of the Church of England to the new birth that he was soon embroiled in disputes with local officials about his right to preach the gospel where he chose.
Presbyterian Communion Tokens
The sacrament of Holy Communion was precious to colonial Presbyterians (and to members of other Christian churches). Presbyterians followed the Church of Scotland practice of “fencing the table”–of permitting members to take communion only after being examined by a minister who vouched for their spiritual soundness by issuing them a token that admitted them to the celebration of the sacrament.
The custom continued in some Presbyterian churches until early in this century. The tokens shown here were used in the Beersheba Presbyterian Church, near York, South Carolina.
Although Baptists had existed in the American colonies since the seventeenth century, it was the Great Awakening that galvanized them into a powerful, proselytizing force. Along with the Methodists, the Baptists became by the early years of the nineteenth century the principal Protestant denomination in the southern and western United States. Baptists differed from other Protestant groups by offering baptism (by immersion) only to those who had undergone a conversion experience; infants were, therefore, excluded from the sacrament, an issue that generated enormous controversy with other Christians.
Methodism, begun by John Wesley and others as a reform movement within the Church of England, spread to the American colonies in the 1760s. Although handicapped by Wesley’s opposition to the American Revolution, Methodists nevertheless made remarkable progress in the young American republic. Francis Asbury (1745-1816) was the dynamo who drove the spectacular growth of the church. He ordained 4,000 ministers, preached 16,000 sermons and traveled 270,000 miles on horseback, sometimes to the most inaccessible parts of the United States.
Beginning of the Methodists
The first Methodist meeting in New York City (one of the first in the American colonies) was held in the sail loft of this Manhattan rigging house in 1766. The five people who attended helped launch the Methodist Church on a “prosperous voyage” that by 1846, according to the statistics furnished in the caption, had gathered four million members.
Organization of the Methodists‘
The remarkable growth of the Methodists in the post-Revolutionary period has been attributed to a hierarchical organizational structure that permitted the maximum mobilization of resources. The “corporating genius” of the Methodists is depicted in this series of concentric circles.