THE FIRST GREAT AWAKENING
The First Great Awakening has been described as a time when the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by great power, the revivals credited with giving new life and bringing great numbers to the churches. The first name we find when studying the American revivals is co-founder of the Methodist movement, (Calvinist, Anglican) George Whitfield, “The cross-eyed preacher.”
GEORGE WHITEFIELD – (1714-1770) America’s “Spiritual Founding Father”
The controversial George Whitefield (pronounced “Whitfield”) received a University education at Oxford, where he is said to have experienced his conversion as an Oxford Methodist. Four years later, Whitefield had a “born again” experience and became a Calvinistic Methodist, turning from his more works-based belief to one of unmerited grace. (Yea, I know, a lot of stuffy theological terms). Whitefield wrote,
“Oh what joy – joy unspeakable – joy full and big with glory was my soul filled when the weight of sin came off, and an abiding sense of the pardoning love of God and a full assurance of faith broke in on my soul.”
Whitefield is known as one of the founders of the Evangelical movement, which endeavored to renew individual piety and religious devotion to Christianity. Ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1736, he started preaching on the necessity of the “New Birth.” Preaching at least 18,000 times to perhaps 10 million listeners in Great Britain and her American colonies, Whitefield enthralled audiences with his blend of emotion, patriotism and social causes representative of the First Great Awakening. From Wikipedia,
“Revivalists added to the doctrinal imperatives of Reformation Protestantism an emphasis on providential outpourings of the Holy Spirit. Extemporaneous preaching gave listeners a sense of deep personal conviction of their need of salvation by Jesus Christ and fostered introspection and commitment to a new standard of personal morality. Revival theology stressed that religious conversion was not only intellectual assent to correct Christian doctrine but had to be a “new birth” experienced in the heart. Revivalists also taught that receiving assurance of salvation was a normal expectation in the Christian life.” Wikipedia
That all sounds well and good, up to maybe the “emphasis on providential outpourings.” 🤔
Although Anglicans didn’t allow him to preach in their churches because of his emotional methods, he affirmed the deity of Christ in days when Unitarianism had a strong influence, and taught that salvation was through grace alone by faith alone. So, at least as far as history records, Whitefield held to sound doctrine. But digging a little deeper we find a man who was very concerned about his image, even using illustrations that compared him to Christ. In her book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, Researcher Jessica Parr writes,
“He made a public example of those who failed to live up to the pious model that he set in his autobiographies and his journal, particularly in contrast with the image he presented of himself as an indiscrete youth who had found ‘true religion’ as an adult” Source
But the thing Whitefield has been most criticized for, is that, after initially opposing slavery, he became a slave owner and advocate of slave ownership. In fact, he played a significant role in legalizing slavery in the state of Georgia. Slave ownership was a subject that he and fellow ‘Holy Club’ member John Wesley had strong disagreements over, since Wesley (who had his own problems that we’ll be looking into) rightly insisted that no man should own another.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)
But Whitefield seemed indifferent to the scriptural problems of slave ownership, and felt that slaves were needed to build Bethesda boy’s orphanage in Georgia, his life’s greatest achievement. While it is not directly forbidden in the New Testament as it is in the Old (ie. Jer 34:10), slavery is entirely incompatible with the New Covenant in Christ.
“The crux of the problem comes down to a disjuncture between Whitefield’s early vocal criticism of slaveowners in Charleston for their ostentatious lifestyle and failure to catechize their slaves, and his later aggressive championing of the institution of slavery and his transformation of the Bethesda Orphan House into a slave plantation. Both studies confirm that less than a decade after castigating slaveowners, Whitefield was looking to enter their class as much out of paternalistic concerns as from a desire to reap its economic rewards. He aggressively advocated for the removal of a ban on slaveholding in Georgia, a key feature of James Oglethorpe’s original plan for his holy experiment, by pushing for legislation that would make slavery legal. (This legislation would finally pass in 1751.) On top of this, Whitefield also illegally brought slave labor into Georgia to work at the Bethesda Orphan House at least two years before slavery was legalized there.” Source
His recorded “methods” and insistence for complete control over the orphanage is also a little troubling.
“Whitefield ‘insisted on sole control of the orphanage.’ He refused to give the Trustees a financial accounting. The Trustees also objected to Whitefield’s using ‘a wrong Method’ to control the children, who ‘are often kept praying and crying all the Night.’ – Source
Whitefield allowed his slaves to be taught about Christ when public opinion on the matter was divided, slave owners being concerned that faith in Christ might make slaves rebellious. But the defenses of him in this area are still weak, roughly saying that “well, he had his weaknesses in the flesh like we all do.”
But what came to my mind was the carnal focus of slave ownership. Rather than trust God for the building of his orphanage, if it was indeed God’s will it be built, he compromised his principles of brotherly love (1 Cor 13) to bring it about through human effort. (Welcome to American Christianity!)
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (Js 4:4)
I dug into Whitefield’s orphanage a bit and found that it was a replica of Halle Orphanage in Germany, which Whitefield reportedly had great admiration for.
Now I was getting somewhere!
The orphanage, which is still standing today, is quite an interesting institution. Reading about it in the “Look Inside” feature of a $40 book on Amazon, there it was; the expected blending of Enlightenment teaching with Christianity! But I didn’t even need to go that far. All I needed to do was look at the architectural sculpture on the facade.
“The university’s main goals were to put an end to confessional polemics [the conflict between Catholics & Reformers], to generate tolerance, and to promote harmony among the four faculties: theology, law, medicine, and philosophy.” The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community – Observation, Eclecticism and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment – by Kelly Joan Whitmer
So, with America’s first Revivalist, we see the infiltration of the Reformation as described by the Jesuits, the recognizable emotion, patriotism and social causes that defined the Great Awakenings, and the blending of Christianity with Mystery School teachings.
Next up, we’ll look at the “great” Jonathan Edwards.