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This Far by Faith

Journeys

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1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA
Next Journey
The Great Awakening: Revivals and Spiritual Equality



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Timeline: 1526-1775 View Detailed Timeline
1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues



1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA
The Great Awakening: Revivals and Spiritual Equality



"Father Abraham, whom have you in heaven? Any Episcopalians? No! Any Presbyterians? No! Any Independents or Methodists? No, No, No! Whom have you there? We don't know those names here. All who are here are Christians...Oh, is this the case? Then God help us to forget your party names and to become Christians in deed and truth." --George Whitefield

Beginning in 1734, colonial America was seized by a religious awakening that would spark dramatic doctrinal changes, heated theological debates, and the conversion of blacks in record numbers. Religion in America was in a crisis; the intellectual sermons that had become the hallmark of that era were failing to inspire congregations, and church membership was on the decline. But a spike in the nation's collective religious piety, "The Great Awakening," brought on by a handful of devoted evangelical preachers, would forever change the religious discourse in America and shape our national identity.


Field Preaching; George Whitefield preaches to a crowd.

Field Preaching; George Whitefield preaches to a crowd.


Jonathan Edwards, a minister from Northampton, Massachusetts, set out to reawaken spiritual devotion through a simple but radical message of salvation. Departing from the academic, rigid sermons of the day, Edwards preached spiritual rebirth with a message aimed at parishioners' hearts. At the core of his message was the belief that all humankind is sinful and must seek redemption by surrendering to God's will. According to Edwards, that meant experiencing a conversion in both body and soul, with parishioners being physically overwhelmed by a sense of profound despair followed by blissful calm. In one six-month stretch, Edwards allegedly converted 300 souls.


Like Edwards in New England, William Tennent and his son Gilbert led religious revivals in New Jersey and throughout the rest of the middle colonies. Their emotional, impassioned style of preaching became their signature and was intended to provoke conversions of sinners. The Tennents even established a seminary to train missionaries in their unique style of preaching. It was called Log College, and would later be renamed Princeton University.

The Great Awakening reached the South with the help of a Virginian, Samuel Davies. A licensed Presbyterian minister and evangelist, Davies traveled extensively throughout the South, preaching to whites as well as slaves. He took special interest in the spiritual and physical well being of black people, baptizing slaves and teaching them to read. His work planted the seeds for the growth of the Baptists in North Carolina and Methodism throughout the South.


"Wheatley Poems" Cover page (with illustration of Phillis Wheatley) to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

"Wheatley Poems" Cover page (white illustration of Phillis Wheatley) to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.


One of the most memorable and effective leaders of the Great Awakening was George Whitefield. A Methodist minister, Whitefield toured widely throughout the colonies, preaching a message of spiritual equality: we are all sinners and equally beholden to a merciful God for salvation. This theme resonated with the poor and oppressed, whom traditional Christian sects had rebuffed.

His emotionally charged sermons stood in stark contrast to the quiet, intellectual, and demure masses of the Anglican Church. Whitefield frequently wept openly and spoke extemporaneously with wild, dramatic gestures, making haunting predictions of the hellfire and brimstone awaiting unrepentant sinners. Legions of Whitefield imitators appeared, copying his gestures and mimicking his gripping, dramatic style. Before long, Whitefield's following had grown exponentially, and he began to preach outdoors, under tents, and in fields. Particularly captivated by Whitefield's unique preaching strategy were poor whites and enslaved blacks, who were finally beginning to embrace Christianity.

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Cornel West, Professor of Religion, Princeton University, on the lure of Christianity for African Americans




Did You Know?



The slave trade flourished during religious revivalism.
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Phyllis Wheatley, born a slave, wrote a poem for George Whitefield when he died.
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