In my post “Gnosticism, Marriage, Singleness, Matchmaking and Martin Luther “ I suggested that the Eucharist, and indeed both the sacraments (I was going to say “all the sacraments”, but I am a good Protestant and only recognize two, although it really remains a matter of definition), have become especially troubling among evangelicals for whom the matter/spirit dichotomy is the uber-presupposition. Since modern evangelicals find it offensive that God’s grace would be mediated through physical means or instruments (even as classical Gnosticism found it offensive that God would be incarnated in flesh), so the sacraments are reduced to mere symbols for what goes on inside the individual. As Ollif points out, the “physical manifestations” are simply epiphenomena of a relationship that can be fully defined apart from those physical manifestations. The Protestant tendency to separate spirit from matter means that the Eucharist can become merely an appendix to the Word, a disguised sermon or an approximation for our own spiritual interiority but certainly not a rite that objectively conveys grace.
This feeds on the assumption that (to quote Derrick Olliff from his excellent ‘American P.I.E.’ series) “the created order isn’t really important because secondary, mediating causes are at best unnecessary and are often problematic.” This is the error that B. B. Warfield makes in his book, The Plan of Salvation. He asserts that “precisely what evangelical religion means is immediate dependence of the soul on God and on God alone for salvation” and is critical of any theology that “separates the soul from direct contact with and immediate dependence upon God the Holy Spirit. . . .” Warfield stands in continuity with other thinkers of the reformed tradition, most notably Zwingli. In his opposition to Roman Catholicism, Zwingli threw the baby out with the bathwater, suggesting (as summarized by Jeffrey Meyers) that, “[i]f God was to have all the glory in our salvation, then nothing could be attributed to any human rite or material instrumentality.” (See Jeffrey J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship, pp. 290-291.)
In the matter of sanctification this doctrine of immediacy has infected popular evangelical thinking. When a modern evangelical says, “only the Holy Spirit can engineer a change of heart,” nine times out of ten what he really means is that “only the Holy spirit independent of any human instrumentality can engineer a change of heart.” As in classical Gnosticism, the assumption is that grace must be immediate and can never be transmitted through secondary means.
Where did this suspicion of mediation come from? The answer to this question is complex and eludes any straight-forward explanation. Nevertheless, one contributing factor has to be the First Great Awakening. In this post I will argue that a particular problem for the North American revivalists was how to deal with mediation. Does God’s grace ordinarily work immediately or through means? The operating assumption among many of the North American revivalists was not merely that grace ordinarily comes independent of all mediating structures, but that can only comes that way. This had the effect of marginalizing the role that church, family and the sacraments could play in the salvation economy. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us begin by setting the historical stage.
“Puritan Protestantism forms properly the main trunk of our North American church,” said Philip Schaff (1819-93) in his inaugural address at Mercersburg Theological Seminary. “Viewed as a whole,” he went on to say, the American church “owes her general characteristic features, her distinctive image, neither to the German or Continental Reformed, nor to the English Episcopal communion,” but to the New England Puritans.” (Philip Schaff, cited by Winthrop Hudson in Religion in America: An historical account of the development of American religious life (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), p. 8.)
The theology of Puritanism, though watered down from its initial potency and drifting towards latitudinarianism by the mid 18th century, was represented in all the colonies, but especially in New England Congregationalism and the Presbyterianism of the Scottish and Irish emigrants. Colonial Anglicanism in Virginia and the rest of the South was more akin to the reformed faith than the Anglicanism of England, being what William Haller described as “the Calvinistic Low Church Anglicanism of the period before Laud.” Even Baptists in the colonies were influenced by the Puritan canopy and adhered to the Westminster Confession of Faith with a few modifications on matters such as baptism and church government. Philip Schaff observed that many of the Lutheran churches had morphed into the Puritan mould while Hudson has described the Quakers as representing “the left-wing of the Puritan movement.” In 1776, when the American colonies declared their independence, Puritanism formed the moral and religious background for a full 75% of the people.
With the exception of Virginia, there was no national, state-sponsored church. Yet there were still established churches attached to the different colonies. In 1720 approximately 85% of Americans lived in communities that had an official church. In Virginia the government had created a parish system, but for the rest of the colonies parish systems were generally the de facto method organization. If you were a Christian and went to church, by and large it was customary for you to attend the church nearest to you.
These churches were not evangelical, in the sense of how the term came to be used by the mid 18th century. They were generally deferential to authority, suspicious of individualism, outward-looking and sources of stability in the society. Their very integration within a fast-growing society, however, gave rise to increasing nominalism. Puritanism may still have been the dominant operating assumption, but the Puritan lustre was dying out. It would take the event known as the “Great Awakening” to reawaken the colonies’ spiritual fervour. In so doing, however, it would permanently alter the nature of their religion.
The Northampton Awakening
While studying at Yale, Edward recorded in his diary that he had been eagerly seeking salvation, but was unsure if he had it. Believing that God was “eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure” he was tortured with the question of his own salvation. He urgently wanted to trust God in order to escape damnation, yet his mind and emotions struggled to love a God that created people merely to decree them to an eternity of unimaginable torment. At the same time, Edwards was worried that his objections to Calvinist teaching, together with the sins that he struggled against, might be the very signs of his own reprobation. When, at the age of sixteen, he was overtaken by a violent illness, he believed he was about to die. He later reflected on the experience he had, in which he felt as though God “shook me over the pit of hell.” Edwards promised God that he would mend his ways, yet when he recovered he found that he continued to struggle with sin as before. However, by his senior year in college, Edwards received assurance of his conversion. He describes “a wonderful alteration in my mind” and suddenly found that he no longer struggled with the notion of God “hardening and eternally damning whom he will…” Moreover, Edwards began to experience a sweet communion with the divine, “an inward, sweet sense of these things” and “a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God.” He described “a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of my soul, that I know not how to express.” The feeling of inward sweetness only increased, as did his state of being “almost constantly in ejaculatory prayer, wherever I was” and thinking constantly of heaven. Edwards’ experience was significant, as it would later help to set the template for the revivalist conversionism theology.
After completing his MA, Edwards took on the position as apprenticeship under his grandfather, who ministered to a congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts. When his grandfather died in 1729, Edwards took over as the church’s minister. In the Spring of 1734 the congregation began to experience strange stirrings in response to Edwards’ preaching. Everyone from young children to aged adults began to desire to be converted. Edwards own account tells of how the young people talked of almost nothing other than spiritual things, while some even neglected their work in order to devote themselves to religious activities. It was clear that a revival was underway, unlike anything the inhabitants had experienced before.
By the fall, the revival had completely transformed the youth culture of Northampton. The spiritual energy began to spill over into nearby towns, as hundreds of people began to answer the call of God. In 1737 Edwards published his account of the revival, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which helped to disseminate the phenomenon throughout the English-speaking world. When the book reached John Wesley, he could only say, “Surely this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.” Not insignificantly, it was the following year that John Wesley felt his own heart “strangely warmed” and England began to experience a series of similar revivals.
Whitefield: The American Sensation
Important as Edwards was, it would be the work of the Anglican clergyman, George Whitefield (1714 –1770), to solidify the New England revival into a pan-colonial movement, forever changing the shape of North American Protestantism. Not surprisingly, the template for Whitefield’s ministry began with his own conversion experience. While studying at Pembroke College Oxford, Whitefield was exposed to a group called the ‘Holy Club’, which later became known as the Methodist movement. The small but growing circle included the Wesley brothers and was characterized by religious enthusiasm and a rigorous commitment to the disciplines of the spiritual life. Even before being drawn into the group, Whitefield had been attempting to order his life by the rigours of regular fasting, prayer, devotions, Bible study and self-denial. After meeting the Wesley’s and reading a copy of Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Whitefield had entered a season of extremes, seeking to pursue holiness by an even more rigorous schedule of disciplines and self-inflicted suffering. This included spending long hours in the snow, going days without sleep, deliberately failing his classes and enduring long fasts in which he nearly starved himself. Whitefield’s spirit may have been willing, but his flesh was weak and eventually collapsed under the strain. He was admitted into hospital and confined to bed for seven weeks. It was during his time of recovery that Whitefield experienced an event which he interpreted as being his conversion. It is best described in his own words:
“One day, perceiving an uncommon drought and a disagreeable clamminess in my mouth and using things to allay my thirst, but in vain, it was suggested to me that when Jesus Christ cried out, ‘I thirst,’ His sufferings were near at an end. Upon which, I cast myself down on the bed, crying out, ‘I thirst! I thirst!’ Soon after this, I found and felt in myself that I was delivered from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me. The spirit of mourning was taken from me, and I knew what it was truly to rejoice in God my Saviour and, for some time, could not avoid singing psalms wherever I was: but my joy gradually became more settled, and, blessed by God, has abode and increased in my soul, and, as I humbly hope, seal me unto the day of redemption.”
After being ordained as a clergyman for the Church of England, Whitefield began to feel a special burden for America. In 1738 when he was only 25 years old, he decided to follow John Wesley’s example and go to Georgia. It was the first of seven tours to the colonies. Whitefield was an immediate sensation in the New World, provoking enormous support as well as fierce opposition. The size of the crowds he drew were simply phenomenal and unlike anything that even Jonathan Edwards had known. As soon as news got out that he Whitefield was preaching in a town, commerce would cease and the entire population would flock to hear him. One sermon he preached in the Boston Common drew more listeners than the entire population of Boston itself.
It is not hard to appreciate why Whitefield held such appeal for Americans. In an age where clergymen prided themselves on sophisticated intellectualism, Whitefield offered a refreshing contrast: he spoke in language that was easily accessible to lay people, even incorporating jokes and stories into his sermons. It was the custom at the time for pastors to write down their sermons and then to read them, but Whitefield preached extempore. Moreover, he was a natural dramatist, able to instinctively sense how best to excite emotion in a crowd.
The reports from those who attended Whitefield’s preaching helped to make him a celebrity. Hundreds of eye witnesses testified to strange happenings during his meetings. Not only did sinners repent and turn to Jesus, not only did believers come away with a renewed commitment to faithfully follow Christ, but onlookers often found themselves shaking uncontrollably. Others would fall to the ground hysterically weeping. Still others would scream in terror as they perceived visions of hell. Some reportedly even felt the sensation of being on fire.
Like Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield’s evangelistic model built on the template of his own conversion. He attempted, more or less, to replicate in his hearers the experience he had had in college, encouraging the sense of alienation from God that he believed was a necessary precursor to a genuine encounter with Christ. It was not good enough to simply recognize that you were a sinner and turn to Christ: you had to first feel alienated from Him. In his sermon on Matthew 11:28, titled, “Christ the only Rest for the Weary and Heavy-Laden”: Whitefield put it like this:
“They say, in a formal customary manner, we are sinners, and there is no health in us; but how few feel themselves sinners, and are so oppressed in their own spirits, that they have no quiet nor rest in them, because of the burden of their sins, and the weight that is fallen and lays on their minds?”
Whitefield dismissed as Pharisees those “brethren, are not weary and heavy laden with a sense of their sins, who can delight themselves in the polite entertainments of the age, and follow the sinful diversion of life.” Such false brethren God had doomed to “a burning tophet kindled by the fury of an avenging God, which will never, never be quenched.”
Whatever we may think of his scare tactics, it can’t be denied that Whitefield was mighty in reenergizing the colonies towards spiritual commitment. The creeping latitudinarianism and merely nominal religion was replaced with evangelical zeal. Even the sceptic Benjamin Franklin could not help but remark on the amazing effect the revivals had on the towns: “From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.” Whitefield was also a strategic builder, involved in many projects, including contributing to the founding of both Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. He also started a number of publishing companies in addition to an orphanage in Georgia. And this does not even touch upon his accomplishments in his homeland.
Despite the broad range of his mission work and social activism, Whitefield’s legacy, like Edward’s, was tinged with a dualistic view of the world reminiscent of Gnosticism. Even after his conversion Whitefield retained many of the ascetic tendencies that had almost cost him his life during his college days. Echoing the sacred/secular dichotomy of medievalism, he believed that God-given earthly pleasures like dance, food, music, the theatre were a distraction from evangelism and the pursuit of holiness.
Significantly Whitefield’s objections to popular amusements like dancing were not so much that there was anything sinful about such activities, but that they wasted time. The thing that really matters – and mattered more than everything else – was saving souls. Even God-given earthly pleasures like marriage and family were seen to be a distraction, leading Whitefield to downplay the importance of matrimony and to neglect his wife for the sake of the ministry (a point I have dealt with in my article “George Whitefield and Marriage”). His vision had little scope for the Puritan vision of glorifying God through the good things of this world while his asceticism helped to import back into Protestantism the very sacred/secular dichotomy that the magisterial reformers had opposed.
Revivalism and Conversionism
Whitefield was followed by dozens of other evangelists preaching the new birth. The spiritual excitement they produced was electrifying. The description that Rev. Samuel Blair’s gives of Gilbert Tennent’s meetings was not untypical of the kinds of reactions the preacher’s were able to rouse in their audience:
“I think there was scarcely a Sermon of Lecture preached here thro’ that whole Summer, but there was manifest Evidence of Impressions on the Hearers; and many Times the Impressions were very great and general: Several would be overcome and fainting; others deeply sobbing, hardly able to contain, others crying in the post dolorous Manner, many others more silently Weeping, and a solemn Concern appearing in the Countenance of many others. And sometimes the Soul Exercises of some (tho’ comparatively but very few) would so far affect their Bodies, as to Occasion some strange unusual Bodily Motions.”
Most of the itinerant revivalists taught that it was not even enough to trust Christ for your salvation and to produce the fruit of repentance. If you couldn’t pinpoint when you had passed from being a child of darkness to being a child of light, you were worse than an unbeliever: you were a Pharisee. Jedediah Andrews, minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, underscored this point when he wrote to a friend in 1741, noting, “A prevailing rule to try converts is that if you don’t know when you were without Christ and unconverted, etc., you have no interest in Christ, let your love and your practice be what they may…”
The significance of this conversionist paradigm can best be understood by comparing it to the theology it supplanted. At the risk of oversimplification, the older reformed orthodoxy can be summarized as follows. The children of believers were to be considered part of the visible covenant (the church and all of its blessings) and presumptively part of the invisible covenant (saved). As John Calvin put it, “it is no small stimulus to our education of them in the serious fear of God, and the observance of his law, to reflect, that they are considered and acknowledged by him as his children as soon as they are born.” To support this idea, Presbyterian and Congregational thinkers would often turn to such passages as Acts 3, where Peter ended a sermon by declaring, “The promise is to you and to your children” or 1 Corinthians 7:14, where the apostle declared that if even one of the parents is a believer then the children are sanctified, or where Christ himself had declared, in reference to little ones, “of such is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16). Additionally, Puritan covenantalism had allowed the appropriation of many Old Testament promises about children. The promises given to Abraham’s descendents had been addressed “to you and your children”, and these promises were now applicable to the families of Gentile believers who have been grafted in to God’s covenant family by faith.
Presbyterians were quick to point out that such blessings were not automatic. The regeneration of covenant children was presumed only because it was assumed that parents would be faithful in transmitting the love of God to the next generation and that the church would be faithful in catechising them. (So seriously did they take this, that when there was a general deficit of such faithfulness, they began to reconceive their covenantal categories, introducing the idea of a Half-Way covenant which we will touch upon shortly.) The idea was not that parents actually caused their children’s salvation; rather, they believed that the normal means Providence uses for regenerating the children of believers was faithful parenting. Within the reformed churches it was assumed that Christian nurture was (to quote As J.A. Quarles), “the Lord’s chosen way to perpetuate and extend his Church. It is the growth from within, like the mustard seed….The regular, normal mode of increase is through the multiplication of Christian families, the blessings descending from generation to generation in an ever growing ratio.” This doctrine rendered it unnecessary that a child have a specific conversion experience. In fact, if such an experience was necessary it indicated a breakdown of Christian nurture on the part of the parents. If properly administered, religious instruction should result in a child never being able to recall a time when they were alienated from God. (For further reading, see my earlier post, "Conversion experiences?")
The revivalists aimed to disrupt the sense of confidence that Christian children had previously enjoyed. Because they taught that a sudden conversion experience, preceded by a state of alienation from God, was the normal and only method for bringing souls into the kingdom of God, they were committed to the idea that children growing up in Christian families were enemies of God until they too experienced this type of conversion.
Samuel Blair told of his experience with two sisters, “one being about seven, the other about nine Years of Age…” He told how “they speak of their Soul-Experience with a very becoming Gravity and apparent Impression of the Things they speak of. The youngest was awakened by hearing the Word preached, she told me she heard in Sermons, That except People were convinced and converted they would surely go to Hell; and she knew she was not converted. This set her to praying with great Earnestness, with Tears and Cries, yet her Fears and Distress continued for several Days, till one Time as she was a praying her Heart, she said, was drawn out in great Love to God; and, as she thought of Heaven, and being with God, she was fill’d with Sweetness and Delight…. But she said she was sometimes afraid yet of going to Hell.”
A child who grew up from infancy with a sense of God’s love and peace was deluded at best and in danger of everlasting torment at worst. Peace with God could only ever come after an experience of alienation and despair. This may help to explain the proliferation of new Baptist churches that emerged during the Awakening, all stressing the fact that baptism must come after a conversion experience, and not before as Prysbyterians and Congregationalists had urged. In 1740 there were only 60 Baptist congregations. By contrast, in 1790 there were almost one thousand. (See Gregory A Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). p. 7)
In his public ministry, the Irish-born American Presbyterian clergyman, Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764,), endeavoured to strip away the ‘dangerous security’ experienced by those who, though growing up in Christians homes, had never had a definite experience of conversion. For Tennent, even a conversion experience was not enough if it had not been preceded by the proper antecedents. In 1742, Gilbert Tennent announced that “those suppos’d Conversions, which are not preceded by a Work of the Law, are either in general, strong workings of the Fancy and Affections, mov’d in a natural way as in tragedies; or the common Workings of the Spirit as in time Believers, and stony ground Hearers; or a Delusion of Satan!” (From his sermon The Necessity of holding fast the Truth represented in Three Sermons…Preached at New York, April, 1742”) He tells the story of the conversion of his brother’s conversion, recounting that though his brother was guilty of no great un-Christian conduct, nevertheless
His conviction of sin, danger, and misery, was the most violent in degree of any I ever saw. For several days and nights together he was made to cry out in the most dolorous and affecting manner, almost every moment….Sometimes he was brought to the very brink of despair, and would conclude, surely God would never have mercy on such a great sinner as he was….Whilst under conviction his distress was such as to induce him to make an open confession of his sins to almost all that came near him, and also to beg their prayers in his behalf at a throne of grace. And this he did in the most earnest and beseeching manner. His dolorous groans and vehement importunity were such as greatly to affect even strangers who came to see him. …never did I behold any other in such a rack of acute and continued anguish, under the dismal apprehensions of impending ruin and endless misery from the vengeance of a just and holy God…. But it pleased God, after an agony almost uninterrupted for four days and four nights, during which he cried out incessantly as described above, that he would make his consolations as eminent and conspicuous as his convictions had been severe.” (John Tennent from “The Memoir of the Rev. John Tennent” cited by Archibald Alexander in The Log College: Biographical sketches of William Tennent and his students, together with an account of the revivals under their ministries (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), pp. 87-88.)
Jonathan Edwards and the Problem of Means
The affinity that this conversionist paradigm had with Gnosticism has been a point overlooked by other historians of the period. Yet the parallels are striking. Just as Gnosticism found it offensive that God’s grace could be mediated through physical instruments. For the Gnostic, the only legitimate type of relationship to the divine is the unmediated, direct relationship. Providences and secondary means, especially those rooted in the physical world, were dismissed by the Gnostics as unspiritual, dead and distracting from true spiritual enlightenment. Though many of the Gnostics considered themselves to be Christians and true heirs of Jesus’ legacy, they felt justified separating from the rest of the church on the grounds that the church was in bondage to rudimentary elements such as bread and wine and baptismal water. Spiritual life could not be transmitted through material means, because the spiritual and the material were absolutely antithetic to each other.
These were the very values that permeated so much of the revivalists thinking in 18th century North America and which became especially potent in the new conversionist soteriology. Religion, the revivalists taught, had to come to man like a bolt from the sky, independent of any relation to the past providences of life, including the religious environment in which one had been nurtured. Just as the Gnostics objected to grace being transmitted through physical means such as the sacraments, so the revivalists objected to grace being mediated through physical means such as gradual parental nurture. What emerged was a highly individualistic paradigm that minimized the catechizing influence of the church and the family. If the church had any role to play in the nurture of children, it was to preach the gospel to them, not to nurture and catechize them from infancy as covenantal members. In fact, to treat a child as a member of the covenant would be to impart a dangerous security to him or her. The idea of growing up in grace was itself an oxymoron for many of the revivalists. The light of God had to come all at once in a definite conversion moment, and that conversion had to be self-conscious. Not only did the conversion have to be self-conscious, but you had to be able to verbalize it in a way that conformed to the canons of a credible “profession.”
Even Jonathan Edwards, who allowed for more methodological flexibility, was adamant that true spiritual knowledge had to be “immediately imparted to the soul by God” which does “not [make] use of any intermediate natural causes.” In his sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” Edwards explicitly ruled out the role of mediatory and secondary means:
“But this spiritual knowledge, spoken of in the text, is what God is the author of, and none else: he reveals it, and flesh and blood reveals it not. He imparts this knowledge immediately, not making use of any intermediate natural causes, as he does in other knowledge…. That there is such a thing as a spiritual and divine light immediately imparted to the soul by God, of a different nature from any that is obtained by natural means. …A true sense of the divine excellency of the things of God's word doth more directly and immediately convince of the truth of them; and that because the excellency of these things is so superlative…. So that the notions that are the subject matter of this light, are conveyed to the mind by the word of God; but that due sense of the heart, wherein this light formally consists, is immediately by the Spirit of God…. this light and knowledge is always spoken of as immediately given of God.”
It is important to grasp that this stress on immediacy is different from the Calvinist notion that justification and sanctification is exclusively a work of the spirit. The reformed theologians had never had any difficulty stressing God’s sovereignty, on the one hand, and His use of secondary instruments or means, on the other. They held that if God willed an end, He willed the means to that end. What was novel was the idea that God had to work independently of secondary causes. Those who were Christians as a result of the faith being mediated to them through church and family, nurtured in their heart from infancy so that they had known nothing else, were utterly despised under the conversionist paradigm. In fact, such false Christians were bound for hell. The only legitimate reason for being a Christian was a self-conscious experience for yourself of the divine and supernatural light. “We leave it to our hearers to judge,” said William Tennent, “whether according to the instituted method of divine grace, revealed in the Holy Scriptures and confirmed by the experience of the saints, it is not as reasonable to hope that God will over set nature, and extinguish the sun by a miracle, for our salvation, as to expect it without striving.”
Autonomy and the Breakdown of the Parish
The Great Awakening has often been seen as a hedge on the impact of the European Enlightenment on the colonies, while the signs of Enlightenment have primarily been located in places such as Jefferson’s Unitarianism, Thomas Paine’s deism, or Benjamin Franklin’s scepticism. However, the impact of secularism on the colonies has been highly exaggerated. Shelton Smith reminds us that
“The radical type of religious rationalism, or deism, was…sporadic and ephemeral. Colonial deism had few leaders save laymen, most of whom had little scholarly understanding of Christian thought and who were generally anticlerical in spirit…and consumed their spiritual energies largely in attacking Christian orthodoxy and in philosophical speculation….The leading American deists were few in number, and probably could be limited to Franklin, Jefferson, Ethan Allen, and Elihu Palmer Both Franklin and Jefferson were reluctant to express their religious notions in public, and therefore did little to advance deism.”
The stereotypical idea that the American Enlightenment was felt strongest in religious scepticism has obscured the fact that it was precisely the appropriation of Enlightenment categories by evangelical revivalists that made the colonial experience of Enlightenment so acute. In particular, evangelicals unconsciously incorporated into their experience the Enlightenment categories of autonomy, egalitarianism and anti-institutionalism. We will look at autonomy first and how it contributed to the breakdown of the parish system.
Within the English-speaking world, the thing that distinguished the Enlightenment from earlier periods of intellectual history was not its anti-religious character, but its emphasis on human autonomy. Pope expressed the new mood in his famous 1734 poem An Essay on Man:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
The emphasis on man’s autonomy spanned the gap between rationalists like Descartes and empiricists like Locke and Hume. Though they diverged on matters of epistemological method, they shared the common conviction that objective knowledge could not be achieved outside of autonomous human experience. Prior to Kant’s 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment”, no one expressed the sense of Enlightenment autonomy better than Locke himself, who wrote
“The floating of other Mens Opinions in our brains makes us not a jot more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was Science, is in us but Opinatrety, whilst we give up our assent to reverend Names, and do not, as they did, employ our own Reason to understand those Truths, which gave them reputation…In the Sciences, every one has so much, as he really knows and comprehends: What he believes only, and takes upon trust, are but shreads.”
In Locke’s Discourse he did not hesitate to point out that, “I have not made it my business, either to quit, or follow any Authority in the ensuing Discourse: Truth has been my only aim”.
Whether certainty was achieved through the experience of man’s disengaged reason (Descartes), or the experience of man’s senses (the British empiricists), or whether one rejected the possibility of objective knowledge altogether because of the inherent limitations of experience (Hume), the philosophers of the Enlightenment all operated on the assumption that if certainty were to be achieved, it could only come through the apparatus the individual’s own experience.
The continuity with the Great Awakening hardly needs pointing out, since the canons of personal autonomy, when applied to religion, fell into roughly the same counters we have already explored in our discussion of the intersection of conversionism with Gnosticism. Soteriological certainty could only come through a certain type of self-conscious experience that was defined, measured, reproducible and, we should aid, autonomous. Just as the Enlightenment philosophers taught that certain knowledge must be derived from your own experience without intermediary authorities, so the revivalists taught that assurance could only be obtained through direct personal experience. Such experience was completely autonomous, since it was separated from intermediaries such as slow and steady family nurture or gradual church catechizing.
The new sense of spiritual autonomy had ramifications that have still not been adequately explored by historians of the period, not least in the breakdown of the parish system.
Prior to the awakening, a sense of rootedness in the wider religious community had given colonists a pre-cognitive sense of belonging. Whether one was part of the community of Congregationalists in Massachusetts, Anglicans in Virginia or Quakers in Pennsylvania, a Christian would generally see himself as part of the communal narrative defining his people. (Even colonial dissenters derived their identity, fundamentally, from these religious categories; only in this case, their displacement from the normative structures.) These particular narratives, in turn, were grounded in the larger metanarrative of Christendom, thus connecting each person to a story stretching back hundreds of years. These narratives were often accompanied by a sense of gratefulness, since they evoked all the struggle, loss and achievement that had brought your ancestors to this place. The importance of place gave a geographical dimension to the community narrative. It was thus the most natural thing for each community to organize their land spiritually. The land, the people and the religion all fused together to form an inchoate sense of belonging. Those who lived in this place, are this people, with this story and they go to this church. By the 18th century the parish system had been weakened by rising secularism and surging population growth, yet it still served to underscore the basic interconnectedness between land, community and religion.
This bond between religion and place acted as a hedge against a purely disembodied spirituality. This very fact, however, created challenges for the Congregational churches, who were heirs to the Puritan obsession with the invisible church. The invisible church included all of the elect throughout all the ages. It was pure, without spot or wrinkle and comprised those who were truly saved. By contrast, the visible church contained a mixture, since not everyone professing faith in Christ could be assumed to be truly regenerate. The Puritan problem was how to bring these two churches into alignment. Their solution had been to introduce stages of salvation, involving strict self-examination, in order to reduce the risk that those admitted to the Lord’s table were anything other than members of both communities. However, this created a new network of problems. Cotton Mather recounts how the first settlers had become concerned that their grandchildren should not be baptised as babies since the children’s parents did not seem to possess a credible profession of faith. The solution was the, so called, Half-Way Covenant. If parents acknowledged the claims of God on their lives and promised to submit to the church’s discipline, then they could be part of the Half-Way Covenant and have their children baptised even if they did not profess conversion. If one could give evidence of a conversion experience, then it allowed you to be promoted to the full covenant, which in theory ran parallel to the invisible church. The Half-Way Covenant thus “provided a place in the visible church for those who presumably had no place in the invisible church.” Not surprisingly, these theories were primarily the domain of the Congregationalist churches where the puritan pedigree was more dominant. While the theories required an elastic theological imagination, they arose as an attempt to maintain the physical parish system without compromising the Puritan commitment to invisibility.
For the revivalists, however, no such maintenance was necessary. Gilbert Tennent, believed itinerants were justified moving into a pastor’s parish and encouraged people to ignore parish boundaries when the “settled ministry” there failed to proclaim the “one thing needful,”, which was the “New Birth.” But most of the revivalists never set out to consciously disrupt this parish system, however; they simply ignored it, and in so doing they undermined it. Consequently, the entire communal narrative began to unravel. Lambert tells us that “…with the arrival of George Whitefield in 1739, parish boundaries crumbled all over the colonies.” By the late 18th century, you could no longer take it for granted that your neighbour would go to the same church as you. In point of fact, you could not even assume that your neighbour was a true Christian: after all, he might not have experienced the “New Birth.”
The disruption of traditional religious communities tended to disengage religion from the land, thus lending an
unconscious plausibility to the disembodied religion preached by the revivalists. Significantly, however, the reverse also held true: displacement from the land seems to have been a factor that primed audiences of emigrants to respond favourable to the message of the revivalists. While other factors clearly also played a role, it is surely no coincidence that, as Bumsted has observed, “A strong correlation existed between those regions experiencing the land shortages which produced emigration to new communities and areas responding favourably to the phenomenon of revivalism.”
New denominations began to crop up to rival the land-based churches that had previously enjoyed a monopoly. Mere geography was no longer sufficient to guarantee a religious constituency. It was no longer enough for a pastor to simply preach the Word faithfully: if he didn’t know how to effectively market his wares, he would be undercut by the religious competition. In the new religious marketplace, preachers became competitors and religion became a commodity. In his book The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, Frank Lambert describes the effect that these approaches began to have on the previously stable parish system.
“During the Great Awakening, evangelical revivalists defied civil and ecclesiastical authority to preach the message of the New Birth without regard to existing institutions and laws. They ignored parish boundaries, preaching wherever people gathered. They allowed law exhorters to preach, bypassing church boards that licensed ministers. And they continued to dispatch unlicensed itinerants on preaching tours after legislatures passed regulations to curb such activity. Empowered by their New Birth experiences, many laypersons rejected the authority of pastors they deemed to be ‘unconverted,’ removed themselves from established congregations, and formed their own Separate churches.”
The half-way covenant had been a way for New England Presbyterians and Congregationalists to balance the Puritan desire for a pure church, on the one hand, with the Puritan understanding of the church as a social entity, on the other. In the individualistic atmosphere that followed the Awakening, however, no such balance was necessary. Whatever the church’s function might be, it did not exist to bring social cohesion to society. In fact, the less the church had to do with secular society the better. Consequently, the new churches that sprang up in the wake of the awakening did not structure themselves around a parish model. Moreover, they tended to be explicitly anti-institutional in their orientation, disengaging themselves from creedal heritages and from thoughtful engagement with the wider social issues of the day. In short, the churches, no less than their members, had successfully appropriated the canons of Enlightenment autonomy. Life-giving faith and certainty of salvation could only be achieved through the apparatus of personal experience. Anything which bypassed such experience was dead “religion.” Moreover, by disrupting parish boundaries, the movement undermined the integrity of community life and the spiritual narratives around which those communities had previously revolved. Neither Whitefield nor Edwards sought to undermine the role of the clergy in society. They were both ordained clergymen and retained a high view of the role of the church in society. Their goal was to reawaken the church, not to destroy it. Moreover, both were keen to emphasize the role of God’s sovereignty in the process of salvation. Yet the experience-based approach that was endemic to the revivalist project could not help but transmigrate the locus of religious commitment away from the clergy and onto the common man, away from the church to the nation, away from God’s sovereignty onto man’s autonomous experience.
The stress on autonomy and immediacy brought a sectarian hue to the revivalist project which bore a remarkable similarity to both the method and content of ancient Gnosticism. Just as Gnosticism substituted the publically accessible religion of Christianity for a privatized elitism available only to those who had a particular type of illuminating experience, so the tendency among many revivalists was to deny the legitimacy of those publically accessible means of grace offered by the church, at least where such means were not accompanied by a certain type of subjective experience. This approach drifted towards the Gnostic obsession with the invisible through downplaying the role that the institutional church could play in the nurture, growth and catechising of believers from an early age. Since the visible church contained many who, though trusting in Christ for their salvation, had never had the type of violent conversion experience that supposedly marked out the true people of God, the organized church began to be seen as a distraction from “vital religion” at best and a conduit of deception at worst. In short, by marginalizing the spiritual potency of these mediating structures, the First Great Awakening set the stage for the full scale Gnosticization of American Protestantism – a topic I have explored further in the following blog posts:
8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed
Resurrection or Disembodiment? Gnosticism in Evangelical Theology
Against the Protestant Gnostic
The Strange Outbreak of Canadian Gnosticism
Dorothy Sayers Against the Gnostic
Religion of the People, by the People, for the People
Alarming Survey on Bodily Resurrection
All Blog Posts on Gnosticism
Life After Life After Death
Spirit and Flesh
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