The First Great Awakening

The Presbyterians in the American colonies were split into two segments in 1741 by the Great Awakening. The two groups were the New England, or pro-revival, and the Scots-Irish, or anti-revival. The New England group grew rapidly during the next few years. The Great Awakening began in the 1720s and lasted for about 20 years. Its leading figures were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. It was part of a religious ferment that began in Europe and spread to the British colonies. The revival took place mainly among the Dutch Reformed, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The chief emphasis was fear — the terrors of eternal damnation for nonbelievers. One of the most famous sermons of the time was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by Jonathan Edwards.

George Whitefield, an English clergyman, visited the American colonies — including Delaware — several times and preached to outdoor crowds because there was no building large enough to hold his audiences. At Lewes, New Castle, Wilmington, and White Clay Creek, his preaching drew crowds enormous for that day. “But, while salutary in many ways, his work was deeply disturbing and divisive,” Dr. Christie writes. “In the Presbyterian Church two parties arose. One, the Old Side, was conservative and formalist, and emphasized the minister’s educational qualifications. The other, the New Side, was less concerned about these attainments in a minister, stressed instead enthusiastic spiritual endowments, and insisted, for church members, on a striking emotional crisis of conversion that could be definitely dated.”

It was hardly to be expected that the little clerical schools — the log colleges — could give as complete a course of training as the British or New England colleges. Their graduates were sometimes looked down upon by the university-bred Old Side men. The “log college” men in their turn found fault with the Old Side group, declaring they had little or no understanding of “experimental religion.” Undoubtedly some of the New Side tried to make spiritual fervor cover scholastic shortcomings. These differences came to a head in the Synod of 1741. By a slim majority the Old Side ejected the New Side men from the Synod. The church was split.

“This controversy continued for seventeen years, marked by censorious and violent invective and great bitterness. New Castle Presbytery was divided, and there were two presbyteries of that name. Many of the churches were rent in twain. All of them suffered, until in 1758 the two sides came together, and peace was restored.” (Presbyterianism in Delaware)

The Great Awakening had several results. It caused permanent divisions in some denominations as some members supported the revival, while others condemned its emotionalism. It weakened some parishes because many people gave their loyalty to wandering preachers instead of their home congregations. It inspired mission work among the Indians and stimulated the founding of schools. Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and other colleges were a direct result of the revival. Another major impact was democratization and the downgrading of authority structures, which fed the rebellion that grew into the American Revolution.

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