7/26/11 - the first great awakening sweeps through america

In today's excerpt - twenty-six year old George Whitefield lands in America in 1739. Attractive, cross-eyed, and a brilliant orator, he arrived from England and took America by storm in the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening. Whitefield was among the first, and the most famous, of a new breed of preachers who de-emphasized denominational differences in favor of a "new birth" and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. These preachers began holding their meetings outdoors to accommodate crowds that sometimes numbered in the tens of thousands:

"Philadelphia in 1739 was the second largest town in the colonies, but still small at about thirteen thousand people. It was a fast-growing node of imperial commerce, receiving all manner of trade goods and immigrants every year. Although the pacifist Quaker politicians did not approve of Pennsylvania becoming directly involved with the War of Jenkins' Ear, which was declared a month before Whitefield's arrival, the Philadelphia traders made a good deal of money by providing supplies to the West Indies. The town was originally the centerpiece of William Penn's Quaker colony, but its free conditions led to quick religious pluralization. It became a particularly vital center for colonial Presbyterianism, but Philadelphia's Presbyterian Synod was not always friendly to revivalism.

"Whitefield brought William Seward with him to Philadelphia. Seward was a new convert who became the brains behind Whitefield's newspaper publicity. He was formerly the treasurer of the South Sea Company, which had used media promotion to grossly inflate its stock prices before their terrible crash in 1721. Seward had sworn off such practices, but he brought a businessman's savvy to marketing Whitefield's revivals. Both the Pennsylvania Gazette and the American Weekly Mercury, Philadelphia's two newspapers, covered Whitefield's departure from England. As in Britain, newspaper articles, both friendly and unfriendly, contributed to the Whitefield frenzy. Even during Whitefield's later visits to North America, when his role in American evangelicalism had become much less significant, newspapers continued to follow his every move. Although publicity alone cannot account for Whitefield's unprecedented success, the media no doubt helped create his widespread attraction. Works by or about Whitefield caused the number of printed texts produced in America to almost double between 1738 and 1741.

"Whitefield's first order of business in Philadelphia was to meet the leaders of the Anglican Christ Church, where he 'read prayers and assisted at the Communion' on his first Sunday morning in Philadelphia. Whitefield would grow increasingly frustrated with the Anglican leaders' hostility toward him (as would Anglican leaders grow disgusted at Whitefield's incessant attacks), but it is instructive to see him seek out the Anglicans upon his arrival. He also attended the Quakers' meeting on Sunday night, perhaps wanting to touch base with all the religious power brokers in Philadelphia before beginning his field preaching. He did not relish the Quakers' devotion, however, and he was suspicious of their doctrine of the 'inward Christ.' He also began meeting with the city's Presbyterian and Baptist ministers.

"Having warmed up in Christ Church, Whitefield began preaching outdoors; on November 8 he 'preached at six in the evening, from the Court House stairs to about six thousand people,' or almost half the city's population. He thought that the people of Philadelphia were less formal than their countrymen in England, for they seemed to prefer his outdoor preaching. 'There, the generality of people think a sermon cannot be preached well without; here, they do not like it so well if delivered within the church walls.' These were just the sort of people Whitefield was looking for. The next night Whitefield preached again, to perhaps eight thousand people. ...

"Whitefield was simply a brilliant preacher, but he was also young and attractive, and all of this fed into his growing fame. As many of his portraits show, Whitefield also was cross-eyed, perhaps from a facial tic. His opponents sometimes used this feature to lampoon him, but some supporters seem to have associated this characteristic with spiritual power."


Thomas S. Kidd


The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America


Yale University Press


Copyright 2007 by Yale University


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