The Second Great Awakening / Revival of 1800 focused on the unchurched, but that revival wouldn’t have happened were it not for the First Great Awakening that got everything started. Surprisingly, it was focused on the church members – the sort of people who were born and raised believers, generally good honest people who were trapped in a world of religious ritual, ceremony, and hierarchy. This new movement was a personal one – giving people a sense of conviction and redemption, it encouraged believers to think about where they stood and challenged them to follow a new standard of morality. Many people changed by the Great Awakening would become abolitionists.
Going back in time, the First Great Awakening took place between 1731 and 1755. The line was drawn between the traditionalists who favored ritual and doctrine and the revivalists who encouraged emotional involvement.
If you’ve studied history, you’ve probably heard of George Whitefield. His preaching could make grown coal miners cry. People not only responded to his style, but he was probably one of the earliest examples of a Christian celebrity, he was very well known both in England and America. He would conclude each sermon with: “Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ.”
Because he was not assigned a church to preach at, he would go to the parks and fields and preach to people who did not normally attend church. His preaching style was something that people would respond to emotionally – just like Jonathan Edwards. Fortunately, at about this time printed materials were making communication easier – about half of all colonists either heard about, read about, or read something written by George Whitefield. He would use handbills to tell people when and where he was going to be, so on one occasion, roughly 30,000 people showed up to hear him preach.
George Whitefield found a friend in Benjamin Franklin, who once noted that: “wonderful…change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”
Jonathan Edwards, probably best known for ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ continued to preach from Massachusetts and emphasized personal religious experience. Another big name preacher was Samuel Davies, who preached mostly to African slaves.
Wikipedia says: “The new style of sermons and the way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. Participants became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner … Ministers who used this new style of preaching were generally called “new lights”, while the preachers who remained unemotional were referred to as “old lights”. People affected by the revival began to study the Bible at home.” … The Awakening played a major role in the lives of women …The Awakening led many women to be introspective; some kept diaries or wrote memoirs.”
Do you know how revolutionary that was? No longer did you have access to spiritual teaching one day in seven, but each and every day you could read the bible, study it for yourself, pray about it, and come to terms with your own faith. It’s no wonder why so many people responded to the new lights teaching.
In as much as people were waking up to new lights teachings, or looking for a secure footing in the old lights traditionalism, some churches found a way to agree with both, traditionalism and emotional experience. Many though, fell into conflict and schisms. Many denominations were fundamentally challenged and changed by the Great Awakenings, and not all would emerge unscathed. When churches did split, the people that refused to change were called the Old Lights, and the people that did change were called the New Lights.
In parts of America, The Old Lights were also Calvinists and the New Lights were also Arminians – their conflict wasn’t exactly resolved – by the time of the American Revolution, who was right was far less important than working together to secure the freedom of their beloved nation.
I have come to realize is that my spiritual roots are the based on the teachings of the unemotional, Calvinistic, traditionalist “Old Lights”, but as I’ve been moved from church to church, studied the Bible on my own, blogged about it, and come to learn over the years, I’m actually now more closely aligned with some of the teachings of the emotional, experiential, some-what Arminian “New Lights”. I may be almost 300 years too late, but that’s certainly better than never coming to realize the truth.