Whether it was the First Great Awakening or a different and more subdued title would be appropriate, the American revival associated with George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards has profoundly influenced the sensibilities of American Protestantism. Today we look at an excerpt from an analysis of the Old Princeton theologian and churchman Charles Hodge.
The great revival, which about a hundred years ago visited so extensively the American churches, is so much implicated with the ecclesiastical history of our own denomination, that the latter cannot be understood without some knowledge of the former. The controversies connected with the revival are identical with the disputes which resulted in the schism which divided the Presbyterian Church in 1741.
…The men who, either from their character or circumstances, are led to take the most prominent part, during such seasons of excitement, are themselves often carried to extremes, or are so connected with the extravagant, that they are sometimes the last to perceive and the slowest to oppose the evils which so frequently mar the work of God, and burn over the fields which he had just watered with his grace. Opposition to these evils commonly comes from a different quarter; from wise and good men who have been kept out of the focus of the excitement. And it is well that there are such opposers, else the church would soon be over-run with fanaticism.
The term ‘revival’ is commonly used in a very comprehensive sense. It includes all the phenomena attending a general religious excitement; as well those which spring from God, as those which owe their origin to the infirmities of men. Hence those who favour the work, for what there is divine in it, are often injuriously regarded as the patrons of its concomitant irregularities, and those who oppose what is unreasonable about it, are as improperly denounced as the enemies of religion. It is, therefore, only one expression of that fanaticism which haunts the spirit of revivals, to make such a work a touchstone of character; to regard all as good who favour it, and all as bad who oppose it. That this should be done during the continuance of the excitement, is an evil to be expected and pardoned; but to commit the same error in the historical review of such a period, would admit of no excuse ….
That the state of religion did rapidly decline after the revival, we have abundant and melancholy evidence. Even as early as [March] 1744, (Jonathan) Edwards says, “the present state of things in New England is, on many accounts, very melancholy. There is a vast alteration within two years.” God, he adds, was provoked at the spiritual pride and self confidence of the people, and withdrew from them, and “the enemy has come in like a flood in various respects, until the deluge has overwhelmed the whole land. There had been from the beginning a great mixture, especially in some places, of false experiences and false religion with true; but from this time the mixture became much greater, and many were led away into sad delusions.”