That Connecticut River Valley awakening, however, served only as prelude. In 1740–42, God brought about another season of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as awakening came not only to the churches up and down the Colonies, but also in the lands of Old England. In Old England, George Whitefield and brothers John and Charles Wesley preached to tens of thousands—mostly gathered outdoors. Soon, Whitefield crossed the Atlantic and preached to crowds of similar size in the Colonies. An indefatigable evangelist, Whitefield crisscrossed the Atlantic and logged thousands of miles on horseback.
Meanwhile, Edwards continued his compelling preaching of the gospel. On July 8, 1741, Edwards was in Enfield, Conn., for a midweek service. He was not the intended preacher that night. The intended preacher had become ill and was out of commission. Eleazer Wheelock, who would go on to found Dartmouth College, gave Edwards the nudge to stand in the pulpit. Edwards delivered what is likely the most famous and the most read sermon ever preached on American soil, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The drama overwhelmed the crowd. They shrieked and cried out. But the drama did not stem from Edwards’ technique. Rather than whoop up the crowd into a frenzy, Edwards waited for the congregation to regain its composure, and then he pressed on in his sermon. The drama came not in the technique but in the truth, the truth of eternal damnation, the truth that all of us are on the precipice of eternal judgment. The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow is pointed directly at us. We are like spiders dangling over the pit of hell, saved from the flames for the time being by a mere thread. God used Edwards’ words to pierce hearts.
Edwards equally matched his imagery of judgment with imagery of redemption. Christ has “flung the door of mercy wide open and stands in the door crying and calling with a loud voice to poor sinners.” This was passion for the gospel.
Historians call it the First Great Awakening. It remains one of the most significant events in United States history. It had proponents, opponents, and zealots. The zealots included the likes of James Davenport. He routinely characterized pastors as “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” led public bonfires for the burning of books, and exhibited all manner of extreme behavior. While he later wrote retractions and made amends, he caused great harm during the Awakening itself. His antics fueled the criticisms of the Awakening’s detractors, including men such as Charles Chauncy. Chauncy looked down on the lack of decorum he saw in the Awakening. He was for order and a far more private expression of religion. Much more problematic, though, was the theology of Chauncy. He was a universalist. Being well aware of his times, he opted not to publish the manuscript that laid forth the argument for his heretical views. But he never held back his criticism of the Awakening or of its preachers.
Between these zealots and opponents stand the ministers used by God to bring a season of awakening to the Colonies. Edwards was the great theologian of the Awakening, and Whitefield was the great evangelist of the Awakening. They were joined by a whole cast of others. Gilbert Tennent was an Irish immigrant and famous Presbyterian minister. He preached a sermon titled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” The sermon, as one might imagine, helped lead to a split in the Presbyterian church between the New Side and the Old Side. (In the Congregational churches, where Edwards roamed, the split was referred to as New Lights and Old Lights.) Another factor in the split was disagreement over ministerial training, especially concerning the training provided at the Log College in Neshaminy, Pa., which was founded and led by Gilbert Tennent’s father, William. The college moved east across the Delaware River and was renamed The College of New Jersey before it received the name Princeton. For two generations Princeton University provided well-trained and confessional Presbyterian ministers as well as lawyers and physicians. In 1812, Princeton Theological Seminary was founded to take on the task of training ministers. That great legacy of Princeton, which endured through the time of J. Gresham Machen in the 1920s, all started at the First Great Awakening.