“The Declaration of Independence of 1776 was a direct result of the preaching of the evangelists of the Great Awakening,” was the determination of the late Harvard professor, Perry Miller. But what was it about the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennant, George Whitefield and others that would lead this Harvard professor, a recognized expert in Puritanism and early American history, to make such a statement?
In considering this question over a number of years, it has become obvious that it was not the act or style of preaching, for there were very diverse styles; from Jonathan Edwards, who wrote out his sermons and read them in a monotone voice without movements or gestures, to George Whitefield who preached extemporaneously with much fire and movement.
Has Style Preempted Substance in Modern Preaching?
This also led me to question whether, in our day, style has not taken precedence over substance in our preaching; and if technique has not preempted content? I recall inviting a young preacher to speak in a meeting I was conducting. At one point in his message, he became very flamboyant; standing on a chair, waving his arms and shouting. I thought to myself, “He has run out of anything to say and is trying compensate for it.”
Sure enough, later that evening in the hotel, this person said to me, “There was a point in my message tonight where my mind seemed to go blank.” I asked, “Was that when you climbed up on the chair?” With a note of surprise in his voice he asked, “How did you know?” It reminded me of the preacher who was preparing his 3 point sermon, and realized that Point 3 needed to be buttressed. In the margin next to that point he wrote, “Weak point; pound pulpit.”
The Message Matters
In researching and considering this, it has become clear that it was the message itself that Edwards, Whitefield and others preached that brought the results. We should not be surprised for this is what Paul tells us in I Cor. 1:18; that it is not the mere act of preaching that produces fruit for the kingdom of God, but the message that is preached. Style may stir the emotions, but it can never change the heart. In fact, Paul says that if we go too far in trying to make the message cool, hip, and acceptable to contemporary culture, we run the risk of preaching a Gospel that is emptied of its power.
The Great Awakening, of course, had its problems and excesses as does any revival, and as does any Christian movement. Nonetheless, my research leads me to say that the results of the Great Awakening should be credited to the message that was preached, backed by much prayer, and to messengers who lived like they believed what they preached.
Below, I have delineated 7 emphases that made up the message they preached. This message transformed colonial America and, according to Perry Miller, led to the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn from their example as we pray for another Great Awakening in our land.
1) God is a great, majestic and holy Being who created all things and to whom all creatures owe their love, honor, and respect.
2) Adam and Eve, our first parents, rebelled against their Creator and went their own way, dragging their posterity down with them into the abyss of sin and judgment, into what, in historical theology, is known as “the fall.”
3) The human race in its current state is a rebellious and fallen race. All people stand guilty and condemned before an infinitely just and holy God.
4) God in His sovereign mercy and grace now offers full pardon and forgiveness of sins to all who will put their faith in Jesus Christ the Savior whom God, in His sovereign grace, sent to die on the cross for our sins and to rise again for our salvation.
5) Get rid of faulty foundations. They emphasized that many professing Christians had built their faith on faulty foundations, such as church membership, good deeds, family pedigree, social status, and cultural refinement. They emphasized that these old foundations must be overturned and faith in Jesus Christ alone must be laid as the only foundation for righteousness and acceptance with God.
6) There must be a new birth. They emphasized that when one truly believes in Christ there is a work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit that occurs in the heart—a new birth—from which springs new desires and aspirations that are godly, producing a whole new tenor of life. They believed that one would be forever changed by this new birth, and the changed behavior they called the fruit of righteousness and faith.
7) They emphasized the eternal bliss in heaven for all who truly trust in Christ and the eternal suffering and damnation of all those who refuse God’s gracious gift of salvation in Christ.
America’s First National Event
The Great Awakening had a pervasive impact throughout colonial America. Entire cities were transformed. In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes the wonderful change that came over his hometown of Philadelphia, saying, “From being thoughtless and indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world was growing religious so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street” (Hyatt, America’s Revival Heritage, 53).
It was the first time the colonists of different ethnicities, denominations and languages had participated together in a single event. Franklin said of Whitefield’s outdoor meetings, “The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous.” Denominational and ethnic walls came down and for the first time they saw themselves as a single people with one Divine destiny—one nation under God, as Whitefield prayed.
The preaching of the evangelists of the Great Awakening tended to democratize Colonial society by putting everyone on the same level—guilty sinners before God—with only one remedy for all—unfeigned faith in Jesus Christ. We can see the fruit of this in the American Constitution where in Section 9 the Founders forbade the American government from granting honorific titles of nobility to anyone and forbade anyone holding a government office from accepting a title or office from a foreign king or state without the consent of Congress. There was to be no aristocracy in the new nation.
America is probably facing its greatest crisis since the Civil War. It is a crisis on multiple levels—moral, spiritual, political and social. While many Christians hold out hope for a political solution, the First Great Awakening would inform us that only a new commitment to preach Biblical truth in love and in the power of the Holy Spirit will bring the change that America must see in the days ahead.
After all, it was not some newfangled revelation that was preached by Edwards, Whitefield and others. It was an old message made alive through prayer and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It was the same message preached by those first apostles and followers of Jesus, and found in our New Testament. It saved our country before, and it can do it again.
Dr. Eddie Hyatt is an author, Bible teacher and ordained minister with a passion to see another Great Awakening for America and the world. This article was derived from his book, America's Revival Heritage, available from Amazon and his website at http://www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.