Edited by Robert V. Rakestraw (August 17, 2016)
How far should we go to keep church attenders happy, and keep them coming and giving?
[Editor’s note: The “Great Awakening” was a series of revivals in the American colonies from 1725 to 1760. The earliest was in the Raritan Valley of north-central New Jersey. The selection below concerns the best known segment of the revivals, the New England Great Awakening that peaked in 1740-42.]
“In the Massachusetts village of Northampton, a black-gowned Congregational minister of God knelt in prayer. He was burdened for the 1,100 souls of the little town who, he was convinced, were afflicted with the deadly spiritual disease of the day.
“In a very few minutes he would be mounting the pulpit. Should he mouth the cushioning assurances of ‘election’ that they wanted to hear? Or should he tell them what he really believed—that unless they had definitely experienced the new birth through faith in Jesus Christ, they were heading straight for Hell!
“The decision was made. [He chose the latter.] The tall, thin-faced man arose, adjusted his periwig and entered the little meetinghouse.
“That day in 1734 marked the birth of what in many respects was the most notable revival of religion America has ever experienced. Nothing like it had happened before. Nothing quite like it has happened since.
“The conditions that pressed Jonathan Edwards to his knees that Sunday seemed black indeed. Gone was the God-fearing generation that had settled the land. The new generation had forgotten God. Immorality, debauchery, self-interest ruled. Few worried about the next world. Even those who held to the externals of religion had lost the heart of it.
“Church rolls were shriveling. Conditions had become so bad that in 1662 leading ministers of Massachusetts colony did something they thought would help, but actually made things worse. They adopted what was called the ‘Halfway Covenant.’ People who could make no profession of regeneration still could get their children baptized—so long as they could assent to the doctrine of faith and were not ‘scandalous in life.’ When the children grew up, if they couldn’t testify to conversion, only one privilege was denied—they could not partake of the Lord’s Supper.
“These halfway members soon outstripped the members [who were] in full communion. Halfway membership was socially acceptable. Why bother about going all the way?
“Eventually the bar to the Lord’s Supper dropped away. And soon halfway covenanters filtered into the ministry [italics added].
“There was a remnant of the godly left. They soon realized that the Halfway Covenant was a terrible mistake. Something cataclysmic was needed to prevent the flickering flame of vital Christianity from being wholly snuffed out.
“As He so often does, God chose a man to unlatch the windows of darkened churches to let in the light. That man was Jonathan Edwards. . . .
“The Holy Spirit used sharp edges of [his] sermons to cut deep. People couldn’t sleep on Sunday nights. Next day they could talk of nothing but the amazing upheaval in the pulpit.”
From America’s Great Revivals, author not given (Dimension Books, Bethany Fellowship, no date), pp. 5-7, 10. Article reprinted from Christian Life magazine. This selection may be found, along with other articles and information, on Dr. Rakestraw’s website/blog gracequestministries.org, where you may sign up to receive automatically regular postings such as the above and where you may order Dr. Rakestraw’s books GraceQuest and Heart Cries. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org .