Modern Pensées

Reconsidering theology, philosophy, culture, economics, and politics

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future… Part 2

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Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

The First Great Awakening [1730s and 1740s] (as well as the Second that followed [1790-1840]) relied heavily on mass marketing to get people to the revivals.  Whitefield would send assistants up to two years in advance to a city to setup venue and distribute flyers.  Once there, people were confronted with a serious and emotional display of their status before God apart from accepting Christ.  People responded to this bad then good news by equally emotional responses.  Consider what Nancy Pearcey says regarding these revivals:

This kind of intense emotional conversion experience is exactly what the camp meetings of the First and Second Great Awakenings aimed to produce.  No profound teaching, no high church ceremonies, no theological subtleties, no solemn hymns.  Instead the revivalists used simple vernacular language and catchy folk tunes, delivered with lively theatrics to catch people’s attention and move their emotions.  Evangelical preachers broke with the older pattern of using sermons to instruct, and began to use their sermons to press hearers to a point of crisis, in order to produce a conversion experience.  Instead of talking about a gradual growth in faith through participation in a church, evangelicals began to treat a one-time conversion event as the only sufficient basis for claiming to be a Christian.  – Total Truth, p. 263.

The revivals were controversial.  The whole of Presbyterians in America were split in two in the Old Side-New Side controversy.  It is easy to empathize with people being heated over the matter.  On the one hand, the Holy Spirit appeared to be doing a great work and regenerating many hearts, bringing repentance and faith all over the colonies transcending denominational lines.  On the other hand, how many of these people were legitimately changed?  Were people just whipped into an emotional fervor and coerced into conversion?  Were these people ever connected to a local church to be nurtured, catechized, and discipled?

Jonathan Edwards, although not a Presbyterian, sought to bring some peace and truth to the matter and wrote Religious Affections.  Edwards evenhandedly carves out a Biblical middle-ground appropriately defending the role of emotions and the heart.  In essence, Edwards correctly saw that right beliefs (orthodoxy), right emotions (orthopathos), and right actions (orthopraxis) all go together.

Unfortunately, not everyone read Edwards, Religious Affections.  Consider some of the seeds the First Great Awakening planted among infant evangelicals:

The focus on an emotional response; the celebrity-style leader; the engineered publicity; the individual detached from his local congregation.  Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 268.

At times, we can see these seeds grown full and writ large in evangelicalism.  No sub-group is immune.  The Reformed types love their heroes, dead and living.  The charismatics can get carried away at times.  The para-church can become  de facto church surrogate.  The big box/megachurch/Christ-Depot/Willow Creek/Saddleback folk can sometimes get caught up in the mass marketing publicity and business model approaches.

Next time, we will look at the Second Great Awakening…


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  1. […] makes sense of our emotion and affection for God.  He was also instrumental in reuniting the Presbyterians who were divided on what to think about the First Great […]

  2. […] Future, Parts 1-7:  We defined the term evangelical.  We looked at its historical roots in the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and its ties to celebrity culture, democritization of knowledge, and […]

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