Digital Exhibits at Princeton Theological Seminary

The Great Awakening

Societal, cultural, and religious forces converged in the early eighteenth century to spawn awakenings in England and America. As Stout writes,

"The marketplace came to stand as a shaping metaphor for society in general.  People everywhere were being thrust into larger webs of association." (Stout, xvi)

With new tools for communication and new areas for exploration and expansion, individuals were freed from institutional controls to make their own witness for God and Jesus Christ.

George Whitefield was perhaps the greatest voice in this expression of redemption. Reflecting his own spiritual journey, Whitefield preached against social status and emphasized the personal experience of new birth.  Allegiance to clerical authority mattered not; individual piety did. Marsden writes that Whitefield

"demonstrated for the first time that in America, where established institutions were weak, popular opinion could counter any authority.” (Marsden, 205)

He took Jonathan Edwards' Calvinist "true religion" and tailored it for a new audience, believing God had chosen him for this new mission in a new world. No longer bound by geographic or denominational strictures, the gospel was available to all.

Mark Noll writes, "Whitefield never deviated from his Augustinian conviction that sinners [including and especially clerics] could do nothing to change their condition until God initiated redemption." (Noll, 232) This sense of predestination quickly was condemned by John Wesley in his sermon on "Free Grace." 

In 1740 Whitefield preached at Yale against an "unconverted ministry." Authorities at Harvard and Yale who had tolerated Whitefield were offended. Gilbert Tennent delivered his own even stronger condemnation of Old Side Presbyterian clergy who opposed Whitefield's enthusiastic message and spontaneous throngs. The denomination split into Old and New Side camps. In 1746, New Side Presbyterian leaders founded the College of New Jersey, later named Princeton University.