The following material was published in 1984 in Christianity and Civilization No. 4: The Reconstruction of the Church, pages 6-9, and are reprinted here as grist for the mill of the discussion of “evangelicalism.” Footnotes have not come through, of course. Though this material is offered in connection with a concern for “evangelicalism” raised initially by Rev. Douglas Wilson, I am as certain as I can be that Doug would agree with what is written here about the dangers spoken of. My point is that one of the several meanings of “evangelical” is precisely someone who would agree with Whitefield and the Methodists in connection with the problems of the Great Awakening. If you want to understand much of what is meant by “evangelicalism” in America, you need to understand the evils of the Great Awakening. — JBJordan
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As a result of all this [the inability of the Reformers to get full liturgical worship and weekly communion in place in the churches], protestant people came to think of preaching as the most important aspect of the institutional Church. This was a mistake, because God has not given many gifted orators to the Church. (St. Paul was ridiculed for his lack of oratorical skill, and Moses had the same problem; see Exodus 4:10ff. and Acts 20:7-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 10:10.) The proclamation of the gospel needs the pastoral context of the whole “body life” of the Church, and particularly needs the seal of the sacraments. By its exaltation of preaching as a charismatic art, the Reformation moved in the direction, subtly and unintentionally to be sure, of undermining the Church itself.
As time went along, this unhealthy opposition of preaching to sacramental pastoral ministry became more pronounced. The Puritan opposition to prayerbook worship wound up, in practice, often pitting preaching against a more wholistic view of the Church. This opposition broke out into the open, in America, during the Great Awakening. Roaming preachers caused tremendous disruption in the normal pastoral life of the Church. As Hofstadter has written, “In truth, the established ministers found it difficult to cope with the challenge of the awakeners. The regular ministers, living with their congregations year in and year out under conditions devoid of special religious excitement, were faced with the task of keeping alive the spiritual awareness of their flocks under sober everyday circumstances. Confronted by flaming evangelists of Whitefield’s caliber, and even by such lesser tub-thumpers and foot-stampers as Gilbert Tennent and Davenport, they were at somewhat the same disadvantage as an aging housewife whose husband has taken up with a young hussy from the front line of the chorus.” [Anti-intellectualism in American Life, 1969, p. 67.] Because this is so important, and because there is so much mythology about how wonderful the Great Awakening and subsequent revivals were, I want to insert here some comments on George Whitefield; but since I dare not criticize him myself, I shall let the eminent Charles Hodge do it for me:
“It is impossible to open the journals of Whitefield without being painfully struck on the one hand with the familiar confidence with which he speaks of his own religious experience, and on the other with the carelessness with which he pronounces others to be godly or graceless, on the slightest acquaintance or report. Had these journals been the private record of his feelings and opinions, this conduct would be hard to excuse; but as they were intended for the public, and actually given to the world almost as soon as written, it constitutes a far more serious offence. Thus he tells us, he called on a clergyman, (giving the initials of his name, which, under the circumstances completely identified him,) and was kindly received, but found `he had no experimental knowledge of the new birth.’ Such intimations are slipped off, as though they were matters of indifference. On equally slight grounds he passed judgment on whole classes of men. After his rapid journey through New England, he published to the world his apprehension `lest many, nay most that preach do not experimentally know Christ.’ . . . Whitefield was much in the habit of speaking of ministers as being unconverted; so that the consequence was, that in a country where `the preaching and conversation of far the bigger part of the ministers were undeniably as became the gospel, such a spirit of jealousy and evil surmising was raised by the influence and example of a young foreigner, that perhaps there was not a single town,’ either in Massachusetts or Connecticut, in which many of the people were not so prejudiced against their pastors, as to be rendered very unlikely to be benefited by them (from a Letter to Whitefield from Edward Wigglesworth, in the name of the faculty of Harvard College, 1745). This is the testimony of men who had received Mr. Whitefield, on his first visit, with open arms.”
Hodge also comments on the belief, new at the time, that anyone had the right to set himself up as a gospel preacher, over against the ministry of the Church. The perspective which Hodge sets out here, which has been the universal catholic view of the Church of all ages, is almost completely lost today, and seems very odd to the modern reader: “Whitefield . . . assumed the right, in virtue of his ordination, to preach the gospel wherever he had an opportunity, `even though it should be in a place where officers were already settled, and the gospel was fully and faithfully preached. This, I humbly apprehend,’ he adds, `is every gospel minister’s indisputable privilege.’ It mattered not whether the pastors who thus fully and faithfully preached the gospel, were willing to consent to the intrusion of the itinerant evangelist or not. `If pulpits should be shut,’ he says, `blessed be God, the fields are open, and I can go without the camp, bearing the Redeemer’s reproach. This I glory in; believing if I suffer for it, I suffer for righteousness’ sake.’ If Whitefield had the right here claimed, then of course Davenport had it, and so every fanatic and errorist has it. This doctrine is entirely inconsistent with what the Bible teaches of the nature of the pastoral relation, and with every form of ecclesiastical government, episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational. Whatever plausible pretences may be urged in its favor, it has never been acted upon without producing the greatest practical evils.”[The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1839, II:89-90, 98.]
Thus, the Great Awakening went far toward breaking down the historic connection between the wholistic ministry of the local Church and the preaching of the gospel. Subsequent revivals have only worked to further the disaster. Piety came to be seen exclusively in individualistic terms — individual souls responding to the ministry of the preacher — and corporate piety as the public performance of worship visibly on the earth before the throne of God for His glory, was increasingly lost from view.
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