Skeptics may concede that America had Christian beginnings, but argue that the faith of its early settlers dissipated through the generations so that, by the time of the Revolution, America was as
8 Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York, NY: HarperCollins 1997), 30.
Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co. 1977), 145.
much, if not more, under the influence of French Enlightenment thinking as Christianity. This view conveniently ignores the dramatic spiritual impact of America's Great Awakening, which began around 1734. This was a nationwide Christian revival that not only re-stoked America's spiritual flames, but provided a unity and cohesiveness to the colonies that was lacking in the first century and a half of their history.10 America truly found itself spiritually during this period, honing its unique cultural identity centered on Christian principles.
Paul Johnson went so far as to say that the Great Awakening "sounded the death-knell of British Colonialism." Johnson wrote, "It could be argued that it was in the eighteenth century that the specifically American form of Christianity-undogmatic, moralistic rather than credal, tolerant but strong, and all-pervasive of society-was born, and that the Great Awakening was its midwife' The Great Awakening, said Johnson, "proved to be of vast significance, both in religion and politics." The biblical message cut across denominational lines and was spearheaded by spiritual and oratorical giants such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield (whose voice was so strong, according to Benjamin Franklin, that thirty thousand people could hear him at once).11 Edwards' wife, in a letter to her sister, marveled at Whitefield's ability to captivate and influence his audiences. "It is wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible Our mechanics shut up their shops, and the day laborers throw down their tools to go and hear him preach, and few return unaffected."
Benjamin Franklin, in his Autobiography, made the point even more colorfully, as he related an occasion when he attended a Whitefield sermon determined to contribute nothing to the offering plate. Franklin wrote:
I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles of gold. As he proceeded, I began to soften and concluded to give him the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector's dish, gold and all.
The core theme of these preachers' sermons was man's sinfulness and his need for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, which would also lead to changed hearts and Christian good works.
It wasn't just the well-known evangelists who led the charge for a respiritualization of America. Pastors throughout the land, especially in New England, were extremely important in framing the colonial mindset. The Black Regiment, as the clergy came to be called, was a fierce opponent of British tyranny and a driving force in the decision of the colonies to seek independence. The clergy also mentored America's minutemen, who persistently stood guard against British attack. As John Wingate Thornton observed, "To the Pulpit, the Puritan Pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence."
10 There was one exception. The New England Confederation of 1643, a mutual safety league, consisting of four Puritan colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut. See Dr. David C. Gibbs, Jr. with Jerry Newcombe, One Nation Under God, Ten Things Every Christian Should Know About the Founding of America (Seminole, FA: The Christian Law Association 2003), 80.
11 Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, eds., The Puritans (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 188; Gary Amos and Richard Gardiner,
Never Before in History, America's Inspired Birth (Dallas TX: Haughton Publishing Company, 1998), 54.
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