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Jonathan Edwards & One Difference between the North & South

While America is one country, different parts of the country have different reactions to Christianity and revivals. In the South, known as the Bible Belt, Christians are encouraged to share their faith with others, whereas in New England faith is understood as a private matter. Why the difference? It originates in the First Great Awakening.

The First Great Awakening (known as 1GA) was the first mass movement and mass revival in the American colonies. The 1GA peaked in the early 1740s. Revivals had occurred prior to the 1GA, but they involved one church or a small number of churches. The 1GA was the first revival to touch all the colonies. George Whitefield (died 1770) traveled and preached the most, but Jonathan Edwards (died 1758), as pastor and theologian, explained the change this mass revival introduced.

So, what was new about the 1GA? (The Second Great Awakening occurred 90 years later.) Primarily, people responded more emotionally to sermons. In the 1500s and 1600s, sermons throughout all denominations were often designed to educate Christians. Many of the colonists came to the New World in the 1500s and 1600s in order to escape religious persecution. Therefore attendance at a church was the norm; since most people were regular church attendees, pastors usually did not preach the Gospel message of salvation but focused on educational sermons, teaching people about God.

But by the early 1700s people increasingly came to the colonies looking for a job, a better lifestyle, or even adventure than came for religious reasons. Therefore, the population was increasingly less involved in churches.

What Whitefield, Edwards, and others witnessed was a tremendous outpouring of emotion as many became overwhelmed at their spiritual state. This reaction was new to these pastors and revivalists. People had not shown emotion before (generally speaking), and some pastors and church leaders doubted it was from God. Those who accepted and encouraged people to become emotional were referred to as the "New Lights." Those who discouraged this new emotional response were referred to as, of course, the "Old Lights."

Enter Jonathan Edwards. He was a pastor before the 1GA and knew the norm: a preacher read his sermon and then sat down. The people listened, sang and left. But Edwards noticed a difference as people, who before sat quietly, began to weep openly and fall down in sobbing prayer. Edwards believed this new emotionalism was from God. He believed Christianity affected the heart as well as the head.

He wrote a book called Treatise on the Religious Affections which defended this new heart and head Christianity. A quote summarizes Edwards’ thoughts: "All acts of the affections of the soul [emotions] are in some sense acts of the will [head], and all acts of the will are acts of the affections." Edwards was able to successfully defend this new response to Christianity, of becoming not only intellectually involved but also with heartfelt emotions.

This was the beginning of Evangelicalism, of not only teaching about God but the message of salvation as well. The New and Old Lights did put their differences aside during the American Revolution, but after freedom was won the dispute grew again. This disagreement contributed to a future religious difference between the North and the South, which lasts to today.

©2005 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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