The following is a chapter from Money, Sex, Power & Faith.
“Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross; he waited until one of them turned to him.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In the wake of the Enlightenment period, when many started putting more emphasis on man’s ability to use reason and rationale instead of relying on the structure of traditional authority, the diversion from adherence to the Church’s dictates were protested through a grassroots movement of preaching a somewhat modified and sensationalized version of Christianity.
When early Protestants came to America, they enjoyed full religious freedom without being tortured, decapitated, or burned at the stake. Yet while some decided to emancipate themselves from the creeds, doctrines, and dogmas, others embraced them more firmly and only became more fanatical. As the Founding Fathers were focused on releasing government from the grasp of religious influence in order to better embrace the religion of capitalism, religious fundamentalists were responding by adapting their message to the changing New World.
Fueled largely by the exuberant sermons of Jonathan Edwards, like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” “Wrath to the Uttermost,” and “The Peace Which Christ Gives His True Followers,” this revival of religious fervor introduced a style of worship quite removed from the catechisms and ritual that the Anglicans, Puritans, and Quakers were used to. Edwards was joined by a batch of preachers that called themselves “New Lights,” and spread throughout New England delivering emotional, exciting, hellfire-and-brimstone kind of preaching that had people coming out in droves. For many, it was great theater, yet many others were scared into a strict devotion to the Bible and attempts at sin-free living. When British actor George Whitefield started touring throughout the 13 colonies, the “Great Awakening” took America by storm, introducing the big tent revival, a practice circuses wouldn’t start using for another century.
It’s estimated that 10% of New England was converted to this new brand of Christianity, with 30,000 souls “saved” by Whitefield’s sermons alone. As a result, 150 new denominations were established over the course of the next 20 years, and it gave a huge boost to new congregations like the Presbyterians and the Baptists, who increased their number of churches from 9 to over 400 by the end of the century. Starting in the 1730s, the first Great Awakening had the added benefit of priming Americans for their break with England by allowing them the freedom to disagree with religious authority and just go start their own church, helping to prepare them for the coming revolution.