The Church of England was the established religious currency of the colony, not Presbyterians. Its parsons were appointed to the pastorates of the British colonies of North America. Whether they considered themselves churchgoers or not, they had to abide by their rules and even pay taxes for the appointees. Challenged by the Great Awakening, all this was soon to change.
George Whitefield, a colleague of John Wesley, was one of the greatest preaching talents of the 18th century.
Whitefield was born and ordained in the established Church of England. Like Wesley, Whitefield’s preaching of the strangely warmed heart often made him persona non grata among the more sedate neighborhoods of the Church of England, and his solution was to strike out on his own.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Great Awakening
In 1739, Whitefield proposed founding an orphanage in the new British North American colony of Georgia, and, to fund the orphanage, he embarked on a fund-raising campaign through the colonies, which featured himself as the principal attraction.
The movement he sparked, which became known simply as the Great Awakening, combined, in the words of Richard Bushman, all the fury of the civil rights demonstrations, the campus disturbances, and the urban riots of the 1960s combined.
At the Presbyterian church at Faggs Manor, Pennsylvania, one observer described Whitefield’s impact on his hearers in these words:
Look where I would, most were drowned in tears. The word was sharper than a two-edged sword. Their bitter cries and tears were enough to pierce the hardest heart. Oh what different visages were then to be seen! Some were struck pale as death, others lying on the ground, others wringing their hands, others sinking into the arms of their friends, and most lifting up their eyes to heaven, and crying out to God for mercy. I could think of nothing, when I looked at them, so much as the great day! They seemed like persons awakened by the last trump, and coming out of their graves to judgment!
Learn more about Patrick Henry.
One of the pupils being trained for the ministry in a school operated by the Faggs Manor church was Samuel Davies. Davies arrived in Virginia in 1747 on what was supposed to be a missionary tour of the scattered Presbyterian congregations of the Piedmont, but the people received him as an angel of God, and urged their request that he stay with them with such earnestness and zeal that he was prevailed on to settle among them. What Davies was doing, though, was, strictly speaking, illegal.
Church of England and the American colonies
The Church of England was the established religious denomination of the colony, not Presbyterians. Virginia’s geography was divided religiously into parishes the same way it was divided politically into counties, and Church of England parsons were appointed to the pastorates of those parishes in just the same way they were appointed in England, by the authority of the bishop.
Now, since there was no Church of England bishop in the colonies, a commissary was appointed in Williamsburg to represent the Bishop of London, who had technical oversight of the American colonies. Above all, Virginians were taxed for the support of those appointees whether they considered themselves churchgoers or not, and non-Church of England preachers and congregations could be fined even for appearing, much less gathering.
Learn more about Robert Morris’s money.
Thirty-nine Articles of Religion
Whether it was worth chasing down every dissenter and fining every dissenting congregation was another matter, and the House of Burgesses calmly decided to look the other way and issue licenses to non-Church of England clergy who would pledge conformity to the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and not make a nuisance of themselves. But Davies made a very successful nuisance of himself.
By 1752, the commissary in Williamsburg, William Dawson, complained to the Bishop of London that until Davies arrived, people “quietly conformed to the doctrine and discipline of our church,” but now “there has been a great defection from our religious assemblies.”
Patrick Henry and Samuel Davies
But Davies proved to be as savvy politically as he was religiously, and a direct appeal to the governor’s council in Williamsburg and then the king’s attorney general in England put the affair at rest.
Thus, through the agency of Wesley’s colleague, George Whitefield, it took less than a year for the intense experience of the Great Awakening to journey through the British colonies of North America.
Patrick Henry, one of the America’s founding fathers, thought that Davies was the greatest orator he ever heard, and a Tidewater merchant snarled that Henry had become so infatuated with Davies that “he goes about I am told, praying and preaching amongst the common people.”
Common Questions about the Great Awakening
George Whitefield proposed the founding an orphanage in the new British North American colony of Georgia.
George Whitefield embarked on a fundraising campaign through the colonies for an orphanage. The movement he sparked thereon, became known simply as the Great Awakening.
Samule Davies directly appealed to the governor’s council in Williamsburg and then the king’s attorney general in England.