In September of 1775, five months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and while the shot heard ‘round the world later immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson still echoed, some Continental Army volunteers gathered at a church in the small coastal Massachusetts town of Newburyport, located almost 30 miles northeast of Boston. They were about to go to battle—an initiative led by, of all people, Benedict Arnold. The men decided that a little prayer accompanied by an extemporaneous sermon might be a good idea.
The town’s Old South Church had found a bit of recent fame as people proudly pointed out that the bell in its clock tower had been cast by a fellow named Paul Revere, who had just months before made a name for himself on horseback. Revere, of course, is better known for his connection to a certain Old North Church. But some of the citizen-soldiers listening to Chaplain Samuel Spring’s challenge that day knew that they were also in the presence of another important bit of history—something they saw as very relevant to the emerging War of Independence.
As they listened to the sermon that day, many of them couldn’t help but be preoccupied with the pulpit itself. On the Sunday immediately following the battles of Lexington and Concord, the local minister, Dr. Jonathan Parsons, spoke fervently about liberty. His passion prompted a man named Ezra Hunt to step into the church’s aisle to form a company of 60 fighting men on the spot—said to be the first such group to attach itself to the fledgling Continental Army.
But as if those two connections to the greater cause weren’t enough, there was a third even more compelling reason many of the men found the venue so fascinating.
It was what was under the pulpit that inspired them.
Five years earlier, during another Bay State September, someone who had actually founded the Old South Church back in yet another September—in 1740—had been scheduled to preach a sermon. He was America’s most famous clergyman, although his preferred appellation was—“revivalist.”
George Whitefield was back in town and a great crowd was anticipated at church in Newburyport that day. But it was a sermon, one of his more than 18,000, he would never preach. Reverend Whitefield died that morning in the church parsonage. The great voice that had cried out in the wilderness of colonial America fell silent. A few days later, with much grief and ceremony, the revivalist was buried in a crypt directly beneath that pulpit at Old South Church—where his grave remains to this day.
Many of the men sitting in the church on September 16, 1775, preparing to go to war, were restless. No disrespect was intended for the chaplain, they just wanted him to be done with his remarks so they could see Whitefield’s tomb. They wanted to make a connection—not only with history and fame: but with what we might now refer to as the DNA of faith.
Lost to many Americans today via the whitewash of history that has led to a bit of a cultural brainwash when it comes to the founding era, is the story of Whitefield and the Great Awakening he helped spark. The common revisionist narrative today places faith and matters of religion on the periphery of history—an enduring lunatic fringe encompassing past and present. This better fits the secularist worldview espoused by those who want us to see government, statism, and struggles for social justice as not only the way to move boldly into the future, but also as consistent with our past.
Sadly, such a future may, in fact, be ours if enough people don’t wake up, but no amount of tinkering with textbooks can actually change what really happened way back when. The enlightenment and passion that burned so bright during the epochal moments of our national gestation nearly two and a half centuries ago on these shores were fueled by something quite spiritual and profound.
There will be reenactments this weekend illustrating Revere’s ride, volleys fired, and a declaration proclaimed, but what will be missing as America rounds up its usual respects this 4th of July will be a cultural revisit to the seeds planted in the hearts and minds of men and women in the decades before 1775-1776.
If America was born 234 years ago this weekend, the case can be made that she was conceived 35 years earlier. Long before men named Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, and Franklin became notable and influential, there were a few clergymen—preachers—who meteorically blazed across the colonial sky.
Chief among these preacher-cultural celebrities was George Whitefield.
Ordained in the Church of England at the tender age of 22 in 1736, he quickly became well known for his voice—it was loud and commanding, but never shrill and off-putting. It was said that he could speak to 30,000 people (Benjamin Franklin counted them once) and that all could hear him, even in the open air. His diction and flair for dramatics had audiences hanging on every word. Historian George Marsden suggests that Whitefield’s communication gifts were so remarkable that even uttering the word “Mesopotamia” could bring people to tears. The preacher spoke with “Much Flame, Clearness, and Power.”
Whitefield emphasized personal conversion with his powerful messages on the new birth from Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John. The converted formed new churches—hundreds of them—and revived existing churches that had long been spiritually moribund.
Interestingly, George Whitefield was not without his critics. Much of his opposition came from clergymen. The preacher was adept at using the media of his day (e.g., among the first to understand the power of newspapers) and he was certainly a showman. Biographers have regularly referred to him as “Divine Dramatist” and “Pedlar (variant of “peddler”) in Divinity.” One Boston cleric of the day complained that Whitefield “used his utmost craft and cunning to stoke the passions and engage the affections of the people.” But Whitefield not only took it all in stride, he saw the criticism as, in fact, drawing attention to his work and helping his cause. He was the first modern preacher to bring innovation, marketing savvy, and advertising to ministry.
The chronological locus for the Great Awakening was the period of 1740-1742, but the residual and enduring effects lasted into the revolutionary period. And this is where the history being taught in schools today—and that most of us grew up hearing—misses the boat.
In their book, God Is Back: How The Global Revival Of Faith Is Changing The World, John Micklethwait (editor in chief of The Economist) and Adrian Woolridge (Washington bureau chief of The Economist)—both men Oxford-trained secular journalists—argue for the obvious connection between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution. They see our struggle back then, in contrast to the French Revolution, as “a unique event in modern history—a revolution against an earthly regime that was not also an exercise in anti-clericalism.”
While revolutionary France “defined itself by its hostility to religion,” they contend “Americans saw no contradiction between embracing the values of the Enlightenment and republicanism while at the same time clinging to their religious principles.”
And we have the Reverend George Whitefield, among many others, to thank for this.
When the sermon was finally done at Old South Church that September day in 1775, some of the citizen-soldiers sought out the church’s sexton and asked to see where Whitefield was buried. The sexton actually opened the coffin and a few of the officers obtained tiny bits of material from the dead preacher’s collar and wristband, carrying them into battle as good luck charms.
Of course, I am not all that into amulets and such, but I find myself cutting these men some slack. Their simple excision of fabric was really an exercise in remembrance and connection. They knew that what they were going to do soon in battle was somehow, someway tied to what Whitefield and others had been part of years before.
Some years ago, a member of my congregation visited that church in Newburyport and brought me back some pictures of the scene. The crypt was still there, but it was surrounded by half-empty paint cans, buckets, and other typical church basement stuff (I am sure it’s been cleaned up since). It was almost like some had forgotten the significance of what they had down in that basement.
Then again, reading much of the history written about the 18th century these days, it’s pretty clear that America, for the most part, has long-since forgotten the spiritual roots of the revolution we’ll all sort of remember this weekend.
Oh—and here’s a Newburyport footnote. The town was back then associated with great preaching and in 1805 another future visionary and liberator was born to grow up there—William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist. There may, in fact, be something to faith DNA.