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, secular, and struggles for “social justice” as not only the way to move boldly into the future, but also as consistent with our past.
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.
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.
Whitefield emphasized personal conversion with his powerful messages on the new birth from the Gospel of John. The converted formed new churches—hundreds of them. And they revived existing churches that had long been spiritually moribund.
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.
While revolutionary France defined itself by its hostility to religion, Americans had no difficulty 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, 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.
America, for the most part, has long-since forgotten the spiritual roots of the revolution we’ll sort of remember this week.