The Professional Evangelist - Part 1

As we continue to look at the history of evangelism in the United States we see a new pattern developing as it didn't take long for the Great Awakening to move beyond the walls of the church. Englishman George Whitefield (1715-1770) made several trips to America, preaching to crowds far too large to fit in any church building.  Whitfield who often preached on a daily basis to thousands at a time saw many converts.  

A friend and contemporary of Whitfield was Presbyterian minister Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764) whose father is known for his “log college” seminary training. Gilbert and his brothers John and William Jr. were passionate evangelists.  Gilbert, who gained recognition as a traveling evangelist in the northeast, followed Whitfield’s ministry in Boston and traveled from church to church preaching several times a day in Boston and the surrounding communities.

Like Whitfield, Gilbert was a passionate preacher who was once described as 

“Frequently both terrifying and searching” as in Edwardian fashion “exhibited the dreadful holiness, justice, law, threatening, truth, power, [and] majesty of God; and His anger with rebellious, impenitent, unbelieving and Christless sinners; the awful danger they were every moment in of being struck down to hell, and being damned forever; with the amazing miseries of that place of torment . . . It was not merely, nor so much, his laying open the terrors of the law and wrath of God, or damnation in hell; as the laying open their many vain and secret shifts and refuges, counterfeit resemblances of grace, delusive and damming hopes, their utter impotence, and impending danger of destruction; whereby they found all their hopes and refuges of lies to fail them and themselves exposed to eternal ruin, unable to help themselves, and in a lost condition.  This searching preaching was both suitable and principle means of conviction” [1].

The work of these itinerate evangelists was not without controversy as their zealous and creative methods caused a schism in the Presbyterian church commonly referred to as the “Old Side-New Side Controversy.”    The primary concern of those in the Old Side was the new evangelistic methods being widely used.  As a means to curb men like Gilbert Tennent, presbyteries placed restrictions on them by requiring approval prior to preaching outside of a church.  In addition, educational requirements for all men seeking ordination were implemented. The New Side, who often embraced these new methods, accused the Old Side of having no passion for the lost; some accused those on the Old Side of not being unconverted! Though only lasting sixteen years, the schism played into much larger changes that would be coming to America. 

Though the old school-new school controversy was quieted, the problem did not go away and continued to grow.  Magnetic and gifted populist preachers “associated virtue with ordinary people and exalted the vernacular in word, print, and song” [2].  The result was a collision of the canon of American religious history – deeply rooted in respectable intellectualism and cohesive institutions – with a populist religious chaotic situation led by men and women from the uneducated lower class.  Hatch adds: At the same time, British clergy were confounded by their own gentility in trying to influence working-class, America exalted religious leaders short on social graces, family connections, and literary education.  The religious activists pitched their messages to the unschooled and unsophisticated.  Their movements offered the humble a marvelous sense of individual potential and collective aspiration (1989:5).

Men like Francis Asbury, were part of this new movement and saw it as his obligation to condescend to people of low estate, while Peter Cartwright recast the gospel in familiar idiom.  Most notably, they welcomed the commoner into their ministry, “creating a cadre of preachers who felt and articulated the interests of the ordinary people” (1989:8).   These Methodist preacher/evangelists traveled the country speaking at camp meetings primarily held in a central rural setting where people traveled too and set up camp.  These camp meetings were new brands of revival marked by emotional excitement and bizarre manifestations such as shouting, barking, dancing, fainting and the jerks; all considered to be signs of the Holy Spirit’s work.  

To be continued . . . 

[1] W.L. Muncey Jr.
 1945 A History of Evangelism in the United States. Kansas City, Kansas: Central Seminary Press. (p.33)
[2] Hatch, Nation O.
1989    The Democratization of American Christianity.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (p.5).

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