The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers (Brannan 1998).
Franklin, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and a true Democrat, saw both Whitefield's democratic tendencies and the threat that he posed to the Established Church. He noted that "some of Mr. Whitefield's enemies affected to suppose that he would apply those collections (of money) to his own private emolument...," but Franklin would have none of it.
The established Puritan churches in Massachusetts had assumed the role of the official churches of Europe, asserting that they represented God in the matters of government. Like modern-day theology-based governments, they believed that God's laws, interpreted through the Puritan church, were also the laws for the community. In 1635, the Reverend John Cotton proposed a set of laws and a General Court based on Moses' laws, with capital punishment as indicated in Leviticus.
Jonathan Edwards, another Great Awakening star, wrote that this religious influence on the governance of the community led to a cynicism and a distancing from God. He was concerned that Many of our young people (are) indecent in their carriage at meeting, which doubtless would not had prevailed to such a degree, had it not been that my grandfather...was not able to observe them. There had also prevailed in the town a spirit of contention between two parties, into which they had for many years been divided, by which was maintained a jealousy one of the other (Thompson 1861).
Thus Edwards found not only that the Congregation was drifting and cynical about God, but the community had failed to use godly principles in countering petty disputes. In Edwards' mind, the church-state combination failed both in its secular and its religious mission. Edwards, who had been the Congregational minister in Northhampton, Massachusetts, had seen that the church membership was declining. His religious beliefs would not let him accept that his parishioners were falling away from the faith. Finally, in 1734, he changed his message, telling the parishioners that they must make a personal covenant with God, or risk losing their immortal souls. Edwards' change of message resonated with the community, and helped to create the religious revival movement in New England.
Traditional Church leaders attacked the "New Light" preachers both on religious and secular grounds. The reverend Charles Chauncy, a staunch supporter of the Old Lights, opposed the revival movement as against Faith and the Church. He distrusted the passions of 'the mob,' reasoning that "the plain Truth is, an enlightened Mind, not raised Affections, outh always to be the Guide of those who call themselves Men. The Connecticut legislature, seeing the danger of this new, democratic religion, revoked the Toleration Acts of 1708 and 1727, which had granted freedom to worship to the New Lights. In a reaction similar to that of George III in later decades, the legislature prohibited new churches from being established without the Legislature's express approval. The later inclusion of religious freedom in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are a clear reaction to New England colonies' attempts at religious oppression.
From the democratizing and empowering ethos of the Great Awakening, those in the countryside became more involved in the religion and politics of the colonies. Their participation and egalitarian beliefs both challenged the existing power structure, and paved the way for future democracy.
Brannan, R. "Benjamin Franklin on George Whitefield." Pioneernet. April 30, 1998. http://www.pioneernet.net/rbrannan/whitefield/bfongw.htm (Accessed December 4, 2007).
Kidd, TE. The Great Awakening. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Kirsch, GB. "Clerical Dismissals in Colonial and Revolutionary New Hampshire." Church History, 1980: 161-179.
McCormick, MS. The Great Awakening and its Effect on the Society and REligion of the Connecticut River Valley. Historical, Hartford: Longmeadow.org, 2007.
Scruple, RB. History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia. Richmond: Richmond Press, 1810.
Spangler, JL. "Becoming Baptists: Conversion in Colonial and Early National Virginia." Journal of Southern History, 2001: 243-269.
Thompson, JF. "Jonathan Edwards, his Character, Teaching and Influence." Bibliotheca Sacra, XVIII, 1861: 809-839.