Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

Article Index

--The German Churches--The Beginnings Of The Methodist Church

The quickening of religious feeling, the deepening of religious conviction, the clearing and defining of theological opinions, that were incidental to the Great Awakening, were a preparation for more than thirty years of intense political and warlike agitation. The churches suffered from the long distraction of the public mind, and at the end of it were faint and exhausted. But for the infusion of a "more abundant life" which they had received, it would seem that they could hardly have survived the stress of that stormy and revolutionary period.


The religious life of this period was manifested in part in the growth of the New England theology. The great leader of this school of theological inquiry, the elder Edwards, was born at the opening of the eighteenth century. The oldest and most eminent of his disciples and successors, Bellamy and Hopkins, were born respectively in 1719 and 1721, and entered into the work of the Awakening in the flush of their earliest manhood. A long dynasty of acute and strenuous argumentators has continued, through successive generations to the present day, this distinctly American school of theological thought. This is not the place for tracing the intricate history of their discussions,[182:1] but the story of the Awakening could not be told without some mention of this its attendant and sequel.

Not less notable than the new theology of the revival was the new psalmody. In general it may be said that every flood-tide of spiritual emotion in the church leaves its high-water mark in the form of "new songs to the Lord" that remain after the tide of feeling has assuaged. In this instance the new songs were not produced by the revival, but only adopted by it. It is not easy for us at this day to conceive the effect that must have been produced in the Christian communities of America by the advent of Isaac Watts's marvelous poetic work, "The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament." Important religious results have more than once followed in the church on the publication of religious poems--notably, in our own century, on the publication of "The Christian Year." But no other instance of the kind is comparable with the publication in America of Watts's Psalms. When we remember how scanty were the resources of religious poetry in American homes in the early eighteenth century, and especially how rude and even grotesque the rhymes that served in the various churches as a vehicle of worship, it seems that the coming of those melodious stanzas, in which the meaning of one poet is largely interpreted by the sympathetic insight of another poet, and the fervid devotion of the Old Testament is informed with the life and transfigured in the language of the New, must have been like a glow of sunlight breaking in upon a gray and cloudy day. Few pages of biography can be found more vividly illustrative of the times and the men than the page in which Samuel Hopkins recites the story of the sufferings of his own somber and ponderous mind under the rebuke of his college friend David Brainerd. He walked his solitary room in tears, and (he says) "took up Watts's version of the Psalms, and opened it at the Fifty-first Psalm, and read the first, second, and third parts in long meter with strong affections, and made it all my own language, and thought it was the language of my heart to God." There was more than the experience of a great and simple soul, there was the germ of a future system of theology, in the penitential confession which the young student "made his own language," and in the exquisite lines which, under the figure of a frightened bird, became the utterance of his first tremulous and faltering faith:

     Lord, should thy judgment grow severe, I am condemned, but thou art clear.

     Should sudden vengeance seize my breath, I must pronounce thee just in death; And if my soul were sent to hell, Thy righteous law approves it well.

     Yet save a trembling sinner, Lord, Whose hope, still hovering round thy word, Would light on some sweet promise there, Some sure support against despair.

The introduction of the new psalmody was not accomplished all at once, nor without a struggle. But we gravely mistake if we look upon the controversy that resulted in the adoption of Watts's Psalms as a mere conflict between enlightened good taste and stubborn conservatism. The action proposed was revolutionary. It involved the surrender of a long-settled principle of Puritanism. At the present day the objection to the use of "human composures" in public worship is unintelligible, except to Scotchmen. In the later Puritan age such use was reckoned an infringement on the entire and exclusive authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures, and a constructive violation of the second commandment. By the adoption of the new psalmody the Puritan and Presbyterian churches, perhaps not consciously, but none the less actually, yielded the major premiss of the only argument by which liturgical worship was condemned on principle. Thereafter the question of the use of liturgical forms became a mere question of expediency. It is remarkable that the logical consequences of this important step have been so tardy and hesitating.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was not in the common course of church history that the period under consideration should be a period of vigorous internal activity and development in the old settled churches of America. The deep, often excessive, excitements of the Awakening had not only ceased, but had been succeeded by intense agitations of another sort. Two successive "French and Indian" wars kept the long frontier, at a time when there was little besides frontier to the British colonies, in continual peril of fire and scalping-knife.[184:1] The astonishingly sudden and complete extinction of the French politico-religious empire in Canada and the West made possible, and at no remote time inevitable, the separation of the British colonies from the mother country and the contentions and debates that led into the Revolutionary War began at once.

Another consequence of the prostrating of the French power in America has been less noticed by historians, but the course of this narrative will not be followed far without its becoming manifest as not less momentous in its bearing on the future history of the church. The extinction of the French-Catholic power in America made possible the later plantation and large and free development of the Catholic Church in the territory of the United States. After that event the Catholic resident or citizen was no longer subject to the suspicion of being a sympathizer with a hostile neighboring power, and the Jesuit missionary was no longer liable to be regarded as a political intriguer and a conspirator with savage assassins against the lives of innocent settlers and their families. If there are those who, reading the earlier pages of this volume, have mourned over the disappointment and annihilation of two magnificent schemes of Catholic domination on the North American continent as being among the painful mysteries of divine providence, they may find compensation for these catastrophes in later advances of Catholicism, which without these antecedents would seem to have been hardly possible.

Although the spiritual development of the awakened American churches, after the Awakening until the independence of the States was established and acknowledged, was limited by these great hindrances, this period was one of momentous influences from abroad upon American Christianity.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Scotch-Irish immigration kept gathering volume and force. The great stream of immigrants entering at the port of Philadelphia and flowing westward and southwestward was joined by a tributary stream entering at Charleston. Not only the numbers of this people, occupying in force the hill-country from Pennsylvania to Georgia, but still more its extraordinary qualities and the discipline of its history, made it a factor of prime importance in the events of the times just before and just after the achievement of the national independence. For generations it had been schooled to the apprehension and acceptance of an elaborately articulated system of theology and church order as of divine authority. Its prejudices and animosities were quite as potent as its principles. Its fixed hereditary aversion to the English government and the English church was the natural fruit of long memories and traditions of outrages inflicted by both these; its influence was now about to be powerfully manifested in the overthrow of the English power and its feeble church establishments in the colonies. At the opening of the War of Independence the Presbyterian Church, reunited since the schism of 1741, numbered one hundred and seventy ministers in seventeen presbyteries; but its weight of influence was out of all proportion to its numbers, and this entire force, not altogether at unity with itself on ecclesiastical questions, was united as one man in the maintenance of American rights.