We are back home from our Great Awakening study tour. Yesterday we donned our N95 masks, and boarded our plane back home. Our flight was uneventful, which is how I like them.
This study tour was different from the others on which the GSB team has embarked. It was the first domestic tour we have taken, and that was necessitated by the pandemic. Also, it was the tour that was least demarcated by actual sites to be seen. Instead, we visited places where events took place, even if the buildings in which they took place were no longer there. This made our tour somewhat more cerebral and required more imagination, but it was no less interesting.
As a result, we spent more time in graveyards than on other tours. Graveyards are interesting places. No matter how one lives one’s life, that earthly life almost always ends in a 4 x 8 foot place in the ground somewhere. Seeing where those who have made a difference for the kingdom of God have been been put in the ground is like time travel. People we could never have met because they lived in a different time, we can now meet at the place in the ground where their bodies rest. The meeting not accommodated by time is afforded in space.
The two most famous people to come out of Northampton, Massachusetts are Jonathan Edwards and Calvin Coolidge, but when you are in Northampton, you have to squint to see this.
When we arrived at our hotel last night, I asked the hotel clerk about Jonathan Edwards-related sites in town. In response, she turned her head sideways with a quizzical expression, like a dog straining to understand its master. I rephrased my question, which was again met with more head-turning and silence. She then offered to ask her “friend,” but I declined.
We started the day at the town centre where the original meetinghouse, that functioned as the church building, once stood. It is now the location for the county courthouse. A plaque commemorates the location of the original meetinghouse. The church that still exists is located two blocks away; it is called The First Church, but it is actually the fifth church. The second and third meetinghouses Edwards preached in were once located on the lot where the courthouse now stand. Trying to sort all this out was like trying to differentiate between the Old North, New North, and Old South churches in Boston. One needs a calculator in the first instance and compass in the second.
The beginning of the Great Awakening is generally assigned to the church here in Northampton in 1734. Edwards wrote a book, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, to document the supernatural conversions and personal transformations he witnessed as the Holy Spirit began to stir people from their spiritual slumber. As I described in earlier posts, the Great Awakening was in full effect 1739-1743, when George Whitefield made his tours through New England.
Our day began with a drive back across the border into the United States. Unlike the Canadian crossing, where we were required to provide our vaccination cards and Covid test results, there were no questions regarding either. We could have all been infected with the Bubonic Plague; Uncle Sam apparently didn’t care. What he does care about is alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, of which we had none.
On the drive across New York back to Massachusetts, we debated important issues like who played Captain Kirk in the pilot for the original Star Trek series. I said, Jeffrey Hunter. Ann and The Wife said, “He played Captain Pike; Kirk was not in the pilot.” A search on the internet supported their position. I then insisted on a lifeline call to my brother, a zealous Trekkie (he has the “enthusiasm”), but he also supported the gals’ position. In the end, I suggested we agree to disagree.
I tried to get everyone focused on our Great Awakening theme, but they were clamoring for wine from the region. So, I followed the signs to a vineyard, where wine tasting took place, while I waited in the car, plotting our course to the place in Connecticut where Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
Today was our day in Niagara Falls, and we spent it on the Falls. We started with a boat trip up the Niagara river to the base of the falls, where we stayed for 5-10 minutes, while the water roared over the cliffs above and crashed into the rocky water below, creating waves of mist that washed over us. It was so exciting, people were spontaneously shouting and screaming.
I suspect it was not too dissimilar from a church service during the Great Awakening, where people were moved by the conviction of the Holy Spirit to cry out during the sermons of Edwards, Whitefield, Tennant, and Davenport. The difference was that the first was created by a natural stimulant and the second a spiritual one.
After lunch, we took an elevator down into the bowels of the visitor center to access a tunnel system behind the Falls. The tunnels allow views from behind the Falls, although all we could see was a wall of water. The best part of the Journey Behind the Falls was the view from the terrace below the Falls where we were so close to the Falls looming over us, even with the provided trash-bag-turned-raincoat, we got soaked.
Two figures loom large in the kingdom of God for their work in the Niagara Falls area: George Neal and Christian Garner.
We spent the night in Albany, New York, but we spent our time after our stop in Pittsfield at Melville’s Arrowhead driving through the Berkshires to Albany. This was the same area (between Stockbridge and Albany) where the legendary missionary, David Brainerd, first preached to the Indians.
The territory is mountainous and covered with thick forests. This made me appreciate even more Brainerd’s efforts to reach the Indians with the gospel during the Great Awakening.
Brainerd was born in 1718 and born again in 1739. Thereafter, Brainerd entered Yale but was expelled after making a remark indicating he did not think one of the teachers at Yale was converted. This was no minor issue at the time. There was even a debate about whether the unconverted should be permitted to be ministers, if you can imagine that.
Yale, in an effort to dampen the zeal and religious “enthusiasm” of students who were being born again during the Great Awakening, had instituted a rule that mandated discipline and expulsion for students who questioned whether Yale professors were converted. About this time, Yale invited Jonathan Edwards to speak to the student body, and to Yale’s disappointment, but no doubt the Lord’s approval, Edwards supported the students in their religious zeal. It apparently wasn’t enough to save Brainerd, though, nor were the efforts of Brainerd and others after that.