Today was a free day of sorts. I wanted to mix in some shopping, along with hitting on our Great Awakening theme. I collect fountain pens, so I decided to start the day with a trip to Bromfield Pen Shop, but when I arrived at the store, everything was boxed up and the guy in charge said they were moving up the street to a new location, and it would be two weeks before they could sell any pens. Bummer.
I then headed toward the Boston Public Library where they keep the Thomas Prince collection, which includes books from his library, as well as his correspondence. It was going to be a trek, but it seemed a worthy quest for a chance to see the actual letters and remnants of the library of this distinguished figure from the Great Awakening.
So, I walked the 30 minutes to the Boston Public Library. As I neared the library, I noticed a beautiful old church on the other side of Boylston Street; not just any church but the Old South Church! I started reading the plaque on the building, and it noted Benjamin Franklin and Sam Adams worshipped here. Then I read that this building was built in 1875, which by my reckoning is about 100 years after Franklin and Adams were roaming the streets of Boston. I’m guessing the “here” referred to the congregation. I went in and took a quick look, but I didn’t come here to see 1875; I came here to see 1740. Ugh.
Our first full day in Boston began at the place where the largest crowd ever to gather in the colonies up to that time, gathered in October 1740. They gathered at the Boston Common, and they gathered to hear George Whitefield, perhaps the greatest evangelist ever to preach in the United States…ever. The population of Boston at the time was about 23,000, and it’s estimated 25,000 gathered in the Boston Common to hear Whitefield.
Some mark the beginning of the Great Awakening as 1734, when Jonathan Edwards began to the see the sparks of revival in his congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards wrote an account of how people were dramatically converted in his A Narrative of Surprising Conversions. But no one disputes that by 1740, as George Whitefield made his tour through New England, the fire of revival was raging, and Whitefield was without a doubt the best at stoking the fire.
But to suggest, as secular historians do and must, that Whitefield’s power was in manipulating people’s emotions is like suggesting Michael Jackson was the King of Pop because he had a good voice. People hearing Whitefield preach were moved not by a man but by God moving through a man. The eyewitness accounts of the responses to Whitefield’s sermons sound like a Benny Hinn service—people weeping, falling out in the Spirit and lying motionless for hours, and crying out, “What must I do to be saved?”
And remember, this is happening in the midst of the Enlightenment, when Rationalism reigned supreme. It was also happening at a time in the colonies where religious observation was waning, and people’s love for God had grown cold. It didn’t make sense to many, including ministers, many who opposed it, but as Jesus said, the Holy Spirit is like the wind, and He goes where He wants. John 3:8. He is not a power to be harnessed but a Person to honored.
If you follow this blog, you know the GSB team was planning a trip for this month to Italy and specifically the Milvian Bridge in Rome, where Emperor Constantine had his vision in 312 A.D and was converted to Christianity. We had planned the trip in 2020, but the pandemic spoiled those plans. This summer after being vaccinated and seeing infection rates dropping, we set our sites on Rome again. Then came the Delta Variant.
We considered what to do, but when our Christian tour guide in Rome emailed us that he had not been vaccinated (along with some explanation about why that didn’t matter), it confirmed what we were already feeling—no trip to Rome this year.
Not wanting to forgo a GSB study tour for the 2nd year in a row, we settled on a trip to New England to study the lives and sites of the Great Awakening. But even after deciding to go, the trip hung in the balance until last Friday. I did not want to go: I was much too busy at work, and I wasn’t convinced it was safe to travel, with the Covid cases spiking. So, with my strong inclination against going, I prayed, talked with The Wife, and we prayed some more, and we felt the Lord was saying, “Go.” So, with the benefit of our faith, mRNA technology, and cache of N95 masks, we departed today for Boston.
On this GSB study tour we will study the lives and places of the Great Awakening, the greatest spiritual revival America has ever experienced. Our journey will start in Boston with Cotton Mather, whose remarkable life laid a foundation for the revival that would follow, and we will journey across Massachusetts to Northampton, the home of Jonathan Edwards. There will also be a few interesting departures along the way, which you may want me to disclose at this time, but in response to which I will only provide a hint by saying, “I prefer not to.”
I’m partial to the Middle Ages. Not that I would necessarily have wanted to live then, but it is not because it was the “dark ages.” I prefer modern health care, technology, and prosperity. It makes life more comfortable.
But what I prefer today over the Middle Ages is not necessarily something we, as moderns, can take credit for; it is the result of knowledge and understanding building on itself and progressing through each generation to bring us to this point scientifically and technologically. We have the generations that came before us to thank for that.
The disciplines of architecture and art are a more even playing field when comparing the Middle Ages with today. With regard to architecture, advances in engineering allow us to do certain things with buildings we could not do with buildings 1,000 years ago, and, as a result, if anything the moderns have an advantage.
That should also be true of art in architecture. There are things we can do now we couldn’t do 1,000 years ago that give today’s artist or architect more creative tools to work with. So, all things being equal, what we can do with virtually unlimited funds today in say, building a church, should far exceed in beauty and creativity what man created 1,000 years ago, particularly if 1,000 years ago was a “dark ages.”
So, I picked a church, not just any church, but Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. A church I used to attend. A beautiful church. One of the largest churches in America (85,000 members). A church with more money than Croesus. A church that could build essentially any church it wanted, and it did. In 1980s, it built the structure you see above. I was proud to attend Second Baptist Church. It was the most beautiful church around.
As we brace for the battle that is sure to come as vaccination becomes available to the general population, I thought some Kingdom history might provide perspective on the issue.
Small pox epidemics had occurred approximately every 12 years in New England in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Smallpox was a merciless killer and disfigurer, particularly of children. In the early 1700s the disease missed a cycle but then appeared again in Boston in 1721. This time, however, there was a man, a learned man, a learned, Kingdom man named Cotton Mather.
Mather was a polymath. He was the youngest student ever accepted at Harvard (11 1/2 years old) and the youngest to graduate (15 years old). He published over 350 titles during his lifetime on subjects as diverse as the Bible, history, medicine, politics, and the demonic. He could write in seven languages. Mather was also the first American to be inducted as a Fellow of the the Royal Society in London, the most famous scientific society in the world. Mather set up schools for Indians and African Americans. He was also a Puritan and minister of the largest church in New England.