The impressive reports of revival emerging from Kentucky’s Asbury University remind us colleges have always been central to the history of revival in America. Revivals have also been central to the history of American higher education. The First Great Awakening of the 1740s directly or indirectly produced several colleges—Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown—that would become part of the illustrious “Ivy League.” The Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s produced even more institutions of higher learning than the First Great Awakening did.
How did these revivals happen? What were their characteristics? Did they produce enduring fruit, or were they just bursts of youthful exuberance with few lasting results?
New Life in New Haven
As an example, consider the Yale College revival during the First Great Awakening. The school had been founded by conservative Congregationalists in 1701, giving it deep roots in the Puritan tradition. Jonathan Edwards, the leading theologian of the Great Awakening, graduated from Yale and taught there for a few years in the mid-1720s. Today’s Yale may be a typical elite secular school, but in 1740 it was thoroughly Christian. It proved more open to revival than Harvard College, which was already becoming influenced by liberal theology.
But even at Yale, the Great Awakening caused great controversy.
The primary earthly catalyst for the Yale revival was George Whitefield, the most prominent evangelist of the Great Awakening. Whitefield preached in New Haven, Connecticut, the college’s home, in October 1740. He was followed by Gilbert Tennent, the fiery Presbyterian minister of New Jersey, who spoke in New Haven many times in March 1741.
Samuel Hopkins, who would become a long-serving pastor and one of Edwards’s chief theological disciples, was an unconverted senior at Yale that year. He reported that Whitefield’s and Tennent’s preaching “universally awakened” students at the small school and residents of New Haven. Thousands in Connecticut were awakened, Hopkins observed, to “their constant exposedness to fall into endless destruction” in hell.
The most zealous students at Yale went room to room, counseling students, especially those who lacked assurance of salvation. One of the most motivated student evangelists was David Brainerd. Brainerd visited Hopkins, and the conversation convinced Hopkins he was not a Christian and needed to be born again. Soon he came to understand the glory of God and the promises of the gospel in a deep, affective way he’d never known before. His life was changed by the power of God in revival.
Separating Fruit from Fanaticism
In September 1741, Edwards delivered “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God” at Yale’s commencement. This was the beginning of Edwards’s effort to biblically discern the signs of true revival. Some of the college faculty had already begun to oppose the revival as chaotic and censorious; meanwhile, some of the revival’s leaders (including Whitefield and Tennent) were quick to suggest that ministers who didn’t adequately support the awakenings were themselves unconverted. This obviously didn’t sit well with the pastors and professors so accused.
Edwards proposed the biblical way to test a revival was to examine its fruit, not to focus on its initial excitement and noise (or lack thereof). He argued true revival only came via the Holy Spirit. The signs of a genuine Spirit-driven revival included (1) an enhanced glory for Jesus, (2) damage to the interests of Satan, (3) a people’s greater regard for the Bible, and (4) their greater love for God and neighbor.
Edwards proposed the biblical way to test a revival was to examine its fruit, not to focus on its initial excitement and noise (or lack thereof).
Edwards knew that the exuberance of the revival, and the boldness of some of the student leaders, made certain observers uncomfortable. But he believed that, in general, there was much evidence it was generated by the Holy Spirit.
To be sure, there were excesses and fleshly behavior woven in with the Great Awakening generally and the Yale revival specifically. After 1741, Edwards himself became less tolerant of such excesses when radical antics became more evident and when he saw many “converts” fall away from the Lord. Some of the excesses resulted in harsh treatment of student zealots by Yale authorities, including some expulsions.
God Moves in Mysterious Ways
David Brainerd, for all his admirable qualities, was (according to Edwards) also tinctured with “imprudent zeal.” Brainerd once told fellow evangelical students that he thought one of Yale’s tutors, Chauncey Whittelsey, “had no more grace than a chair.” Such disrespectful talk about the faculty in the hierarchical culture of 1740s America was entirely unacceptable. Combined with Brainerd’s preexisting reputation for religious extremism, the statement got him expelled from Yale.
Some of the dissident (or expelled) evangelical students—including Brainerd’s brother John—attended the short-lived “Shepherd’s Tent” academy in New London. This radical revivalist training school lacked political and financial support, and it soon closed. John Brainerd, for one, apologized to Yale officials and was readmitted to the school. David was never readmitted.
Because he would’ve needed a college degree to become a pastor, David Brainerd became a missionary. His sacrificial four-year tenure in ministering to Native Americans, popularized by Edwards’s The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, turned him into one of the most inspiring Christian exemplars in American history.
How can we assess the Yale revival, then? As Edwards said, test it by its fruit. The resulting careers of pastors and missionaries such as Hopkins and Brainerd testify that the Spirit of God was certainly at work in New Haven in 1740–41.
Was the revival perfect? Not at all. But perfection isn’t the standard. When flawed people are involved, we should expect imperfection and mess. Brainerd’s expulsion may have been harsh, but he shouldn’t have spoken disrespectfully about Whittelsey. Opening the Shepherd’s Tent may have appeared a good idea to evangelical zealots at the time, but in retrospect it seems like a short-sighted distraction.
Was the revival perfect? Not at all. But perfection isn’t the standard.
God clearly used Brainerd to bring Hopkins and others to saving faith in Christ. But in classic Romans 8:28 fashion, God also used Brainerd’s expulsion to put him into a missionary vocation instead of a pastoral career. Who knew this well-meaning but incautious student had only five years left to live? (He died of tuberculosis in 1747.) Who knew God would turn a wandering Yale expellee into one of the most important missionaries in church history?
Real revival happens only when God moves. But even in revival, he sometimes moves in mysterious ways.