Volume 39 - Issue 1

Revival Defined and Defended: How the New Lights Tried and Failed

By Collin Hansen


Thomas Prince, editor of The Christian History—the first religious periodical in American history—could hardly have invented the Great Awakening, as Frank Lambert argues. Indeed, Prince and New Light allies such as Jonathan Edwards failed in their efforts to employ this growing medium to quiet critics and quell radicals. Their example actually refutes both the scholarly critics of revival, who doubt God’s supernatural blessing, and also modern-day radicals, who believe our actions guarantee God’s blessing of revival.


Abstract: Thomas Prince, editor of The Christian History—the first religious periodical in American history—could hardly have invented the Great Awakening, as Frank Lambert argues. Indeed, Prince and New Light allies such as Jonathan Edwards failed in their efforts to employ this growing medium to quiet critics and quell radicals. Their example actually refutes both the scholarly critics of revival, who doubt God’s supernatural blessing, and also modern-day radicals, who believe our actions guarantee God’s blessing of revival.


Jonathan Edwards knew from experience the power of the written word in promoting revival. His “Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God,” offered in a letter to Boston minister Benjamin Colman in 1736, inspired readers in both the American colonies and British Isles. Correspondents reported back that this account encouraged Christians and awakened sinners by encouraging them to seek a similar blessing of revival. But Edwards was just one man reporting spectacular events in just one frontier Massachusetts town, Northampton. Upon George Whitefield’s first colonial tour in 1739, revival began spreading throughout the colonies. The Calvinist pastors’ correspondence network on both sides of the Atlantic buzzed with anticipation of a more widespread awakening. Writing in 1742, Edwards envisioned a regularly published journal that would capture timely news of this revival’s progress, spread it throughout the English-speaking world, and bolster the awakening’s credibility against a growing chorus of critics:

One thing more I would mention, which if God should still carry on this work, would tend much to promote it, and that is that an history should be published once a month, or once a fortnight, of the progress of it, by one of the ministers of Boston, who are near the press and are most conveniently situated to receive accounts from all parts. It has been found by experience that the tidings of remarkable effects of the power and grace of God in any place, tend greatly to awaken and engage the minds of persons in other places. ’Tis great pity therefore, but that some means should be used for the most speedy, most extensive and certain giving information of such things, and that the country ben’t left only to the slow, partial and doubtful information and false representations of common report.1

His vision was realized under the editorial guidance of Thomas Prince Sr. (1687–1758). Perhaps no minister was better positioned to execute this plan than Prince, pastor of Boston’s Old South Church and a leader in the Great Awakening. Despite his advanced age, which hindered his ability to promote the revival through preaching, Prince kept up with the latest news through his extensive correspondence with other ministers. And as the author of the widely acclaimed Chronological History of New England, in the Form of Annals, published in 1736, Prince earned a reputation for perpetuating the Puritan cause by documenting its development. Prince recruited his son, Thomas Prince Jr., and together they accepted the challenge of documenting an awakening unlike any other in the Puritan annals. They published the first edition of The Christian History magazine on March 5, 1743. Modeled after the Weekly History, published in London by John Lewis, The Christian History ran until 1745. Its 104 weekly issues were bound together and distributed in two indexed volumes. Just as the Princes hoped, The Christian History became an unmatched compendium of primary sources documenting and defending the Great Awakening. Revered New England ministers loaned their credibility to the magazine, which also reported news of spiritual progress in England and Scotland, along with the mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies of North America.

However, I aim to show in this article that Prince failed in his goals to quiet critics and quell radicals. Far from inventing the Great Awakening, as some contemporary historians suppose, Prince could not protect and prolong the kind of revival that fellow New Lights2 could support. He set out to employ a burgeoning medium to reach growing audiences with the hope and standards for revival he believed had been implanted in every true Puritan’s heart. But once the Great Awakening broke out, Prince, Edwards, and other New Light pastors could not control the revival, as if they invented it. This failure actually refutes both the scholarly critics of revival, who doubt God’s supernatural blessing, and also modern-day radicals, who believe our actions guarantee God’s blessing of revival.

1. Old Light Skepticism and the Modern Invention Narrative

Few sympathetic pastors today know anything about The Christian History, the first religious periodical in American history. No doubt their ignorance of this landmark work owes something to historians of colonial America who view with skepticism the genre of journalistic history they encounter with The Christian History. Yet even in his own day, Thomas Prince Sr. accumulated a sizable stable of critics that only grew when the revival divided New England into competing camps of New Lights, Old Lights, and radicals. His chief detractors, Old Light ministers such as fellow Bostonian Charles Chauncy, who decried the awakening as delusionary enthusiasm, regarded The Christian History as a formidable means of spreading propaganda in support of the revival. Indeed, subsequent generations of revival historians revered The Christian History, starting with Glasgow minister John Gillies, who published Historical Collections Relating to Remarkable Periods of the Success of the Gospel and Eminent Instruments Employing in Promoting It in 1754. So great was the influence of The Christian History that until this day any credible account of the Great Awakening must peruse its contents.

Given Prince’s unabashed support for the revival, these succeeding histories of the Great Awakening should be treated with due skepticism, according to Purdue University historian Frank Lambert, the most prolific modern critic of the Prince narrative style and agenda.3 “Historians, then, who seek to explain the state of religion in mid-eighteenth-century colonial America confront an array of fictions, inventions and counterinventions, from which they construct their own ‘interpretive fictions.’”4 If the Great Awakening was an interpretive fiction, then Edwards was the preeminent storyteller, Lambert writes. “Jonathan Edwards’s Faithful Narrative lies behind Prince’s outline, serving as a script upon which other pastors modeled descriptions of local awakenings. . . . Sometimes Edwards’s Narrative was a script both for staging a revival and for reporting it.”5

Lambert describes The Christian History as the first successful magazine in America. The newspaper market had expanded in the colonies when the first paper mill was constructed in Massachusetts in 1730, as domestic printers no longer needed to rely on expensive imported paper. By comparison, newspaper competition had flourished in England since 1695 when the Licensing Act expired and the cost of a single issue fell from two-times to about one-half the price of a bread loaf.6

Then as now, readers clamored for news of friends, family, global politics, and gossip of all kinds. Yet we must not anachronistically judge these periodicals by the standards of contemporary journalism. Lambert’s critique of Price falters at precisely this point. Prince never presumed to offer an undiscerning collection of revival stories, something akin to a modern-day newsmagazine’s claims to objectivity. Indeed, Prince and his son compiled The Christian History with unabashedly apologetic aims. Analysis of all 104 installments reveals their intent to collect the most credible revival stories from trustworthy ministers who had earned the respect of their communities and clerical colleagues. Periodicals of this era did not boast a team of paid reporters. Rather, they depended on unpaid contributors writing about themselves, something they witnessed, or something they heard. Evangelist George Whitefield, for example, wrote in the third person and noted the historic nature of his travels as he offered accounts of popular response to his preaching. Perhaps the most illustrative example is James Robe, one of Prince’s most trusted reporters and a fellow participant promoter with a shared understanding of true revival. The Kilsyth minister supplied many of The Christian History’s reports from Scotland, which amounted to one-third of the magazine’s content in its run from 1743 to 1745.7

The Princes apparently believed such handpicked accounts might persuade Old Lights to rethink their criticism. But The Christian History also offered New Lights a platform to criticize radical excesses and teach the true marks of revival. Thomas Prince Sr. believed these telltale signs of awakening had been handed down through generations as part of the Puritan legacy that endured in England, Scotland, and New England. He did not aim to spread novel theology.

Nor did he need to innovate his publishing medium. The Princes could look across the Atlantic for a model. Calvinist Welshman John Lewis was active in the London Tabernacle and Fetter Lane Society, where on popular Letter Days crowds would gather together to hear stirring news from far-away lands. Here he had the idea to start an evangelical magazine. He reorganized his first attempt, the weekly penny paper Christ’s Amusement, in 1741 as The Weekly History: or, An Account of the Most Remarkable Particulars Relating to the Present Progress of the Gospel; By the Encouragement of the Rev. Mr. Whitefield. He covered many American events, including Whitefield’s famed 1740 colonial tour often cited as the catalyst for the Great Awakening.

But by the time Prince launched The Christian History in 1743, Mark Noll surmises that he could sense the revival slipping away. According to this hypothesis, Prince was less concerned to manufacture revival than to preserve a record of the remarkable events so future generations would never forget. In the meantime, he aimed to help hold the revival community together, encourage new converts, and prompt new ones. Still, his eye was firmly fixed on the future. “Robe and Prince showed that they wanted to make their magazines permanent records of what had so recently occurred by publishing indexes, numbering pages consecutively for annual volumes, and by carefully editing published material.”8 In this regard the magazine succeeded by offering subsequent generations of readers invaluable eyewitness accounts of spectacular spiritual events that transformed colonial America. But they could not invent a revival that had already begun to wane in the face of persistent criticism and radical exuberance.

2. Rise of Periodicals Expands the Correspondence Network

The Puritan experiment hatched in New England had separated kin and compatriot across the Atlantic. So they developed a correspondence network—a “community of saints” according to Susan O’Brien9—that maintained the ties binding Puritans together. Longing for revival was one of those distinguishing marks of Puritanism that appeared regularly in their letters, alongside reading suggestions and theological inquiry. As community leaders with unmatched access to the outside world, pastors wielded tremendous influence. Especially when they received encouraging letters that reinforced their public teaching, pastors sought a wider audience for the correspondence. There was a natural progression from personal letters to chain messages read aloud to printing reports in a periodical.

With time, the colonial American correspondence networks grew ever more expansive, transcending the Puritan community. Boston minister Cotton Mather, for example, shared letters with the Pietist leader Augustus Francke of Halle. So when Thomas Prince Sr. organized The Christian History, including reports from Scotland and England, he built on this preexisting network. It was no stretch for him to publish a letter from Howell Harris in Wales, a report from the East Indies, and even an excerpt from Francke’s Pietas Hallenis, or An Historical Narration of the Orphan House. Writers were already skilled in the tasks of collecting the news, verifying its accuracy, and spreading it through public channels—precisely the journalistic process Prince followed in compiling The Christian History every week. Similarly, New England ministers had already honed a sense for news judgment in their correspondence. Sources close to the events, who had previously won a reputation for accuracy and timeliness, became the most popular correspondents.

But an altered situation in the revival’s later years demanded a new strategy in the shift from letters to magazines. Letters offered more basically descriptive accounts of local revivals between 1740 and 1742. When the awakening spread, however, criticism mounted, as did strange excesses. Periodicals supporting the New Light cause would need to answer these challenges directly. So Prince relied on fellow ministers such as Robe who wanted to defend the revival against critics, protect it from radicals, and extend it to other people in distant lands. Their journalism served this cause, and they did not pretend otherwise.

Indeed, Prince listed his principal guideline for submission on the first page in the first issue of The Christian History on March 5, 1743. He pledged to publish “Authentick Accounts from Ministers and other creditable Persons.”10 On the very next page, Prince issued his invitation for ministers and other reputable sources to submit their accounts to him. Yet he also issued further detailed instructions for how ministers should organize their accounts. They should avoid personal reflections; Edwards was apparently excepted from this clause. They should likewise avoid “angry Controversy.” But mostly, they must include their names. “Since to a nameless Relation of Matters of Fact, no wise Man can give any Credit; as he knows not but the Writer may be one of the least creditable Persons on Earth, and wou’d be known to be so, were his Name divulged.”11 Because the revival was a public affair, these ministers staked their reputations on defending it as valid. Critics could challenge their discernment as faulty, but they could not successfully prove that the events described in The Christian History were fabricated.

3. The Christian History Changes Strategy

As a sign of the magazine’s shift from straightforward accounts to exhortation and even direct challenge, Robe confronted revival critics with a conundrum in just the second issue of The Christian History. Robe asked his readers how ministers should respond to crowds lamenting their immoral behavior and searching for grace. Should the ministers tell them the Devil makes them see their evil as offensive to God? Or should they say that Satan is leading them to inquire about the state of their souls and long for relief from Christ?

Though as Jonathan Edwards clearly articulated in a letter he sent to Prince on December 12, 1743, the New Lights did not regard all supposed evidence of revival as equally valid, based on their interpretation of Scripture and understanding of history. Prince published Edwards’s letter on January 28, 1744. We see in this article perhaps the clearest sign that the Great Awakening had entered a new, more tenuous stage, at least from the New Light perspective. Edwards had been seared by the memory of Northampton’s spiritual declension in the 1730s just as readers around the colonies and British Isles began to read his Faithful Narrative. So when revival returned, Edwards learned his lesson. His letter to Prince included a copy of the church covenant Edwards drafted and Northampton church members signed on March 16, 1742. They committed to treating one another with honesty, justice, and uprightness and to avoid backbiting.12

Nevertheless, Edwards noted that almost immediately thereafter in the summer of 1742, the people’s affections for religion dimmed. The great preacher’s inability to keep the revival fires stoked should caution us against any sweeping pronouncements about how he and fellow New Light ministers manufactured the revival.

4. New Lights Counter Radical Threat to Revival’s Progress and Credibility

Even if the revival had dimmed in Northampton and Boston by 1743, it continued to flare elsewhere. But Edwards and Prince were concerned about the growing number of reports indicating radical excesses that could not be biblically justified. Edwards had seen the problem encroach upon Northampton even under his expert care. From 1740 to 1741, Edwards regarded the revival as even purer than the renowned local awakening in 1735 and 1736. His congregation seemed to learn from their former mistakes and understood themselves more clearly. They displayed even more affection for God while also appearing more solemn, humble, steadfast, and holy in their conduct. Yet that situation had changed by late 1742:

The Work continued more pure ’till we were infected from abroad: our People hearing, and some of them seeing the Work in other Places, where there was a greater visible Commotion than here, and the outward Appearances were more extraordinary; were ready to think that the Work in those Places far excell’d what was amongst us; and their Eyes were dazzled with the high Profession and great Shew that some made who came hither from other Places. That those People were so far beyond them in Raptures and violent Emotions of the Affections, and a vehement Zeal, and what they called Boldness for Christ; our People were ready to think was owing to their far great Attainments in Grace, and Intimacy with Heaven; They look’d little in their own Eyes in Comparison of them, and were ready to submit themselves to ’em, and yield themselves up on their Conduct, taking it for granted that every Thing was right that they said and did. These Things had a strange Influence on the People, and gave many of them a deep and unhappy Tincture, that it was a hard and long Labour to deliver ’em from, and which some of them are not fully delivered from to this Day.13

By this time, Edwards had already published a classic defense of the revival, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, in 1741. And he would publish a timeless analysis of religious belief with The Religious Affections in 1746. But between releasing these major works, he used Prince’s platform in The Christian History to augment his effort to steer the revival back down a more defensible path. He argued forcefully that one may not accurately discern grace in another person’s life only by judging the degree of his or her zeal, joy, or other religious affections. Rather, a discerning spirit examines the nature of those affections.14

Though pilloried by the revival’s opponents, chiefly Charles Chauncy, Edwards displayed scarcely more tolerance than they did for dramatic demonstrations of the Spirit’s work that were not accompanied by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23). Directly countering radical claims, Edwards argued that this evidence—not adherence to any precise set of methods—should determine the validity of conversion. Nor was it enough to ask whether someone had committed scandalous sin, Edwards contended. He fully expected that many members of his congregation who claimed to experience conversion during the revival and behaved well in public were not actually true believers. Despite these serious reservations, shared by the Princes as they closely followed the revival’s progress in Boston, Edwards concluded his letter on a high note. He had enough evidence to conclude that many had encountered God’s grace. There were signs that Northampton had been reshaped by the revival, with less division, more careful speech, and willingness to solve public disputes reasonably.

Edwards’s contribution to The Christian History was just one example of New Light unease over the revival’s radical turn. A more prominent one came from the assembly of New Light ministers in Boston on July 7, 1743. Boston’s leading New Light ministers, including Benjamin Colman, Thomas Prince Sr., William Cooper, and Thomas Foxcroft, staked their reputations on publicly testifying to the progress of genuine revival. But even their ability to control the revival was clearly limited. Discernment was the crying need of the day.

Indeed it is not to be denied that in some Places many Irregularities and Extravagancies have been permitted to accompany it, which we would deeply lament and bewail before GOD, and look upon ourselves oblig’d, for the Honour of the Holy Spirit, and of his blessed Operations on the Souls of Men, to bear a public and faithful testimony against; tho’ at the same Time it is to be acknowleg’d with much Thankfulness, that in other Places, where the Work has greatly flourish’d, there have been few if any of these Disorders and Exceses. But who can wonder, if at such a Time as this Satan should intermingle himself, to hinder and blemish a Work so directly contrary to the Interests of his own Kingdom? Or, if while so much good Seed is sowing, the Enemy should be busy to sow Tares? We would therefore, in the Bowels of Jesus, beseech such as have been Partakers of this Work, or are zealous to promote it, that they be not ignorant of Satan’s Devices; that they watch and pray against Errors and Misconduct of every Kind lest they blemish and hinder that which they desire to honour and advance.15

Prince published a blockbuster story in a late issue of The Christian History that revealed the deep New Light concern over perceived radical excess. The most notorious radical, Long Island minister James Davenport, confessed and retracted his sins during the revival in the September 22, 1744, issue. In a letter forwarded to Thomas Prince Sr. by Solomon Williams, written by Davenport on July 28, 1744, he confessed to following extrabiblical impulses, urging separation, encouraging lay exhortation, and calling out ministers as unconverted. By publishing an unequivocal confession from Davenport, Prince acknowledged the validity of some Old Light criticism even as he underscored the New Light plea for discernment.

In the case of Davenport, The Christian History affords us a glimpse into behind-the-scenes efforts by New Light ministers to protect the revival from what they regarded to be destructive influences. Prince’s magazine magnified their maneuvering by spreading credible revival accounts and radical retractions to audiences who were not privy to private pastoral correspondence. Thus, Prince’s new medium offered New Light ministers a powerful new tool for expressing their hope and standards for revival, which they believed placed them firmly in line with Puritan history. At the same time, The Christian History testifies to these ministers’ limited ability to control or invent the revival, notwithstanding the Davenport exception. The revival grew increasingly radical, only emboldening critics, as time progressed.

5. Conclusion

Ever since the Great Awakening, evangelicals have been known for their effective use of emerging media. Evangelical magazines in American and Great Britain proliferated in the mid-nineteenth century. Today, self-promotion by so-called revivalists hardly strikes evangelicals as incongruous, so comfortable have we become with the circus of publicity. Discernment takes second billing to “fruitfulness,” measured just as the world does—in numbers.

But when Thomas Prince Sr. worked with his eponymous son to launch The Christian History in 1743, they experimented with a novel medium. They succeeded for several years at a time when so many other magazines quickly failed. They effectively applied the new medium to a pre-existing correspondence network excited with news of revival. Colonial evangelicals capitalized on new technology to form an enduring movement. Thomas Kidd observes, “It appears that the rising availability of public information and print, which scholars have seen as so central to the creation of nationalism, also helped create and sustain world evangelicalism.”16

Though amateur journalists, the Princes demonstrated the characteristic New Light concern for discernment, honed by study of Scripture and Puritan history. Such skill equipped them to edit a journal that encouraged the revival’s supporters. They offered revival critics accounts corroborated by credible ministers and published classic Puritan sermons that supported New Light points. They warned radicals against seeking bodily manifestations and empowering lay exhorters who depended on impressions more than Scripture. They worked behind the scenes to rehabilitate radical leaders such as James Davenport.

Even so, articles in The Christian History alone could not entirely quiet the critics or quell the radicals. Nor can we expect today that even our best efforts to share the pure gospel and teach the unvarnished Word will guarantee the success of our cause. No less than the apostle Paul’s patient instruction failed to fix what ailed believers in Corinth who sought prophetic powers but lacked love (1 Cor 13:2). Our Lord Jesus himself carefully explained that the Son of Man would be rejected, killed, and raised from the dead. Yet even his own disciples failed to understand the purpose of his ministry (Luke 9:22).

We do not always understand the mysterious purposes of God, especially when his cause appears to falter. Indeed, the publishers and readers of The Christian History must have been disappointed that the revival eventually dimmed. But they could not have been surprised. For this outcome, too, fit their biblical and theological understanding of revival: Just as no one can manufacture revival, so also no one can ensure its indefinite progress.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Great Awakening, vol. 4 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (ed. C. C. Goen; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 529.

[2] Old Lights and New Lights divided in New England over reaction to revival. Old Lights favored traditional order, going so far in Connecticut as to withdraw the right to religious dissent as a way of stemming the tide of church splits. New Lights favored the revival and advocated discernment in the unsettling bodily manifestations of religious enthusiasm and criticism of church leaders for not supporting the new movement of the Spirit. See George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 275–80.

[3] See Frank Lambert, Inventing the ‘Great Awakening’ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); idem, ‘Pedlar in Divinity’: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[4] Lambert, Inventing the Great Awakening, 179.

[5] Ibid., 147–48.

[6] Lambert, ‘Pedlar in Divinity,’ 56.

[7] Susan O’Brien, “Eighteenth-Century Publishing Networks in the First Years of Transatlantic Evangelicalism,” in Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700–1900 (ed. Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, and George A. Rawlyk; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 50.

[8] Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 117.

[9] Susan O’Brien, “A Transatlantic Community of Saints: The Great Awakening and the First Evangelical Network, 1735–1755,” The American Historical Review 91 (1986): 813.

[10] Thomas Prince Jr., The Christian History 1, no. 1 (March 5, 1743): 1.

[11] Ibid., 2.

[12] Thomas Prince Jr., The Christian History 1, no. 48 (January 28, 1744): 378.

[13] Ibid., 379–80.

[14] Ibid., 380.

[15] Thomas Prince Jr., The Christian History 1, no. 21 (July 23, 1743): 162.

[16] Thomas S. Kidd, The Protestant Interest: New England After Puritanism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 173.

Collin Hansen

Collin Hansen is the editorial director for The Gospel Coalition and coauthor with John Woodbridge of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir (Zondervan, 2010).

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