Luther’s admonition on prayer: “Pour out your heart before God and say, ‘I am empty, fill me…strengthen me…warm me and make me burn,’” as well as his insistence on the need for the Spirit's power: “Unless you are continually baptized in the Holy Spirit and fire you will fall back into unbelief" were taken up in practice by the Puritans in England when the Reformation spread there. They inveighed against a Christianity that went only through the motions and rituals, but instead preached that “one must have an encounter with God; Christ must fill the heart.” This was a central focus of early Puritan faith. They were, as historian Sydney Alhstrom points out, “an extended revival movement.”
Thus, when Puritans (those who desired to purify the church from Romish chains and return to a New Testament standard) and Separatists (those who sought to ‘come out and be separate’ from Roman Catholicism) came and formed the early American Colonies, they did so in personal obedience to the Great Commission. They sought to establish a place where worship could be free, free from the restrictions of dead institutional religiosity, returning to that of the early church in Acts. They were all about revival and eagerly sought after it.
Through long travail and many trials, revival finally came forth when Jonathan Edwards, a descendant of Puritans, and George Whitfield, who was converted to Christ directly by the teaching of reformers and the Reformation, ministered in the early American Colonies and the fire of God began to fall.
Edwards began to seek God concerning the lethargy that was later setting in amongst the Christian Community in the colonies and was directed by the Holy Spirit back to the central focus of Christ’s payment for sin and God’s prevailing grace for all who will believe. As he preached a tightly reasoned sermon series on justification by faith through grace, “a great acceleration of the Spirit’s presence took place.” This was followed up later when he invited George Whitfield, who would regularly preach on “the righteousness from God given to us as a free gift wrought by Christ’s work on the cross for us who believe.” Edwards, an unemotional person, would often weep through the entirety of Whitfield's preaching, so touched by God was he.
The embers Edwards stirred exploded into a raging conflagration through Whitfield’s preaching. The fire of God began to spread and powerful manifestations began to take place on a regular basis as revival took hold. The colonies were turned upside down with an outpouring of the Spirit and manifestations of many falling to the ground under the power of the Spirit, shaking, crying out, profuse weeping and laughing. All these took place regularly as the Spirit’s power spread. Whitfield crisscrossed the colonies and began to have massive crowds come out to hear him regularly. Crowds of eight to ten thousand people (for the size of the colonies this was huge) were the norm, culminating in him preaching to over 30,000 at one time on the Commons at Boston. Benjamin Franklin, a self-described skeptic who nevertheless was always interested in Whitfield's effect, measured the crowds and recorded the events, giving even more credence to the phenomenon of the revival. When Whitfield would preach, absolute mayhem would often take place, with crowds running to the event and stirring up so much dust it looked like a cloud had descended, with the added phenomenon of boats and carriages crashing in their attempt to get to the meetings.
Through the effects of the revival many were raised up to be preachers, missionaries, evangelists, and the like, and took the Gospel out to further reaches of the expanding settlements; churches were strengthened and grew and many colleges were raised up to train preachers, including Dartmouth (originally called Moors Charity School for Indians), and Brown University.
This revival, like all revivals, was of course not without controversy, as many in staid and formal churches didn’t appreciate “such enthusiasm” as they called it, looking down their noses at such base behavior, much like Michal looked down on King David’s worship and dancing. It is interesting to note, however, that many of those who opposed the revival would themselves fall later into liberal ideologies like Unitariansim; it isn’t really possible to resist the Holy Spirit on one hand and think He’ll bless you on the other. Whitefield's comment on that situation was "The reason there are so many dead churches is that dead men are preaching to them." Gilbert Tennent also wrote and preached on "The danger of an unconverted ministry" reflecting the reality that many leaders in a lot of churches resisting the revival didn't even know Christ personally themselves.
Nevertheless, denominations today like Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists owe their size directly to their participation in this and other revivals that took place in early America. However, the vast majority of churches in which the Great Awakening took place were Puritan. The Spirit of God was poured out in power with mighty manifestations taking place and so the Gospel spread.
This is a large unsung part of our Thanksgiving Heritage: Thank God for the way the grace of Christ and the power of His Spirit gave such a Christian foundation to this nation in its earliest days.