Divine Faith in Europe

Between 1730 and 1760, western Europe experienced a revivalist movement that advocated acceptance of the divine faith doctrine. This movement later came to be known as the First Great Awakening. The title was used to differentiate this first rise in evangelical revivalism from the second wave of religious fervor that surfaced between 1800 and 1801, which become known as the Second Great Awakening.

During the First Great Awakening, the acceptance of the divine faith doctrine in Europe was most prevalent in England, Scotland, Wales, and Germany, although the movement also received a good deal of attention in Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden, and France.

At the same time, a similar but separate revivalist movement took place across the Atlantic in the United States. Despite the common factors in the teachings of the various evangelists, the divine faith movement was not a single movement but a large number of highly individualistic movements that surfaced around the Western Hemisphere.

In addition to Anglicans and dissenters in England, the Protestant sects that endorsed divine faith included Calvinists and Arminians in England, Presbyterians in Scotland, Lutherans and Pietists in Saxony, and Puritan Congregationalists in New England.

All proponents of the divine faith movement advocated a strong faith in the divine will of God. Most of them taught that conversion must come from a heartfelt acceptance of Christian teachings rather than from a blind acceptance of religious dogma or from confessional conformity.

Advocates taught that God was actively involved in shaping history and that he was constantly guiding the day-to-day activities of believers. To the early evangelicals, prayer was the means by which chaos could be averted. Therefore, it became the responsibility of all believers to intercede for those who did not understand this fact. Believers were also encouraged to pray for one another.

The divine faith movement was built around four cornerstones: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. To the evangelical, converting others to the faith had been a major element of Christianity since the formation of the early church following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Activism was, therefore, a foregone conclusion because all believers were required to reach out to those inside and outside their own churches and countries.

These two concepts had been the motivating forces behind the practice of sending missionaries to the farthest reaches of the globe since the founding of the early church. Because the basis for all Christian faith comes from the Holy Bible, the insistence on biblicism reminded believers that they were to be led by the Word of God and to refrain from following false prophets.

The concept of crucicentrism was intended to keep the focus of the Christian on Christ, who gave his life on the Cross of Calvary to save the world from the darkness of sin. The overreaching goal of the early evangelical movement was, therefore, to bring about a global fellowship of all humans who worked together to understand and advance the will of God.

The time of the First Great Awakening has been called the age of faith as well as the era of pietism and the era of evangelism. The motivation for spreading the doctrine of divine faith arose from the Protestant determination to mitigate the effects of the age of Enlightenment, which had intrigued most of the upper and educated classes in western Europe and the United States with its emphasis on reason and individualism. Advocates of the evangelical movement taught that many things should be accepted on faith alone because some things could never be proved by science.

The Good of Humankind

The concept of individuality was viewed by early evangelicals as counterproductive because it encouraged people to promote their own interests rather than working for the good of all humankind.

Instead of emphasizing the concept of the scarcity of resources that was a significant element in the classical liberal thought that had gained momentum in the age of Enlightenment, proponents of divine faith taught that God had granted humans dominion over nature and animals, which were to be used to better the lives of all humans.

Members of the lower and working classes who were more inclined than others to accept the theory of divine faith without reservation attended revivals in large numbers, resulting in a rapidly increasing number of converts.

In autumn 1729, the widely celebrated and respected Episcopalian minister George Whitfield (1714–70), known as the “apostle of the British Empire,” traveled to the United States, where he converted large crowds of Americans to the divine faith movement. Whitfield was considered the founder of Methodism, a name that at the time was loosely and sometimes derisively used to refer to all evangelicals.

Whitfield was strictly Calvinist in his beliefs, although he was instrumental in shaping the beliefs of Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists as well. Throughout his lifetime, Whitfield preached 18,000 sermons, an average of 500 a year.

While in America, Whitfield publicly broke with John Wesley (1703–91), the founder of the official Methodist Church and one of the great evangelists of the period. Wesley taught that through grace Christians were capable of realizing a state of perfect love with God.

He encouraged his followers to become involved in fighting injustice wherever they found it. Whatever their commonalities, Whitfield and Wesley were unable to reconcile their divergent beliefs on salvation theology.

Wesley believed that when babies were born, some had been predestined to become Christians, while others had not. To Whitfield, salvation was a personal experience that was derived from conscious choice rather than from predestination.

Henry Venn (1796–1873), who became the leader of the second wave of evangelistic fervor, was heavily influenced by both Whitfield and Wesley. However, he found himself treading a middle path between the doctrines supported by these prominent evangelists. To Venn, clemency and humanitarianism were irrevocably joined to moralism and to the avoidance of sin.

Together, the influence of these three evangelists ignited reform movements in education and penal systems, and their teachings were instrumental in planting seeds that blossomed into antislavery movements, which in turn led to the eventual abolition of slavery.