The revivalists of the Great Awakening found an especially receptive audience among the black population of Colonial America. Blacks, both slave and free, resonated with the message of a "new birth" and found many areas of Scripture with which they could identify, such as Israel's time of slavery in Egypt and God's mighty deliverance of them. Through the Awakening, the racial chasm was breached, slaves were humanized and whites were awakened to the evils of slavery. The Great Awakening, indeed, marked the beginning of the end of slavery in America.
George Whitefield Reaches Out to Blacks in His Preaching
Whitefield exhibited genuine compassion and concern for the blacks in his audiences, and they recognized it. One black woman, after hearing Whitefield preach, stated that he must have been in a trance and insisted that "Jesus Christ must have told him what to speak to the people or else he could not speak as he did."
It is obvious that in these revival meetings blacks and whites were worshiping together. This should not be surprising, for in a genuine spiritual awakening, the Holy Spirit breaks down racial and cultural barriers, and this occurred in the Great Awakening. Mark Noll, professor of church history at Wheaton College, confirms this, saying, "It was under the impulse of the revival that the chasm between white and black cultures was breached."
Whitefield's impact among the black populace of Colonial America is indicated by the moving tribute that a young black woman, Phillis Wheatley, wrote at the time of his death in 1770. Wheatley, who became America's first published black poet, was 17 years old when she wrote the poem about Whitefield.
Wheatley heard Whitefield preach in Boston on more than one occasion and was profoundly impacted by his ministry. The words of her poem express the strains of equality she heard in the gospel he preached. It reads in part.
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refined,/ Inflame the heart and captivate the mind.The greatest gift that even God can give,/ He freely offered to the numerous throng.Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you,/ Impartial Savior is his title due.
Wheatley obviously quoted directly from Whitefield's preaching in her poem. Knowing Whitefield's passionate form of preaching, one can picture him crying out to the blacks in his audience, "Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you."
Further south, Samuel Davies, who was a colleague of Gilbert Tennent, gave special attention to blacks, including slaves, during his time of ministry in Virginia. Davies not only preached to blacks but invited them to share in regular church observances including the Lord's Supper. In 1757, he wrote:
What little success I have lately had, has been chiefly among the extremes of Gentlemen and Negroes. Indeed, God has been remarkably working among the latter. I have baptized 150 adults; and at the last sacramental solemnity, I had the pleasure of seeing the table graced with sixty black faces.
Blacks Join the Patriotic Protests
The Awakening thus led to the humanizing of blacks and an awakening to the evils of slavery. It also led to the emergence of new, black congregations, among those who were enslaved and those who were free. This led to many blacks identifying with the struggle for freedom from Great Britain and becoming part of the patriotic protests, especially in New England.
"Leader and voice that day;/ the first to defy and the first to die."
The positive ripples from the Awakening also opened the way for blacks to later serve in the Revolutionary War. David Barton has provided documentation showing that numbers of blacks were given honorable discharges and pensions, and some were honored with complete military funerals for their service in the war.
This article was derived from Dr. Eddie Hyatt's book, Pilgrims and Patriots: The Radical Christian Roots of American Democracy and Freedom. This book is available from Amazon and his website at eddiehyatt.com. Dr. Hyatt also conducts "America Reawakening" events in which he presents a PowerPoint presentation documenting how America was birthed out of the Great Awakening and calling on Christians to believe God for another great, national spiritual awakening. You can read about this at eddiehyatt.com/america_reawakening.html.
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