The Church in History by Dr. T.Y. Hiter

Even today, most Americans don’t completely understand that before the United States was formed, one’s religion was not chosen by one’s own self. It was chosen by the government. It might be chosen by the King, in a monarchy, or it might be chosen by whatever other sort of government was in power, but it was always whatever the government wanted it to be. Even John Calvin, the man who set the tone for virtually all the Protestant sects, wasn’t really trying to start a new religion. He was trying to make it possible for the government of one small city state in Switzerland to adopt reformist ideas. It never crossed his mind that individual citizens might choose their own religion. It was no different in the British Colonies in America.

So: In Virginia and the Carolinas, the established Church was the Church of England. It was in Massachusetts, too, except there it was of the Puritan variety of the C of E. Pennsylvania was established by and for Quakers, but the eventual government established the Church of England for everybody. The same thing happened in Maryland, with the Roman Catholics. In Rhode Island, Roger Williams, after being kicked out of Massachusetts, established the Baptist Church. Never mind the fact that Baptists insisted even then on congregational independence. It just never occurred to most people not to follow their government’s desires in terms of religion. In the vast majority of the Colonial settlements, that meant the Church of England.

So, when in 1835, James Oglethorpe called on the Church of England to send him some Missionaries to help him run his Colony of Georgia, a young John Wesley and his brother Charles were sent to do just that. On the way, Wesley spent some time aboard ship with some Moravians, German Anabaptist immigrants, and fell in love with much of their simple, tuneful worship. But the Churches he founded were not Moravian. They were Church of England. He did make some experimental changes in worship in some of them, though. For instance, he introduced the idea of congregational singing; something that both Anglicans and Baptists firmly opposed at the time. Wesley was a committed preacher, as well, somewhat taken with the ideas of John Calvin in that regard.

In 1740, George Whitefield, another Anglican, came to the Colonies and began preaching in a fiery, emotional manner that led to huge crowds and numerous imitators. The northeastern American Colonies had already gotten used to listening to a native-born Puritan/Congregationalist named Jonathan Edwards, who had been preaching in the same style since 1731. With these three preachers in the forefront, the Colonies slipped into the first, uniquely American, revival, with thousands following them. It has ever since been called “The Great Awakening”. It was not to be the last.