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The New Leadership: How the Great Awakening Changed American’s View of Tradition

One of the largest differences between the Evangelical Church and many High Church denominations is the movement’s view of tradition.  While most High Churches have an extremely foundational view of the role of tradition in biblical interpretation, the Evangelical Church tends to rely far more on personal interpretation based on cross-referencing the text.  The best way to study the distinction between these two approaches is to track the historical changes to the doctrine.  The First Great Awakening stands as one of the most pivotal and formative moments in American Evangelicalism.  During this period, George Whitfield and John Wesley both impacted the American view of tradition in ways that are still observable  today.

To see how the Awakening affected tradition, it is necessary to understand the Church’s view of tradition when the revivalists began their ministries. Both George Whitefield and John Wesley were Anglican ministers.  At the time of their education, the Anglican Church was less than two hundred years old.  Despite the movement’s youth, the Anglican Church held fast to apostolic succession and clung to traditional interpretations of Scripture.  The 39 Articles of Religion attempted to protect the rich tradition of the church, while adjusting some Catholic theology.  The Book of Common Prayer protected and maintained the liturgical history and practice of the Church.  During the beginning of the movement, Richard Hooker arose as the most prominent early Anglican theologian.  Hooker walked the line between the Catholic and the Puritan approaches to tradition.  He “upheld the threefold authority of the Anglican tradition—Bible, church, and reason.”[1] The Anglican Church asserted that primary authority lay in Scripture, but wherever the Bible remains silent or vague, tradition or reason could assist in ascertaining the truth.  This system of revelation became known as the Anglican triad or three-fold cord.  Hooker agreed with the Puritans that anywhere the Bible spoke clearly it should be taken at face value.  Whenever there was doubt as to the meaning of a text, however, Hooker sided with the Catholics that the best understanding lay in the traditional interpretation of the Church.  If the meaning was still unclear after tradition was consulted, then reason could be utilized in the search of the truth. This is the view of tradition that Whitefield and the Wesleys learned during their studies at Pembroke College in Oxford, and this is the understanding by which the modern Anglican Church still interprets scripture today.

John Wesley liked the three-fold cord of Anglicanism, however, he thought that the system could be improved.  Wesley began by affirming the Anglican triad.  He had an extremely high view of Scripture and believed that ideally it would have settled all theological disputes.  But, as Albert Oulter describes, “he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controverted point of doctrine… Thus… he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that.”[2] Even though a scripture that clearly spoke for itself may have been the ideal for John Wesley, he realized that it was not a reality.  He often referred to church history just as his predecessors had.  There was, however, a significant difference in the way that Wesley cited tradition.  Unlike other theologians, who believed in the authority or at least the heavy weight of tradition,


[John] claimed the right to reject the damnatory clauses in the so-called ‘Athanasian Creed’; he was prepared to defend Montanus and Pelagius against their detractors. He insisted that ‘private judgment was the keystone of the Protestant Reformation.’[3]


John did not accept tradition as a whole.  He openly cherry-picked theology that he agreed with regardless of the orthodoxy of the author.  In his sermon, “The Wisdom of God’s Counsels”, Wesley goes as far as to assert that “When Augustine’s passions were heated, his word is not worth a rush. And here is the secret: St. Augustine was angry at Pelagius: Hence he slandered and abused him, (as his manner was), without either fear or shame.”[4] Wesley defends Pelagius, one of the arch- heretics, from one of the most respected church fathers and claims the Augustinian attacks were based on anger and not orthodoxy, thus rejecting 1,400 years of church tradition.   This quote reveals Wesley’s view of tradition.  The tradition of the church is useful to cite and learn from, but the Church’s decisions do not hold any authority.  Final judgment rests in personal interpretation and not tradition.  This represents a massive break from the Anglican approach to tradition.  Instead of merely reserving reason for situations where tradition was silent or vague, Wesley valued reason and personal interpretation over tradition.

Once Wesley had asserted the importance of the original three-fold cord, he asserts his own fourth proposition: experience.  The addition of experience in Wesleyan theology was produced from his attempt to “revitalize” the church.  Though Wesley still wanted to maintain its doctrinal quality, he believed the church needed a revival of spirit.  Albert Oulter, a leading expert on John Wesley, describes John’s innovation saying “It was Wesley’s special genius that he conceived of adding ‘experience’ to the traditional Anglican triad… What he did was to apply the familiar distinction between fides quae creditur and fides qua creditur (from a theoretical faith to an existential one) so as to insist on ‘heart religion’ in place of all nominal Christian orthodoxy.”[5] As Outler asserts, John Wesley attempted to maintain the substance of the Anglican Church while adding the fervor and passion that he believed were necessary for a vital faith.  By adding experience, he was able to account for those who understood the tenets of doctrine and yet could not be identified as Christians. This addition rounded out Wesley’s attempt to maintain doctrinal substance, while still encouraging revivalism and came to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

George Whitefield heavily influenced American thought on tradition by simply not addressing the subject.  While John Wesley contemplated theology and the role of tradition, Whitefield  focused on being the best revivalist preacher possible.  His focus made him an incredibly important leader of the Great Awakening, but would also lead to some negative, unforeseen events after his life.  As Cragg describes:

Initially, the Great Awakening was not a concerted movement.  Jonathan Edwards’ preaching at Northampton, Mass., deeply stirred the whole community.  A German called Freylinghausen was achieving remarkable results in New Jersey… These various strains were drawn together by George Whitefield… Though an Anglican, he cooperated readily with all groups; as a visitor from abroad, he was equally at home in all the colonies.  By his successive visits he knot into a unified movement, transcending colonial frontiers and denominational barriers, the previously scattered manifestations of reawakened zeal.[6]

George Whitefield’s work changed the American Church.   He reached across denominational boundaries and conveyed a simple gospel.  One of the effects of this interdenominational approach was that he could not and did not emphasize any particular tradition.  Whitefield’s sole job was to preach the gospel and convict his listeners of sin.  He personally stood firmly in the Calvinist tradition and valued church tradition.  Because Whitefield did not focus on tradition,

A new kind of leadership began to emerge… American religious life was changing its complexion, and was subtly altering its emphasis. The early leaders of the Awakening had stood in strong theological tradition. Whitefield, though not a profound thinker, was a convinced Calvinist. So was Edwards… But their successors were preoccupied with the human response to the divine initiative.  As a consequence, an exaggerated importance was attached to emotional reactions.[7]


In the wake of Whitefield’s ministry, a new breed of church leader arose.  These leaders were focused on experience and emotion, and they lost their teacher’s focus on theology and doctrine. This eventually lead to the radical rejection of tradition that was evident in Charles Finney and many of the leaders of the Second Great Awakening.  Though Whitefield accomplished great achievements for the American religious state of his time, he opened the door to a movement without tradition, which eventually caused great harm in America and still plagues the church today.  Some scholars attempt to pin a more aggressive anti-traditionalism on Whitefield, but there is little evidence that Whitefield actually disliked tradition.  He disliked religious practice without emotional and active engagement.  He emphasized the believer’s need to repent and turn to Christ, and that regular religious practice was not enough to save a person.  He did not, however, attack or attempt to mar the public’s view of a traditional church.  Some point to his rhetoric as evidence of his lack of appreciation for his religious tradition.  As Williams argues, “Whitefield’s preaching broke traditional rules; it called for direct, immediate response…  Whitefield and his imitators did not read their sermons like most of the colonies’ settled ministers of the early eighteenth century but declaimed them extemporaneously in order to maximize their power.”[8]  It is true that Whitefield did not conform to the typical rhetorical style of his day: this is not, however, valid evidence of a lack of respect for the theological tradition of his day.  He employed a different rhetorical style that better served his purpose. The practice of reading homilies was a current fad, but was not part of the theological tradition or even traditional style of preaching, a willingness to break that style does not show a lack of respect for tradition.

John Wesley and George Whitefield drastically changed the way that Americans view tradition.  Wesley augmented the current Anglican tradition by emphasizing reason and adding experience as a fourth cord.  Whitefield simply did not address or engage with tradition, though he held to the Anglican Calvinist tradition himself.  As a result of their work, their pupils began the movement which valued experience over tradition and private judgment over church history. This movement grew in strength until it burst forth in the radical revivalist preachers of the Second Great Awakening, such as Charles Finney. It continues to affect the way the American Church views tradition.



End notes:
[1] Encyclopedia Britannica Richard Hooker
[2] Wesley, John, Albert Cook Outler, and Richard P. Heitzenrater. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991. 9
[3] ibid
[4] “The Wisdom of God’s Counsels” Sermon #68.
[5] Outler 10
[6] Cragg, Gerald R. The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960. 179-180
[7] Cragg 181
[8] Harrold, Philip, and Daniel H. Williams. The Great Tradition, a Great Labor: Studies in Ancient-future Faith. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011. 98



Cragg, Gerald R. The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960.
“Richard Hooker | English Theologian.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed March 02, 2016.
Harrold, Philip, and Daniel H. Williams. The Great Tradition, a Great Labor: Studies in Ancient-future Faith. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011.
Wesley, John, Albert Cook Outler, and Richard P. Heitzenrater. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991.