Many of the Continental Army volunteers who were listening to the sermon in Newbury, Massachusetts’s Old South Church couldn’t help but focus on the pulpit itself. It was September 1775, and the church had recently gained fame because the bell in its clock tower was cast by Paul Revere, who had just months before made a name for himself on horseback. But some of the citizen-soldiers listening to Chaplain Samuel Spring’s challenge that day knew that they were also in the presence of another important bit of history — something they saw as very relevant to the emerging War of Independence.
Actually, it was what was under the pulpit that drew them.
Five years earlier, one of the church’s founders, George Whitefield, had been scheduled to preach a sermon. But Whitefield never made it to the pulpit; he died that morning in the church parsonage. A few days later, with much grief and ceremony, Whitefield was buried in a crypt directly beneath Old South Church’s pulpit — where his grave remains to this day.
Many of the men sitting in the church on September 16, 1775 were restless. They wanted the chaplain to finish his remarks so they could see Whitefield’s tomb. They wanted to make a connection — not only with history and fame: but with what we might refer to as the DNA of faith.
Lost to many modern-day Americans is the story of Whitefield and the Great Awakening he helped spark. The common revisionist narrative today places faith and matters of religion on the periphery of history — an enduring lunatic fringe encompassing past and present. But the enlightenment and passion that burned so bright during the epochal moments of our national gestation nearly two and a half centuries ago were actually fueled by something quite spiritual and profound.
America may have been born in 1776, but she was conceived several decades earlier. Long before men named Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock and Franklin became notable and influential, a few preachers meteorically blazed across the colonial sky.
Chief among these preacher-cultural celebrities was George Whitefield.
Ordained in the Church of England in 1736, at the tender age of 22, he quickly became well-known for his voice — it was loud and commanding but never shrill and off-putting. It was said that he could speak to 30,000 people (Benjamin Franklin counted them once) and that all could hear him, even in the open air. His diction and flair for dramatics had audiences hanging on every word. Historian George Marsden suggests that Whitefield’s communication gifts were so remarkable that even uttering the word “Mesopotamia” could bring people to tears. Whitefield emphasized personal conversion with his powerful messages on the new birth from Jesus’s words in the Gospel of John. The converted formed new churches — hundreds of them — and revived existing churches that had long been spiritually moribund.
Whitefield was really the first modern preacher to bring innovation, marketing savvy and advertising to ministry.
The chronological locus for the Great Awakening was the period of 1740-1742, but the residual and enduring effects lasted into the revolutionary period. And there is an interesting parallel between what happened here and what happened in France. While revolutionary France was characterized by rabid hostility toward religion, Americans saw no contradiction between certain Enlightenment values and precious religious principles.
And we have the Reverend George Whitefield, among many others, to thank for this.
When the sermon was finally done at Old South Church that September day in 1775, some of the citizen-soldiers sought out the church’s sexton and asked to see where Whitefield was buried. The sexton actually opened the coffin and a few of the officers obtained tiny bits of material from the dead preacher’s collar and wristband, carrying them into battle as good-luck charms.
I’m not all that into amulets, but I find myself cutting these men some slack. Their simple excision of fabric was really an exercise in remembrance and connection. They knew that what they were going to do soon in battle was somehow, someway tied to what Whitefield and others had been part of years before.
David R. Stokes is a minister, author, columnist and broadcaster. His new book, “The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America,” will be released by Random House on July 12th.