St. Mary's Church & Cemetery; Adair, MO

The Great Awakening: Migration & Ministers of the Gospel

The student of genealogy sooner or later has to understand the importance of  “the great awakening” in the United Sates.  This was a time of religious fervor that had not been present before in the American conscience of the 1730’s and 1740’s.  As the idea of becoming American grew the idea of personal religious experience became paramount.

As scientific laws became known the acceptance of dogma in these matters became supplanted.  Individual interpretations of the Christian life became more important than established church doctrine. This was coupled with the movement from the eastern seaboard as the colony population pushed even more inland separate from the more main line establishment.  These migrations also unified the colonies more than ever.  Some of the earliest proselytizers of these ideals were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield.   Every student has read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” delivered in 1741.  He countered the Puritan ideal that works could not attain salvation.  This idea rocked the established church of the Puritans.  Whitfield, “the Great Itinerant”, preached between 1740 and 1770, leading many to be converted, radically changing the everyday man and woman as they migrated to other areas.  A term was coined during this time which set apart these ministers and galvanized and idea of a “new light” belief.

The Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian preachers followed the migrations of settlers to unsettled areas to set up congregations.  Another writing will give the Methodist their story. One of the early places settled was North Carolina.  These groups were well represented in the populations.

One of my ancestors, The Rev. John Thompson, was born about 1690 in Northern Ireland. He graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1706.  Later he received a Master of Arts from the university.  My 8th great grandfather began his Presbyterian ministry with his ordination in 1713 by the Presbytery of Aramgh. In 1715 he immigrated to America.

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Family tradition states that he was on the same ship were Samuel Crockett son of James Crockett and Sarah Montgomery.   His first post was the church in Lewes, Delaware where he preached until 1729.  He then emigrated to Middle Octarrara, and Chesnut Level in Pennsylvania, and back to what would now be Campbell Virginia.  By 1750 he accepted a call to North Carolina and established residency in that state.

Rev. Thompson was the first licensed preacher to establish a residence east of the Yakakin River, making him the first missionary of any denomination there.  It is recorded that he had a Bible printed for him in 1750.

I must confess that John Thompson was not much in favor of the “new light’ movement.  One idea that kept him from being a “new light” was the he promoted and had passed the Adopting Act of 1729 which means that every candidate for the Presbyterian ministry must subscribe to the Westminster Confession.  Rev. Thompson was on the board of the Newark Academy that became the University of Delaware.  He also was influential in the founding of Hampton-Sydney College in Virginia having begun a school for young boys while a missionary there.

Rev. Thompson was the author of four books: “An Examination and Refutation of Mr. Tennet’s Remarks Upon A Protestation”, “ The Doctrine of Convictions Set in a Clear Light”, “The Explication of the Shorter Catechism”, “The Government of the Church of Christ.”  The “new light” group respected and admired Rev. Thompson and he was always welcome to worship and preach with them.  He died in 1753.  It is said that they cut a hole in the floor of his cabin and buried him there in Iredell North Carolina beginning the Baker Graveyard.   Five of his sons fought in the American Revolution and Benjamin Franklin was a close friend, publishing one of his unsigned works.

There have been Baptist in North Carolina since 1695.  I choose North Carolina because it was the hinterland for the Baptist like the other denominations.  The first Baptist Church in North Carolina was put together by Paul Palmer about 1727.  The Baptist was among the earliest denominations in North Carolina. It seems that the Separatist of Connecticut had a successful revival echoing the work of Whitfield. These Separatist were “New Lights” from the Congregational Church.  People would travel for days to hear the fiery sermons of Shubeal Sterns and Daniel Marshall.

The oldest Baptist Church in America was built in Greensboro, Guilford County North Carolina. This church was the catalyst for the Southern Baptist Convention.  The Sandy Creek association created forty-two other churches.  The Baptist was divided.  There were regular Baptists as to separate them from Separates; those from Virginia adopted the Philadelphia Confession of Faith.  Nevertheless their differences were minor.

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The writer wants to note the power of the Sandy Creek group.  This group affected and influenced west to the Mississippi and south to the other Carolina and Georgia.


Image: St. Mary’s Church & Cemetery; Adair, MO by Flickr user Wesh

1 thought on “The Great Awakening: Migration & Ministers of the Gospel”

  1. I have found this a fascinating aspect to study when it comes to my ancestors as well. It gives so much more detail to their personal stories. My ancestor, James D. Purdy, Sr. was ordained by Francis Asbury at the end of the 18th century as a Methodist Circuit Rider. Once I started really looking, I found relatives who had built churches, were part of schisms, and those that carried their religion on as they moved acting as preachers and Sunday School teachers. I was raised Methodist, but finding out the history of why my family was Methodist gave me so much insight into how we got to “where we are today” through the actions of my ancestors.

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