In the 1700s, the First Great Awakening came to an end because of the influx of rationalistic thinking from Europe in the form of literature. Revival waned because books containing the philosophy of the Enlightenment were disbursed on the college campuses by the ton. Books containing rationalistic principles which mocked the Bible, such as Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, were given out to the students for a few pennies. If the students wouldn’t buy them they would be given to them for free.
Dr. Timothy Dwight, then the President of Yale College, described the literature as “the dregs of humanity vomited on us … the whole mass of pollution emptied on this country.”
The effect on U.S. colleges was disastrous. Students looking for an excuse to rebel against Christianity embraced rationalism. Bible colleges became centers of skepticism. Students formed societies calling themselves by the names of the French philosophers of the Enlightenment. In radical movements, similar to the 1960s, students took control of entire campuses. Students held mock communion services. One group forced the resignation of a Bible college president. Another group attempted to blow up a campus building.
But God had a surprise in store. Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, became the president of Yale in 1795. Under his administration the whole moral and religious atmosphere of the college was changed for the better.
He met the students on their own ground and in a series of frank discussions in the classrooms treated subjects such as “The Nature and Danger of Infidel Philosophy,” “Is the Bible the Word of God?” He gave a notable series of lectures in which he grappled with the principles of deism and materialism. Soon he had the admiration of the students and in 1802 a revival began in which a third of the student body professed conversion, to be followed at frequent intervals by other awakenings.
Dartmouth, Williams and Amherst colleges experienced similar spiritual awakenings while the movement spread to other parts of the United States. The “Infidel Movement” was checked and the resulting awakening became the impulse for the founding of numerous academies and colleges.