First Great Awakening
As part of my orientation into the Baptist Church, I started doing some research on the early Baptists in Canada and rediscovered the importance of spiritual revivals. Though Baptists had an even earlier history in Europe, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many early Baptists in Canada and the American colonies had its beginnings in the revivals of the Great Awakenings. God used and is still using spiritual revivals to call His people back to Himself.
Many Baptist churches in the Maritimes were established upon the foundation set by the leadership of one of the most influential preachers in early Canadian history, Henry Alline, who was central to spiritual revival in Nova Scotia. Alline was regarded by his contemporaries as Nova Scotia’s George Whitefield—dynamic, eloquent, and uniquely spiritual.
Born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1748, Alline arrive to Nova Scotia with his parents and experienced a spiritual conversion in 1775 at the age of 27. Henry Alline began to preach in 1776 during the spiritual revival that swept the Maritimes, in which most, if not all, protestant churches were impacted. Whether it was in Nova Scotia or New England, crowds flocked to hear him wherever he went. His ministry lasted only eight years from 1776 until his premature death in February 1784 at the young age of thirty-five. All though the timespan of his life and ministry was short, God used him powerfully, and later, his predecessors, to make a lasting impact in the evangelical and Baptist landscape in the Maritimes during this period of the First Great Awakening, 1778-1783.
Alline often spoke of this personal spiritual experience in terms of “New Light” and “New Birth”. Today, we would probably speak of his New Light experience as equivalent to what we know as the “Spirit-filled” and “born again” experience, which is expressed in his words, “Attracted by the love and beauty I saw in the divine perfections, my whole soul was inexpressibly ravished with the blessed Redeemer . . . my whole soul seemed filled with the divine being”. Church historian George Rawlyk says: “Sometimes his preaching, ‘charged with emotionalism’ as it was, and delivered in a ‘fervent and eloquent manner’, in a resonating tenor voice, became superb poetry. Sometimes, the poetry was sung as a spiritual song and followed immediately by an almost frenzied outburst of words directed at specific [types of] people in his audience.” For example, it might be directed it at young and old, at fisherman, community leaders and soldiers. Rawlyk says he probably did not have time to prepare his sermons. He preached “as the Spirit moved him” and used words full of evocative and powerful imagery. Between 1777 and 1783, in his trips crisscrossing Nova Scotia and the New England states, it is estimated that Henry Alline may have preached fifteen hundred sermons.
Between 1776 to 1784, Henry Alline established five churches in Nova Scotia and two in New Brunswick that were known as New Light congregations. These congregations did not start out Baptist in polity. All but one of these New Light congregations eventually organized to become a part of Regular Baptist and Free Baptist denominations in Atlantic Canada. By 1810, there were about 28 Baptist churches in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.