The Great Awakening was a watershed event in the life of the American people. Before it was over, it had swept the colonies of the Eastern seaboard, transforming the social and religious life of land. Although the name is slightly misleading--the Great Awakening was not one continuous revival, rather it was several revivals in a variety of locations--it says a great deal about the state of religion in the colonies. For the simple reality is that one cannot be awakened unless you have fallen asleep.
Neither the Anglicans who came to dominate religious life in Virginia after royal control was established over Jamestown, nor the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, were terribly successful in putting down roots. The reality was that on the frontier, the settled parish system of England-- which was employed by Puritan and Anglican alike--proved difficult to transplant. Unlike the compact communities of the old world, the small farms and plantations of the new spread out into the wilderness, making both communication and ecclesiastical discipline difficult. Because people often lived great distances from a parish church, membership and participation suffered. In addition, on the frontier concern for theological issues faded before the concern for survival and wrestling a living from a hard and difficult land. Because the individual was largely on his own, and depended on himself for survival, authoritarian structures of any sort--be they governmental or ecclesiastical--met with great resistance. As a result, by the second and third generations, the vast majority of the population was outside the membership of the church.
Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, the landscape was littered with the dry tender of the unchurched. All that was required was a spark of revival to set the landscape afire with religious enthusiasm. And when that spark ignited, those who led the revival were so surprised by what was taking place, that they "attributed it entirely to God's inscrutable grace."