What was the Great Awakening?

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What was the Great Awakening?

The Great Awakening was a spiritual renewal that swept the American Colonies, particularly New England, during the first half of the 18th Century. Certain Christians began to disassociate themselves with the established approach to worship at the time which had led to a general sense of complacency among believers, and instead they adopted an approach which was characterized by great fervor and emotion in prayer. This new spiritual renewal began with people like the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield in England and crossed over to the American Colonies during the first half of the 18th Century. Unlike the somber, largely Puritan spirituality of the early 1700s, the revivalism ushered in by the Awakening allowed people to express their emotions more overtly in order to feel a greater intimacy with God.

What caused the Great Awakening?

In late 17th Century England, fighting between religious and political groups came to a halt with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, an event which established the Church of England as the reigning church of the country. Other religions, such as Catholicism, Judaism, and Puritanism, were subsequently suppressed. From a political perspective, this led to stability since everyone now practiced the same religion. But instead of being a positive driving force for religious belief in general, it created complacency and spiritual “dryness” among believers. Religion became something of a pastime in which people would “go through the motions” during religious services without deeply-felt convictions of the heart and soul. It was only after some decades of this kind of complacency in both England and the American colonies that the spiritual “revival” of the Great Awakening came about.

What were the effects of the Great Awakening?

The Awakening’s biggest significance was the way it prepared America for its War of Independence. In the decades before the war, revivalism taught people that they could be bold when confronting religious authority, and that when churches weren’t living up to the believers’ expectations, the people could break off and form new ones. Through the Awakening, the Colonists realized that religious power resided in their own hands, rather than in the hands of the Church of England, or any other religious authority. After a generation or two passed with this kind of mindset, the Colonists came to realize that political power did not reside in the hands of the English monarch, but in their own will for self-governance (consider the wording of the Declaration of Independence). By 1775, even though the Colonists did not all share the same theological beliefs, they did share a common vision of freedom from British control. Thus, the Great Awakening brought about a climate which made the American Revolution possible.

Towards an American Identity

The major effect of the Awakening was a rebellion against authoritarian religious rule which spilled over into other areas of colonial life. Amidst the growing population of the colonies within the 18th Century and mass public gatherings, charismatic personalities such as Whitefield and Tennent rolled through to deliver their messages. Though a religious movement, the Awakening had repercussions in cultural and political spheres as well. Customs of civility and courtesy, the governing norms of life in the colonies, were set aside in favor of a more quarrelsome age. Practices and mind-sets were changed by the Awakening like never before.
Revivalism in the colonies did not form around a complex theology of religious freedom, but nevertheless the ideas it produced opposed the notion of a single truth or a single church. As preachers visited town after town, sects began to break off larger churches and a multitude of Protestant denominations sprouted. The older groups that dominated the early colonies – the Puritans and the Anglicans – eventually began a drastic downward trend in popularity. Although they accounted for about 40% of American congregations as late as 1760, that number eventually dropped to under 2.5% by 1790.

The social effect of multitudes of new denominations was not, however, a fracturing of communities, but a unifying drive which helped to create a “national consciousness”.

The effect of Great Awakening unity was an attitude that went against the deferential thinking that consumed English politics and religion. Rather than believing that God’s will was necessarily interpreted by the monarch or his bishops, the colonists viewed themselves as more capable of performing the task. The chain of authority no longer ran from God to ruler to people, but from God to people to ruler. The children of revivalism later echoed this radicalism and popular self-righteousness in the American Revolution, when self-assertion turned against the tyrannical ways of George III. It was not to any church that the signers of the Declaration of Independence appealed to, but directly to the “Supreme Judge of the World”. It was through the revivalism of the first half of the Eighteenth Century that the colonists were finally able to step out from under the protectorate of the established Christian churches and assert religious control over their own nation’s destiny.

Government as Contract

Another effect of the Great Awakening on colonial culture was the growth of the notion of state rule as a contract with the people.

Parishioners during the revival gained an understanding of covenants with their churches as contractual schemes; they argued that each believer owed the church their obedience, and the churches in turn owed their congregants the duty to be faithful to the Gospel. Parishioners therefore reserved the right to dissolve the covenant and to sever ties with the church without prior permission. This notion of covenant was a popular one in Puritan society and reflected a common biblical understanding of association. Present in the Mayflower Compact and later forming an ideological basis for breaking from Great Britain, the notion of covenant grew to link religion and politics in the colonies.

The ideals of Puritanical covenant theology were manifested in the “social compact” of the Declaration of Independence. Under this theory, implicit in the Declaration, disassociated individuals in the “state of nature” agree to live and be bound together under consensual government. With the frequency by which believers broke away from larger churches to form splinter groups, the colonists must have been accustomed to separating themselves from larger institutions.

Religious Uniformity

Perhaps the greatest fuel added to the revolutionary fire that began burning in the latter half of the 18th Century was religious pluralism within the colonies. Unlike England, which after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had become spiritually stagnant under the Church of England, the colonists adhered to no single denomination. The splits in churches that revivalism had caused prevented uniformity in religion from becoming a reality. While groups such as the Quakers and Anglicans still existed in areas, none could rise to dominate the religious scene and become the primary American religion. So long as the colonists did not become complacent, their religious zeal would continue to burn strong.

Eventually, this religious zeal turned to revolution and sentiments of self-governance. That the religious spirit of the colonists was a necessary component to the drive for independence is confirmed in the sentiments of those who lived during the period of fighting. As British statesman William Knox noted about the American drive for independence, “Every man being thus allowed to be his own Pope, he becomes disposed to wish to become his own King”.

John Adams gave credit to the Great Awakening as the source of motivation behind the war, and in certain parts of England the revolution was even called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”.

Shared Goals

The religious revival of the Great Awakening melded the colonists in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. Eighteenth Century Americans thought of religion as something communitarian – a form of social cooperation – rather than a competitive endeavor of individuals that the world of commerce envisioned. Christians were told to be benevolent and to make self-sacrifices, and many were bound together by way of their shared mass conversions. Thus, they could afford to make sacrifices for their land in times of need.

Another shared sentiment of the chiefly Protestant nation was a fear of Catholic domination. While this feeling may have been contributed to by fear of foreign political domination, the revivalist zeal of the colonists no doubt played a part in the anti-hierarchical nature of anti-Catholic attitudes. Through cataclysmic events such as world earthquakes in 1727 and 1755, expectations of the new millennial age increased. The colonists viewed these as divine signs, and so when questions arose about the Antichrist they turned to the Catholics. They considered the pope to be the enemy during the French and Indian War, and celebrations in Boston and in other places, Anti-Pope Day furthered Protestant zeal.

Anti-Catholicism was one of the most prominent traits in the colonies prior to the revolution. This attitude was significant in the New England way of life and existed not only in the churches but also in taverns, newspapers, and schools. Despite political or theological differences between colonists, one common understanding shared by all was an opposition to Roman Catholicism. So when the “popish” threat subsided somewhat with the passing of the French and Indian War, the colonists searched for a new Antichrist at which they could direct their attention. They found him in George III, who needed to be expelled from the colonies in order to bring forth the new age of righteousness. The religious fervor spawned by the Great Awakening provided the catalyst for political and military action necessary for fulfillment of religious expectations. The crusade against the Catholics provided the necessary focal point over the course of the 18th Century until the new crusade against the British took over.

George Whitefield

Slender, cross-eyed and handsome, George Whitefield was an Anglican priest and powerful orator with charismatic appeal. At the age of 25, he created a sensation in England by preaching outdoors and going over the heads of other priests to reach their congregations. In 1740, he brought that same defiance of authority to America, along with a savvy sense of the media. Newspaper ads announced his sermons; messengers rode ahead to spread the news of his coming appearances.

In one year, Whitefield traveled 5,000 miles through America, preaching more than 350 times as he traversed the nation North to South. An estimated 25,000 people gathered on Boston Common to hear him speak. Another 12,000 heard him in Philadelphia and 8,000 in New York City. In 15 months, as much as a quarter of the country had heard his message.

Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist. His central theme -- what must I do to be saved? -- was not new. His preaching style was. Ministers traditionally wrote sermons in longhand and read the text out loud in a dull monotone. The effect was often soporific. Drawing on his youthful foray into drama, Whitefield memorized his sermons, spoke without notes, varied the timbre of his voice and gestured with abandon. He drew freely on his own emotions, crying out, "My Master! My Lord!" It was said that he could utter the word "Mesopotamia" so that the entire crowd wept. The effect was electric. Crowds responded with outpourings of emotion. People cried, sobbed, shrieked, swooned and fainted. All of New England, it seemed, was seized by a spiritual convulsion.

Whitefield ignited the Great Awakening, a major religious revival that became the first major mass movement in American history. At its core, the Awakening changed the way that people experienced God. Instead of receiving religious instruction from their ministers, ordinary men and women unleashed their emotions to make an immediate, intense and personal connection with the divine. From New England to Georgia, the revival was marked by a broad populist tone -- small farmers, traders, artisans, servants and laborers were especially swept up by the preaching of Whitefield and his followers. As historian Harry Stout observed: "They were still part of a view of the world as a world divided between superiors and inferiors. And you had to know your place. And if you didn't know your place order would break down and all chaos would ensue. ... Whitefield smelled the dissolution of the old aristocratic order. He saw that what had been was not what was going to be."

At first, established ministers had welcomed Whitefield and his fellow revivalists. Church attendance swelled. New energy was in the air. Soon, however, the clergy realized that the revivalists were challenging their authority. Itinerant preachers like Whitefield could preach anywhere; they did not need a church. Ignoring parish boundaries, they lured crowds away from the pews and into the fields. Once the revivalist ministers stirred up the populace, they were free to move on. Their emotional style disrupted the usual social decorum.

By 1742, an acrimonious debate about the Great Awakening had split the New England clergy into rival factions. The "Old Lights" opposed preachers like Whitefield; the "New Lights" supported them. Whitefield himself appeared to have second thoughts about the religious movement that he had ignited. But it was too late. Although the energy of the First Great Awakening subsided in the late 1740s, revivals became a persistent feature of the American religious landscape.

Jonathan Edwards

As the Great Awakening swept across Massachusetts in the 1740s, Jonathan Edwards, a minister and supporter of George Whitefield, delivered what would become one of the most famous sermons from the colonial era, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The sermon featured a frightening central image: the hand of all-powerful God dangling a terrified believer over a fiery pit, ready on a moment's notice to drop him into the flames of eternal damnation. Edwards hoped his sermon would wake up the faithful and remind them of the terrible fate that awaited them if they failed to confess their sins and to seek God's mercy.

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" eclipsed Edwards' more important contribution to religion in America. The son and grandson of preachers, he not only became a minister but also one of the greatest theologians in American history. His precocious intelligence and range of intellect was evident early on. He learned Latin, read Newton's Optics and wrote about rainbows and the captivating movement of spiders. Reveling in nature, he found "a divine glory, in almost everything." He described his own religious experience in almost mystical terms, as being "swallowed up by God."

A prodigious writer, Edwards produced volumes of sermons, journals and observations. His capacious mind engaged two persistent religious questions that transcend time: What is the nature of religious experience? What is the source of religious authority? The question of experience arose with urgency during the Great Awakening. Heeding the calls of Whitefield and his followers, men and women frequently engaged in flamboyant displays of emotional excess, often accompanied by extreme bodily movements. Boston minister Charles Chauncy sharply criticized this behavior, arguing that people were being tricked by their overheated imaginations into calling the result true religion. Reason, not emotion or "animal instinct," he argued, must govern religious experience.

Jonathan Edwards demurred. In his Treatise on Religious Affectations, he defended the place of emotion in religious experience not as "animal instinct," but as part of human will. At the same time, he questioned whether subjective experience alone could serve as the source of religious authority. He concluded that individuals could not rely solely on their own spiritual experience, however luminous it appeared. Satan, Edwards warned, stood ever ready to appeal to human self-centeredness.

By the time he died in 1758, Edwards had left behind a formidable body of work that addressed topics that have occupied Christian thinkers for nearly 2,000 years: the nature of sin, the will and virtue. As his biographer Perry Miller noted, Edwards treated these topics "in the manner of Augustine, Aquinas, and Pascal, not as problems of dogma, but of life."

Great Awakening Document A (by Ben Franklin)

Mr. Whitefield went preaching all the way through the

colonies to Georgia, where there were many helpless

children unprovided for. The sight of their miserable situation

inspired the benevolent heart of Mr. Whitefield with the idea

of building an Orphan House there, in which they might be

supported and educated. Returning northward, he preached

up this charity, and made large collections.

I happened to attend one of his sermons, in the course of

which I realized he intended to finish with a collection, and I

silently decided he should get nothing from me [Franklin

thought the Orphan House should be built in Philadelphia], I

had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four

silver dollars, and five pieces in gold. As he proceeded I

began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another

stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that, and I

decided to give the silver; and he finished so admirably, that

I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector's dish, gold and


He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and

sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and

understood at a great distance, especially as his audiences,

however numerous, were completely silent. He preached

one evening and I computed that he might well be heard by

more than thirty thousand.


Benevolent: kind

Oratory: speech

Source: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1793. Ben Franklin

was a good friend of George Whitefield, though he did not agree with

his religious beliefs.

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