The Great Awakening was a religious revival that impacted the English colonies in America during the 1730s and 1740s. The movement came at a time when the idea of secular rationalism was being emphasized, and passion for religion had grown stale. Christian leaders often traveled from town to town, preaching about the gospel, emphasizing salvation from sins and promoting enthusiasm for Christianity. The result was a renewed dedication toward religion. Many historians believe the Great Awakening had a lasting impact on various Christian denominations and American culture at large.
First Great Awakening
In the 1700s, a European philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, was making its way across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colonies. Enlightenment thinkers emphasized a scientific and logical view of the world, while downplaying religion.
In many ways, religion was becoming more formal and less personal during this time, which led to lower church attendance. Christians were feeling complacent with their methods of worship, and some were disillusioned with how wealth and rationalism were dominating culture. Many began to crave a return to religious piety.
Around this time, the 13 colonies were religiously divided. Most of New England belonged to congregational churches.
The Middle colonies were made up of Quakers, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, the Dutch Reformed and Congregational followers.
Southern colonies were mostly members of the Anglican Church, but there were also many Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers.
The stage was set for a renewal of faith, and in the late 1720s, a revival began to take root as preachers altered their messages and reemphasized concepts of Calvinism. (Calvinism is a theology that was introduced by John Calvin in the 16th century that stressed the importance of scripture, faith, predestination and the grace of God.)
Most historians consider Jonathan Edwards, a Northampton Anglican minister, one of the chief fathers of the Great Awakening.
Edwards’ message centered on the idea that humans were sinners, God was an angry judge and individuals needed to ask for forgiveness. He also preached justification by faith alone.
In 1741, Edwards gave an infamous and emotional sermon, entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” News of the message spread quickly throughout the colonies.
Edwards was known for his passion and energy. He generally preached in his home parish, unlike other revival preachers who traveled throughout the colonies.
Edwards is credited for inspiring hundreds of conversions, which he documented in a book, “Narratives of Surprising Conversions.”
George Whitefield, a minister from Britain, had a significant impact during the Great Awakening. Whitefield toured the colonies up and down the Atlantic coast, preaching his message. In one year, Whitefield covered 5,000 miles in America and preached more than 350 times.
His style was charismatic, theatrical and expressive. Whitefield would often shout the word of God and tremble during his sermons. People gathered by the thousands to hear him speak.
Whitefield preached to common people, slaves and Native Americans. No one was out of reach. Even Benjamin Franklin, a religious skeptic, was captivated by Whitefield’s sermons, and the two became friends.
Whitefield’s success convinced English colonists to join local churches and reenergized a once-waning Christian faith.
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Several other pastors and Christian leaders led the charge during the Great Awakening, including David Brainard, Samuel Davies, Theodore Frelinghuysen, Gilbert Tennent and others.
Although these leaders’ backgrounds differed, their messages served the same purpose: to awaken the Christian faith and return to a religion that was relevant to the people of the day.
Basic Themes of the Great Awakening
The Great Awakening brought various philosophies, ideas and doctrines to the forefront of Christian faith.
Some of the major themes included:
- All people are born sinners
- Sin without salvation will send a person to hell
- All people can be saved if they confess their sins to God, seek forgiveness and accept God’s grace
- All people can have a direct and emotional connection with God
- Religion shouldn’t be formal and institutionalized, but rather casual and personal
Old Lights vs. New Lights
Not everyone embraced the ideas of the Great Awakening. One of the leading voices of opposition was Charles Chauncy, a minister in Boston. Chauncy was especially critical of Whitefield’s preaching and instead supported a more traditional, formal style of religion.
By about 1742, debate over the Great Awakening had split the New England clergy and many colonists into two groups.
Preachers and followers who adopted the new ideas brought forth by the Great Awakening became known as “new lights.” Those who embraced the old-fashioned, traditional church ways were called “old lights.”
Second Great Awakening
The Great Awakening came to an end sometime during the 1740s.
In the 1790s, another religious revival, which became known as the Second Great Awakening, began in New England. This movement is typically regarded as less emotionally charged than the First Great Awakening. It led to the founding of several colleges, seminaries and mission societies.
A Third Great Awakening was said to span from the late 1850s to the early 20th century. Some scholars, however, disagree that this movement was ever a significant event.
Effects of the Great Awakening
The Great Awakening notably altered the religious climate in the American colonies. Ordinary people were encouraged to make a personal connection with God, instead of relying on a minister.
Newer denominations, such as Methodists and Baptists, grew quickly. While the movement unified the colonies and boosted church growth, experts say it also caused division among those who supported it and those who rejected it.
Many historians claim that the Great Awakening influenced the Revolutionary War by encouraging the notions of nationalism and individual rights.
The revival also led to the establishment of several renowned educational institutions, including Princeton, Rutgers, Brown and Dartmouth universities.
The Great Awakening unquestionably had a significant impact on Christianity. It reinvigorated religion in America at a time when it was steadily declining and introduced ideas that would penetrate into American culture for many years to come.