The Great Awakening

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The Great Awakening

"Ethiopia has also stretched forth her Hands unto God," wrote Rev. Samuel Davies (1723–1761) about slaves' participation in a revitalized Christianity spreading through the eighteenth century south. "There is a great number of Negroes in these parts; and sometimes I see 100 and more among my Hearers" (Epstein 1977, p. 104). Citing similar testimonials, historians agree with Albert J. Raboteau (1978), who claimed bondpeople were increasingly converting to Protestant Christianity during periods when religion enjoyed dramatic popularization.

The Great Awakening was the first significant religious revitalization in which many American slaves participated. The movement occurred in both England and the American colonies. Although the timing and intensity varied among communities, the American origin comes primarily from the Log College ministers trained by Presbyterian minister William Tennent (1673–1746). Beginning in 1735, Tennent trained ministers who preached against the security of church membership and orthodoxy. Spreading from their Philadelphia home, these ministers successfully brought apathetic congregations new enthusiasm with their messages. In the late 1730s the Great Awakening was more fully realized through the Church of England's George Whitefield (1714–1770) and Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). They stood apart, breaking liturgical convention with their message. Calling individuals to account with powerful sermons, these ministers induced a sense of personal spiritual guilt and desire for salvation. The Awakening movement spread outside church and community structure, challenging authority through a claim of equality before God. The outcast, the slave, and the dispossessed were told they might be received in heaven ahead of their social superiors who had not found new life through Christ.

In the early national period, rational thought and deism helped drain enthusiasm for Protestant revitalization. Westward expansion placed many Americans on the move, often without churches or the time and resources to join those forming in the territories. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) imagined an agrarian republic where citizens enjoyed a practical liberty, free from hierarchical authority. While Protestants had not become entirely apathetic as many ministers believed, the fervor from two generations earlier was more difficult to identify. Southern Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists continued revivalism. In Virginia, Washington College and Hampden-Sydney College experienced extensive revival activities in the late 1780s with as many as forty of their students becoming Presbyterian ministers. Many led new evangelical congregations in the territories. Waves of revivalism also swept New England and the northeast. Congregational minister Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), president of Yale College in 1802, brought almost half of the student body to Christ through a series of enthusiastic sermons. Among them was the most significant leader of the second Awakening, Lyman Beecher (1775–1863). Beecher's message emphasized personal salvation through repentance and faith. Once saved he urged Christians to lead religious lives through good works.

The Second Great Awakening was rooted in outdoor revivals and evangelical conversion. Perhaps the most significant event occurred in 1801. A weeks-long outdoor interdenominational revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, attracted thousands. Soon ministers were describing a new religious zeal in terms of fire. Revivalism "burned over" communities. Outdoor revivals and camp meetings attracted many more unconverted individuals than church services. Raised without religious education and often uninterested in denominational doctrine, revival crowds responded best to enthusiastic emotionalism. Eager to claim more souls for Christ, ministers responded with powerful sermons. Crowds responded with emotional shouting and physical contortions. "The jerks" could afflict an entire audience, sending people falling on the ground in convulsions or jumping up, shaking about. The apparently involuntary nature of these outbursts worried ministers and created conflict within denominations. Presbyterians, having championed revivals, were soon withdrawing. Eventually Presbyterian ministers who supported emotionalism formed the Disciples of Christ. Methodists and Baptists were more accepting, but their preachers often warned against such displays. A particular focus of the first and the second Awakenings was the conversion of people without religion. Efforts grew through itinerant Methodist preachers willing to spend time ministering among rural communities.

In both periods there is evidence of slave interest. Raboteau relates a 1740 letter from the Rev. Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764) to Whitefield discussing preaching in Charleston, South Carolina, where Tennent claimed "multitudes were awakened, and several had received great consolation, especially among the young people, children, and Negroes" (Raboteau 1978, p. 129). Mechal Sobel (1979) argued concurrently with Raboteau that slaves were uniquely ready for conversion during the Great Awakening. She reasoned that they preserved an African appreciation for religious mystery and Protestant Christianity's coherence proved attractive when their lives often lacked cohesion. Donald G. Mathews argued slaves experienced and shaped a "churning suspension of ideas and behavior patterns fed by African and Christian traditions. The process, which throughout the period worked to transform the suspension into a more stable compound, unfolded essentially through four channels: folk religion, autonomous black congregations, black constituencies associated with white churches, and black memberships of mixed, white-controlled churches" (Mathews 1977, p. 208). Allan Gallay finds early evangelicals' failure against slavery in the South resulted in their accommodating slave owners and subsequently gaining access to slaves. He contends "evangelicals learned that the dominant group of elites in Southern slave society was too strong to challenge. They retained their desire to convert others to their vision of proper Christianity, but pursued their ends quietly" (Gallay 1987, p. 373).

Standing apart from these interpretations is historian John Butler's (1990) contention that slaves came to religion not through the Great Awakening but within an Anglican framework. Butler claims late colonial slave Christianity retained principally English characteristics, even among evangelical Baptists. Rather than joining in a religious transformation, slaves looked toward Christianity when their population's mortality declined and natural increase offered opportunity for developing a new African American culture including religion. Butler goes further, suggesting the Great Awakening is more historical construction than reality. He consigns early evangelicalism to a disparate minor influence, claiming slave Christianization in the South largely remained under Anglican aegis until the 1760s. Butler does, however, acknowledge the later significance of evangelical Protestants to slaves in a pluralistic religious environment that gained momentum shortly before the American Revolution (1776–1783).

He believes early African slave conversion occurred through white instruction in a constricted environment that effectively suppressed slaves contributing African ideas to the shape of their religion. This argument supports an interpretation perhaps made best by Franklin E. Frazier in The Negro Church in America where Frazier claims slavery destroyed the transfer of African religious systems in the American colonies. This destruction according to Butler "precluded the development of the autonomous synthesis of African religions that typified slavery in so many other places" (Frazier 1974, p. 162). Supporting this requires explaining significant growth in slave membership among Separate Baptists and Methodist in both Great Awakenings. Butler, to this end, points to Christianity's content as the allure. Despite a white message emphasizing obedience and submission, slaves "found a different god in the Scriptures" (Butler 1990, p. 248). They captured the idea of deliverance and salvation, building Afro-Christianity around a god of freedom.

Contesting an African spiritual holocaust, Sobel and others find much to indicate a wide range of African spiritual survivals in play during the Great Awakenings. Sobel argues cultural commonality among various West African societies supported a new conflated African culture, including religious ideas, in America. This "idealtype West African Sacred Cosmos" was dynamic and much change included loss of specific African content. Sobel maintains there remained a core perspective that fit well with the evangelical ethos popular in the revivals of the Great Awakenings (Sobel 1979, p. 4). Providing further support for Sobel's thesis is Margaret Washington Creel's (1988) A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community-Culture among the Gullahs. Historians have mistaken West African society as having possessed a significant secular component according to Creel, who contends the spiritual was deeply embedded across distinct cultural systems. Secret, gender-specific organizations existed to maintain and transmit spiritual, social, and political power. The survival of the Poro—for men and Sande—for women in the colonies suggests a more systematic and widespread means for slaves to encounter Christianity.

That slaves were receptive to Christian outreach is evident as is the early consideration of converting slaves by Methodists and Baptists. John Wesley (1703–1791) supported slave conversions in the 1750s and 1760s. The Methodist itinerant Joseph Pilmoor (1739–1825) published Thoughts upon Slavery in 1774, encouraging Methodists to end the practice among members. Seventeen eighty-six was the first year Methodists kept membership records distinguished by race and they recorded 1,890 black members out of a total of almost 20,000. Baptists found even more success converting slaves in the South. Moving from New England, Shubael Stearns (1706–1771) and Daniel Marshall established the rural North Carolina Sandy Creek congregation in 1755 and the denomination flourished throughout the South. By the turn of the century African Americans comprised a quarter of Baptist membership. Both denominations would moderate their early antislavery positions, but rather than limit slave participation this may have increased their presence as Gallay (1987) indicates.

Although the contours of the Awakenings are imprecise, evidence suggests slaves in many parts of the South found themselves positioned to build religion into their daily lives using the enthusiastic, open call from Protestant evangelicals. While it is also difficult to delineate between African and English contributions, it seems most reasonable to conclude the Awakenings began the process of creating African American Christianity, a distinct form with many antecedents.


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Creel, Margaret Washington. A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community-Culture among the Gullahs. New York: New York University Press, 1988.

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Woodson, Carter G. The History of the Negro Church. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1921.

                                        David F. Herr

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The Great Awakening

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