A Key Event. The Great Awakening was the pivotal event in the eighteenth-century religious scene. It was an offshoot of a transatlantic revival of piety that arrived on American shores with George Whitefield, an evangelical itinerant preacher from England who sparked his own revivals, legitimized those of others, and publicized them all as one great awakening. It took on various emphases within the different denominations and regions, exposed existing fissures and caused others, precipitated realignments both within and among religious groups, and settled the religious landscape onto new ground. Although it affected all denominations, the Great Awakening had its greatest initial impact on the Presbyterians in the middle colonies and the Congregationalists in New England. In the northern colonies it only lasted for about three years, but its ripples continued to affect all regions throughout the century.
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten Times so abominable in his Eyes, as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince; and yet ‘tis nothing but His Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every moment.
O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: ‘Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as many of the Damned in Hell. You hang by a slender Thread, the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready in a Moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.
Source: Jonathan Edwards , Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God... (Boston: Printed & sold by S. Kneeland & T. Green, 1741).
Middle Colonies. Revivalistic preachers in several denominations already were engaged in attempts to awaken religious fervor among their own flocks and the unchurched when Whitefield arrived in 1739 on a preaching tour to raise funds for his orphanage in Georgia. The Presbyterian revivalists in particular had already heard of him and rushed to enlist his support. Their leader, Gilbert
Tennent, led Whitefield in a tour of Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, observing closely his rousing preaching style and simple message: repent, seek Christ, and be saved by the Holy Spirit in so sensible a manner that you will have immediate and definite assurance of your salvation and that of everyone else, including your minister. This ecumenical message, which dismissed theology, denominational distinctions, and the authority of the clergy, drew crowds. Tennent and his followers accompanied Whitefield to conduct revivals around the countryside and then to Philadelphia, where he filled Independence Square. His booming voice reached them all, even Benjamin Franklin, who had come as a spectator determined to give nothing to the collection for the orphanage and ended up emptying his pockets. This tour reenergized the revivalists, especially those among the Presbyterians, who became insistent on lowering the educational requirement for ministers so that more of their followers could be ordained, take over the synod,
and silence any opposition to them. Tennent sounded the call to battle in a 1740 sermon titled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” in which he labeled all of his learned opponents as damned men who were leading their flocks to hell. Within a year the synod had split over this issue of the necessity of a highly educated clergy.
New England. From the middle colonies Whitefield set off for New England, making it a point to preach in the church of Jonathan Edwards, the intellectual cornerstone of the revivalists whose writings had received transatlantic acclaim. Local ministers at first welcomed the evangelist, applauding his ability to arouse the laity from their apathy and mimicking his style within their own flocks. Then he began to attack them as “dead men.” Itinerant preachers such as Tennent and James Davenport who followed in his wake concentrated on this theme to the extent that the Great Awakening increasingly focused more on castigating settled clergy than on inciting conversion and personal piety. Such men raised the pitch of radicalism and encouraged laymen to take the stage and preach on the horrors of damnation on every available street corner. Davenport reached new heights when, after he had already been judged as “disturbed in the rational faculties of his mind” and expelled from Connecticut, he returned to New London and built bonfires which consumed classical works, sermons by Puritan divines, and even the clothes shed by his followers. The resultant animosities split churches so that most communities had a regular and a Separatist congregation by 1743. Many of these Separatists later entered the Baptists’ fold, while some of the more formalistic joined the Anglicans. Among mainstream Congregationalists there arose a deeper concern with the spiritual life and pious conduct that revitalized that large denomination.
Opposition Arises. As the Great Awakening became more extreme, moderates in all denominations publicly dissociated themselves from these New Light revivalists and fought back. Old Light Congregationalist Charles Chauncy and Anglican Timothy Cutler in New England were joined by two Old Side Presbyterians, Francis Alison and John Thompson, and an Old Light Baptist, Ebenezer Kinnersley in Pennsylvania, in denouncing the misguided theology and un-Christian behavior of the revivalists. Many of their arguments were based on those Calvinist foundations that Enlightenment thought reinforced: man can never have absolute knowledge of anything, much less the gracious states of others that are only known to God; God had revealed his will only through the Holy Scriptures and not through impromptu rantings by humans; and humans must glorify God by developing virtuous Christian habits that are best formed in the harmonious and settled environment similar to the one in the original creation. The governments of Massachusetts and Connecticut, where the Congregational Church was established, tried to force seceding congregations to continue to pay the legal tithes to their old churches. The Connecticut General Assembly even passed laws requiring ministers to have degrees from Yale or Harvard, prohibiting itinerancy and banning lay preachers from administering the sacraments.
Fading Movement. The emotionalism that underlay the spate of revivals had already begun to die by 1743 as people experienced the single emotional event defined as conversion, felt a release, and settled down to pious lives. In New England they continued their revivalistic emphasis within Baptist congregations. In the middle colonies some revivalistic leaders such as Tennent were shocked by the consequences of their actions and recanted, settling down to minister quietly to their own flocks. The people they had aroused often gravitated to the Moravians. Others, such as John Cross, were discredited, in his case for fathering an illegitimate child. Even Whitefield, in his subsequent tours, apologized and tried to heal the wounds caused by his zeal.
Legacy. The Great Awakening left different footprints on all of the colonial denominations and sects. Its general legacy was a renewed concern with individual salvation and piety, defining religious beliefs for oneself rather than accepting them from clerical authorities, selecting a minister for his charisma and preaching style rather than for his theology and counseling, and accepting those who shared a similar style and concerns no matter what the denomination. Women became more influential in many congregations which believed that, if females were converted, they would lead their children and menfolk to salvation. Itinerancy and clerical responsibility for multiple congregations became more common among the smaller congregations that resulted from the divisions in churches. Both the Old and New persuasions formed intercolonial and interdenominational networks that helped to break down provincialism and isolation and prepared Americans for accepting the denominational pluralism that was on the horizon. Baptists and Presbyterians spread into New England and the South, which had been strongholds of established churches. Evangelicals reached out to Native Americans and Africans and encouraged others to Christianize these peoples. Smarting from charges that they were ignorant and unlettered, revivalists founded colleges for their ministers, which coincided with the general movement for widespread education that the Enlightenment and increasing commercialization were effecting. Given the centrality of the Great Awakening to the development of an American culture, some historians have gone so far as to label the Great Awakening as the key to the society that later mounted the American Revolution.
John B. Franz, “The Awakening of Religion Among German Settlers in the Middle Colonies,” William and Mary Quarterly, 33 (1976): 266–288;
Edwin S. Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (New York: Harper, 1957);
C.C. Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740–1800: Strict Congregationalists and Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962);
Martin E. Lodge, “The Crisis of the Churches in the Middle Colonies,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 95 (1971): 195–220;
Sally Schwartz, “A Mixed Multitude”: The Struggle for Toleration in Colonial Pennsylvania (New York: New York University Press, 1987).
GREAT AWAKENING. Some historians denominate essentially all revivalistic activity in Britain's North American colonies between 1740 and 1790 as the "Great Awakening," but the term more properly refers only to those revivals associated with the itinerant Anglican preacher George Whitefield that occurred between 1739 and 1745. Evangelicals in Britain as well as America attended to Whitefield's perambulations on both sides of the Atlantic, giving the Awakening an international dimension; indeed, American events made up just one portion of a trans-European movement among eighteenth-century Protestants to exalt spiritual experience as faith's hallmark as opposed to adherence to systematized creeds and catechisms.
The Awakening elaborated upon strains of revivalism that had been developing piecemeal within Reformed Protestant traditions. As far back as the 1680s, Solomon Stoddard had hosted "refreshings" within the Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts, elevating parishioners' religious and moral commitment by heightening their fear of hell while emphasizing that salvation could be obtained only through conversion (the New Birth)—the Holy Spirit's infusion of grace into the soul. His grandson, Jonathan Edwards, anatomized the process, detailing how, with God's help, a minister heading a settled congregation—the New England norm—might inspire multiple conversions relatively quickly. During the 1720s, Theodorus Frelinghuysen initiated a similar interest in "heart-religion" among New Jersey's Dutch Reformed churches. His example animated Gilbert Tennent, a Pennsylvania Presbyterian whose father, William, similarly advocated the importance of conversion at his Neshaminy seminary. The Tennents' preaching warmed Presbyterian settlers from Scotland and Ulster who were accustomed to holding Sacramental Seasons—four-day devotions climaxed by highly affective celebrations of the Lord's Supper. Reformed churches had thus independently discovered various means of inducing collective conversions through heightened religious excitement before Whitefield commenced his second American tour in 1739. Whitefield's unique contribution was to foment religious excitement in all of these traditions simultaneously, make them each fully cognizant of the others, exaggerate
the behavioral manifestations of the New Birth, and demonstrate the degree to which highly effusive appeals to large audiences could stimulate conversion and recruit the unchurched.
Whitefield appropriated secular culture in order to challenge it. Condemning the stage for diverting play-goers from God, he dramatized both the Word and himself theatrically. Critical of the "Consumption Revolution" brought about by both middle-class arrogations of aristocratic taste and burgeoning industrial production because it lured people into luxuriousness, he took advantage of the emerging transatlantic press, itself a market phenomenon, to advertise the Gospel while commodifying himself. An apostle for spontaneously seizing grace, he calculated his evangelical campaigns carefully, pioneering the use of advance men to announce his movements and the printed word—his own journals and others' press reports—to trumpet his progress. In less than two years, he visited every province from Georgia to New Hampshire, attracting the largest crowds anyone in those colonies had ever witnessed. His ordination notwithstanding, Whitefield preferred Reformed Protestant predestinarianism to the Church of England's Arminianism, but in the pulpit he downplayed dogma and minimized the importance of denominational affiliation to stress the necessity of being born again. He wanted "just Christians," he said, and anyone willing to take Christ by faith would qualify. Capable, remarked contemporary actor David Garrick, of moving audiences to paroxysms simply by pronouncing "Mesopotamia," Whitefield excited thousands to manifest their conversion by shrieking, groaning, laughing, or singing. Preaching often to people who, un-like New Englanders, belonged either to churches that did not emphasize conversion or to no church at all, he characterized the New Birth as a decision for Christ that any believer could make in defiance or in the absence of clerical authority, an act manifested by a brief, highly charged (even convulsive) experience that conferred salvation but did not, as for Puritans, also energize the believer to reform society morally. This shift toward a normative understanding of conversion as occurring outside a settled ecclesiastical order identifies an emergent "evangelical" conception of the New Birth as essentially an individualized experience.
Whitefield did not fare well in the South, where he angered Anglicans by chastising them for ignoring conversion and slaveowners for keeping Christ from their slaves (though he never condemned slavery itself). He enjoyed greater influence among northern Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and German Reformed, all churches with conversionist traditions. Anglicans, Quakers, and German sectarians, all non-Reformed Protestants, paid him little heed, as of course did the smattering of Roman Catholics. Increasingly, however, White-field in particular and revivalism in general came under fire for promoting discord rather than godliness. In his wake, churches were disrupted by itinerant preachers inveighing against unconverted ministers and by "New Lights" censoring congregants deemed unregenerate. Under such strains the Presbyterians schismed from 1741 to 1758, and the Congregational Standing Order lost one-third of its churches, many of which ultimately became Baptist. Whitefield suffered a tepid reception when he returned to America in 1744, and by the next year, the colonists had turned their attention to saving their skins from the French rather than their souls from the Devil.
The Great Awakening created a new definition of a "revival of religion" as a specific event manifesting God's gracious dispensation toward a church, town, or people. It elevated the rate of conversion, but a drop in succeeding years suggests that it accelerated the pace of church membership only temporarily, by lowering the age at which people already likely to convert claimed Christ rather than by attracting a substantial number of outsiders to the churches. Discovery that church-formation continued briskly before and after the 1740s intimates that the Awakening did not have such a prominent impact on Christianizing the American people as had been supposed. The Awakening did mark an important attempt to proselytize Amerindians and Africans, though the numbers baptized were quite small, but it had no discernible effect on the American Revolution, none of whose ideology, politics, or organization of protest can be traced directly to revivalism. Most important, the Awakening did demonstrate the revival's power to recruit large numbers of church members during a short period of time. The Whitefieldian model—more effective for spurring conversion and cohering churches among the trans-Appalachian West's dispersed, unorganized populations than its Edwardsean counterpart—would become the engine driving the evangelization of nineteenth-century America.
Crawford, Michael J. Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England's Revival Tradition in Its British Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Lambert, Frank. Inventing the "Great Awakening." Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Ward, W. R. The Protestant Evangelical Awakening. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
See alsoEvangelicalism and Revivalism .
The settlement of the original thirteen colonies was greatly influenced by religious groups seeking refuge from politics and persecutions that were happening in Europe. Colonies were set up to support the religious lives of specific groups of people. The colonists’ own openness and tolerance of other belief systems, however, was often slight. Yet the religious experience within their communities was a focus of many colonists lives.
In 1743, an itinerant, or roving, preacher named George Whitefield (1714–1770) returned to America from England. He was on a preaching tour to raise funds for his orphanage in Georgia . His energetic style and simple messages attracted large, emotional crowds everywhere he went. The resulting revival of religious fervor, or interest, throughout many Christian denominations in the colonies is called the Great Awakening. Though it lasted longer in some places than others, the impact of the Great Awakening helped to define a uniquely American culture that ultimately led to the American Revolution (1775–83).
Settlement of the American colonies was marked by periods of intense religious feeling from nearly the beginning. Prior to Whitefield's first tour of the colonies in 1739, there were individual incidents of religious quickening, or sudden renewed interest, among several Christian denominations beginning as early as 1720. Movements among the Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey and among the Presbyterians of New Jersey and Pennsylvania are examples of efforts to revive piety, or devotion to God, in colonial Protestantism .
Whitefield's style, however, was the catalyst that allowed the movement to break through barriers separating different denominations and to spread as quickly as itinerant preachers could travel.
Whitefield was a leading preacher in England before he came to America in 1739. His sermons, delivered in a deep, musical voice with great dramatic flair, attracted large crowds wherever he went. As his popularity spread throughout England, however, opposition from various religious leaders grew. Resenting Whitefield's appeal to the masses, his ability to raise money, and his belief that he was united with God, Whitefield's detractors managed to close most of the churches in England to him. Undaunted, Whitefield began delivering his sermons outdoors, and large crowds continued to follow.
In 1739, Whitefield came to America on a preaching tour through many cities along the East Coast. As in England, his style and message appealed to the people, and large crowds gathered and converted to a serious religious life wherever he went. His message was simple: repent, seek Jesus Christ, and be saved by the Holy Spirit, thereby becoming assured of salvation, or life with God in heaven after death. Whitefield's message dismissed intellectual theology, the differences between Christian denominations, and the authority of the clergy.
As Whitefield's popularity grew, so did the presence of other itinerant preachers. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), William Tennent (1673–1746), and George Tennent are some of the leaders who embraced and carried the message of the Great Awakening through their own revivals. Criticism of the simplicity of their message, however, especially concerning an individual's role in salvation, caused opposition to the movement and rifts within denominations that permanently changed the religious landscape in America.
As the Great Awakening gained momentum and the presence of revivals increased, tensions between the revivalists and established congregations began to appear. Revivalists focused on bringing to listeners an awareness of the spirit and presence of God in their lives. Revivalists preached about sin and tried to awaken a person's need to repent for his or her transgressions. According to the revivalists, only by accepting the gift of God's grace and rejecting sin at every opportunity could an individual be saved and have hope of reaching heaven. This “rebirth” of an individual was often an emotional and dramatic conversion in the middle of a revival meeting.
The revivalists' message about salvation conflicted with traditional Protestant doctrine known as predestination. According to predestination, an individual's salvation is not earned but is completely predetermined by God before birth. The revivalists' message about salvation created rifts within congregations and whole denominations. In some cases, new denominations that embraced the revivalists' message were created. Itinerancy and clerical responsibility for multiple, smaller congregations across communities thus became more common.
The individual experience of dramatic conversion caused tensions between clergy as well. The revivalists' claim that an individual's repentance and conversion led to salvation allowed laymen (those not in the clergy) to become respectable preachers. Revivalists such as George Tennent even conducted sermons on the “Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” Ministers were selected more for charisma and preaching style than for theology and counseling. During a time when traditional congregations valued an intellectual approach to religion and the education of their ministers, this caused a great stir.
Critics of the revivalists denounced their teachings and behavior as un-Christian. The critics argued that the gracious states of individuals are known only to God, and that God's will is revealed only through the Holy Scriptures, not through the emotional ranting of humans. For them, individuals can never have absolute knowledge of anything. They believed that to glorify God means developing virtuous Christian habits. Finally, the critics attacked the revivalists' lack of education, calling them ignorant.
Though the Great Awakening was mostly over by 1750, its presence never faded completely. The movement reached beyond individual religious experiences, impacting American political and social culture as well.
The movement's message of unity broke some denominational boundaries and encouraged religious tolerance among congregations. This helped to create networks of people connecting previously isolated communities and denominations throughout the colonies. Breaking social barriers between colonies laid some of the groundwork for their later split from England.
The Great Awakening helped individual experience became important in American religions, as the concept of free will in salvation was established and embraced. By questioning authority, the revivalists' message not only changed religion but also contributed to ideals that would fuel the approaching American Revolution.
The Great Awakening left different footprints on all of the colonial denominations and sects of Christianity. Though revival meetings would resurge again in the 1800s, the movement's greater impact was to create a new religious culture and open the doors for greater religious toleration and individual freedom that would become defining characteristics of the American experience.
A movement in Protestantism in the thirteen North American colonies and precursor of the revivalism that was a major characteristic of much of the Protestantism of the U.S. The Great Awakening was an outgrowth of the pietism of Europe and of the Puritanism and evangelicalism of the British Isles (see puritans). It first appeared in the Dutch Reformed Churches in the Raritan Valley in New Jersey as a result of the preaching of Theodore Jacobus frelinghuysen, who had been educated under Pietist influences (see reformed churches, ii: north america). In 1720 Frelinghuysen came to America, where he found the religion of the churches formal and conventional. In Pietist fashion he insisted on a personal experience of conversion that would issue in moral transformation. Under him the Raritan revival reached its peak in 1729 and spread to other Dutch Reformed Churches. Another contribution came from Irish-born William Tennent, a Presbyterian pastor who came to America in 1716. He began training young men for the ministry and for that purpose erected, opposite his residence in Neshaminy, Pa., a log house, called derisively by its critics the Log College. In it were educated a number of men who became preachers of the revival. Outstanding among them was Tennent's son, Gilbert, who was long a pastor in New Brunswick, N.J., and who preached widely as an itinerant. He became a close friend of Frelinghuysen and cooperated with him. Another leader, Jonathan edwards, of Northampton, Mass., in 1734 preached an awakening that had wide repercussions not only in America but also in the British Isles. The preaching of George whitefield profoundly influenced the Great Awakening also. In his first months in America (1739–40) Whitefield traveled from Georgia to New England; later he made repeated tours of the colonies; he died in Newburyport, Mass., in 1770. He was an amazing orator, with a voice that could reach an audience of many thousands in the open air and with a wide range of pathos, humor, and compelling earnestness; he profoundly influenced both Great Britain and the thirteen colonies. By his preaching throughout the length of the entire Atlantic seaboard, he helped to give a degree of geographic and interdenominational unity to the movement. In addition to the leaders, scores of other preachers contributed to the Awakening.
The Great Awakening gave rise to controversy. The emotional scenes—faintings, cryings, and bodily agitations—that accompanied many of the meetings, and the condemnation by numbers of its preachers of "unconverted" ministers and the "unconverted" members of their flocks led to dissensions and divisions. For a time the presbyterians were split; in New England the "new lights," as the advocates of the Awakening were known, and the "old lights," who opposed it, denounced each other. Their differences led to the division of many local congregations. Numbers of the dissidents gathered into Baptist churches. The Great Awakening continued in many parts of the country until the political controversies that emerged in the Revolution diverted attention. In the 1790s and early 1800s, after the independence of the U.S. and peace with Great Britain, New England experienced what was called the Second Awakening, and revivals occurred in many other parts of the country.
The Great Awakening brought about a marked increase in church membership and various humanitarian undertakings; created a more democratic spirit; stimulated the founding of colleges, notable among them the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) and Dartmouth; and contributed to missions to the Native Americans, particularly the work of David Brainerd, Eleazer Whealock, and Samuel Kirkland.
Bibliography: j. tracy, The Great Awakening (Boston 1842). w. m. gewehr, The Great Awakening in Virginia (Durham, N.C. 1930). e. s. gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (New York 1957). c. h. maxson, The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies (Chicago 1920). r. j. cox, "Stephen Bordley, George Whitefield, and the Great Awakening in Maryland," Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 46 (1977) 297–307. f. lambert, "The Great Awakening as Artifact: George Whitefield and the Construction of Intercolonial Revival, 1739–1745," Church History 60 (1991) 223–246. b. f. le beau, "'The Acrimonious, Controversial Spirit' among Baptists and Presbyterians in the Middle Colonies during the Great Awakening," American Baptist Quarterly 9 (1990) 167–183. m. a. noll, "From the Great Awakening to the War for Independence: Christian Values in the American Revolution," Christian Scholar's Review 12, no. 2 (1983) 99–110.
[k. s. latourette]