The First Great Awakening (sometimes Great Awakening) or Evangelical Revival was a series of Christian revivals that swept Britain and its American Colonies between the 1730s and 1740s. The revival movement had a permanent impact on Protestantism as adherents strove to renew individual piety and religious devotion. The Great Awakening marked the emergence of Anglo-American evangelicalism as a transdenominational movement within the Protestant churches. It also inspired the creation of new missionary societies, such as the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792. In the United States, the term Great Awakening is most often used, while in the United Kingdom, it is referred to as the Evangelical Revival.
Building on the foundations of older traditions—Puritanism, pietism and Presbyterianism—major leaders of the revival such as George Whitefield, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards articulated a theology on revival and salvation that transcended denominational boundaries and helped create a common evangelical identity. Revivalists added to the doctrinal imperatives of Reformation Protestantism an emphasis on providential outpourings of the Holy Spirit. Extemporaneous preaching gave listeners a sense of deep personal conviction of their need of salvation by Jesus Christ and fostered introspection and commitment to a new standard of personal morality. Revival theology stressed that religious conversion was not only intellectual assent to correct Christian doctrine but had to be a "new birth" experienced in the heart. Revivalists also taught that receiving assurance of salvation was a normal expectation in the Christian life.
While the Evangelical Revival united evangelicals across various denominations around shared beliefs, it also led to division in existing churches between those who supported the revivals and those who did not. Opponents accused the revivals of fostering disorder and fanaticism within the churches by enabling uneducated, itinerant preachers and encouraging religious enthusiasm. In England, evangelical Anglicans would grow into an important constituency within the Church of England, and Methodism would develop out of the ministries of Whitefield and Wesley. In the American colonies, the Awakening caused the Congregational and Presbyterian churches to split, while it strengthened both the Methodist and Baptist denominations. It had little impact on most Lutherans, Quakers, and non-Protestants. Evangelical preachers "sought to include every person in conversion, regardless of gender, race, and status." Throughout the colonies, especially in the South, the revival movement increased the number of African slaves and free blacks who were exposed to and subsequently converted to Christianity.
Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom sees the Great Awakening as part of a "great international Protestant upheaval" that also created pietism in the Lutheran and Reformed churches of continental Europe. Pietism emphasized heartfelt religious faith in reaction to an overly intellectual Protestant scholasticism perceived as spiritually dry. Significantly, the pietists placed less emphasis on traditional doctrinal divisions between Protestant churches, focusing rather on religious experience and affections.
Pietism prepared Europe for revival, and it usually occurred in areas where pietism was strong. The most important leader of the Awakening in central Europe was Nicolaus Zinzendorf, a Saxon noble who studied under pietist leader August Hermann Francke at Halle University. In 1722, Zinzendorf invited members of the Moravian Church to live and worship on his estates, establishing a community at Herrnhut. The Moravians came to Herrnhut as refugees, but under Zinzendorf's guidance, the group enjoyed a religious revival. Soon, the community became a refuge for other Protestants as well, including German Lutherans, Reformed Christians and Anabaptists. The church began to grow, and Moravian societies would be established in England where they would help foster the Evangelical Revival as well.
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While known as the Great Awakening in the United States, the movement is referred to as the Evangelical Revival in Britain. The revivalist tradition had existed in Scottish Presbyterianism since the 1620s. The Evangelical Revival, however, first broke out in Wales. In 1735, Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland experienced a religious conversion and began preaching to large crowds throughout South Wales. Their preaching initiated the Welsh Methodist revival.
In England, the major leaders of the Evangelical Revival were brothers John and Charles Wesley and their friend George Whitefield, who would become the founders of Methodism. They had been members of a religious society at Oxford University called the Holy Club and "Methodists" due to their methodical piety. This society was modeled on the collegia pietatis (cell groups) used by pietists for Bible study, prayer and accountability. All three men experienced a spiritual crisis in which they sought true conversion and assurance of faith.
Whitefield joined the Holy Club in 1733 and, under the influence of Charles Wesley, read German pietist August Hermann Francke's Against the Fear of Man and Scottish theologian Henry Scougal's The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Whitefield wrote that he "never knew what true religion was" until he read Scougal, who said that it consisted of becoming a "new creature". From that point on, Whitefield sought the new birth. After a period of spiritual struggle, Whitefield experienced conversion during Lent in 1735. Afterwards, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England, but he always maintained a willingness to work with evangelicals from other denominations. In 1737, Whitefield began preaching in Bristol and London, and he became well known for his dramatic sermons, which were reported on by the press.
In February 1739, Whitefield began open-air field preaching in the mining community of Kingswood, near Bristol. He learned this method from Howell Harris, who had been successfully field preaching in Wales. Within a week, he was preaching to crowds of 10,000. By May, he was preaching in London to crowds of 50,000. While enjoying success, his itinerant preaching was controversial. Many Anglican pulpits were closed to him, and he had to struggle against Anglicans who opposed the Methodists and the "doctrine of the New Birth". Whitefield wrote of his opponents, "I am fully convinced there is a fundamental difference between us and them. They believe only an outward Christ, we further believe that He must be inwardly formed in our hearts also. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God." In August 1739, Whitefield left England to begin his preaching tour in the American colonies.
In 1736, John Wesley was returning to England from a failed Anglican mission in Georgia when he came into contact with members of the Moravian Church led by August Gottlieb Spangenberg. The Moravians' faith and piety deeply impressed Wesley, especially their belief that it was a normal part of Christian life to have an assurance of one's salvation. Despite being an Anglican priest, his encounters with the Moravians led him to conclude that he was in need of conversion himself. He developed further contacts with the Moravians in London and became friends with Moravian minister Peter Boehler who convinced him to join a Moravian small group called the Fetter Lane Society.
In May 1738, Wesley attended a Moravian meeting on Aldersgate Street in London where he was spiritually transformed during a reading of Martin Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. Wesley recounted that "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Wesley understood his "Aldersgate experience" to be an evangelical conversion, and it provided him with the assurance of his salvation that he had been seeking. Afterwards, he traveled to Herrnhut and met Zinzendorf in person. Encouraged by Whitefield, Wesley began preaching outdoors at Bristol in 1739.
By March 1739, Whitefield was ready to launch his preaching tour in the 13 Colonies but wanted someone to continue the revival preaching at Bristol. He turned to Wesley who was at first uneasy about preaching outdoors, which violated his high-church sense of decency. Eventually, however, Wesley changed his mind and, in his own words, "submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation". On April 2, 1739, Wesley preached to about 3,000 people near Bristol.
The origins of revivalism in Scotland stretch back to the 1620s. The attempts by the Stuart Kings to impose bishops on the Church of Scotland led to national protests in the form of the Covenanters. In addition, radical Presbyterian clergy held outdoor conventicles throughout southern and western Scotland centering on the communion season. These revivals would also spread to Ulster and featured "marathon extemporaneous preaching and excessive popular enthusiasm."
In the 18th century, the Evangelical Revival was led by ministers such as Ebenezer Erskine, William M'Culloch (the minister who presided over the Cambuslang Work of 1742), and James Robe (minister at Kilsyth). A substantial number of Church of Scotland ministers held evangelical views.
In the early 18th century, the 13 Colonies were religiously diverse. In New England, the Congregational churches were the established religion; whereas in the religiously tolerant Middle Colonies, the Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Congregational, and Baptist churches all competed with each other on equal terms. In the Southern colonies, the Anglican church was officially established, though there were significant numbers of Baptists, Quakers and Presbyterians. At the same time, church membership was low from having failed to keep up with population growth, and the influence of Enlightenment rationalism was leading many people to turn to atheism, Deism, Unitarianism and Universalism.
In response to these trends, ministers influenced by New England Puritanism, Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, and European Pietism began calling for a revival of religion and piety. The blending of these three traditions would produce an evangelical Protestantism that placed greater importance "on seasons of revival, or outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and on converted sinners experiencing God's love personally." In the 1710s and 1720s, revivals became more frequent among New England Congregationalists. These early revivals, however, remained local affairs due to the lack of coverage in print media. The first revival to receive widespread publicity was that precipitated by an earthquake in 1727. As they began to be publicized more widely, revivals transformed from merely local to regional and transatlantic events.
In the 1720s and 1730s, an evangelical party took shape in the Presbyterian churches of the Middle Colonies led by William Tennent, Sr., of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. By 1733, he had trained Samuel Blair and three of his sons (John, William and Gilbert Tennent) for the ministry at his seminary, dismissed as the "Log College" by opponents. Ultimately, the Log College trained nearly 20 Presbyterian revivalists for the ministry. These ministers would gravitate towards the antisubscriptionist party within the Presbyterian Synod led by Jonathan Dickinson. This faction opposed requiring ministers to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, believing that the Bible itself was a sufficient rule of faith and practice and that the church's purity could best be guaranteed by closely examining the religious experiences of ordination candidates and disciplining scandalous ministers.
While pastoring a church in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Gilbert Tennent became acquainted with Dutch Reformed minister Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen. Historian Sydney Ahlstrom described Frelinghuysen as "an important herald, if not the father of the Great Awakening". An advocate of Reformed pietism, Frelinghuysen believed in the necessity of personal conversion and living a holy life. The revivals he led in the Raritan Valley were "forerunners" of the Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies. Under Frelinghuysen's influence, Tennent came to believe that a definite conversion experience followed by assurance of salvation was the key mark of a Christian. By 1729, Tennent was seeing signs of revival in the Presbyterian churches of New Brunswick and Staten Island. At the same time, Gilbert's brothers, William and John, oversaw a revival at Freehold, New Jersey. 
The most influential evangelical revival was the Northampton revival of 1734–1735 under the leadership of Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards. In the fall of 1734, Edwards preached a sermon series on justification by faith alone, and the community's response was extraordinary. Signs of religious commitment among the laity increased, especially among the town's young people. The revival ultimately spread to 25 communities in western Massachusetts and central Connecticut until it began to wane in 1737.
At a time when Enlightenment rationalism and Arminian theology was popular among some Congregational clergy, Edwards held to traditional Calvinist doctrine. He understood conversion to be the experience of moving from spiritual deadness to joy in the knowledge of one's election (that one had been chosen by God for salvation). While a Christian might have several conversion moments as part of this process, Edwards believed there was a single point in time when God regenerated an individual, even if the exact moment could not be pinpointed.
The Northampton revival featured instances of what critics called enthusiasm but what supporters believed were signs of the Holy Spirit. Services became more emotional and some people had visions and mystical experiences. Edwards cautiously defended these experiences as long as they led individuals to a greater belief in God's glory rather than in self-glorification. Similar experiences would appear in most of the major revivals of the 18th century.
Edwards wrote an account of the Northampton revival, A Faithful Narrative, which was published in England through the efforts of prominent evangelicals John Guyse and Isaac Watts. The publication of his account made Edwards a celebrity in Britain and had an impact on the growing revival movement in that nation. A Faithful Narrative would become a model on which other revivals would be conducted.
This section needs expansion with: more information on the course and development of the Great Awakening after 1739. You can help by adding to it. (February 2018)
George Whitefield first came to America in 1738 to preach in Georgia and found Bethesda Orphanage. Whitefield returned in 1739, traveling from Philadelphia to New York and then to the South. In the Middle Colonies, he was popular in the Dutch and German communities as well as among the British. Lutheran pastor Henry Muhlenberg told of a German woman who heard Whitefield preach and, though she spoke no English, later said she had never before been so edified. In 1740, he began touring New England. He landed in Newport, Rhode Island, on September 14, 1740, and preached several times in the Anglican church. He then moved on to Boston, Massachusetts, where he spent a week. There were prayers at King's Chapel (at the time an Anglican church) and preaching at Brattle Street Church and South Church. On Sunday September 20, Whitefield preached in First Church and then outside of it to about 8,000 people who could not gain entrance. The next day, he preached outdoors again to about 15,000 people. On Tuesday, he preached at Second Church and on Wednesday at Harvard University.
By 1745, the Awakening had begun to wane. Revivals would continue to spread to the southern backcountry and slave communities in the 1750s and 1760s.
While the Great Awakening did not last, Protestant Christianity in America was profoundly reshaped by evangelicalism's influence. The Great Awakening divided the Protestant churches between New Lights, who supported revivalism, and Old Lights, who opposed it. The most famous denominational split occurred in the Presbyterian Church, where the Old and New Light division was known as the Old Side–New Side Controversy. The Congregational churches in New England were also affected. Congregationalists experienced 98 schisms, which in Connecticut also had impact on which group would be considered "official" for tax purposes. It is estimated in New England that in the churches there were about 1/3 each of New Lights, Old Lights, and those who saw both sides as valid.
Old Lights saw the religious enthusiasm and itinerant preaching unleashed by the Awakening as disruptive to church order, preferring formal worship and a settled, university-educated ministry. They mocked revivalists as being ignorant, heterodox or con artists. New Lights accused Old Lights of being more concerned with social status than with saving souls and even questioned whether some Old Light ministers were even converted. They also supported itinerant ministers who disregarded parish boundaries. In the aftermath of the Awakening, the divisions between Old and New Lights remained. Nevertheless, overtime New Lights became less radical and evangelicalism became more mainstream.
By 1758, the Old Side–New Side split in the Presbyterian Church had been healed and the two factions reunited. In part, this was due to the growth of the New Side and the numerical decline of the Old Side. In 1741, the pro-revival party had around 22 ministers, but this number had increased to 73 by 1758. In addition to gaining the support of the lay people, the New Side had even exceeded the Old Side in promoting the education of ministers. It was the New Side that founded what would become Princeton University in 1746. While the fervor of the Awakening would fade, the acceptance of revivalism and insistence on personal conversion would remain recurring features in 18th and 19th-century Presbyterianism.
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The Great Awakening was not the first time that Protestant churches had experienced revival; however, it was the first time a common evangelical identity had emerged based on a fairly uniform understanding of salvation, preaching the gospel and conversion. Revival theology focused on the way of salvation, the stages by which a person receives Christian faith and then expresses that faith in the way they live.
The major figures of the Great Awakening, such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Dickinson and Samuel Davies, were moderate evangelicals who preached a pietistic form of Calvinism heavily influenced by the Puritan tradition, which held that religion was not only an intellectual exercise but also had to be felt and experienced in the heart. This moderate revival theology consisted of a three stage process. The first stage was conviction of sin, which was spiritual preparation for faith by God's law and the means of grace. The second stage was conversion, in which a person experienced spiritual illumination, repentance and faith. The third stage was consolation, which was searching and receiving assurance of salvation. This process generally took place over an extended time.
Conviction of sin was the stage that prepared someone to receive salvation, and this stage often lasted weeks or months. When under conviction, nonbelievers realized they were guilty of sin and under divine condemnation and subsequently faced feelings of sorrow and anguish. When revivalists preached, they emphasized God's moral law to highlight the holiness of God and to spark conviction in the unconverted. Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is an example of such preaching.
As Calvinists, revivalists also preached the doctrines of original sin and unconditional election. Due to the fall of man, humans are naturally inclined to rebel against God and unable to initiate or merit salvation, according to the doctrine of original sin. Unconditional election relates to the doctrine of predestination—that before the creation of the world God determined who would be saved (the elect) on the basis of his own choosing. The preaching of these doctrines resulted in the convicted feeling both guilty and totally helpless, since God was in complete control over whether they would be saved or not.
Revivalists counseled those under conviction to apply the means of grace to their lives. These were spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, church attendance and personal moral improvement. While no human action could produce saving faith, revivalists taught that the means of grace might make conversion more likely.
An issue that had to be addressed were the intense physical and emotional reactions to conviction experienced during the Awakening. Samuel Blair described such responses to his preaching in 1740, "Several would be overcome and fainting; others deeply sobbing, hardly able to contain, others crying in a most dolorous manner, many others more silently weeping. ... And sometimes the soul exercises of some, thought comparatively but very few, would so far affect their bodies, as to occasion some strange, unusual bodily motions." Moderate evangelicals took a cautious approach to this issue, neither encouraging or discouraging these responses, but they recognized that people might express their conviction in different ways.
The conviction stage lasted so long because potential converts were waiting to find evidence of regeneration within their lives. The revivalists believed regeneration or the new birth was not simply an outward profession of faith or conformity to Christianity. They believed it was an instantaneous, supernatural work of the Holy Spirit providing someone with "a new awareness of the beauty of Christ, new desires to love God, and a firm commitment to follow God’s holy law." The reality of regeneration was discerned through self-examination, and while it occurred instantaneously, a convert might only gradually realize it had occurred.
Regeneration was always accompanied by saving faith, repentance and love for God—all aspects of the conversion experience, which typically lasted several days or weeks under the guidance of a trained pastor. True conversion began when the mind opened to a new awareness and love of the gospel message. Following this illumination, converts placed their faith in Christ, depending on him alone for salvation. At the same time, a hatred of sin and a commitment to eliminate it from the heart would take hold, setting the foundation for a life of repentance or turning away from sin. Revivalists distinguished true conversion (which was motivated by love of God and hatred of sin) from false conversion (which was motivated by fear of hell).
True conversion meant that a person was among the elect, but even a person with saving faith might doubt his election and salvation. Revivalists taught that assurance of salvation was the product of Christian maturity and sanctification. Converts were encouraged to seek assurance through self-examination of their own spiritual progress. The treatise Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards was written to help converts examine themselves for the presence of genuine "religious affections" or spiritual desires, such as selfless love of God, certitude in the divine inspiration of the gospel, and other Christian virtues.
It was not enough, however, to simply reflect on past experiences. Revivalists taught that assurance could only be gained through actively seeking to grow in grace and holiness through moritification of sin and utilizing the means of grace. In Religious Affections, the last sign addressed by Edwards was "Christian practice", and it was this sign to which he gave the most space in his treatise. The search for assurance required conscious effort on the part of a convert and took months or even years to achieve.
The new style sermons and the way in which people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. Participants became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used this new style of preaching were generally called "new lights", while the preachers who remained unemotional were referred to as "old lights". People affected by the revival began to study the Bible at home. This effectively decentralized the means of informing the public on religious matters and was akin to the individualistic trends present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.
The Awakening played a major role in the lives of women, though they were rarely allowed to preach or take leadership roles. A deep sense of religious enthusiasm encouraged women, especially to analyze their feelings, share them with other women, and write about them. They became more independent in their decisions, as in the choice of a husband. This introspection led many women to keep diaries or write memoirs. The autobiography of Hannah Heaton (1721–94), a farm wife of North Haven, Connecticut, tells of her experiences in the Great Awakening, her encounters with Satan, her intellectual and spiritual development, and daily life on the farm.
Phillis Wheatley was the first published black female poet, and she was converted to Christianity as a child after she was brought to America. Her beliefs were overt in her works; she describes the journey of being taken from a Pagan land to be exposed to Christianity in the colonies in a poem entitled "On Being Brought from Africa to America." Wheatley became so influenced by the revivals and especially George Whitefield that she dedicated a poem to him after his death in which she referred to him as an "Impartial Saviour." Sarah Osborn adds another layer to the role of women during the Awakening. She was a Rhode Island schoolteacher, and her writings offer a fascinating glimpse into the spiritual and cultural upheaval of the time period, including a 1743 memoir, various diaries and letters, and her anonymously published The Nature, Certainty and Evidence of True Christianity (1753).
The First Great Awakening led to changes in Americans' understanding of God, themselves, the world around them, and religion. In the southern Tidewater and Low Country, northern Baptist and Methodist preachers converted both white and black people. Some were enslaved at their time of conversion while others were free. Caucasians began to welcome dark-skinned individuals into their churches, taking their religious experiences seriously, while also admitting them into active roles in congregations as exhorters, deacons, and even preachers, although the last was a rarity.
The message of spiritual equality appealed to many slaves, and, as African religious traditions continued to decline in North America, black people accepted Christianity in large numbers for the first time.
Evangelical leaders in the southern colonies had to deal with the issue of slavery much more frequently than those in the North. Still, many leaders of the revivals proclaimed that slaveholders should educate their slaves so that they could become literate and be able to read and study the Bible. Many Africans were finally provided with some sort of education.
George Whitefield's sermons reiterated an egalitarian message, but only translated into a spiritual equality for Africans in the colonies who mostly remained enslaved. Whitefield was known to criticize slaveholders who treated their slaves cruelly and those who did not educate them, but he had no intention to abolish slavery. He lobbied to have slavery reinstated in Georgia and proceeded to become a slave holder himself. Whitefield shared a common belief held among evangelicals that, after conversion, slaves would be granted true equality in Heaven. Despite his stance on slavery, Whitefield became influential to many Africans.
Samuel Davies was a Presbyterian minister who later became the fourth president of Princeton University. He was noted for preaching to African slaves who converted to Christianity in unusually large numbers, and is credited with the first sustained proselytization of slaves in Virginia. Davies wrote a letter in 1757 in which he refers to the religious zeal of an enslaved man whom he had encountered during his journey. "I am a poor slave, brought into a strange country, where I never expect to enjoy my liberty. While I lived in my own country, I knew nothing of that Jesus I have heard you speak so much about. I lived quite careless what will become of me when I die; but I now see such a life will never do, and I come to you, Sir, that you may tell me some good things, concerning Jesus Christ, and my Duty to GOD, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done."
Davies became accustomed to hearing such excitement from many blacks who were exposed to the revivals. He believed that blacks could attain knowledge equal to whites if given an adequate education, and he promoted the importance for slaveholders to permit their slaves to become literate so that they could become more familiar with the instructions of the Bible.
The emotional worship of the revivals appealed to many Africans, and African leaders started to emerge from the revivals soon after they converted in substantial numbers. These figures paved the way for the establishment of the first black congregations and churches in the American colonies. Before the American Revolution, the first black Baptist churches were founded in the South in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia; two black Baptist churches were founded in Petersburg, Virginia.
This section needs expansion with: more information on how the Great Awakening has been interpreted by scholars overtime. You can help by adding to it. (February 2018)
The idea of a "great awakening" has been contested by historian Jon Butler as vague and exaggerated. He suggested that historians abandon the term Great Awakening because the 18th-century revivals were only regional events that occurred in only half of the American colonies and their effects on American religion and society were minimal. Historians have debated whether the Awakening had a political impact on the American Revolution which took place soon after. Professor Alan Heimert sees a major impact, but most historians think it had only a minor impact.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article Great Awakening.|
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