The Great Awakening or First Great Awakening was a Protestant religious revival that swept Protestant Europe and British America in the 1730s and 1740s. An evangelical and revitalization movement, it left a permanent impact on American Protestantism. It resulted from powerful preaching that gave listeners a sense of deep personal revelation of their need of salvation by Jesus Christ. The Great Awakening pulled away from ritual, ceremony, sacramentalism, and hierarchy, and made Christianity intensely personal to the average person by fostering a deep sense of spiritual conviction and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality.
The movement was an important social event in New England, which challenged established authority and incited rancor and division between traditionalist Protestants, who insisted on the continuing importance of ritual and doctrine, and the revivalists, who encouraged emotional involvement. It had an impact in reshaping the Congregational church, the Presbyterian church, the Dutch Reformed Church, and the German Reformed denominations, and strengthened the small Baptist and Methodist Anglican denominations. It had little impact on most Anglicans, Lutherans, Quakers, and non-Protestants. Throughout the colonies, especially in the south, the revivalist movement increased the number of African slaves and free blacks who were exposed to and subsequently converted to Christianity.
The Second Great Awakening began about 1800 and reached out to the unchurched, whereas the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. 18th-century American Christians added an emphasis on "outpourings of the Holy Spirit" to the evangelical imperatives of Reformation Protestantism. Revivals encapsulated those hallmarks and spread the newly created evangelicalism in the early republic. Evangelical preachers "sought to include every person in conversion, regardless of gender, race, and status."
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The evangelical revival was international in scope, affecting predominantly Protestant countries of Europe. The emotional response of churchgoers marked the start of the English awakening in Bristol and London in 1737, and of the Kingswood colliers (coal miners) with white gutters on their cheeks caused by tears in 1739 under the preaching of George Whitefield. Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom sees it as part of a "great international Protestant upheaval" that also created Pietism in Germany, the Evangelical Revival and Methodism in England. Revivalism was a critical component of the Great Awakening, and actually began in the 1620s in Scotland among Presbyterians, and featured itinerant preachers.
The idea of a "great awakening" has been contested by Butler (1982) as vague and exaggerated, but it is clear that the period was a time of increased religious activity, particularly in New England. The First Great Awakening led to changes in Americans' understanding of God, themselves, the world around them, and religion. In the Middle and Southern colonies, especially in the "back country" regions, the Awakening was influential among Presbyterians. In the southern Tidewater and Low Country, northern Baptist and Methodist preachers converted both white and black people, whether enslaved or 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. Evangelist 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. Consequently, many Africans were finally provided with some sort of education. Africans hoped that their newly acquired spiritual equality would translate into earthly equalities. As black people started to make up substantial proportions of congregations, they were given a chance to momentarily forget about their bondage and enjoy a slight sense of freedom. 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.
The revival began with Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards came from Puritan, Calvinist roots, but emphasized the importance and power of immediate, personal religious experience. Religious experience had to be immediate, he taught. He distrusted hierarchy and catechisms. His sermons were "solemn, with a distinct and careful enunciation, and a slow cadence." His sermons were powerful and attracted a large following. Anglican preacher George Whitefield visited from England; he continued the movement, traveling throughout the colonies and preaching in a more dramatic and emotional style, accepting everyone into his audiences. Both Edwards and Whitefield were slave owners and believed that blacks would acquire absolute equality with whites in the Millennial church.
Winiarski (2005) examines Edwards's preaching in 1741, especially his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." At this point, Edwards countenanced the "noise" of the Great Awakening, but his approach to revivalism became more moderate and critical in the years immediately following.
The arrival of young Anglican preacher George Whitefield sparked the Great Awakening. Whitefield's reputation preceded his visit as a great pulpit and open-air orator. He traveled through the colonies in 1739 and 1740. He attracted large and emotional crowds everywhere, eliciting countless conversions as well as considerable controversy. He declared the whole world his "parish." God was merciful, Whitefield proclaimed. Men and women were not predestined to damnation, but could be saved by repenting of their sins. Whitefield mainly spoke about the concept of spiritual "rebirth", explaining that men and women could experience a spiritual revival in life that would grant them entrance to the Promised Land. He appealed to the passions of his listeners, powerfully sketching the boundless joy of salvation and the horrors of damnation.
Critics condemned his "enthusiasm", his censoriousness, and his extemporaneous and itinerant preaching. His techniques were copied by numerous imitators, both lay and clerical. They became itinerant preachers themselves, spreading the Great Awakening from New England to Georgia, among rich and poor, educated and illiterate, and in the back country as well as in seaboard towns and cities.
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 Evangels that, after conversion, slaves would be granted true equality in Heaven.
Despite his stance on slavery, Whitefield became influential to many Africans. Benjamin Franklin became an enthusiastic supporter of him. Franklin was a Deist who rarely attended church, and he did not subscribe to Whitefield's theology, but he admired him for exhorting people to worship God through good works. He printed Whitefield's sermons on the front page of his Gazette, devoting 45 issues to Whitefield's activities. Franklin used the power of his press to spread Whitefield's fame by publishing all of his sermons and journals. Many of Franklin's publications between 1739–1741 contained information about Whitefield's work, and helped promote the evangelical movement in America. Franklin remained a friend and supporter of Whitefield until Whitefield's death in 1770.
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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 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 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 emotionality 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.
The newly incorporated town of Uxbridge, Massachusetts saw the first new Congregational church congregation and worship building in Massachusetts in the Great Awakening period of 1730–60. It was headed by Pastor Rev. Nathan Webb, a native of Braintree, who remained in the ministry in Uxbridge for the next 41 years. His student Samuel Spring served as a chaplain in the American Revolutionary War, and started the Andover Seminary and the Massachusetts Missionary Society.
The Calvinist denominations were especially affected. For example, Congregational churches in New England experienced 98 schisms, which in Connecticut also had impact on which group would be considered "official" for tax purposes. These splits were between the New Lights (those who were influenced by the Great Awakening) and the Old Lights (those who were more traditional). 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.
In Connecticut, the Saybrook Platform of 1708 marked a conservative counter-revolution against a non-conformist tide which had begun with the Halfway Covenant and culminated in the Great Awakening in the 1740s.
The Great Awakening bitterly divided Congregationalists between the "New Lights" or "Arminians" who welcomed the revivals, and the "Old Lights" or "Calvinists" who used governmental authority to suppress revivals. The Arminians believed that every person could be saved by experiencing a religious conversion and one of the revivals, while the Calvinists held that everyone's fate was a matter of predestination, and revivals were a false religion. The legislature was controlled by the Old Lights who passed an "Act for regulating abuses and correcting disorder in ecclesiastical affairs" in 1742 that sharply restricted ministers from leading revivals. Another law was passed to prevent the opening of a New Light seminary. Numerous New Light evangelicals were imprisoned or fined. The New Lights responded by their own political organization, fighting it out town by town. The religious issues declined somewhat after 1748, although the New Light versus Old Light factionalism spilled into other issues, such as disputes over currency and Imperial issues. However, the divisions involved did not play a role in the coming of the American Revolution, which both sides supported.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article Great Awakening.|
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